Race in America, Part Two
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should – in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918 – and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible.
- George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism
The American Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery.
For 161 years, as of this writing, plenty of other reasons have been offered up to obscure that basic fact. And while citing them might salve the hurt feelings of some white Americans, they don’t change the truth, as all of those causes (economics, states’ rights, political division) tie directly to the expansion of slavery. Slavery was the root cause of the American Civil War.
Moral indignation had little to do with it; the United States did not set out to free the slaves by military force. Rather, the Southern states overplayed their hand, rejecting what they called federal interference in their efforts to extend slavery into new territories. They drew a red line at the election of Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the expansion of slavery (though not, at the time, the institution itself). Northern voters called that bluff, electing Lincoln without a single electoral vote from a slave state.
South Carolina announced its secession from the United States in December 1860, quickly followed by six more states. In April 1861 South Carolina militia opened fire on the American garrison of Fort Sumter in the middle of Charleston’s harbor. Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the insurrection, and four more states departed in the days that followed. By May the Confederate government had called for 400,000 volunteers to oppose the rule of Constitutional law. In effect, slavery’s advocates prepared to storm the U.S. Capitol to overturn the result of a lost election.
The U.S. Army kept the insurgents away from the Capitol, but the war consumed money and manpower as no American conflict had before. Congress passed legislation in 1862 allowing the U.S. Army to recruit Black soldiers, from both free and slave populations, but not until 1863 did Lincoln allow a major effort. The War Department established the Bureau of Colored Troops in May 1863 and began widespread recruiting. Eventually over 180,000 Black men served in the U.S. Colored Troops, with several thousand more in regiments established by Massachusetts and Connecticut. Just over 20 percent of Black soldiers died, compared to 8.6 percent of white American soldiers. Sixteen received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Initially, all officers of the Colored Troops were white; the first Black officer in the U.S. Army, Martin Delany, was commissioned in February 1865 and eventually another hundred men joined him. All were mustered out after the war.
The Confederate government approved recruiting Black soldiers in March 1865, less than a month before the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Two companies drilled with arms in Richmond, but they deserted at the first opportunity and no Black troops saw combat. The “Black Confederate” is a racist myth perpetrated only in the recent past, to justify the cause of slavery through some unfathomable twist of logic (“slavery must not have been so bad if Black people were willing to fight to uphold it”).
While the Confederacy had no Black soldiers, it could not have survived without the labor of its Black slaves. The Confederate armies employed on huge numbers of slaves to cook, clean, cut firewood, dig trenches and perform other menial tasks, relieving white soldiers for combat. The armies hungered for more laborers, and Confederate agents roamed the South requisitioning slaves, often over the objections of their owners. On both invasions of the North (in 1862 and 1863), the Army of Northern Virginia made it policy to capture and enslave any free Blacks its troops encountered.
The Confederate Army was in no way separate from the institution of slavery: it relied on slave labor to build the fortifications at places like Petersburg and Atlanta, and to keep its soldiers fighting. A century and a half of Lost Cause lies aside, there was no honor beneath the stars and bars.
Gould Shaw was killed leading his 54th Massachusetts in the unsuccessful storming of Fort Wagner, South Carolina.
After the decisive American victory, Colored Troops remained on the roster of the post-war U.S. Army. After several rounds of post-war reductions, the number of Black regular units settled on two regiments of cavalry (the 9th and 10th Colored) and two of infantry (the 24th and 25th Colored). The four regiments comprised 20 percent of U.S. Army cavalry, and 12 percent of the Army’s infantry. These Buffalo Soldiers fought Indians on the Great Plains and in the Southwest, and also served along the border with Mexico. Twenty-three Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for service in the Indian Wars. While that seems a great many, 416 such medals were awarded during the Indian Wars from 1866 to 1891.
Almost all officers were white, but in 1877 West Point graduated its first Black cadet, Henry O. Flipper, who served with the 10th Cavalry. White officers included John J. Pershing, the future General of the Armies in World War One, who earned the unpleasant nickname “N***** Jack” for his oft-spoken respect for his black horsemen; that would later be bowdlerized into “Black Jack.”
Harriet Tubman took no crap, and took up arms to fight alongside American troops liberating slaves in Florida.
The U.S. Army did not deploy its Black troops in the occupied Southern states during Reconstruction, despite (or perhaps in reaction to) lurid fantasies of the defeated. The states were re-admitted to the Union, American troops were withdrawn, and using the so-called “Mississippi Plan” of terrorist violence, voter suppression and political assassination (chiefly through lynching), the neo-Confederates took control of governor’s mansions and state legislatures. From there, they proceeded to strip their newly-freed fellow citizens of their rights.
Spearheaded by white terrorist organizations like the first iteration of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, and the White Man’s League, a wave of political murders, assaults and arson targeted Black political activists. Sometimes, to intimidate potential voters, the targets were simply random Black people and those whites thought to agree with Emancipation. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, armed white mobs massacred 300 Black citizens including the county sheriff in 1874. In all, perhaps 5,000 people were lynched in the decades after the Civil War, almost all of them Black, and almost all of them in the former Confederate states.
In 1896, the Supreme Court gave its stamp of approval in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, guaranteed all citizens equal protection under the law; the Plessy decision interpreted this as allowing “separate but equal” treatment, thereby endorsing racial segregation. Southern states responded with a raft of segregationist laws collectively known as “Jim Crow,” though none went quite as far as South Carolina Senator (and former governor) “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, who openly advocated the outright genocide of African-Americans, fearing only that many whites would die as well in the effort. His legacy lives on; Clemson University’s Tillman Hall still bears his name.
Fairly typical of the time, this News & Observer cartoon ran in September 1898.
In November 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina (then the state’s largest city), self-declared white supremacists – including South Carolina Senator Tillman - overthrew the city’s biracial government, destroyed the Black-owned Daily Record newspaper’s offices, and with the help of a Gatling gun taken from the local militia armory massacred up to 300 Black citizens. The new city government, issuing a “White Declaration of Independence,” proclaimed that Blacks would no longer be allowed to vote in Wilmington. In the aftermath, four of the speakers who whipped the white mob into a murderous frenzy would become governors of North Carolina, one, Rebecca Felton, would become the first female U.S. Senator. Another, Tom Jarvis, founded East Carolina University. Josephus Daniels, whose ultra-racist News & Observer newspaper egged on the white terror movement, served as Secretary of the Navy during the First World War. Twenty Black political activists who somehow had been missed in the massacre were expelled from the city, and 2,000 more Black citizens fled on their own.
Following the Wilmington massacre and coup, voter suppression became the stock-in-trade of the white supremacist movement. Black political participation dropped across the South, and governments at all levels became uniformly white. Not bothering to hide their goal behind fantasies of voter fraud, the white supremacists simply outlawed Black voting.
The full series is here:
• Race in America: Founded on Slavery
• Race in America: Civil War
• Race in America: Jim Crow
• Race in America: The Black Doughboys, Part One
• Race in America: The Black Doughboys, Part Two
• Race in America: Red Summer
• Race in America: Tulsa
• Race in America: Klan Scam
• Race in America: Strange Fruit
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children; he misses his dog, Leopold.
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