by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
I’ve been all but awestruck with the barrage of Civil War documentaries dominating the media over the last two weeks.
Since April 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter–which historians mark as the official beginning of the Civil war—we have been inundated with articles and broadcasts commemorating that tragic—albeit defining chapter of American history.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel looked at the role Wisconsinites played in the war, including the introduction of beer by German Americans involved in the fighting.
Regional and national newspapers focused on various aspects of the war, most highlighting how their native sons sacrificed and died for ‘The Cause,” which depending on which side you were on meant to hold the nation together and end the cruel practice of slavery or to fight off federal opposition to states’ rights, a simplistic way of saying local control and the independence of local property tax payers.
A thread that can be found through many the articles and broadcasts was that the Civil War also cemented bigotry, racism and prejudice as an American institution. Moreover, several of the commemoratives revealed that while the war freed ‘some’ of our ancestors from the whip, rape and murder, the shadow of slavery remains in place, clouding the minds of the ancestors of slaves.
That shadow manifests itself today in the form of Black self-hatred and an inferiority complex among a majority of Black Americans. Obviously, the shadow is so thick it is like a fog that blocks our vision, disallowing us from seeing the greatness that flows through our veins; our contributions on these shores and back in the Motherland where our ancestors invented math, science and the first college and medical school known to mankind.
Instead, our ancestors were brainwashed into believing their lives were ordained by God to be one of toil and servitude, with rewards coming in the afterlife. They were given selected and modified Biblical scriptures, and force-fed a daily dose from another southern holy book, the Willie Lynch Bible.
It’s no coincidence that those freed slaves who remained in the south after the war were left without the resources to farm or the education to fend for themselves. For the most part they were illiterate, and without a home.
The southern code and caste system quickly overwhelmed them, both in the South and–despite claims to the contrary–in the North, where thousands of freed slaves were greeted with hostility when they applied for jobs native Northerners and immigrants believed were theirs exclusively.
From that scenario evolved a system of permanent White privilege, a system that has been passed down from generation to generation.
That’s one of the untold stories of the Civil War, one that should be reexamined, along with the dozens of lies and distortions that have become a part of Americana.
While Africans have been on these shores since the beginning of the 17th century, it was decades later that the institution of racially grounded slavery took root. That fact was recognized in the declaration of independence and constitution, documents signed by slave owners who hypocritically talked about equal rights for all men. Under God no less.
Of course, slavery existed on every continent, but what made America’s version so hideous and unique was the unusual level of cruelty associated with it; barbaric savagery that was unlike any system in human history.
But I digress…
My near morbid preoccupation during the last two weeks with documentaries and articles about that defining chapter of American history leading up to and beyond the Civil War became even more intoxicating as I pieced together the various components that explain why America is no closer to exorcising the demon of racism. In an ironic twist of fate, the Civil War poisoned the minds of millions of Northerners who were at least empathetic to the plight of Africans, if not morally opposed to the institution of slavery.
Many of the articles and television programs I read and watched—appropriately starting on “April Fool’s Day”—cast light on the invisible herd of elephants in the room, some even touching on what can only be considered a grand conspiracy to rewrite American history, to downplay the role of slavery as the root cause of the war, and, I suspect, to cloud the fact that many Americans today still benefit from that “peculiar institution,” as it was appropriately described.
The conspiracy was (or is) facilitated by presidents and preachers, educators and elitists, historians and hypocrites to ease guilt and conscious, to mask the genocide of Native Americans and African captives, and to apparently trick God into believing the oppressors were following His biblical mandates.
That latter assessment may sound bizarre, but that’s only if you are ignorant of true American history.
(OK, for the misinformed, you need but know that to many Americans–slave owners, politicians and businessmen–slavery was condoned by their interpretation of the Bible. They believed, or wanted to believe, that we were the descendents of the cursed Children of Ham. They also subscribed to the notion that there is no opposition to slavery anywhere in the Bible. In fact, the Bible repeatedly tells slaves to obey and serve their ‘masters’.And maybe that’s not a theory worth debating.) Sorry, I’ve digressed again.
Anyway, a noted Black theologian wrote several years ago that Black people are wasting their time arguing against that biblical belief, and instead should view the conflict over slavery as abolitionist John Brown did—a moral fight over whether America should subscribe to the teachings of the Old Testament, or the New Covenant.
One of the most interesting articles about the Civil War was published in Time Magazine last week. It reinforced many of the same conclusions featured in a National Geographic series titled, ‘Civil Warriors’ and the PBS award winning series, ‘The Civil War.’
The three presentations each exposed the myth, or assumption, that Northerners, including many Wisconsinites, were supportive of emancipation, and were willing to fight to slavery.
In fact, Time Magazine’s brilliant cover story debunks long held myths that racism was endemic to the South. Not only were there many Northerners opposed to the war and blind to the plight of the Black slave/captives, but in fact thousands of freed Black and escaped slaves were murdered in a dozen northern cities to protest the Union Army conscription—or draft (which essentially only applied to the poor, as rich families could buy their way out of the draft).
Northern Democrats murdered and lynched free Africans and escaped slaves to express their support for the Confederacy and White superiority. Republicans, who at that time were the party of Lincoln, shed Black blood throughout the North prior to, during and after the war, often to protest war, or in some cases to discourage Africans from competing for scarce jobs.
