Several weeks ago in Fredericksburg Remembered John Hennessy offered a thoughtful post on the experience of leading a tour of slavery-related sites in Fredericksburg to a group of people, the majority of whom were African American. The topic, which John has returned to in other posts, concerned the role of the National Park Service in privileging the story of reconciliation over the issues of slavery and emancipation. There is something to that, perhaps, although, as John had pointed out elsewhere, the NPS often mirrors the mainstream approach rather than drives it, and when it has driven it, as in the case of the new NPS museum at Gettysburg, it gets flack from some quarters for introducing questions of why they fought as opposed to how they fought.
Sometimes people are prone to group together that which should be kept distinct. For example, then folks often speak of “southerners,” they overlook the fact that such a term should include blacks as well as whites, and that not all white southerners supported the Confederacy, so one should not equate “southerner” with “Confederate.” Much the same can be said about “northerner.” True, there were fewer free blacks in the North, but white northerners were quite divided during the Civil War era, and one must understand those divisions in order to understand what happened. For our purposes, the most important division is partisan: Democrat versus Republican. Even those divisions changed in the years leading up to the war, the war itself, and after the war.
Those divisions in turn had a great deal to do with the politics of race. Continue reading