Powerful Images of Ex-Slaves

BobLemmons

Ex-slave Bob Lemmons, Carrizo Springs, Texas, c. 1936. Photographed by Dorothea Lange. Source: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998021797/PP/

Probably the most famous source on slavery from the slaves’ viewpoint is the WPA Slave Narratives, compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration from 1936 to 1938 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to provide relief during the Great Depression. Folklorists working for the WPA interviewed surviving ex-slaves across the southern United States, assembling a collection of over 2,000 narratives (now available online). Although the narratives are problematic because they occurred in Jim Crow South, which made some former slaves less than candid with their often white interviewers, and the advanced old age of the persons’ interviewed (most were in their 80s or 90s), which left their memories sometimes hazy, and the fact the narratives were rarely a verbatim account of ex-slaves’ comments (but usually instead a filtered summary produced by the folklorist), the WPA Slave Narratives still are a powerful window into slaves’ experiences with and their perception of the peculiar institution.

This past Thursday, the Washington Post published a photo essay of portraits of ex-slaves interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. It is a moving collection of images of former bonds people in the twilight of their lives. Some of the government photographers that took these images became famous for their work. For example, the portrait above of Bob Lemmons was shot by Dorothea Lange, best known for another picture entitled “Migrant Mother.” This image and those featured in the Post article are now in the collections of the Library of Congress, and many of them can be viewed via their website.

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April 3, 1865: The Liberation of Richmond

Donald R. Shaffer:

Brooks Simpson at Crossroads reminds us that Richmond’s fall was also a significant moment in emancipation of slaves in the Civil War, especially as the main Union troops to enter the city first were African Americans of the U.S. Colored Troops.

Originally posted on Crossroads:

On April 3, 1865, United States soldiers, most of them African Americans. entered what had been the capital of the Confederacy, freeing what had been Richmond’s enslaved population. Although there were other days in the war when more people were declared free by proclamation, legislation, or constitutional amendment, this day 150 years ago freed a great many human beings, although the entrance of US forces into Charleston, South Carolina, again spearheaded by black soldiers, secured the freedom of another large number of human beings.

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Too Little, Too Late: The Confederacy Approves Black Recruitment

ImpetuousCharge

An artist in Harper’s Weekly (November 25, 1864) humorously imagining what would have happened had the Confederates actually sent black soldiers into the field.

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Recently, the legend of black Confederate soldiers was revived by an article in The Root by John Stauffer. Stauffer’s piece had a few defenders, but many more detractors. Yet like a Hollywood super villain, Stauffer did prove that the notion that substantial numbers of African Americans served under arms for the Confederacy refuses to die in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. And there is plenty of evidence in that regard.

One of the most potent facts that rules against the existence of large numbers of black Confederate soldiers was an event that occurred 150 years ago today. On March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress in Richmond passed a law authorizing the recruitment of African Americans into the Confederate Army. The law’s text began.

That, in order to provide additional forces to repel invasion, maintain the rightful possession of the Confederate States, secure their independence, and preserve their institutions, the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient, for and during the war, to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.

If there were already substantial numbers of black Confederate soldiers under arms, why was the Confederate Congress passing a bill to authorize their recruitment? The timing of the law also is interesting. It came only a few weeks before the fall of Richmond and the final collapse of the Confederacy. Clearly, given that the preservation of slavery had been at the heart of southern secession in 1860-61, it took the Confederacy being in extremis for its national legislature to pass a law so contrary to its reason for being.

For the service of black men in the Confederate Army would call into question the very basis of the Confederacy in the most fundamental way. As rebel leaders debated the idea of black recruitment in early 1865, Howell Cobb, a founding father of the Confederacy, and at the time a major general in its army, put the matter eloquently in a letter the Confederate Secretary of War, James A. Seddon. He wrote:

The proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R. E. Lee, given as authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro [sic.] soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor With which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.

The last sentence was the most telling: “If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Of course, black Union soldiers had been proving exactly that point by their service since 1862. But Cobb was correct in the sense that for the Confederacy to recruit black men into its ranks was to call into question the entire Confederate project. That Howell Cobb by early 1865, was among the dwindling opponents of this idea speaks to the rapidly rising desperation of Confederate leaders in the last months of the war, and their readiness to resort to desperate measures to stave off final defeat.

