So Slavery Wasn’t So Bad?

Donald R. Shaffer:

One of the best Civil War blogs around is Crossroads, written by Brooks Simpson. And one of Brooks’ causes is bedeviling the so-called Heritage community of Neo-Confederates (i.e., people who actually think the Confederacy was a neat thing and its destruction in the Civil War a tragedy). While part of me enjoys watching Brooks needle the Heritage community, sometimes I wonder whether the amount of attention he pays them gives them an importance they don’t deserve. After all, Brooks sits in an endowed chair at Arizona State University and all the Heritage community has are the power of its myths. But then again, maybe Brooks is on to something because certain especially pernicious myths have the potential to do real harm. Like the myth that maybe slavery wasn’t so bad for the slaves, which is asserted by Neo-Confederates. As I have said elsewhere before, I wish people who pushed that vile notion could be transported Twilight Zone-style for a month to live as a slave on an antebellum cotton plantation. Then maybe they’d see the error of their ways. In any case, here’s what Brooks Simpson has to say on this subject. Keep up the good fight, Brooks, but be careful not to give the Heritage community undue attention as you hold their feet to the fire.

Originally posted on Crossroads:

We’ve all heard it before from defenders of Confederate heritage: slavery wasn’t so bad. Of course, the people who say this are overwhelmingly white people, including descendants of slaveholders (hello, Connie Chastain!).

Some people have also decided that anything Charles Barkley says is worth listening to. We in the Phoenix area know differently. Barkley was a talented, personable basketball player who reminded us that he was not a role model, and with good reason. However, Barkley has decided that because he can comment on NBA games, he can use that forum to comment on everything else under the sun, and to do so in a way that fascinates some people and sparks more than its share of eye-rolling and head-shaking responses.

So when the Round Mound of Rebound decided to agree with Confederate heritage apologists advocates that slavery might not have been as bad as some people…

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African Americans and Sherman’s March


Ebenezer Creek, Georgia, where on December 9, 1864, Union troops prevented thousands of black refugees who had been following them during Sherman’s March from crossing, and hundreds of the refugees subsequently drowned trying to ford the creek seeking to escape pursuing Confederate cavalry. Source:


The sesquicentennial of the Civil War is now squarely focused on William Tecumseh Sherman’s legendary March to the Sea, in which he led the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of Georgia, and a cavalry division on a grand raid through the heart of Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah that lasted from mid-November to shortly before Christmas 1864. An important focus in the commemoration of this event has been on Sherman’s treatment of Georgia’s population, especially to what extent the activities of his army, particularly in foraging, caused suffering among civilians.

With one notable exception, coming from Carole Emberton over at Heather Richardson’s new website, We’re History, the debate of late over civilian suffering from Sherman’s March has focused mostly on Georgia’s white population or been essentially race-blind. Emberton, in her web article, “A Hungry Belly and Freedom,” shifts the focus to how Sherman’s March affected Georgia’s African Americans. She contends that Georgia’s slaves bore the brunt of food shortages created by Sherman’s foraging. They had never been fed terribly well to begin with, Emberton asserts, and years of malnutrition left many slaves on the path of Sherman’s March especially vulnerable to the resulting food scarcity in its wake, resulting in widespread suffering and even death from malnutrition-related causes.

The suffering also certainly puts into skeptical perspective Sherman’s subsequently famous and celebrated Special Field Orders, No. 15, issued on January 16, 1865, in which he set aside 400,000 acres of coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida for ex-slaves to subsist on (helping to create the legend of “40 Acres and a Mule” since each family was limited to forty acres and the Union forces supposedly donated some former slaves surplus army mules). The suffering of Georgia’s slaves during the march helps explain this humanitarian gesture as essentially an act of damage control in the press from a general officer not noted for sympathy to African Americans.

Still, the incident which no doubt played the greater role in prompting Special Field Orders, No. 15 occurred on December 9, 1864, at Ebenezer Creek, Georgia (please see the image above). If some slaves were starving due to the foraging of Sherman’s men, it did not stop thousands of other slaves from attaching themselves to his army. The presence of some of the slaves was welcome, especially strong, able-bodied men who served in the “pioneer corps” at the front of the columns clearing the army’s way by repairing and building-up roads for heavy wagons, removing obstructions placed by Confederate militia and cavalry that shadowed Sherman’s army, and any other tasks necessary to assisting its forward progress. Various of other slaves made themselves useful in camp and in other roles.

