thumbnail of The Civil War; Interviews with Barbara Fields
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CAMERAMAN: January 14th, 1987, project title, Civil War, produced by Florentine Films; camera roll, 136, sound roll, 28, recorded flat, 7 1/2 ips, -8 dB reference tone to follow. [TONE] Interview with Barbara Fields, Smithsonian Institute. Quiet please, camera test. Cut. It’s rolling. Camera test. End of camera test. Sound’s rolling. Take one. Camera, please. Slate. One.
INTERVIEWER: I think the thing that we come across is a good deal of misconception about the Civil War. What kind of myths about the war do you find most common and most abhorrent to you?
FIELDS: I suppose the most abhorrent is the one that misses the point that the Civil War and all that it accomplished were the product of many people. They were the product of four million slaves, they were the product of all the men who served in both of the armies and they were the product of the people who remained behind at home. It isn’t Lincoln’s story, it isn’t Grant’s story, it isn’t Lee’s story.
INTERVIEWER: Whose story is it?
FIELDS: First and foremost i think it's the story of those slaves, and it’s the story of the free black people whose freedom was hostage to slavery as long as slavery remained, and I think it's the story of the people who fought against slavery, who receive their vindication, really, in the war, the abolitionists, the Free Soilers. And then I think it is the story of people who up until the moment of that conflict didn't really know that there was an important job for them to do but they found out. I think about soldiers from Minnesota, from Wisconsin, from Illinois, from Indiana, who may not have thought much about slavery at all and found themselves in the army suddenly in a slave state.
INTERVIEWER: I’m sorry, that’s terrible. Let’s cut, and then when I say - roll, speak, camera, slate. Two. Um…
FIELDS: I think of the Union soldiers from Minnesota and Wisconsin and Illinois and Indiana, Iowa, places like that, who probably hadn’t thought much about slavery before, but who found themselves in the army in slave states and suddenly realized that there was a job for them to do too, and it was their story also, because they learned something in the course of that conflict.
INTERVIEWER: How much did the slaves force the issue of emancipation, or did they bring it to the fore?
FIELDS: They are the ones who placed emancipation on the nation's agenda. I don't think there's any question about that. I don't say that there were not others who wanted it on the agenda, abolitionists who had been wanting it there for years, Republicans who had been wanting it there for years, but it was the slaves who actually had the numbers, the moral force, and were properly placed to put it there, and they do that almost immediately when the war began. Indeed, before the war began, upon Lincoln's election and before his inauguration, many slaves had already decided, this is our moment, we're going to take it.
INTERVIEWER: There is a great myth that the slaves preferred to stay back on the farm and stay with Massa. Uh, can you burst that for us?
FIELDS: Many slaves of course did stay back on the farm, but the situation is very complicated. Some stayed because the realistic possibility of their getting away was not great, or they stayed because their families were there. Some perhaps stayed because despite their hatred of slavery they also had a human feeling of attachment to the place where they had been born, where they had worked, where they had grown up, including for many a very complex human feeling of affection for the owners whom they nevertheless considered to be their oppressors and their enemy.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk about that. What is slavery? Make it real for me right now. What is slavery?
FIELDS: Slavery is the ownership of one person by another, the ownership of his person or her person, the ownership of body and sou, the being able to say that your family is mine, you are mine, your children are mine. The important decisions that control your life are mine. It is also of course, and the owner's never forgot it, the right to use that ownership as a way of receiving the benefits of someone else's labor, and that's what it is first and foremost. I think we tend to forget that. The slaves were engaged first and foremost in the business of producing cotton and sugar and rice and tobacco, they were not producing white supremacy or submission or producing the splendor of the old South as we understand it through Gone with the Wind and other popular illusions of that kind. They were busy producing agricultural commodities that gave others the power to continue to exploit them,and in the course of doing that they also lost other elements of independence that free people take for granted.
INTERVIEWER: Why did the war happen?
FIELDS: The war happened, I think, for the recent that Lincoln gave, that the nation could not endure forever half slave and half free. From the time of the adoption of the Federal Constitution up to the eve of the the Civil War, the issue of slavery was constantly, as Wendell Phillips, the great abolitionist, once put it, disturbing our peace. There never could be any peace as long as slavery remained on the nation's agenda. There could not be any peace until it came to occupy the first place on that agenda. There were many efforts to compromise it, many efforts to resolve the issue peacefully. Most of those efforts were efforts to reach an agreement between slave owners and non slave owners, Northerners and Southerners, but they were agreements that did not involve principals, the slaves, and until an agreement actually involved their active participation it was bound to be provisional.
INTERVIEWER: So in your eyes the war was necessary.
FIELDS: It was necessary, yes, and I think that sooner or later the nation would have had to deal with that. Lincoln actually proposed a compromise that looked toward preserving slavery as long as 1900. I don't think that compromise ever stood much of a chance, but if it had been enacted, the issue still would've come up, I think, one way or the other. That would have been a way of postponing it, perhaps, for a short time.
INTERVIEWER: We think of, um, you spoke before, and I’d like you to restate it for us here, this idea of the slaves really forcing the issue of emancipation on occupying troops.
FIELDS: Yes, they did that in a number of ways.
INTERVIEWER: Could you not say ‘did that,’ just could you start back because I won’t be -
FIELDS: OK. The slaves put the issue of their freedom on the agenda in a number of ways. They forced the nation to pay attention to it. One of the ways, the most obvious way, was simply by showing up within the lines of the Union Army, and they did this almost immediately, when troops went through Maryland on their way to protect the nation's capitol in April of 1861, slaves were already approaching them, demanding to be taken along, demanding their freedom. This happened again and again wherever Union troops touched slave territory, and first of all, in loyal slave states, states like Maryland, which did not join the Confederacy but which, in which there were numbers of slaves, and what the slaves did was embarrass the government, because the issue then was, what do we do with these people? You hand them back to their masters? Well, they don’t like that, and not only don't they like that, but neither do anti-slavery people in the North like that, and neither do the soldiers like that, so in essence, what I’m saying is that the slaves had it within their power to embarrass the government in a very serious way very early, and they did that. Let me give you an example. Slaves appear within the lines of the Army, let's say in Maryland, this could be Kentucky at a later time, and an officer tells his men, get them out of here, we’ve been forbidden to have anything to do with these slaves. Perhaps one of the soldiers then decides, I don't like this, I didn't come here for this kind of work, gets in touch with his Congressman, gets in touch with the hometown press, or maybe there's someone representing the hometown press on the spot. The next thing you know, there’s press coverage of this, or maybe there’s someone on the floor of the House of Representatives saying, what the devil is this? The Governor of Massachusetts, John A. Andrew, actually had occasion to say to the Secretary of State and to the General in Chief of the Army, in that flamboyant way he often had, Massachusetts does not send her citizens forth to become the hunters of men, and he meant that. It was in just such ways that the slaves were able to put the issue in front of the government.
INTERVIEWER: What is refugeeing?
FIELDS: Refugeeing refers to a process by which slave owners attempted, or perhaps not slave owners but people in the way of the advance of the armyies attempted to get out of the way themselves, and also to take their slaves out of the way with them, so we speak of slaves being refugeed, which is an ironic term. It's a way of saying that the slaves were being gotten out of the way of potential freedom. Many of the slaves refused such refugeeing. Some refugeeing occurred when owners tried to keep their slaves out of the path of the Confederate Army, because the Confederate Army needed slave laborers and the -
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about the complaints of black soldiers. The life of a black soldier in the Army.
