Pulling down "the flag": New possibilities for progress!

usct

The wide-spread revulsion that swept our nation after the racist murders of worshipers in South Carolina created one of those historic, watershed moments.  The Confederate flag, thought by many a permanent fixture at courthouses across the south, came down.  More importantly, that flag is being seen, finally, for what it really has always been, an icon of slavery, oppression, reaction and white supremacy.

Some commentators, seeking to belittle this historic development, have stated that "it's only a flag; it doesn't solve our real problems."  However, the removal of that symbol of the racist Confederacy from public sites has created one of those moments in history when our entire nation shifts ideologically, and in a dramatic way.  The speech by Nicki Halley, the conservative right-wing Governor of South Carolina, the state where the Confederacy was born, stating that she "always knew that flag was wrong, and it was offensive," touched millions.  It is one of those historic moments that Marxists identify dialectically when the old contradictions in society have clashed, resulting in the creation of an entirely new situation, irrevocably shifting the political ground we now stand on.

In this new political situation, it becomes possible to begin to rediscover our people's rich history of multiracial struggles against slavery and racism, for economic and social progress. 

To understand the potential significance of this shift, it's important to realize that our nation was built by slave labor and that questions of race and racism have been a central precept of our nation's ideological and material development since before its founding. The first Africans came ashore at Jamestown in the Virginia colony in 1619. Since the 1600s slavery, racism and racial division have been an essential component of our nation's ideological and legislative core. Literally every decision made since that time regarding organization of workers and development has had to have within it discussion of race.  Oppression of African peoples, as well as the creation and maintenance of the "color-line," keeping whites and Blacks divided, has been a part of every step our nation has taken since that time.  When put in this context, we begin to see how important the shifts in our understanding of "the flag" can actually be. 

This context also helps us to begin to understand the huge importance of our nation's Civil War and the tremendous influence that massive struggle continues to have on our people.  That war cost our nation over 600,000 lives.  It was a revolution that freed four million people who had previously been chattel, with no rights, but who were worth more than all other property in our nation.

The maintenance of the color line, and its resulting societal/labor control, is why the ideological dominance of the false historic narrative of "Lost Cause" mythology, with its worship of the racist Confederacy and its symbols, has been so important to the ruling class. Discrediting these repugnant symbols and the ideas behind them can open our nation, and especially the south, to more progressive ideas, new levels of multiracial unity, growth of unionization and economic and social progress by all peoples in this area.  The flag's removal is a major body blow to the domination of the south by right wing oligarchs and to the ideology of white supremacy in our nation.

How we got here

Contrary to the false narrative of the "solid south" and of a revered Confederate "Lost Cause" where outnumbered, outgunned white southerners fought heroically for independence and state's rights, alone except for the solid support of all white southerners (especially their embattled women), our Civil War was marked by wide levels of multiracial cooperation and struggle in the south as well as the north.  Learning this truly heroic history will help our nation's people break with concepts that the south was always racist and that to be southern and white is to be inherently racist, backward and conservative.  This can be an extremely powerful unifying influence.

It wasn't always this way, and it didn't get this way due to any democratic process.  At the end of our Civil War with the economy of the south in ruins, the feudal plantation based system had been destroyed.  Throughout that region, newly freed people found common interests with poor whites during the period of Reconstruction. This period has been especially despised and consequently a topic of lies and vilification by former slave-owners, ex-Confederates and their modern representatives.  The period from 1866 to 1877, saw the establishment of the first public schools and the opening of education to African Americans, the building of hospitals, roads and infrastructure, including railroads across the south. Most importantly, it marked a revolution in what US citizenship meant, including the former slaves who'd previously been denied all rights of citizenship.  The Civil Rights Act of 1866 guaranteed Blacks full rights and the 14th amendment to the Constitution guaranteed equal protection under to law to all citizens, including the formerly enslaved peoples. These rights were assured by the continued occupation of that area by US troops, as well as the building of multiracial alliances, previously outlawed in the south.  The federal Freedman's Bureau was set up to provide material support to former slaves.  The Black family was legalized.  Blacks were able to vote and were elected to office across the south by multiracial coalitions.