Viewers of the two documentaries and the Time Magazine article didn’t have to read between the lines to conclude that racism, prejudice and false claims of genetic superiority were byproducts of the Civil War.
My two week sojourn through the Civil War commemoration was all the more intriguing because it reminded me that little of what was offered this month was remotely similar to what I had been taught in school.
And from what I understand, little has changed over the four decades.
That too was part of the conspiracy, to fertilize the seeds of Black inferiority and to downplay the entire country’s complicity in the resulting plight of Black America.
Moreover, to tell the truth about the causes and effects of the Civil War is to bring into question our interpretation of Christianity, White privilege and the roots of Black self-hatred. Study the Civil War and you may finally remove your own shackles.
The civil war was foretold by Brown a decade before the attack on Fort Sumter. Brown’s action on Harper’s Ferry was in response to U.S. Senator David R. Atchinson’s (D-Missouri) attack on Lawrence, Kansas in 1856.
Atchison’s slaughter of residents in that town was described as “the happiest day of (his) life.’ It was a signal to impress “the damned abolitionists; a Southern lesson that will be remembered until the day they die.”
In response, Brown initiated a holy crusade. His plan was to start a slave revolt and end the system of slavery with a “righteous sword.” It was, as I said, to force the “new Covenant” down the throats of racist Americans.
That may sound somewhat cavalier, but it is a theory many historians have embraced. If nothing else, Brown was a true believer in the U.S. Constitution and righteousness of his cause.
What Brown probably didn’t consider was how his actions would become a catalyst for a Confederate initiated revolt, an assault by the South not just on the North, but on the Bible and Constitution as well.
The fact that the colonel who captured Brown and his men at Harper’s Ferry was in fact commanding officer Robert L. Lee, a Union colonel at the time. Brown’s actions should have opened Lee’s eyes to a plot twist that would change America.
One of Lee’s first acts after surrendering in 1865 was to pen a book that not only justified the Confederate rebellion, vainly pushing the role of slavery in the conflict to the background.
Southerners could not win the moral debate. So during, and after the war they sought to confuse the issue, and simultaneously create a caste system to replace slavery.
They also appealed to the base instinct of the working class that they may not be equal economically to the rich plantation owners, but they were at least superior to Brown and Black people.
Many historians—ranging from so-called esteemed pundits James Randall, to U.B. Phillips later echoed that strategy, justifying slavery and calling it a “civilizing force for African captives.” What was never taught to us in elementary, middle or high school was how they were aided and abetted in that grand conspiracy by U.S. presidents from George Washington to Woodrow Wilson, himself a historian who according to Time Magazine described the Ku Klux Klan as “an empire of the South created by men roused by a mere instance of self preservation.”
Most public schools still don’t mention that slaves built New York, (which was a slave auction headquarters), the White House (which last I heard was in Washington, D.C.), or that the institution of slavery wasn’t abolished in Connecticut until 13 years before the civil war.
While swept under the carpet, no one can deny that slavery benefited the North as much as the South.
Nor can you ignore that the conflict between North and South was predestined as slave owners and many in the industrial North sought to expand “slave territory to the pioneer western territories.”
You can understand the influence of the conspiracy when you scrutinize the other root causes of the “other Civil War,” the one waged in Texas.
Most Americans idolize the heroic actions of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis. What they ignore is the fact that the intent of those so-called revolutionaries’ was not to usurp a tyrannical Mexican governor, but instead to expand slavery into the west.
All three of those ‘heroes’ were slave owners, and they opposed the Mexican government’s policy against slavery.
The history course we were provided even lied about the Emancipation Proclamation, which was actually first introduced by a Union general in 1862 but originally “rejected” by President Lincoln. In truth, that executive order (it was not a law), only freed Southern slaves. Their Northern brethren were still held in bondage.
There are even questions about Lincoln’s true motivations. Lincoln, like Thomas Jefferson and several other “founding fathers” believed “Negroes” to be inferior, which is a separate question from whether they should be freed.
Most historians say Lincoln, who admitted that he would allow slavery to continue if it would save the Union, only freed the southern slaves as a military and psychological ploy.
Our school history texts also didn’t tell us that many Union soldiers mutinied when they heard of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Several generals, including George McClellan, General-in-Chief of the Union Army, who ran against Lincoln when he sought re-election in 1864, rebelled against the president.
McClellan, according to Time Magazine, asked: “How could slavery be the cause of the war when so many in blue had no interest in emancipation.’
Of course there were many true abolitionists in the Union Army, including General Robert Millroy, who eagerly put the proclamation into action, not only freeing slaves but providing them with escorts to the North where, sadly, many found a less than warm greeting.
There were also untold thousands of abolitionists and supporters of freed slaves in the North, including Wisconsin.
And there were thousands of true supporters of human rights who served in the military and fought for Black freedom and equal rights, like Abby Horper Gibbons, one of the nation’s first nurses.
At age 59, she left her family to nurse Union soldiers, and fight for Black emancipation.
She even challenged prejudicial and racist Union soldiers who mistreated “Negroes” in and out of the army.
But when you read about Gibbons, you’ll also discover that her home was put on fire and her daughters’ lives threatened by angry New Yorkers during a riot against the draft in which hundreds of Black people were murdered in the streets.
Such is the dichotomy of the Civil War. If you really want to figure out why we are where we are today, take time to really study American history. Let the Civil War be your catalyst. Who knows, you may just come to the conclusion that the war continues to this day.