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“Only Murder Makes Men”: Reconsidering the Black Military Experience

From: The Journal of the Civil War Era
Volume 2, Number 3, September 2012
pp. 369-393 | 10.1353/cwe.2012.0078

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In his pioneering study of emancipation, W. E. B. Du Bois made a provocative assertion about the manner in which African American men earned their freedom. “How extraordinary,” he wrote, “and what a tribute to ignorance and religious hypocrisy, is the fact that in the minds of most people, even those of liberals, only murder makes men.” Reflecting on the relationship between violence, manhood, and freedom, he continued, “The slave pleaded, he was humble; he protected the women of the South, and the world ignored him. The slave killed white men; and behold, he was a man.” Du Bois’s discomfort with the relationship between military service, manhood, and freedom seems at odds with the view held by many people at the time, particularly abolitionists, who imagined the military as not only the most direct path to political equality for African Americans and the swiftest route to slavery’s destruction but also as an indispensible vehicle for the internal transformation of slaves into free men and citizens. Frederick Douglass heralded soldiering as the key to both collective and personal liberation. He reminded a crowd in Philadelphia in 1863 that “slavery can be abolished by white men, but liberty so won for the black man, while it may leave him an object of pity, can never make him an object of respect.” Confident “in the full belief that the true course to the black man’s freedom and citizenship was over the battlefield,” Douglass worked tirelessly as an army recruiter to convince his fellow African Americans to share in his libratory vision of military service. For Douglass, whose own transformation from slave to free man had begun years earlier when he drew blood in battle with the slave breaker Covey, fighting back enabled black men to break both the physical and mental bonds of slavery. The story of black manhood won on Civil War battlefields became a point of pride for African Americans in the dark days of Jim Crow. Why, then, did Du Bois seem so disenchanted with the glorious narrative of the black Civil War soldier?1

At first glance, Du Bois’s remark sits incongruously among reports of black soldiers’ valiant efforts at Fort Wagner, Milliken’s Bend, and Petersburg, reminding readers of how “Negroes helped as regular soldiers or laborers in winning the Civil War.” A closer reading, however, reveals a possible source of Du Bois’s consternation: a white officer riding triumphantly through a field littered with the bodies of dead black soldiers and exclaiming, “Gentlemen, the question is settled: negroes will fight.” The realization that black men could only gain whites’ respect by fighting, and that their ultimate worthiness as men and potential citizens could be proven only through their deaths, created a momentary rupture in Du Bois’s signal effort to revise the history of African Americans and their role in bringing about the end of slavery. He neither explains this jolting commentary nor follows its implications for the story he endeavors to tell, which is perhaps why historians have overlooked it. One wonders, however, if in calling out liberals for their “ignorance” and “hypocrisy,” some of us might feel a bit chided for resembling that white officer glorying in the deaths of black men who had already given so much and would continue to give long after the guns of war had officially ceased.2

For the most part, historians have accepted Douglass’s equation of fighting and freedom. Shortly after the war, abolitionist-turned-historian William Wells Brown took the view of the army as a vehicle of black liberation and recounted the important contributions black troops made to the Union victory in The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and Fidelity.3 Brown’s history was part of a much larger movement to use black military sacrifice as leverage for political rights, particularly voting, which animated many of the postwar debates over Reconstruction on both the national and grassroots levels. The political importance of this history continued after Reconstruction’s disappointing end. In 1922, Carter G. Woodson advanced what has become known more recently as the “self-emancipation thesis,” crediting black Union soldiers, not Abraham Lincoln, with freeing the slaves...

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