Archive for the ‘Guerra civil norteamericana’ Category

Thin LightAcabo de leer un libro extraordinario, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipations in the Heart of America. Su autor, Edward L. Ayers, es un historiador estadounidense, ex Presidente de la Universidad de Richmond y miembro fundador del  podcast de historia estadounidense Backstory.  The Thin Light of Freedom completa su obra In The Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863, ganadora del prestigioso Bancroft Prize del año 2004.

Ganador del 2018 Lincoln Prize, este libro examina la guerra de secesión estadounidense a partir de 1863, desde la perspectiva de dos condados estadounidenses claves por su ubicación estratégica: Franklin (Pensilvania-Unionista) y Augusta (Virginia-Confederado). Ello le permite a su autor hacer un examen  micro de un proceso histórico tan complejo como la guerra civil estadounidense.

Dada la magnitud de esta obra, me limitaré hacer algunos comentarios generales sobre su contenido.


Edward L. Ayers

En más de una ocasión he escuchado  a colegas minimizar e inclusive negar la esclavitud como el factor clave de la guerra civil estadounidense. Quienes así piensan, por lo general justifican su argumento subrayando la disposición de Lincoln para un acomodo con el Sur que evitara la secesión y la guerra. Ayers hace un trabajo extraordinario subrayando la centralidad de la esclavitud  en el guerra civil estadounidense. Tal vez Lincoln estuvo dispuesto a llegar a un acuerdo sobre el futuro de la esclavitud, pero el Sur no. En otras palabras, es la tenaz resistencia de los esclavistas lo que lleva al Norte a adoptar una posición abolicionista. Según Ayers, la libertad para los negros avanzó más rápido de lo que sus defensores habían podido imaginar, gracias a la agresividad de los sureños. Para acabar con el Sur – y poner fin a la guerra – era necesario acabar con la esclavitud.

Ayers enfatiza que la emancipación y la Reconstrucción no eran inevitables resultados de la economía moderna, del poder del Norte o de la justicia. Las consecuencias de la guerra permanecieron en duda durante el conflicto y el periodo posterior. Pocos hubieran imaginado en 1860 que en cinco años la esclavitud sería destruida y que los libertos se convertirían en ciudadanos estadounidenses.

En la etapa posterior a la guerra –la llamada Reconstrucción– la actitud de los sureños también jugó un papel clave. Su resistencia y oposición ayudaron a que la revolución que la Reconstrucción significaba avanzara.

Sin embargo, no hay un final feliz. Los enemigos de la libertad de los negros no desaparecieron después de la Reconstrucción. Éstos no se rindieron y por décadas lucharon para hacer retroceder la expansión de la democracia en el Sur, socavando los derechos adquiridos por los negros en la década de 1860.


The Battle of Nashville (Library of Congress)

No puedo terminara sin subrayar dos elementos impresionantes de este libro: lo bien que está escrito y sus fuentes. Esta es una obra con una narración extraordinaria que atrapa al lector sin perder profundidad académica. Ayers recurre a una variedad extraordinaria de fuentes primaras: periódicos, informes, cartas, etc. Destaca el uso de diarios para reconstruir cómo experimentaron la guerra soldados, esposas de soldados, civiles, etc.

Norberto Barreto Velázquez

Lima, 19 de julio de 2018

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download-1El 2018 Lincoln Prize ha sido sido concedido al trabajo de Edward Ayers,  The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (W.W. Norton and Company). Este premio, que consiste de $50,000, es otorgado anualmente por  el Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History para reconocer el mejor trabajo investigativo sobre Lincoln y el periodo de la guerra civil. Ayers es un historiador estadounidense, ex Presidente de la Universidad de Richmond y miembro fundador de unos de los mejores podcast de historia estadounidense: Backstory. Ha sido merecedor tanto del Bancroft Prize como  del Beveridge Prize.

Vale mencionar a los finalistas de tan prestigioso premio:

  • Ron Chernow, Grant (Penguin Press).
  • Gordon Rhea, On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-14, 1864 (LSU Press).
  • Tera Hunter, Bound in Wedlock:  Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century(Harvard University Press).
  • Cate Lineberry, Be Free or Die (St. Martin’s Press).
  • Graham Peck, Making an Antislavery Nation(University of Illinois Press).
  • Adam I.P. Smith, The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics: 1846—1865 (University of North Carolina Press).

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What Union Soldiers Thought About the Civil War


The New York Times  October 17, 2014

Several years ago, a thick sheaf of Civil War letters was discovered in an old barn in upstate New York. Most were sent by a Union soldier, Charles Freeman Biddlecom, to his wife, the former Esther Lapham. Now edited and published by Katherine M. Aldridge, who owns the barn, they provide a remarkably candid window into the outlook of an ordinary infantryman. They also caution us against exaggerating the affinity of common soldiers for the great causes — the Union and emancipation — that we now hold in such high regard.

Today we often remember Union soldiers as principled, articulate and ready to sacrifice their lives for something larger. The historians James McPherson and Chandra Manning each have written influential recent volumes articulating soldiers’ views: McPherson’s Union soldiers were “intensely aware of the issues at stake and passionately concerned about them”; they knew that they were playing roles in a transcendently important struggle, on which the future of the American nation would pivot. Likewise, the “commitment to emancipation” among Manning’s Union soldiers deepened and intensified as the war progressed. For them, “ideals like liberty, equality, and self-government” were not empty abstractions but core principles worth fighting to uphold.

The filmmaker Ken Burns spearheaded this heroic reassessment with his widely watched public television series on the Civil War in the early 1990s. Most memorably, Burns used the emotionally charged letter to “My very dear Sarah” from a Rhode Island infantryman, Sullivan Ballou, written in July 1861 just before the battle of Bull Run. Much as Ballou wanted to return to his loved ones unharmed and to see his sons grow to “honorable manhood,” he gave ultimate priority to his country. He and his generation owed a great debt to “those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution.” He was “willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.” Untold millions of television viewers, alerted that Ballou’s iconic letter was his last, have listened intently to its dramatic rereading, complete with stringed instruments in the background, tugging at our heartstrings.

Ballou’s noble and stoic valedictory makes for splendid theater, but the messy realities of war swept into the Army countless men whose commitment to big causes was far more muddled and erratic – men like Charles Biddlecom, who lived as a farmer in Macedon, N.Y., just east of Rochester.

On the face of it, Biddlecom might have been a promising candidate for Burns’s honor roll. He was educated, he wrote vivid prose, he was older than the average (born in 1832) and he came from a region where slavery was deplored and enthusiasm for reform was widespread. So one might expect Biddlecom to have embraced the Union cause for all the right reasons. But in his letters, we find that he saw no purpose in the war and considered himself a helpless pawn in an enormous kill-or-be-killed chess match.

Biddlecom first enlisted in May 1861, as a volunteer in the 28th New York Infantry. Suspecting that the “fuss” soon would be over, he wanted to rout the “southern whelps.” But his health deteriorated, and he was discharged before he saw combat.

Two years later, however, in the summer of 1863, Biddlecom was called back. The war had grown to proportions unimaginable in 1861. He and many other “poor forsaken conscripts” were assigned to rebuild the depleted ranks of the 147th New York, which had been decimated on the first day at Gettysburg. The re-formed regiment was stationed in a dismal part of Northern Virginia, already scarred by three years of warfare.

