“An Alien and Inferior Race:” A Brief Examination of Reconstruction’s Antebellum Doom

Wednesday, 10 September, 2008

1 Emancipation did not bring justice or equality for freedmen as antebellum AfricanAmericans expected. The form of liberation African-American slaves hoped to see was doomed to failure before the Civil War began. While many Northerners may have been anti-slavery, they were not necessarily pro-African-American. Neither before nor after Reconstruction was the freedman seen as an equal of the white man. Reconstruction failed freedmen because Northern commitment to African-Americans had never been deep and wide. This was in part because while abolitionist sentiments were common, racism was more common. The cause of the Civil War was not originally abolition; the cause evolved from the preservation of the Union to a dual cause including Emancipation. As shown in Boyer, et al, Enduring Vision, because the Civil War did not begin as an endeavor to free the slaves and because racism was strong and nearly ubiquitous in America, when Northerners began to find their own problems difficult to bear, they had little stomach for continuing to tend to the southern problem.1 While the war’s original cause was not emancipation, slaves assumed the arrival of Union troops meant freedom. But as Deborah White Gray illustrates in her work Ar’n’t I a Woman?, freedom was not what Union troops initially brought, “Northern soldiers actually returned fleeing blacks to their masters, and when Union generals issued orders freeing all slaves in territories under their command, Lincoln overrode them.”2 As the majority of Union soldiers did not enlist for the cause of slavery, this new cause was hard for many to swallow. Northern racism ran deep, and fighting for freedom for African-Americans was Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch, eds., Enduring Vision, Volume II: Since 1865, 6th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 487. Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: W.W. Norton & Company,1999), 165.
2 1

2 not an appealing prospect to all. In their essay “Unwelcome Allies: Billy Yank and the Black Soldier,” Randall Miller and Jon Zophy record, “A New York volunteer wrote to his parents that the ‘best way’ to settle the question of ‘what to do with them darkies’ was to shoot them.”3 This illustrates the contempt in which many Union troops held AfricanAmericans, and such sentiments would not be easy to overcome. Union soldiers were often a threat to the very people they were now to free. This was in part because as White shows, many Union troops resented fighting for black Americans, “Said one Ohioan before enlisting: ‘I don’t think enough of the Nigger to go and fight for them. I would rather fight them.” 4 While this Ohioan may have confined himself to words, some Union soldiers expressed their resentment in action as White reports, “At Camp Nelson, Kentucky, in late 1864, while black men of the camp were on the battlefield fighting Confederates, white soldiers leveled the makeshift shantytown erected by black women to house their children and left four hundred people homeless in bitterly cold weather.”5 These troops who were expected to protect or at least not to harm the families of their black brothers in arms sent a message that they wanted no part with these former slaves. Such messages were neither universal nor rare. Rape of African-American women by Union soldiers was common. So common was it that black women were known to make themselves appear “sick, old,” and “disabled.” 6 This is not to imply that Union soldiers were in some way behaving out of the Randall M. Miller and Jon W. Zophy, “Unwelcome Allies: Billy Yank and the Black Soldier,” Phylon, 39, no. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1978): 234. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/274519> (accessed 2 September, 2008).
4 4 5 5 3

Ibid. White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, 164-167. Ibid., 164.

6

3 ordinary, or that they were evil men. This was normal behavior by soldiers around the world in this era, and while the rape of newly emancipated slaves by their emancipators is difficult to fathom in light of our modern notions of Emancipation as a primary and original cause of the Civil War, it is more easily pictured in light of common among Union soldiers as in the following story from White’s work: Sam Word’s mother met her first Yankee soldier as he was in the process of stealing her quilts, walking out of the yard with them. “Why you nasty, stinking rascal,” she shouted, “you say you come down here to fight for the niggers, and now you’re stealing from ‘em.” His response no doubt reflected the feelings of most white Union soldiers, especially those who were drafted. “You’re a goddamm liar,” he retorted, “I’m fighting for $14 a month and the Union.”7 Such was the disconnect between Union troops’ ideas about their own function and the ideas slaves held about the motivation of Union troops. This soldier had nothing but contempt for the woman who believed he was there to free her, and he was not alone among Northerners, many of whom enjoyed the saying: To the flag we are pledged, all its foes we abhor And we ain’t for the nigger, but we are for the war.8 This sentiment was not unusual. Most Union soldiers were not fighting for abolition. Mistrust of and dislike for African-Americans were the norm. In “Unwelcome Allies,” Miller and Zophy recount how strong racist sentiment in even sympathetic whites could be: Even a man like James T. Ayers, an army recruiter who often expressed sympathetic feelings toward blacks, could write of blacks: “If they are set free
7 8

Ibid.

Vincent Harding, “Soldiers of God’s Wrath,” in Major Problems in African American History: Volume 1: From Slavery to Freedom, 1619-1877, ed. Thomas C. Holt and Elsa Barkley Brown (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 346.

