Left Justified: Refighting the Civil War

I don’t think Barack Obama should have given his first campaign speech on the steps of the old Illinois State Legislature. It harks back to Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, wherein Abe declared that the country could not stay “half-slave nor half-free.” There are many who still feel the civil war was fought not for slavery, but for “states rights.” I only agree that the southern states fought for the right to own slaves.

I got phone calls that disagreed with my heroic tale of a Belvidere abolitionist of African descent who recruited and enlisted for the all-white 95th Illinois Regiment (this was in the 1860s).

I do have a correction: Hezekiah Ford Douglass enlisted for three years into Company G, 95th Illinois Infantry, from his hometown of Belvidere Ill. at age 30, leaving a wife. One year later, he was promoted to captain in an “independent company” attached to the 8th Louisiana Lt Artillery. He was discharged at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. July 1865.

The truth is that the 95th fought in Tennessee and Louisiana, where he recruited a black regiment, and eventually he was promoted to captain of a “Colored” artillery battery from Kansas. So he served in three separate units, not two as I implied.

The disagreements were about the nature of the civil war (slavery vs. states rights) and even the aspect of slavery and racism. My protagonists said I knew nothing about the rights of the states individually to secede from the Union. They assured me that the Confederate Army was made up of state-loving men, many of whom themselves did not own any slaves, and did not bear any grudge against the colored races.

“Hell, there were even black Confederate troops,” said one. I said they must not have been very good soldiers, what with having to fight locked up in chains.

Seems they were right about one thing. After referring the argument to assistant director Hari Jones of the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial in Washington, D.C., I learned there was one small unit of black freedmen from Virginia who were mainly assigned prisoner guard duty. There were blacks in other units, but those were mainly servants to the white Southerners.

But the power of the slaveholder tied “state’s rights” intricately to slavery. First, anyone who spoke out against slavery in the south was kindly asked to leave. Abolitionist newspapers were not delivered by Southern post offices. Churches preached on the slaves’ duty to their masters, not any inherent rights of freedom. Christian preachers who spoke otherwise rode rails after a good tar and feathering. Especially Quakers had to keep silent.

A slave was worth about $1,000 back in the 1850s (a goodly sum), but was also worth a few extra representatives to Congress. Congressmen are granted to states based on population. Slaves could not vote, but the Constitution gave the slave states more power by allowing this chattel to be counted. Thus Mississippi, which had more Blacks than Whites, could out number many of the northern states in Congress.

As new U.S. territory was granted statehood, the South stood to lose their edge in Congress. They demanded, and got compromises that kept their majority, until the late 1850s. Then, Abe Lincoln ran for president. The slave states did not allow Republicans on the ballot. They didn’t even like that wishy-washy Stephen Douglas, and ran their own candidates. When they lost, they left the Union not even waiting for the inauguration.

The war that was fought still echoes today. Maybe Barack Obama will put to rest the racist tendencies of this country. I hope so.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.From the Feb. 14-20, 2007, issue

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