As the army went into winter quarters, Biddlecom was sickened by dysentery, afflicted by lice and miserably lonesome and homesick. He and three other men lived in a “little dog kennel,” about four feet high. In his darker moments he predicted cynically that the war would grind on inconclusively for 20 years, because “Lincoln and his miserable crew” could never bring it to a successful finish. Biddlecom also second-guessed the decision to go to war in the first place. Much as he hated slaveholders, he mused that it might have been “better in the end to have let the South go out peaceably and tried her hand at making a nation.”

Biddlecom longed to go home to rejoin his family. Some men, he observed, had been discharged who were “not a bit more disabled than I am,” and he vowed to follow their example. By spring, as the prospect of renewed fighting came closer, the trickle of deserters fleeing into the nearby mountains from the 147th increased. Most nights two or three men quietly absconded to join the euphemistic “Blue Ridge Corps,” and Biddlecom predicted that the regiment stood to lose 150 men. In some ways he sympathized with the deserters — he agreed that no conscript should have to serve longer than nine months — but he could not see himself “sneaking off.”

In early May 1864, Biddlecom and his regiment were thrown across the Rapidan River into the terrifying caldron of Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. Ten days of fighting in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania left his division “terribly cut up,” with half his own company killed or wounded, and others missing. By early June, barely 100 of the 550 men in his regiment who had started the campaign remained fit for duty.

Biddlecom initially hoped that Grant could bring the war to a prompt end, but six weeks of inconclusive bloodletting rekindled his cynicism. He dismissed as “bosh” all talk about “great Union victories.” Reports about the “pluck and courage” of the Union Army were “the worst kind of exaggeration.” The Army was “worn out, discouraged, [and] demoralized.” He admonished his wife, Esther, to reject “newspaper hokum” that depicted ordinary soldiers as patriotic. Men would fight to preserve their reputations, but “as for men fighting from pure love of country, I think them as few as white blackbirds.”

What motivated Biddlecom to continue fighting? Certainly not the high ideals depicted McPherson or Manning. It was in part personal. Convinced that he was the “black sheep” of his family and that most of his kinfolk “never gave me credit for being much of a man,” he carried a chip on his shoulder. He wanted to make it clear that he was “not an absolute failure in all things.” He was determined not to disgrace his parents or stigmatize his sons by “showing cowardice.” But, he insisted, he was neither a “Union Saver” nor a “freedom shrieker.” He rejected all high-flown rationalizations for the war effort — “to hell with the devilish twaddle about freedom.”

As late as August 1864, Biddlecom believed that the men in the Army would vote “four to one” against Lincoln. He resolved to support the president’s opponent, George B. McClellan, on grounds that wasting “more blood and treasure in this war will be productive of more evil to the white race than it will be of good to the black race.” He was content to allow slavery to “die a peaceful death,” even if it required 50 or 100 years.

As Union prospects brightened and the election approached, however, Biddlecom reversed himself and spurned the “copperhead ticket.” Suddenly, the soldier who was no “freedom shrieker” embraced the war “for freedom, [and] for equal rights.” On Election Day in November he sounded entirely unlike his old self, as he pontificated that the contest would decide “the future of American civilization.” It pitted “Lincoln and the universal rights of man” against “McClellan and another compromise with the Devil.” He heralded the outcome for affirming that “freedom shall extend over the whole nation.” The “greatest nation of Earth” would not bow down to “traitors in arms.”

So Biddlecom’s pithy letters convey a mixed message. Until the autumn of 1864, he disdained all ideological rationalizations for the Union war effort. But he also was a team player, and his team appears to have broken strongly toward Lincoln. The army, he decided, was “a very good school for hot heads such as I was.” Home influences may also have played a role — after all, the men in his regiment came from one of the most intensely Republican regions in the country.

The patriotic prose that Charles Biddlecom penned in November 1864 would have delighted Ken Burns. But we dare not forget the long and circuitous journey that finally landed him among the charmed circle of those Union soldiers whose ideas square with modern sensibilities.

Follow Disunion at twitter.com/NYTcivilwar or join us on Facebook.

Sources: Katherine M. Aldridge, ed., “No Freedom Shrieker: The Civil War Letters of Union Soldier Charles Biddlecom”; James McPherson, “For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War”; Chandra Manning, “When This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War.”

Daniel W. Crofts

Daniel W. Crofts, a professor emeritus of history at The College of New Jersey, is completing a new book, entitled “Lincoln’s Other Thirteenth Amendment: Rewriting the Constitution to Conciliate the Slave South.

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La Universidad de Columbia acaba de dar acceso gratuito a los cursos “online” (MOOC) del historiador norteamericano Eric Foner. Autor de obras imprescindibles como Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877  (1988) y The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2011), Foner es uno de los grandes analistas de la guerra civil norteamericana y del periodo de la Reconstrucción.

Columbia University Releases Eric Foner’s Civil War MOOCs. It’s Free! 

HNN  September 17, 2014

Free history courses to reach educators and students worldwide, expanding Columbia’s online teaching initiatives

NEW YORK, New York, September 11, 2014 — Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) today announced the release of three new online courses on edX: The Civil War and Reconstruction. Eric Foner, Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian and Columbia University’s DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, teaches this three-part massive open online course (MOOC). On Wednesday, September 17, the first course launches – the series is free and accessible to anyone anywhere with an Internet connection, including K-12 educators and students.

The new history series, the first humanities course offering by Columbia on edX, is an open learning experience spread out over weeks of stimulating lectures, interactive assignments, and community discussions. The entire series is 27 weeks long and challenges students to examine the politics of history and investigate themes that are still very present in our national dialogue – the balance of power between local and national authority, the boundaries of citizenship, and the meaning of freedom and equality.

“We are delighted that Eric Foner is kicking off Columbia’s involvement with the edX platform,” said Columbia University Provost John H. Coatsworth. “His course series on the Civil War will highlight one of our finest teachers while providing students around the world with a window on to the outstanding humanities instruction for which Columbia is known.”

The three online courses are:

1. A House Divided: The Road to Civil War, 1850-1861 – 10 weeks, beginning September 17

2. A New Birth of Freedom: The Civil War, 1861-1865 – 8 weeks, beginning December 1

3. The Unfinished Revolution: Reconstruction and After, 1865-1890 – 9 weeks, beginning February 25

The series trailer is online here:

“Recent events have underscored the fact that our society is still grappling with the long-term legacies of slavery and the failure of Reconstruction, so this history is especially pertinent today” said Professor Foner.

“If you want to know where the world you’re living in came from,” Foner tells us in the trailer, “you need to know about the Civil War era.”

“The Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning is thrilled to see Eric Foner‘s work published this way,” said CCNMTL director Maurice Matiz. “Besides having a great interest in getting those connected to Columbia during Foner’s long career —our alumni— access to the course, we are also hoping that the course will have broad appeal given the public interest in this key period of our history.”

“We are honored to work with Eric Foner on his first MOOC, “The Civil War and Reconstruction,” and to help history-lovers everywhere connect with this prominent historian to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of our shared past and society today,” said Anant Agarwal, edX CEO and professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

This MOOC series is also registered as an XSeries on edX, giving learners the opportunity to sign up and receive a verified certificate of achievement that authenticates their successful completion of each course.

