ECW is pleased to welcome back guest author Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era Blog.
No period in United States history echoes as truly today as the Reconstruction Era. While many see contemporary parallels in the Civil War, let’s face it, we are not arguing in 2020 about whether African Americans should be slaves nor will we soon see state forces violently attack Federal installations. However, we do hear heated arguments over the voting rights of non-white Americans, the citizenship status of the children of immigrants, and the policing of people of color. These were all central to the political and legal history of Reconstruction. While the 13th Amendment’s status has been secure for over 150 years, the 14th and 15th Amendments from the Re-Founding Fathers have lain in contested territory since they were ratified.
The other echo of Reconstruction is the sound of the bullet. We will not see massed armies a la Gettysburg in 2020, but we have seen increasing violence of a sort. Over the coming months I will discuss my research on the Reconstruction Era, alert you to new resources where you can explore the world the Civil War created, and I will review emerging scholarship on this crucial time when African American voices were heard as more than chattel slaves.
Over the last month my Reconstruction Era Blog has been looking at how Southerners welcomed Union troops into the heart of the Confederacy, joined the Union armies by the thousands, and celebrated the reunion of South and North. The Confederacy was riven by dissenters from its war effort. Confederate partisans knew that in many regions, a majority of the population looked to the Union for liberation.
To understand why Southerners of African descent were often overjoyed by the arrival of Union troops, I looked at an article from the pro-Confederate Tri-Weekly State Gazette from Austin Texas. The article comes from the summer of 1863, and it describes race relations in the year after New Orleans was liberated by combined Union naval and land forces. The newspaper says that African Americans in New Orleans are now “as free here as in Boston.” It complains that white women sometimes cannot find seats on trains because Blacks can now sit in the same cars as whites.
The reporter complains that African Americans, always barred from testifying against whites during slave times, were now able to speak in court and give evidence. The article is particularly concerned that Black servants might now disclose the pro-Confederate utterances of their white employers. In the example given, the newspaper alleges that a Black woman testified that a white woman had played the pro-Confederate song Bonnie Blue Flag. While the newspaper hoped to convey the hell that New Orleans had become for white people, any Texas slave hearing the report would assume that the Crescent City was heaven!
The recruitment of Black men into the Union Army began in earnest in 1863. African American soldiers suffered discrimination in pay and promotion. Barred in almost all cases from being commissioned as officers, Black soldiers served under white officers. While they were treated badly at times, the newly enlisted men of the United States Colored Troops had friends and defenders. I recently found a circular from the Commissioner for the Organization of Colored Troops in Tennessee telling racists to stay away from applying to serve as officers! He insisted that “it is the aim…to make colored troops equal” to whites. Officers who disdained their men were not suitable for the USCT.
While everyone reading this is likely familiar with “The Brave Black Regiment,” the 54th Massachusetts, which other Black regiments do you know? I have profiled one outfit, the 26th USCT, recruited in New York State, with men from Long Island to Ithaca. With one veteran of the regiment buried just a few miles from my home in Westbury on Long island, this was a tribute to a “neighbor.”
One of the greatest days in many Southern communities in 1865 was the day the first Black company or regiment marched into town. This was the moment Black Southerners could see their dreams of the “bottom rail on top” realized for the first time in their lives. The Augusta Daily Constitutionalist, a pro-Confederate newspaper from Georgia, gave a brief account of the formerly enslaved people of Augusta turning out to greet a regiment that included many former slaves from South Carolina.
After the war ended and the army freed slaves still illegally held in bondage, Southerners of African Descent began to organize celebrations and ceremonies to mark their demand for full incorporation in American life.
One myth I have heard a lot about was that the City of Vicksburg in Mississippi stopped celebrating the Fourth of July during the Civil War and did not resume observing the holiday for eight decades. It is true that many white Vicksburgers stopped recognizing the holiday. The Confederate Army in Vicksburg surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863. This defeat, and the Confederate failure at Gettysburg the day before, would come to be seen as the beginning of the end of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion.
White people in the city stopped holding fireworks shows and they kept their businesses open on the holiday. But the myth that Fourth of July celebrations ended is true if only white lives matter. African Americans in the city celebrated July 4th every year during Reconstruction, even though their observances were sometimes violently attacked by white supremacists. For them it was their day of liberation from slavery.
The same pattern was seen in locations across the former Confederacy. Whites who had allied with the rebellion sometimes either ignored the holiday or mocked those who observed it. African Americans reinvigorated the Glorious Fourth with parades, festivals, and programs promoting civic participation. You can read about that here.
Leave a comment telling me what you learned in school about the subjects I covered in this month’s column. Was this taught at all?