Insurrection & Slave Rebellion in Civil War America

July 24th, 2010 | 9 comments

Black union soldiers taking aim.

In The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, Stephen Hahn makes the case for insurrection – if not a rethinking of rebellion – among Southern slaves during the American Civil War. The title of chapter two places this claim within the context of American history on the subject: “Did We Miss the Greatest Slave Rebellion in Modern History?” Hahn’s casually inclusive “we” invokes the primarily white American scholars who have sculpted something of a glorious history of the Civil War as America’s struggle against slavery. In this narrative – somewhat whitewashed – the Union North took up arms against the slave-owning Confederacy South, if not at first over slavery, then at least by the end of the war broadly claiming emancipation as its raison d’être.

As Hahn is at delicate pains to point out, what this narrative presupposes is the passivity of the slave class (58; 160-161). Slaves have little or no agency in regards to their emancipation. While Northern African-Americans as well as freed southern slaves fought in the Civil War, southern slave plantations did not rise up against their white masters en masse. Why was this? Of course, Confederate mythology, exemplified in films such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, depicts a rose-tinted relationship between benevolent white masters and singin’ & dancin’ black slaves, both who view the Civil War as an invasion. Even among centrist, Abolitionist or integrationist accounts of the War, slaves were often praised for not rising up against the South. In their passivity, the Southern slaves demonstrated civility in this “white man’s war” — a war which was nothing less than a struggle over the fate of black labour.

Hahn poses an alternative reading to the simplism in which passivity marked black patriotism. By contrast, Southern slaves were knowledgeable enough of the conditions of the War, as well as the tricky political terrain in which the War was fought – in short, aware of the ideological role of emancipation, and suspicious of the North’s apparent “freedom” – to carefully navigate between full-scale rebellion and widespread insurrection:

Together, the evidence suggests that slaves could be acutely aware of conflicts that erupted between white people and nations ruled by white people; that slaves often imagined a set of possible allies and enemies; that slaves could be cognizant of the national and international struggle over slavery and the slave trade and, depending on where they resided, of momentous emancipations; that slaves often became conversant with institutions and issues of local and national politics and might develop sophisticated understandings of how the American political system operated; and that slaves fashioned interpretations of what seemed to be afoot, at times in ways that moved well beyond the intentions of the political actors. (Political Worlds 75)

The difference here is between passivity as honourable and patriot civility, and passivity as strategic retreat. While the former ensures that the psychological condition of the black class remains one of subservience to the American white State – substituting the Southern slave for the civility and patriotism of the Northern black – the latter suggests a thoughtful if not coordinated use of passivity as a strategy and as a smokescreen for clandestine activity including direct action. Moreover, as Hahn reveals, passivity and the myth of the civil and patriot black – though undoubtedly correct to the degree that Southern slaves did not ignite a fullscale armed rebellion, as in Saint Domingue – nonetheless partake in an ideological reshaping of history applied after the fact by both Reconstructionist politicians and historians, both within and without the African-American community. In this respect, passivity as a strategic retreat needs to be rethought aside from the limiting concepts of patriotism and civility. From Hahn’s research I would suggest that the southern slaves let the white war fight itself out, aiding the North when and where possible, and for the most part, rather than rising in rebellion, fleeing by the thousands in what has been characterized as exodus to Northern lines (Hahn details the many accounts of slaves arriving ready to fight). If this is the case, then several preconditions must be established, notably that (1) there were operative systems of communication among southern slave plantations capable of transmitting accurate and timely information concerning lines of flight, the political stakes of the War, and the conditions of the War itself (48); and that (2) the quality of such information must include a more nuanced knowledge of the so-called free North, namely that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be (80; 84).

Hahn sets to work on these two conditions, demonstrating with primary evidence the extensive communication networks among slave plantations, as well as reshaping the American understanding of the “free” North. Hahn recounts evidence of word-of-mouth communication networks that demonstrate how not only were slave plantations aware of slave rebellions in other countries – such as the French colony of Saint Domingue, now Haiti – but that these networks were thick connections capable of transmitting valuable information of escape and aid, such as who was on the run, how, when and where. (Indeed the famed “Underground Railroad” was as much a network of slave plantations aiding fleeing slaves – often escapees went from plantation to plantation, fed and cared for by other slaves – as much as it was a network of Abolitionist whites (37-43).)