Visit ColumbiaX here.

In addition, the lecture videos from the entire course will be published on CCNMTL’s YouTube channel.

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Setenta y cinco años de “Lo que el viento se llevó”

Manuel Martínez Maldonado
80 grados   12 de septiembre de 2014


Luego de un blitzkrieg publicitario que giraba sobre quién iba a interpretar a Scarlett O’Hara el legendario David O. Selznick anunció a Vivien Leigh como la escogida. En el año 1939, preámbulo temporal de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, la Civil estadounidense habría de tomar primer plano en las pantallas de los cines de unos Estados Unidos sospechosos de las tendencias socialistas de Franklin Roosevelt y su Nuevo Trato, y en contra de cualquier intervención del país en los problemas europeos. Curiosamente, en una vuelta repleta de ironía, Selznick fue a buscar ayuda de los ingleses para conseguir la actriz que representaría a su heroína sin saber que pronto los ingleses le estarían pidiendo socorro a los norteamericanos cuando los alemanes se iban acercando a Gran Bretaña. También fue capaz por un tiempo de lograr que la atención de su país se concentrara en una guerra que ya había transcurrido y no en una que se estaba empollando.

De todas las actrices que compitieron por el papel –Paulette Goddard, Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Susan Hayward, y otras− es imposible ver a ninguna de ellas como la sagaz, impertinente, valerosa y bella Scarlett que fue Leigh, al momento la mujer de Laurence Olivier. Esa contribución de Inglaterra al cine mundial es digna de recordar porque sin duda demostró una confianza entre los dos países en una industria que habría de contribuir enormemente al triunfo aliado en la guerra. Importar la estrella del filme del cine inglés implicaba un vínculo estrecho entre los dos países, una confianza en que las asociaciones angloamericanas funcionaban a un nivel sublime (artístico) y práctico (los ingresos en la taquilla). Las negociaciones entre Alexander Korda, quien tenía a Leigh bajo contrato, y Selznick, ambos judíos, fueron el contrapunto a las de Churchill y Roosevelt. De la primera se esperaba el triunfo del arte; de la segunda, el triunfo de la humanidad. Como sabemos, así fue. El éxito de esa simbiosis transatlántica se comprobó cuando la película obtuvo trece nominaciones para el Oscar y ganó ocho, incluyendo mejor película, mejor actriz principal (Leigh), mejor actriz de reparto, Hattie McDaniel (Mammy), y produjo treinta y dos millones de dólares cuando esos valían mucho más que ahora. Se calcula que desde su debut el filme ha recaudado el equivalente a $3.3 billones de dólares. En otras palabras, una de las películas más taquilleras en la historia.

El triunfo de la película después que debutó en 1939 fue tal que se proyectó durante los bombardeos nazis de Londres y estuvo en cartelera allí por cuatro años. Ya para el 1942, después del ataque a Pearl Harbor, Inglaterra contaba con la ayuda completa de los Estados Unidos y los ingleses podían ir a los cines del West End a ver GWTW sabiendo que contaban con la ayuda militar que impediría un triunfo nazi. Además, se podía ver en pantalla un paralelismo temático entre GWTW y lo que estaba ocurriendo en el mundo que nunca consideró Margaret Mitchell. Publicada en 1937, con Hitler apoderado de Alemania, la novela idealizó la esclavitud y presentó a los negros esclavos como figuras complacidas y agradecidas de sus dueños. Esto mientras los nazis comenzaban los abusos contra los “inferiores”, representados por los judíos, los gitanos, otros “con inestabilidad racial”, los enfermos y los homosexuales. Esa ilusión de complacencia la usaron Hitler y sus asesinos recurriendo a las patrañas montadas en Theresienstadt, un campo de concentración cerca de Praga en el que se idealizaba por unos días (conciertos, juegos de fútbol, paradas) la vida de sus prisioneros para satisfacer las visitas periódicas de la Cruz Roja.  Como si fuera poco, parte de la novela y de la película trata muy de paso el origen del Ku Klux Klan cuyas ideas eran (son) paralelas a las de la Gestapo y la SS. Lo más probable es que Mitchell no estuviera familiarizada, como también lo desconocía la mayoría de los norteamericanos, con los campos de concentración nazis que comenzaron en 1935-36, pero que no aumentaron numéricamente hasta el año en que debutó la película, ni comenzaron sus programas de exterminio masivo hasta más tarde. Sin embargo, los arrabales a los que estaban condenados los libertos que surgieron en el Sur durante la época de la Reconstrucción son, hasta cierto punto, el reflejo del discrimen y el prejuicio racial en esos estados que aceptaron su derrota pero no cambiaron sus costumbres. Esos guetos de pobreza, hambre y linchamientos lo único que no tenían era cámaras de gases.

Cuando el filme debutó en Atlanta con un fastuoso desfile de lujo, la segregación racial en la ciudad imposibilitó la presencia de Hattie MacDaniel y Butterlfy McQueen (Prissy). Esta última no solo fue víctima del prejuicio del los blancos, sino también del desprecio de otros miembros de su raza porque consideraron su actuación servil, paródica y denigrante. Hoy día es difícil no ver que hay mucho de cierto en esa apreciación, pero no creo (como ha de ser patente a todos los que ven el filme) que la representación de Prissy estuviera bajo el control “artístico” o emocional de la actriz. Dudo además que las descargas contra la actuación de McQueen reflejen lo que pudo haber sentido ella en su corazón; después de todo, estaba haciendo su trabajo. No hay duda de que el filme tiene unos enfoques que se consideran políticamente incorrectos en el ambiente de hoy día. Sin embargo, no es ni tendencioso ni irresponsable como lo fue en su época con el tema racial “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), tanto así que era usada por el Ku Klux Klan como mecanismo de reclutamiento de miembros.

pruebasinprisa2Más central que el tema racial, GWTW presenta a Scarlett como una mujer emprendedora que lucha contra todo infortunio sin dejarse vencer por las circunstancias. Ella comprende que la guerra está cambiando, no solo el paisaje a su alrededor, sino la vida que ella conoció cuando joven. El viento de la guerra se ha llevado el pasado para siempre y es evidente que las costumbres de su mundo han mutado irremediablemente. Esos cambios inducidos por la guerra influyeron en las transformaciones que la derrota causó en los líderes de los estados de la Confederación. Curiosamente, en su gran libro sobre la guerra Civil Norteamericana, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988, Ballantine Book, N.Y.) James M. McPherson argumenta que a pesar de que ya en Europa y en el resto del hemisferio occidental se había abolido la esclavitud y el servilismo institucionalizado, el Sur se aferraba a esos sistemas. Eso, según el eminente historiador, hizo que los siete estados secesionistas reclamaran que eran ellos los que estaban protegiendo los derechos y valores tradicionales según el norte se lanzaba a un futuro de capitalismo industrial. De hecho, Scarlett, contrario a la tradición de la “beldad sureña” (“southern belle”) se representa como alguien que comienza a adaptarse a las nuevas ideas norteñas.  Ya había demostrado ser un espíritu libre y autosuficiente, capaz de valerse por sí misma y defender lo suyo. Con el final de la guerra se convierte en la operadora de un aserradero, rompiendo así con las nociones tradicionales antiguas y demostrando su capacidad para los negocios.

