Saturday, March 31, 2012

On the Study of African Americans in the Civil War

A student at South Carolina State University asked me to assist him on a presentation he was preparing on the Civil War. I asked him, “In what way can I help?” And he replied, “I just want to know what you think is the most pertinent information my presentation needs to have. I don't want to beat a dead horse by having the basic information we've known since middle school.”

The following was my reply:

Well, you will definitely get a different story from me. The story that has been and is presented in middle schools and in the universities today is based on partial information as it pertains to African Americans. The story as told by left leaning scholars diminishes the role of African Americans by focusing on acts of discrimination while leaving out the accomplishments of African Americans. The story as told by right leaning scholars diminishes the role of African Americans by arguing that the president and his generals didn't trust African Americans to do much because they were not trained well enough having come out of slavery. While the story as told by right and left leaning scholars are different in intent and focus they are identical in result, the truth gets suppressed because the role of African Americans is diminished.

The impact of African American soldiers, sailors, guides, scouts and spies was in fact decisive. Without the help of these Americans, the Union would not have been able to achieve the major victories that led to the ultimate victory when it did. General Grant and President Lincoln make this point clear. In August 1863, Lincoln informed a political supporter who opposed the Emancipation Proclamation that Grant had informed him that Vicksburg, which Lincoln had called "the key to victory," could not have been captured when it was without the military help of persons of African descent. African descent soldiers would go on to capture the Cradle of Secession, Charleston, in February 1865 and the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, in April 1865. African descent soldiers would stop Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court
House on April 9, 1865. And on June 15, 1865, African descent soldiers would chase the governor of Texas and 10,000 Rebel soldiers out of the United States thus bringing Texas back into the Union on June 16, 1865. By focusing on such accomplishments, it is apparent that African descent soldiers freed themselves while saving the Union.

Yet, the story as told is that African Americans were freed by President Lincoln's proclamation on January 1, 1863; and word of his proclamation didn't get to Texas until June 19, 1865. It purports that the "Black" soldiers simply added more bodies to an already superior in numbers Union army, but the president and his generals didn't have confidence in the skill and bravery of African American soldiers; so they didn't give "Blacks" commissions or equal pay and were reluctant to send them into combat. This partial story is not aligned with a true description of African American experiences and contributions during the Civil War. The story as I tell it shares detailed descriptions that are revealing, fascinating and elevating to the human spirit.

When I wrote this reply, I had not completed Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops 1862 – 1867 by William Dobak. If I had, I would have surely recommended it to the young scholar. Dobak’s book is the best book I have ever read on African American soldiers in the Civil War. His book is comprehensive and extremely well written. If one wishes to discuss this topic intelligently, one needs to read Dobak’s book or examine the same primary sources he cites. His observations and conclusions are well supported by accessible sources and facts. “The most enduring accomplishment of the Union’s black soldiers,” wrote Dobak, “was to assert their rights to full citizenship and, by extension, that of their kin.” Dobak has given those who seek to understand the role of African American soldiers in the Civil War a solid foundation for further study and discussions. Therefore, I highly recommend this historical work as the best I have ever read on the subject.