Tuesday, April 12, 2011
It would not be easy or even a stated priority until later in the awful and bloody struggle, but that act of war on the shores of South Carolina set the stage for an epic battle of ways of life that could not exist side by side with the question of human enslavement and human rights unaddressed. The former was addressed by this war, but the latter is in many ways still an open question. But first a bit more history.
The opposite ways of life that brought the tension to a boiling point were different in fact, but perhaps not so much in essence. The cities were concentrated in the North from the beginning of American settlement. When the South started to be inhabited, territories (future States) granted families large swaths of land; too large for them to properly manage. In the North, labor was cheap given the concentration of people and work conditions were terrible. In the South, labor was scare and expensive. The tragic solution for the South arrived on slave ships. People, not fully recognized as such, became commodities. Even before our Revolution against English rule this difference in ways of life was evident and part of the political discussion. Eventually, the United States of America, all 13 of them, were formed into an uneasy, imperfect union.
The issue of slavery was always on the table, but was never dealt with head on. States acted very much independent of one another and when the Civil War broke out in 1861 there were some who were surprised it had not come earlier. It would be a most destructive and costly growing pain for the relatively young Republic. Under the mantra of “States Rights” and sovereignty, slavery was the thing the South could not let go of and a divided Union was the thing the North would not allow.
At 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861, there were about 23 million people living in the North and about 9 million living in the South, nearly half of whom were slaves. Over the next four years, Southern soldiers, almost all of whom did not own slaves, fought for officers who did, while Northern immigrant soldiers, who had never seen a slave, fought for officers who were politicians or business men and had earned their fortunes off the backs of others.
Dishonesty and crime were rampant, and many of the fraud and abuse laws we follow today were drafted during the Civil War when manufacturers ripped off the government with such things a cardboard boots and guns made of soap. The slaves, whose lives were hanging in the balance, seemed the only innocent and honest brokers in all of this.
Strange as it may seem, with the hope of a quick end to the sporadic violence that followed the attack on Fort Sumter and the rebellious States still having a chance to return to the Union, laws that would appear today to be insane were still in force. A prime example, which made headlines early in the conflict, had to do with 4 escaped slaves who sought asylum on the side of a river opposite to where they were building a Confederate encampment. Under a flag of truce a Confederate officer requested of the Union General that the slaves be returned as provided under existing US law. The General, a New England attorney by trade, knowing full well that the official position taken to date was to respect the law, argued first that the requesting officer was no longer subject to US law as he and his men had seceded from the Union. The rebel officer came back saying that the Union is not allowing them to secede; to which the General insisted that they had in fact done so by going to war. The rebel continued that the slaves were property and should therefore be returned. The clever General then proposed that the run away slaves were now contraband of war and would not be returned.
This concept of contraband ironically held in this situation and is said to have influenced President Lincoln’s development of the Emancipation Proclamation. The four runaways were thereafter hired and paid wages by the Union Army to help build their encampment. The word spread and soon the number of slaves seeking freedom swelled.
Escaped and free former slaves sought to assist in the cause, but were met with resistance, often fueled by ignorance and unfamiliarity. Gradually, inroads were made. By the end of the war there were some 180,000 former slaves serving in the Union Army. And some historians attribute their contributions as being critical to the final outcome. But, as a harbinger of things to come, such gallant action and service did not equate to equality. A Black Union Army Private earned $10 a month compared to his White comrade in arms who earned $13; a significant difference in those days. Perhaps in the first act in the quest for Civil Rights, some Black soldiers chose to serve without pay rather than to be treated inequitably. Eventually, the matter was rectified.
The joy and hope for so many after the war ended was short lived to be sure. With the assassination of Abraham Lincoln any chance of a real Reconstruction died as well. The leadership of the country was handed over to Andrew Johnson of North Carolina. Dreams of freedom and full participation were dashed, and slavery was replaced with segregation and prejudice. It would be an unthinkable one hundred years before a real Civil Rights movement took hold in America. And in the nearly fifty years since then, it is hard to know how well we’ve done as a society in making up for the sins of the past.
I do not know that I am equipped to handle such an evaluation. I am not Black and at the time of the Civil War my own descendants were fighting for a different kind of freedom in Ireland. I have witnessed the progress in Civil Rights since the 60s, but still have to scratch my head at veiled and not so veiled political and civil discourse. I am still astonished at what people will say out loud or when they mistake their audience as sympathetic. I find it very hard to say ‘forgive them for they know not what they do.’
I am equally, in a completely opposite way, astonished at the inner strength and perseverance of the people who are still fighting the fight, seeking to right wrongs and who are nevertheless happier by far than those with unjustified prejudice in their hearts. Something an old “Negro League” baseball player once said in an interview has stayed with me for years now. He talked about a particularly bad year of road travel to games in many Southern cities. At each stop there would be some new impediment to normalcy; a segregated bathroom, or water fountain, or eating establishment. They’d hear every kind of name being called. He said they could never just relax and enjoy what they were doing for a living. His question to no one in particular was, “What have we ever done as a people to deserve this kind of treatment?”
The answer, of course, and most obviously is, “Nothing!”
Much has changed and signs of hope are clear. We have a man named Obama in the White House. But the fact and the question remains:
It is 4:30 AM - one hundred and fifty years later; where do we stand?
Photo Credit: Margan Zajdowicz