The problem from the perspective of Union forces were the hundreds, eventually thousands of refugee slaves that attached themselves to Sherman’s columns but did not labor for it. Some were the dependents of African Americans working for Sherman’s army. Others simply sought to secure their freedom and safety by attaching themselves to the white Northerners, not trusting what their owners or other white Southeners would do when the Yankees moved on. Still others, as Carole Emberton noted, were hungry as a result of Union foraging and sought food from the one place they could be reasonably sure had it–Sherman’s army. It also was the case that some slaves simply were curious to see the northern army, which they regarded as their liberators and once they located the Yankees were loath to return to their place of enslavement. The efforts of slaveholders and other whites to discredit Union soldiers in the eyes of the slaves prior to Sherman’s arrival had backfired, as Edmund L. Drago put it, with “stories of Yankees’ burning and drowning blacks, forcing them to fight, harnessing them to carts, or shipping them to Cuba seldom succeeded in engendering fear among the slaves.”

Some Union commanders wanted to get rid of the black hangers on, who they believed potentially imperiled the progress of the army and proved a drain on its resources. No officer felt this way more strongly than Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis, the XIV Corps’ commander, who used his middle initial in vain attempt to avoid association with the Confederate President to whom he was not related by blood, but had caused him to be nicknamed uncharitably within the Union Army, “General Reb.”

On December 9, 1864, as the XIV Corps crossed swollen Ebenezer Creek about twenty miles north of Savannah, Davis acted ruthlessly to detach his army from the approximately 5,000 black refugees who had joined his column. The refugees were kept from crossing the creek until the army had passed over the pontoon bridge, which was then dismantled before the refugees could cross. The black refugees were left to the mercy of Confederate cavalry under Joseph Wheeler, who had been shadowing Sherman’s army throughout the march, much too weak to attack Sherman head on, but able to pick off stragglers and foraging parties that strayed too far from the main columns. Rather than allow themselves to be captured by Wheeler’s cavalry, hundreds of black refugees, mostly women, children, and the elderly, tried to ford Ebenezer Creek, where many drowned. The remainder were captured by the Confederate cavalry and faced an uncertain fate, with no doubt many being returned to slavery.

Cut off from communications with the North during the march, news of the incident at Ebenezer Creek initially was slow to spread, but after Sherman’s forces occupied the port of Savannah, Georgia, on December 21, 1864, accounts from appalled eyewitnesses in Davis’ army quickly made their way to the outside world and into the northern press, prompting Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton himself to travel down to Savannah to investigate, arriving on January 11, 1865. Sherman managed to convince Stanton that Davis had acted properly, and the furor over the incident quickly died away in the glow in the North over the general success of the March to the Sea. Jefferson C. Davis never faced any formal proceedings over Ebenezer Creek and was even later breveted to Major General. It was easy for most white Northerners quickly to forget the incident because from their perspective the victims were only negroes. Especially, with Sherman’s grand if dubious gesture of granting 400,000 acres for recently liberated slaves to occupy five days after Stanton’s arrival (land which would be returned to its original owners months later by Andrew Johnson’s amnesty for ex-Confederates in May 1865).

So despite William Tecumseh Sherman’s successful effort at damage control in the northern press and his superiors in Washington, the incident at Ebenezer Creek on December 9, 1864, remains a blot on Sherman’s March and a tragic moment in the history of emancipation in the United States. Hundreds of slaves died so close to final freedom and thousands of others presumably were re-enslaved for a time because one Union corps commander placed questionable military expediency over urgent humanitarian considerations. Of course, this was indicative of the character of the entire march, where many thousands more Georgia slaves suffered hunger, and possibly starved, because the Union Army confiscated food that would have fed them.

