Pat Buchanan’s Historical Amnesia: Collective Forgetting Essential to Racism?

soldiers(Photo: Wikipedia)
One of the many uninformed comments that Pat Buchanan has recently made is thus:

White men were 100% of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100% of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100% of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks.

Over at Dailykos, Ttujoe has a rebuttal, with nice photos and data on the errors in such wild assertions. He points out the extensive role of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Japanese Americans (and white women) in various American wars. Many more folks than white men were critical to all these efforts, including the first two (the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence). Even in the first two cases, those 55 or so white men in each case (who were 100 percent of the delegates in the these rather un-democractic settings) would not have been there but for the substantial wealth generated by enslaved African Americans who worked for many of them, even accompanied them to such gatherings as servants, not to mention the many white women who labored for and with them as well:

Well, let’s take Vicksburg first, Pat, you’re just wrong. You must have forgotten about the Battle of Milliken’s Bend. That was the battle where African-American soldiers defeated Confederates who were trying to cut a union supply line. Now, Pat, obviously this was a battle during the Civil War. But what does this have to do with Vicksburg? Well, that supply line the Confederates were trying to cut just happened to be Grant’s supply line who were laying siege to Vicksburg. (By the way, I’m not surprised that you didn’t learn about this- after all, the National Park Service didn’t even have an exhibit or monument about these troops until 2007).

The African American soldiers and support troops in Civil War somehow get left out in most of the public discussions of US history, and in too many accounts of contributions as well. As a result of successful recruiting by Martin Delaney, Frederick Douglass, and other black (and some white) leaders, during the last years of the Civil War several hundred thousand African Americans (men and women), many formerly enslaved, served as Union soldiers and support troops–and thus did more to free enslaved Americans than did President Abraham Lincoln’s famous 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Without them the war might have ended in a draw or worse. Lincoln was having trouble getting enough white men to right for the Union.

Like the black abolitionists, most of these Union soldiers and support troops undoubtedly held some version of a black liberty and justice counter-frame to the dominant white-racist frame in their minds. For example, the formerly enslaved John Washington, who ran away and became part of the Union Army’s support troops, described his new situation thus:

Before morning I had began to feel like I had truly escaped from the hands of the slaves master and with the help of God, I never would be a slave no more. I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim every cent that I should work for as my own. I began now to feel that life had a new joy awaiting me. I might now go and come when I please This was the first night of freedom.

Another formerly enslaved member of Union support troops put it this way:

The next morning I was up early and took a look at the rebels country with a thankful heart to think I had made my escape with safety after such a long struggle; and had obtained that freedom which I desired so long. I now dreaded the gun, and handcuffs and pistols no more.

For formerly enslaved men and women, liberty and justice were much more than rhetorical abstractions. Their sacrifices on Civil War battlefields and behind the lines helped not only to free those enslaved, but also to put the United States on track to become a freer country. This is what Buchanan leaves out. It was men and women of color, and white women, who periodically, even centrally, helped keep the liberty and justice ideas out front at times when many white men were trying to maintain traditional forms of oppression.