Lucy Wors­ley

BBC History Magazine - - Welcome - Ac­com­pa­nies Lucy Wors­ley’s BBC Four se­ries Amer­i­can History’s Big­gest Fibs

I trav­elled all over Amer­ica in the hot sum­mer just past, in­ves­ti­gat­ing how the coun­try’s history gets used and abused by politi­cians and peo­ple alike in the process of build­ing a nation.

Lucy con­sid­ers the Amer­i­can Civil War’s con­tested legacy

To gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­cans, Abra­ham Lin­coln is the Great Eman­ci­pa­tor, the man who ended slav­ery. But, ar­gues Lucy Wors­ley, scratch be­neath the sur­face and you’ll find that the pres­i­dent’s mo­tives weren’t as un­blem­ished as many peo­ple be­lieve

The Lin­coln Me­mo­rial in Wash­ing­ton DC is very fa­mil­iar to Bri­tish eyes – not least be­cause Amer­i­can ac­tion movies of­ten seem to show it and the other mon­u­ments of the cap­i­tal’s Na­tional Mall un­der at­tack from ter­ror­ists, crim­i­nals or even aliens. A spec­tac­u­lar as­sault on the land­marks of Wash­ing­ton DC is Hol­ly­wood short­hand for ex­press­ing the idea that Amer­ica and its val­ues are un­der threat.

But visit the me­mo­rial on any sum­mer’s day, and you’ll find it a peace­ful place, crowded with school­child­ren pay­ing a first visit to their nation’s cap­i­tal, and learn­ing from their teach­ers the ba­sic story of Amer­ica’s 16th pres­i­dent, Abra­ham Lin­coln. He’s one of the tow­er­ing fig­ures in the story that Amer­i­cans tell about them­selves in or­der to ex­plain – in the absence of a long shared history or nat­u­ral bor­ders – what holds their nation to­gether.

What the schoolkids very of­ten learn is that Abra­ham Lin­coln is the ‘Great Eman­ci­pa­tor’, the man who ended slav­ery, thereby end­ing the Civil War of 1861– 65 be­tween Amer­ica’s north, and the break­away states of its south. And he’s been hero-wor­shipped by many sub­se­quent Amer­i­cans for these achieve­ments. “He moved a nation,” said Amer­ica’s 44th pres­i­dent, Barack Obama, “and helped free a peo­ple.” Mean­while, its 45th once promised to be “more pres­i­den­tial than any pres­i­dent that’s ever held this of­fice”, with just one ex­cep­tion: that of the “late, great Abra­ham Lin­coln”.

The Great Eman­ci­pa­tor’s me­mo­rial is it­self a sort of phys­i­cal em­bod­i­ment of the postCivil War, re­united Union. Its builders were care­ful to use stone from both the south­ern states that had formed their own Con­fed­er­acy, and the north­ern states who re­mained within the Union. Around the top are the names of in­di­vid­ual states, in­clud­ing the Union states that had abol­ished slav­ery be­fore the Civil War be­gan, and the Con­fed­er­ate states in which slav­ery re­mained le­gal. But the me­mo­rial mixes up the names of all the states to­gether, north and south alike, to show that the USA’s in­dis­sol­u­ble na­ture is writ­ten in stone.

The Lin­coln Me­mo­rial makes it seem like the Amer­i­can Civil War is well and truly over. But it was only last year that a woman died in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia dur­ing a dis­pute about how ex­actly the bloody con­flict of 150 years ago should con­tinue to be com­mem­o­rated. There are many holes in the school­book suc­cess story of Lin­coln eman­ci­pat­ing the slaves and heal­ing a di­vided nation.