FIELDS: The black soldier in the Union Army is an extremely interesting figure because he was a man, of all the men who served in the army, who from day one knew exactly why he was there. Others might say, what the devil am I doing here, the pay is lousy, it's not my fight, but the black soldier knew exactly why he was there.
INTERVIEWER: Cut. The film ran out just as we were doing this, which is fine, we'll change the roll, it takes about five minutes. If you want to just relax, if you're relaxed - [TONE].
CAMERAMAN: January 14th, 1987, project title, Civil War, produced by Florentine Films. Camera roll 137, sound roll 29, recorded flat, 7 1/2 ips, -8 dB reference tone. [TONE] Continuation of interview with Barbara Fields. Roll, speed. Camera, please. Camera is rolling. Three.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about the treatment of the liberated by the liberators.
FIELDS: The treatment of the liberated by the liberators. There's no simple way to answer that. Some of what the slaves found when they arrived, let's say within the lines of the Union Army, where they thought they'd found freedom, what they found instead was very harsh treatment. Sometimes they were told to get out. In fact, the Army had orders to send them out at various points. Sometimes they found severe racism among the soldiers of the Union Army. Sometimes they found exploitation. Soldiers said, oh, this is wonderful, now we can have servants to shine our boots and clean up the camp and dig the latrines and so on. On on the other hand, sometimes they found a camaraderie that perhaps neither had expected, soldiers who perhaps had looked down on the slaves before, never having been in contact with any anyway, suddenly discovered a slave who had become a real human being to him and developed an attachment, and you see this often in the documents in which soldiers have been called to account because they refuse to obey an order to put a fugitive slave out, and it's because that fugitive slave had become a person, and they said no.
INTERVIEWER: What do we miss in this whole story? What is - what do we miss when we think it's just a story of these great white guys fighting? What about the story, the Robert E. Lees and all, even the ordinary men who think the fight was just about them? What's the central theme we're missing?
FIELDS: What we miss if we focus on the battles and the generals and the great white man is the sense that there was anything worth it at all, that for six hundred thousand people to die, and they're not counting the suffering of the people who were left behind who were not in the immediate military conflict, but who suffered nevertheless, the families and so on, you would have to ask, what in the world was that all about if it was just about battles and glory and carnage? The fact that freedom came as a result of the war redeems what would otherwise be a very ugly story. It's a short redemption, of course, but a redemption of a kind.
INTERVIEWER: We hear a lot about what whites, North and South, felt about country as Yankees and Confederates. What did, what did blacks feel about America?
FIELDS: What did blacks think about America? I think one of my favorite documents of the Civil War period is one written by a soldier whose name I can't tell you. The paper on which he wrote his manifesto was found on a street in New Orleans by a policeman, and this soldier was discussing the reasons why people on both sides were fighting, and he said, the Northern men say they are fighting for the Union. We care nothing about the Union, we have been in it slaves over 250 years, but at the end of his manifesto, he signed himself a colored man and one of the Union's strongest friends. A contradiction, but not a contradiction. To the slaves, their country was the Union because the Union meant freedom and only to the extent that the Union meant freedom, and their accomplishment was to see to it that the union meant freedom.
INTERVIEWER: Who's the person in the war that you have the most affection for as you look back? Care the most about?
FIELDS: I find it very hard to name one person that I care most about in the whole war. There's so many people who at different moments reveal their...
INTERVIEWER: Let's talk about some people, can you assess them briefly? Abraham Lincoln?
FIELDS: Abraham Lincoln was a skillful master politician, a man of, I believe, moral conviction, but also a man whose main job, as he saw it, was to preserve the Union, and he said, and I believe him, that if he had known a way to do that without freeing the slaves, he would have done it, just as if the only way to do it was to free the slaves, he would do that too. Abraham Lincoln's role in the Civil War is towering, but his was not the only role in the Civil War.
INTERVIEWER: How about Frederick Douglas?
FIELDS: Frederick Douglas. A good friend of mine, the novelist Leon Forrest, has a short epitaph to Frederick Douglass that i like very much. It says, Frederick Douglass, the North Star, in whose shadow perhaps, but only his shadow, the Great Emancipator was worthy to walk in.
INTERVIEWER: Ben Butler. Tell me about Ben Butler.
FIELDS: Benjamin Butler. Benjamin Butler is one of my favorite people in an odd way. Here he was, a show-off, an opportunist, a man, to say the least, of malleable moral principle, but he was caught up in a genuinely revolutionary situation and what such situations do is teach people who are smart enough and who are in the right place at the right time what they have to do in order to acquit themselves properly under those revolutionary circumstances, and that was Benjamin Butler. He arrived with a flourish in Maryland, and, I think ironically, but perhaps not ironically, he told the nervous governor that he was willing to use his men to put down the slave rebellion of which he heard rumors. But then, not to - and he took over Baltimore and he made a big flourish, he arrested a member of the Maryland State Legislature and got everyone angry at him, starting with the President. Then he arrived at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, which he had first saw as a demotion, which promptly became a promotion, however, and immediately was forced to deal with the question of fugitive slaves. And he dealt with it, Butler fashion, rather opportunistically, but also Butler fashion, he turned opportunism into a principle. He popularized the notion, contraband of war, which became the euphemism for a fugitive slave that allowed everyone to refer to them without dealing with the question of their freedom yet.
INTERVIEWER: Do you want to cut here? That’s pretty loud. [UNCLEAR]
CAMERAMAN: Sound’s rolling, speed, slate, number four.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about Ben Butler in Louisiana, if you would.
FIELDS: Oh, must we go to Louisiana already?
FIELDS: Benjamin Butler received some fugitive slaves in Virginia when there was not, not yet a policy about this, and he decided on his own account, being a politician who understood power, that he certainly should use these slaves for the benefit of the United States rather than see them used for the benefit of the Confederacy, and he had a marvelous exchange with the Confederate officer who came to him, under a flag of truce, I assume, and said, General Butler, don't you feel obligated under the Constitution and under the fugitive slave law to return the slaves to their rightful owner? And according to Butler, he replied, the fugitive slave law can have no application in a foreign country, which is what Virginia claims to be, and she must count it one of the infelicities of her situation if she is insofar far taken at her word. I’m almost quoting him, I think. I think Butler enjoyed the exhibition of himself in these episodes. It’s what makes him such a complex figure, because there's so much to dislike, and yet so much to admire at the same time in these strokes of his. He took credit for the notion of contraband of war and for establishing the policy of receiving the fugitive slaves.
INTERVIEWER: And yet he’s remembered as the Beast of New Orleans.
FIELDS: He’s -
INTERVIEWER: Go ahead, I’m sorry.
FIELDS: He’s remembered as the Beast of New Orleans because he gave an order, directed at women who had been abusing the troops and saying that if they were, if they continue to do this, they would be treated as ladies of the evening, and this shocked the good women of Louisiana and it shocked the chivalry of the south, and to tell the truth it has shocked historians ever since. It doesn't shock me a bit, because i know that as far as the black troops were concerned, there was no greater enemy then the slaveholding women of the south, and these same women who abused Butler’s troops and whom he rebuked for it were the sort of women who would, if they could, abuse the black soldiers who had perhaps less of, less means of retaliation than their white comrades under those circumstances, who were expected to take it. I’m glad Butler told them, if you want to act, if you want to get into the gutter, we’re going to regard the gutter as your home.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about, uh, um, who really bore the brunt of the slave society.
FIELDS: Who bore the brunt of the war within the Confederacy?
INTERVIEWER: Well, I’m thinking about what - let me just ask you a different question. What was it like for slave women?
FIELDS: Slave women had of course the burdens they had always borne, of looking after families and so on, but if their men left to join the Army and had to do that secretively, had to do it against the wishes of their owners, which would be almost always true, then they also stood to bear reprisals on the part of the owners, who would take it out on the families. Many of the dependents followed the men to the army for that reason, because they knew that it was not safe to stay behind, but of course there, they could not be certain of their reception either. The same army that might be delighted to receive the men, because they were good laborers or because they would be good fighters, were reluctant to receive the women and children and the old people who were dependent.
INTERVIEWER: [UNCLEAR] but that’s good. [TONE]
CAMERAMAN: January 14th, 1987, project title, Civil War. Produced by Florentine Films, camera roll 148, sound roll 1, sound roll 30, recorded flat 7 1/2 ips -8 dB reference tone. [TONE] Continuation of interview with Barbara Fields. Rolling, speed. Slow. Five.
INTERVIEWER: What was it like for the slave women during the war?
FIELDS: The slave women were in a difficult spot, because of the men, in a sense, after they had the right to seek their freedom by joining the army, had an institution behind them more powerful than they were. The women, on the other hand, still had to face the whole weight of the slave regime on their own. Some of them paid the penalty for their mens’ going into the army, when the owners took it out on those who were left behind, gave the women the men's work to do or punished them by taking away their children. Some of the women followed the men into the army, knowing that if they stayed behind it wouldn't be safe, and there they met a hostile reception, many of them from the army itself. The army had a use for able-bodied men, either as laborers or as soldiers, but very little use for people who would have to be fed and would have to be sheltered.
INTERVIEWER: What about the slave mistresses?!
FIELDS: The slave mistresses were in a difficult spot. They had the task of keeping the whole system going without the presence of large numbers of white men. And they put up a valiant effort to do that and many of them made a pretty good job of it. Now, I say that though obviously my sympathy is with the slaves who made it hard for them, and they did make it as hard as they could. The slaves could force the women sometimes to make terms with them, to pay them wages. Women complain again and again that the slaves are rude, that they’re insolent, that they're insubordinate, that they say anything they want in front of me now that they know that there are no men around. The slave women had the job of trying to preserve -
INTERVIEWER: Let’s pause, let’s not, let’s not cut. Let’s start, OK, now.
FIELDS: The slave women had the top of holding things together when much of the glue had dissolved.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about Lincoln’s policy at the opening of the war towards slavery.
FIELDS: At the beginning of the war, Lincoln wanted to end the rebellion, he wanted to preserve the union. It was his view that constitutionally he had no right to disturb slavery in the slave states. His policy at the beginning of the war was to return fugitive slaves to their owners, not just in the loyal slave states, but even in the occupied Confederacy in Virginia.
INTERVIEWER: Isn’t this a pragmatic political consideration, not necessarily a really moral stand?
FIELDS: I think it is, it’s a pragmatic consideration and it is a moral consideration in that Lincoln, part of Lincoln's moral conviction was that he should not do something that was unconstitutional, and in his view disturbing slavery at that point would be. Partly it was pragmatic in that Lincoln understood that it was absolutely essential to keep the border slave states in the Union, and he realized that any untoward action against slavery on his part would alienate people in Kentucky, in Maryland, in Missouri.
INTERVIEWER: Is Lincoln excusable for choosing Union over emancipation?
FIELDS: Is Lincoln excusable for choosing Union over emancipation? That depends on who's standpoint you take. You could argue that if he had not done that, that the Union might have lost the war and then everything would have been lost. On the other hand, you can argue that if someone had not been taking a different view, it would've been difficult for Lincoln eventually to come to the goal of emancipation and i think that's very true. I think it was important that people like Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips were keeping up a barrage behind Lincoln, sometimes very rudely. What in the world do you think you're doing? This war is about slavery. When are you going to recognize that? Wendell Phillips called Lincoln a first-rate second-rate man because he would not deal with the question of emancipation. I think it was important that someone occupied that high ground from the beginning and kept up a barrage from there, but who is to say that if Lincoln had joined them immediately that he would not in fact have lost Kentucky and Missouri, even Maryland?
INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk about the war, which actually did murder a lot of human beings. What image from it sticks in your mind most of all when you think of the Civil War?
FIELDS: My images of the Civil War are of the redeeming side of it, the side that brought freedom to people who had been enslaved, that brought vision and light to people who had lived in darkness, and i don't mean here only the slaves. I mean some people who had not understood what their country was about, who had not understood what slavery meant until they came to that moment.
INTERVIEWER: A new birth of freedom.
FIELDS: A new birth of freedom, a new sense that if there was to be a Union at all it had to be a Union that stood for freedom and equality for all citizens. It was a long time before that was real.
INTERVIEWER: On the next question.
FIELDS: But that was the moment at which it came to the attention of people who had not had their mind focused on it. The war got their attention, you might say. My images of the war therefore are of those events, those circumstances, that brought that to the fore.
INTERVIEWER: What happened to the freed slaves at the end of the war, what was the world like for — what did they look forward to?
INTERVIEWER: OK, let’s cut it for a second.
CAMERAMAN: Rolling. Speeding. Good. Roll, speed.
INTERVIEWER: Six. Can you tell me what it was like for freed slaves at the end of the war, what did they have to look forward to?
FIELDS: At the end of the war, the freed slaves found themselves on their own again. The great thing about the moment of the war itself was that for one crucial moment the agenda of the slaves merged with the agenda of the Union. There was no other way to preserve the union but to involve the slaves in it, to enlist the men in the army, to give them their freedom and ultimately to give freedom to all of the slaves. After the war the agendas split once again and the slaves, who had various aspirations, they didn't all want the same thing, but there’s some recurring themes that are fairly clear. Most of them wanted land, not a lot, but enough to farm and support their families. And they wanted the right to do that in the way that they saw fit. That never was a serious possibility for them, and so in a sense they found themselves once again pursuing their objectives without a great deal of understanding support for what was most important to them. Having said that, I have to say that they had powerful and courageous allies among the liberators who went to the slave states after the war.
INTERVIEWER: OK, go ahead.
FIELDS: And for that matter individuals from within southern society itself, some of whom very courageously stood up for the rights of slaves whose children were being taken into apprenticeship, for example, in Maryland and North Carolina, or slaves who were being cheated, freedmen who were being cheated out of their wages. But the real point is that once the war was over, it was politics again, and politics is a contest of power and those who did not to dispense a great deal of power did not fare well politically.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about Spottswood Rice.
FIELDS: Spottswood Rice is one of my very favorite figures from the Civil War. He was a slave in Missouri who joined the Union Army, who i guess was fortunate enough to become ill and therefore be sent to a hospital in St. Louis where evidently he learned how to write. Not to write a great deal, but he learned enough to be able to write a letter back to the owner of one of his daughters, to his daughter and to the owner, a letter that evidently expressed passions that he had had within him for a long time. Spottswood Rice told the owner of his daughter, as for your Christianity, I expect the devil has such in hell. He said, I once offered to buy my daughter from you but I’m glad now that you refused, and then, great line, he said, I want you to hold on to my daughter as long as you can because the longer you hold on to her the longer you will have to burn in hell and the quicker you’ll get there. Spottswood Rice was a tobacco roller, I think, and but for the experience of the war we would not have known his story and he perhaps would never have had the opportunity to express in that kind of language what he felt about slavery.
INTERVIEWER: Did those men who died and fought die in vain?
FIELDS: No, they didn’t, because whatever the limitations of the freedom that the ex-slaves found when the war was over, it was better than remaining enslaved, as slaves, and they all said so. They would have preferred a freedom that was, in their view, complete.
INTERVIEWER: Stop, because I — [UNCLEAR]
CAMERAMAN: Cut? No. OK, yeah, cut. OK, we’ll just — [TONE] January 14, 1987, project title Civil War, produced by Florentine Films, camera roll 139, sound roll 31, recorded flat, 7 1/2 ips, -8 dB reference tone to follow. [TONE] Continuation of interview with Barbara Fields. Sound’s rolling. Speed. Slate.
INTERVIEWER: So, can you talk about the white officers who led the black regiments?
FIELDS: The white officers who commanded black troops took a lot of abuse for the job that they were doing, but many of them were there with a purpose, they were abolitionists to begin with, they hated slavery and they wanted to prove something by leading black man and especially by leading former slaves in battle. One of the white officers I remember most vividly is Edward Wild, who commanded a brigade known as Wild’s African Brigade. He was called to account by his superior officer, who had heard word that Wild had allowed some of the men of his command to abuse civilians. Well, it later turned out that what happened was that Wild had captured the owner of some of his slaves, including women who were in the camp, and he allowed them to administer what he called poetical justice. He laid bare the back of the owner and he had the women return the favor that the owner had done them so many times, and he very defiantly recounted this to his superior, and he said that the women had in fact proved their superior humanity, because they didn't begin to deal as harshly with their owner as he had dealt with them.
INTERVIEWER: Did blacks make good soldiers?
FIELDS: According to their officers and according to some of their comrades who had at first been skeptical, they made excellent soldiers. It’s not surprising, because they were fighting with a real purpose, and many of them fighting in the knowledge that if they were taken prisoner, they could not expect to be treated as ordinary prisoners of war. The Confederate government declared that black soldiers captured would not be considered as prisoners of war, but would be considered as rebellious slaves, and their officers, that is, their white officers, would be considered people inciting to rebellion. Black soldiers knew therefore that they had to fight to the last inch, because they could not expect to be treated on a basis of equality with their fellows if they were taken captive.
INTERVIEWER: What do you want me to understand most about the Civil War, what shouldn’t I forget? What shouldn’t one forget?
FIELDS: The Civil War was an upheaval in many areas of American life, and for many different people. Everyone will understand in some way, perhaps imperfectly, what it meant for the slaves. Very few Americans, I think, understand what that war meant for the non-slaveholding white people of the South, who were, after all, a majority there. The people who did not create the world of slavery, who did not largely benefit from it except in that it left them in peace, but whose world was thoroughly blasted by the Civil War. The men were taken away to fight in the army, leaving behind families who were unable to take care of the farms without the labor of the men. They didn't have slaves, most of them, so they depended on their own labor. When the men were gone there was no one to do the heavy work of the farm. They paid a heavy price. They tended also to live in areas where they were in the path of both armies, where they were raided by both armies, where they were subjected to impressment of their produce by both armies, and after the war was over, what had they to show? Not freedom, because they hadn't been slaves, but not the world as they wanted it to be on the day that the country had a new birth of freedom either. People speak loosely of the Civil War as a great tragedy, a tragedy. For the slave owners it was a disaster, not a tragedy. For the slaves it was liberation, it was a triumph, not a tragedy. But for the non-slaveholding white people I think perhaps it was a tragedy.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have anything else you want to add or talk about with us? One—oh, I know, why don’t you say something outrageous?
FIELDS: At the moment, I can’t think of what the outrageous thing would be. There were several things we had to drop, though, and now I can’t remember…
FIELDS: Yeah, I’ve said a little. I don’t care too much — I hope I’ll have a chance to add some more.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s, let’s just say we’ll come back and do another session.
FIELDS: Yeah, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: We can ask another set of — yes, please.
INTERVIEWER: We can ask another set of, another set of questions.
FIELDS: Mm-hmm.
CAMERAMAN: Sound’s rolling, speed. Room tone. End of room tone. [TONE] OK, this is Florentine Films, the Civil War film, and we, this is—what day is this? This is 4/13/88, we’re running at 19 cm per second with a 60 Hz neo-pilot sync pulse, a minus, -8 dB reference tone, and we’re starting with sound roll 59, sound roll 59, there’s no sync in yet, hold on. OK, note that sync goes on now, so there was no sync before, it’ll snap on now, and this is sound roll 59, camera roll 380. Wow. 380, sound, take one. Interview with Barbara Fields at Columbia’s Low Library on 4/13/88. OK, we have a, a digital light slate numbers, starting with one, one beep is heads, which I think is all we’ll do. Two beeps for tails. Slate. [TONE]
INTERVIEWER: You know, I’d like you to tell me that Wendell Phillips thing again, because I find that really wonderful. We’ve listened to the South in 1861 say that they’re going out and forming a second American Revolution, and they have the right to secede. What did Wendell Phillips say?
FIELDS: Wendell Phillips said, I recognize the right of the people to form a new government. He said, I recognize South Carolina's right, and when they can show me a Constitution that has been accepted by three hundred thousand white men and four hundred thousand black men then I will recognize it.
INTERVIEWER: What caused that war in your mind? Why did that war happen?
FIELDS: The war happened because of slavery. It happened, as Lincoln recognized, because half slave and half free would not work any longer, and that was a truth that was finally recognized, I think.
INTERVIEWER: What do we miss, Barbara, when we focus on the story of the six hundred and twenty thousand white men who perished and the great Lees and the great Grants and the Lincolns and the Davises. What are we missing, what’s the story that’s left out?
FIELDS: What's left out is that the Civil War is the story of many people, and it is of course the story of the Lincolns and the Jacksons and the story of the Lees and the Grants. In fact I’d like later on to say some more about those people. But it's also a story about so many others, about, about William Utley, a Wisconsin soldier who decided that he was not in the army to return fugitive slaves to their owners. It's a war about Spottswood Rice, who told the owner of his daughter that he was glad she had refused to allow him to buy his daughter’s freedom, and when he got his chance, he wrote to her and said, I want you to just remember this one thing, the longer you keep my child from me, the longer you will have to burn in hell and the quicker you'll get there. The war was the story of men like that and women who seized a chance to gain freedom for themselves when finally history allowed them their moment. It’s the story of Hannah Johnson, a free black woman in Pennsylvania, uneducated, who wrote to Abraham Lincoln to instruct him about what it meant to be a man when the Confederate Army threatened not to treat black soldiers like other prisoners of war, but to treat them as insurrectionists and runaway slaves. She wrote to Lincoln and said, listen, if they do this, you have to retaliate against their prisoners of war, and she said, I wish i could quote you her whole letter, but I do remember this line. She said, sometimes a just man must do hard things that show him to be a great man.
INTERVIEWER: Was Abraham Lincoln a great man? You can look, look, you can look at me and don’t worry about the camera.
FIELDS: I have something I’d like to read to you about Abraham Lincoln, if we can cut back to that.
INTERVIEWER: You want to stop and do that now? OK, we’ll come back and do that right then. Is there a singular moment? OK, we’re rolling. Is there a single event which you would like to have witnessed during the Civil War? If you could be the fly on the wall, what moment would you like to have seen? Where would you like to be?
FIELDS: I don't have a moment like that. I have a number of favorite people, and they’re favorites for different reasons. I have favorites who are my favorites because they expressed in a sarcastic comment a truth that needed to be expressed. Benjamin Butler, making fun of the Confederate officer who's trying to claim runaway slaves under the fugitive slave law, who says, don't tell tell me about the fugitive slave law, Virginia’s a foreign country, haven't you declared it? Daniel Allman, a general who, in talking about the inevitability of emancipation, said the first shots fired at Fort Sumter sound the death knell of slavery. They who who fired it, they who fired the shots were the best practical abolitionists this country has produced. I loved that one because Edmund Ruffin, an arch-secessionist, claimed for him, for himself the symbolic right to fire the first shot at Fort Sumter, and how he would've hated the idea that he should have been the one to sound the death knell of slavery. I have favorites like that. I have a favorite named John Boston, who was a slave in Maryland, and John Boston escaped from his owner, ran away to the lines of a regiment from New York state, and then could not resist the opportunity of broadcasting to his owner exactly where he was in the form of a letter to his wife. And John Boston, who was uneducated but not ignorant, said to his wife, this day I can address you, thank God, as a free man. I had a little trouble in getting away, but as the lord God led the children of Israel, so he led me to a land where freedom will reign in spite of earth and Hell. And then darn if he didn't say exactly where he was so that his owner could find out, as his owner did find out, and John Boston in effect told his wife, I am free, but he was also saying to his owner, I am free, do something about it.
INTERVIEWER: We had — may I interject. I seem to occasionally catch you looking toward the camera.
FIELDS: Oh, oh.
FIELDS: Since I can’t see anything, it’s hard for me to tell what I’m looking at.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I'll, I’ll start waving.
FIELDS: All right.
INTERVIEWER: Um, there is this popular notion that we come across that slaves were content to allow the issue of their freedom to be fought by other people. Would you please burst that myth for us? Tell us about slaves forced emancipation.
FIELDS: Let me start by mentioning a black soldier whose name I will never know and neither will you, because all we know of him is a scrap of paper that someone picked up on the street in New Orleans. And that black soldier said, white people tell us what this war's about, and he derisively summarized the way they saw the issues of the war, the Union and free navigation of the Mississippi River, and that black soldier said, well, let the white fight for what they want, and let we negros fight for what we want. Liberty is what we want and nothing shorter. Liberty must take the day. The slaves understood that that war was about slavery because, before it was a war, and it was because they understood it that they willed it to be so, and they willed it to be so by what they did. Some of them willed it to be so by fleeing to the lines of the army as soon as there was an army close enough to flee to. What did they accomplish when they did this? They made a nuisance for the army and they also made an issue that the army had to deal with, and if the army had to deal with it the War Department had to deal with it. If the War Department had to deal with it, Congress had to deal with it. That means that every fugitive slave who made a nuisance of himself to the local commander eventually made a figure of himself to the Congress of the United States. In the summer of 1861, that is after, only a few months after secession, the House of Representatives declared in a resolution, it is no part of the duty of United States soldiers to return, return runaway slaves. The slaves forced them to make that declaration and I needn’t tell you how much longer it was before Abraham Lincoln made his most famous pronouncement about slavery in the war.
INTERVIEWER: So you're saying that the slaves forced the issue of emancipation.
FIELDS: They made it impossible to pretend that the war could be about the union and free navigation of the Mississippi River, because they understood what you might regard as contradictory, and let me go again to that anonymous soldier in New Orleans. He spoke derisively about the Union, he said, we care nothing about the Union, we have been in slaves over 250 years, but when he signed his manifesto, he signed it, ‘a colored soldier and one of the Union's colored friends.’ So they understood two things: that the Union would never be enough to fight for, but they also understood that fighting for the Union was fighting for slavery, and that the Union could never be won without the fight for slavery. That was something that it took the politicians somewhat longer to recognize. The generals, interestingly enough, many of them beat the politicians to that realization.
INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk about your favorite general, Ben Butler. He’s called the Beast of New Orleans. That’s how, if anybody’s ever heard of him. Tell me about the Beast of New Orleans. Oh, hang on one second, we’re going to cut. [TONE]
CAMERAMAN: OK, we have camera roll 381 is up, 381, sound, take 2. [TONE]
INTERVIEWER: I think we’re ready.
CAMERAMAN: We have an air bud, let’s, let’s cut. Rolling. [TONE]
INTERVIEWER: What do you like about Ben Butler?
FIELDS: I have many favorite generals, but I do admit to a certain fondness for that old son of a bitch. And part of the fondness is exactly that he was a son of a bitch, an opportunist, a showoff, a man, you would think, of rather small ideas. And that, in a way, makes him the perfect example of how a situation that demands higher stature will sometimes call it forth from people that you do not expect to expand to that stature. So here, here's a fellow who arrives in Maryland, offering, perhaps sarcastically, to put down any insurrection among the slaves as his way of placating people who don't want troops to be there in the first place. But then darn if he isn’t in Virginia a few months later, speaking very sarcastically to a Confederate officer who hopes to be able to recapture fugitive slaves. Darn if he isn't the one who popularizes the term ‘contraband of war’ as a way of evading the question of whether runaway slaves are free or not, but establishing that they do not have to be returned to their owners. He's the same man who later on, after disputing with General John Phelps about using black soldiers is part of the Union Army, then later does it, takes credit for the idea with a flourish, but then very courageously defends his men when they are later attacked on a racist basis. He's the one who, one of the very few generals honorable enough to follow to the letter the policy that the Union government announced, but did not really adhere to, of retaliating against the Confederate Army when they fail to treat black soldiers as prisoners of war the same way they treated white soldiers.
INTERVIEWER: He was called the Beast of New Orleans.
FIELDS: Yes, he was called the a Beast of New Orleans, and I suppose he will live in infamy in New Orleans because of an order he issued that women of New Orleans would be regarded as women of the street if they continue to abuse Union soldiers, and that was considered an outrageous thing to do. But I can't help thinking about those soldiers who were abused, and the belles of the south had a special way of abusing black soldiers above others, but I must say I think that Benjamin Butler stood up for the flag when he said, if you spit on these soldiers, then we’re going to treat you exactly as the kind of people who spit in the street.
INTERVIEWER: Who won the war?
FIELDS: Who won the war? The Union Army obviously won the war in the sense that they were the army left standing and holding their weapons when it was all over. Also the soldiers who fought in the Union Army, the generals who directed it, the President who led the country during it, won the war. If we're not talking just about the series of battles that finished up with the surrender at Appomattox but talking instead about the struggle to make something higher and better out of the country, then the question gets more complicated. The slaves won the war and they lost the war, because they won freedom, that is, the removal of slavery, but they did not win freedom as they understood freedom. The non-slaveholding white people of the South, to the extent they were part of the Confederacy, they lost the war, but then they lost the war in another sense in that the world that they had lived in, the world that they regarded as decent and just, which did not include, for most of them, owning slaves but that depended very much on the fact that other people did, that world was blasted by the end of the war. So they lost the war, in a sense. What about the working people of the North who helped to win the war but in a way, within a few years, they were saying to themselves, to their leaders, what happened? We heard about liberty, we heard about equality, but what about an eight-hour day, what about justice for the working man? Is it enough to be not a slave?
INTERVIEWER: Is there a single event in your mind that started the war, and if so what, what would it be? Steven Oates said that it was John Brown raid. Did John Brown’s raid cause the war?
FIELDS: If there was a single event that caused the war, it was the establishment of the United States in independence from Great Britain with slavery still a part of its heritage.
INTERVIEWER: If I am a farm boy in Michigan or Iowa or Indiana, why am I going off to fight in 1861?
FIELDS: If you’re a farm boy from theMidwest going off to fight in 1861, you may be doing it for a number of reasons. You may be doing it because you feel that a threat to your country. You may do it because you feel a threat to your state. You may do it because you feel that it is expected of you. The reasons why people, farm boys in the midwest, joined the army, though, tended to change and meaning in intensity as the war went on. Let's take that farm boy in 1862, during the fall. The farm boy who joins the army then may actually fear that the Confederates will be in Michigan, will be in Wisconsin, will be in Illinois and Iowa, if somebody doesn't do something about it. One of those farm boys, named William Utley, wrote to a friend that he, he didn't trust the slave holders of Kentucky who were said to be loyal, and feared that they would allow the Confederate army to pass right through and come and threaten the Midwest. He said, he called them a bunch of hyenas, and resented the fact that he had to throw down his farm tools, as he put it, and go to defend Kentucky against the threat of invasion. When he and others like him did that, they thought they were defending their homes in a, in a very strict and concrete sense. They feared invasion, and I might add that in doing so, they sometimes turned out to be a strongly anti-slavery, not because they were abolitionist in background, not even because they were high-minded. A statement you hear again, you see again and again in their letters and their comments and so on, is, I’m not going to catch niggers for these people. You hear the combination. They are against slavery and the slave holders because they've been taught what it meant, but they're still capable of using the word that is synonymous with slavery, and later would become synonymous with racism. Nothing teaches us better than that the, the odd truth that good things come of evil, evil things come of good, and it's almost impossible to separate the two other than after the fact.
INTERVIEWER: Is this the event in American history — it seems to be such a collision, not just of people, but also life and principles, but a, a collision of morality and themes that’s so powerful, it arouses, even hearing you speak, strong emotions. Is this — why should we care about this?
FIELDS: It is the event in American history in that it is the moment that made the United States as a nation, and I mean that in different ways. The United States was obviously a nation when it adopted a constitution, but it adopted a constitution that required a war to be sorted out, and therefore required a war to make a real nation out of what was a theoretical nation, as, as it was designed at the Constitutional Convention. Remember that the United States also became a nation, that is a nation-state in the way that we understand it today in this era, a states with the right to command an army in its defense, the right to levy taxes, the right to establish its own sovereignty over all of its citizens and define citizenship itself. So in that sense the United States became a nation-state, in our modern understanding of the word, out of that war.
INTERVIEWER: Did the people who died die in vain? Did the war have to be fought? Can you find something good, when you look at those pictures of the dead lying in the trenches at Petersburg or Antietam?
FIELDS: The war certainly had to be fought, and what makes the war exciting for some of us to study is exactly that it could have been a very ugly, filthy war with no redeeming characteristics at all, and it was the battle for emancipation and the people who pushed it forward, the slaves, the free black people, the abolitionists, and a lot of ordinary citizens, it was they who ennobled what otherwise would have been meaningless carnage into something higher. When a black soldier in New Orleans said, liberty must take the day, nothing shorter, he said, in effect, that when we count up those who have died, when we survey the carnage, it must be for something higher than Union and free navigation of the Mississippi River. When a group of free black people in New York state said, all right, you've been messing around with these people long enough, and your remedies have not worked. It is time now that more effective remedies were tried in the shape of warm lead and cold steel duly administered by one hundred thousand black doctors, they were saying, obviously, that you will not win this war without the contribution of black people, but they were also saying, this war will not be worth winning if you do not recognize the contributions and the necessity of black people's contri-, participation.
CAMERAMAN: OK, we have camera roll 382, sound take 4, we had two sound takes on 381. [UNCLEAR]
INTERVIEWER: Fine, yeah, absolutely.
CAMERAMAN: OK, sound. Slate.
INTERVIEWER: OK, um, you were saying about after New Orleans, in New York.
FIELDS: During the summer of 1863, a group of free black, a convention of free black people demanded the right for black people to take part, for black men to take part in the struggle as soldiers, and their key resolution said, it is time now for more effective remedies to be thoroughly tried in the shape of warm lead and cold steel, duly administered by one hundred thousand black doctors.
INTERVIEWER: Wonderful. Barbara, is Abraham Lincoln excusable for choosing Union over emancipation?
FIELDS: It's not for me to excuse Abraham Lincoln. I have something i'd like to share with you about Abraham Lincoln, if I may.
INTERVIEWER: Great, let’s, let’s cut with that. [UNCLEAR] [BEEP]
FIELDS: Don’t use that piece.
CAMERAMAN: Take 5 is up.
FIELDS: I think there's some things that history cannot say and therefore literature has to, and I want to share with you two comments by two great figures of that era, by one of my favorite novelists, Leon Forrest. This one has to do with Abraham Lincoln, and here's what he says: “Abraham Lincoln, 1809 to 1865, the father upon whose shaky shawled shoulders the engulfing, awesome burden of the original sin fell, whose vacillation and compromise were really a reflection of the psychic split of the republic, and was only equaled by his bald-eagle steadfastness, an undying faith that by pursuing the role of healer and savior of the nation's higher dream of itself, he could avoid the hysterical histrionics of body-soul slave-marketing merchandising-foundation upon which the dung-tarred soul of the nation hung. Rocked like a sweeping pendulum, who in stovepipe hat, shawl and beard resembled some runaway mulatto castoff — our American cousin?— who had found freedom only to find rampant entrapment, and behind that the odd man, marginal man’s love for the union more than for the white side, and severely more than for the colored side, which is not to excuse his condescending silence, but rather to suggest at the republic's ruinous mountain-tobogganing into a valley attitude in the inferno of time, space and setting in which the redeemer found himself trying to be greater than the politician, which was not the reason he had been chosen or even elected, whose totality seems so awesome even now that no historian can hold him or indeed that epoch in his mortal hands without dropping down dead with the Union itself.
INTERVIEWER: Was Abraham Lincoln a great man?
FIELDS: A great man, yes, Abraham Lincoln is a great man, if we understand by ‘a great man’ a person who recognizes the necessity of his time and place and who is able to grow into those necessities. And if we understand that Lincoln was a great man because of the greatness of his time and because of the greatness of the people who would not let him be less, because of people like Hannah Johnson, who told him what it meant to be a man, though he may never have read her letter, who said sometimes a just man must do hard things that show him to be a great man, and what Hannah Johnson meant to do was stiffen his backbone in the face of the Confederacy's threat to treat captured black soldiers as though they were runaway slaves or slave insurrectionists instead of treating them like any other prisoners of war.
INTERVIEWER: What was the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation on the country and on specific groups?
FIELDS: Well, you could say that the Emancipation Proclamation flushed out a number of elements, because those who had hoped to keep the war pure, and some people thought that pure meant keeping free, the taint of freedom away from it, those people were mortally offended by the Emancipation Proclamation. The people most affected by the Emancipation Proclamation obviously did not receive it as news, because they knew before Lincoln knew that the war was about emancipation, and moreover, they knew as perhaps Lincoln did without fully realizing it, and certainly is many people today did not realize, that the Emancipation Proclamation did nothing to get them their freedom. It said that they have a right to go and put their bodies on the line if they had the nerve to believe in it, and many of them had the nerve to believe in it, and many suffered for that.
INTERVIEWER: Could you paint the scene on December 31, 1862? The night, midnight, what’s going on in the country?
FIELDS: No, I can't paint that's scene for you. [LAUGHS]
INTERVIEWER: The draft riots, why did they happen?
FIELDS: The draft riots happened in part because a number of ordinary working people thought that the burden of the war was falling more heavily on them then it ought to, and it happened because the handiest scapegoats for that belief were free black people, who were everybody’s stepchildren, beginning with Abraham Lincoln. They were his stepchildren. That's part of the reason for that part of the draft riot that we remember, the one that involved brutalizing the local black population.
INTERVIEWER: Frederick Douglass. Tell me about Frederick Douglass. He seems so extraordinary to me, what do you think about him?
FIELDS: That was the other, that's something also that i think literature can speak about better than history, and i want to share with you…
FIELDS: Something…
INTERVIEWER: Let’s cut and we’ll set up Frederick Douglass. It’s in this book?
FIELDS: I really wanted — yes.
INTERVIEWER: That’s great.
FIELDS: I really wanted to do them one after the…
CAMERAMAN: Sound, take 6 is up. [TONE]
INTERVIEWER: OK, all right.
FIELDS: Sometimes literature says what history cannot. Here is what Leon Forrest says about Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass, 1817 to 1895, the North Star, whose shadow, perhaps, the great President was worthy to walk in, but only his shadow. May I go on talking about Frederick Douglass?
INTERVIEWER: Please, I was trying to find a way to pro-, pro-, promote that.
FIELDS: I have a number of favorite characters out of the Civil War period, and some of them are my favorites because they remind me and they remind others, they remind me and they remind others of the speciousness of the argument that excuses racism, like that of Abraham Lincoln, by saying, well, that was the standard of the time. He was enlightened by the standards of his time. And two of the favorites, my favorites for that reason, are Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips. These are the ones who remind us that even at that time, there was a higher standard, there were people who were able to see beyond the prejudice of their era, to see beyond the narrow ways in which their country had defined itself, and to call people to look to something higher. Frederick Douglass did that all of his life. Wendell Phillips, these are two man who campaigned for the abolition of slavery. They campaigned for the rights of women, they campaigned for the rights of labor. They did not forget that if humanity is anything, humanity is a whole. I have a quotation from Wendell Phillips that I might share with you, if you’d like.
INTERVIEWER: You want to do it right now?
INTERVIEWER: Let’s do it, cut.
FIELDS: I need my other, my— [TONE]
CAMERAMAN: Sound take seven.
INTERVIEWER: Slate’s running? [TONE] OK, Barbara, when you’re ready.
FIELDS: OK. I lose patience with the argument that because of someone's time, that his limitations are therefore excusable, or even praiseworthy. All of us know that Abraham Lincoln had some retrograde ideas when it came to black people, and if we have sense, we understand that he is great despite that, and we don't try to explain it away. It is not true that it was impossible in that time and place to look any higher. Think of Wendell Phillips, who, commenting on Abraham Lincoln's proposal to colonize black people out of the country, was sarcastic. He said, ‘colonize the blacks? A man might as well colonize his own hands, or when the robber is in his house, he might as well colonize his revolver.’ And this is what Wendell Phillips said about American nationality: ‘There are men who prayed about nationality and the empire and manifest destiny using brave words when their mind's rise no higher than some petty massive white states making money out of cotton and corn. My idea of American nationality makes it the last best growth of the thoughtful mind of the century, treading underfoot sex and race, caste and condition, and collecting on the broad bosom of what deserves the name of an empire under the shelter of noble, just and equal laws, all races, all customs, all religions, all languages, all literature, and all ideas. I remember a year or two ago, they told us of a mob at Milwaukee that forced a man to bring out the body of his wife, born in Asia, which according to the custom of her forefathers he was about to burn, and compelled him to submit to American funeral rites, which his soul abhorred. The sheriff led the mob and the press of the state vindicated the act. This is not my idea of American civilization.’
CAMERAMAN: This is camera roll 383, sound take 8. [TONE]
INTERVIEWER: Second sticks, what’s your, and look at me, what’s your favorite…
FIELDS: I have some diabolical favorites too, people who are my favorites because they're the kind you love to hate, and one of them is a doctor from Kentucky, who wrote to Andrew Johnson in the fall of 1865 — now, mind you the war is over, and everybody else knows it. And he's writing to Andrew Johnson to complain because the local union commander in his area is giving out passes that are allowing the slaves to think of themselves as free. Now, mind you, slaves are free in Mississippi, they’re free in South Carolina, but this man thinks it's outrageous that they should be taking on the airs of free people in loyal Kentucky, and what does he have to say? Well, isn't it a disgrace that there's an old couple in my neighborhood who have to milk their own cows and cook their own breakfast. I love it.
INTERVIEWER: What’s the Caddie Morgan story? Just briefly?
FIELDS: Caddie Morgan. Oh, yes, Aunt Caddie. Caddie is a a tradition handed down in a family of, in a black family, I think Leon Litwack tells this story, perhaps better in his book than I’ll be able to tell in here, but one of the traditions handed down is the way Caddie reacted when she learned that Lee had surrendered, and the story is that she threw down her hoe and she marched up to the yard where she found her mistress, and she — and the story is, the story becomes rather genteel at this point and omissions are obvious, but Caddie lifted up her skirt so that her mistress could see a certain part of her body, and then she told her mistress to kiss something, and the way they tell it in the story is, she said it mean and ugly, kiss my ass. [LAUGHS]
INTERVIEWER: Great. I want to go back to it, and I want to argue something. Is it not politic for Lincoln to, to not force emancipation early? Wasn’t it smart to keep it a fight for Union at the beginning?
FIELDS: Lincoln's reason for keeping the issue of slavery and freedom as far as possible from the war, he, Lincoln had two reasons for that and we need to remember both of them. One of them was that he knew that he had people in Missouri and in Maryland and in Kentucky who would resent the idea that the war was about slavery. They adhered to the Union and they adhered to the Union partly out of determination to keep their slaves. His other reason was that he did not believe that as President of the United States he had authority under the Constitution to interfere with slavery in the states where it was established. Now some people suggested to him, and very early in the war, that when you have a rebellion on your hands you do have such authority. Lincoln decided, however, that both because he didn't have the authority, and because it would cause havoc in the crucial loyal slave states, that he wouldn't deal with that. Was it smart? Yes, it was smart up to a point. Historians will never finished arguing about the precise moment when it would have been smarter to change and some will always maintain it should've been sooner. Some people at the time thought it should have been sooner. What i will say is smart was that many people would not let Lincoln forget at any moment that that was where he had to go. Smart was Wendell Phillips, smart was Frederick Douglass, smart was the slaves all over the South who even before Lincoln was inaugurated knew that slavery and freedom were about to be the question. They had the smarts.
INTERVIEWER: What's the biggest issue confronting Lincoln and the Union in 1862? What’s the issue?
FIELDS: It's hard to separate one issue from another. Obviously Lincoln had to win the war. He had to keep his respectability as President of a country that would not allow itself to be defeated by a group of rebels. So that was always an issue, and it was especially an issue, of course, in 1862. He could not let himself be made a fool and the Union be made a fool by standing up for principles that could not be vindicated on the battlefield. Keeping respectability in the eyes of the world also meant preventing outside powers from recognizing the Confederacy, and that was extremely important and played no small role in the decision to state emancipation as an overt goal of the war. Keeping control of the, of the troops, and here i don't mean the literal troops but i mean the citizens of the republic. Keeping those who were slave holders and were sympathetic to slavery, keeping them from kicking over the traces, was always an important issue, and so was keeping under control those who wanted to move him faster than he wanted to go in the other direction. He could not alienate the slave holders in Kentucky, but neither could he alienated the abolitionists in Massachusetts and in Pennsylvania and in all the other places where they were telling him, time to move on, sir.
INTERVIEWER: A year later he spoke at a dedication of a cemetery about a new birth of freedom. Did we experience a new birth of freedom?
FIELDS: Yes, we experienced a new birth of freedom, but no more at that moment than the moment when the first fugitive, who had no reason to expect anything but a hostile reception, took the enormous risk of leaving family and friends behind to cross into the lines of the Union Army that might well have kicked him in the butt, and often did. That was a new birth of freedom too, and that new birth of freedom certainly started before Gettysburg. A new birth of freedom, if you look at it from, it through the eyes of those people who gained their freedom, who were enjoying what was defined as freedom after the war, takes on an ironic significance, because for them the kind of freedom that they received was much less than the kind of freedom that they wanted, and their new birth of freedom is something that we're still struggling for.
INTERVIEWER: What image of the Civil War sticks most in your mind? You spoke before of a redeeming image.
FIELDS: It doesn't stick in my mind in any single image, but I can tell you better which images do not form my picture of the Civil War, and though it was a war and though it was about battles and about armies and so on, for me the picture of the Civil War as a historic phenomenon is not on the battlefield. It's not about weapons. It’s not about soldiers except to the extent that weapons and soldiers at that crucial moment joined a discussion about something higher, about humanity, about human dignity, about human freedom. And the many images that, that signify those things are the ones in which I’d like to visualize the war, and they might have been fugitives running to the lines of the army, they might have been black soldiers or black men demanding the right to be soldiers, or they might have been conventions like the convention in New York state, a free black people demanding a right to play their role.
INTERVIEWER: Is John Brown a bad man?
FIELDS: I’m going to quote you something that the historian Eugene Genovese said about slavery. He said, what judgment should we render about a system so evil that only a mad, only a madman would be sane enough to challenge it? And I’m not going to say anything else.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think about Robert E. Lee?
FIELDS: I don’t think much about Robert E. Lee. I hear, we all hear about the great tragedy of the man who did not want to do this, who would have liked to avoid it, who stood up in loyalty for his state, who was certainly a great general, and what a tragedy it all was. I’m sorry, I look for my tragedy in other places. The tragedy of the Civil War is first of all that it took that kind of carnage to establish a truth that was supposed to have been spoken in 1776 or in 1789, and the tragedy of the war is that the freedom that came out of it was defined in such a narrow way that a hundred years later, the descendants of the people freed were still fighting for the narrow definition, for the technical definition, for equal justice under the law, and that today we are now only beginning to have a political language for talking about what freedom ought to mean in a country that has gotten beyond the menial chore of abolishing distinctions at law between types of citizenship and distinctions between people's color. And the fact that at this late date in world history, we're only beginning that chore — yes, there is a tragedy, and I will shed more tears over that one than I will shed over the tragedy of the Jefferson Davises and the Robert E. Lees, who, true enough, had to do things that they would not have chosen, but who nevertheless lived in a world that their people did choose, that their people did design, and to me their tragedy will never be as compelling as that of the people who sacrificed more and risked more to redesign a world that their people did not choose, and did not create.
INTERVIEWER: Cut. That is known in the vernacular as a home run. [TONE]
CAMERAMAN: OK, we have sound roll 60, this is Florentine Films, 4-13-88, we are interviewing Barbara Fields at Low Library, Columbia University, running at 19 cm per second with a 60 Hz neo-pilot sync pulse and -8 dB reference tone, and obviously verbal IDs. This will be camera roll, sound roll 60, sound roll 60, camera roll 384, sound take 9. For what it’s worth, which is very little now, there may have been three, uh, two sound take 7s for now. But we’re going, starting with 9 now. [TONE]
INTERVIEWER: Remembering that my question isn’t in the, what we shot, tell me the Caddie Morgan story.
FIELDS: The descendants of Caddie Morgan have a favorite story about her, and it has to do with how she reacted when she learned that Lee had surrendered. And according to the story she threw down her hoe in the field and she walked up to the yard where she encountered her mistress, and seeing her mistress, she turned around and flipped up her skirt, and she told, as the story goes, she told the mistress to do something, and she said it mean and ugly, and she said, kiss my ass.
INTERVIEWER: Did blacks make good soldiers once they were allowed to fight?
FIELDS: Black men made good soldiers once they were allowed to fight, if you listen to those who commanded them, and if you listen to those who opposed them. The rebels, in a way, were, made the greatest testimonials about black soldiers, when they refused to treat them as other prisoners of war, knowing what a dangerous token it could be in a slave society to have black soldiers there as an example for the slaves. Many of the Union soldiers who began with stereotypical assumptions about, about black men, who assumed that they couldn't fight, that they would hand their weapons over to the enemy, that they would run and so on, had their minds changed in the grimmest circumstances, and some of the documents that tell the story of how people's ideas were transformed are not the sort of documents that you enjoy reading, because they speak of how people became companions in death, of how white soldiers learn to respect their black comrades when they watched how they reacted as people all around were being killed, being butchered.
INTERVIEWER: Barbara, is there something that we haven’t spoken about with regard to this story that needs to be said, or if we have touched it, what is the thing that you’d most like to emphasize to me? What do you want me to know most of all, not forget?
FIELDS: I think what we need to remember most of all is that the Civil War is not over until we today have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. William Faulkner, who can hardly stop writing about the Civil War even when he's not writing about the Civil War, as i can hardly stop lecturing about the Civil War even when i'm not lecturing about the Civil War, said once that history is not was, it’s is, and what we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is, in the present as well as in the past, and the reason it is in the process is that the generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes, in the lost future, also established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work. You can say, there's no such thing as slavery anymore, we’re all citizens, but if we're all citizens then we have a task to do to make sure that that too is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on it. It’s still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.
INTERVIEWER: Cut. Thank you.
CAMERAMAN: This is room tone for the Barbara Fields interview in Low Library, room tone on 4-13-88. Room tone now.
FIELDS: No, because we don’t — I don’t know when I’m saying it.
The Civil War
Raw Footage
Interviews with Barbara Fields
Producing Organization
Florentine Films
Ken Burns - Florentine Films
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Ken Burns - Florentine Films (Walpole, New Hampshire)
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This is raw footage of an interview that Ken Burns conducted with professor Barbara Fields for his film, The Civil War. The interview is in two parts. The first takes place on January 14, 1987 at the Smithsonian Institute and the second takes place on April 13, 1988 at the Columbia University Low Memorial Library. Throughout these two interviews, Fields discusses how slavery brought the nation to Civil War. She details the many ways in which slaves took political action to gain emancipation and to fight for their equality, rejecting the notion that white politicians and soldiers were the main definers of the Civil War. Fields provides historical background and context about many looming historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass. She also returns to the narrative of minor figures, often overlooked, such as Spottswood Rice, Hannah Johnson, and John Boston. She makes the argument that the civil war was less about the cohesion of the Union and more about the fight for hum
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Race and Ethnicity
Copyright 1989, Kenneth Lauren Burns All Rights Reserved
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Copyright Holder: Florentine Films
Director: Ken Burns
Interviewee: Fields, Barbara
Producing Organization: Florentine Films
Producing Organization: Ken Burns - Florentine Films
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Ken Burns - Florentine Films
Identifier: Barbara_Fields_master (AAPB Inventory ID)
Format: image/x-dpx
Generation: Preservation
Duration: 1:38:31
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Chicago: “The Civil War; Interviews with Barbara Fields,” 1987-01-14, Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 19, 2024,
MLA: “The Civil War; Interviews with Barbara Fields.” 1987-01-14. Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 19, 2024. <>.
APA: The Civil War; Interviews with Barbara Fields. Boston, MA: Ken Burns - Florentine Films, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from