Dr. Marcy Sacks Gives Lecture to Albion Area Lifelong Learners

Lecture presents info that bursts knowledge bubble about Civil War era northern and southern white racism

Black History Month Series 2020: Part 2

By MICHELLE MUELLER

Contributing Writer

©The Recorder February 20, 2020

Although Albion College professor Marcy Sacks’ lecture to the Albion Area Lifelong Learners (AALL) group was presented a few weeks prior to Black History Month, the information she shared with her audience in January lingered in their memories as other information on the plights and successes of past African Americans was seen and heard in February.


“The history of the U.S. Civil War is often presented as a conflict between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ with the good guys being the northerners who supposedly fight to end slavery.


“The history of the U.S. Civil War is often presented as a conflict between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ with the good guys being the northerners who supposedly fight to end slavery. (African Americans are often excluded from this narrative altogether, except as passive bystanders being swept up in the activities around them,)” Sacks says about her presentation to the attentive listeners present on January 9. “This is utter mythology; northern white people exhibited as many tendencies towards racism as southern whites, and this [research] project of mine helps to reveal that.”


“This is utter mythology; northern white people exhibited as many tendencies towards racism as southern whites, and this [research] project of mine helps to reveal that.”


Sacks discussed her journey to research the topic of white Union soldiers’ racial attitudes. “I wanted to write about black northers, but was unable to find much material. Archivists I consulted led me to the only material they could think of in their collections: letters and diaries from the Civil War, some of which mentioned black people.”

Albion College history professor Dr. Marcy Sacks. (Photo by Michelle Mueller)

One of those letters was written by John Gallison of Lawrence, MA, who served in Company C of the 40th Massachusetts Volunteers from 1862 to 1864. Sacks explained that very early in his time in Virginia, where his regiment became part of the Army of the Potomac, he sent a letter home to his father. In it, this Union soldier mentioned a ‘Contraband’ (escaped slave who had been officially declared ‘contraband of war,’ protecting them from being sent back) woman he’d encountered who he offered to send to his family “as she is strong and can do all the heavy work about the house.”


The Union soldiers were greatly fascinated by black people they encountered in their camps, about which they wrote to their families back home.


This caused the researcher to come up with a new topic for her studies: White Union soldiers’ attitudes about black people whom they were encountering as they spent their war time in the South and in the North. While Sacks’ original hypothesis was that northern white soldiers’ attitudes and perceptions of black people would improve with the proximity they experienced in their Union camps, in reality she discovered that the Union soldiers were greatly fascinated by black people they encountered in their camps, about which they wrote to their families back home.

“They described how black people looked, smelled, behaved, etc.,” Sacks revealed. ‘I went into a slave hut and talked with an old slave woman,’ Wisconsin native Levi Wells Ostrander informed his father in 1862. Some of the soldiers developed delusions about the contrabands having affection for them; one letter-writer said he felt legitimately loved by the black men in the camp because he was teaching them to read.


“Sadly,” said Sacks, “what I learned from not only these images but the hundreds of letters and diaries I read is that for white Union soldiers, rather than developing greater respect for black people during the course of the war, in many ways their attitudes deteriorated.”


Depending on location, soldiers interacted with African Americans who sold food, such as pies and fruit, did washing, ran away to Union camps in search of freedom and work. On a screen, Sacks projected old photographic images of soldiers in their camps, sometimes with an African American in a servile role in the photo’s periphery.

“Sadly,” said Sacks, “what I learned from not only these images but the hundreds of letters and diaries I read is that for white Union soldiers, rather than developing greater respect for black people during the course of the war, in many ways their attitudes deteriorated.” In many of these letters the former slaves employed in the camps were referred to as “Boy” or “Boys” – including the quotation marks, and proprietary language like “my servant” or “my negro” was common.

Dr. Sacks contends that this was in some ways, the fault of government policies, and in other ways the result of circumstances in which the former slaves still ended up in subservient roles.

There was a good size audience at the Albion Area Lifelong Learners annual meeting to hear the first talk that Dr. Marcy Sacks had given to the group.

“This was a critical juncture in which the narrative emerging from the South might have been profoundly different,” Sacks write in her research paper. “As thousands upon thousands of freedom-seeking, self-emancipated former slaves arrived in Union camps, white northerners might have celebrated black people’s obvious rejection of their subordination and the seizure of their independence. They might have allowed themselves to acknowledge and admire the courage and dignity of those who were helping to topple the slaveocracy and dismantle the Confederacy. Had they written about what they were witnessing in this way, one can imagine that their families and friends at home would have developed newfound respect for a people about whom they knew very little.


“Instead, their own preconceived racial stereotypes [i.e. thanks to black-faced minstrel shows, ‘humorous’ caricatures, and sensationalized and fictive descriptions of slavery as in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’] made them more willing to accept their enemy’s point of view than appreciate the story being played out before their eyes by African Americans.


“Instead, their own preconceived racial stereotypes [i.e. thanks to black-faced minstrel shows, ‘humorous’ caricatures, and sensationalized and fictive descriptions of slavery as in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’] made them more willing to accept their enemy’s point of view than appreciate the story being played out before their eyes by African Americans. And by writing home about black people in these ways, Yankees transmitted this world view into the North, even as the slave institution was visibly crumbling around them.” Sacks described how some of the northern whites even came to develop fantasies about being “good” at being a slave master – and they actually desired that life as an autocrat.

Sacks’ lecture was profound, moving, and vastly educational, causing the sixty or so audience members to think about many things in new ways.

“It’s important because we need to understand the obstacles that existed to black Americans’ full attainment of citizenship and participation in American life,” Sacks told The Recorder at the end of the event. “Those roadblocks came from all sides, including from white northerners.”


“It’s important because we need to understand the obstacles that existed to black Americans’ full attainment of citizenship and participation in American life,” Sacks told The Recorder at the end of the event. “Those roadblocks came from all sides, including from white northerners.”

 

 


 

Michelle Mueller

Michelle Mueller

Michelle is the author of the book Mr. Bonner, that was released in 2019.   She has written for The Recorder, the Albion College Io Triumphe magazine, and she is an enthusiastic scrapbooker in her spare time.  See more articles by Michelle Mueller here: www.albionmich.net/writer-mueller/


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