Warfare and the Construction of White Identity in the United States, 1675-1865


American Historical Association Annual Meeting
Washington, D.C., January 10, 2004

Mark Grimsley
The Ohio State University

 copyright © 2004 Mark Grimsley
Please do not cite or quote without permission

My talk this afternoon is grounded in an emerging field of inquiry known as “whiteness studies.”  For those who may not be familiar with whiteness studies, this sweatshirt may help me provide a quick introduction.  The sweatshirt is emblazoned, “Go Fighting Whites!” and has as its mascot a man who looks vaguely like Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.  (Or maybe Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo. ) Beneath the main logo is the reassuring slogan, “Every thang's going to be all White!”

What is going on here?  This is the official team sweatshirt of an intramural basketball team at the University of Northern Colorado, whose members—many of them Native Americans—adopted the name “Fighting Whites” and the WASPy mascot as a way to protest the painful Native American stereotypes used by many sports teams, including, alas, my own beloved Cleveland Indians.  When I show the sweatshirt to nonwhites, they typically get the point at once.  When I show it to whites, the reaction varies.  Some also get it, but others aren’t sure what to make of it.  They aren’t offended, just puzzled.

The sweatshirt can be puzzling because it “marks” racially a group in America that normally remains unmarked.  If homosexuality was once the love that dare not speak its name, white is the race that needn’t bother.  Unless specified, just about any historical or public figure or even ordinary person in the United States is assumed to be white, at least by white people.  Consider how the phrase “white American author” falls on many ears as sounding politically correct.  Other authors require “markers;” the status of white authors can be left unstated, transparent.  The implicit message is that white American authors are the normative American authors.  This message is so powerful that given the opportunity to self-identify their race, some immigrants from Africa and Eurasia choose the label “white,” because they associate it with acceptance.  It is their way of saying, I wish to be considered a real American.

Whiteness studies takes seriously the idea that whites have not only historically assigned racial categories to others, they also possess race—and a racial identity—themselves.  Whiteness studies then attempts to explore the content of this identity, which at its core amounts to a deeply, often even unconsciously held assumption of racial privilege.  I wish I could talk at length about whiteness studies because it is both fascinating and controversial, but I have only twenty minutes.  For that matter, I can’t talk at length about my immediate subject:  the ways in which American wars between 1675 and 1865 helped to create and shape white identity in the United States.  I’ll just summarize briefly.  Those interested in learning more can read the full text of this paper, which will shortly be available on my web site.

I chose 1675 as my starting point because it was the year of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, a rebellion in which poor free Englishmen, unfree English and African indentured servants, and slaves made common cause against the Virginia gentry.  A number of historians see the aftermath of this rebellion as marking “the invention of the white race,” because in the years immediately following Bacon’s Rebellion, the Virginia house of burgesses worked systematically to privilege those of European background, whether free or slave, and marginalize those of non-European background, whether free or slave, propertied or unpropertied.  Finally, in 1723, the House of Burgesses codified into law what was already becoming common practice, namely that “no free negro, mulatto, or indian whatsoever, shall have any vote at all at the election of burgesses, or any other election whatsoever.”

As with other colonial legislation, this bill underwent routine review by the British Lords of Trade and Plantation, whose attorney-general looked askance at the idea of arbitrarily stripping “all free persons, of a black complexion (some of whom may, perhaps, be of considerable substance, from those rights, which are so justly valuable to every freeman.)” The Lords of Trade and Plantation duly asked Governor William Gooch to explain the rationale for the legislation.  Gooch replied that the Virginia Assembly had decided upon the curtailment of the franchise in order “to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros and Mulattos.”

The objective here was to secure the support of poor and middling Europeans for the dominant order by offering them a privileged status based on their possession of a white skin.  It is clear that whites accepted the privileges.  It is less clear, however, that this entailed an attitude of racial contempt toward blacks.  Poor whites in particular worked, socialized, and worshipped with blacks, a pattern that continued for most of the eighteenth century.

