The Civil War Through Slaves' Eyes: An Interview with Andrew Ward
As he researched the stories of African-Americans in the nineteenth century, award-winning author Andrew Ward found more and more comments from slaves about the Civil War. He was amazed to find that a narrative history of the war from the perspective of slaves—the people affected most by the conflict’s outcome—had never been written, and he embarked on years of archival research.
Based on his investigation, Ward now presents an alternative view of the war in his innovative history The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves (Houghton Mifflin 2008). This layered account presents an array of poignant and often surprising slave perspectives on masters, liberators and the carnage around them.
The book earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and Ken Burns, the legendary documentary producer, called The Slaves’ War “riveting.” He added: “the most neglected of participants, and their ancient and honorable struggle, are in the foreground where they should be—an antidote to the mythologizing that has over the years smothered this moral tale.”
Ward, a renowned essayist for the Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Post, explored other aspects of African-American history in Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (2000) and River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War (2005). He also wrote an acclaimed book on the history of India, Our Bones are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (1996).
Ward recently discussed his new history of the Civil War and study of African-American history from his home in Seattle.
Robin Lindley: How did you come to write about African-American history? In the 1970s, you were compared to James Thurber and E.B. White for your humorous essays.
Andrew Ward: I started writing short stories. I was published in a magazine called Audience back in the early seventies. I taught school for a while, then began to write full time, and submitted as a free lancer all over the place.
The Atlantic Monthly picked me up and I became a resident humorist/ essayist/ movie critic, and it was a marvelous opportunity to do a wide range of things. But I found at the Atlantic and later with commentaries for NPR and columns for the Washington Post the confinement of writing 700 to two thousand word pieces. I return to that genre, but I get impatient and want the elbowroom of writing a novel or something larger.
I’d always been interested in African-American history and the civil rights movement.
RL: Did you work in the civil rights movement?
AW: Work in it would be overstating it, but in high school I organized a picket of Strom Thurmond who came to speak at our high school. I went to the March on Washington in 1963. I picketed Hammermill Paper Works in 1967 when Martin Luther King was trying to get them to hire black mill workers.
I think that all derived from my having lived in India as a child for four and a half years. Coming home, having lived in a country run by people of color, then seeing on the Huntley-Brinkley Report this news footage of black people beaten up for wanting to eat at a luncheonette seemed to me incredibly cruel and, in a way, inexplicable. I could not understand what this was all about.
It’s always haunted me. I wrote a fair amount about race when I was doing the Washington Post columns, and that sparked my interest. But I really blundered onto African-American history.
I’m fascinated by the Civil War and by Lincoln. What’s so compelling to me about this [history] is it helps explain a lot about the United States, in bad ways mainly. Our attitude toward labor, and how we treat people who do the dirty work. The incredible persistence of poverty in the African-American community. One statistic I read is that African-Americans at the end of the Civil War owned 1.4 percent of American assets. They now own 1.6 percent. The reason is generation after generation of unpaid labor with no equity built up over all those years. It’s still a primary factor in what differentiates African-Americans from immigrant descendents.
RL: And you decided to write a novel about the war?
AW: I had long contemplated writing a Civil War novel. I started looking at interviews with former slaves conducted in the late twenties by Ophelia Settle. She was an amazing woman: a social worker who worked with pioneering black social worker Charles Johnson.
The novel was to be set in Tennessee, and I looked for specifics on Tennessee slavery. I found an interview with a man [Charles Williams] who claimed to be Lincoln’s slave relation. He was his master’s son, and his master was Lincoln’s cousin. The interview was conducted anonymously, but I was fascinated by this idea that Lincoln might have had a black relative.
Eventually, I put the novel aside, and took the jerky transcription of this interview and tried to deconstruct it and see what facts I could glean from it and figure out who he was. After a few weeks with census records, I found out he was a tinsmith, a minister and a teacher. He was also a member of the first troupe that became the Jubilee singers, the subject another of my books [Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the Music of Black America].