Still, one cannot help but believe that despite the death and suffering for African Americans from Sherman’s March that for most it was heartening for Georgia’s slaves to see the arrival of the blue columns, for all the suffering their transit caused. The Union soldiers, as elsewhere, were the harbingers that the death of slavery was near and day of jubilee would soon arrive. For if the Confederates could not stop the Sherman’s legions as they marched through Georgia, how could they stop the final collapse of slavery?

Sources: 1); 2); 3) Edmund L. Drago, “How Sherman’s March Through Georgia Affected the Slaves,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 57 (Fall 1973): 361-75.

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Slavery Ends in Maryland: November 1, 1864

Abraham Lincoln originally had planned for emancipation to begin in the loyal slave states, with slaveholders gradually freeing their slaves over the remainder of the nineteenth century and being compensated with financing provided by the federal government. (And as many ex-slaves as possible then emigrating to some ill-defined tropical destination.) Lincoln tried to sell this plan during the first half of 1862, but because of strong resistance among slaveholders in the loyal states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, formal emancipation began in the Confederate South with the Emancipation Proclamation. The disloyalty of slaveholders gave Lincoln, he believed, the power to free slaves in the rebellious states by decree as a war measure using his powers as commander-in-chief. These powers, he also believed, did not extend to the loyal slave states because they were not in rebellion. If freedom was to come to these states, short a federal constitutional amendment, it would have to come from these states themselves.

And on November 1, 1864, Maryland was the first of the loyal slave states to end slavery on its own accord. Getting to that point had not been an easy process. It was given a head start of sorts by the fact Maryland’s slave-based economy had been in decline for decades before the Civil War. Maryland’s farmers long had been making the shift from tobacco, which was suitable for a slave workforce to cereal grains, which were not. The state’s slaveholders had responded to their now surplus workforce either by freeing slaves or (more often) selling them into the internal slave trade (which meant they generally ended up in the cotton states). But a result of the crop shift was that by the eve of the Civil War, the 1860 Census revealed about half of Maryland’s African-American population already was free.

What decades of tobacco’s decline had started, the Civil War accelerated by placing pressures on the peculiar institution which Maryland’s slave system found itself unable to cope with. First, Union troops from the free states entered Maryland over the war’s course, often staying in the state for extended periods, and providing protection in their camps from recapture to numerous slaves, often in return for the fugitives acting as temporary servants. Second, when slavery ended in the District of Columbia in Spring 1862, it became a new sanctuary for Maryland slaves, especially after the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act in June 1864. Third, the advent of black recruitment into the Union army in 1863, led to thousands of slaves leaving their plantations and gaining their freedom in federal ranks. The collective result of these events and the general weakening of state enforcement of slavery brought on by Civil War caused the price of slaves in Maryland to plummet as many owners sought to sell their human property while they still could, but found few buyers.

Still, some slaveholders continued to resist emancipation and two important bulwarks of slavery hung on in Maryland, in the southern counties and the Eastern shore. Both areas tended to be away from areas where either Union or Confederate forces routinely operated, and the plantation economy there was as robust as anywhere in the state. Slaveholders also had remained politically powerful in the state, even as slavery was in gradual decline before the Civil War. They had managed to enshrine the peculiar institution into the state’s constitution in 1851, meaning that any state-based effort to end slavery in Maryland would require a new state constitution.

The impetus for just such a new constitution came as the Civil War led the political power of the state’s slaveholders to go into decline. The war represented an opportunity for long marginalized anti-slavery forces to assert themselves. Interests that saw Maryland’s future in non-slave-based agriculture and manufacturing, and in growing commercial ties with the North and overseas. With many Maryland Democrats either having gone south to join the Confederacy or their political activities curtailed by Lincoln’s administration and the Union army, which believed Maryland must be held inside the Union by all means, a pro-Union political movement arose in the state during the Civil War under the leadership of future governor, Thomas Swann. It was Swann, who in 1863, pushed the Union party to embrace immediate abolition as a political goal.

With the support of the Union party, which dominated Maryland’s politics after 1863, the new state constitution, which included a ban on slavery, was put up to a referendum on October 12-13, 1864. The vote to approve the constitution was close, in an election marked by charges of intimidation and fraud, and the proposed constitution likely would have lost, but for Maryland’s Union soldiers who were allowed to vote in the field and overwhelmingly supported ending slavery. With the referendum narrowly approved it went into effect on November 1, 1864, 15o years ago today.

