A Militant Call for Conspiracy and Terror

The last edition of Civil War Emancipation covered two high-profile enforcement actions of the Fugitive Slave Act that took place in April 1861 just days before the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. These actions did not escape the notice of the African-American press that existed on the eve of the Civil War. The April 13, 1861 edition of the Weekly Anglo-African reacted to the rendition of the Harris family in Chicago with an article entitled, “A Carbonari Wanted.” By “Carbonari,” the article referred to underground militant groups that first had appeared in Italy in the early 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, attacking French occupation forces. After Napoleon’s defeat they evolved into a nationalist liberal resistance to monarchism and foreign imperialism in Italy.

By demanding Carbonari, what the Weekly Anglo-African clearly called for in April 1861 was organized violent resistance by the northern black community against enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. The article started with a reprint of the April 4 article’s text in the New York Times, then added the following incendiary language (italics in the original):

The only way to stop the scenes like the above is, to make the slavehounds personally responsible. We want a Carbonari, as swift and terrible as that which has been the terror of European tyrants. We want men like Orsini [referring to Felice Orsini who tried to assassinate French emperor Napoleon III in 1858] who will dare go through all the guards to strike at the oppressor’s heart. Every wretch who dares defile himself by kidknapping must be held accountable to outraged humanity with his life. Until the whole pack of panting blood-hounds of Commissioners, Marshals and Deputies know that for every unfortunate returned to bondage, some one of their number will fall under the pistol, knife, or poison of the Avenger, there will be no peace for the poor; no security for the oppressed. Let the infamous wretches understand that the issues between freedom and slavery are the broad issues of life and death, and these damnable scenes of diabolism will cease. If we are not strong enough openly to resist, we are strong enough to conspire. “One or two shots were fired at the train.” What imbecility? Why not have saved the powder and ball and fired them through the corrupt heart of the man-stealer, Commissioner Conneau? Until these things are done there will be no security in the land. If [illegible] man must be free, if not within the law, then above the law, in these demonized States, then let us go where we can be free, and untrammeled live out our lives.

P.S. Since the above was written the tragedy has been consumated, and the husband, wife, and children sent back to bondage in Missouri. There they will without a doubt be sold into the Cotton States. Springfield, Ill., the home of President Lincoln has the infamy of consumating this tragedy. God pity the victims, and punish the Oppressor. Only through the Red Sea of civil war and insurrection can the sins of this demonized people be washed away.

By “civil war and insurrection” the Weekly Anglo-African was calling for militant resistance, a campaign of terror, not the civil war that was just then breaking out between North and South. But it is interesting that the American Civil War would produce exactly the ends sought by this black newspaper and within little more than a year incorporating African Americans into the Union army and navy, instead of forcing them to become irregular militants like the Italian Carbonari. Still, the outrage of the Weekly Anglo-African and its call for conspiracy and terror in April 1861 is understandable because the idea of black men fighting officially for their own freedom was then still unrealistic if not inconceivable. But events were shortly to start turning the world upside down and making it a reality.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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