Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Misty Battlefields, Myths Of Lesser People, And My Rosetta

If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.                                                               
                                                                                                                                            — George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright

54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment re-enactors
 pose at a Civil War event I attended not long ago. The real
unit suffered heavy casualties in the war under the leadership
 of Col. Robert Gould Shaw of Boston. The 54th was
featured in the 1989 movie, "Glory." For more
information, go to PHOTOS page.
America's narrative — including the terrible chapter about the Civil War — has unfolded in an echo chamber of plots, characters and themes. The theme of racism, or the view that some among us are lesser people, has sounded throughout our nation's history since the first explorers landed on New World soil and continues today.

Columbus subjugated the natives; some natives joined whites — and some blacks — in slave ownership. The earliest settlers and the nation's  forefathers ensured that slavery survived, ignoring the irony that men who fought for their own freedom from England might own, buy and sell slaves.  

Thomas Jefferson, despite his eloquent defense of liberty and equality, possessed, exploited and allowed his slaves to face harsh punishments to ensure his elite, planter lifestyle. He didn’t free them when he died, as did George Washington.

"The Spirit of Freedom"memorial in Washington, D.C.,
 honors African Americans who fought for the
Union during the Civil War. The memorial stands
 near the African American Civil War Museum
In the Civil War, even with its relentless need for warm bodies, North and South, the cultivated myths of lesser people couldn't be set aside. At first, anyway. In 1862, black military units formed in Kansas, South Carolina and Louisiana for the Union cause. After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, when ending slavery became a goal of the war, the Union began recruiting African Americans into the United States Colored Troops, amid great controversy.

Though many Union leaders fought to keep African Americans out of the Federal military, ex-slaves and freed blacks joined the fighting ranks, sharpening the cutting edge for ending America's expensive and explosive institution of slavery.  The notion of treating all people as equal in America continued a circuitous and painful path.

The chart below chronicles the growth of African-American numbers in the U.S. military, beginning with the Revolutionary War. The percentage has

grown steadily throughout the nation's history. Four times the number of blacks fought for the British as for the Patriot cause. The British offered freedom to slaves if they abandoned their masters and helped suppress the push for American independence. Delivery on that promise proved spotty.

Through the centuries, the battlefield — whether land, sea or air — has provided African Americans a proving ground for manhood.  The rigors of war offered a time and place to exhibit the personal traits of courage, competence and cleverness that Americans traditionally honor as measures of worth.  Yet, even when great character was proven, the American ideal of equality often succumbed to the reality of seeing some people as less worthy. The mist of short-term memory and lack of historical literacy can obscure African Americans battlefield triumphs today.

Early in 1865, toward the end of the Civil War, the Confederate Congress approved a bill allowing slaves to become legitimate soldiers. Until then, African Americans had been hired out by their masters to fight or were impressed to work in support services for the rebel cause. That spring, the Confederacy moved to train and arm African American troops, but less than 50 men actually were recruited. *          

 Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment, U.S.
 Army, 1890. Photo, courtesy Wikipedia.
An estimated 200,000 African-American men fought in the Union army.  Up to 90,000 African Americans served the Confederacy in some capacity, usually in back-breaking tasks to support troops. Exact numbers remain controversial among scholars and lay historians alike. Misconceptions continue. 

 “Growing up in California, I was told many more blacks fought for the Confederacy instead of the Union,” Marvin Greer, a young re-enactor told me at a Civil War battle event recently. Greer, then a student at Morehouse College, said he began studying the war seriously after seeing the 1989 movie, “Glory.”

“I’ve been able to dispel some myths,” he said.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, federal soldiers went West to fight another version of lesser people in the American Indian Wars. This despite the fact the U.S. Senate passed the freedom-expanding Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on April 8, 1864. The amendment outlawed slavery. Some soldiers, including George Armstrong Custer, saw the new battlefields as a place to prove their mettle and move up the military ranks.  General Custer made his legendary last stand fighting the Lakota (Sioux) at the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana.  

I collected autographs of surviving 
Tuskegee Airmen, who were honored
at an air show in Camden, S.C. Find more 
about the WWII aces on PHOTOS page. 