Those steps enraged the former slave-masters.  The fact that these steps were taken not only by Black folks, but were marked by wide levels of cooperation with poor whites, was even more threatening.  If allowed to continue, they could put in place an entirely new, more equitable economic system, wiping out entirely the power of the ruling oligarchs.  The former plantation owners financed the creation of the Ku Klux Klan and a variety of other terrorist organizations that murdered and terrorized former enslaved people, as well as whites who cooperated with them. 

Threatened by these revolutionary possibilities, ruling Republicans and Democrats came together with the "Compromise of 1877."  This great betrayal put the former Confederates back in charge, agreed to "Black Codes" disenfranchising the formerly enslaved peoples and putting in place severe penalties for racial cooperation.  The ruling class compromise installed Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who had actually lost the popular vote, in the White House while federal troops were withdrawn from the south, and power was returned to the former slave masters. This marked the death of Reconstruction and the introduction of Jim Crow rule throughout the south. It was the beginning of a century of racist terror for African Americans.

There was nothing democratic about this seizure of political and economic power by racist oligarchs.  It was a violent counterrevolution that took power from a positively functioning multiracial majority.

            The false narrative of Confederate "Lost Cause" mythology was created as  ideological under-pinning for this period of right-wing terrorist rule.  It has been used since by the ruling class to develop a powerful culture of racism, racial disunity, ignorance and violence.  The Civil Rights Movement shook it to its roots, but it has remained a strong cultural influence.  A new national wave of racial unity and revulsion with racist violence is now smashing against that old wall of reaction.

The shifts begin

Matthew McConaughey is starring in a film, "Free State of Jones,' set for release in May about the truly heroic struggle of Newton and Racheal Knight, who opposed, organized and fought against the Confederacy from their home of Jones County, Mississippi.  Newton Knight deserted the Confederate Army, married (although it wasn't legal in Mississippi) Racheal, a former slave.  Together, they organized an independent militia that successfully fought off all attempts to subdue them (including by Confederate cavalry commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest), and supported the union.  A book by the same name, (Victoria Bynum, 2001, University of North Carolina Press) traces their multiracial family from those days, through Reconstruction, up to struggles during the civil rights era.

This is but one example of the shifting ideological terrain. Civil War magazines, long the domain of Neo-Confederates & Civil War 'buffs,' now are filled with real articles on real history, including the role of African Americans, women, as well as commentaries on slavery as the cause of the war and the role of Black troops in the destruction of slavery.  Historians such as Pulitzer Prize winning James McPherson, Eric Foner,  and Gary Gallagher, continuing the ground breaking work of DuBois, Ida Wells, Eric Allen and others, have played a key role in bringing these and other long buried stories into the historical mainstream.  

State legislators in North Carolina and Tennessee have raised, but not yet been able to pass, proposals to put up public monuments to citizens of their states who fought for the Union in the Civil War.  In New Orleans, Nashville and Richmond Black and white citizens have publicly questioned the role of the Confederate monuments in those areas.  People have called for tearing them down, moving them, putting up new monuments to African Americans and unionists, changing the language on those statues and/or opening community discussions on the issue.

Before the civil rights era, opinions of African Americans were generally ignored by people in power.  This is no longer possible to do without political blow-back, especially in southern cities with substantial Black populations.  What has not been seen publicly since Reconstruction, however, is that while African Americans  may take the lead on many of these issues, in the new political atmosphere they aren't alone. They now openly have a great many allies who are white.

Recovering our lost history

In this new period, people are hungry to learn our nation's true history, one that is entirely different from the racist lies that have been central to our "official" history since reconstruction.

In West Virginia, it is not unusual to see regular working folks displaying Confederate flags, but it should be.  West Virginia only became a state when the lowland region of Virginia voted to secede from the union and join the slaveholding Confederacy.  In western Virginia, as in the highland areas across the south where slavery wasn't entrenched, strong majorities opposed secession.  Western Virginia did more than vote.  They armed themselves, organized pro-union militia units and called a separate constitutional convention in Parkersburg.  Just months after Virginia had seceded, the armed people of western Virginia defeated the Confederate army, led by Robert E Lee, that was sent against them & won its independence from the old state.  The new state of West Virginia was born and immediately joined the union.

While other highland areas didn't go as far, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and northern Alabama saw strong opposition to secession.  While their home states joined the Confederacy, these areas were strongly pro-union throughout the war.  These areas, where slavery wasn't as strong, were particularly angered by the passage by the Confederate government of a "20 Negro Law," which exempted the wealthiest slave-owners, who owned 20 or more African descended people, from military service. 