Military service provides a telling indicator of interracial attitudes during the colonial and revolutionary periods.  Governing authorities were reluctant to place African Americans under arms, but they sometimes did.  Blacks defended South Carolina during the Yamasee War of 1715-1716.  Blacks living in Georgia were armed to ward off encroachments by the Spanish in Florida.  A few blacks helped track down the perpetrators of the Stono Slave Rebellion in 1739.  And over 5,000 African Americans served in the revolutionary armies during the War for Independence.

With regard to the latter struggle, the debate over whether to enlist African Americans is instructive.  Resistance to the idea stemmed mainly from fears that it would destabilize the institution of slavery.  Two arguments against the employment of African American troops that would become fundamental in the Civil War are conspicuously minor during the Revolution.  Few believed that blacks would make poor soldiers.  Few worried that white soldiers would feel degraded if asked to serve alongside them.

Race relations, of course, underwent extensive changes in the decades after the American Revolution.  Slavery ended, gradually or at once, in Northern states—and, as Joanne Pope Melish has shown, was rapidly erased from the remembered history of the region, so that the wretched free black population seemed wretched because of their own deficiency, not as a legacy of enslavement.  It was excluded from the Northwest Territory, which was essentially viewed as a “whites only” preserve; and it gradually became more entrenched in the American South, buttressed by new arguments about the alleged biological inferiority of blacks.  None of these changes required racial hatred, yet to me perhaps the single biggest change was the tremendous upsurge in the fear and loathing of whites toward African Americans.

The origins of this great hatred are as yet imperfectly understood, although David Roediger, Ronald Takaki, and others have offered useful hypotheses.  But I do think that war played a significant role in it—not a war in North America but rather the twelve-year war in Haiti sparked by the 1791 slave rebellion in the French plantation colony of Saint-Domingue.  The war produced a wave of at least 10,000 refugees.  Their experiences underscored the explosive potential for a similar insurrection in the American South.  The refugees included numerous blacks and mulattos, some of whom settled in New York City, where they appear to have been among the most resistant to the domination of whites and contributed to white perceptions of blacks as a disorderly segment of society.

Warfare played a central role in the racialization of a second group of Americans:  the Indians.  Contrary to what most Americans assume, Indians were not initially viewed in racial terms.  True, 16th and 17th century Europeans looked upon them as savage, but they also viewed them as the New World equivalent of their own ancestors from five hundred years earlier.  While a substantial number were enslaved in the American southeast and suffered the “social death” of African Americans, far more remained not only in autonomous communities, where they also became involved in sophisticated diplomatic dealings with Europeans—some nations were real players to be reckoned with.

In the trans-Appalachian west, a condition of rough cultural and political parity existed between Native American and European groups.  Rather than a clearly delineated frontier, there was an extensive borderland region—as Richard White puts it, a Middle Ground.  Official U.S. policy in the post-revolutionary era attempted to preserve the stability of this region, to respect Indian rights, and to extinguish Indian title to the lands gradually if inexorably.  During the Jeffersonian period it also harbored the hope and expectation that Native American groups might be assimilated into American society.

However, the U.S. government lacked both the political philosophy and the coercive ability to prevent a surge of white settlement in the region so massive and voracious that it quickly led to a stream of raids and counter raids, massacres and counter massacres, which generated a strong antipathy by whites toward Indians based on an understanding of Indians as unassimilable and racially other.  This warfare forms one of the clearest examples of the impact of war on the formation of race.  Over time the rough-and-ready racialization of Indians on the part of white settlers pushed the U.S. government into racializing the Indian population as well.  Compelled by these borderland raids to take military action to restore stability, the United States gradually adopted a policy toward Indians based on exclusion rather than assimilation.  This policy culminated in the 1830s with the passage and enforcement of the Indian Removal Act.  Moreover, the positioning of Indians as racially other made it possible, then as in the later wars on the western plains, to treat them as unlawful combatants, notwithstanding the fact that most Indians were not American citizens but were instead legally classified as belonging to “domestic dependent nations.”

