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Thursday, April 24, 2014

E Pluribus Unum (Part 2)

Recently – over the past 30 years or so – three minority groups have received recognition for the roles they have played in U.S. history – homosexuals, African Americans, and Native Americans. All three groups participated in the U.S. Civil War and in both armies.


The term “homosexual” did not exist until about 30 years after the war’s end, which makes it difficult to specifically identify within the army’s ranks. In Bell I. Wiley’s landmark, The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank mentions stag dances in both armies where some of the men dressed in women’s clothing participated. There is also an incident at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863 where Rebels ransacked a house and one of them emerged wearing a dress. I also encountered two references in the regimental history to two men in the 49th New York who “seemed to be more than ordinarily affectionate to one another” and wrote up mutual wills to each other. During the fighting at the Devil’s Den, the color guard came under tremendous fire. A bullet in the head killed one of the guard, a fellow know as “The Lady.” His messmate kissed him on the forehead and kneeled beside his corpse, firing until he was killed. Another, so utterly distraught at the “Lady’s” death, that he foamed at the mouth. He also died defending his dead friend.

While the regimental historians did not elaborate upon the sexual inclinations of their comrades, they delicately implied their homosexuality. The fact that no one in the Federal Army was discharged for their sexual orientation implies that the men in the ranks either tolerated or accepted the homosexuals or that the Army generally preferred not to deal with the issue. Personally, I do not know.  Homosexuality existed in both armies as it has always existed in armies but it was implied, not openly stated during the American Civil War. It is a new area of study, which needs to be honestly and carefully researched.

African Americans

            One cannot exclude the role of African Americans in the Civil War in both armies. There is no question that they served with distinction in the Union Army if, like any troops, they received proper training, and had a good officer corps. Keep in mind that at Antietam the Federal Army had around 27 “green” white regiments in the field, many of whom had never fired their weapons. They learned how to use them the hard way. Black troops were subject to the same type of “training.” Prejudice existed throughout wartime society, so much so that many thought it normal. Catholics, Jews, Blacks, Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, Russians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians all faced some kind of discrimination, which does not excuse the bias against people of color in any part of the country.

The newest controversy in Civil War history involves Black Confederates. They
existed whether one likes or understands the concept or not. It merely illustrates the war’s divisiveness. Based upon my personal research, I have found contemporary accounts from the 33rd New York and the 49th New York identifying African American Confederates in the infantry, cavalry, and artillery along the Warwick River in the spring of 1862. Surgeon Lewis Steiner, with the U.S. Sanitary Commission wrote in his diary about some 3,000 Blacks in Confederate uniforms, in all branches of service, and many of them armed as the army of Northern Virginia passed through Frederick, Maryland. Hundreds of African Americans petitioned the Daughters of the Confederacy for military pensions. Most were cooks, wagoners, laborers, and other support personnel. The argument arises that those men were not free men, that they were coerced to follow their masters into the war. Detractors often accuse anyone who supports the presence of Blacks in the Confederate armies as neo-Confederates.

            I am not a neo-Confederate. I am an historian who has found some evidence, which indicates that men of color wore gray uniforms and were part of the armies. I do not know whether they were slave or free. I am not quite sure why African Americans would voluntarily serve the Confederacy. I do know that they existed and like their counterparts who traveled with the Federal armies, many of them performed manual labor, cooked or served as “valets.”

            I often contend that African Americans lost the Civil War, despite their service. Both sides generally wrote them out of the histories of the war. Both sides ridiculed them and referred to them in derogatory terms. In 1877, when the government arbitrarily ended Reconstruction for political reasons, it sold them out. The best book I have ever read about Reconstruction is The Wars of Reconstruction by Douglas R. Egerton.   It completely destroyed my “mint julep and magnolias” perceptions of those 12 violent years and it will remain a permanent part of my library.

            To return to my opening statement in “Don’t Know Nothin’ About History,” I do not think that the various minorities should appear in sidebars. Far from it. They must be woven into the complex tapestry of U.S. History. The problem with many textbooks is that too many teachers rely on them to simplify the past and to produce neatly packaged, non-controversial curriculums. History by its very nature is controversial, confusing, and not politically correct.

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