Eastern Tennessee also had strong pro-union groups that attempted a similar breakaway from their state.  This area was controlled throughout the war by guerrilla groups, fighting against Confederate forces.  Scott County, at the heart of this area, voted 95% against secession and became the major part of the US 7th Tennessee Infantry.  As well, Scott County citizens voted to set up an official 'Free and Independent State of Scott,' not officially returning to the state of Tennessee until 1986.

Western North Carolina also saw extensive small scale warfare between competing guerilla groups.  This area holds the distinction of having had the largest number of desertions from the Confederate army.  

Winston County, Alabama saw similar struggles by pro-union citizens of that state.  They rose up and organized militia forces that fought under the banner of the 'Free State of Winston.'

Searcy County, Arkansas, also in the highlands area, voted overwhelmingly against joining the Confederacy.  People there organized the Arkansas Peace Society and actively opposed the government and the war.  Arrested as "traitors" by Confederate authorities, they were impressed into the military.  The largest majority of those folks deserted Confederate service and joined the Union army.

Even Texas, the settler state stolen from Mexico, organized around support for slavery and saw organized opposition to the Confederacy. Texas was also home to many German immigrants, largely supporters of the failed revolution of 1848.  They strongly opposed slavery and actively organized opposition to the Confederacy.  In 1862, a large group of German born Texans were fleeing to Mexico (where slavery had long been illegal), when they were confronted and 65 of their number were massacred by Confederate authorities.  At Matamoras, there is today the only memorial in the former Confederate states to southern unionists.

It is little known today that over 100,000 southerners joined the Union army.  Coming from every southern state, they fought the entire war against the Confederacy.  85 Regiments of the Union army were officially organized, recruited entirely from southerners.  It is in the southern Confederacy that the narrative of "brother fighting brother" actually evolved.

The 'border states' of Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland, all also slave states, sent even more folks to the union army.  These states supplied over 200,000 troops to the Union vs. only 90,000 to Confederate forces.

The slave state of Missouri organized both pro-Union and Confederate opposing governments.  Unionist Missourians organized militias and routed pro-slave forces in the war's first year, keeping that state from seceding.

Role of Blacks central to defeating slavery

The role of African Americans, the enslaved peoples that the war was actually being fought over, was a special one.  While Harriet Tubman is well known, the heroic work of helping enslaved people flee to freedom, was replicated thousands of times by other African Americans during the war.  Rather than waiting for the "Lincoln to free the slaves," narrative put forward by our nation's official history books, Black people, both free and enslaved, played a central role fighting for their own freedom. 

The enslaved people flooded union army lines early in the war, forcing reluctant union officers to take them in, feed, free them and use them in the fight.  This was during the period of the war prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, when the illusion of fighting a war only by white men, only to reunite the union, was official policy.  While only half a million of the 4.5 million African Americans in the US were free, they played an extremely important role, organizing support for the war and pushing Lincoln to begin to recruit Black soldiers.  Fredrick Douglass and other African American leaders in the north pushed the union to "stop fighting a war with one arm tied behind their back," and to arm Blacks.

180,000 African Americans, organized into 163 units, fought as part of the US Colored Troops, playing a far more important role than has been previously recognized.  These were largely former slaves fighting for their own liberation.

African American people knew immediately that a fight between slave and free sections of the nation was a fight over their status, and they worked to fight for their freedom.  Denied any type of organization, even the ability to learn to read or write, they had extensive underground communications.  African Americans played an indispensable role, supplying intelligence to the Union armies in hostile areas.  Slaves were the most important spies for Union forces, playing roles that no white person could play in the deep South.  Whenever Union armies came near plantations, underground networks went to work and slaves freed themselves by running, in mass to the union lines.  This began, early on, to cripple the slave-based economy of the Confederacy.

            There are myriad examples, generally unknown today, of really heroic struggles of African Americans during that conflict.  Not only did enslaved African Americans transform that massive conflict from one over territory into a war of liberation.  They faced racist discrimination in the very army they risked their lives to join. They faced daily indignities, were paid less than white troops, supplied inferior goods and weapons, had inferior food, health care and were subject to being slaughtered by racist Confederate troops if they tried to surrender. 