I thought I’d write a book and follow Lincoln’s slave relation and follow the generations forward. I went south. He was born in Springfield, Kentucky. He was given by his father to his father’s white son as a wedding present, and was taken to Missouri by his half-brother, who then sold him to buy some land. He said, “I am like Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brother.” I decided to drive this whole circuit. I started in Springfield. A lot of his descendents were still living there. I went to Missouri and looked around there.
There were lots of obstacles on the way. He had said that when he was taken to Missouri by his brother, he was in Osceola, Missouri, and it was flat with a plank road and train tracks. I went to Osceola and there was no train, had never been a plank road, and it was hilly. Then I thought this was nonsense. Then I found his brother had bought some land in Saline, Missouri. I went up there and Saline was flat with a railroad and a plank road had been there. I couldn’t figure this out. I went to a Laundromat and began talking with an elderly black gentleman who asked what I was doing [in Saline]. I asked if his family had been there a long time. He said yes, and I asked what he could tell me about the African-American history of the town. And he leaned back and said, “Let me tell you about Ole Saline.” And I thought “Ole Saline,” not Osceola, is what the transcriber heard. It was mistranscribed.
This was a moment when I realized [my] skepticism and the traditional skepticism among historians about black oral history. You can’t dismiss it as nonsense, and when you run into that, you have to dig deeper. It gave me a faith in African-American oral tradition because that was all they had having been denied the right to learn to read and write. Over and over again, I’d follow a lead, and it would turn out that I was misreading something or the transcriber had put down something wrong. By the end, I thought why would this man have made this up? Why was I so doubtful?
I’ve learned to approach that material with as much faith and as much doubt as I would any other material.
RL: Those obstacles could have stymied you.
AW: I could have turned away. When I tried to write this book, I was so raw and so deeply enraged by what I was reading about slavery—not just the cruelty of it, but he dimension of it, the pervasiveness of it, and the economic interdependence of the North and the South on slavery. The North, where I come from, got rid of slavery because it was economically infeasible. It had nothing to do with Puritan virtuousness. When they abolished slavery, they did it very gradually. They kept their slaves until they were past their prime, then let them go, until [slavery] was abolished. Much more gradual than what the Northern abolitionists were prescribing for the South.
I got so enraged by slavery and the resonance of that history with race relations and the economic plight of the African-American community, I just couldn’t write it. I lost all my composure. I struggled with it, and I decided to abandon it. The other problem was I couldn’t follow it very far into the present because his name was Williams, and his family migrated to Chicago, and in the census there were seven or eight William Williams—his son’s name—who had migrated to Chicago and were the right age and had come from Tennessee. I think I found him, and I might someday go to Chicago and see if I can find out who it was, but it’s tricky.
RL: Was this research before your Jubilee Singers book?
AW: Yes. He had gone briefly to the Fisk Colored School, a missionary school in Nashville that evolved into Fisk University. He was a baritone, and was asked to join the Jubilee Singers by George White, the leader of the Jubilee Singers and a white missionary from the North. He decided not to go. He was an orphan, and wanted to learn his trade as a tinsmith, and it didn’t make sense to him to join this venture.
I was always interested in spirituals and black religious music. I went to Fisk University and asked what they had about the Jubilee Singers. A descendents of one of the singers was the librarian and she brought out a treasure trove of material about the Jubilee Singers: letters, diaries, a wonderful collection going back to well before they became the Jubilee Singers.
I didn’t find much about [Williams], but once I encountered this [material], I thought maybe this is the way to approach it. It’s a more redemptive story and various with individual experiences of slavery. It was also a way of dealing with the world’s experience of slavery because these singers went from country to country in Europe and sang before crowned heads. They were an enormous sensation like the Beatles. They were mobbed in the streets all over the world, and they reduced audiences to tears. They were all former slaves. They were magnificent singers and changed chorale music wherever they went. Even the Berlin Zeitung, the foremost music authority in the world then, said we have so much to learn from these singers.
