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Whose Lost Cause?

Scott Borchert May 19, 2010

Book Review*

by Scott Borchert

Race and Radicalism in the Union Army by Mark A. Lause  (University of Illinois Press, 2009)

In the decades following the U.S. Civil War there was a rash of monument building.  Plaques were sunk into ground still littered with shards of weaponry and human beings; statues appeared on the landscape like mute and stationary ghosts.  The big battlefields were marked off and preserved along with some of the little ones.  People and places least likely to be forgotten were the most likely to be commemorated: powerful officers and men who shared their names with towns were plunked down in granite, the sites of famous battles were plugged into a spatial constellation of officially sanctioned memory.

Bound up with all this physical construction was the simultaneous construction of a social and historical narrative, one that had little to do with gray and blue and much to do with glorifying the war in the abstract.  What mattered most was the honor of the battlefield and that both sides could claim it in equal measure — the rest, details.  Frederick Douglass in particular smelled a rat and denounced this trend, arguing that equal opportunity monument building obscured the fundamental issue of the war: slavery.1  He and others recognized that this new ideology effectively recast the Civil War as primarily a sectional rather than social conflict, and he fought against it until the day he died.  More than a century later we can see that the ideology outlived him: Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia recently issued a proclamation that declared April “Confederate History Month” without once mentioning slavery (the proclamation was hastily amended after a public outcry).

But not every aspect of the war was so easily absorbed by this evolving narrative of sectional conflict, and not every battlefield was commemorated.  Honey Springs Depot in what was then Indian Territory (and today Oklahoma) was the site of the region’s most significant battle, but the Union Army veterans who fought there with the District of the Frontier showed no interest in erecting a monument.  Instead, the battlefield quietly melted back into the farmland, the knowledge of its precise location lost for generations.

Race and Radicalism in the Union ArmyIt was a meaningful historical silence on the part of these Union veterans, and one that is at the heart of Mark Lause’s Race and Radicalism in the Union Army.  But it’s perhaps unsurprising when we consider who they were.  Unlike the rest of the Union Army, the District of the Frontier was a tri-racial army composed mainly of people of color and led by a handful of radical abolitionists, land reform militants, and socialists.  In fact, some of the officers (most of whom were white) were close associates of John Brown and rode with him in Kansas, skirmishing with pro-slavery forces immediately prior to the war.  The ranks were drawn primarily from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole nations, along with many escaped slaves and free black volunteers.

It’s remarkable to consider that only a few years after John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, some of his key cadres and supporters were on the federal payroll, organizing and arming a large fighting force of predominantly non-white soldiers to attack the armies of the slave-holding elite head-on.  And as the western edge of the Civil War began to look more like a war for liberation, the basic assumptions underpinning hierarchies of race and class were called into question.  Lause argues that the very existence of such an army points to an understanding of the Civil War as a truly revolutionary period, one in which the prevailing regimes of white supremacy, colonial expansion, and class oppression came under direct challenge by the oppressed themselves and their radical allies.  It wasn’t just the Confederate military claim to the region that was under threat; the entire set of social relations involving race, property, and nationhood suddenly seemed in dispute.  Multiple struggles for emancipation, for self-determination, and for sundry visions of “free labor,” radical land reform, and even socialism all came together under the not always comfortable auspices of the Union Army in a way that “required the people themselves to mount the stage of history, write their own dialogue, and direct their own actions” (3).

Lause tells their story in this concise but engrossing book, and in so doing presents a counter-narrative to the one manifested in statues of Confederate generals and regurgitated appeals to the “dewy-eyed romance of ‘the Lost Cause'” (128).  The explanations he offers for this revolutionary moment are complex but rest on the fact that the mid-nineteenth century United States was beset by two related problems: “clashes among . . . [ruling class] authorities reflected an unprecedented crisis in the coherence of the ruling elites and their institutions” at the same time that a particular “ideology of American republicanism had introduced a usually minor factor in such considerations: the aspirations of ordinary people unwilling to accept the status quo” (13).  For Lause, these aspirations found partial but powerful expression in the District of the Frontier.  That this tri-racial army led by radicals, for all its limitations and contradictions, appeared in the midst of a profound crisis of the bourgeoisie meant that the “status quo” was no longer secure: it was a moment charged with revolutionary potential.

But from our twenty-first century perspective, it appears as only that: potential.  While emancipation from chattel slavery and the crushing of the Confederacy were tremendous victories, the alternative visions of U.S. society held by so many veterans of the District of the Frontier have not come to pass.  This is especially true when we consider those who made up the bulk of the soldiers: native peoples and African-Americans.

For the former, Union campaigns to secure Indian Territory and drive out the Confederates (and, it should be said, their secessionist Indian allies) quickly mutated into the government campaigns of westward colonization, assimilation, and annihilation that would dominate the remainder of the century.  During the war, Abraham Lincoln insisted that all Indian treaties were to be honored, against the wishes of many in his administration.2  But after his assassination, the federal government nullified the treaties and renegotiated them on terms more favorable to white settler expansion and, in particular, the railroad companies.

For the latter, the triumph of emancipation and the initial promise of Reconstruction gave way to the superexploitation of black labor under an invigorated capitalism in the south, and, as the planter class regained local power, the reorganization of racist social control through Jim Crow laws and KKK (and state) terrorism.

