"A great battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it." --Frederick Douglass, 1864
"So they sought first to deprive the day [Memorial Day] of any significance to the living. Only the manhood and valor of the dead were to be commemorated. The dead were to be mourned; the cause for which they died forgotten. There was no other way by which the desired object could be accomplished, and the future taught to honor the soldier for his deeds, regardless of his motive." --Albion Tourgee, May 30, 1885
"Americans . . . have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle." --James Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone," 1951
IN JULY, 1863, IN THE WAKE of the battle of Gettysburg, the New York City draft riots, and a series of failed recruiting speeches, Frederick Douglass seemed embittered, even disoriented about his own role (as recruiter, orator, and editor) in the war effort. He had run out of ways to explain away the unequal pay and other discriminations practiced against black soldiers in the Union forces. But of one thing he was still completely clear: the motives or purposes for which black men might fight in this war. "They go into this war to affirm their manhood," declared Douglass, "to strike for liberty and country. If any class of men in this war can claim the honor of fighting for principle, and not from passion, for ideas, not from brutal malice, the colored soldier can make that claim preeminently" (italics mine). Fifteen years later, in the wake of the Compromise of 1877, and as the victories of emancipation, the preservation of the Union, and radical Reconstruction seemed increasingly abandoned, Douglass gave a Decoration Day speech in Madison Square in New York. Douglass appealed to a kind of military pathos, the Victorian sense of heroic soldiers' sacrifice, as most Memorial Day speakers would. But, more than that, he demanded that his audience remember that the Civil War had been a struggle of ideologies on both sides. The conflict had been "a war of ideas," Douglass announced, "a battle of principles . . . a war between the old and the new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization." It "was not a fight," he insisted, "between rapacious birds and ferocious beasts, a mere display of brute courage and endurance, but it was a war between men of thought, as well as of action, and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield."(n1) During the war, in season and out, and for long thereafter, Douglass insisted that this conflict be understood not only as a testing of manhood, but as a full, dignified, humane recognition of manhood, not merely as soldiers' sacrifice, however complete the victimization of ordinary soldiers on both sides, but as a revolutionary reinvention of the rights of man and of republican government. In the film, "Glory," at the reception where Robert Gould Shaw is to be given his challenge to command the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts regiment, someone says: "Robert, there's a man here who would like to meet you." With the winds of war only in the distant background, a sincere and dedicated Governor John Andrew introduces Shaw to Frederick Douglass. The abolitionist appears to stand taller than anyone else, old and sage-like, almost half covered in the bright light from the window. Shaw is very impressed, a few noble words are exchanged, and from that moment on, having been blessed by the man with a visage and a voice, we know that Shaw is bound for "glory." Who knows why that implausible meeting between Douglass and Shaw is inserted into the movie, except that it allows Douglass to be what he often is now in pedagogical and popular uses of his image: a...
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