The Jubilee Singers was a way for me to look at this material a little more dispassionately, or maybe I got some of that initial rage out of my system. I found I could write it. The great thing was that they were so wonderfully articulate themselves. They were former slaves, so I assumed they hadn’t left much writing, which was total nonsense. Some of them picked up reading and writing faster than you can imagine and wrote beautiful letters. They were also wonderfully unimpressed by people they were singing for like Ulysses S. Grant. Queen Victoria, they thought, was doughty, disappointing and didn’t speak to them directly. There was a wonderful Innocents Abroad feeling. They were an amazing bunch.
I looked at slavery [during] the Charles Williams and Jubilee Singers projects. I [found] all sorts of oral histories, memoirs, diaries and letters. I began to collect snippets on the Civil War, and after a while, it reached a saturation point. I realized when I was writing River Run Red, a book on the Fort Pillow massacre, it’s possible that there was enough eyewitness testimony from slaves to cobble together a slaves’ eye view of the Civil War. Then I thought that’s such an obvious idea, someone must have done this. So I wasted a fair amount of time looking over my shoulder. There’s a very good book by James McPherson called The Negro’s Civil War, and Ira Berlin’s documentary series on African-American history, one [volume] of which is devoted to the Civil War. Those are both documentary compendiums—they don’t form a narrative.
So nobody had done this. I’m writing a play about the slaves and at the opening a woman says, “Here was a war all about us slaves, and now us slaves are going to tell you all about the war.”
I wanted to do this book. Houghton Mifflin and a wonderful editor worked with me and I hired a researcher, Nate Weston. And for three years we culled every archive and every interview we could find. By the end of it, I had three thousand different sources, and I used six hundred in the book.
RL: And you made a point of including a unique directory of witnesses.
AW: One of the things that clobbers me the most about slavery is the notion of disappearing. I’m not a religious person, [but] I have a horror of oblivion. That probably has something to do with why I write, why I feel I have to leave something behind. And these people were dragged over here on slave ships, managed to survive the Middle Passage, got here, were told their name was another name, and became almost strangers to themselves, and die without a marker or record. There are all these stories of someone dropping dead in a field or running away and being killed. In [several] cases, a slave recounting would say, “We never knew his name. He just came, but he tried to run away. He was from Africa. They hunted him down and shot him.” It’s sort of this exaggerated version of the obscurity to which are all destined.
RL: That’s a remarkable way of expressing why you included all the names.
AW: This business of robbing them of their identities, their pasts, their selves, was part of it. That was what was redemptive to me about the Jubilee Singers because [they] created themselves. A classic American story is to come out of nowhere and reinvent yourself, overturn everybody else’s expectations about yourself, and become something others would never imagine you becoming.
That has a lot to do with why this [material] grabs me. It’s not just righteous indignation about slavery, although that’s a big chunk of it, but it’s also this sense that these people disappeared, many without a trace, but now, since Roots, there’s been a big African-American genealogical movement. There’s an organization [in Seattle] with Jackie Lawson. They’re ingenious and indefatigable in tracking down information. It’s discouraging to contemplate initially because the written record is not apt to be there, and you have to figure out if [a particular slave] on a manifest is related. You go back to plantation records. And they are tireless and very tough-minded about it.
That’s why I feel obliged to individuate these people as much as I can. I did that also in River Run Red. I try to make it clear these are individuals, and it’s one reason The Slaves’ War has such a variety of perspectives. It’s also why I put in a directory. African-Americans need, whenever possible, additional background information, and it’s incumbent on me to provide it. But it’s basically their book, not mine.
RL: Weren’t most of the interviews from the WPA work in the 1930s?
AW: About half of them.
RL: Was there much that was contemporaneous or from just after the Civil War?
AW: Sure. A lot of memoirs were written. There’s a wonderful website called “Documenting the American South,” run by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and they are collecting every kind of memoir they can find about early history of the South, antebellum and post-bellum. I found many memoirs, and there’s a lot in archives—county archives and such.
It’s like any other war. There’s a period when nobody wants to hear about it. Then it becomes [of interest] as survivors die and children want to know more about it. From 1910 to 1939 is when that material emerged.
