Conspicuous Gallantry Under Fire-During the Civil War U.S. Warships Began to Take on Qualified Free Blacks as Part of the Crews.
The U.S.S. New Hampshire, had a total crew of 969 of which the total number of black seamen of all ranks was 242. The increased percentage was in direct violation of a number of Naval Acts but no one seemed to mind. Sometime after the end of the Civil War the Superintendent of Naval Records estimated that the Civil War Navy was approximately one-quarter African American- about 29,511 men. In addition, he also calculated that “at a minimum about 3000 Union Black Sailors died from disease and enemy action.”
[Herbert Aptheker], a noted historian on black history, has referred to their role: “…[black sailors] constituted some twenty-five percent of the total personnel, they performed all duties required of sailors aboard mid-nineteenth century men-of-war, they behaved well, at times, with conspicuous gallantry, under fire, and their contribution, particularly in terms of information concerning the enemy’s potential, disposition, and terrain, was invaluable.”
The one truly good thing about Lincoln is that it’s inspiring some great articles and opinion pieces examining Abraham Lincoln’s life and legacy, the Civil War, and slavery. There was an excellent article in the NYT that pointed out how the movie never touches on the efforts of African Americans to free themselves. And here are excerpts from another thoughtful critique of Lincoln by Corey Robin (with a few parts I bolded):
Lincoln is most decidedly not a movie about Lincoln. The main character of the film is the 13th Amendment…The entire plot revolves around its passage. And what’s most fascinating about the film is that Spielberg, and his screenwriter Tony Kushner, shows that emancipation wasn’t the product of a lone heroic effort by a saintly Lincoln; instead, it depicts emancipation as a collective endeavor.
The film in fact does a remarkable job…of decentering Lincoln from his traditional role in our national narrative. Lincoln gets surprisingly little air time in the film. Many scenes are littered with the hapless attempts of three lowlifes…to get lame-duck Democrats on board with the 13th Amendment through promises of sinecures and patronage. In terms of getting the Amendment passed, Lincoln’s role is rather small. He only intervenes successfully in getting two or three votes.
[…]For all the decentering of Lincoln, for all the inclusion of multiple voices, the film studiously keeps black people in the audience—literally in the gallery, in one of the closing scenes, or in the bedroom or in the foyer, waiting, watching, attending. Black characters are almost always either looking up at their saviors (even allowing for the fact that Lincoln was tall) or wistfully after their saviors, as the latter depart for the halls of power. It’s true that the film opens with black soldiers telling Lincoln all they have done in the war, and telling him all that he should still do. Mary Todd Lincoln’s black servant speaks up every once in a while, as do some other servants. But that’s pretty much it.
What is so odd about this film…is that it really is trying to show that abolition is the democratic project of the 19th century. Democratic in it objective (making slaves free and ultimately equal) and democratic in its execution, involving a great many men beyond Lincoln himself, and a great many lowly men at that. But it is a white man’s democracy. In the film, in fact, Lincoln tells his colleagues: “The fate of human dignity is in our hands.” Our hands. Not theirs.
The inclusion of so many white players makes the exclusion of black players all the more inexplicable—and inexcusable. It’s just a weird throwback to the pre-Civil Rights era except that emancipation is now depicted as a good thing—just so long as it is white people who are doing the emancipating.
Robin also points out that Steven Spielberg was initially thinking about doing a movie focusing on the relationship between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (why hasn’t there been an epic Douglass biopic instead of yet another Lincoln movie?). Additionally, Spielberg used Team of Rivals as source material, but chose to focus on 3 pages in the book—3 pages that happened to not discuss the role of black people in abolition efforts. All in all, the movie didn’t have to sideline black people in showing how the 13th Amendment was passed—that was a choice.
As for Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for Lincoln, he seems to hold some seriously messed up views about Reconstruction. In an interview with NPR, he said:
The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering.
