Manliness in Grey and Blue

What role did manhood play in the Civil War? Beyond soldiering and fighting for country being a manly activity and duty, two historical realities stand out.

In What This Cruel War Was Over, historian Chandra Manning posits that ideologies of gender, while one factor of many, motivated Confederate soldiers to fight to preserve slavery. “Slavery,” she writes, “was necessary to white Southerners’ conception of manhood…” (Manning, 12). Its abolition would undermine gender constructions of the 1860s South. To be a man was to possess “mastery” over blacks, women, and children; it was also to see to the prosperity and protection of one’s family (ibid). Emancipation would overturn the social order and unleash violent acts of black vengeance, both destroying white families (12, 217-218). At the extreme, Southern soldiers feared white enslavement. The “hellish undertaking,” an Alabama private wrote, of “Lincoln & his hirelings” would ensure whites were “doomed to slavery” (39). Abolition would mean, another Confederate opined, “fire, sword, and even poison as instruments in desolating our homes, ruining us…” (38). White male control over white women would slip away alongside control over blacks, with one soldier from Georgia writing that slaves were already discussing “whom they would make their wives among the young [white] ladies” (36). Slavery had to be protected to preserve authority over others and the security of families, which were central to white male identity.

Manning further argues that black men recognized a link between slavery and manhood. (Of course, this was likewise not the only reason they fought for abolition.) Slavery stripped a man of what he held dear: the ability to protect his family, his humanity and dignity, and so on (12, 219). Only through abolition could the black man become a full man, in the individual and collective sense. Myths of inferiority, animality, and childishness could be washed away with the courage, agency, principles, and effectiveness displayed while serving in the Union army (129). A black soldier wrote of fighting for “the foundation of our liberty” and the “liberty of the soul” to “sho forth our manhood” (130). Another, from Missouri, aimed to reestablish possession and protection of his children when he wrote to their mistress and declared he was coming for them: the mistress would “burn in hell” if she further interfered with his “God given rite” to have his own children (ibid). Another black volunteer declared the war would help the race “attain greatness as a type in the human family” (ibid). For African American troops, to be a man was to be free, to be independent, to protect one’s family; it was also to be considered as much a man as any white male. Thus, slavery had to be destroyed.

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