For a start, Abe Lin­coln is not quite the hero with mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties about slav­ery that peo­ple of­ten as­sume. To him, the eman­ci­pa­tion of up to 4 mil­lion African Amer­i­cans who laboured on the plan­ta­tions and in­dus­tries of the South was not an end in it­self. It was a means to an end, a tac­tic to­wards de­feat­ing the South by dam­ag­ing its econ­omy. The se­ces­sion of the south­ern states had in any case hap­pened not purely over the is­sue of slav­ery but, more ac­cu­rately, over the is­sue of whether or not slav­ery was go­ing to be per­mit­ted in the new states form­ing in the west­ern part of the North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent and want­ing to join the Union.

No place in Amer­ica?

For peo­ple who be­lieve un­crit­i­cally in the im­age of the Great Eman­ci­pa­tor, Lin­coln made some sur­pris­ing state­ments about slav­ery. Here’s just one of them: “If I could save the Union with­out free­ing any slave, I would.” He also be­lieved in the rather barmy idea – or so it seems to mod­ern eyes – that the for­merly en­slaved had no place in the United States, but in­stead ought to be sent back to their na­tive Africa, or even to South or Cen­tral Amer­ica.

Lin­coln cer­tainly was no abo­li­tion­ist along the lines of Har­riet Beecher Stowe, whose

To Lin­coln, the eman­ci­pa­tion of African Amer­i­cans was not an end in it­self, it was the means to an end

novel Un­cle Tom’s Cabin (1852) did so much to per­suade peo­ple that slav­ery was morally wrong. And his achieve­ment was much more sub­tle than sim­ply or­der­ing eman­ci­pa­tion to hap­pen. Lin­coln’s skill was to oc­cupy a slowly chang­ing suc­ces­sion of po­si­tions that lay well be­hind the cut­ting edge of rad­i­cal thought on the evil of slav­ery. But, as he made the jour­ney to­wards the idea that slav­ery is un­ac­cept­able, he was able to take the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans with him. In other words, he wasn’t a saint, but a hu­man be­ing. And a hu­man be­ing who hap­pened to be a supremely gifted politi­cian.

It was well into the war that Lin­coln de­cided to make his ‘Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion’ (ef­fec­tive Jan­uary 1863). Even then, the doc­u­ment did not prom­ise free­dom to all slaves.

A num­ber of slave-own­ing states re­mained loyal to the Union. Some of those with vul­ner­a­ble, valu­able po­si­tions on the bor­der of the Con­fed­er­acy were al­lowed to main­tain slav­ery in or­der to keep them on Lin­coln and the Union’s side.

Trail of dev­as­ta­tion

Some of the be­hav­iour of Lin­coln’s Union troops to­wards the for­mer slaves who’d es­caped or been freed by their own­ers was hor­ri­bly com­pro­mised.

One such con­tro­versy marks the epic 1864 march by a Union army across the state of Ge­or­gia. Led by Gen­eral Wil­liam Sher­man and march­ing un­der a flag of eman­ci­pa­tion, the army left a wide trail of dev­as­ta­tion in its wake. Those on the Union side of the story see it as a suc­cess­ful mercy mis­sion to free the slaves. How­ever, Sher­man’s cam­paign can also be read as an un­nec­es­sar­ily bru­tal act of to­tal war which saw the in­vaders fail to live up to their sup­posed ideals.

That might even have be­come the opin­ion of the for­merly en­slaved African Amer­i­cans who at­tached them­selves to the train of a Union leader op­er­at­ing un­der Sher­man, Brigadier Gen­eral Jef­fer­son C Davis. A large num­ber – the ex­act fig­ure is un­known – of es­caped slaves joined Davis’s forces. They wanted the pro­tec­tion of Lin­coln’s army. Af­ter all, troops in the ser­vice of the Great Eman­ci­pa­tor would surely look af­ter them. But Davis wanted to rid his bag­gage train of what he saw as an en­cum­brance of “use­less ne­groes”, slow­ing him down and in­creas­ing risk.