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Emancipation: The Destruction of Slave Property?

The spring before last I traveled to the hallowed halls of Harvard to be a presenter at a symposium on emancipation in the Civil War and advent of the recruiting of black soldiers into the Union Army. Highlighting the speakers were the stars of this field, including Eric Foner. Among Foner’s comments during his talk at the symposium was to note that emancipation resulted in the destruction of hundreds of millions if not billions of slave property. That is, with the exception of the District of Columbia, slaveholders were never compensated for the loss of their slavery property.

Eric Foner’s comment stuck with me for a rather personal reason. In another lifetime it seems, I was a business and economics double major. That is, I was not a History major as an undergraduate and didn’t make the switch to History until graduate school. A bachelor’s in Business Administration requires several accounting courses. And one of the key concepts taught in accounting is assets never really disappear. They always get transformed into something else. This is true as well for capital assets (long existing and expensive productive property), which is why accountants invented the concept of depreciation to account for the diminishing value of capital assets over time as they get “used up.” In double-entry bookkeeping, the diminishing value of a capital asset gets amortized, meaning it gets treated incrementally as an expense over time. The business pays for a capital asset when it buys it, of course, but only recognizes the expense in an accounting sense incrementally over time. Which leads to all sorts of interesting bean-counting games as accountants try to come up with the most advantageous amortization schedule for a business–but that’s a story for some accountant’s blog.

In any case, accounting is relevant here because putting the immorality of slavery aside, a slave was a form of capital asset to the slaveholder. And what occurred in emancipation was that hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of dollars of capital assets were suddenly confiscated from their owners. But my point here is that these capital assets were not destroyed as Foner asserted. Certainly, to the slaveholder they were, since the slaveholder no longer enjoyed the value of their slaves. But the asset remained. So who got the value of the slaves in emancipation?–the slaves themselves. The hundreds of millions or billions in slave assets did not disappear but in freedom went to the slaves. So the American South did not see the destruction slave property during the Civil War, but that human property being acquired by the now former human property.

This was a just outcome because the whole system of human slavery in the Americas was based on an act of theft to begin with, when the ancestors of these slaves had their lives and bodies in essence taken away from them. An act of theft that was perpetuated across generations as the descendants of the original slaves were themselves enslaved. So emancipation represented the restoration of human capital to its proper owners. “Property” was not destroyed but given back to those persons it should have belonged to from the start.

I said something like this rather gratuitously at the start of my talk at Harvard on an entirely different subject. I think Eric Foner was in the room when I said it, but he never said anything about the comment to me. I made the point though and hopefully this small bon mot will make its way into the literature of emancipation in the American Civil War. Slavery was destroyed, but there was no “destruction” of slave property, merely its return to its rightful owners, the slaves themselves.

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9/11 Memorial and Museum

Donald R. Shaffer:

Back in July on a professional trip to New York City, I took the opportunity to visit the new 9/11 Museum and Memorial. In honor of the 13th anniversary of 9/11, here is a re-post of my impressions.

Originally posted on Civil War Emancipation:


Your humble blogger at the 9/11 Memorial (North Tower pool) on Tuesday, July 22, 2014. The 9/11 Museum is in the far background behind the trees.

Every now and then I devote this blog to an off-topic post. This post will be one of them.

This past Sunday, I caught a plane to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. I was invited to speak on black Union soldiers at the New York Historical Society’s NEH Teachers’ Institute, “Race and Politics in the Civil War,” which will be soon wrapping up. This institute has brought together about thirty K-12 teachers from across the United States. Monday morning, I lectured them on the history of black soldiers. In the afternoon, we watched the movie, Glory, and then Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University and I led a discussion of the film. My thanks to New York Historical Society, especially Mia Nagawiecki…

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“the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their” – The Spotswood Rice Letters

150 years ago this week, on September 3, 1864, a Missouri slave in the Union Army, wrote two of the most interesting surviving letters related to emancipation in the Civil War. The author of the letters was Spotswood Rice, a literate tobacco roller from Glasgow, Missouri, who had joined the Union Army in his forties. He had plenty of time to write letters in early September 1864, as he was hospitalized at Benton Barracks in St. Louis fighting a serious leg infection.