It is clear that whites felt entitled to trans-Appalachian lands and that the cycle of wars between 1789 and 1842 contributed heavily to the racialization of Native Americans.  But what else does it tell us about the content of white identity?  I think that a close reading of white atrocities toward Indian groups offers a useful if macabre window into this content.  It is a mistake, I think, to see these simply as a matter of tit-for-tat (though I yield to no one in my acknowledgment that Native American cultural forms of warfare, particularly the ceremonial torture and mutilation of captives, would have produced rage and a lust for revenge in almost any adversary).  The battle of Bad Axe, the massacre that ended the Black Hawk War in August 1832, provides a useful case in point.  Here Illinois militia, after pursuing a weary and starving band of Sauk and Fox Indians for several weeks in the Rock River valley and Wisconsin dells, fell upon the band as it lay trapped against the banks of the Mississippi, and slaughtered about 150 Indians, many of them women and children.  White accounts themselves convey a picture of hysterical mayhem as militiamen bayoneted women who had buried themselves in sand to escape detection, shot individuals trying to swim the river, dashed out the brains of children, and raped a number of women.  These actions were scarcely necessary to end the threat from Black Hawk’s band, and although the conflict had seen numerous attacks on white settlers, including a famous kidnapping of white sisters—who were, by the way, released unharmed after a few weeks—most of the violence had been carried out by Pottawatami and other Indians.  Even if one accepts the idea that one Indian will serve as well as another for purposes of punishment, it is still interesting to see how disproportionate and savage the white response was.

Let me put this another way. I am at least tentatively Marxist in my belief that white racism originated through the efforts of the Anglo-American elite and chiefly serves the interests of the elite.  But the success of racism depends on its acceptance by ordinary whites, and since the material benefits of being white are in themselves modest, the psychological benefits must be potent.  The studies by Alexander Saxton and Eric Lott of blackface minstrelsy during this era are one good way to get at these psychological benefits.  A close reading of atrocity, characterized by intense curiosity as opposed to a mere piling up of awful incidents, may tell us something important as well.

Of all the cases in which race and war intersect, the one that puzzles me most concerns the Texas Revolution, the border struggles after San Jacinto, and the Mexican-American War.  It would be convenient for me if negative stereotypes toward Mexicans did not antedate these conflicts, but as David J. Weber and others have shown, Anglo travelers often viewed the Mexican peasants they encountered as “scarce more than apes,” partly on the basis of their mestizo heritage, partly on perceptions of indolence and filth, partly by association with the Black Legend.  It would be convenient if these negative stereotypes fundamentally explained the Texas Revolution, but unfortunately for convenience, the tug of war between federalism and centralism was real, as was the fact that Anglo and tejano settlers made common cause against the Santa Anna regime.  However, it does seem clear that the massacres of the Alamo and Goliad greatly increased Anglo antipathy toward Mexicans, particularly on the part of the Anglo volunteers who surged into the region during the conflict, knew little of the culture and nothing of the language, and were so predisposed to shoot any Mexican that General Sam Houston required his tejano volunteers to wear in the bands of their hats a placard reading “Remember the Alamo.”  The battle of San Jacinto in April 1836 was a massacre that to my mind is reminiscent of the famous 1864 Fort Pillow massacre save that it appears to have been spontaneous on the part of the Texas volunteers—telling in itself, for massacres are usually “crimes of obedience” requiring the positive leadership of officers. At any rate, it is clear to me that the Texas Revolution helped transform prejudice into outright racism, partly because the Texan victory led Anglos to soon dominate the Republic and eventual State of Texas, and so were able to initiate a program of gradual political, social and economic hegemony; and partly because the war increased popular white antipathy toward Mexicans.

