Gettysburg College Prof. Scott Hancock and Alexandra Milano '14 recently authored an editorial calling the black women, men, and children that the Confederacy sought to keep enslaved the "real rebels" of the Civil War. The piece appeared on the New York Times' Civil War blog Disunion on Oct. 15. Read the full piece below.
The Real Rebels of the Civil War
by Scott Hancock and Alexandra Milano '14
War is always accompanied by a battle for truth, and combatants for truth wield language as their weapon. In the Civil War, words were often misused. Connotations changed. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t even a civil war, since the battle was not about who would control the entire United States, but whether part of the country could secede.
That term, secession, carried some negative connotations in a nation that had never been entirely secure in its ability to endure the vicissitudes of a diverse population. In Northern newspapers, “Secessionists” was hurled in contempt at Southern agitators far more often than it was claimed in Southern papers with a sense of pride. Instead, secessionists smartly took ownership of another word, “rebel” – and with such success that even now we use the term interchangeably to refer to the people and soldiers of the Confederacy.
During the first months of 1861, “rebel” was a pejorative label in most American newspapers, North and South. The genius of secessionists, however, was to quickly embrace it. They flipped the script to help unify a divided white South. Within weeks of Fort Sumter, some Southern newspapers crowed that “More Rebels” from Virginia and Maryland had resigned their military commissions with the federal government and were “rushing to the land of their birth.” White Southerners made “rebel” a label to bear proudly.
And the term fits in the narrowest sense — a rebel can be defined as anyone who defies an authority, which the Confederacy did. But for many white Southerners, the connotations of “rebel” evolved into something deeper, a calculated defiance characterized by one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions: “Reacting against conventions, nonconformist.” It is a pride that persists today, evinced by the use of “rebel” in the names of sports teams, on T-shirts, hats and bumper stickers as an expression of Southern identity and a defiant resistance against any suppression of that identity. It is also why people with no attachment to Southern identity, in America and around the world, still fall back on Confederate iconography to express their independence.
Frederick Douglass wasn’t fooled by white Southerners’ rhetorical illusion. In 1862, he declared: “I really wish we had some other expressive title for the traitor and rebels who are now striking at the heart of the country which has nursed and brought them up. REBELS and TRAITORS are epithets too good for such monsters of perfidy and ingratitude. Washington, Jefferson, John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and many other brave and good men have worn those appellations, and I hate to see them now worn by wretches who, instead of being rebels against slavery, are actually rebelling against the principles of human liberty and progress, for the hell-black purpose of establishing slavery in its most odious form.”
Douglass was right. The Confederacy, and Confederate soldiers, were no rebels — not in the fullest sense of the term. Perversely, the Confederate misappropriation of the term has obscured who the real rebels were during the war: the black women, men, and children that the Confederacy sought to keep enslaved.
African-Americans had always resisted slavery in some fashion. At times they did so with organized violence, from their participation in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, to the Stono Rebellion in 1739, to Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831. More often they resisted the institution without direct confrontation, because they knew that doing so often meant death. Though the balance of power always tilted severely against them, African-Americans persistently negotiated some measure of security, dignity and space for themselves and their families. Whether by bargaining for more food, mitigating punishment, breaking tools to avoid backbreaking labor or running away for a few days or for good, enslaved black Southerners rebelled against slavery.
However, when war finally came, black Northerners lacked consensus on whether they should participate in the slave rebellion. In particular, they debated whether black men should enlist in the Union Army. Those in favor perceived fighting as a method of legitimizing themselves in the eyes of the federal government. Simply having the ability to enlist was a privilege of citizenship; actually enlisting was a chance to seize citizenship that had been denied. Some also viewed enlistment as a means to demonstrate their American values. By enlisting, black men would have a channel for their patriotism and devotion to the country. In spite of the injustices they experienced, one journalist wrote, “they were willing to forget all, and rally around their country’s flag at a moment when their services were most needed.” In many respects, this was a natural extension of the political identity black Northerners had fashioned over the previous 40 years.
Enlistment also offered the opportunity to rebel against the heart of oppression: Southern slaveholders. Supporters appealed to their audience by decrying the brutality of slavery and the possibility of retribution. Another journalist, trying to ignite fervor for enlistment, asked, “You, brethren, who have pined in bondage, you who have wives or children or parents writhing under the lash … can you ask any more than a chance to drive bayonet or bullet into the slaveholders’ hearts?”
However, those opposed to enlistment found a valuable ally in Frederick Douglass. Douglass initially supported the enlistment of black soldiers; however, by the middle of 1863, his views had evolved. After he decided not to attend a rally to encourage enlistment, he explained: “When I plead for recruits, I want to do it with all my heart, without qualification. I cannot do that now. The impression settles upon me that colored men have much overrated the enlightening, justice and generosity of our rulers at Washington.”
Nevertheless, black Northern opinion eventually coalesced in support of enlistment. Black Northerners had developed a political culture that equated respectable personal conduct with activism. For them, enlistment, even in light of white Northern racism, was the ultimate form of a rebellious activism. Black southerners who had escaped to the north sharpened black radicalism. For most, the desire to finally fulfill decades of protest soon overrode objections posed by Douglass or anyone else.
The first wave of black enlistees, mostly free Northerners, were freedom fighters looking to deliver a mortal blow to an institution that had been a fundamental part of labor systems around the world for thousands of years. They were quickly joined by hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands of men and women who had rebelled against their masters by running to Union lines. Nearly 150,000 of the men turned right around: wearing blue, carrying guns, arming cannons, setting their souls against the society that had so recently owned and demeaned them. They made up the bulk of the 180,000 black soldiers who fought alongside 20,000 black sailors to form one of the largest armed slave rebellions in history.
Crucially, tens of thousands of black women — most also formerly enslaved — “enlisted” as unglamorous but vital domestic laborers, and occasionally as spies. Harriet Tubman, who had been rebelling for years, became a guerrilla warfare leader, helping Union troops ransack Confederate land in South Carolina. Black men and women, born free and born enslaved, fought to permanently overthrow a centuries-old institution that had been a fundamental part of American and Southern society, culture, politics and economics. These were the people who were “reacting against conventions.”
Confederate soldiers, regardless of their bravery during battle or their commitment to comrades, were fighting for a government that sought to maintain the ancient institution of slavery. They were preservationists. Accommodationists. Conformists. Anything but genuine rebels. The real rebels were the hundreds of thousands of black men and women who, in what was arguably the most successful slave uprising in world history, did more than simply resist slavery: they actively, militantly, violently, killed it.
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
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