Davis’s army used pon­toon bridges to cross a swamp of deep-run­ning black wa­ters at Ebenezer Creek near Sa­van­nah. But in an act that stains the mem­ory and mo­tives of the Union side, he left his un­wel­come re­cruits be­hind and in dan­ger of fall­ing into Con­fed­er­ate hands. One of Davis’s col­leagues be­lieved that this his must re­sult in “all these ne­groes be­ing re­cap­tured ecap­tured or per­haps bru­tally shot”. In the event, many of them died try­ing to cross the swamp on their own makeshift rafts, or even by swim­ming through its wa­ters.

Ebenezer Creek was just one shame­ful in­ci­dent, but the fur­ther un­der­min­ing of Lin­coln’s rep­u­ta­tion as the Great Eman­ci­pa­tor be­gan even as the mourn­ing for his 1865 as­sas­si­na­tion, and his sub­se­quent com­mem­o­ra­tion, were still in progress.

Soon af­ter his death, a for­mer slave named Char­lotte Scott gave five dol­lars from her pay to go to­wards an­other statue of Lin­coln, not the stone me­mo­rial on the Mall, but the bronze Eman­ci­pa­tion Me­mo­rial in a dif­fer­ent part of Wash­ing­ton DC.

At the un­veil­ing of the statue, though, a black politi­cian and re­former named Fred­er­ick Dou­glass made an im­por­tant speech. He pointed out that, even if Lin­coln ended slav­ery, he al­ways chose the course of ac­tion that would most ad­van­tage white Amer­ica. “I as much as any other man,” Lin­coln once said, “am in favour of hav­ing the su­pe­rior po­si­tion as­signed to the white race.”

Fred­er­ick Dou­glass and oth­ers would watch with cha­grin as the end­ing en of slav­ery in a for­mal sense turned into i less of­fi­cial forms of abuse of African Amer­i­cans. A Racial seg­re­ga­tion be­came a fac fact of life in many for­merly Con­fed­er­ate states, stat as did us­ing the for­merly en­slaved a as poorly paid labour. In­deed, ‘slav­ery’ was still pos­si­ble – in all but name. The Chat­ta­hoo Chat­ta­hoochee Brick Com­pany

was a par­tic­u­larly heinous ex­am­ple of this. Op­er­at­ing at full steam to re­build the city of At­lanta af­ter the Civil War, it pro­duced mil­lions of bricks a year. To do so, it ex­ploited a loop­hole in the 13th Amend­ment to the United States Con­sti­tu­tion, which for­malised eman­ci­pa­tion. Slav­ery can no longer ex­ist, this amend­ment says, “ex­cept as pun­ish­ment for crime”.

So, if you were con­victed of a crime – a sit­u­a­tion that ap­plied dis­pro­por­tion­ately to black peo­ple – you could find your­self work­ing for hardly any money un­der a scheme called ‘con­vict leas­ing’. If par­tic­u­larly un­lucky, you might find your­self in the Chat­ta­hoochee Brick Com­pany’s yard out­side At­lanta, where thou­sands of con­victs were worked to death, and whose bod­ies are thought still to lie be­neath the rem­nants of the com­pany’s works.

A tacit re­buke

It was all this and more that led Martin Luther King to stand on the steps of the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial on 28 Au­gust 1963 to ad­dress a rally of more than 200,000 peo­ple march­ing for civil rights.

It was no ac­ci­dent that King chose this spot to make a speech that in­cluded the words ‘I Have a Dream’. He was re­fer­ring to the Amer­i­can Dream, and sig­nalling that King and his fel­low black Amer­i­cans also, like white peo­ple, dreamed of liv­ing as full cit­i­zens within Lin­coln’s Union. By stand­ing on the steps of the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial, King was say­ing tac­itly that the pres­i­dent’s legacy had let him and his like down. Eman­ci­pa­tion had promised more to black Amer­i­cans than it had de­liv­ered.