The prejudice against Mexicans differed from that toward Indians and blacks.  Even whites who fought wars against Indians had a tendency to regard them, once they were no longer dangerous, as noble savages.  Black Hawk, for instance, was not executed but rather took a grand tour down the eastern seaboard and met President Andrew Jackson in the White House, while his 1835 autobiography, published in Cincinnati, went through numerous printings.  African Americans were basically despised.  White attitudes toward Mexicans were heavily gendered, as the words and actions of the white volunteers who fought in the Mexican-American War amply attest.  Whites saw Mexican males as degenerate and cruel but found Mexican women by and large as exotic, winsome, sensual—and frequently even white, a marking that makes no logical sense but certainly made a degree of sexual sense in antebellum America.  This gendered perception of Mexicans may help to explain why the Polk administration viewed the annexation of all of Mexico as not only thinkable but much to be desired—in contrast to the Theodore Roosevelt administration which sixty years later rebuffed a Filipino delegation that wished to see the Philippines become a U.S. state.  By then, such a large group of non-whites was considered unassimilable, but to the extent that Mexico could be seen as feminine and awaiting the embrace of Uncle Sam, and Mexican women could be seen as the potential mothers of Anglo children, the annexation of a nonwhite region by a white republic seemed manageable.

The fact that Mexican forces fought in a European manner also made Anglo warfare against Mexico a very different matter than warfare against Native Americans. Partly this was due to the acknowledgment that Mexican soldiers were lawful combatants.  Partly it owed to the symmetry of the opposing military cultures.  However, compared with the American Civil War, U.S. response to guerrilla warfare was more consistently harsh, while the amount of violence perpetuated by U.S. volunteers against Mexican civilians—rapes, assaults, casual murders—far outstripped anything that Union volunteers did to (white) southern civilians fifteen years hence.  (Paul Foos has brilliantly analyzed this violence in A Short, Offhand, Killing Affair, in my view one of the most interesting works in American military history to appear in the past several years.)

Lastly we come to the American Civil War, the terminal event for this presentation because it marks what sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant term “the end of racial dictatorship” in the United States.  This conflict had a substantial interracial dimension as 20,000 Indians and 186,000 African Americans became combatants in the conflict, while the lives of millions more African Americans turned on the outcome.  The basic developments are too well-known to require mention here.  But it does seem to me that most work to date has focused on the African American response to the emancipation moment and that it would be useful to extend the inquiry to ask how the sea change in race relations during this period affected the content of white identity.  Certainly it did not shake assumptions about white superiority.  But surely it forced whites to rethink what it meant to be white in a republic in which the African American had, in Frederick Douglass’s memorable phrase, “an eagle on his buttons, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket”—and therefore a seemingly unanswerable claim to American citizenship.  Some found the prospect unthinkable.  Others managed to fit African American military participation into their existing contempt for blacks by emphasizing the fact that a black soldier could stop a bullet as well as a white one.  Still others could not countenance blacks who seemed not to know their place.  An Irish soldier in the 77th Illinois attacked the black manservant of his captain who struck him as “uppity.”  A Michigan cavalryman sabered an African American sentry who challenged him when he approached his post.  But many white soldiers managed to incorporate a view of themselves as liberators.  It is telling that the famous song Marching Through Georgia includes the lyric:

    Hurrah!  Hurrah!  We bring the Jubilee!
    Hurrah!  Hurrah!  The flag that makes you free!

. . . and equally telling that this self-image as liberators did not translate into much sense of identification with, or responsibility for, the African American population.

Even the “Civil War alliance between black soldiers and white officers,” ably explored in Joseph T. Glatthaar’s Forged in Battle, had little postwar sequel.  Black veterans marched at the back of Decoration Day parades, black and white veterans recalled their sacrifice in separate Grand Army of the Republic posts, and white veterans made almost no attempt to champion the civil rights of their former comrades in arms.  Indeed, notwithstanding Douglass’s eloquent equation of military service and the right to citizenship, African American men received the vote less a reward for military service than as a maneuver on the part of the Republican Party to extend itself into the South.

Indeed, the Civil War era forms a reminder that racism is not a force of nature—though the incuriosity of many military histories toward race suggests that they regard it as such—but rather a means to an end.  That end is power:  power not for all whites but for an elite group.  The Northern elite in 1862, and the Southern elite in 1865, each faced with a mortal challenge by the other, impressively modified their racial stances to accommodate a measure—the use of African American troops—when in their view that use was well-calculated to preserve their hold on power.

In short, the American Civil War continued a well-established tradition whereby non-whites were recruited as strength for the fight, flattered briefly for their service—as Andrew Jackson once flattered the African American militia that helped him win the battle of New Orleans—and then discarded.  The Civil War thus illustrates how white identity has been able to accommodate even massive shifts in the racial order.