The epistemological reshaping of the free North is perhaps more shocking to sanitized versions of American history in which the Civil War is cast as a black and white struggle (metaphorical as well as literal). On the contrary, the much vaunted and mythologized freedom of America was then (as is now) deeply contradictory (7-14). Many Northern states allowed Southern slave owners to not only hunt down escaped slaves, but to keep slaves on their Northern properties. Northern African-Americans organised against such extensions of slavery into so-called free States; in the North one sees organised committees of African-Americans actively warning escaped slaves of these dangers, organising self-defence militias and armed parties to return escaped slaves – through forceful means – who had been brutally recaptured. In ways sociocultural and legal, the white North aided and abetted slavery; in ways rebellious and insurrectionary, Northern African-Americans fought against not only the slave-owning South but the slave-abetting North. They fought, in other words, against the apparatus of a discriminatory State in general. In many African-American writings and slave diaries, the only true save haven became an exit from the Union entirely — to Canada or the United Kingdom (where one undoubtedly encountered institutionalized as well as cultural racism, but not outright slavery).

Overall, the nature of rebellion is reconsidered by Hahn in light of the complexity of the War, a situation demanding exacting strategy between an enslaved underclass – itself a multitude of privilege and skill, from the agricultural labourers to the Big House skilled practitioners – and the various degrees of educated and employed Northern blacks, though undoubtedly still an underclass to white supremacy. It is from this position that Hahn makes the case for widespread insurrection during the Civil War, including acts of sabotage, disruption, property destruction, refusal of work, demands for pay, direct action and exodus (60-66; 70-72; 141). Though southern slaves did not stage a full-scale rebellion against the slave-owning South, they fled it en masse to Northern lines. Strategically this is good sense: why stage a rebellion with pitchforks when one can do so from a position of power – armed with the weapons and military strategy of the North? The consequences of a Southern rebellion might have precipitated a massacre, staged not only by their former masters (as demonstrated with Nat Turner) but with the aid of a “civil” North which viewed black rebellion against whites, no matter what the terms and conditions, as impermissible. Furthermore, fighting under the North – often in black brigades – granted a degree of armed autonomy to African-Americans. Undoubtedly this knowledge was put to good use.

Implicit in Hahn’s thesis is that exodus is a form of insurrection (141), a thesis that is rendered explicit in theories of Italian Autonomia (Paolo Virno, Christian Marazzi, Toni Negri, etc). To flee in an organised fashion – exodus as strategic retreat – is to establish the conditions for a new republic. The history of North America itself can be charted against the various attempts by peoples of all kinds to flee the State through forms of exodus. In this respect, Hahn traces in some detail the attempts by African-Americans, former slaves or not, to establish autonomous territory or freetowns, in the likes of maroon camps, in places in which neither North nor South would venture (24; 32). Though banding together in numbers for reasons of self-defence led to the ghettos of the 20th century (and perhaps one must ask: has the strategy changed?), the history of maroonage implies that organised exodus was undertaken as a separation from the State itself. Freetowns often had their own armed militias, systems of governance, networks of trade and barter, industries including agriculture and amenities, and basic infrastructure (though certainly impoverished, even by the standards of the day). Can the maroonage be viewed as total secession? Perhaps the most telling evidence is that, like the French Revolution, time itself was overthrown, the marking of the past and the future redefined, the rituals of life and religion rewritten:

black settlements and enclaves developed around churches benevolent societies of their own making and around political calendars of their own design, which, among other things, commemorated signal events of an unfolding emancipation process: the abolition of the international slave trade, the ending of slavery in their particular states, and the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies. (Political Worlds 33).