Although white abolitionists in the District of the Frontier were vindicated by emancipation, many of them thought beyond the injustice of slavery: “most desired a vastly more decentralized and democratized civilization, one dominated by free labor liberated from the dictates of capital as well as slaveholding” (3).  But with the demise of chattel slavery, capital grew only more concentrated and more powerful as it tightened its grip on the nation and spawned the beginnings of modern U.S. empire — a disappointment, to say the least.

Here it’s instructive to consider the lives of two prominent — and, in their own ways, representative — figures in Lause’s account.  James A. Blunt was the general in command of the District of the Frontier at the Battle of Honey Springs.  Before the war, he was a militant abolitionist and associate of John Brown who sheltered runaway slaves in his Kansas home.  After the outbreak of hostilities, he was an officer in the Kansas “Lane Brigade” under the anti-slavery general Jim Lane, whose forces adopted an emancipationist policy far before the rest of the Union Army.  Although Blunt would stick to similar policies after he was promoted to general himself, he also oversaw, if indirectly, Union campaigns against Indian nations to the west (including the infamous Sand Creek Massacre of 1864) and gained a reputation for being completely beholden to one of the most powerful capitalist interests in the region, a supply company owned by a man named Alexander McDonald.  Most of the corruption promoted by McDonald and facilitated by Blunt involved arranging sweetheart deals with the army and selling property seized from Indians or Confederates for private gain, especially livestock.  Eventually, Blunt declared that the cattle rustling endemic to the region was a matter to be policed by the woefully inadequate military, thus effectively giving rustlers (many of whom were government contractors) the freedom to steal cattle from Indian nations and occasionally sell portions of the beef back at inflated prices — a model of primitive accumulation in the nineteenth century United States if there ever was one.  After the war Blunt drifted further from his original egalitarian principles and eventually died an inmate in an insane asylum, “mercifully spared much self-awareness” (133).  If we are to take the more cynical view, then Blunt’s downward trajectory from active opponent of slavery to servant of capital and agent of colonialism seems like an adequate representation of whatever revolutionary potential might have existed in the Union Army’s District of the Frontier.

But let us take a more positive, although no less realistic, view, which I think is what Lause’s book encourages.  William Addison Phillips came from a similar background as Blunt: he arrived in Kansas a passionate abolitionist and a partisan of the National Reform Association (which advocated radical land reform and prefigured the Republican Party), and was drawn into John Brown’s circle.  During the war Phillips was a colonel in Blunt’s army and displayed an amazing capacity for winning large numbers of Confederate soldiers — both conscripted Indians and poor whites — away from the secessionist cause and into the ranks of the Union Army.  He also scorned the corruption that so mired his general and former abolitionist comrade.  In fact, after Blunt issued the order that basically gave cattle rustlers a free hand to steal from Indians, Phillips ordered the Indian Home Guards under his command to practice self defense.  They did, and “blandly he informed his astonished superiors that under his orders Indians in army uniform had shot and killed white government contractors or subcontractors” (119).  No wonder that despite his success as an officer Phillips never received any official recognition from — and was on several occasions almost kicked out of — the Union Army.

After the war Phillips was elected to congress as a Radical Republican.  He served as a legal advisor to the Cherokee nation and even married into it after the death of his first wife; with his second wife he co-authored Labor, Land, and Law: A Search for the Missing Wealth of the Working Poor.  While Phillips never quite embraced the growing socialist movement (and distrusted the Populists for their views on white settlement on Indian land), he remained close with several socialists from their time in the Union Army, including Richard Josiah Hinton, who became a prominent advocate for socialism and helped organize U.S. sections of the First International.

It is Phillips, then, along with radicals like Hinton — and the countless Indian and black Union veterans who faced a different sort of struggle (and are far less documented in the historical record) — who best represent the revolutionary potential of the Civil War.  They, we can imagine, would be skeptical, just as Frederick Douglass was, of any official monument raised at Honey Springs Depot in ideological coordination with monuments to the defeated slave power.  The historical moment from which they emerged with its immense contradictions and unsure composure was marked by shades of defeat and an element of betrayal, yes, but not of total devastation or capitulation.  So it’s not hard to conclude, with Lause, that the uncommemorated battlefield they left was “a reflexive act of protest” on the part of “John Brown’s body of followers and the veterans they led,” a sign of their refusal to “collaborate in creating yet another park for officially constructed historical memory.”  Instead, as Lause puts it rather poetically, “they chose to keep their hopes unconfined by any reservation” (139).

And perhaps this — their vision for a more egalitarian society in which white supremacy and colonialism are dismantled conclusively and our aim becomes the total emancipation of all labor — is a “Lost Cause” of the Civil War that is worth remembering.

And perhaps we should insist that it will rise again.

1  For more, see David W. Blight, “‘For Something beyond the Battlefield’: Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the Memory of the Civil War,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 75 No. 4 (March 1989): 1156-1178.

2  Lause relates the story of a delegation from the Creek nation that arrived in Washington D.C. to discuss their treaties with Lincoln personally.  Instead, they were met by officials from his administration who “strove heroically to keep them from meeting the president.  Indeed, OIA [Office of Indian Affairs] officials cynically introduced one of their number to the Indians as ‘Lincoln,’ apparently leaving the president ignorant that the delegation was even in Washington” (65).

* This review originally appeared on MRzine

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