I do not believe that war was the only engine in the rise and delineation of whiteness.  But I do think that it was one engine--and one whose importance has not yet been appreciated.  And I think that at all times it functions as a valuable lens by which to gain entry into the racial identity of ordinary whites, which may or may not have been the same as that of the elites whose views are more easily accessible.  As whiteness studies moves forward, warfare is a dimension that merits further exploration.


Race and and War in the American Experience, 1585-1902:
A Select Bibliography

 This excerpt, from a much longer bibliography that I will place online, concentrates on works that provide conceptual frameworks for grappling with this issue.  The remaining sections, to be found online (along with expanded versions of these sections), list works that deal with violence between whites and specific racial or ethnic groups, regardless of whether the works directly address issues of race and culture.

 Culture, Race, Ethnicity, and General Works.  Part I:  North America

 Allen, Theodore W.  The Invention of the White Race, 2 vols.  New York:  Verso,  1994.

 Birkhofer, Robert F. The White Man's Indian:  Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

 Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic, eds.  Critical White Studies:  Looking Behind the Mirror.  Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1997. 

 Fields, Barbara J. "Ideology and Race in American History," in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, eds. Region, Race, and Reconstruction:  Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward.  New York and Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1982.

 Grimsley, Mark.  “‘A Very Long Shadow’:  Race and Atrocity in the Civil War,” in Gregory J. W. Urwin, ed., Black Flag over Dixie:  Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War.  Edwardsville and Carbondale:  Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.

  ________.  “Race in the Civil War,” North and South vol. 4, no. 3 (March 2001), 36-46, 52-55.

 Holt, Thomas C., “Explaining Racism in American History,” in Anthony Molho and Gordon S. Wood, eds., Imagined Histories:  American Historians Interpret Their Past.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1998.

 Jacobson, Matthew Frye.  Whiteness of a Different Color:  European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race.  Cambridge, Mass. and London:  Harvard University Press, 1998.

 Eric Lott, Love and Theft:  Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Oxford and New York:  Oxford University Press, 1993).

 Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery:  Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860.  Ithaca and London:  Cornell University Press, 1998.

 Edmund S.  Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom:  The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York:  Norton, 1975).

 Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States From the 1960s to the 1990s  2nd ed. (New York and London:  Routledge, 1994)

 Roediger, David R.  The Wages of Whiteness:  Race and the Making of the American Working Class.  London and New York:  Verso, 1991.

 _______.  Towards the Abolition of Whiteness.  London and New York:  Verso, 1994.

 Saxton, Alexander.  The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. London and New York: Verso, 1990.

 Stern, Judith, et al., “Scholarly Controversy:  Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination:  An Assessment,” International Labor and Working-Class History No. 60 (Fall 2001), 1-92.  [Special Issue]

 Takaki, Ronald.  Iron Cages:  Race and Culture in 19th-Century America.  Revised edition.  New York and Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000 [1979].

 Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth.  The Anatomy of Prejudices (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1996). 

 Theoretical Literature and Case Studies on Mass Violence, Attacks Upon Civilians, Atrocities, and Genocide

Roy F. Baumeister, Evil:  Inside Human Violence and Cruelty (New York:  W. H. Freeman, 1997) 

Grimsley, Mark,  and Clifford J. Rogers (eds.), Civilians in the Path of War.  Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press, 2002. 

Grimsley, Mark.  The Hard Hand of War:  Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865.  Cambridge and New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1995. 

Dave Grossman, On Killing:  The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston:  Little, Brown, 1995) 

Herbert C. Kelman and V. Lee Hamilton, Crimes of Obedience:  Toward a Social Psychology of Authority and Responsibility (New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 1989). 

Neely, Mark E., Jr., “Retaliation:  The Problem of Atrocity in the American Civil War.”  The 41st Annual Memorial Lecture at Gettyburg College, Gettysburg, Pa., 2002. 

Staub, Ervin, The Roots of Evil:  The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence Cambridge and New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1989. 

Storr, Anthony.  Human Destructiveness.  New York:  Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.


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