Proof that when you tweet something, it will never go away ever. I found this while googling around on the internet - something I had tweeted right at the very beginning of this research process before I had started to engage with secession texts and thought Coates’ approach to the war was too simplistic (which I thought based off of this profile the NYT did on him). In retrospect, I realize that he has one of the more important and interesting perspectives on the war today.
Read before you tweet, folks!
This was the quote from that profile that I originally had problems with:
“For an African-American, it’s very disconcerting. When I was at Shiloh, Tenn., in 2010, they had these Confederate re-enactors firing cannons. I’m not interested in that at all — you have to remember that this was an army in the business of enslaving people.”
My relationship with the Confederate army and understanding both the reasons for why they fought (and the difference between those who chose to secede and those who fought) has been fraught and complicated. I went to a Virginia public school where I was taught that State’s Rights had equal footing along with Slavery and Tariffs and political differences, which was obviously a very Southern-influenced way of looking at the history (more on that later, although I do go over it a bit in the Ted Nugent post from 2 days ago). That aside, I have a hard time getting behind Coates’ assumption that the whole army was in business of enslaving people. From an ideological, larger point of view, perhaps (probably, yes).
But what about the 16 year old who was under peer pressure to fight on the basis of honor? How could he have not enlisted with all of the young men in his town when he would’ve been made a pariah for not dying along with every other young man in the South? The obvious rebuttal would be that one of maybe a Nazi Prison guard - but that seems less clear and too extreme of an example. But does that make sense?
There were many battles, especially around the area that Coates describes visiting in Petersburg, that were simply a slaughter of black Union troops by Confederates. Heck, think of how the movie Glory ends. But to paint everyone in the Confederate army this way is the sentiment that originally made me tweet what I tweeted. Painting everyone’s motivations in an army is really dangerous. For instance, a lot of people in the North were equally as racist as those in the South, but they don’t get painted that way. I know when I was learning about the Civil War, I often thought federal soldiers supported abolition and emancipation, but that obviously wasn’t the case.
I know Aaron Sheehan-Dean has written extensively on this subject, and I hope to get around to his book once I finish reading Foner’s The Fiery Trial, Trowbridge’s Desolate South, Joan Zenen’s Battling for Manassas, and so so many others.
That being said, Everyone should read Coates’ famous Atlantic article, Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War? It’s extremely eye-opening.