The WPA interviews were interesting after being initiated into this material by Ophelia Settle’s interviews conducted separately for Fisk University in the late twenties. There are several advantages to hers. She’s black, so the [interviewees] were speaking more freely. They were anonymous, so they weren’t afraid of retaliation for what they said. And they were older people who had been slaves as adults.
With the WPA material, because most of the interviewers were white, because [the interviewees] were identified, and most were children when they were slaves, that tended to temporize their accounts of slavery. Some of the interviewers were descendents of their former masters or knew them. Most old people look back on their childhood and think it was much better then, and they remembered the child’s version of slavery. Up to the age of seven you weren’t put to work on plantations and were fed better, and so on. It’s wonderful material, but there are many caveats. This somewhat rosier picture of slavery can be attributed to all kinds of influences. Many will say my master was very kind to me, but on the next plantation they were using the strap on them, and you’re pretty sure what is really being said. And there’s also a fundamental among African-Americans—an African courtesy and politesse. There were other influences like Spanish and French, but respect for elders and all that is African, and a lot of upper-class whites were raised by African women.
RL: I was impressed by the empathy the slaves had for their masters and their ability to forgive their masters.
AW: Depicting that is delicate because the fundamentals of slavery were ghastly. Even when somebody said, “We had a good master,” that was a master, however good he was, who could sell you, separate you from your children, rape you, kill you. The system was so fundamentally coercive, and you have to remind yourself of that through all of these accounts.
So the empathy and forgiveness is extraordinary to come upon, but you have to remember these are human beings, and human beings under all kinds of circumstances have complicated relationships with one another—the abusive husband and wife, the abusive father and child. Even in these most coercive relationships, there’s some affection, as twisted as it may be, and there’s some respect.
And there’s a tendency to identify with home. Some were very proprietary. After all, they were planting the crops, and when the crops failed and the master fell on hard times, that was an earthquake for slaves because it meant [the master] could start selling slaves and separating families. So the investment in the master’s welfare was a defense mechanism for slaves and it was a way of feeling self-respect because there’s so many blows to a slave’s pride.
That kind of empathy is complicated but it is also breathtaking to hear how shocked they were to see their masters ruined by war.
RL: And also they were stunned at the brutality and butchery of the war between great, mainly white, armies.
AW: They knew what white people were capable of doing to black people, but they had no clue about how brutal they could be to each other, and the scale of the war was insane.
One slave [called the war] scandalous. Another asked why couldn’t white people settle their differences without killing each other. And they saw whites as brutal, and they had no delusions about it, but they couldn’t believe the scale of that war. No one could. It was horrendous. Modern warfare with Napoleonic tactics. Weapons that just mowed people down.
RL: You have descriptions of slaves treating the wounded and burying the dead, and they share horrible images of amputated limbs and blood dripping from wagons.
AW: It’s interesting then that the country was agricultural, and people butchered their own hogs. We romanticize the agricultural past, but it inured people to suffering. You worked an animal to death. You slaughtered a pig. You wrung a chicken’s neck. I wonder if we’d [react] to the horrors of war in the same way being so removed from [the agricultural past].
RL: At the beginning of River RunRed on the Fort Pillow massacre you mention your interest in nineteenth-century massacres. Did that interest come to play in The Slaves’ War?
AW: I probably have a vicarious interest in how I’d react in a war, even though I did everything in my power to avoid serving in Vietnam. It probably started as a boyish fascination. The Alamo was the first of those massacres. Davy Crockett was a fad when I was a kid. And Davy Crockett gets killed, and Jim Bowie and everyone around him gets killed. It’s like the first exposure to the idea that we’re all going to die. Then there was Custer’s Last Stand. Then, I got to India. I was there in 1957, and there as a centennial of the [Sepoy] Mutiny of 1857 run by the new government of Nehru, and they were very eager to turn that history into an independence observation. My first history book was on the Mutiny, Our Bones are Scattered. I’ve written articles on other massacres like Custer and one in South Africa.
