"We Showed Our Natural Manhood": The Civil War, Black Masculinity, Black Nationalism, and a Black Male Epistolary Tradition
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Type of WorkText
DepartmentEnglish and Languages
ProgramDoctor of Philosophy
This research examines selected letters from African American soldiers who served in the American Civil War. The letters chosen for this study cover the span of the American Civil War from 1861, the year before African American soldiers were allowed to enlist, to the conclusion of the War in 1865. My assertion is that these letters are more than a mere means of social communication; these letters are an assertion of identity and black masculinity – notions African American men were stripped of during slavery. More specifically, I argue that these letters prefigure an early black nationalist ideology. While there are varying iterations of Black Nationalism, the foundation of such ideology is grounded in David Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles: An Address to the Slaves of the United States. Published in 1829, Walker inquires if his brethren are indeed men, and if so they must fight for the rights granted to them by God. Walker’s Appeal calls for the reclamation not only of manhood but also of citizenship—two notions that challenge the stereotyped images of nineteenth-century African American men, including the Uncle Tom, the Sambo, and the black brute. Such stereotypes have been the major focus of social, historical, and literary analysis. This project uses that historical framework to examine how African Americans countered these images through epistolary representation. Improved access to education, coupled with increased interaction and deepened camaraderie between Northern freemen and Southern freedmen within the military ranks, allowed for a rise in letters written by black men. In these letters, black soldiers craft a black masculine identity that demands recognition for full personhood and citizenship. These letters are worthy of attention, then, because in them readers witness that evolving sense of identity. Black men become protectors and liberators. Within letters that are addressed to family, former owners, newspaper editors, military personnel, and even the President of the United States, black men become protectors, liberators, and activists. Finally, this project recognizes these letters as literary works that constitute a distinct epistolary genre that should be included within the American literary canon.