Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Thursday, June 23, 2005
War concentrates the mind. A little while ago I posted about Senator Robert Byrd's infamous statement just after WWII that he would rather die a thousand times and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt than serve in the military with a Negro at his side. When ARC and Mrs ARC visited us recently, we talked about changing racial attitudes in the Southern states of the USA, and we ended up talking about the American Civil War. Mind you, us four could turn a conversation on the price of geranium to the American Civil War.

I persuaded ARC to look me up some quotes when he got home. He writes:

The senator you quote seemed surprisingly out of touch with the attitudes of Confederate soldiers of eighty years earlier, let alone more recent views.

General Lee was at first very much in the minority when he told the president "often and early in the war" of the need for general emancipation and recruitment of negro soldiers; as he remarked, "Davis would not hear of it". But when he began advocating the idea in public at the end of 1864, it emerged that most Confederate soldiers were ready to agree with him:

"When in former years, for pecuniary purposes, we did not consider it disgraceful to labor with negroes in the field or at the same workbench, we certainly will not look on it in any other light at this time when an end so glorious as our independence is to be achieved." (Summary of attitudes of the men of the 49th Georgia infantry regiment).

"The officers and men of this corps are decidedly in favor of the voluntary enlistment of the negroes as soldiers. ... The opposition to it is now confined to very few, and I am satisfied it will soon cease to exist in any regiment of the corps." (Major-General John B Gordon, commander of II Corps, Army of Northern Virginia)

"What do you think of the question of negro soldiers now? It makes me sad ... to reflect that this time-honoured institution will be no more, that the whole social organisation of the South is to be revolutionized. But I suppose it is all right and we will have to be reconciled." (Walter Taylor, staff officer to General Lee, in letter to his fiancée).

You can easily find Confederates, more often civilians than soldiers, who would have agreed with the senator, but his had become the minority view by the start of 1865. Most Confederates had changed their views under pressure of necessity of course, but necessity also applied in WWII.

Defeat overtook the Confederacy before it could enact these measures for its main armies, although there were a few instances of black soldiers fighting for the South as part of militia units.

What motivated them is a fascinating question. Look out for a future post.

I find the American Civil War interesting because it was the first modern war, yet its cause was a revenant from the ancient world: slavery. (The most recent, although not the last, modern war also represents a conflict where archaic patterns of society look to modern weapons as their instrument of rejuvenation.) I never quite got over the suprise I had when I first twigged that chattel slavery had coexisted with steam trains. Either something on TV or a book made some mention of "slave carriages" and I thought, that can't be right! My childhood imagination could cope with the idea of slavery in association with togas and temples and chariots, but people who had trains and telegraphs and newspapers should have known. And so they should.

In the rest of his email ARC turned to the subject of the unusual way in which he became interested in the American Civil War as a child. That story touched on so many ideas that I want to talk about more that I felt it deserved a post of its own. Scroll up.