What Freedom Meant to Black People in Nashville During the Civil WarHistorians in the News
tags: Civil War, African American history, Tennessee, Nashville
On Saturday, I went over to Fort Negley to hear Dr. Thavolia Glymph speak about what freedom meant for Black people in Nashville during the Civil War. I’m oversimplifying some with that description, but it was fascinating. And exciting! Dr. Glymph is legendary. For historians, this is the equivalent of a home renovator having Bob Villa stop by to tell him he’s doing a good job. Or Babe Ruth showing up to your baseball game to give you some pointers and tell you you’ve got a nice swing. Or if you’re massively defrauding your state and harming the poor people in it and Brett Favre stops by to give you an attaboy.
The incoming president of the American Historical Association came by our little ol' fort to talk about the experiences of the people at Fort Negley during the Civil War? Holy shit! The fact that this is just a thing that can happen on a Saturday afternoon in Nashville, and it’s just one of many interesting things, delights me so much.
One of the points Dr. Glymph made was that, while whites dithered and continue to dither about why the Civil War was fought, Black people made it about slavery. They changed the discourse and the focus of the war for whites in the North. In other words, in 1861 President Lincoln was all: “I declare that ‘I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I beheve I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.’” And some number of white people were like “See? We’re not fighting about slavery.” Meanwhile, South Carolina is throwing up deuces and hollering, “A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery” as they walk out of the Union.
But a lot of white people were still like “We’re fighting to keep the Union together” until hundreds of thousands of Black refugees started pouring into Union-held territory. Dr. Glymph talked about how this made plain what was at stake. And when some refugees joined the Union Army, they were doing so to ensure their freedom and freedom for their families. When you think of it this way, any arguments about why the war was fought that disregard slavery are disregarding the testimony and experiences of the Black people who fought in the war.
Dr. Glymph spoke a long time about how difficult life was for the refugees here in Nashville, and how precarious. This is something I’m glad to see Fort Negley trying to reckon with — that leaving enslavement and coming to Nashville was trading one set of impossible circumstances for another. And that all along the way, the people whose job it was to protect the refugees exploited them for their own gain. There were far fewer good people in positions of power than we would've wished. That may still be the case.
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