Hoy día los derechos de las mujeres son parte de la cotidianidad, aunque aún faltan muchas barreras por derribar. Mas en 1939, en una película vista por poco menos de la mitad de la población de los EE UU (vendió sesenta millones de boletos en una población de cerca de ciento treinta millones de personas), ver a una mujer manejar un negocio y trabajar fuera del hogar no era la visión tradicional ni en el sur ni en el norte. En eso la película fue profética. Cuando la necesidad de producir barcos de guerra, tanques, aviones, armas, municiones, uniformes y otras necesidades para los soldados en dos frentes se agudizó durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial, las mujeres emularon a Scarlett: fueron a trabajar para defender su vida y mantener sus hogares. En contraste con Scarlett, quien pasó a ser una matrona de sociedad, muchas mujeres de los 40 del siglo pasado, se quedaron trabajando y no volvieron a la vida tradicional de amas de casa.

Otros historiadores, incluyendo a McPherson, dan fe de que ningún suceso hizo tanto para cambiar la vida de la nación norteamericana como la Guerra Civil (1861-65). GWTW nos presenta el melodrama de Scarlett, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable, en quien pensó Mitchell mientras escribía su novela), Melanie (la extraordinaria Olivia de Havilland), Ashley (el perfecto Leslie Howard) y su familia, como uno que ejemplifica lo que debe de haber sucedido en muchos lugares del Sur Antebellum. En hacerlo plasmó para un gran público ese suceso transcendental que aún hoy día tiene relevancia. Solo hay que ver la división tajante entre conservadores y liberales en este momento, y, más allá de lo que nadie pudo haberse imaginado, la reacción que la derecha conservadora ha tenido ante un presidente negro, para darse cuenta de la profundidad de la herida causada por una guerra que cumple ciento cincuenta años de terminada en 2015. Tal parece que el impasse ideológico político de hoy día no es otra cosa que una lucha perniciosa que viene desde la Guerra Civil pero que se ha recrudecido e intensificado porque no había tenido un protagonista negro tan prominente. Una lucha cuyo resultado constitutivo y abolicionista ha logrado muy poco (como los sucesos en Ferguson atestiguan) en mejorar el prejuicio contra la gente de color y las relaciones raciales en los EEUU.

Aunque sigue teniendo sus críticos, GWTW es vista y admirada por miles. Según los tiempos han ido cambiando la estética cinemática también se ha transformado. La popularidad de las películas generadas por computadores y las técnicas de digitalización han hecho mella en la percepción de este clásico y de muchos otros. A pesar de eso uno puede apreciar GWTW como precursora de muchos temas que hoy día son causa de preocupación en la sociedad. Como sucede con muchos clásicos después de un tiempo la tentación de interpretaciones revisionistas es enorme. No empece, no cabe duda de que GWTW llega a su aniversario de diamante como un gran logro del cinema. Si no la han experimentado, háganlo y consideren analizar sus temas y postulados en el contexto de lo que ocurre hoy día en los Estados Unidos. Tendrán mucho de qué pensar.

Manuel Martínez Maldonado

Manuel Martínez Maldonado

Nació en Yauco, Puerto Rico. Fue crítico de cine de Caribbean Business, El Reportero y El Mundo en San Juan (1978 a 1989). Sus poemas y ensayos han aparecido en Yunque, Revista de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, Caribán, Mairena, Pharos, Linden Lane, Resonancias, y la Revista del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña. Ha publicado los poemarios La Voz Sostenida (Mairena,1984); Palm Beach Blues (Editorial Cultural, 1985); Por Amor al Arte (Playor, 1989); Hotel María (Verbum, 1999); y Novela de Mediodía (Editorial Cultural, 2003). También ha publicado las novelas Isla Verde (1999) y El vuelo del dragón (2011).

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We still lie about slavery: Here’s the truth about how the American economy and power were built on forced migration and torture

Edward E. Baptist

Salon.com  September 7, 2014

We still lie about slavery: Here's the truth about how the American economy and power were built on forced migration and torture

The Shores family, near Westerville, Neb., in 1887. Jerry Shores was one of a number of former slaves to settle in Custer County. (Credit: AP/Solomon D. Butcher)


A beautiful late April day, seventy-two years after slavery ended in the United States. Claude Anderson parks his car on the side of Holbrook Street in Danville. On the porch of number 513, he rearranges the notepads under his arm. Releasing his breath in a rush of decision, he steps up to the door of the handmade house and knocks.

Danville is on the western edge of the Virginia Piedmont. Back in 1865, it had been the last capital of the Confederacy. Or so Jefferson Davis had proclaimed on April 3, after he fled Richmond. Davis stayed a week, but then he had to keep running. The blue-coated soldiers of the Army of the Potomac were hot on his trail. When they got to Danville, they didn’t find the fugitive rebel. But they did discover hundreds of Union prisoners of war locked in the tobacco warehouses downtown. The bluecoats, rescuers and rescued, formed up and paraded through town. Pouring into the streets around them, dancing and singing, came thousands of African Americans. They had been prisoners for far longer.

In the decades after the jubilee year of 1865, Danville, like many other southern villages, had become a cotton factory town. Anderson, an African-American master’s student from Hampton University, would not have been able to work at the segregated mill. But the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a bureau of the federal government created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, would hire him. To put people back to work after they had lost their jobs in the Great Depression, the WPA organized thousands of projects, hiring construction workers to build schools and artists to paint murals. And many writers and students were hired to interview older Americans—like Lorenzo Ivy, the man painfully shuffling across the pine board floor to answer Anderson’s knock.

Anderson had found Ivy’s name in the Hampton University archives, two hundred miles east of Danville. Back in 1850, when Lorenzo had been born in Danville, there was neither a university nor a city called Hampton—just an American fort named after a slaveholder president. Fortress Monroe stood on Old Point Comfort, a narrow triangle of land that divided the Chesapeake Bay from the James River. Long before the fort was built, in April 1607, the Susan Constant had sailed past the point with a boatload of English settlers. Anchoring a few miles upriver, they had founded Jamestown, the first permanent English- speaking settlement in North America. Twelve years later, the crews of two storm-damaged English privateers also passed, seeking shelter and a place to sell the twenty- odd enslaved Africans (captured from a Portuguese slaver) lying shackled in their holds.

After that first 1619 shipload, some 100,000 more enslaved Africans would sail upriver past Old Point Comfort. Lying in chains in the holds of slave ships, they could not see the land until they were brought up on deck to be sold. After the legal Atlantic slave trade to the United States ended in 1807, hundreds of thousands more enslaved people passed the point. Now they were going the other way, boarding ships at Richmond, the biggest eastern center of the internal slave trade, to go by sea to the Mississippi Valley.

By the time a dark night came in late May 1861, the moon had waxed and waned three thousand times over slavery in the South. To protect slavery, Virginia had just seceded from the United States, choosing a side at last after six months of indecision in the wake of South Carolina’s rude exit from the Union. Fortress Monroe, built to protect the James River from ocean- borne invaders, became the Union’s last toehold in eastern Virginia. Rebel troops entrenched themselves athwart the fort’s landward approaches. Local planters, including one Charles Mallory, detailed enslaved men to build berms to shelter the besiegers’ cannon. But late this night, Union sentries on the fort’s seaward side saw a small skiff emerging slowly from the darkness. Frank Baker and Townshend rowed with muffled oars. Sheppard Mallory held the tiller. They were setting themselves free.

