Black History Echoes

By , Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor.

SCRATCH the surface of the Civil War, and you quickly find yourself studying black history. There's no escaping it. The Civil War is the central event of the American experience. African-Americans played a pivotal role in it. Their lot changed more as a consequence of the war than did that of any other participants.

Indeed, the recent popular interest in the Civil War, sent into orbit by last fall's PBS television series, gave white Americans a first-hand lesson in the substance of black history. For many viewers, the black role in the war came across as something more than a subject tacked onto a history lesson or tucked away in an African-American studies program.

During the conflagration, 180,000 black men fought on the side of the Union; four out of five draft-age black males left home, never to return; 4 million slaves were liberated. The South's political domination of both public affairs and the social order shifted irrevocably. Democratic free-labor capitalism replaced slave-labor plantation agriculture.

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The PBS documentary offered an exhilarating and liberating understanding of a past that continues to influence the present. Any distinction between ``their'' history, meaning the South's or the North's or blacks' history, and ``our'' history, meaning America's, quickly blurs.

Like Ken Burns (producer of the PBS series), so too James M. McPherson, a Princeton University history professor and scholar of the Civil War, has been a prime mover in the resurgent interest in the war. McPherson, winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for his massive single-volume account of the Civil War, ``Battle Cry of Freedom'' (Oxford University Press), has just added to his work a collection of short essays, ``Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution'' (Oxford University Press, 173 pp., $17.95). This slim volume penetrates the meaning of the war and the role Abraham Lincoln played, one key part of which was the demise of that ``peculiar institution,'' slavery.

But emancipation as first envisioned by Lincoln did not signal a national change of heart. It was tolerated as a tactical war measure to discourage the Confederacy and win allies in Europe.

NOTHING aroused greater fear for Southern plantation owners (and many Northern whites) than the thought of armed, black soldiers.

How far Lincoln, and the nation, traveled by the end of the war on that score McPherson makes clear. He quotes Lincoln on the legacy of black arms when victory came: ``There will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they strove to hinder it.''

Invevitably, comparisons will be made between the Civil War and the current war in the Persian Gulf. The role of black soldiers, this time men and women, is again central.

Black political activists say the disproportionately greater number of blacks in the ground forces (29 percent of the total) is a consequence of national policies dating from the failed policies of the Reconstruction era. They say that African-Americans, denied other opportunities, enlist in the army - only to pay a greater price on the battlefield.

Or are there deeper waters of patriotism flowing here (as this writer believes)?

The highly charged question begs an answer, an answer that will find its roots in the Civil War. The words of Frederick Douglass are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in August of 1863: ``Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.''

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