RL: You focus on the effect of war on civilian slaves in your new book. I don’t know if you’d call the book a pacifist text, but it does not glorify the Civil War.
AW: Fundamentally, I hate the Civil War. I have no patience with people who glorify it. If they’re honoring their ancestors, that’s fine. But if you honor and revere your ancestors, why can’t you also see their faults.
This was an avoidable war. It was greed, inhumanity, fanaticism and a total political failure on the part of the government. President after president tried to avoid dealing with it. Abolitionists doing God’s work in one sense, in another sense hardened the South’s resistance so that the South’s gradual reforms of the 1820s and 1830s disappeared, and it was all circle the wagons and defend our way of life. The southerners said we’re just protecting our way of life, but it was a way of life predicated on human bondage. In that economy, the surest route to wealth was to own slaves. The value of slaves in the South was greater than the value of land.
The deprecation of slavery as a cause of the Civil War is insidious. It would never have happened without slavery. Yet both on the southern right where people don’t want to think of their ancestors having fought for bondage and slave property, and left-wing historians who want to show everything in American history is a crock of shit, so you get a take that it wasn’t about slavery, but everyone was just acting in their own self-interest. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t about slavery. It’s an inability for us to confront the dimension of slavery. I think white people are sick to death of hearing about black grievances, and part of that comes out of an ignorance of history and a reluctance to face up to that part of our history, which is an indigestible lump.
RL: You have Gone with the Wind images that live in the popular imagination with benign depictions of slavery.
AW: It’s romanticized by them, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the flip side of that. White people [are unable] to recognize the effect slavery had on us. You can more easily say, “This was the effect on African-Americans,” but what did it do to us? What did it do to religion? Whole Protestant denominations defended slavery based on a couple of lines of Leviticus. This fraudulent southern evangelical stuff and right-wing reactionary politics has roots in [how] those denominations started out as pro-slavery. If you can go through those distortions of Christianity and use it as a defense of this incredibly iniquitous system, you’re capable of using religion to justify anything. That kind of blindness or obtuseness is still at work in some of these very conservative denominations.
RL: You mention Reconstruction, and some argue that the South won the Civil War in a sense because Reconstruction was defeated in a decade, and blacks were again deprived of rights and property.
AW: They came up with a mutation of slavery ingeniously and brutally, and came up with an apartheid system. There’s a distinction from slavery. People weren’t being sold or separated from their families or being told what their names were, but [there were no] legal protections. The convict labor system was slavery, and one of the pioneers of that was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
Reconstruction is a terrible part of our history, and was an abandonment by Republicans. Blacks continued to vote for Republicans long after they deserved it. There was a period just after the war when [Republicans promised] to protect rights of blacks, sent the army down there, and [started] the Freedman’s Bureau. Then there was the lip service period when political deals with the Democrats started to erode that. Then they just lock, stock and barrel removed the Federal troops and opened up the South to the former Rebels to take it all back, and they did.
They never prospered the way they had before the war. Mississippi was the richest state in the Union before the Civil War, and the poorest after the war.
RL: You also mention the range of slave opinions, such as some idolized Lincoln while others feared or hated him.
AW: One said, “I just hated Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe and all that crowd. They didn’t do anything for me, and they never will.” The concepts of Lincoln from the [slave] interviews run from next to God, Moses and Jesus, and on the other hand, there wasn’t a Negro in the country who wasn’t cursing Lincoln that first winter after Lincoln was shot [because] they felt a sense of abandonment and betrayal.
There’s been a lot of revisionist [material] on Lincoln and slavery. The Great Emancipator was an absurd myth, but at the same time, he was an extraordinary human being in his capacity for growing so much. From a backwoods Kentucky boy surrounded by slaves. His uncle had slaves. He had the most extraordinary capacity to empathize with people and to influence others. He was a great politician. He saw the moral core of [issues] balanced out with country-boy pragmatism. With the Emancipation Proclamation, we look back and ask why didn’t he just declare that slavery was over? He was trying to win this war, and if he didn’t win, he didn't get to end slavery. His idea of how to bring us onto the path of righteousness was to win the war, and he was going to do everything in his power to do it, and try to alienate as few people as possible.