Although in St. Louis, Rice’s mind at that moment was without a doubt back home in Glasgow, a Missouri River town roughly half-way between St. Louis and Kansas City. In the Upper South, plantation units were smaller than in the Cotton South, and many slaves, like Rice himself, more often had family members scattered across different owners. Just as other slave parents in such circumstances, his parental role with his children was subject to interference from their owners, and his first letter to his daughters was clearly an attempt to assert fatherly care and authority despite the owner’s power over them. Rice wrote:

My Children   I take my pen in hand to rite you A few lines to let you know that I have not forgot you and that I want to see you as bad as ever   now my Dear Children I want you to be contented with whatever may be your lots   be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life   on the 28th of the mounth. 8 hundred White and 8 hundred blacke solders expects to start up the rivore to Glasgow and above there thats to be jeneraled by a jeneral that will give me both of you   when they Come I expect to be with, them and expect to get you both in return. Dont be uneasy my children   I expect to have you. If Diggs dont give you up this Government will and I feel confident that I will get you   Your Miss Kaitty said that I tried to steal you   But I’ll let her know that god never intended for man to steal his own flesh and blood. If I had no cofidence in God I could have confidence in her   But as it is If I ever had any Confidence in her I have none now and never expect to have   And I want her to remember if she meets me with ten thousand soldiers she [will?] meet her enemy   I once [thought] that I had some respect for them but now my respects is worn out and have no sympathy for Slaveholders. And as for her cristianantty I expect the Devil has Such in hell   You tell her from me that She is the frist Christian that I ever hard say that aman could Steal his own child especially out of human bondage

You can tell her that She can hold to you as long as she can   I never would expect to ask her again to let you come to me because I know that the devil has got her hot set againsts that that is write   now my Dear children I am a going to close my letter to you   Give my love to all enquiring friends   tell them all that we are well and want to see them very much and Corra and Mary receive the greater part of it you sefves and dont think hard of us not sending you any thing   I you father have a plenty for you when I see you   Spott & Noah sends their love to both of you   Oh! My Dear children how I do want to see you

Clearly from the letter, Spotswood Rice had been made previous efforts to reunite his daughters with the rest of the family, which had been thwarted by their owner, Kitty Diggs, who refused to sell them. His letter was meant to reassure of his fatherly love and his efforts to reunite them with their family were continuing.

The reason we have Rice’s tart words speaking down to us across 150 years was that the letter above and the one that follows were intercepted by Diggs, an unmarried woman, who passed them on to her male protector, her brother, who obviously outraged by what he saw as Rice’s insolence, complained to the Union Army since Rice was a soldier, where the letters got caught up and preserved by the military bureaucracy until they were rediscovered by researchers of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland.

While the first letter was from the Diggs’ perspective bad enough, the second letter, written from Rice to Kitty Diggs personally, was even more incendiary. He wrote:

I received a leteter from Cariline telling me that you say I tried to steal to plunder my child away from you   now I want you to understand that mary is my Child and she is a God given rite of my own and you may hold on to hear as long as you can but I want you to remembor this one thing that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their   for we are now makeing up a bout one thoughsand blacke troops to Come up tharough and wont to come through Glasgow and when we come wo be to Copperhood rabbels and to the Slaveholding rebbels for we dont expect to leave them there root neor branch   but we thinke how ever that we that have Children in the hands of you devels we will trie your [vertues?] the day that we enter Glasgow   I want you to understand kittey diggs that where ever you and I meets we are enmays to each orthere   I offered once to pay you forty dollers for my own Child but I am glad now that you did not accept it   Just hold on now as long as you can and the worse it will be for you   you never in you life befor I came down hear did you give Children any thing not eny thing whatever not even a dollers worth of expencs   now you call my children your pro[per]ty   not so with me   my Children is my own and I expect to get them and when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child   you will then know how to talke to me   I will assure that and you will know how to talk rite too   I want you now to just hold on to hear if you want to   iff your conchosence tells thats the road go that road and what it will brig you to kittey diggs   I have no fears about geting mary out of your hands   this whole Government gives chear to me and you cannot help your self