In early 1862, Robert Smalls, an enslaved African American in Charleston, South Carolina, absconded with a large Confederate freighter and was able, because he knew the correct signals/passwords, to pilot the ship through the heavily armored harbor, turning it over to Union authorities.  Smalls later joined and fought with union forces.  He was elected to Congress, serving during the period of Reconstruction.

William Tillman was a cook aboard one of the union vessels captured by the Confederate privateer, Jeff Davis, in 1861.  Told that he was to be sold into slavery by crew members, Tillman used a hatchet to kill many of the officers and crew of that vessel, then piloted it to New York, turning it over to the Union.

Wm. Jackson was a slave on Jefferson Davis' plantation.  As such, he was able to hear many high level discussions among Confederate leaders, which he turned over to Union authorities.  He was credited with being one of the keys to union victory at Vicksburg by US Grant.  Not only a spy, Jackson organized and led Davis' entire company of slaves to freedom.

Through all this, these truly heroic fighters, played not just a role, but the most important role.  They were literally indispensable to union victory!

While our "official" history, from Reconstruction until the 1960's, completely ignored the role of African Americans, the Civil Rights Movement began to bring forward knowledge that Black troops fought for the Union.  For the last half century, their role, while grudgingly recognized, has been presented as peripheral, an historical "Black only" footnote.  In truth, the Union would not have been restored and slavery wouldn't have ended, if not for the central and critical role of Black Union troops!

In 1864, when African Americans were finally recruited as Union soldiers, the Union was in deep crisis.  The north was war-weary.  Draft riots had broken out in New York.  Across the north, draft resistance was wide-spread.  Anti-war, pro-southern Copperheads were actively attacking the war effort and Democrats were running the conservative Union general McClellan for President.  Lincoln, on numerous occasions, stated that he "expected to lose, and lose big," in the November election.  Recruitment in north was drying up!

This was the situation when 180,000 new and enthusiastic African American union soldiers entered the fray.  They fought heroically in every theatre, providing  the needed muscle to finally defeat the slave-owning Confederacy.

Neo-Confederates try to retrench

Before leaving this point, however, we should take note of attempts being made by right-wing neo-Confederates to retrench their ideology by "discovering" Black Confederates.

This is an easy one-they didn't exist!

While these right-wing elements come up with some pictures of Confederate soldiers with Black companions, it was illegal for Blacks to be armed or serve in the Confederate military.  Some soldiers did bring Black enslaved companions, but that was their role.  It is true that while the Confederate government did "legalize" recruitment of Blacks, it was only after a bitter political fight and not until March, 1865.  Lee surrendered the main Confederate army less than a month later and, while a mere handful were "recruited," none of them served or fought in the Confederate army.

Here some have cited the 1st Louisiana Guards, a unit organized in 1861 by free Blacks in New Orleans with the expressed goal of "serving with their Confederate brethren, protecting the southern way of life."  That unit never was accepted into Confederate service.  Furthermore, when the Union Navy liberated New Orleans a year later, the 1st Louisiana Guards immediately switched sides and joined the Union army, where they did later see action. 

It's worth noting here that the Union Navy that liberated New Orleans had long accepted African Americans, who served without racist discrimination and that the commander of the union forces was Rear Admiral Farragut, a Virginian who stayed with the Union.

The neo-Confederates have long tried to assert that the Confederacy fought for some obscure reasons other than the protection of slavery.  That lie is easily put to bed by anyone googling the various declarations of secession by the states that did secede.  I'll not reprint their vile language, but will leave readers with the words of 'one of their own,' Confederate fighter John C. Mosby.

We should take them at their own words on this one!

Writing to a friend in 1894, three decades after the war, Mosby stated;

"I've always understood that we went to war on account of the one thing we always quarreled with the north about.  I never heard of any other cause for it than slavery!"

Conclusion

This piece is by no means conclusive.   It is meant to, hopefully, inspire others to begin to look into our own forgotten and buried history.  Our nation's struggle against slavery is filled with examples of real heroism, of examples again and again of multiracial unity, of regular folks joining together to fight for justice.  The hope here is that readers may find their way to join today's multiracial struggles, and help others find inspiration in the newly rediscovered history of our past fights.

Photo: Company E, 4th US Colored Infantry at Fort Lincoln, Washington D.C.   Library of Congress, Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.