Still, it is telling that even as they authorized black recruitment into the Confederate Army, the Congress in Richmond sought to make sure it would not threaten slavery. First, it limited recruitment to no more than 25 percent of the male slave population of military age in each state. Second, it did not promise freedom to black men that might enlist, leaving that decision to states and individual owners.

Given that the law made no provisions of freedom for slaves that enlisted, of course, it called into question why any slave would be motivated to serve unless forced to? And gave them every incentive to desert to Union forces at the first opportunity (see the image above). Hence, the March 13 law was an exercise in fantasy. The army administration was not able to draw up an order to implement the legislation until March 25, and on April 1, Lee’s lines in front of Petersburg finally collapsed and Confederate forces had to evacuate nearby Richmond the following day. On April 3, Union forces entered and took control of the city. The final surrender of Lee’s army quickly followed, and the Confederacy soon thereafter unraveled.

While a handful of black soldiers might have been recruited in the week or so before Richmond’s final fall, no evidence exists that any of them ever made it to the front to shore up Robert E. Lee’s crumbling defenses. The decision of the Confederate Congress to authorize their enlistment on March 13, 1865 was a classic case of “too little, too late.” But it does constitute potent evidence that no substantial numbers of African Americans ever served the Confederacy under arms during the Civil War.

Sources: 1) http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/csenlist.htm; 2) http://books.google.com/books?id=N48LAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA97&lpg=PA97&dq=%22howell+cobb%22+%22soldiers+of+slaves%22&source=bl&ots=kxO5xZwwr3&sig=HV6CCacydzUmjOpdEhjJ3uKR8rU&hl=en&ei=d8fETLXiB4G0lQfN9IEG&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=%22howell%20cobb%22%20%22soldiers%20of%20slaves%22&f=false

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Slavery Ends in Tennesee

Tennessee is an interesting case in the Civil War. While it seceded and joined the Confederacy in the second wave of secession that followed Lincoln’s call for volunteers after the assault on Fort Sumter, its mountainous eastern region, with relatively few slaves, remained staunchly Unionist, and Andrew Johnson, who came from that area, refused to resign his U.S. Senate seat and would go on to serve as the state’s Unionist military governor, be elected Vice President of the United States in November 1864, and become President after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.

Andrew Johnson served as the anchor of Lincoln’s efforts to reconstruct the state during the war itself. That such a reconstruction could occur was all the more amazing since Tennessee was a battleground throughout the Civil War. With a number of highly strategic rivers (Cumberland, Mississippi, and Tennessee) touching its shores, natural invasion routes to the Deep South, the State of Tennessee became a natural location for Union and Confederate forces to clash over the course of the war. U.S. Grant would make his reputation in the state as a winning general taking Forts Henry and Donelson, before nearly losing it with a sanguinary victory at Shiloh in April 1862. Union forces would go on to capture Nashville and Memphis before year’s end, ironically leaving Unionist East Tennessee the only region of the state in the hands of the Confederacy. Union forces would challenge that control, only to be repulsed at Chickamauga in September 1863, retreating and being more-or-less besieged in Chattanooga, until U.S. Grant, fresh from his triumph at Vicksburg in Mississippi would return and drive the rebels from the state. The Confederates would belatedly return in Fall 1864, when John Bell Hood, in command of the rebel Army of Tennessee, after having been driven from Atlanta by William Tecumseh Sherman, tried to lure Sherman out of Georgia by invading Tennessee. Not to be sidetracked in his plans to march from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean, Sherman detailed part of his enormous force under George Thomas, to stop Hood, which Thomas did in two battles at Franklin and Nashville, where in the later engagement the Army of Tennessee was all but destroyed. With his victory at Nashville, Thomas secured Tennessee for the Union for all time.

Tennessee also had been the site of April 1864’s Fort Pillow Massacre, in which Confederate cavalry raiding the state under Nathan Bedford Forrest had overwhelmed a small garrison of African Americans and white Unionists manning an obscure fortification on the Mississippi River, and then slaughtered most of the black defenders, many after they tried to surrender.