Further, one must ask the question – a question undoubtedly also posed by African-Americans, North and South – what if the Confederacy won? If widescale rebellion had erupted in the South, its days would have been numbered, and the Confederate response brutal and without mercy; there would have been no North to come to their aid. But if the North had fallen and there had been no slave uprising, then one could imagine the emergence of armed black units conducting guerilla warfare against the South, using the military knowledge (and arms) they had accumulated from fighting with the North. Indeed, one could imagine a mixed white/black Northern guerilla force. Why would this be so? For there would be no “Black Reconstruction” of the North; the Confederacy summarily executed Northern African-American soldiers, refusing to recognise them as such. In the eyes of the Confederacy, armed blacks were a double negative: slaves and traitors (55). There was no mercy for blacks on the battlefield. Undoubtedly those who fought with them were treated with scarcely more leniency. Black units were often noted for their courageous battlefield actions; they had nothing to lose. When fighting such an enemy, Lao Tse comes to mind, for the war is unwinnable. If the South had won, the Vietnam war would have torn apart the United States a century earlier — and it would have resulted in the complete ruin of Confederate America.

But the North did win. I can imagine militant African-Americans being faced with a choice after tasting the self-governance that “emerged out of the struggles and experiences of enslavement and quickly manifested itself in the period after emancipation” (139). There must have been the moment, here and there, where armed black militias considered their options: fight for autonomy over land and state, or accept the terms of Northern “emancipation”? One can understand the resulting retreat into a narrative of honourable and civil passivity; to continue to fight would have been impossible, for a defeated South would have gladly joined the victorious North in ending any such rebellion. Indeed, if African-Americans had fought for further gains in emancipation, if not outright autonomy, it would have vindicated the arguments of the slave-owning South, and confirmed all the racist fears of the North. By consequence, and strategy, the underground rebellion and acts of general insurrection against the State itself would have to be rewritten otherwise, especially among African-Americans (even if their festivals and calendars, as Hahn remarks, celebrated them). And so double-consciousness was, if not already born, organised as a discourse:

But with rare exception, they did not speak or write of rebellion and revolution. From the hustings, the pulpits, the newspapers, and the history books, black leaders took pains to stress the order, discipline, responsibility, restraint, and sobriety that were to be found in their wartime communities, and especially among their men. Slaves did not so much rebel against their condition and their masters as come to save the Union in its darkest hour. [...] They were civil, their masters barbarous. (Political Worlds 104)

Hahn ends his text on an interesting note by reconsidering the reception of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA, correcting the misperception that Garvey solely advocated a “back to Africa” movement (122; 132). Today, Garvey’s position appears far more amenable in the position of internationalism. In this respect Garvey’s impact has been under-appreciated. Within the context of slave rebellion, and generalized if not continued attempts at African-American and Afrodiasporic autonomy, Marcus Garvey can be seen not only as setting the grounds for postcolonial struggle in the 1960s – militant or otherwise – but as part of a generalized struggle for autonomy worldwide (156-157). Afrofuturist scholars have increasingly turned their attention to Garvey, as in many ways his inventive platforms of internationalist autonomy set the cultural parameters for expanding political and cultural Africanism beyond not only the United States, but beyond the confines of race itself. It is in this sense that both Afrofuturism and the politics of Marcus Garvey upset the “liberal integrationist framework” (159).

It is interesting to see other perspectives in regards to Hahn’s short text, such as this blog post by Kevin Levin, a Civil War historian, who interprets Hahn as meaning that “we should understand the presence of black soldiers in Union ranks as a slave rebellion from the perspective of the white South” (see Hahn 55-57). While this is indeed the case – as the historical evidence attests in letters from the South, Southern articles in newspapers, the policies of the Confederate military, and so on – I believe Hahn goes much farther: we must understand the entire historical period as one of a complex African-American insurrection against both North and South, one that to this day haunts the “United States,” and which can be summarized as the extension of the Civil War by sonicultural and philotechnological means under Afrofuturism: “a full-out struggle over who would control the state itself” (16).

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    9 Responses to “Insurrection & Slave Rebellion in Civil War America”

    1. lathemason says:

      Great read, fascinating historical example of the work you’re pursuing.

      • tV says:

        Thanks indeed sir. And how are your chapters coming along? :D I’ve just rewrit this; I always send it out a day too early.

        • lathemason says:

          They’re coming, get off my back already! ;) I am just finishing up my chapter on Google, I am actually really digging the Tiqqun material produced around cybernetics. I’ll be making substantial use of it, so we should have a convo around it sometime. Also David Golumbia is cool.

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