8

4 they will Push into the Northern States and soon will be in every whole and corner,” and the “Bucks” would soon enough “be wanting to galant our Daughters around.” In a fury he concluded: “Dam the niggers I would Rather Blow there brains out then they should do this and so would I.”9 How could Reconstruction possibly have succeeded in a climate like this, a climate where even those who sympathized with the plight of slaves could flow with mistrust and racism? In fact, it could not. Racism was part of the fabric of America. It shocks the modern reader to find racism even at the highest levels of Union government. Perhaps because of the glorification of Lincoln, a just glorification which links him with Emancipation, it is not common knowledge that Lincoln was not always an abolitionist, and he believed, “that blacks and whites could not live peaceably as equal citizens in the United States....”10 These words express the cautious attitude toward abolition held by many Northerners. Lincoln also respected states’ rights to the degree that as White explains, “For a year and a half after the start of the war Lincoln held fast to this position – that the war was necessary to preserve the Union. He had no ‘lawful right’ to interfere with slavery where it existed, he declared during his first inaugural address, and ‘no inclination to do so.’”11 Lincoln’s actions in sending slaves back to their masters at the beginning of the war were consistent with this early statement of his. These actions were also consistent with the views of most Republicans not of the Radical camp.12
9 1 10 1 11 1 12

Miller and Zophy, “Unwelcome Allies,” 235-236. Harding, “Soldiers of God’s Wrath,” 346. White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?, 163. Boyer, et al, Enduring Vision, 493.

5 Somehow many in America have come to believe that the Civil War was always about slavery and that Union soldiers by and large fought for freedom as much as for the Union. This could not have been farther from the truth, and one could not have expected men who despised the black man suddenly to embrace him. This was the case even among Union soldiers who fought with black soldiers. Some did renounce their prejudice after spending time among black troops, but others did not as Miller and Zophy describe: The surprising fact revealed in a review of Union soldiers' diaries and letters is not that so many held anti-Negro beliefs; rather, it is that these ideas persisted for so long, that anti-Negro sentiments proved so resilient to a fair measurement of the capacities of blacks, despite abundant evidence of their fortitude and loyalty.13 When one considers the world of the North in the era of Reconstruction, one imagines a culture with patchy contact with AfricanAmericans. Returning troops would have had first-hand experience among freedmen. They would have had more opportunity to observe freedmen than most Northern civilians. This first-hand experience and their status as veterans must have lent credibility and weight to their negative impressions. In 1867, Johnson’s public attitude about giving freedmen the vote was, “...it must be acknowledged that in the progress of nations negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands.”14 Johnson was no Reconstructionist; for him, revenge
13

Miller and Zophy, “Unwelcome Allies,” 240. Andrew Johnson, 1867, in Enduring Voices, Volume II: From 1865 From 1865,

14

6 against the aristocracy of the South was sufficient.15 While Johnson did not represent the views of his party and was a thorn in the side of those who thought he might stand up for Reconstruction, the fact that he could publicly say what he did indicates the racist climate of the era. When reading how a prominent Alabaman referred to freedmen as “an alien and inferior race” in a petition to Congress, the modern reader may be shocked by the easy use of racial language in this era.16 Granted the man was not a Northerner, nor a Republican, and his constituency comprised former slave owners, but that he could call AfricanAmericans “an alien and inferior race” in an official plea for help, that he would use such language in a petition designed to persuade those who supposedly stood on the side of Reconstruction indicates that Northerners by and large must have been racist as well. It is illustrative that an Alabaman would select this particular language to persuade people who stood on the side of freedmen, and that he shows that he did not expect his language to offend even those on the side of freedmen. Indeed we know from Boyer that, “Republican leaders and voters generally agreed with Southern Democrats that blacks, although worthy of freedom, were inferior to whites.” 17 So it is not inconsistent that this Alabaman might have believed that his language would not only not offend those on the side of Reconstruction but perhaps assist him in bringing them over to his way of thinking, and it uncovers the racism that must have been virtually ubiquitous in the United States whether Fourth Edition, edited by Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 5.
1

Boyer, et al, Enduring Vision, 470. Petition and Memorial File in Retrieving the American Past: HIST 157: United States History since 1865, eds. Saul Cornell, David Staley, Meredith Clark-Wiltz, Ann Heiss, et al (Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2008), 10-11.
16 1 17

15

Boyer, et al, Enduring Vision, 493.

7 North or South.18 Racism in the western world was reinforced in this era by the new concept of Social Darwinism, a distortion of Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. Social Darwinism held that those of African descent were at the bottom rung of humanity in terms of evolution, and as this pseudoscience played a role in reinforcing racism on the world scale, it also played a role in the United States in deepening negative sentiment toward AfricanAmericans during and after Reconstruction.19 However Social Darwinism was only reinforcing what already existed in the psyche of America, that black people were inferior to white.20 This derived in part from centuries of literature beginning with Greek and Roman observations of Africans, such as the Greek expression of futility, “to wash an Ethopian white.”21 This saying emphasized the inescapability of color and facial structure, which grew to be indelibly associated with inferiority in succeeding generations. As Joseph Harris argues in Africans and Their History, throughout western history when Africans shed the mantle of “savage” for that of civilized man, they were still viewed as inferior because unlike a white man for whom, “there remained no visible label of inferiority, whereas the blackness of Africans became identified with and lingered in the minds of Europeans as a badge of primitiveness.”22 Viewing black freedmen as hopelessly inferior,
1

Saul Cornell, David Staley, Meredith Clark-Wiltz, Ann Heiss, et al, eds., Retrieving the American Past: HIST 157: United States History since 1865 (Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2008), 11. 19 Joseph E. Harris, Africans and Their History, 2nd ed. (New York: Meridian, 1998), 12.
20 2 21 2 22

18

Boyer, et al, Enduring Vision, 493. Harris, Africans and Their History, 3. Ibid., 4.

