Black Scholar Of The Civil War Asks: Who's With Me?

Dec 8, 2011
Originally published on December 8, 2011 12:27 pm

The Civil War ended slavery in America. So why, asks author Ta-Nehisi Coates, do African-Americans, who benefited most from the conflict, take so little interest in it? Coates, a confessed Civil War obsessive, wrote about that question in his recent article, "Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?"

The story appears in a special issue of The Atlantic commemorating the Civil War.

Of course, 150 years after the war began, many Americans study the conflict in many different ways. Some get caught up in the leaders' personalities, or in specific battles that served as turning points in the war.

"There's a group of people for whom that means obsessing over military tactics," Coates tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

But the risk of analyzing the Civil War that way, Coates says, is that it may simplify the conflict too much — reducing it almost to the level of a football game. And the danger he sees is that such approaches mostly focus on the white men who led the Union and the Confederacy.

"African-Americans don't have the luxury of thinking about the Civil War as a sports event," Coates says. "We have to think about it as it is: as the event that gave us our freedom — or, I would probably actually amend that and say, the event in which we claimed our freedom. I would go so far as to put it that way."

Debating The War's Cause

Coates says that in the past 30 or 40 years, "there's been tremendous progress" in how Americans think of the war. But for many, there's still disagreement about slavery's role in sparking the war, he says.

"There's a kind of avoidance, where we haven't yet learned to confront the fact that this was a war for the establishment of a republic based in white supremacy," he says. "And it failed. And it's a very, very good thing that it failed."

But that's also a difficult idea for many people to embrace, Coates says.

"So many people have actual ancestors who fought in the Civil War," he says. "It's in so many of our bloods."

If the country is still unable to agree on how to remember the Civil War, there's plenty of blame to go around, Coates says. Part of the reason for that, he says, is that the main goal for President Lincoln, and, later, President Ulysses Grant, was the preservation of the Union.

After the war ended, Coates says, "The main priority became coming back together, forging a national myth."

And in that process, he says, African-Americans were mostly left out of the story.

"Its legacy belonged not to us, but to those who reveled in the costume and technology of a time when we were property," Coates writes in his essay.

The time has come, Coates says, for black Americans to look at the war's history on their own terms.

"At some point, we have to decide that we're going to actually interpret the war for ourselves. We have to make our claims."

The Value Of Not Forgetting

"One of the most depressing things I found," Coates says, was when a tour guide at the Gettysburg Battlefield park told him, " 'You can sit there for hours — and you can count on one hand the number of African-Americans that come into the battle park.'

"This is Gettysburg," Coates says. "I mean, this is the seminal battle that made freedom real for this country."

As for why that might be the case, Coates thinks part of the reason might be that black Americans' roles in the war are not represented in the same way as white Americans'.

"If you tour the battle parks and you look at the monuments, they're dotted with monuments to the Confederate dead," he says. "I'm sure there's one somewhere, but I've never seen a monument to any of the colored troops who fought in the Civil War."

Most of those battlefield monuments are paid for by the surviving families of fallen soldiers, or the members of the same military unit, who served years later.

"At some point, I really believe that we have to claim the history for ourselves, and do part of that ourselves," Coates says.

"I did a tour of Tennessee about a year ago, where the Civil War is very much alive. And I will tell you, in general — the places I went — the feeling about the Civil War is definitely different than mine. And yet, I was struck with this odd admiration — for the fact that they had not forgotten. They will not forget.

"And so I was in this odd position of being totally opposed to their interpretation of the war, but admiring their effort to preserve history, and to claim it, and to own it. And I think, at some point, we have to do the same."

A Clarifying Moment

Coates says that he plans for his article in The Atlantic to lead to a book about the Civil War. And he says that learning more about the conflict, and about the state of American society in those times, has clarified the issue for him.

"I vaguely understood ... that the Civil War was about slavery" before studying that era of America's history, Coates says. But, he adds, "I didn't understand how much the Civil War was about slavery. The wealth of slaves, themselves, was worth more than all of the industry in America combined, in 1860."

That is, when viewed as property, the slaves represented a huge portion of the U.S. economy.

"It was by far the greatest financial resource in the country," Coates says. "I didn't understand that at all — but it immediately made clear to me why 600,000 people would die in that sort of way, and why the war lasted as long as it did, and why it was as ferocious as it was."


Read An Excerpt Of Coates' Article:

For that particular community, for my community, the message has long been clear: the Civil War is a story for white people — acted out by white people, on white people's terms — in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props. We are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative, for to speak as the slave would, to say that we are as happy for the Civil War as most Americans are for the Revolutionary War, is to rupture the narrative. Having been tendered such a conditional invitation, we have elected — as most sane people would — to decline.

