Why the Slaves Fled, Part 3

Source: http://blackhistory.harpweek.com/7Illustrations/Slavery/InstrumentTorture.htm

Civil War Emancipation has twice posted on the motives of slaves for fleeing to Union lines during the Civil War, on June 29 and again on August 22 of last year. In the February 15, 1862 issue of Harpers’ Weekly, there appeared another reminder of why slaves were willing to risk their lives to escape. It highlighted the sadism of some slaveholders that made the lives of slaves a living hell. One such unfortunate sufferer was profiled in a letter from a Harpers’ correspondent, a Union soldier from Iowa named Charles O. Dewey, then in Missouri, dated January 24, 1862. The letter read:

I send you the sketch of an instrument used by the secession slave-masters of Missouri to punish their negroes.

Not long since one of these wretched victims came within our lines with an instrument of this description round his neck. It was securely riveted there, and required an hour’s filing before it could be removed. This proved to be a very painful operation to the poor “contraband;” for his neck was so snugly incased by the iron band, and the instrument was of such a peculiar shape, as to render the operation difficult of accomplishment. The negro stated that he had worn it two months, and this statement has been corroborated by reliable Union men of the same county. The form of the instrument prevented him from lying down and taking his rest at night; and its weight and close fit rendered it very burdensome during the day.  It consisted of a heavy iron ring, fitting closely round the neck, from which extended three prongs, each two feet in length, with a ring on the end. I suppose the design of the instrument was that a chain should be attached to it, and thus secure the victim beyond all possible hope of escape; but this negro had been running loose, with the thing round his neck, for two months; and finally, ascertaining that Federal soldiers were near, speedily repaired to them for deliverance from his tormentor. Of course he found the deliverance which he sought, and the instrument of torment is preserved by us as a mournful example of the deep degradation to which the soul, tainted by secession, may descend. It is needless to say that we did not send the negro back to his master, but so far as we were concerned, left him perfectly free to do his own will.  The name of the person who has thus proved himself destitute of all humanity is Dudley Wells, of Montgomery County, Missouri. He is now a prisoner, held as a traitor to his country, and awaiting the punishment due his crime; and if he does not receive it at an earthly tribunal he certainly will at the tribunal of an outraged conscience.

I had been planning to make this post for a while, but had been too busy at work last week to write it. I received new motivation to do it finally when an article from The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee, dated January 13, 2012, came to my attention this morning. Evidently, Tea Party activists in Tennessee are demanding that state legislature require the state’s teachers to soft-pedal the fact many Founding Fathers were slaveholders. The article states:

Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.

“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at.”

How can a person look at the image above and not be sickened by people who try to write out slavery from the history of the United States? There was nothing “made up” about the crimes of American slavery, and that the founders of this country participated in them is essential for students to know. Indeed, one cannot understand the motives of some Founding Fathers for supporting independence, the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention, and many other issues of the Early Republic without understanding slavery because it was absolutely integral to how they developed.

This problem of historical censoring regarding slavery in the public school curriculum is unfortunately not limited to Tennessee. Trymaine Lee’s recent and scary article in The Huffington Post describes efforts from the Tea Party and other conservatives around the country to down play or even write out slavery entirely from what K-12 students learn in the classroom.

The picture above should be a reminder not only that it existed, but that American slavery ultimately was a system that survived on force and the threat of force. So even the slaves of kind slaveholders fled during the Civil War because they knew an iron fist lay beneath the velvet glove of their owners’ benevolence.

Source: 1) http://blackhistory.harpweek.com/7Illustrations/Slavery/InstrumentTorture.htm; 2) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/23/tea-party-tennessee-textbooks-slavery_n_1224157.html; 3) http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2011/jan/13/tea-parties-cite-legislative-demands/.

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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1 Response to Why the Slaves Fled, Part 3

  1. Brad says:

    Why this is unsurprising I don’t know. People would like to think that society advances exponentially but we know that’s not true. That point is made clear in David Blight’s fantastic new book. People criticize the Japanese for trying to avoid acknowledging their history. However, based on this account, we are not much better.

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