8 Northerners in the last quarter of the nineteenth century began to lose patience with Reconstruction. Faced with problems of their own and tired of a divided Union, they lost the sense of obligation to a cause they felt was not their own, to help a people they viewed as inferior and for whom they felt freedom was sufficient. To boil the failure of Reconstruction down to racism alone would be incorrect, for there was rampant corruption in the Republican governments of the South, and Northerners were weary of a seemingly interminable problem. Corruption was only one of many other causes for the failure of Reconstruction, for the North was battling corruption problems of its own. States’ rights too factored into the doom of Reconstruction. Most Americans believed in states’ rights. For them, continued “bayonette rule” was not acceptable as Northern voters believed, “that Reconstruction had achieved its goal: blacks had been enfranchised and could manage for themselves from now on.”23 Just as states’ rights and corruption figured into the demise of Reconstruction, racism too figured into Reconstruction’s doom, for in the main, voters in the North held “that blacks, although worthy of freedom, were inferior to whites.”24 Hoping to bring an end to regional disunity and strife, Republicans were ready to move on before the business of Reconstruction was finished.25 Northerners did recognize how empty freedom was for African-Americans, and that this freedom was worse in many ways than slavery. Many Northerners did support Reconstruction initially, in particular the educational advances for African-Americans in the South.26 While this support was strong, when the North felt the sting of its own
23 2 24 2 25 2 26

Boyer, et al, Enduring Vision, 489. Ibid., 493. Ibid. Robert C. Lieberman, “The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Politics of Institutional

9 problems, one could not expect such support to last forever in the face of the prevailing view that freedom was enough for an ‘inferior’ people.27 Certainly one can overstate the influence of a less than total Northern antebellum commitment to African-Americans. The conviction of states’ rights was enormously important and figured prominently in the 1876 election.28 But Radical Republicans were so called because they did not represent the feelings of most Republicans. When times are tough, lofty ideals can slip away. This is especially true when such ideals do not directly benefit those paying for them and when there is an undercurrent of contempt for the beneficiaries. Northern antebellum racism doomed Reconstruction before it began, and once African-Americans were technically free, there was little willingness on the part of the average Northern voter to stomach the ulcer of Reconstruction that, for the sake of a socalled ‘inferior’ race, continued to separate the North and the South.

Structure.” Social Science History, 18, no. 3 (Autumn, 1994): 423. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1171498> (accessed 2 September, 2008). 27 Boyer, et al, eds., Enduring Vision, 493.
28

Ibid., 495.

10 BIBLIOGRAPHY Boyer, Paul S., Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch, eds. Enduring Vision, Volume II: Since 1865, 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. Boyer, Paul S., Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch, eds. Enduring Voices, Volume II: From 1865 From 1865, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. Civil Rights Cases, 1883. In Retrieving the American Past: HIST 157: United States History since 1865, edited by Saul Cornell, David Staley, Meredith Clark-Wiltz, Ann Heiss, et al, 18. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2008. Cornell, Saul David Staley, Meredith Clark-Wiltz, Ann Heiss, et al, eds. Retrieving the American Past: HIST 157: United States History since 1865. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2008. Forten, Charlotte. Diary. In Major Problems in African American History: Volume 1: From Slavery to Freedom, 1619-1877, edited by Thomas C. Holt and Elsa Barkley Brown, 301-303. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. Harris, Joseph E. Africans and Their History, 2nd ed. New York: Meridian, 1998. Johnson, Andrew. 1867. In Enduring Voices, Volume II: From 1865 From 1865, 4th ed., edited by Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch, 5. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. Lieberman, Robert C. “The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Politics of Institutional Structure.” Social Science History, 18, no. 3 (Autumn, 1994): 405-437. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1171498> (accessed 2 September, 2008). Miller, Randall M., and Jon W. Zophy, “Unwelcome Allies: Billy Yank and the Black Soldier,” Phylon, 39, no. 3 (3rd Qtr., 1978): 234-240. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/274519> (accessed 2 September, 2008). Petition and Memorial File, Records of the House of Representatives, 40th Congress, Record Group 233, National Archives, Washington, D.C. In Retrieving the American Past: HIST 157: United States History since 1865, edited by Saul Cornell, David Staley, Meredith Clark-Wiltz, Ann Heiss, et al, 10-11. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2008. Slaughter-House Cases, 1873. In Retrieving the American Past: HIST 157: United States History since 1865, edited by Saul Cornell, David Staley, Meredith Clark-Wiltz, Ann Heiss, et al, 16-18. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2008.

11

White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves In the Plantation South. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.