In my study of African American history, the Civil War was always something of a sideshow. Just off center stage, it could be heard dimly behind the stories of Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, and Martin Luther King Jr., a shadow on the fringe. But three years ago, I picked up James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom and found not a shadow, but the Big Bang that brought the ideas of the modern West to fruition. Our lofty notions of democracy, egalitarianism, and individual freedom were articulated by the Founders, but they were consecrated by the thousands of slaves fleeing to Union lines, some of them later returning to the land of their birth as nurses and soldiers. The first generation of the South's postbellum black political leadership was largely supplied by this class.

Transfixed by the war's central role in making democracy real, I have now morphed into a Civil War buff, that peculiar specimen who pores over the books chronicling the battles, then walks the parks where the battles were fought by soldiers, then haunts the small towns from which the soldiers hailed, many never to return.

This journey — to Paris, Tennessee; to Petersburg, Virginia; to Fort Donelson; to the Wilderness — has been one of the most meaningful of my life, though at every stop I have felt myself ill-dressed in another man's clothes. What echoes from nearly all the sites chronicling the war is a deep sense of tragedy. At Peters­burg, the film in the visitor center mourns the city's fall and the impending doom of Richmond. At the Wilderness, the park ranger instructs you on the details of the men's grisly deaths. The celebrated Civil War historian Bruce Catton best sums up this sense when he refers to the war as "a consuming tragedy so costly that generations would pass before people could begin to say whether what it had bought was worth the price."

All of those "people" are white.

For African Americans, war commenced not in 1861, but in 1661, when the Virginia Colony began passing America's first black codes, the charter documents of a slave society that rendered blacks a permanent servile class and whites a mass aristocracy. They were also a declaration of war.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Atlantic Monthly has a special issue on newsstands focusing on the Civil War. It makes sense that they would. One hundred fifty years after it began, that war remains central to the American story. Seems we can't read enough about it. Yet deep in that issue, the writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, suggests that some people are not so interested in the war - African-Americans, he says, the very people whose ancestors were slaves until the war freed them. When Coates began exploring the Civil War, he discovered that he's a rarity - a black man who's as obsessed with the conflict as many white people are. What does it mean to be obsessed with the Civil War? How do you spend your days?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, that's interesting because for different people it means different things. There's a group of people who that means obsessing over military tactics and what Lee did her and what Grant did there, seeing, you know, what a flanking maneuver might have looked like. But I think when you simply look at the tactics, you reduce it to almost like a game of football. It becomes sort of like a sport that you're talking about and you're analyzing it as a sport - but it wasn't a sport. It was about actual people, actual things. This was not the Green Bay Packers against the New England Patriots. It was something totally different.

INSKEEP: You argue that when we think of the war that way, there is a particular kind of people that we're missing.

COATES: Yes, yes. People like me, as it turns out - African-Americans, yes. African-Americans don't have the luxury of thinking about the Civil War as a sporting event. We have to think about it as the event that gave us our freedom. Or I probably would actually amend that and say as the event in which we claimed our freedom. I would go so far as to put it that way. And so it's a totally different perspective. There's a real actual issue at stake when you're an African-American and you go to Gettysburg and you learn the fact that free black people were kidnapped in the campaign up to Gettysburg. Gettysburg had a thriving black population, a free black population - fled the town at the advance of the Confederate Army. These are actual things that aren't necessarily covered in terms of maneuvers and, you know, military tactics but things that we just can't avoid thinking about.

INSKEEP: Although let's follow up on that, because some people will think, what are you talking about, that African-Americans aren't discussed in the context of the Civil War? I mean, people understand that it was about slavery on one level or another, even though they will argue about how much it was. People know the name Frederick Douglas, a great leader of that time. People may have heard the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an African-American unit. So what do you mean blacks are missing?

COATES: So I think one of the interesting things is, as you just outlined, over the past 30 or 40 years there's been tremendous progress. But I think if you take a look at the culture and how the Civil War's actually presented - take the new show on AMC, "Hell on Wheels." We vaguely understand it. I think, you know, we can go back and forth about the depth of how much people understand the Civil War was about slavery and where in the country that belief holds sway and where it doesn't necessarily hold sway.

INSKEEP: There are people on the Confederate side who even today who will argue that...

COATES: Yes, certainly so.

INSKEEP: ...it was about something else.