This is a really backwards, revisionist, white supremacist view of Reconstruction that focuses on the supposed plight of white southerners at the hands of a vengeful north. Please remember that many Reconstruction laws were passed specifically to protect freedmen and integrate them into society. Despite what some white southerners would have you believe, Reconstruction wasn’t entirely an effort by the north to humiliate and punish the south.
Kushner’s references to “the abuse of the South” and the rise of “self-protection societies” (what a fucking euphemism!) like the KKK has its roots in a white supremacist historical school of thought. Dunning argued that freedmen were incapable of participating in government and that white southern terrorism and barbarity to black southerners (e.g. the KKK) was a somehow justifiable or understandable reaction to Reconstruction.
Here’s historian Eric Foner’s criticism of the Dunning School:
Their account of the era rested, as one member of the Dunning school put it, on the assumption of “negro incapacity.” Finding it impossible to believe that blacks could ever be independent actors on the stage of history, with their own aspirations and motivations, Dunning, et al. portrayed African Americans either as “children”, ignorant dupes manipulated by unscrupulous whites, or as savages, their primal passions unleashed by the end of slavery.
When you get down to it, white southerners thought that not being allowed to prevent African Americans from exercising their newly won civil and political rights was a form of ‘abuse’ by the North. They were afraid of blacks gaining any measure of political and economic power. So the KKK and similar groups arose to terrorize black southerners into docility. As with the Confederacy itself, there’s no way to spin the KKK as anything but an expression of white supremacy. And if you do hear such spinning, watch out.
So don’t believe revisionist depictions of Reconstruction as a horrible, terrible thing. Despite the corruption and inefficiency, Reconstruction was overall better than the alternative. Remember that when Reconstruction ended, white southerners immediately passed laws that basically nullified the Fifteenth Amendment and kept black southerners politically and economically marginalized for decades, essentially ensuring that blacks would remain a source of cheap labor. When you hear Kushner refer to groups like the Ku Klux Klan as ‘self-protection’ societies, remember what those societies were actually protecting: white supremacy and domestic terrorism.
What’s important about Kushner’s reference to the Dunning account of Reconstruction is that it highlights the main problem with Lincoln: it suggests black incapability. It doesn’t matter the film’s depiction of whites as saviors and blacks as hapless victims was created without malicious intent—it still upholds a white supremacist historical narrative.
Lincoln is what happens when you have white people in charge of the story—white faces and white voices are centered and a white supremacist view of history is put forward. This is particularly problematic because the white people in charge are prominent artists like Spielberg and Tony Kushner and the story they tell will be viewed by millions of people, many of whom are unaware that the abolition of slavery is a bigger, more complex, and far more interesting tale than whites freeing blacks. There’s nothing artistically challenging or novel about yet another narrative in which whites save hapless, nameless people of color.
Someone I follow on Tumblr (forgot who—if you know, please tell me) characterized this movie as “‘The Help’, but for your dad” and all of the reviews I’ve been reading are confirming this assessment. This piece is by Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern who has written a book about reconstruction in D.C. As you might suspect by the title, she’s not impressed:
…[I]t’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.
This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.
As a young slave girl, Susie King Taylor secretly learned to read and write. Her skills proved invaluable to the Union Army as they began to form regiments of African American soldiers. Hired by the 1st South Carolina Colored Volunteers as a laundress in 1862, her primary roles were to nurse to wounded soldiers and to teach those who could not read or write. Taylor served for more than three years, working alongside her husband, Edward King, a sergeant in the regiment.
Photo: Susie King Taylor, 1902, courtesy East Carolina University
Another amazing woman.
Also a classic example of why, when writers say they can’t “realistically” have women with agency in prominent roles in historically-based fantasy, it is clear they do not know what they are talking about. Because women are everywhere, doing things usually ignored by “mainstream” history.
According to Wikipedia, she was also the only African American woman to publish a memoir of her wartime experiences, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers (1902).
