Pride and Prejudice in the American Civil War

By Grant, Susan-Mary | History Today, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Pride and Prejudice in the American Civil War


Grant, Susan-Mary, History Today


The image of the American Civil War as a `white man's fight' became the national norm almost as soon as the last shot was fired. Susan-Mary Grant looks at the experience and legacy of the conflict for black Americans.

...You can say of the colored man, we too have borne our share of the burden. We too have suffered and died in defence of that starry banner which floats only over free men... I feel assured that the name of the colored soldier will stand out in bold relief among the heroes of this war...

(Henry S. Harmon, 3rd United States Colored Infantry, October 1863)

Far better the slow blaze of Learning's

light, The cool and quiet of her dearer fane, Than this hot terror of a hopeless fight, This cold endurance of the final pain, Since thou and those who with thee

died for right Have died, the Present teaches, but in

vain! (Paul Laurence Dunbar, `Robert Gould Shaw.

In 1897, over thirty years after the end of the American Civil War, a very special monument to that war was erected opposite the Statehouse in Boston. Designed by the Irish-born sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, it depicted in profile the figure of Robert Gould Shaw, the twenty-five-year-old white officer of the North's showcase black regiment, the Massachusetts 54th, leading his men through Boston on their way to South Carolina in 1863. An unusual piece of sculpture, Saint-Gaudens had worked hard to avoid representing the black troops in any kind of stereotypical manner, portraying them instead as noble patriot soldiers of the American nation. Both in its novelty and in its sentiment the monument remains impressive according to the art critic Robert Hughes, `the most intensely felt image of military commemoration made by an American.'

However, the Saint-Gaudens monument in no way reflected the general mood of the American people towards those black troops who had fought in the conflict, as the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar's response to Shaw's sacrifice reveals. Between 1863, when Henry Harmon expressed his optimism about history's treatment of the black soldier, and 1897, the American nation had all but forgotten that black troops had ever played a role in the Civil War. Both Saint-Gaudens and Dunbar were working at a time when segregation was beginning to bite in the South with the `Jim Crow' Laws, but the exclusion of black troops from the national memory of the Civil War began long before the 1890s. In the Grand Review of the Armed Forces which followed the cessation of hostilities very few blacks were represented. Relegated to the end of the procession in `pitch and shovel' brigades or intended only as a form of comic relief, neither the free black soldier not the former slave was accorded his deserved role in this poignant national pageant. Rather than a war fought for liberty, in which the role of the African-American soldier was pivotal, the image of the American Civil War as a `white man's fight' became the norm almost as soon as the last shot was fired.

The relationship between the black soldier and the `land of the free' has always been ambiguous. The involvement of black troops in America's wars from colonial times onwards followed a depressing pattern. Encouraged to enlist in times of crisis, the African-American soldier's services were clearly unwelcome in time of peace. Despite this, the link between fighting and freedom for African-Americans was forged in the earliest days of the American nation, and once forged proved resilient. During the colonial era, South Carolina enacted legislation that offered freedom to slaves in return for their military services. By the conclusion of the American Revolution military service was regarded as a valid and successful method of achieving freedom for the slave, as well as an important expression of patriotism and loyalty to the nation.

It was unsurprising, therefore, that when hostilities commenced between North and South in 1861 blacks throughout the North, and some in the South too, sought to enlist. …

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