A few days later, Charles Mallory showed up at the gates of the Union fort. He demanded that the commanding federal officer, Benjamin Butler, return his property. Butler, a politician from Massachusetts, was an incompetent battlefield commander, but a clever lawyer. He replied that if the men were Mallory’s property, and he was using them to wage war against the US government, then logically the men were therefore contraband of war.

Those first three “contrabands” struck a crack in slavery’s centuries-old wall. Over the next four years, hundreds of thousands more enslaved people widened the crack into a gaping breach by escaping to Union lines. Their movement weakened the Confederate war effort and made it easier for the United States and its president to avow mass emancipation as a tool of war. Eventually the Union Army began to welcome formerly enslaved men into its ranks, turning refugee camps into recruiting stations—and those African-American soldiers would make the difference between victory and defeat for the North, which by late 1863 was exhausted and uncertain.

After the war, Union officer Samuel Armstrong organized literacy programs that had sprung up in the refugee camp at Old Point Comfort to form Hampton Institute. In 1875, Lorenzo Ivy traveled down to study there, on the ground zero of African- American history. At Hampton, he acquired an education that enabled him to return to Danville as a trained schoolteacher. He educated generations of African-American children. He built the house on Holbrook Street with his own Hampton-trained hands, and there he sheltered his father, his brother, his sister-in-law, and his nieces and nephews. In April 1937, Ivy opened the door he’d made with hands and saw and plane, and it swung clear for Claude Anderson without rubbing the frame.

Anderson’s notepads, however, were accumulating evidence of two very different stories of the American past—halves that did not fit together neatly. And he was about to hear more. Somewhere in the midst of the notepads was a typed list of questions supplied by the WPA. Questions often reveal the desired answer. By the 1930s, most white Americans had been demanding for decades that they hear only a sanitized version of the past into which Lorenzo Ivy had been born. This might seem strange. In the middle of the nineteenth century, white Americans had gone to war with each other over the future of slavery in their country, and slavery had lost. Indeed, for a few years after 1865, many white northerners celebrated emancipation as one of their collective triumphs. Yet whites’ belief in the emancipation made permanent by the Thirteenth Amendment, much less in the race- neutral citizenship that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments had written into the Constitution, was never that deep. Many northerners had only supported Benjamin Butler and Abraham Lincoln’s moves against slavery because they hated the arrogance of slaveholders like Charles Mallory. And after 1876, northern allies abandoned southern black voters.

Within half a century after Butler sent Charles Mallory away from Fortress Monroe empty-handed, the children of white Union and Confederate soldiers united against African-American political and civil equality. This compact of white supremacy enabled southern whites to impose Jim Crow segregation on public space, disfranchise African- American citizens by barring them from the polls, and use the lynch- mob noose to enforce black compliance. White Americans imposed increased white supremacy outside the South, too. In non- Confederate states, many restaurants wouldn’t serve black customers. Stores and factories refused to hire African Americans. Hundreds of midwestern communities forcibly evicted African-American residents and became “sundown towns” (“Don’t let the sun set on you in this town”). Most whites, meanwhile, believed that science proved that there were biologically distinct human races, and that Europeans were members of the superior one. Anglo- Americans even believed that they were distinct from and superior to the Jews from Russia, Italians, Greeks, Slavs, and others who flooded Ellis Island and changed the culture of northern urban centers.

By the early twentieth century, America’s first generation of professional historians were justifying the exclusions of Jim Crow and disfranchisement by telling a story about the nation’s past of slavery and civil war that seemed to confirm, for many white Americans, that white supremacy was just and necessary. Above all, the historians of a reunified white nation insisted that slavery was a premodern institution that was not committed to profit-seeking. In so doing, historians were to some extent only repeating pre–Civil War debates: abolitionists had depicted slavery not only as a psychopathic realm of whipping, rape, and family separation, but also as a flawed economic system that was inherently less efficient than the free- labor capitalism developing in the North. Proslavery writers disagreed about the psychopathy, but by the 1850s they agreed that enslavers were first and foremost not profit-seekers. For them, planters were caring masters who considered their slaves to be inferior family members. So although anti- and proslavery conclusions about slavery’s morality were different, their premises about slavery-as- a-business model matched. Both agreed that slavery was inherently unprofitable. It was an old, static system that belonged to an earlier time. Slave labor was inefficient to begin with, slave productivity did not increase to keep pace with industrialization, and enslavers did not act like modern profit- seeking businessmen. As a system, slavery had never adapted or changed to thrive in the new industrial economy—let alone to play a premier role as a driver of economic expansion—and had been little more than a drag on the explosive growth that had built the modern United States. In fact, during the Civil War, northerners were so convinced of these points that they believed that shifting from slave labor to free labor would dramatically increase cotton productivity.

It didn’t. But even though the data of declining productivity over the ensuing three score and ten years suggested that slavery might have been the most efficient way to produce the world’s most important crop, no one let empirical tests change their minds. Instead, historians of Woodrow Wilson’s generation imprinted the stamp of academic research on the idea that slavery was separate from the great economic and social transformations of the Western world during the nineteenth century. After all, it did not rely upon ever-more efficient machine labor. Its unprofitable economic structures supposedly produced antique social arrangements, and the industrializing, urbanizing world looked back toward them with contempt—or, increasingly, nostalgia. Many whites, now proclaiming that science proved that people of African descent were intellectually inferior and congenitally prone to criminal behavior, looked wistfully to a past when African Americans had been governed with whips and chains. Granted, slavery as an economic system was not modern, they said, and had neither changed to adapt to the modern economy nor contributed to economic expansion. But to an openly racist historical profession—and a white history- reading, history-thinking public obsessed with all kinds of race control—the white South’s desire to whitewash slavery in the past, and maintain segregation now and forever, served the purpose of validating control over supposedly premodern, semi-savage black people.

Such stories about slavery shaped the questions Claude Anderson was to ask in the 1930s, because you could find openly racist versions of it baked into the recipe of every American textbook. You could find it in popular novels, politicians’ speeches, plantation-nostalgia advertising, and even the first blockbuster American film: Birth of a Nation. As president, Woodrow Wilson—a southern-born history professor—called this paean to white supremacy “history written with lightning,” and screened it at the White House. Such ideas became soaked into the way America publicly depicted slavery. Even many of those who believed that they rejected overt racism depicted the era before emancipation as a plantation idyll of happy slaves and paternalist masters. Abolitionists were snakes in the garden, responsible for a Civil War in which hundreds of thousands of white people died. Maybe the end of slavery had to come for the South to achieve economic modernity, but it didn’t have to come that way, they said.

The way that Americans remember slavery has changed dramatically since then. In tandem with widespread desegregation of public spaces and the assertion of black cultural power in the years between World War II and the 1990s came a new understanding of the experience of slavery. No longer did academic historians describe slavery as a school in which patient masters and mistresses trained irresponsible savages for futures of perpetual servitude. Slavery’s denial of rights now prefigured Jim Crow, while enslaved people’s resistance predicted the collective self-assertion that developed into first the civil rights movement and later, Black Power.

