Thursday, July 2, 2015

Some Thoughts on Slavery, Racism, and the American Civil War

The American Civil War is a very complex issue especially for states like Missouri where sympathies were very much divided. Here in my part of Missouri (which is called LIttle Dixie by the way) many wealthy slave holders were Union men. Meanwhile, many that did not even own slaves fought for the Confederacy. The Confederate Bushwhacker "Bloody Bill" Anderson who grew up in my hometown never owned slaves, nor did his father, or his father's father. Meanwhile, wealthy slave holders like Benjamin Lewis of Glasgow, Missouri were Union men. He was beaten nearly to death by Anderson for that very reason. This was very, very common during the war. Wealthy slave holders often were pro-Union while those that owned no slaves served the Confederacy.

This was largely due to the propaganda of the time. Wealthy slave holders in states like Missouri were under the impressionism they could keep their slaves after the war. Meanwhile, many felt the war was being fought for states rights, and that the Union Army was nothing more than Northern invaders. The North had similar issues. People there were often under the impression the war was being fought to "preserve the Union." It never occurred to many on both sides that the issue at heart was slavery.

 Even the issue of slavery is not as simple as it seems. For example, I often recommend people read the slave narrative "The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave, Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man" by Henry Clay Bruce. The picture of slavery its author paints is neither consistent with the Antebellum white literature, nor that of today, or even the Northern literature following the war. It paints a picture of good and bad inconsistent with white American literature of any era. It is in stark contrast with the Southern Antebellum literature about the "happy slave" and the Abolitionist literature about the cruelty of slavery. The issue for folks like Mr. Bruce pure and simple was freedom. Still, even with the simple idea of freedom being the main concern, post-war society was very complex. For example. what is surprising about what Bruce talked about in his narrative is the he himself was guilty of prejudice against darker skinned African Americans, as well as what he calls "poor white trash." Mr. Bruce is sometimes more sympathetic to former slaver holders than he is his fellow African Americans and whites living in poverty.

As much as racism was an issue in the South, classism was as well. I know this complex situation concerning slavery and race issues firsthand. My Great Grandfather Towles' three slaves begged not to leave him. The fear of being on their own with no money, and having to seek jobs terrified them. My great grandfather was sympathetic, but being a Middle Class farmer and carpenter he could not afford to pay them. He had fed and clothed them from goods produced on his farm, not profits from his business. And unlike the image of the racist former slave holder, he taught his children, "Never mistreat the colored people." This flies in the face of the PC view of the cruel slave master quick with the whip. My Great Grandfather Canote and one of his brothers fought for the Union. And while Southerners intermingled with freemen following the war. Two of my Great Uncles on my mothers side fought for the Confederacy. You even had Southern sympathizers drafted into the Union army. While the war may have been fought over slavery, the personal views of many then were often contradictory in the State of Missouri, or not what we would expect. You saw men who supported slavery fighting for the Union cause, and men who did not believe in slavery supporting the Confederate cause.

One fact remains, the Southern States seceded over slavery. There was no other reason. Even the argument they seceded over states' rights holds no water as the "right" they were wanting to preserve was to own slaves. What bothers me most in all this though is the North seems ignorant of its own racism and prejudice. When desegregation of schools is brought up, it is always Little Rock that is mentioned first. They ignore the riots in Boston in the '70s over "busing" that were racially motivated. In fact the issue of desegregation in what is sometimes called the "most racist city in America" is almost never mentioned. The Boston desegregation race issues have been in my opinion swept under the rug. People also ignore the fact that the draft riots in New York City during the Civil War were in part racially motivated. During the riots blacks were attacked in the streets mostly by Irish immigrants upset that wealthy men could buy their way out of the draft. Even the treatment of the Irish and other immigrants in the North is a lesson in the prejudice of Northern Anglo-Americans. Lynchings were not unheard of in states like Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In some areas of the North African Americans were restricted to living in only certain neighborhoods. Racism to many only exists in the South though. However, it can be seen in the North as well. Meanwhile, there were areas in the South like mine where the KKK was driven out with guns and baseball bats. Yet it still flourishes in Northern States like Indiana where one sees the Confederate Battle Flag much more often. I will concede that racism was more prevalent in the South esp. in places like Mississippi and Georgia, but the North is not without its own sins in that area. The issues of the American Civil War, slavery, racism, general prejudice, even classism are in many ways as complex now as they have ever been. And I think instead of focusing on one part of the country we need to look at all of it. I often have to wonder if all this hoopla in the media over the Confederate Battle Flag is smoke and mirrors to take our minds over the treatment of blacks by the police in places like New York City and Chicago. One thing is clear though, things must change.