Was slavery an idyllic world of stable families headed by married parents? The recent controversy over “The Marriage Vow,” a document endorsed by the Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, might seem like just another example of how racial politics and historical ignorance are perennial features of the election cycle.
The vow, which included the assertion that “a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President,” was amended after the outrage it stirred.
However, this was not a harmless gaffe; it represents a resurfacing of a pro-slavery view of “family values” that was prevalent in the decades before the Civil War. The resurrection of this idea has particular resonance now, because it was 150 years ago, soon after the war began, that the government started to respect the dignity of slave families. Slaves did not live in independent “households”; they lived under the auspices of masters who controlled the terms of their most intimate relationships.
Back in 1860, marriage was a civil right and a legal contract, available only to free people. Male slaves had no paternal rights and female slaves were recognized as mothers only to the extent that their status doomed their children’s fate to servitude in perpetuity. To be sure, most slaves did all that they could to protect, sustain and nurture their loved ones. Freedom and the love of family are the most abiding themes that dominate the hundreds of published narratives written by former slaves.
Though slaves could not marry legally, they were allowed to do so by custom with the permission of their owners — and most did. But the wedding vows they recited promised not “until death do us part,” but “until distance” — or, as one black minister bluntly put it, “the white man” — “do us part.” And couples were not entitled to live under the same roof, as each spouse could have a different owner, miles apart. All slaves dealt with the threat of forcible separation; untold numbers experienced it first-hand.
Slave marriages were not granted out of the goodness of “ole massa’s” heart. Rather, they were used as tools to keep slaves in line and to increase profits. Many slaves were forced to marry people they did not choose or to copulate like farm animals — with masters, overseers and fellow slaves.
Abolitionists and ex-slaves publicized excruciating details like these, but the world view of pro-slavery apologists like James Henry Hammond, a senator from South Carolina, could not make sense of motivations like Brown’s. “I believe there are more families among our slaves, who have lived and died together without losing a single member from their circle, except by the process of nature,” than in most modern societies, Hammond claimed. Under the tutelage of warm and loving white patriarchs like himself, slave families enjoyed “constant, uninterrupted communion.”
Hammond’s self-serving fantasy world gave way to reality during the Civil War, as slaves escaped in droves to follow in the footsteps of Union Army soldiers. Although President Abraham Lincoln had promised that he would not interfere with slavery in states where it already existed, he and his military commanders were faced with the unforeseen determination of fugitives seeking refuge, freedom and opportunities to aid the war against their masters….
“Contrabands” became the first beneficiaries of a government appeal to military officers, clergymen and missionaries to marry couples “under the flag.” The Army produced marriage certificates for fugitive slave couples solemnizing their marriages, and giving legitimacy to their children for the first time. But it was not until after slavery was abolished that marriage could be secured as a civil right. Despite resistance from erstwhile Confederates, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which extended the right to make contracts, including the right to marry, to all former slaves.
Why does the ugly resuscitation of the myth of the happy slave family matter? Because it is part of a broad and deliberate amnesia, like the misleading assertion by Sarah Palin that the founders were antislavery and the skipping of the “three-fifths” clause during a Republican reading of the Constitution on the House floor. The oft-repeated historical fictions about black families only prove how politically useful and resilient they continue to be in a so-called post-racial society. Refusing to be honest about how racial inequality has burdened our shared history and continues to shape our society will not get us to that post-racial vision.
Tera W. Hunter, a professor of history and African-American studies at Princeton, is the author of “To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War.”
Exactly. Anyone who cares to read the history knows that “states’ rights” = states and territories being able to choose to be slave states or not. As well, the whole state vs. federal government was a conflict that was intimately connected to the slavery issue from the very earliest days of the country. It’s simply impossible to discuss the notion of states’ rights or federalism without bringing up slavery. Anyone who says that celebrating the Confederacy is about states’ rights and not slavery is either ignorant or being intellectually dishonest.