Of course, a lot has changed since 1963. But the Civil War and its memo­ri­als are still caus­ing dis­may and even vi­o­lence in 2018. The nexus has been a small park in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, a quiet col­lege town. When I vis­ited it in June, I was driven by a taxi driver named Mario, whose mar­riage cer­e­mony had taken place out­doors in the lit­tle park. He told me he’d been sur­prised when his fa­ther re­fused to pose for the wed­ding pho­tos near the park’s cen­tral statue.

Mario’s fa­ther had strong neg­a­tive feel­ings about the statue be­cause it’s a me­mo­rial to an­other Civil War gen­eral – a Con­fed­er­ate this time – named Robert E Lee. To Mario’s older rel­a­tives, the statue of Gen­eral Lee is not ‘ just’ an art­work – it’s the legacy of a white su­prem­a­cist way of life that still re­stricts the op­por­tu­ni­ties of black peo­ple to­day.

And Mario’s fam­ily cer­tainly weren’t alone in hold­ing the statue of Gen­eral Lee in con­tempt. In 2017, Char­lottesville city coun­cil voted to change the name of the area from ‘Lee Park’ to ‘Eman­ci­pa­tion Park’, so as to counter the ef­fect of the statue at its heart. Some went fur­ther still, and ar­gued that the statue should come down al­to­gether. Part of the of­fence lies in the fact that the statue of Lee isn’t a prod­uct of the Civil War or its af­ter­math. It was erected be­tween 1917 and 1924, a pe­riod when con­fi­dence was re­turn­ing to the South af­ter the calamity of the 1860s – and when lynch­ings and other ac­tiv­i­ties by the Ku Klux Klan were on the rise.

How­ever, the threat to re­move the statue brought out an al­liance of pro­tes­tors in its de­fence, in­clud­ing mem­bers of an ex­trem­ist group called ‘Unite the Right’. There were vi­o­lent clashes and, as a con­se­quence of the ac­tions of one of ‘Unite the Right’s’ sup­port­ers, a woman – Heather Heyer – died.

It may seem ex­tra­or­di­nary to sug­gest that a per­son killed in 2017 was the most re­cent ca­su­alty of the Amer­i­can Civil War, a con­flict that’s sup­posed to be long over. But there’s cer­tainly some­thing in the claim. “We’re still suf­fer­ing, we have so much heal­ing to do,” said Heather Heyer’s mother in Au­gust 2018, one year on from her daugh­ter’s death. “We have a huge racial prob­lem in our city and in our coun­try.”

That’s quite at odds with the mes­sage of unity im­plicit in the me­mo­rial to Lin­coln that in­tro­duces the man and his mean­ing to so many Amer­i­cans to this day.

Bri­tain has the ad­van­tage of sev­eral help­ful tools for nation-build­ing: cen­turies of history, a con­ve­nient nat­u­ral bor­der, even a pow­er­ful monar­chy for­merly un­afraid to use force to keep its con­stituent parts to­gether.

Amer­ica, on the other hand, lack­ing all those things, has had to write its own story. And, when it gets to the chap­ter about the Civil War, it’s clearly very far from hav­ing reached its fi­nal draft.

It’s been ar­gued that a per­son killed in 2017 was the most re­cent ca­su­alty of the Amer­i­can Civil War

Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, at the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial in 2009. “He moved a nation and helped free a peo­ple,” Obama has said of his cel­e­brated pre­de­ces­sor

ABOVE: Lucy Wors­ley at Ebenezer Creek, Ge­or­gia – where many African Amer­i­cans drowned dur­ing the Civil War – while film­ing her se­ries Amer­i­can History’s Big­gest FibsLEFT: Slaves re­turn­ing from cot­ton fields in South Carolina, c1860. Their eman­ci­pa­tion didn’t bring le­gal forms of abuse of African Amer­i­cans to an end

The black k politi­cian Fred­er­ick k Dou­glass ar­gued that hat Lin­coln al­ways chose e the course that most ost favoured white e Amer­i­cans

A pro­tes­tor pays trib­ute to Heather Heyer, who died in clashes over the fate of a statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen­eral Lee in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, Au­gust 2017

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