Hailing “the Anglo-Saxon Race.” Philadelphia’s eminent Union League was an early, ardent backer of “black soldiery” during the Civil War. Regrettably, over the years the league also showed a strain of white cultural hubris. Consider a passage I came upon in a history of the club titled Gentlemen in Crisis. In the annual report of 1898, written soon after the nation’s Spanish-American War conquests, the Union League secretary wrote this: “The footsteps of the Anglo-Saxon race reveal the march of a conquering people. It has been its province by means of commerce, of religion, and of the sword, to distribute the ideas of liberty, of justice, of equality. It is the leader of mankind in the diffusion of moral principles and of those conceptions of government which tend to advance the individual, secure his rights, and form a refined and domestic social life. It seems impossible for this race to escape from its obligations to humanize and improve the semi-barbaric nations of the East. The instinct of colonization is ever active in its blood…” So there you have it: Western values and philanthropic racism imported at the point of a bayonet.
Worshipping “the Lost Cause.” At about the same time, whites in the South were caught up in their own chauvinistic swooning. Theirs was the Civil War mythology that became known as the Lost Cause. According to Charles Reagan Wilson, director emeritus of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, the Lost Cause had a strange religious message. “A pantheon of Southern heroes emerged from the farms and plantations of the Old South in the legend, to battle the forces of evil–the Yankees. The Yankee monster symbolized a chaotic, unrestrained Nothern society that had threatened the orderly, godly Southern civilization. The myth illustrated the spiritual underpinnings of the Lost Cause, as it replicated the Christian story of Christ’s suffering and death, with the Confederacy as the sacred center. ” Southern ministers extolled Rebel leaders “as religious saints and martyrs” and churches memorialized the men in stained glass. At the time, black spokesman Frederick Douglass denounced the Lost Cause ideology as “nauseating” and dysfunctional because it allowed the South to avoid facing its legacy of “trading in blood and in the souls of men.” The mythology lived on, returned with a vengeance during the Civil Rights era, and is manifest today in the scores of Southern monuments whose fates have captured our collective attention.
Speaking of Monuments. As some of those problematic statues fall in the South, another one–to a black hero–will be erected this month in Philadelphia. It memorializes Octavius V. Catto, a slain civil rights leader of the mid 19th century. Two of my old colleagues from The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin, authored the outstanding 2010 book Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, and they’ll be honored, too, for bringing Catto back into the public eye. The 12-foot-high bronze statue of Catto will be unveiled in a ceremony at City Hall on Tuesday, Sept 26, at 11 a.m. Maybe I’ll see you there. All are welcome.
“Band of Brothers,” Briefly. One of my history feeds is touting a new book with some remarkably familiar findings. It’s called Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution. The book notes that over time black Revolutionary veterans had a significantly harder time than whites getting military pensions (just like the black Civil War vets I track in Embattled Freedom). Also, a review of the new book observes that “a ‘band of brothers’ relationship between black and white soldiers was sometimes present including mutual trust and support for each other. However, after the war ended, black soldiers encountered brutal and systematic racism as they returned to late 18th Century civilian life.” ‘Twas ever thus, it seems. Consider adding this important scholarly work, published by University of Oklahoma Press, to your reading list.
More Book News. I’ll be out and about giving more author talks over the next four weeks, and hope some of you can come say hi. Here are the particulars:
- Saturday, Sept. 23, 10:30 a.m., Wyoming County Cultural Center lecture series, at Dietrich Theater, 60 E. Tioga St., Tunkhannock, Pa. 18657
- Tuesday, Sept. 26, 7 p.m., First United Presbyterian Church of Lackawanna County, 1557 Main St., Peckville, Pa. 18452
- Wednesday, Sept. 27, noon, the Gathering Place for Community, Arts & Education, 304 S. State St., Clarks Summit, Pa. 18411
- Thursday, Sept. 28, 12:10 pm, Rotary Club of the Abingtons, Ramada Inn, 820 Northern Blvd., Clarks Summit, Pa. 18411
- Thursday, Oct. 5, 7 p.m., Abington Community Library, 1200 W. Grove St., Clarks Summit, Pa. 18411
- Friday, Oct. 6, 1:30 p.m., Annual Northeast Pennsylvania History Conference, at Luzerne County Community College Conference Center, 1333 S. Prospect St., Nanticoke, Pa. 18634
- Saturday, Oct. 7, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Collingswood Book Festival, downtown Collingswood, N.J. 08108