"Civil" War Wounds: William Wells Brown, Violence, and the Domestic Narrative

Article excerpt

In 1867, William Wells Brown, the first published black American novelist, wrote a fictionalized account of the Civil War, becoming also, it appears, the first black American war novelist in the process. However, Clotelle, The Colored Heroine, A Tale of the Southern States was not a war novel in its origins. Brown, who manifested an unparalleled talent for repetition throughout his career, took one of his several revisions of the 1853 Clotel, or The President's Daughter and added four chapters dealing with the Civil War. Brown admits in his preface that all but these chapters were completed "before the breaking out of the recent rebellion" (4). Approximately six months before the publication of Clotelle, Brown had also become the first black American to publish a book-length historical account of the Civil War, The Negro In the American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity (1867).

The 1867 version of Brown's revisions of Clotel brings the fugitive slaves Clotelle (the re-named daughter of the Clotel of the first novel) and her black husband Jerome home from their refuge in France to participate in the Civil War. Joining the Louisiana "Native Guards," one of the first black regiments raised to fight in the war, Jerome is killed off four paragraphs into the Civil War section of the narrative when a white general asks that his black subordinates charge into an onslaught of bullets and shells to retrieve the body of another (presumably white) officer. Four by four, they are fed into the fire until, on the fourth try, the body has been rescued. Very nearly out of danger, Jerome is decapitated by a shell. What Brown labels "human sacrifice" (106), was, of course, "black sacrifice"; black men willingly--and here, forcibly--laying down their bodies at the altars of freedom and citizenship. Jerome does not die in sacrificial glory, as Frances Harper's slave-martyr Tom will in the Civil War novel Iola Leroy (1892), saving black and white men alike; Jerome's death is senseless and the scene absurd. Moreover, Jerome's commanding officer is not the concerned abolitionist/commander both Harper and memoirist Susie King Taylor will both put to use in their war texts, but "a sorry tribute to [white] humanity" (106). (1)

This episode is a fictionalized representation of an event in the war that apparently had made a deep impression on Brown. In The Negro in the American Rebellion, the writer allots the incident an entire chapter, rendering it in explicit, excruciating detail. In historical actuality, a non-commissioned black officer, Captain Andre Callioux, whom Brown describes in the most elevated terms of black masculinity--"the blackest man in the Crescent City.... Finely educated, polished in his manners ... bold, athletic and daring"--was killed in a poorly planned attack on the rebel works at Port Hudson, Louisiana (169). Although it was evident that the works could not be taken without extraordinary loss of life, a General Dwight ordered that the mission continue. His subordinate, Colonel Nelson, made seven charges of the Confederate batteries, each unsuccessful, and each bringing more deaths and casualties. "Humanity," Brown writes, "will never forgive Gen. Dwight ... for he certainly saw he was throwing away the lives of his men. But what were his men? 'Only Niggers'" (170). Brown's narrator asks the relevant question: "But had they accomplished anything more than the loss of many of their brave men?" Unwilling to let the query hang too long, he answers it quickly and affirmatively. "Yes: they had," the author writes, explaining that the bravery of the black troops "created a new chapter in American history for the colored man" (172). His assurance seems more than a little disingenuous. Brown indeed is trying to have it both ways: these black lives were both carelessly disposed of in battle and honorably preserved by historical record--not just his, but also that of the dominant culture, which, Brown writes, "paid . …


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