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At Large
by Michael Coren

A remarkable book has just been published by a rather small academic press. The volume concerns the American south before and during the Civil War, and it deserves to be picked up and distributed by a major international house. The reason is that it achieves the goals of historical research and writing; by clearing the detritus of prejudice and presumption from the waters of the truth and by clarifying our understanding of the past.

Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia (University Press of Virginia), by Ervin L. Jordan Jr., may sound as dry as Gettysburg grass, but the bland title belies the contents. Many people knew that there were proposals introduced in the Confederate Congress to abolish slavery and to enlist the black male population into the grey and brown army. Most of us also knew that the war of northern expansion was not about abolition and that many white southerners thought slavery to be immoral, as they thought states' rights to be moral.

But Jordan tells us more. An underlying theme of the book is the evidence that many southern blacks did not take what opportunities they had to oppose the Confederacy, and that, sometimes, slaves even supported it. Jordan shows how, with most adult white men serving in the army, many smaller southern towns were left with a black majority and hardly any military or police presence. In spite of this there were hardly any examples of black uprisings or civil disobedience. Black men and women tended to be quite supportive of the white population and often regarded the "boys away" as their own soldiers. Perhaps in some ways they were right. When the Union forces clubbed their way into the south, the number of rapes they committed surprised even hardened professional soldiers. Almost all of the women they abused were black. There were also numerous cases of random murder, and the victims were almost always black.

According to Jordan, several units of free black men served in the Confederate army and, unlike their counterparts in the north, they were paid the same amount as white soldiers, from the beginning of the war. After the war, there are no known cases of these men being discriminated against at reunions and many cases of their being welcomed.

One incident in the book, as recorded by a British military observer of the war, continues to disconcert historians who view the 1860s through Washington-tinted glasses. That is the spectacle of a black Confederate soldier marching a collection of northern fighting men into a prisoner-of-war camp. Nor was this particularly rare; blacks sometimes volunteered to serve in the supply, clerical, and support staffs of the Confederate army, if they preferred not, or were not allowed, to serve in the ranks. Most of these men later received pensions from the states that composed the Confederacy.

There are other telling incidents. Jordan writes of the mayor of Columbia seeing a trio of Union soldiers shooting dead a black man because he was "insolent". The case was taken to General Sherman, who dismissed it without consideration. The author also notes that when Sherman's men set fire to more than a hundred blocks of Columbia, the fires destroyed as many black homes as white ones, yet somehow managed to spare the house of the French consul.

Of course many slaves did leave the south as soon as they could, some of them joining the Union army and fighting their former oppressors. They sometimes found themselves shooting at other black men. There were, Jordan tells us, 500,000 free black people in the country and most of them lived in the south. Some of them were slave-owners themselves.

What should we conclude and construe from all this? First, that history needs the truth as a newborn baby needs its mother's milk, and that breast-feeding is out of fashion in the larger schools of history. Just as important, though, is our realization that the Confederacy was not quite the great Satan that we were once encouraged to believe and that Abraham Lincoln and his sometimes murderous generals did not command an angelic army. More importantly, Jordan's book throws light on racial politics in North America. Many of the excesses of black American politicians such as Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, and much of the rhetoric of our own Charles Roach and Dudley Laws, are based on and justified by a particular interpretation of their history and of their ancestors' experience of slavery. Other sides of reality might just go some way to levelling that hyperbole and lessening those extremes. It might. But as a Confederate major said shortly before his death in 1863, "We might win this one, but don't hold your breath." l

Michael Coren's latest book is Setting It Right, published by Stoddart.


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