Slavery in Tennessee, with its stronghold in the Mississippi Valley was undermined by the Union occupation of that region and Middle Tennessee, even though Abraham Lincoln, in an effort to bolster the state’s Unionists, exempted Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation. Seeing the hand-writing on the wall for slavery and with political ambitions beyond Tennessee, Andrew Johnson would call for “immediate” emancipation in Tennessee in late August 1863, although foreseeing a two-year legislative process to bring the peculiar institution to a final end in the state. Under pressure from Lincoln, who saw Tennessee as a test case for his administration’s ability to restore loyal state governments in South, and who by then believed slavery had to be eliminated as it was the root cause of secession, encouraged Johnson to speed up the process. So in January 1864, Johnson called a state constitutional convention to enact a reconstruction program for the state and require would-be voters to swear their support for an end to slavery in order to obtain suffrage. The convention was not held until a year later, after Johnson had been elected as Lincoln’s Vice President, and Tennessee voters approved the new state constitution in a vote on February 22, 1865, which included abolishing slavery. Tennessee became the third slave state and the first of the seceded states to end slavery on its own before the final ratification of the 13th Amendment. (Tennessee would ratify the 13th Amendment on April 5, 1865, the day the new state government took office.)

Source: Allen Carden, Freedom’s Delay: America’s Struggle for Emancipation, 1776-1865 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014), 280-81.

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The Myth of Black Confederates. Enough Already.

Freaking Out

I try in this blog to stick to its topic—the coming of freedom for the slaves in the American Civil War. Admittedly, I occasionally write on other subjects because I feel the compulsion to share my thoughts on them. I’ve written on the Civil War in Arizona (where I live). I’ve defended online higher education (where I work). And I’ve reviewed the new 9/11 Museum in New York City (which I visited last summer). But I’ve made a point of mainly discussing events in the history of emancipation in American Civil War, especially as their turn has come around in the sesquicentennial.

I have particularly avoided the recurrent hot button topics that dominate the Civil War blogosphere these days, especially the activities and misadventures of contemporary Neo-Confederates (the so-called “Southern Heritage Community”), and whether and to what degree African Americans served under arms in the Confederate Army. I happily leave that subject matter to fine bloggers like Brooks Simpson at Crossroads, Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory, Andy Hall at Dead Confederates, and (more recently) Megan Kate Nelson at Historista, (who has single handedly turned “freaking out” into a Civil War blogger meme), as well as an assortment of other blogs and bloggers that I keep an eye on.

Admittedly, I have dabbled in the black Confederate issue a few times in this blog (see herehere, here, and here) when it had some relevance to emancipation in the Civil War, especially nearer the start of the sesquicentennial in remembering possible informal black participation the early battles of the conflict. That is, before either army had a chance to formalize fully its rules and organizational arrangements, it appears there might have been some leeway for the unofficial participation of a few African Americans under arms for the Confederacy (and the Union). Still, one needs to be skeptical of such accounts as they were often second-hand or worse before they entered print, and anyone with any experience in mid-19th century newspapers and public records understands that such sources were less reliably factually than they are regarded today (especially the newspapers, which during the Civil War were still largely the creatures of political organizations and operated more for advocacy than the objective reporting of facts).

Certainly, there are enough snippets of blacks under arms for Confederacy early in the Civil War (and later on) that it is hard to dismiss them outright. As in any human social system, Civil War armies included, weird exceptions might appear, although given the nature of nineteenth-century sources it is always hard to take them at face value. Did some African Americans ever serve under arms for the Confederacy? It cannot be ruled out completely, but if so they were the exceptions that proved the rule that white Southern ideology was dead set against arming black men for service in the Confederate Army. It went against the white supremacy that was the raison d’etre of the Confederacy. Certainly, there were individual advocates for the idea of armed black Confederate solders early in the conflict, as I have discussed, and Patrick Cleburne’s famous January 1864 proposal. But if there were significant numbers of African Americans under Confederate arms by early 1864, why is Cleburne making a proposal to open the army to them and why doesn’t he cite these existing black Confederate soldiers in making his case for African-American troops in the Army of Tennessee? And why was there a heated debate about black enlistment in the Confederate Congress in the dying weeks of the Confederacy, when some white Southerners evidently overcame their prejudices just enough to approve the idea as a last desperate measure to stave off final defeat?