But perhaps the changes were not so great as they seemed on the surface. The focus on showing African Americans as assertive rebels, for instance, implied an uncomfortable corollary. If one should be impressed by those who rebelled, because they resisted, one should not be proud of those who did not. And there were very few rebellions in the history of slavery in the United States. Some scholars tried to backfill against this quandary by arguing that all African Americans together created a culture of resistance, especially in slave quarters and other spaces outside of white observation. Yet the insistence that assertive resistance undermined enslavers’ power, and a focus on the development of an independent black culture, led some to believe that enslaved people actually managed to prevent whites from successfully exploiting their labor. This idea, in turn, created a quasi-symmetry with post–Civil War plantation memoirs that portrayed gentle masters, who maintained slavery as a nonprofit endeavor aimed at civilizing Africans.

Thus, even after historians of the civil rights, Black Power, and multicultural eras rewrote segregationists’ stories about gentlemen and belles and grateful darkies, historians were still telling the half that has ever been told. For some fundamental assumptions about the history of slavery and the history of the United States remain strangely unchanged. The first major assumption is that, as an economic system—a way of producing and trading commodities—American slavery was fundamentally different from the rest of the modern economy and separate from it. Stories about industrialization emphasize white immigrants and clever inventors, but they leave out cotton fields and slave labor. This perspective implies not only that slavery didn’t change, but that slavery and enslaved African Americans had little long-term influence on the rise of the United States during the nineteenth century, a period in which the nation went from being a minor European trading partner to becoming the world’s largest economy—one of the central stories of American history.

The second major assumption is that slavery in the United States was fundamentally in contradiction with the political and economic systems of the liberal republic, and that inevitably that contradiction would be resolved in favor of the free-labor North. Sooner or later, slavery would have ended by the operation of historical forces; thus, slavery is a story without suspense. And a story with a predetermined outcome isn’t a story at all.

Third, the worst thing about slavery as an experience, one is told, was that it denied enslaved African Americans the liberal rights and liberal subjectivity of modern citizens. It did those things as a matter of course, and as injustice, that denial ranks with the greatest in modern history. But slavery also killed people, in large numbers. From those who survived, it stole everything. Yet the massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire—this vanished in the story of a slavery that was supposedly focused primarily not on producing profit but on maintaining its status as a quasi-feudal elite, or producing modern ideas about race in order to maintain white unity and elite power. And once the violence of slavery was minimized, another voice could whisper, saying that African Americans, both before and after emancipation, were denied the rights of citizens because they would not fight for them.

All these assumptions lead to still more implications, ones that shape attitudes, identities, and debates about policy. If slavery was outside of US history, for instance—if indeed it was a drag and not a rocket booster to American economic growth—then slavery was not implicated in US growth, success, power, and wealth. Therefore none of the massive quantities of wealth and treasure piled by that economic growth is owed to African Americans. Ideas about slavery’s history determine the ways in which Americans hope to resolve the long contradiction between the claims of the United States to be a nation of freedom and opportunity, on the one hand, and, on the other, the unfreedom, the unequal treatment, and the opportunity denied that for most of American history have been the reality faced by people of African descent. Surely, if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of the citizen, one must merely offer them the title of citizen—even elect one of them president—to make amends. Then the issue will be put to rest forever.

Slavery’s story gets told in ways that reinforce all these assumptions. Textbooks segregate twenty-five decades of enslavement into one chapter, painting a static picture. Millions of people each year visit plantation homes where guides blather on about furniture and silverware. As sites, such homes hide the real purpose of these places, which was to make African Americans toil under the hot sun for the profit of the rest of the world. All this is the “symbolic annihilation” of enslaved people, as two scholars of those weird places put it.2 Meanwhile, at other points we tell slavery’s story by heaping praise on those who escaped it through flight or death in rebellion, leaving the listener to wonder if those who didn’t flee or die somehow “accepted” slavery. And everyone who teaches about slavery knows a little dirty secret that reveals historians’ collective failure: many African-American students struggle with a sense of shame that most of their ancestors could not escape the suffering they experienced.

The truth can set us free, if we can find the right questions. But back in the little house in Danville, Anderson was reading from a list of leading ones, designed by white officials—some well- meaning, some not so well-meaning. He surely felt how the gravity of the questions pulled him toward the planet of plantation nostalgia. “Did slaves mind being called ‘nigger’?” “What did slaves call master or mistress?” “Have you been happier in slavery or free?” “Was the mansion house pretty?” Escaping from chains is very difficult, however, so Anderson dutifully asked the prescribed questions and poised his pencil to take notes.

Ivy listened politely. He sat still. Then he began to speak: “My mother’s master was named William Tunstall. He was a mean man. There was only one good thing he did, and I don’t reckon he intended to do that. He sold our family to my father’s master George H. Gilman.”

Perhaps the wind blowing through the window changed as a cloud moved across the spring sun: “Old Tunstall caught the ‘cotton fever.’ There was a fever going round, leastways it was like a fever. Everyone was dying to get down south and grow cotton to sell. So old Tunstall separated families right and left. He took two of my aunts and left their husbands up here, and he separated altogether seven husbands and wives. One woman had twelve children. Yessir. Took ‘em all down south with him to Georgia and Alabama.”

Pervasive separations. Tears carving lines on faces. Lorenzo remembered his relief at dodging the worst, but he also remembered knowing that it was just a lucky break. Next time it could’ve been his mother. No white person was reliable, because money drove their decisions. No, this wasn’t the story the books told.

So Anderson moved to the next question. Did Ivy know if any slaves had been sold here? Now, perhaps, the room grew darker.

For more than a century, white people in the United States had been singling out slave traders as an exception: unscrupulous lower-class outsiders who pried apart paternalist bonds. Scapegoaters had a noble precedent. In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson tried to blame King George III for using the Atlantic slave trade to impose slavery on the colonies. In historians’ tellings, the 1808 abolition of the Atlantic trade brought stability to slavery, ringing in the “Old South,” as it has been called since before the Civil War. Of course, one might wonder how something that was brand new, created after a revolution, and growing more rapidly than any other commodity-producing economy in history before then could be considered “old.” But never mind. Historians depicted slave trading after 1808 as irrelevant to what slavery was in the “Old South,” and to how America as a whole was shaped. America’s modernization was about entrepreneurs, creativity, invention, markets, movement, and change. Slavery was not about any of these things—not about slave trading, or moving people away from everyone they knew in order to make them make cotton. Therefore, modern America and slavery had nothing to do with each other.

But Ivy spilled out a rush of very different words. “They sold slaves here and everywhere. I’ve seen droves of Negroes brought in here on foot going South to be sold. Each one of them had an old tow sack on his back with everything he’s got in it. Over the hills they came in lines reaching as far as the eye can see. They walked in double lines chained together by twos. They walk ‘em here to the railroad and shipped ’em south like cattle.”

Then Lorenzo Ivy said this: “Truly, son, the half has never been told.”

