Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Conspiracy
Witness for Freedom: African American Voices on Race, Slavery, and Emancipation
Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War
“The Negro,” Frederick Douglass proclaimed at the beginning of the Civil War, “is the key of the situation—the pivot upon which the whole rebellion turns.” Investing his hope in the “desperate insurrectionary movements of slaves,” Douglass saw that his belief in the centrality of racial justice was hotly contested in the North, and knew that justice depended far more on the mysterious workings of providence than on the intentions of white Americans. Late in 1860, at a meeting in Boston honoring the martyrdom of John Brown, Douglass had been heckled and then attacked by hired thugs before he and his followers were thrown out of the hall by the police. African Americans who sought to aid the Union cause frequently encountered a response similar to the insults hurled by some Cincinnati policemen: “We want you d——d niggers to keep out of this; this is a white man’s war.”
Since Abraham Lincoln disavowed any intention of interfering with slavery in the existing states and since Confederate officials insisted that virtually all slaves were content and grateful servants, loyal to their masters’ cause, how could the Negro be a “key” or “pivot” in the nation’s decisive crisis? The claim Douglass made would have seemed absurd even to several generations of historians in our own century. In the 1930s, for example, a popular biography of General Grant affirmed that
the American negroes are the only people in the history of the world…that ever became free without any effort of their own….[The Civil War] was not their business….They twanged banjos around the railroad stations, sang melodious spirituals, and believed that some Yankee would soon come along and give each of them forty acres of land and a mule.
This dominant view was challenged by a few black historians, best typified perhaps by Benjamin Quarles; and by the pioneering Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker, who wrote about blacks in the Union army and navy as well as about slave plots and insurrections. But only in the civil rights era, beginning in the mid-1960s, did historians such as James McPherson, Willie Lee Rose, George P. Rawick, and Leon Litwack bring the struggle for racial equality into the mainstream of historical writing and suggest exactly how the Negro became “the pivot upon which the whole rebellion turn[ed].”
By 1976 the ideological climate encouraged the funding of two long-term projects of extraordinary value that reinforce and give meaning to Douglass’s thesis. The editors of the Black Abolitionist Papers project, led by C. Peter Ripley of Florida State University, examined thousands of manuscript collections and newspapers in Great Britain and Canada as well as in the United States. They then produced on seventeen reels of microfilm, now available in many research libraries, a huge collection of letters, essays, speeches, pamphlets, and editorials documenting the African American movement to abolish slavery and combat racial discrimination.
Between 1985 and 1992 Ripley and his associates published five volumes of selected documents, superbly …