In any case, the question scholars should be asking is why this issue cannot be put to rest? To use Megan Kate Nelson’s meme, why are scholarly bloggers on the American Civil War repeatedly condemned to “freak out” from time to time over black Confederates? Why can provocateurs like John Stauffer use the issue (repeatedly) to draw attention to themselves? Why has this myth that substantial numbers of African Americans fought for the Confederacy gained such cultural power in the early 21st-century United States? Why are responsible scholars unable to say, “Enough already” and move on to more productive issues? And if we cannot say “enough already” why can’t we shift the debate to analyzing the cultural power of the myth? Much the same way professional historians refused to enter the morass of who shot John F. Kennedy, but instead analyzed the cultural power of the various conspiracy theories. That is the modest proposal this scholar and blogger would like to make regarding “black Confederates” since it is obvious that the power to suppress this myth is beyond academia’s power. So maybe we need to be asking why it has that power? And not freak out. Enough already.

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January 1865: The Time of Spielberg’s Lincoln (and other things)

The sesquicentennial of the American Civil War has now reached the January 1865 time period covered by Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, Lincoln. For anyone who has not seen this movie, Spielberg dramatizes Abraham Lincoln’s effort to get the 13th Amendment, definitively ending slavery in the United States, through the U.S. House of Representatives. The 13th Amendment’s passage in the House on January 31, 1865 was a major milestone in the history of emancipation in the United States (it had passed the U.S. Senate the previous April), allowing the amendment to proceed to the states for final ratification (which would occur in December 1865).

Yet the passage of the 13th Amendment was not the only noteworthy development in January 1865 relative to slave emancipation in the United States. On January 11, 1865, slavery ended in Missouri by state action, the second of the loyal slave states to end slavery on its own (Maryland had ended slavery about two months before on November 1, 1864). State-based emancipation does not get mentioned in Spielberg’s movie, which is understandable given the film’s emphasis on the effort to get the 13th Amendment through Congress.

Another noteworthy event in January 1865 related to emancipation occurred on January 9 in Nashville, Tennessee. That month, an all-white convention of Tennessee Unionists met to write a new constitution and restore loyal state government. Yet Tennessee’s African-American population refused to allow the concerns of their race to go unheard. A group of fifty-nine black residents of Nashville signed a letter dated January 9, 1865, outlining their concerns to the convention.

Not surprisingly, given that Tennessee was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation (since much of it was under Union occupation by the end of 1862), and the passage of the 13th Amendment by Congress was still uncertain, the first demand made by these fifty-nine black Tennesseans was that the convention explicitly end slavery in the state. They stated:

Your petitioners would ask you to complete the work begun by the nation at large, and abolish the last vestige of slavery by the express words of your organic law.

Many masters in Tennessee whose slaves have left them, will certainly make every effort to bring them back to bondage after the reorganization of the State government, unless slavery be expressly abolished by the Constitution.

Yet the black petitioners wanted more than simply to end slavery in Tennessee once and for all. Despite the professed disclaimer that “We do not ask for the privilege of citizenship,” the letter argued precisely that the convention should grant Tennessee’s African Americans basic citizenship rights, especially suffrage.

To bolster their argument for citizenship rights, they first based their claim on the service of black soldiers in the Civil War. The petition stated:

Near 200,000 of our brethren are to-day performing military duty in the ranks of the Union army.  Thousands of them have already died in battle, or perished by a cruel martyrdom for the sake of the Union, and we are ready and willing to sacrifice more.  But what higher order of citizen is there than the soldier?  or who has a greater trust confided to his hands?  If we are called on to do military duty against the rebel armies in the field, why should we be denied the privilege of voting against rebel citizens at the ballot-box?  The latter is as necessary to save the Government as the former.

Next they pointed out that free blacks prior to 1835 had been permitted to vote in Tennessee elections.

From 1796 to 1835, a period of thirty-nine years, free colored men voted at all her elections without question.  Her leading politicians and statesmen asked for and obtained the suffrages of colored voters, and were not ashamed of it.  Such men asAndrew Jackson, President of the United States, Hon. Felix Grundy, John Bell, Hon. Hugh L. White, Cave Johnson, and Ephraim H. Foster, members of the United States Senate and of the Cabinet, Gen. William Carroll, Samuel Houston, Aaron V. Brown, and, in fact, all the politicians and candidates of all parties in Tennessee solicited colored free men for their votes at every election.

