The March on Washington passed through Morris Island 100 years earlier

As I left work yesterday, there was a flurry of activity around the National Mall, Freedom Plaza, open spaces in Federal Triangle, and elsewhere.  A lot of preparation for an anniversary observance – 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington.

So why would I bring that up on a Civil War blog?  Oh, yes the whole Civil-War-to-Civil-Rights theme.  If you have read this blog for long, you know I have some concerns about how that theme is presented in, if you want to call it such, “pop history.”  In the effort to try to summarize a complex topic into a short paragraph, or even one sentence, there is a great disservice to history.  And even when given ample space to explore the complexity of the topic, historians often botch the job.  See for instance the performance (yes, let’s call it what it was) of Doris Kerns Goodwin at Gettysburg on June 30 of this year.  The failing there, as with so many of the Civil-War-to-Civil-Rights efforts is the reluctance to look at the details – what I call the mechanics – of how Civil Rights were advanced during, through, and as a reaction to the Civil War.  Instead, we tend to see what I’ve called a “bad grafting” of the two lines.  Again, as with Goodwin talking for nearly an hour and only mentioning “war” in the context of her anti-war activity in the 1960s.

A reason, but not the only reason, the Civil-War-to-Civil-Rights theme escapes capture into a single passage is because the advance of Civil Rights was, and is, one of increments.  It involves bus seats, lunch counters, pay scales, and other smaller points that tend to build the larger change.  Martin Luther King’s speech on August 28, 1963 did not directly change practices, but rather it changed minds.  Many minds then were inspired to press changes, small and large.  Such is the story of Civil Rights.  But King’s speech came at a time when the crucible of the times, a combination of social and international pressures, laid bare many issues of equality in the nation.

The same was true of the times 100 years prior to King’s speech.  There’s a wealth of primary source materials which we can draw upon to better illustrate this Civil-War-to-Civil-Rights theme, and show those incremental advances.  But most often that requires a great deal of context, offered by the writer, and understanding, assumed by the reader, when coming to grip with this complex theme.  Indeed, both subject lines in their own right are complex themes, making the confluence even more so.  Both deserve study, in and out.  We need to delve into those details.  We should look at examples where the war forced authorities, military and civilian, to address inequality and thus in some increments advance Civil Rights by establishing precedence.

Crystal N Feimster, mentioned one of those in her recent New York Times Disunion blog post, “Rape and Justice in the Civil War.” (And of course expands upon that in her book.)  As the war progressed, the military leaders had to deal with situations where soldiers took advantage of the recently freed slaves. In particular, rape of former slaves.  The application of the Lieber Code in those cases forced authorities to view African-American women, formerly slaves, as humans deserving equal protection under the law.  Not exactly a sweeping change that is easily explained in a single sentence.  To understand it at all, we need to delve into the Lieber Code and why it existed at all.   And to see that, we have to take up a lot of questions about situations on the front lines of the war.

Another example, closer to my themes of late on this blog, comes from Morris Island.  Brigadier-General Qunicy Gillmore issued General Orders No. 77 on September 17, 1863.  Section I of that order read:

It has come to the knowledge of the brigadier-general commanding that the detachments of colored troops detailed for fatigue duty have been employed, in one instance at least, to prepare camps and perform menial duty for white troops. Such use of these details is unauthorized and improper, and is hereafter expressly prohibited.

Commanding officers of colored regiments are directed to report promptly to these headquarters any violations of this order which may come to their knowledge.

Labor equality?  In 1863? Yes, 100 years before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  No, we can’t go so far to say Quincy Gillmore was a “drum major.”  But someone out there on Morris Island in the summer of 1863 would qualify.

That order was the result of specific situations on Morris Island.  My blog postings of late have chipped away at the context of those situations, by looking at the details of the work done.  What I really need to do to better weld the connection here is highlight the nature of the fatigue details employed… or in short identify who was building what sections of the trenches at what time.  In some cases, that is well documented.  For instance the engineers noted the work of the 3rd US Colored Troops on the fourth parallel.  But in other cases the source material is hard to come by.  No excuse, because that’s the sort of quest which drive historians to perfection.  And I accept that challenge.

And the fatigue detail order is not a singular example from Morris Island.  The campaign abounds with examples of Civil-War-to-Civil-Rights – the trial of prisoners of the 54th Massachusetts, handling of runaways from the Confederate work details, integrated teams working in the trenches of Morris Island, general Confederate dealing with the USCT, and more.  (To the point one has to wonder, “where’s the book?”)

If we are going to bring up waypoints on the journey of Civil Rights, then we have an obligation to discuss why those are waypoints to begin with.  We must examine the ground on which that waypoint is placed.  And along with that the line of march between that and the next waypoint. Doesn’t matter if we are talking about the Emancipation Proclamation, the Buffalo Soldiers, the 93rd Infantry Division, the Tuskegee Airmen, Jackie Robinson, or, as we are today, the March on Washington.

Civil-War-to-Civil-Rights should not just be some compulsory blurb in the line of public interpretation.  We should put some weight to that story.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

4 thoughts on “The March on Washington passed through Morris Island 100 years earlier

    1. I find that McPherson’s narrative dwells too much on the political side of the question and not enough on the details, alluded to above, about how emancipation was carried out and how situations forced a some civil rights questions in the “field” at a practical level. It’s been a while, but I don’t recall him even discussing Hunter’s “draft” of the contrabands and but a brief mention of the 1st and 2nd SC (later USCT) Regiments.

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