Source of book: I own this.
I am reading this book as an unofficial selection for Black History Month. It is unofficial because, while it is about Black History, it was written by a white author. My official Black History Month selection is the early poetry of Langston Hughes - stay tuned for a post about that. I also have another one that I intend to read, but will hold off on naming until I am sure I will get to it.
Anyway, here is the list of Black History Month selections since I started this blog, and also some related books:
2016: Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
Black Boy (American Hunger) by Richard Wright
Other notable books by African American or African authors:
Poems by Phillis Wheatley
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
I Greet The Dawn (Poems) by Paul Laurence Dunbar
The Price for Their Pound of Flesh by Daina Ramey Berry
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Books on Black History by other authors:
The Slaves’ War was written to tell the story that hasn’t really been told. There are more books about the American Civil War than you can fit in a library. Whether about military strategy or philosophy or religion or whatever approach the author takes, the one voice most missing is that of the people about whom this war was fought.
(And sorry, if you think that slavery wasn’t the cause of the war, the reason for the war, and the single most important issue in the war, then you are being wilfully historically ignorant. The Confederates made no bones about it: they seceded to preserve - and expand - slavery, and their state was founded on the central premise that white people were superior, and were thus entitled to enslave non-whites.)
Andrew Ward has written a number of books on history, as well as commentary for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and NPR. His approach to this book is interesting. Although he doesn’t explain his methods until the end of the book (intentionally), I am going to start with that part here. Ward primarily utilizes the interviews of former slaves by the WPA during the 1930s. In addition, there are some interviews which were preserved from the 1920s, although these are less extensive. Using these, Ward tells the story of the war in different theaters in his own words, but just enough to give context to the quotes from the formerly enslaved. Most of these quotes are one-liners, or at most a few sentences. That is the nature of his material.
He also had to grapple with the fact that his sources were written in “Negro dialect,” which is problematic. (The white WPA interviewers converted the statements into dialect, even when the subjects were educated. Ward shows the hypocrisy here by translating some of the interviewers’ questions into their own regional dialects - like Texan.) He tried to undo some of the most egregious stuff, but left as much of the syntax intact. I think, given what he started with, he did an admirable job.
The limitations of his source material are also what led him to fill in the background narrative. Devoid of context, much of it wouldn’t make sense. Ward did, however, let the eyewitnesses talk whenever they could, and this means that a high percentage of the words are from the formerly enslaved.
There are also a few cases where whites are quoted, where they were able to fill in background on what happened to the main characters. There are also a number of cases where the formerly enslaved directly quote their masters and mistresses - a rather candid look at race relations.
The book covers the period immediately before the war through the first year or so after the end. Thus, we hear about John Brown and Nat Turner, as well as the efforts families made to find each other after the war.
There are far too many great lines to quote, but I’ll hit a few highlights.
Mattie Jackson recalls her mistress after Lincoln’s election complaining that Lincoln wanted to put black people “on an equality with whites,” and that before she saw her children on such a footing, she would “rather see them dead.” I chilling reminder about what we are still wrestling with 150 years later.
Another interesting discussion in the book was on the class distinctions in the South. The upper class was the slave holders. The middle class wanted to be rich. And the poor whites were hated by everyone. Interestingly, the slaves were taught to keep away from the “white trash” and look down on them. And vice versa. Also interesting was the “field slave” versus the “house slave.” I’d heard about this before, but it was very interesting to see it in the words of the enslaved themselves. In fact, hearing about the class levels in the South from that perspective is fascinating. It is refreshingly honest coming from those who lived at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Also honest, but more in a devastating way, were the sections that revolved around children. One of the horrors of slavery we easily forget is that enslavers literally sold their own children. Let that one sink in. The enslaved had no problem talking about that in this book either. Just one reason I get a bit hot and bothered when people claim that we were more moral in the past. Like hell we were! We just casually raped brown people (it was legal, actually) and sold our own children into slavery. Or beat them to death.
One exchange in this book that stood out regarding children was between Mill (last name not known) and her mistress when the Yankees landed at their plantation on the Mississippi River. About to be overrun, the mistress is panicking and tries to convince the house slaves to stay, but they tell her they will leave if given the chance. Then, in an incredible act of hubris, the mistress tries to convince Mill to lie if the soldiers find the silver plates - that they belonged to Mill, not her mistress. Mill refuses, reminding her, “Mistress, I can’t lie over that. You bought that silver plate when you sold my three children.” Boom.