COATES: Certainly so. And you say states' rights for what? But if you look at the culture in terms of how the Civil War is presented, you know, I don't think it's been 10 years since "Gods and Generals," where you had this sort of presentation of faithful slaves to Stonewall Jackson. You take the new show "Hell on Wheels," which is a post-Civil War Western and the gentlemen fought for the Confederate but conveniently lets you know that he freed his slaves before the war. So there's a kind of avoidance where we haven't yet learned to confront the fact that this was a war for the establishment of a republic based in white supremacy, and it failed. And it's very good that it failed. It's a very, very good thing that it failed. I think that's a little harder to take because so many people have actual ancestors who fought in the Civil War. It's in so many of our bloods.

INSKEEP: Although it's really interesting that you point out here when you look at the history and the way that Americans have looked at the Civil War over the generations, it was people in the north who were happy to gloss this over and overlook it.

COATES: That's right.

INSKEEP: Why?

COATES: Because re-union was essential. Now, when the Civil War started, union was obviously the goal. And I think Lincoln said this himself, you know, Lincoln who was, in fact, anti-slavery. But if he could have united the country and, you know, left slavery intact, he probably would have, earlier in the war.

INSKEEP: He explicitly said he would do that if he had to do it.

COATES: Yes, he explicitly said as much. As the war dragged on, until you start getting into 1863, 1864, it becomes clear that there's no going back, that...

INSKEEP: They had issued the Emancipation Proclamation by then.

COATES: That's right, that's right, that's right. And after the war, re-union really became the priority. I think Ulysses Grant, when he became president, he strived mightily, you know, to make sure African-Americans had their rights and everything. But in the coming years, the main priority became coming back together, forging a national myth.

INSKEEP: People shifted the narrative and spoke of the South's great lost cause.

COATES: Right, right, right. That's exactly right. And that became a way of giving the South it honor, which the North was more than happy to do. I mean, there's no loss to us. I mean you still lost the war. So I mean, you can have all the honor you want. You know, as long as the actual results of the war are still in place, it's totally fine. The inconvenient fact, though, is for African-Americans. That meant either cutting them completely out of the story or reducing them to basically a servile population who was happy in slavery. Because the war couldn't be about slavery and the South be honorable at the same time. It's such a dishonorable cause and quickly fell into disrepute, like immediately after the war. But the echoes of that are still with us today.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about this from the other side. You're talking about history is something that is done to African-Americans here, that African-Americans have been cut out of the story, and yet the question you pose in this article in the Atlantic is why do so few blacks study the Civil War, suggesting that African-Americans themselves are not actively seeking out this part of their history.

COATES: That's right. And one of the conclusions that I end, at the end of the story, saying it's all fine and good to, you know, say exactly - as you just put it - what someone has done to you, but at some point, you know, we have to decide that we're going to actually interpret the war. But as a tour guide once told me at Gettysburg, you could sit there for hours and you could count on one hand the number of African-Americans that come into the battle part. This is Gettysburg. I mean, this is the seminal battle in, you know, what made freedom real for this country, and yet very few African-Americans come in to visit. When you tour the battle park and you look at the monuments, they're dotted with monuments to the Confederate dead. I'm sure there's one somewhere, but I've never seen a monument to any of the colored troops who fought in the Civil War. I went down to Petersburg and saw the famous Battle of the Crater, which is getting a lot of attention now in Newt Gingrich's new novel. There's no monument to the African-American soldiers who died there. So at some point I really, really believe that we have to claim the history for ourselves and do part of that ourselves.

INSKEEP: And that is significant because, if I'm not mistaken, a lot of those war monuments were raised by the people themselves...

COATES: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...the soldiers themselves, the families of the soldiers...

COATES: Yes, they were. Yes, they were.

INSKEEP: ...the people who were in that unit at a later time...

COATES: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...descendants of them.

COATES: That's right.

INSKEEP: Meaning if anyone was going to do that monument today, it would have to be African-Americans.

COATES: It really would have to be African-Americans. You know, it's a strange thing, I did a tour of Tennessee about a year ago, where the Civil War is very much alive. And I will tell you in general the places I went the feeling about the Civil War is definitely different than mine, and yet I was struck with this odd admiration for the fact that they had not forgotten, they will not forget. They made sure that, you know, history would be remembered. They had put up monuments, they were cleaning out graveyards and making sure that the people who had died there would be remembered. And so I was in this odd position of being totally opposed to their interpretation of the war but admiring their effort to preserve history and to claim it and to own it. And I think, you know, at some point we have to do the same.

INSKEEP: Ta-Nehisi Coates is the author of "Why Does So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?," an article in a Civil War issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Thanks.

COATES: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.