Should African-Americans commemorate the Civil War?
By Reginald W. Brown
For the Salisbury Post
The American Civil War and the fight for civil rights began 150 years ago. The sesquicentennial finds many American descendents of enslaved Africans shrugging their shoulders and saying, “So what?”
When told that the war freed over 4 million of our ancestors, added constitutional amendments abolishing their enslavement and promised full and equal citizenship, many of today’s young folks respond with skepticism, scorn and indifference.
“What citizenship?” they retort. “We had the amendments and no civil rights for a century after ratification.” “Emancipation was Abraham Lincoln’s idea when he thought efforts to preserve the Union would fail.” “Lincoln didn’t intend to give black folks any civil rights and would deport them to Africa or the Caribbean islands.” “Yes, Lincoln authorized the enlistment of black soldiers and sailors during the war … So what?” “After the war ended, we had a century of Jim Crow, segregation and the KKK.”
Unless we understand that the Civil War united a divided nation and started the struggle for universal civil rights, we will be unable to fully appreciate the sacrifices our ancestors made for the rights we take for granted. Some of us will venerate those who rest in military places of honor with ceremonies. Some of us will re-enact battles in full battle dress, commemorating those who fought for or against a way of life. Some will attend symposiums and present exhibits.
Should black folk commemorate the Civil War? Absolutely! Americans on all sides of the conflict made gut-wrenching sacrifices for a united republic. Should skeptics and ideologues be challenged for their spin on history? Absolutely!
Abraham Lincoln’s effort to preserve the Union does not mean he didn’t want to end slavery. Probably one reason the 11 seceding Southern states excluded Lincoln from their 1860 presidential ballots was his well-known opposition to enslaving human beings. If the seceding states that formed the Confederacy won their independence, Lincoln would be powerless to free its enslaved population. The legal tool he used was a “war powers” proclamation authorizing him as commander-in-chief to issue an order to free the enslaved in Confederate-held territories. More than a year and a half after his first inauguration, the Emancipation Proclamation took effect January 1, 1863.
In 1864, the U.S. Senate approved the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery after Lincoln’s attempt to establish a colony for black volunteers in Haiti and Panama. Following a period of frustration, he had them returned to the United States and abandoned the idea of colonization. In April 1865, before his assassination, Lincoln delivered a speech that called for postwar Southern governments to grant equal civil rights to African-Americans.
Under no circumstance should the sacrifices of more than 200,000 African-American Union volunteer soldiers, sailors and spies be overlooked. Most were fugitives from slavery. Others were free people of color. Both waged war against hostile southerners and racist northerners and fought in battles from Milliken’s Bend to Appomattox. Some like Thomas Hawkins died at Fort Gilmore, Va., and others like Moses Smith died in Confederate prisons. The fate of captured Union soldiers who were once enslaved is unknown. However, African-American Union volunteers such as Sgt. William Carney and Col. William H. Singleton received Medals of Honor and officers’ commissions. Spies like Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a servant in the Jefferson Davis Confederate White House, rendered Union intelligence.
Unfortunately, black folks won their freedom but lost the Reconstruction that followed the war. A new tale of woe known as the Jim Crow era began and lasted for nearly 100 years. That’s another story.
Fortunately, the sesquicentennial provides opportunities to learn and honor shared remembrances, reconcile misperceptions and remove old scars.A visit to the “When We Fought Ourselves” exhibit at the Rowan Museum is a good start in commemorating and reflecting upon the Civil War and its legacy. The exhibit shows and explains the Civil War roles played by all of America’s descendants.
The Rowan Museum is in the Old Court House at 202 North Main Street in Salisbury. The hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Please sign the guest book.
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Reginald W. Brown lives in Salisbury.