My post-retirement books are all set during America's Civil War. Note that I specify "America" because for 25 years or so, when I used the term "civil war" I was talking about the English version of the 1640s. Don't want to confuse my medievalist friends and colleagues! I'm thoroughly enjoying exploring this new period of the 19th century, and nothing is more fun than turning up odd facts that the typical high school American history book did not include. So I've decided to turn Friday blog posts into "Civil War Friday."
For the next few weeks, I'm going to borrow some items from Jacopo della Quercia's article, "6 Civil War Myths Everyone Believes (That are Total B. S.)" Now this series appeared originally on Cracked.com, which is not known for the purity of its language. In the interest of continuing to produce a family-friendly blog, I will be delivering an expurgated version here. I may also add a comment or two to make the article more pertinent to my own work. You will be able to tell when I've changed the language, because my words will appear in italics. Never fear; you'll get the point. If you want the original version, you can find it at http://tinyurl.com/42l69pr .
Here's the first myth: "The North was Anti-Racist."
Ask a Southern Civil War enthusiast what the Civil War was really about, and he will probably give you one answer: "States' rights." Ask anybody else and they'll probably give you another answer:" Slavery." And if you think we're diving into that debate here and now, you're mistaken. But it does reveal something about how most of us perceive the Civil War -- that the North was on the right side of history because they understood the fundamental truth that all men, no matter what color, were created equal.
Why it's wrong:
The North was so prejudiced that white people actually discriminated against other white people. In my book about the Roundhead Regiment there are several examples of prejudice against the Irish. So you can bet that life was not a bowl of cherries for nonwhites. And for blacks, the 19th century was nothing but awful, no matter where you lived.
True, the North had a larger number of abolitionists and progressives, but they also had blatantly racist laws preventing free black people from actually getting rights as citizens. And also, lynch mobs. Which was why it was the North, not the South, that hosted the country's most violent race riot in history. What started out as a protest against the Union's draft policy in New York City, ended as a full-on assault on any African-Americans unfortunate enough to exist and get caught.
Back in those days, freed blacks were exempt from the draft, probably so they could put more time into putting out their racially motivated house fires. This exemption didn't sit well with poor whites who couldn't afford the $300 to buy their way out of the draft -- and by "didn't sit well" we mean "infuriated to the point of a frenzied rage." By the end of the four-day riot, at least 11 blacks were lynched throughout Manhattan, hundreds more were assaulted and a children's orphanage was burned to the ground. It took no less than 4,000 federal troops fresh from Gettysburg to subdue the insurrection. New York City's black residents were so terrorized by the riots that by 1865, the black population plunged to the lowest it had been in 45 years.
And if you're thinking the Draft Riots were one little blip in an otherwise happy and racially harmonic region, try again. Town Line, New York, successfully seceded from the Union altogether during the war and were not readmitted to the nation until ... no joke, 1946.