I happen to love research exercises. Oh, I know, some of you are fascinated by shows such as History Detectives (a show I find “fascinating” for distinctly different reasons), and I’m sure many of you wish you could bring new things to light without, say, altering documents. Here at Crossroads we want to encourage critical thinking and research, and so today we turn to yet another quote, this one from Frederick Douglass, who stated in Douglass’ Monthly in September 1861 the following:
It is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels. There were such soldiers at Manassas, and they are probably there still. There is a Negro in the army as well as in the fence, and our Government is likely to find it out before the war comes to an end. That the Negroes are numerous in the rebel army, and do for that army its heaviest work, is beyond question. They have been the chief laborers upon those temporary defences in which the rebels have been able to mow down our men. Negroes helped to build the batteries at Charleston. They relieve their gentlemanly and military masters from the stiffening drudgery of the camp, and devote them to the nimble and dexterous use of arms. Rising above vulgar prejudice, the slaveholding rebel accepts the aid of the black man as readily as that of any other. If a bad cause can do this, why should a good cause be less wisely conducted?
In this case there’s no doubt that Douglass published those words. Simply throwing the quote out there, however, doesn’t tell us anything more than that. Quoting the words is but a point of departure for an informed understanding of this observation in historical context.
So, let’s ask a few questions … and let’s see who might want to take a crack at answering them …
1. Did Douglass personally observe what he reports? To answer that, we’d need to know his whereabouts between April 1861 and September 1861. After all, if Douglass did not venture south of the Potomac River, he wouldn’t be much of a first-person witness, now, would he, and he could not be cited as independent verification of the presence of blacks serving in combat roles. Was he among the spectators watching the battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861? Is there any evidence to that effect? It’s safe to say that he probably was not at Charleston, South Carolina.
2. What was Douglass doing at the time? What political arguments was he advancing?
3. What else was going on at the time this article appeared that concerned the status of enslaved blacks in Confederate service? Were there other debates going on about slavery and United States policy at the time Douglass’ editorial appeared?
And those questions are just the first of several that one could ask. I’m sure people may, in fact, try to ask more in the hope that readers might not notice that they are having a hard time answering the questions I’ve offered. So let’s try to find some answers to these questions first, and see what questions inquiry might generate.
Now get to work.