Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War

By Catherine Clinton; Nina Silber | Go to book overview

2
FIGHTING LIKE MEN:
Civil War Dilemmas of Abolitionist Manhood

Stephen Kantrowitz

In the decade before the Civil War, many of Massachusetts's black and white abolitionist men mobilized themselves into unofficial armies against the slave power. They did much else, of course, some of it in collaboration with one another as well as with black and white women: speaking and petitioning against slavery, producing and distributing abolitionist literature, and providing aid to fugitives. But when it came to conceiving of themselves as soldiers in the war against slavery, black and white abolitionist men in the Bay State took dramatically different routes. Black men formed militia units and sought acceptance by the state, while white men assembled in secret societies and drilled for confrontation with slaveholders and their henchmen.

Yet these two sets of activities were not as distinct as this simple description would suggest. In both mobilizations, men struggled to balance rebelliousness and respectability, forging understandings of martial manhood out of this unstable amalgam. By the time the war arrived, both black and white abolitionist men had come to see collective, armed struggle both as a form of virile rebelliousness and as proof of disciplined respectability. The relationship between the two virtues remained complex; so did the relationships between the two groups, as the divergent histories of black and white manhood presented these allies with markedly different challenges.

Those challenges came to the fore during the Civil War. Once the Lincoln administration called for troops, abolitionist men's prewar struggles, fantasies, and symbolic activities shaped their response to the federal mil-

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