Comments

  • Wonderful, Bruce. W.E. B. Dubois classic work, Black Reconstruction, told much of this story in the 1930s, and made the really important points that the Confederates, with the advantages that they had, couldn't mobilize the nearly four million slaves who were s third of their population. In Britain and Europe where the British and French governments, including "liberals" who said they were against slavery, were tolting in favor of the Confederacy, Karl Marx and the workers and trade unionists who suorted the First International rallied support for the union. Marx saw the war as a war between two radically different class social systems fighting to control the Western territories and thus North Americs, and a war which would if it resulted in the victory of the union advance the struggle of the European working class and eliminate the major barrier to the advancement of the Americsn working class toward democracy and socialism, each of which depended on the other.
    For the slaveholder dominated Cofederacy, racism, the ideology which justified their brutal rule and was their principle weapon to control non -slaveholding whites grew in intensity as they were losing the war. Early "Black codes" established to restore slavery under different labels after the Confederates surrendered and before Reconstruction, had harsh penalties for any Fraternization between Blacks and Whites. The KKK was formed to fight a guerrilla terrorist war against the Reconstruction governments which Dubois saw as revolutionary governments supported by an interracial "united front" of poor whites and Blacks
    The Condederate States of America was by any standard the most brutal oppressive government to exist in North America.

    The slave population of South Carolina, by the way, constituted a majority of the people in the state. As for Black confederates, to be recruited into the Confederate army and given their freedom if the Confederates won, that question was really moot even before Lee's surrender since Richmond had fallen in March and there was no more Confederate government, just the remnants of the two Confederate armies which had fought in the Eastern and Western theaters of the war.
    This is a step forward but there are still many schools, bridges, and public facilities in the South named after Confederate "heroes" including Nathan Bedford Forrest, the wealthy pre-civil war slave trader, wartime Cofederate general who ordered his troops to murder Black Union army captured soldiers instead of takin them prisoner, and postwar founder of the KKK
    Just as electing Lincoln and the Republicsns was necessary for victory over the Confederates and their Northern appeasers and collaborators, defeating the Republicans in 2016 is necessary to defeating the "neo Confederates" and preventing them from turning the 21st century U. S. into a version of the 19th century Confederacy, representing the most backward militaristic sections of the society, using racism as a weapon to distract the people as poverty and inequality grow and the country falls behind the more advanced countries
    Norman Markowitz

    Posted by Norman Markowitz, 11/07/2015 4:28pm (3 years ago)

  • Brittany Newsome and James Tyson (who recently removed South Carolina's bars and stars) are those in their direct militant action agree with the thrust of the argument here by brother Bruce- that which author after author, activist after activist, has reaffirmed and wrote and died for, so much so, that we could swim in the river of such shed blood from bodies, all; Black, white, Red and Brown-many hanging from "Poplar" trees.
    Ours today is to stem this blood-letting of genocide in today's South and North, which known since our 19th century's Sumner, our Lincoln, our Marx and our Douglas-and majestically captured in W. E. B. Du Bois' Black Reconstruction-these tortuous bars and stars which deface democracy today.
    Lets plan with the hundreds of thousands-this day with sister Brittany "Bree" Newsome and those tenth of millions to protest and bring down the bars and stars, its economic structures, both North and South, which even the staid racists, reactionaries from South Carolina to Mississippi, from Texas to Tallahassee were forced by a power greater than hurricane Katrina to shrink from the ineffable barbarity of a denounced KKK Nathan Bedford Forrest in Virginia-whose bust would be dashed from the Virginia State House, no more bars and stars on Maryland license plates, no more fascistic bars and stars on shopping center websites-the symbols of racism defaced by bold, militant activists all across the "gallant South"-in a fell swoop.
    All told, this was a soul saving beginning of a positive revolution for people and progress after a long, long, long, drought of human and civil rights in the United States of America at large.
    This revolution proceeds as this author writes-just as surely as author Michael Moore tweeted that he would pay Bree's legal fees as a result of removing "the flag". Eventually, through our struggles, all structures that support its barbarity and ineffable inhumanity of humankind toward itself, including racism's economic structures-that is, namely: capitalism, as a "peculiar institution" and brand in these "United" States of America.

    Posted by E. E. W. Clay, 11/05/2015 3:31pm (3 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments