In 1863, as the Civil War raged, the escaped slave, abolitionist, and novelist William Wells Brown identified two groups most harmful to his race. “The first and most relentless,” he explained, “are those who have done them the greatest injury, by being instrumental in their enslavement and consequent degradation. They delight to descant upon the ‘natural inferiority’ of the blacks, and claim that we were destined only for a servile condition, entitled neither to liberty nor the legitimate pursuit of happiness.”
“The second class,” Brown concluded, “are those who are ignorant of the characteristics of the race, and are the mere echoes of the first.” Four years later, Brown wrote the first military history of African Americans, The Negro in the American Rebellion. This text assailed those whose hatred and ignorance inclined them to keep blacks oppressed after Appomattox.
This critical edition of The Negro in the American Rebellion, one of Brown’s least-analyzed texts, is the first to appear in more than three decades. In his introduction, historian John David Smith identifies the text’s Anglo-American abolitionist roots, sets it in the context of Brown’s other writings, appraises it as military history, analyzes its interpretation of black masculinity and honor, and focuses closely on Brown’s assessment of contemporary racial tensions.
Largely ignored by scholars, The Negro in the American Rebellion, Smith argues, is a powerful transitional text, one that confronted squarely the neo-slavery of the Reconstruction era.
“Whites,” Brown wrote, “appear determined to reduce the blacks to a state of serfdom if they cannot have them as slaves.” His important text was a call to arms in the ongoing race struggle. Smith’s analysis, framed within recent scholarship on slavery, emancipation, and African American participation in the U.S. army, is long overdue.