While Spotswood Rice was misguided in his belief that the Union Army would launch a military expedition to free his daughters from slavery, as Missouri was a loyal slave state (slavery would end in the state on January 11, 1865, by executive proclamation), it says something about the progress of emancipation by Fall 1864 that Rice would write such a letter. Clearly, he would not have written it before the Civil War or early in the conflict when the Lincoln administration sought to reassure loyal slaveholders that their human property was secure even as the President sought to encourage gradual compensated emancipation in states like Missouri. Yet it also says something about Rice’s personality. He was clearly a leader as his postwar career as an AME minister in the West testifies (he died in Colorado in 1907). And Rice was courageous, for even in 1864, it must have taken a great deal of moxie to for a black man to write his daughter’s owner, “that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their.” Among other emotional comments. As a parent myself I understand his feelings much better than I once did. There are people I encounter in my study of history that I would dearly like to meet. Spotswood Rice is one of them.


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“It is my desire to be free”



Recently, Brooks Simpson over at Crossroads has made a series of highly worthwhile posts on the historical controversy about whether Abraham Lincoln, in August 1864, with the war going poorly and facing the distinct possibility of not being re-elected in November, considered abandoning emancipation as a means of stemming his growing unpopularity. The idea has a certain plausibility because things were looking quite bad for the Union in August 1864. Sherman’s army was stuck outside of Atlanta and Grant was similarly stuck outside Petersburg, Virginia. The war appeared in stalemate, which politically hurt Lincoln. However, Simpson on Crossroads discredits the notion that Lincoln seriously considered backing down on his commitment to freedom for the slaves. The posts can be found here, here, and here. In any case, the military and political crisis facing Lincoln lifted in the early days of September, when Atlanta finally fell to Sherman. Abraham Lincoln’s popularity and electoral prospects subsequently rose, and any incentive he had to abandon emancipation vanished.

Yet it seems to be the case that until the fall of Atlanta, there was definite uncertainty about whether the war would end slavery once and for all. Despite all the slaves that had escaped to Union lines or effectively freed by the federal occupation of where they lived, most slaves in the South in August 1864 were still in a state of bondage. If Lincoln had lost the election in November 1864, even if the Democratic candidate, George McClellan, managed to restore the South to the Union, he no doubt would have rescinded the Emancipation Proclamation or let it be eviscerated in the courts. Likely, many escaped slaves would have kept their freedom, as had occurred in similar circumstances in the Revolutionary War, and the ultimate survival of the peculiar institution still called into question, but in a surviving and independent Confederacy with slavery’s existence as its reason for being, no doubt slavery would have continued for many decades more if not forever.

Another interesting “what if” question in this regard was the future of slavery in the remaining loyal slaves: Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware. They were exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation, but especially for Maryland, the presence of federal troops and enlistment of African Americans into the Union Army had dealt slavery there a grievous blow. Yet even in Maryland in August 1864, uncertainty still existed over slavery’s survival, especially among the slaves, who had the biggest stake in the matter.

This uncertainty can be seen in the letter of a Maryland slave to President Lincoln. Annie Davis, from Bel Air, Maryland, northeast of Baltimore, on August 25, 1864, wrote simply:

Mr president    It is my Desire to be free. to go to see my people on the eastern shore.  my mistress wont let me    you will please let me know if we are free. and what i can do.  I write to you for advice.  please send me word this week. or as soon as possible and oblidge.

No doubt, Davis had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation and seen slaves gaining their freedom around her in the tumult of wartime Maryland. But her owner stubbornly hung on to her. While in retrospect, it is clear that legally in August 1864 that Annie Davis was still a slave. She was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation and Maryland would not free its slaves until it enacted a new state constitution three months later in November. Hopefully, soon after Davis was united with her family across Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore. But given the uncertainty about the war’s outcome at the time she wrote Lincoln and the uncertainty about slavery’s viability in Maryland in August 1864, her confusion is understandable.


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