The U.S. Army units assigned to round up American Indians on the western frontier and move them to reservations included the all-black "Buffalo Soldiers." These troops were members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment, formed in 1866 in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The units' nickname possibly originated with American Indians, who likened the soldiers' hair to that of the buffalo. Other theories say black troops earned the moniker because they fought as ferociously as cornered bison.

The nickname stuck to all four regiments of the "Negro Cavalry."  Eighteen Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The units remained active until 1951, participating in six more wars, including World War II.

It's worth noting here that American Indian tribes often subjugated prisoners of war into slavery. When the Civil War erupted, up to 7 percent of the Cherokee of North Carolina owned African-American slaves. Many Cherokees fought for the Confederacy. About 5 percent of Southern whites owned slaves at the time. 

Beyond "Glory," Hollywood also captured the trials and triumphs of blacks in the U.S. military in "Red Tails." The 2012 movie tells the story of the nearly 1,000 Tuskegee Airmen who participated in the great World War II "experiment" to allow "Negros" to fly airplanes in war. Before 1940, African Americans were barred from flying in the military. Civil rights groups pushed for a black squadron, which was based in Tuskegee, Ala.

In 1941, the airmen began training in hand-me-down airplanes at a remote airfield near the Tuskegee Institute, founded by famous Afrian-American educator Booker T. Washington. (More about my visit to Tuskegee on the PHOTOS page.)

A group of Tuskegee Airmen, 1943,
at their training field in Tuskegee,
Ala.  Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
"The program was designed for us to fail,"said LeRoy Bowman, 90, a Tuskegee Airman in an interview this year with a Columbia, S.C., newspaper. Bowman and other Airmen from the state that triggered the Civil War were being honored for their WWII service. "They had no intentions of us succeeding." (Bowman's autograph appears in the above photo at top of the right column.)

This representation of a slave boat
packed with bodies is part of the
African American History Memorial
on the lawn of the S.C. State House
in Columbia. The memorial was built in
2001 as part of a compromise to remove the
Confederate battle flag from atop the
capitol and fly it in front of the building.
But succeed they did. The Tuskegee Airmen flew at least 15 combat sorties and 170 bomber escort missions.  Airmen earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, one Silver Star, and eight Purple Hearts.  In 2006, President George Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal Award to 300 surviving Tuskegee Airmen, including Bowman.  Sixty-six Tuskegee pilots died in action before the program was deactivated in 1946 at war's end.

Despite profound progress in race relations in the United States,
change in persistent perceptions remain, caught in the echo chambers of history. Read more in my next blog.

COMING SOON: Part 2 of "Misty Battlefields, Myths Of Lesser People, And My Rosetta."
Join me in exploring the historical disconnect of our American ideal of equality from our intractable myths of lesser people.  I'll introduce you to Rosetta, one of many African-American "maids" who worked from early morning to late evening in my childhood home in North Carolina.

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, about the Civil War and its legacy:

Our maids usually were young to middle-aged, but one maid, Rosetta, was bent, wrinkled and gray haired when she came to work for us in the mid-1960s.  Rosetta would have been well past retirement age, if retirement had been a possibility.
            The neighborhood kids called Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, who lived across from us on Carr Street, “Mister Alsey” and Miz Faye.” We addressed Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, who lived a block up General Lee Avenue from us, as “Mister Tommy” and “Miz Julia.”  We called Rosetta simply “Rosa." I never knew her last name.

For more, go to PREVIEWS page.


* In spring 1865,  free blacks of New Orleans formed a regiment of "Native Guards" for the Louisiana militia.
** U.S. Department of Defense, November 2012

SOURCES:  McPherson, James M. The American Heritage New History of The Civil War. Barnes and Noble, New York. 2005.  XXX, “XX,” Smithsonian magazine, November 2012. “American Experience,” PBS. Online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/alaska-WWII. Bernstein, R.B. “Thomas Jefferson.” Oxford University Press, 2003. U.S. Department of Defense.  Civil War Homepage online at http://www.civil-war.net/searchstates.asp?searchstates=Total; African American Civil War Memorial and Museum online at http://afroamcivilwar.org. Tindall, George and Shi, David, AMERICA, A Narrative History. Norton and Co., New York, 1996. Flanagan, Anne-Katherine. "They Had No Intentions Of Us Succeeding," The State newspaper, Columbia, S.C. Oct. 9, 2012.