By the time Union troops had begun to make deeper incursions into the western frontier of the Confederacy, well before they cut the South in two by taking command of the Mississippi, the acting abilities of captured rebels had gained legendary status. They lied about enemy strength, location, troop movements, and command structure. They told fabulous tales of starving and discouraged comrades and said they’d rather lose their liberty among the bluecoats than die like dogs in the muddy trenches.
Their ability to recount such stories, which tugged at the heartstrings, did not seem to upset the Northern troops. Instead, they marveled and often laughed at their resourceful Confederate cousins, slapping a thigh and shouting, “Oh, that Johnny Reb!”
It was all part of the game. White soldiers generally forgave other white soldiers. Why, after all, blame a good person for resorting to subterfuge when their lives and homes were in danger? American culture, since whites first began to settle the discovered territories of Massachusetts and Virginia, tacitly accepted the fact that white people are mostly good. As proof, we may point to the gift of white civilization, which we bestow upon all who fall beneath our gentle heel. And there’s more.
If you search the web today, you can, for example, learn much from conservative thinkers who trumpet the good fortune of slaves who were taken from Africa to live in the greatest country on Earth. How else would they have been led to Christianity? Surely, white apologists tell us, masters would not abuse their valuable property. It just stands to reason. And can you imagine all the bountiful food and fresh air? They were clearly better off. Such attitudes lie at the root of white complaints about the ingratitude of inferior people.
As you might suspect, the playful disinformation game was strictly a whites-only affair. You should understand that white superiority wasn’t (and isn’t) based on the idea that whites score higher than anyone else on the intelligence tests they have written. A careless reader who skims the surface of caucasian apologia might think we reached the top of the pecking order thanks to our brainpower.
But intelligence plays only a minor role here. The manly virtues of strength, courage, righteousness, trustworthiness, and honor mark the true nature of the white gentleman. Here we find the foundations of the benefit of the doubt we still extend exclusively to whites. When the gentleman resorts to violence to defend his property or his supposed honor, we presume he must have had good reason. When a white man brandishes a weapon, we must do our utmost to hear him out and talk him down.
White superiority is chiefly about moral superiority, not intellectual superiority. After all, the inferior person may frequently demonstrate shrewdness, using innate intelligence for dark purposes. Presumption of innocence does not apply here. Heaven help the sly person of color who outsmarts the morally superior white man.
Heaven did not help Martin Robinson, an African American guide, hanged on March 1, 1864. I first encountered this sad tale while reading the second volume of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. You can find a somewhat fuller account in Historic Records of the Fifth New York Cavalry, a day-to-day chronicle of the regiment by the good Reverend Louis N. Boudrye. Continue reading “The Darkest Side of White Supremacy: The Hanging of Martin Robinson”