". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Monday, April 4, 2011

Adam Goodheart: "How slavery really ended in America"

Full disclosure: the author is the director of the Starr Center for Writing the American Experience, where we've been located this academic year on fellowship working on our book, The American Slave Coast, thus, a friend.  He also is involved with the NY Times daily Disunion column, as well a frequent contributor to the column himself.

This weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran what they call a preview of his book, 1861: The Civil War Awakening, from Knopf, published this month.  You can see it here.

If you can get to it behind that paywall this is one I highly recommend as worth your time, if you have any interest in American history generally, or the Civil War particularly. You are allowed 20 'free' stories per month from the NY Times website. Also, if I have this correctly, you can get to stories if you plug in the title or caption in your search engine; you could try it out by typing into google this: How Slavery Really Ended in America Adam Goodheart .

An excerpt, from the narrative of how the so-called 'Beast' General Butler (a most successful lawyer before the war began) handled the first of the fugitive slaves who ran to the protection of the Union and Fort Monroe down in Virginia:

Yet to Fort Monroe’s new commander, the fugitives who turned up at his own front gate seemed like a novel case. The enemy had been deploying them to construct a battery aimed directly at his fort — and no doubt would put them straight back to work if recaptured, with time off only for a sound beating. They had just offered him some highly useful military intelligence. And Virginia, as of 12 or so hours ago, was officially in rebellion against the federal government, having just ratified the secession ordinance passed a month before. Butler had not invited the fugitives in or engineered their escape, but here they were, literally at his doorstep: a conundrum with political and military implications, at the very least. He could not have known — not yet — that his response that day might change the course of the national drama that was then just beginning. Yet it was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that an unanticipated bureaucratic dilemma would force the hand of history.

Despite his rank, General Butler had been a professional soldier barely four weeks. In private life, back in Massachusetts, he was a lawyer, and a very successful one — although he grew up poor, the swamp Yankee son of a widow who kept a boardinghouse in Lowell, the textile-mill town. Unable to attract clients through social connections or charm, he became an expert quibbler: a man who knew every loose thread in the great tangled skein of common law and who could unravel an opponent’s entire case with the gentlest of tugs. By his early 40s, he had also built a successful career as a state legislator and harbored larger political ambitions.

A fellow officer once called Butler “less like a major general than like a politician who is coaxing for votes.” Race-baiting was red meat to many of his working-class constituents in Lowell, and he had always been glad to toss morsels in their direction. But after barely 24 hours at Fort Monroe, the new commander had already sized up his new constituency. The garrison was made up predominantly of eager volunteers from New England, many with antislavery sympathies. How was Butler to win the confidence — or even obedience — of such men if his first act as their commander was to send three poor blacks back into bondage?

Butler’s features may have been brutish and his manners coarse, but inwardly, he nursed the outsize vanity of certain physically ugly men — vanity often manifest in a craving for approval and adulation. He also possessed a sympathetic, even occasionally sentimental, heart.

Still . . . sentiment was a fine thing; so was the admiration of one’s subordinates. Ultimately, though, his duty was to his commander in chief. With a few strokes of his pen, Lincoln had made Butler a major general; the president could just as easily unmake him, sending him back to Lowell in disgrace — and with another stroke, for that matter, send the blacks back to their master as slaves.

Whatever Butler’s decision on the three fugitives’ fate, he would have to reach it quickly. He had barely picked up his pen to finally begin that report before an adjutant interrupted with another message: a rebel officer, under flag of truce, had approached the causeway of Fort Monroe. The Virginians wanted their slaves back.

Waiting before the front gate was a man on horseback: Maj. John Baytop Cary of the 115th. With his silver gray whiskers and haughtily tilted chin, he appeared every inch the Southern cavalier.

Butler, also on horseback, went out to meet him. The men rode, side by side, off federal property and into rebel Virginia. They must have seemed an odd pair: the dumpy Yankee, unaccustomed to the saddle, slouching along like a sack of potatoes; the trim, upright Virginian, in perfect control of himself and his mount.

Cary got down to business. “I am informed,” he said, “that three Negroes belonging to Colonel Mallory have escaped within your lines. I am Colonel Mallory’s agent and have charge of his property. What do you mean to do with those Negroes?”

“I intend to hold them,” Butler said.

“Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligation to return them?”

Even the dour Butler must have found it hard to suppress a smile. This was, of course, a question he had expected. And he had prepared what he thought was a fairly clever answer.

“I mean to take Virginia at her word,” he said. “I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be.”

"But you say we cannot secede,” Cary retorted, “and so you cannot consistently detain the Negroes.”

“But you say you have seceded,” Butler said, “so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these Negroes as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property.”

Ever the diligent litigator, Butler had been reading up on his military law. In time of war, he knew, a commander had a right to seize any enemy property that was being used for hostile purposes. The three fugitive slaves, before their escape, were helping build a Confederate gun emplacement. Very well, then — if the Southerners insisted on treating blacks as property, this Yankee lawyer would treat them as property, too. Legally speaking, he had as much justification to confiscate Baker, Mallory and Townsend as to intercept a shipment of muskets or swords.
Some weeks back I read an account by a North Carolinian about 'Beast Butler' at Fort Monroe.  It insisted he was making a fortune in cahoots with the U.S. Navy Secretary an a Confederate officers to smuggle Union military goods down south and sell them to the Confederacy.  There wasn't a word in this account about Butler's huge role in establishing the Union response to 'contraband' negroes, the establishment very soon of schools and much else in the vicinity to handle the ever-growing influx of self-emancipators.  This text was a splendid example of how we re-write history despite facts and the revisionsim becomes, alas, fact, a fact that has prolonged this national division of the Civil War to the present time.

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