They then turned to the argument that African Americans deserved citizenship rights because they were valuable, contributing members of Tennessee society.

This is not a Democratic Government if a numerous, law-abiding, industrious, and useful class of citizens, born and bred on the soil, are to be treated as aliens and enemies, as an inferior degraded class, who must have no voice in the Government which they support, protect and defend, with all their heart, soul, mind, and body, both in peace and war.

The black citizens also appealed to religion as a basis for their claim, not surprising given the religiosity of the South.

This Government is based on the teachings of the Bible, which prescribes the same rules of action for all members of the human family, whether their complexion be white, yellow, red or black.  God no where in his revealed word, makes an invidious and degrading distinction against his children, because of their color.  And happy is that nation which makes the Bible its rule of action, and obeys principle, not prejudice.

Lastly, given the convention was composed of Tennessee Unionists, they pointed out that African Americans as a group had been loyal to the national government throughout the war.

The Government has asked the colored man to fight for its preservation and gladly has he done it.  It can afford to trust him with a vote as safely as it trusted him with a bayonet.

How boundless would be the love of the colored citizen, how intense and passionate his zeal and devotion to the government, how  enthusiastic and how lasting would be his gratitude, if his white brethren were to take him by the hand and say, “You have been ever loyal to our government; henceforward be voters.”

Yet it was not just voting rights that the black residents of Nashville petitioned for in their January 9 letter. They also wanted the ability to testify in court against white Tennesseans, something which had heretofore worked against them in legal proceedings. They made their argument in this regard, in especially compelling terms, pointing out that Tennessee law gave greater standing in court to white rebels than it did to loyal African Americans.

At present we can have only partial protection from the courts.  The testimony of twenty of the most intelligent, honorable, colored loyalists cannot convict a white traitor of a treasonable action.  A white rebel might sell powder and lead to a rebel soldier in the presence of twenty colored soldiers, and yet their evidence would be worthless so far as the courts are concerned, and the rebel would escape.  A colored man may have served for years faithfully in the army, and yet his testimony in court would be rejected, while that of a white man who had served in the rebel army would be received.

Certainly, the passage of the 13th Amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives in January 1865 was a monumental event, a major milestone in the final end of slavery in the United States. Nonetheless, this January 9 letter of the black residents of Nashville highlights a problem in the depiction of this event in Spielberg’s Lincoln, one that was much discussed at the time of the film’s release in late 2012. That is, its portrayal of African Americans as largely passive in the emancipation drama. If this January 9 letter demonstrates anything, it is at the grassroots, African Americans were anything but passive in early 1865 and their ambitions went beyond simple freedom. The efforts of these fifty-nine black Tennesseans demonstrates they wanted more than the end of slavery, they wanted inclusion as citizens, and in January 1865 were willing to petition a state convention with the ability to grant it. While the letter of the black residents of Nashville was ignored by the white Unionist convention, their efforts were indicative of black demands for citizenship rights that had been made for decades by African Americans and which would become even more strident as the war gave way to the Reconstruction period.

Source: http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/tenncon.htm

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January 11, 1865: The End of Slavery in Missouri

Donald R. Shaffer:

Thanks to Brooks Simpson for reminding me today is sesquicentennial of emancipation in Missouri. Missouri was the second of two loyal slave states that ended slavery by state action during the Civil War (Maryland ended slavery on Nov. 1, 1864). Kentucky and Delaware refused and slavery didn’t end in those places until the ratification of the 13th Amendment because the four aforementioned loyal slave states had been exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation.

Originally posted on Crossroads:

We know that January 1865 was an important month in the history of the destruction of slavery in the United States. After all, it was in that month that the House of Representatives joined the Senate in passing the Thirteenth Amendment, which aimed to complete the eradication of chattel slavery in the nation.

In Missouri, however, representatives of the Show Me state had beaten Congress to the punch. On January 11, 1865, Missourians led by Charles Drake terminated the peculiar institution. Among those slaves now recognized as formally free, by the way, were the slaves of Colonel Frederick Dent, Ulysses S. Grant’s father in law. As the colonel apparently never transferred official title of any of his slaves to his daughter Julia, the correct date for the end of slavery in the Dent family is January 1865 (not the misguided claims that Grant had slaves after the war or…

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