The standard narrative of American history is a kind of onwards and upwards story of vanquishing enemies, conquering nature and becoming the best country ever. The usual stars in the epic are white folks of the male persuasion, rugged individualists who believed in god and the free market.
Something important is lost when people disappear from their own history. The main thing lost, I think, can be described by the dry academic concept of agency. Leaving people out of history ignores their wielding the powers of resistance, creativity and of affecting their world. If women don’t appear in history, the mainstream version assigns them insignificance and the role of victim. That women have always been important in our history and sometimes crucial is conveniently forgotten. Assigned the role of victims, women are not given the power to rescue themselves.
So it is with people of color. Their American history is mostly missing, and their roles in our common history are often seen as peripheral. Again, assigning people the role of passive victim robs them of historical agency, the power to affect their own destiny. Considerations of slavery, for example, may admit victimization and some horrors, but ignores the many rebellions, the creation of maroon societies, and the immense contributions to culture, the constant positive activity at creating cultures of meaning and resistance. Here’s a sample. The Underground Railroad helped many thousands of fugitive slaves find freedom. But the usual emphasis is on heroic Quakers and abolitionists who risked imprisonment, rather than the tens of thousands of slaves determined to find freedom, at the risk of their lives (and that narrative ignores the fact that many thousands found refuge in Spanish Florida).
This diary is a quick consideration of a few bits of the involvement of women and minorities as a personal comment on the version assumed to be real under Trumpism. There really is a lot of information available, so the information is less suppressed than simply ignored. I’ll include a few sources in case this interests others. It’s not just the participation of women and people of color that’s left out. LGBT people are ignored in our history, as are the many wildly diverse communes, mavericks of all stripes and nasty things we prefer to ignore.
The Revolution was not just white New Englanders shooting lobsterbacks to pieces. Women were involved in much more than holding farms and communities together while the men were out. A few disguised themselves and passed as male soldiers (this is happened in many of our wars). Women usually labeled “camp followers” were important to the Continental army as they were to all armies then. Women washed soldiers clothes, repaired them. They served as cooks, nursing the wounded, and more. Margaret Corbin, whose artilleryman husband was killed in 1776, stepped up to the cannon and fought—and was the first American woman to receive a veteran’s pension. Soldiers in the field relied on spouses to run farms and businesses, which they did, well, and on a large scale.
African Americans fought in the Revolution. Some 5,000 are thought to have served. Some units were integrated, and as many as 10% of the Continentals may have been black—the Continentals became a competent, professional army and did most of the work of defeating the British, rather than the famed militia like the Minutemen. Some slaves were sent as “substitutes” for their owners who were drafted. The most famous perhaps was the First Rhode Island regiment, an all-black unit that fought well in some hard battles against Hessian professional soldiers (soldiers from Hesse, in Germany, rented to the British in rather large numbers). A regiment of black soldiers from Haiti, in French service, fought in the crucial battle of Yorktown (some of these soldiers became important in the Haitian Revolution). Tens of thousands of slaves deserted to the British, who treated them poorly, but eventually sent some to Africa in what became Sierra Leone. Often forgotten is that African Americans (mostly slave, a few thousands free) were about 20% of Americans in 1776.
In the Civil War, some 180,000 men served in the USCT—United State Colored Troops. Several thousand were killed in combat and many more died of disease (as was common with white troops). In several battles, surviving black troops (wounded or surrendered) were massacred by enraged Confederates—who were also known to have murdered some of the white officers commanding these troops. USCT are thought to have returned the favor more than once, taking no Confederate prisoners, but documentation is sparse. Here’s a source that might be useful USCT.
While most USCT units were disbanded at war’s end, four regiments were assigned to security in the West, initially two each of cavalry and infantry, a large portion of the regular army in the west. Movies with scenes of the US cavalry coming to the rescue of course showed white soldiers, because Hollywood didn’t want to show black soldiers saving the lives of whites. Some of these troops were among the forces sent to Cuba during the Spanish-American war. The mainstream narrative has Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders winning the battle of San Juan Hill, but these professional black soldiers did the bulk of the fighting and I’ve read claims that they saved Roosevelt from defeat (the Rough Riders were volunteers, a few of whom were shall we say, a tad unsavory).
Almost unknown is the Hispanic involvement in the Civil War. The Confederacy wanted to annex New Mexico and Arizona, but their 1862 invasion was stopped by a small Union army including 2,500 Hispanic militia from New Mexico. Hispanics in Texas were divided, some supporting the Confederacy and some the Union. In addition, admiral David Farragut of “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” fame was the nation’s first Hispanic admiral (this was at Mobile Bay and the “torpedoes” then meant what today are described as mines, quite deadly then and now).
The standard view of the American West is white cowboys, white rodeo stars, white sheriffs, explorers like John Wesley Powell an so on. This of course ignores a Spanish and Mexican presence going back to the 1500s. The reality is a little different. A sizable fraction of cowboys were African American or Hispanic, and a few were women. Here’s an interesting source on women in the West, from the National Cowboy Museum. And any look at the vocabulary of cowboys shows a predominant Spanish origin—lasso, mustang, ranch, lariat, bronco, chaps, rodeo, mesa, canyon, arroyo, and so on (to say nothing of names such as Nevada, California and Colorado).
Most people will have seen the famous 1869 photo of the completion of the transcontinental railroad (two railroads were involved, one building from California east and the other from the Midwest building westward). The California road—the Central Pacific—used something like 15,000 Chinese workers, a number of whom died during construction. In the commemorative photo, the Chinese workers were not shown.
Among the nasty things usually ignored is the extraordinarily brutal treatment of the California Indians during and after the Gold Rush. Massacre and slavery were quite common, in possibly the best documented genocide perpetuated by Americans. Slavery of Indians was fairly common in the Southwest, involving Americans, Mexicans, American Hispanics (that is, New Mexico residents, descended from Spanish settlers in the 1600s), Utes, Navajos, Mormons and what can only be described as the Comanche empire. For all this, I recommend a ground-breaking book I just read, Andres Resendez, The Other Slavery, about enslavement of American natives, particularly in what is now the American Southwest. He estimates for all of the Americas 1492 to 1900 something between two and five million Indians were enslaved.
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