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Blacks and the Civil War
Published on December 8, 2011 by Sara Foss

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been blogging about the Civil War for quite awhile - one of his more interesting assertions, which I largely agree with, is that the Civil War was not a tragedy - and this month he has an excellent article in the Atlantic titled "Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?"

He opens his piece by writing about a school trip to Gettysburg:

"I remember riding in a beautiful coach bus, as opposed to the hated yellow cheese. I remember stopping at Hardee’s for lunch, and savoring the res­pite from my vegetarian father’s lima beans and tofu. I remember cannons, and a display of guns. But as for any connections to the very history I was regularly baptized in, there is nothing. In fact, when I recall all the attempts to inculcate my classmates with some sense of legacy and history, the gaping hole of Gettys­burg opens into the chasm of the Civil War.

We knew, of course, about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. But our general sense of the war was that a horrible tragedy somehow had the magical effect of getting us free. Its legacy belonged not to us, but to those who reveled in the costume and technology of a time when we were property.

Our alienation was neither achieved in independence, nor stumbled upon by accident, but produced by American design. The belief that the Civil War wasn’t for us was the result of the country’s long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that avoided what professional historians now know to be true: that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them. In the popular mind, that demonstrable truth has been evaded in favor of a more comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry. For that more ennobling narrative, as for so much of American history, the fact of black people is a problem.

In April 1865, the United States was faced with a discomfiting reality: it had seen 2 percent of its population destroyed because a section of its citizenry would countenance anything to protect, and expand, the right to own other people. The mass bloodletting shocked the senses. At the war’s start, Senator James Chesnut Jr. of South Carolina, believing that casualties would be minimal, claimed he would drink all the blood shed in the coming disturbance. Five years later, 620,000 Americans were dead. But the fact that such carnage had been wreaked for a cause that Ulys­ses S. Grant called “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse” invited the damnation of history. Honor is salvageable from a military defeat; much less so from an ideological defeat, and especially one so duly earned in defense of slavery in a country premised on liberty."

Click here to read the whole thing.

 

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