RL: That’s an example of the diversity of views from these slaves you discuss in the book on everything from Lincoln, emancipation, and other issues. Some liked Union soldiers, and some were mistreated by the Union soldiers. You present a multi-dimensional view of slaves.
AW: Not everyone has the same opinion. These people came from all over Africa, all different regions and tribes. Some were property of poor people and some were property of rich people. Of course they’re going to have different opinions. That’s exactly what I had in mind, instead of this generic picture of slaves who you’re to assume all viewed everything in the same way as the paradigms of whether the conservative, racist view of slaves, or the Afro-centric view that they’re all noble. The basic message is that they’re all human beings and individuals.
RL: In writing the black dialect that may have been imposed by white interviewers.
AW: The transcription of speech is always tricky. George Knox, one of my favorite characters, said that whenever a black person sent a letter to the editor, no matter how erudite, the editors would put it into black dialect with “dems” and “dose” and “comin’ fo’ ta carra me home.” I have two problems with it. One is I don’t think it’s at all accurate. There are a few sound transcriptions of these interviews, and when I compare them with the transcripts, they’re not accurate. They were symptomatic of how white people felt they had to represent black speech. I just find it impossible to read. Some have so many contractions it looks like someone’s gone over the page with a rake. It’s very difficult and a barrier, and it also has this insinuation that [the interviewer] is elbowing you in the ribs and saying, “What an ignorant person. How much smarter are we than they.” There’s a complicitousness about it that I find offensive as a reader.
I kept the idiomatic vocabulary and grammar, but I dropped all of these contractions—this gratuitous stuff. I found it lifted a veil so you paid attention to what they were saying rather than how they were saying it. It also pared it down so that when you get rid of that crap, there’s almost a Shakespearean, primal feeling to the way they talk. They’re raised on the Bible and an oral tradition and distillations of things.
RL: And you also avoided use of the “N word.”
AW: Yes. With the “N word,” I was faced with a choice of either use it or lose it. The main reason was a technical one. I couldn’t tell, reading these various transcriptions, whether, when the N word appeared, it was something the transcriber used or whether it was something the interviewee really said, and if they did say it, whether when transcribed it was really “Nigra” or “Negro” they were hearing. There are cases where the original transcription said “Negro” and the published version said “darkie.”
At the same time, it’s such a corrosive word, especially among African-American readers—and should be among white readers—that to take it out, though it may temporize the depiction of the humiliation and psychological abuse imposed on them, it brings the noise level down a bit. It becomes so overpowering that, like the dialect, it obscures what is being said. Maybe they said it, maybe not. But when you read, you see red. For the sake of the people who can’t read when they see red, I took it out.
RL: Can you talk about the response to the book?
AW: It’s been marvelous. I’ve had the most marvelous reviews on this one. Both whites and African-Americans have been terrific. The reading at the Northwest African-American Museum was a love fest.
RL: Your book resonates now with the candidacy of Barack Obama.
AW: My only concern about that candidacy is not about him, but I have a nagging worry that some white folks may feel that by voting for Obama they wipe the slate clean. In some ways, it’s an end run. An African father, a white mother. He’s not a direct descendent of this institution. I think he’ll be a wonderful president, but I hope if he is president, people won’t say, “See, we’re not a racist society,” or “See, a black man can aspire to the highest office.” Great, but there still will be incredible economic disproportion.
RL: What’s your next project?
AW: The next book will be a companion attempt to do the same thing with the voices of black soldiers. I wanted to keep them separate because I was afraid the soldiers’ experience would bump the civilian experience aside, and they were separate experiences too. I’ll be going through pension records looking for material because there weren’t interviews. I want to find out what happened to them after the war. Many were lynched, and a lot of them were chased off their lands. About 30 came to Seattle, according to a local genealogist. A lot were involved in the Migration [to the North] because they were at risk as Union veterans.
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