Sunday, January 8, 2017

McGowan's Brigade Resolutions and Becoming Slaves to the Enemy

Recently, I started a book club for staff and volunteers at work. The first volume that was selected to discus was Damn Yankees!: Demonization and Defiance in the Confederate South by George C. Rable. In this valuable contribution to the understanding of Southern determination, much is made about the power of words to inspire action and instill nationalism. Painting one's enemy with dehumanizing characteristics, and in some cases greatly exaggerating tales of atrocities or what could be expected should defeat be realized, buoyed hopes and strengthened many Southerners' resolve to continue the fight.

To prepare for our actual discussion meeting, I made copies of a set of resolutions that I remembered reading, which were drafted in February 1865, by Gen. Samuel McGowan's men while they were camped and headquartered at what was then the Bouisseau family's Tudor Hall plantation and is now Pamplin Historical Park. What stood out in my memory of the document was their defiant stance, but when I re-read it, what stood out was their fear of being "enslaved" by their enemies.

In three different places, which I have placed in bold type, the author(s) of the document used some from of the term slave. In the second resolution it states: "That the reasons which induced us to take up arms at the beginning have not been impaired, but, on the contrary, infinitely strengthened by the progress of the war. Outrage and cruelty have not made us love the perpetrators. If we then judged that the enemy intended to impoverish and oppress us, we now know [emphasis in original] that they propose to subjugate, enslave, disgrace and destroy us."

In the fourth and final resolution it mentions slavery twice. However, again, not in the sense you might think. "To submit to our enemies now, would be more infamous than it would have been in the beginning. It would be cowardly yielding to power that was denied upon principle. It would be to yield the cherished right of self-government, and to acknowledge ourselves wrong in the assertion of it; to brand the names of our slaughtered companions as traitors; to forfeit the glory already won; to lose the fruits of all the sacrifices made and privations endured; to give up independence now nearly gained, and bring certain ruin, disgrace and eternal slavery upon our country. Therefore, unsubdued by past reverses, and unawed by the future dangers, we declare determination to battle to the end, and not to lay down our arms until independence is secured. Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it Heaven!"

I find it intriguing that the author(s) of these resolutions decided to use that specific term over and over. Did they fully believe that the status of slave was only reserved for those they considered an inferior race? Did they fully understand what it meant to be a slave?; to have no real self-determination; to labor for others without receiving compensation; to be ordered about; to be separated from one's family on the whim of another, all gathered through their exposure to and practice of the institution for generations? Did they understand the seriousness of the military situation and the influence such words would have on keeping men in the ranks and to oppose the gradual yet steady advances of the enemy. I would say, yes to all. Did they sincerely believe that they would literally be made slaves, like the African Americans on the farms and plantations of South Carolina? I highly doubt it. But to lose the war, and thus be made to give up their way of life; one that was based on chattel slavery, was likely thought to be about as close to actual slavery as one could get, and for many death was preferable.

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