To this, day, it still has not. For the other half is the story of how slavery changed and moved and grew over time: Lorenzo Ivy’s time, and that of his parents and grandparents. In the span of a single lifetime after the 1780s, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out plantations to a subcontinental empire. Entrepreneurial enslavers moved more than 1 million enslaved people, by force, from the communities that survivors of the slave trade from Africa had built in the South and in the West to vast territories that were seized—also by force—from their Native American inhabitants. From 1783 at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and all this expansion produced a powerful nation. For white enslavers were able to force enslaved African-American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people. Their practices rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key raw material during the first century of the industrial revolution. The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization. In fact, slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation—not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing US politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping to make civil war possible.

The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth. And that truth was the half of the story that survived mostly in the custodianship of those who survived slavery’s expansion—whether they had been taken over the hill, or left behind. Forced migration had shaped their lives, and also had shaped what they thought about their lives and the wider history in which they were enmeshed. Even as they struggled to stay alive in the midst of disruption, they created ways to talk about this half untold. But what survivors experienced, analyzed, and named was a slavery that didn’t fit the comfortable boxes into which other Americans have been trying to fit it ever since it ended.

I read Lorenzo Ivy’s words, and they left me uneasy. I sensed that the true narrative had been left out of history—not only American history in general, but even the history of slavery. I began to look actively for the other half of the story, the one about how slavery constantly grew, changed, and reshaped the modern world. Of how it was both modernizing and modern, and what that meant for the people who lived through its incredible expansion. Once I began to look, I discovered that the traces of the other half were everywhere. The debris of cotton fevers that infected white entrepreneurs and separated man and woman, parent and child, right and left, dusted every set of pre–Civil War letters, newspapers, and court documents. Most of all, the half not told ran like a layer of iridium left by a dinosaur- killing asteroid through every piece of testimony that ex- slaves, such as Lorenzo Ivy, left on the historical record: thousands of stanzas of an epic of forced separations, violence, and new kinds of labor.

For a long time I wasn’t sure how to tell the story of this muscular, dynamic process in a single book. The most difficult challenge was simply the fact that the expansion of slavery in many ways shaped the story of everything in the pre–Civil War United States. Enslavers’ surviving papers showed calculations of returns from slave sales and purchases as well as the costs of establishing new slave labor camps in the cotton states. Newspapers dripped with speculations in land and people and the commodities they produced; dramatic changes in how people made money and how much they made; and the dramatic violence that accompanied these practices. The accounts of northern merchants and bankers and factory owners showed that they invested in slavery, bought from and sold to slaveholders, and took slices of profit out of slavery’s expansion. Scholars and students talked about politics as a battle about states’ rights or republican principles, but viewed in a different light the fights can be seen as a struggle between regions about how the rewards of slavery’s expansion would be allocated and whether that expansion could continue.

The story seemed too big to fit into one framework. Even Ivy had no idea how to count the chained lines he saw going southwest toward the mountains on the horizon and the vast open spaces beyond. From the 1790s to the 1860s, enslavers moved 1 million people from the old slave states to the new. They went from making no cotton to speak of in 1790 to making almost 2 billion pounds of it in 1860. Stretching out beyond the slave South, the story encompassed not only Washington politicians and voters across the United States but also Connecticut factories, London banks, opium addicts in China, and consumers in East Africa. And could one book do Lorenzo Ivy’s insight justice? It would have to avoid the old platitudes, such as the easy temptation to tell the story as a collection of topics—here a chapter on slave resistance, there one on women and slavery, and so on. That kind of abstraction cuts the beating heart out of the story. For the half untold was a narrative, a process of movement and change and suspense. Things happened because of what had been done before them—and what people chose to do in response.

No, this had to be a story, and one couldn’t tell it solely from the perspective of powerful actors. True, politicians and planters and bankers shaped policies, the movement of people, and the growing and selling of cotton, and even remade the land itself. But when one takes Lorenzo Ivy’s words as a starting point, the whole history of the United States comes walking over the hill behind a line of people in chains. Changes that reshaped the entire world began on the auction block where enslaved migrants stood or in the frontier cotton fields where they toiled. Their individual drama was a struggle to survive. Their reward was to endure a brutal transition to new ways of labor that made them reinvent themselves every day. Enslaved people’s creativity enabled their survival, but, stolen from them in the form of ever- growing cotton productivity, their creativity also expanded the slaveholding South at an unprecedented rate. Enslaved African Americans built the modern United States, and indeed the entire modern world, in ways both obvious and hidden.

One day I found a metaphor that helped. It came from the great African-American author Ralph Ellison. You might know his novel Invisible Man. But in the 1950s, Ellison also produced incredible essays. In one of them he wrote, “On the moral level I propose we view the whole of American life as a drama enacted on the body of a Negro giant who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which and within which the action unfolds.”

The image fit the story that Ivy’s words raised above the watery surface of buried years. The only problem was that Ellison’s image implied a stationary giant. In the old myth, the stationary, quintessentially unchanging plantation was the site and the story of African-American life from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. But Lorenzo Ivy had described a world in motion. After the American Revolution—which seemed at the time to portend slavery’s imminent demise—a metastatic transformation and growth of slavery’s giant body had begun instead. From the exploitation, commodification, and torture of enslaved people’s bodies, enslavers and other free people gained new kinds of modern power. The sweat and blood of the growing system, a network of individuals and families and labor camps that grew bigger with each passing year, fueled massive economic change. Enslaved people, meanwhile, transported and tortured, had to find ways to survive, resist, or endure. And over time the question of their freedom or bondage came to occupy the center of US politics.

Excerpted from “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward E. Baptist. Published by Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2014 by Edward E. Baptist. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Edward E. Baptist is Associate professor at Cornell University

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The Civil War and the Southern Belle

In the beginning of the war, Southern women wanted their men to leave — in droves, and as quickly as possible. They were the Confederate Army’s most persuasive and effective recruitment officers, shaming anyone who shirked his duty to fight. A young English immigrant in Arkansas enlisted after being accosted at a recruitment meeting. “If every man did not hasten to battle, they vowed they would themselves rush out and meet the Yankee vandals,” he wrote of Southern women. “In a land where women are worshipped by men, such language made them war-mad.”

Newspapers printed gender-bending cartoons that drove the point home. In one, a musket-wielding woman dressed in trousers and a kepi looms over her cowering beau, insisting, “Either you or I, sir.” One Alabama schoolgirl spoke for many of her peers when she declared, “I would not marry a coward.” At balls and parties girls linked arms and sang, “I am Bound to be a Soldier’s Wife or Die an Old Maid.” One belle, upon hearing that her fiancé refused to enlist, sent her slave to deliver a package enclosing a note. The package contained a skirt and crinoline, and the note these terse words: “Wear these, or volunteer.” He volunteered.

A Winslow Homer drawing from 1865 showing a captain, who lost an arm, with his newly independent wife.

A Winslow Homer drawing from 1865 showing a captain, who lost an arm, with his newly independent wife.Credit Brooklyn Museum

In the sudden absence of husbands, fathers, brothers and beaus, white Southern women discovered a newfound freedom — one that simultaneously granted them more power in relationships and increased their likelihood of heartbreak. Gone were the traditions of antebellum courtships, where family connections and wealth were paramount and a closed circle of friends and neighbors scrutinized potential mates, a process that could last for years. The war’s disruptions forced elite Southern parents to loosen rules regarding chaperoning and coquetry, which one prominent lecturer called “an artful mixture of hypocrisy, fraud, treachery and falsehood” that risked tarnishing a girl’s reputation. The girls themselves relinquished the anticipation, instilled since birth, that they would one day assume their positions as wives, mothers and slave mistresses, that their lives would be steeped in every privilege and comfort. The war ultimately challenged not only long-held traditions of courtship and marriage, but the expectation that one might wed at all.

