Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 521:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 521.

Today, black Americans give us a lesson in freedom. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Freedom is the other face of creativity. Freedom is a costly commodity. We enjoy so much freedom, earned at bitter cost. Yet we sell it off in little pieces. We give freedom away to convenience, to safety, and to security. That's true of creativity, too. Creativity is risk. It also entails the dangers of strange places -- of daring to claim freedom of the mind.

The Civil War laid the freedom issue before black Americans. Most Northern whites thought dying for a cause was their birthright alone. Black Americans knew, as no white could, how costly freedom was. They clamored to join the fight.

The Union Army didn't form black units until 1862. When they did, blacks poured in -- 180,000 of them. By War's end, a tenth of our army was black. Twenty percent of them died -- mostly from disease in their terrible segregated facilities. But they died in combat as well. Twenty-one black soldiers received the Medal of Honor.

One soldier, an escaped slave from Kentucky, said, "When I donned my Union blues, I felt freedom in my bones." Yet the change from slave to free wasn't always immediate. A white commander of a black unit talked about getting rid of "plantation manners" -- hat in hand, with eyes averted.

Maybe black soldiers had learned plantation manners under the whip. But they'd also honed a finely tempered inner core. One surprised officer said of his troops: "They were [so] cool and wary [in combat. You'd think] wild turkeys were the only game."

Northern draft rioters lynched blacks. Southern troops shot black prisoners. Black soldiers got less pay. They were shunted off to labor details. The movie Glory showed how they marched to a hero's slaughter at Fort Wagner. That happened again at Port Hudson and Petersburg. They triumphed in the Battles of Millikan's Bend and New Market Heights.

So the Civil War ended. White America soon forgot black heroism. Yet something was left. War is ghastly and questionable. But it's also a great proving ground of the human heart. 140,000 surviving blacks had faced that cold moment, and they had not found themselves wanting.

140,000 men had gained what each of us must eventually gain. They'd found the knowledge of their own inner capacity that each of us must find -- one way or another -- before we can be whole.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Fincher, J., The Hard Fight was Getting Into the Fight at All. Smithsonian, October, 1990, pp. 46-61.

Glatthaar, J.T., Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan, Inc., 1990.

Image courtesy of Special Collections, UH Library

From The Black Phalanx, 1861-65

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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