It was interesting the amount of propaganda the enslavers fed the enslaved to try to make them fear the Yankees. In a sign that nothing is new under the sun, one recalled a local preacher who loudly declared that the Southern cause was divine, and that God ordained that the South would win. Then as now, as Richard III put it, “But then I sigh and, with a piece of scripture / Tell them that God bids us do good for evil / And thus I clothe my naked villainy / With odd old ends stolen out of Holy Writ / And seem a saint when most I play the devil.”
Experiences varied quite a bit, depending on location. While many escaped slaves fought on the Union side, and thus had first hand accounts of the battles, others were whisked away to Texas, where they saw nothing of the war. Felix Haywood was one of these, and his description of it is amusing:
“It’s a funny thing how folks always want to know about the war. The war wasn’t so great as folks suppose. Sometimes you didn’t know it was going on. It was the ending of it that made the difference. That when we all woke that something had happened. Oh, we knew what was going on in it all the time, because old man Gudlow went to the post office every day and we knew.”
Another interesting story was of Stonewall Jackson’s death. The facts aren’t a mystery, but William Mack Lee adds the detail that Jackson had a Union uniform on to scout across the line. Then, he was shot by his own men when he returned - he had given them specific instructions to shoot anyone crossing the line. Oops.
The most touching story in the book, however, was of Andrew Bradley. When his master was killed, he was horrified at the thought of the body being dumped in a ditch and quickly buried. Using money given him by the dying man, he concocted a plan to smuggle the body back by train - and carried it off too! As he tells the tale, it was all about respect for human dignity, and that he himself wished to be buried on his own land.
The same respect, alas, was not granted to the enslaved. Throughout, there are sad tales of the Confederates imprisoning any blacks they found - including freemen, who were then enslaved.
I don’t want to paint the South with too broad of a brush here. There are a wide range of stories in this book. What was a common refrain, however, was that the closer the Yankees got, the better many masters treated their slaves, returning to mistreatment as the threat passed. And yes, there were a few good relationships. But it is telling that, given the chance, the vast majority of the enslaved left.
One quote here also is apropos. It was give by William Henry Downs, and was directed more at the failure of the war to prevent Jim Crow. It holds true in our own time too.
“All mens means well, but some of them ain’t broad-minded enough to do anything for nobody but themselves. Any man that tries to help humanity is a good man.”
This might be a bit generous. There are indeed truly deplorable people (and yes, I used that word), filled with outright hate for those outside their tribe. Alas, these people currently wield a lot of political and religious power. But most people probably mean well. They just can’t bring themselves to actually care about people outside their tribe. And then, when a demagogue comes along and feeds their fears, the follow right along that dark path of tribalism and hatred.
Two final things I want to mention are in connection with the aftermath of the war. First is the idea that the freed slaves would get “40 acres and a mule.” In retrospect, this actually would have been more fair than what ended up happening. Which was 100 years of segregation and violence against African Americans. Make that more like 150 and counting, honestly. The best time for reparations would have been then, and if you think about it, my ancestors got their “640 acres and subsidized grub stake loans” under the Homestead Act 20 years later, which was even more generous. And my ancestors weren’t enslaved for 250 years, which means they were not morally owed compensation for all that violence and theft. I cannot help but wonder how different things might have looked in our nation had the right thing been done at the time.
The second one I found interesting is that along with the formerly enslaved, a number of Confederate wives left too. The upper crust often engaged in what were essentially arranged marriages, and a number of these wives were tired of being abused (oh yes, men who would flog slaves predictably tended to abuse their wives too) and humiliated by their husbands’ sleeping with the slave women, and thus left to find a new life elsewhere. A bit of a reminder that Patriarchy isn’t just about men and women. It is a whole system built on the privilege of powerful men to abuse and control those below them, women, children, and slaves. (Aristotle had something to say about that, come to think of it…)
This is an interesting book to read, with its variety of perspectives, earthy first person narratives, and a view of the war that is rarely considered.