At least in cities where the Confederate Army established a base of operations, young women were overwhelmed by the number of prospective suitors. Thousands of men flocked to the Confederate capital of Richmond, prepared to work in one of the government departments or to train for duty in the Army. The Central Fair Grounds just west of the city were transformed into “Camp Lee,” where the new recruits set up tents and conducted military drills. “Between eight and ten thousand men went down Main St. this afternoon,” wrote a 16-year-old Richmond diarist. “It was very tantalizing to me to hear the drum and the cheering and to be able to see nothing but their bayonets and the tops of their heads. It is wicked in me to wish that I had gone out so that I might see them, and not to wish that I had gone to church, but I love the soldiers so much, that I forget almost everything else when I get to thinking about them.”

Troops marching through the capital blew kisses to the Richmond belles, who returned the attention with unprecedented abandon, waving handkerchiefs and tossing pocket Bibles and pincushions. In the antebellum years, new acquaintances required a formal letter of introduction, but the war allowed for association with complete strangers, men whose names they didn’t even know. The women took unchaperoned trips to Confederate campgrounds, going on horseback rides and picnics, allowing uniformed men to serenade them and plant lingering kisses on their hands — all activities once restricted to engaged couples. Even their style of banter changed, turning aggressive and overtly political, a rebellion against their old identities as genteel Southern ladies. “I confess myself a rebel, body and soul,” declared a Louisiana girl, adding, “Confess? I glory in it!” Union soldiers occupying Southern towns complained of “she-rebels” who spat at them and emptied the contents of chamber pots on their heads.

The relaxed wartime atmosphere led to increased physical intimacy, although in letters and diaries Southern women admitted only to flirting. Casual relationships, and even casual engagements — “slight, silly love affairs,” as one woman called them — flourished. Both women and men kept engagements secret, sometimes specifying that each was still free to see others. “Neither of us is to consider this engagement binding,” wrote a Georgia belle to her betrothed, a Confederate lieutenant. “If another is loved, no sense of honor will prevent our immediately letting the other know of it — so you are still at liberty to fall in love with whom you please, without considering me at all in the way.” One Georgia cavalryman predicted, “If we Stay heare much longer in about 9 months from now thare will be more little Gorgians [sic] a Squalling through this contry then you can Shake a Stick at.” Such liaisons could endanger elite women’s reputations and, in some cases, their lives. One Richmond woman, who became pregnant after an affair with a married Confederate officer, died as a result of complications from a self-induced abortion.

Southern women in rural areas grappled with entirely different concerns: the dearth of suitable men — or any men at all. By the summer of 1863, in New Bern, N. C., only 20 of the 250 white people remaining in town were men. The war was on its way to claiming one in five white Southern men of military age (leaving behind more than 70,000 widows), a situation that prompted frantic letters to the editor. “Having made up my mind not to be an old maid,” an 18-year-old Virginian wrote to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, “and having only a moderate fortune and less beauty, I fear I shall find it rather difficult to accomplish my wishes” (nevertheless she hopefully listed her skills, which included making brandy peaches and “throw[ing] socks in a corner”).

Widowed women in their 30s faced stiff competition for available men in their age group, and suffered constant reminders of their grim odds. The editor of the Petersburg (Va.) Daily Register took pity on older eligible women during the social season of 1864, helpfully warning them against using rouge. “Bachelors are a shy game,” he pointed out, “and when convinced of one deception imagine many more.” As if strategizing over how to thwart younger rivals wasn’t taxing enough, the widows were also national laughingstocks — punch lines to the endless “old maid” jokes that became a staple of American humor. If you were alive during the Civil War, chances are you heard the one about the schoolboy who threw a stone at a dog; he missed the pooch, but hit seven old maids.

As time passed and casualties mounted, some women grew resigned to the idea of life without a husband, while others compromised on acceptable partners. “One looks at a man so differently when you think he may be killed tomorrow,” one South Carolina woman mused. “Men whom up to this time I had thought dull and commonplace … seemed charming.” One in 13 soldiers returned home missing limbs, and the press, pulpit and politicians reminded Southern women that it was their patriotic duty to marry disabled veterans. The “limping soldier,” argued the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, should be treated as aristocracy after the war: “To the young ladies I would say when choosing between an empty sleeve and the man who had remained at home and grown rich, always take the empty sleeve.” There was, of course, a third option that some women took: the unspeakable faux pas of marrying a Yankee. A Nashville girl wrote her brother in the Confederate Army that the local belles were “dropping off into the arms of the ruthless invader.” One, a girl who carried a stiletto and threatened to emulate Charlotte Corday should the enemy invade her city, had “gone the way of all flesh and married an officer with that detestable eagle on his shoulder.”

Toward the end of the war, many Southern women who were widowed or had never married sustained themselves with female friendships (or “Boston marriages,” as they came to be called in the North). They proudly proclaimed their independence, asserting that they preferred the freedom of single life to the entanglements of marriage — a risky “lottery,” in the words of a Louisiana diarist, that subjected women to the “despotism of one man.” While they certainly mourned the deaths of male suitors — as they did the deaths of male relatives — they no longer considered spinsterhood a tragedy. “Clara … thinks we’ll all be old maids yet,” wrote a South Carolinian, recording a friend’s predictions. She added, “I don’t doubt it, neither do I care very much.”

By 1865, all Southern women — the happily and regrettably single, the perpetually engaged, the wives and widows — had tired of the war. The Confederacy was shrinking, and the morale of its remaining men shrinking with it. The Northern press ran a widely reprinted cartoon called “sowing” and “reaping,” chiding Southern women for “hounding their men on to Rebellion” and then complaining about its effects. The Union blockade had sent the cost of goods and food skyrocketing. They were starving; they feared the terrors of Yankee occupation; they had exhausted both their patriotism and their patience. “Oh my dear husband how shall I live without you?” wrote one Mississippi woman. “When will this cruel war end?” It was time, at last, for the surviving husbands, fathers, brothers and beaus to lay down their arms and come home.

Karen Abbott’s forthcoming book, “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War,” will be published in September. Her website is http://www.karenabbott.net.

SOURCES: Catherine Clinton, “Southern Families at War: Loyalty and Conflict in the Civil War South”; Lisa Tendrich Frank, “Women in the American Civil War”; Giselle Roberts, “The Confederate Belle”; Anya Jabour, “Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South”; David Andrew Silkenat, “Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War era North Carolina” (dissertation); Lacy K. Ford, “A Companion to the Civil War and Reconstruction”; Mary Elizabeth Massey, “Women in the Civil War”; Richard F. Selcer, “Civil War America, 1850-1875”; A. Wilson Greene, “Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War”; William C. David and Russ A. Pritchard, “Fighting Men of the Civil War”; Stephen W. Berry, “All That Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South” and “Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges”; Amy Murrell Taylor, “The Divided Family in Civil War America”; J. David Hacker, Libra Hilde, and James Holland Jones, “The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns.”

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