The American Indian at Hampton Institute, Virginia

“Louis Firetail (Sioux, Crow Creek), wearing tribal clothing, in American history class, Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia”; late 1890s. From the Library of Congress.

The grace, dignity, and poignancy of the photos in this blog entry belie a bitter memory for many Indigenous people: Indian boarding schools, such as the one at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which is now called Hampton University.

The abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in response to a question he often heard from whites – “What shall we do with the Negro?” – said “Do nothing with us!” Leave us alone, he said… haven’t you done enough to us already?

Those comments were probably echoed by the American Indian of the day. The 1800s were a century long battle between Indigenous and European-descent peoples for American land. Whether destined or not, the European peoples would have the land, and control it from sea to sea by the end of the century.

One solution for dealing with Indigenous peoples was to “civilize” them. Reservation schools were created with funding from the US government and often the support of Christian missionaries. Their purpose was to inculcate the Indian with white culture and prepare him for life among European Americans – to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” In addition, numbers of Indigenous young were placed in boarding schools where they were educated and acculturated away from their families.

Hampton Institute seemed a good fit for them. It was founded in 1868 by General Samuel Armstrong, who commanded colored troops during the Civil War. Armstrong had proposed the Institute as a way to “to prepare colored teachers for southern schools; teachers who will cost less than white; who can live the year through in one place, thus saving expense of transportation; who, in fact, can make a living out of their schools, and after being started, support themselves [through augmenting their low salaries with money earned through manual skills learned at school]; who will penetrate the country and, singly, occupy isolated remote places where our [northern white] ladies could never go.”

The United States’ Indian policy eventually funneled Indigenous students to the Institute. As noted here, “Armstrong’s dual mission at Hampton quickly became clear – ‘uplift’ the Negro from his state of degradation; ‘civilize’ the savage and teach him how to work. Members of both races would be taught to dress, speak, work, behave as whites– despite the fact that they were offered no guarantee that they would ever be offered powers and privileges equivalent to those enjoyed by whites.”

“Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va. – before entering school – seven Indian children of uneducated parents 1897.” The caption indicates these are Sioux children. From the Library of Congress.

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Off Topic Saturday: Big Mama Thornton Sings the Blues

Big Mama Thornton was a blues woman. And she could rock. This is from a live show in Oregon in 1971.

Willie Mae Thornton, aka Big Mama Thornton, was born in 1926 in Montgomery, Alabama. Like many black musicians, she started out singing gospel at her church. At the age of 14, she left home to join a chitlin circuit music troupe in Georgia named the Hot Harlem Revue. She went on to tour and do musical dates with a number of blues and R’n’B figures.

Her biggest hit was “Hound Dog”, which was released in 1952, along with the B side tune “They Call Me Big Mama.” The song was #1 on the Billboard R’n’B charts for seven weeks, and sold almost two million copies.

Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded his own version of the song, and it became an even bigger hit; few people today remember that Big Mama was the first to do the song.

Big Mama was not a beauty queen. And she was big, getting to as much as 350 lbs, although illness later in life made her lose her size. On the above video, she looks almost lean.

But no matter, she could still carry a tune and then some. Blessed with gravelly sounding, booming voice, Big Mama belted people with the blues. She taught herself the harmonica, and that added some depth to her performances, especially live.

She died at the age of 57, due to heart and liver problems that many attribute to her hard drinking lifestyle.

She left us too early, but her music lives on.

This is the studio version of Hound Dog
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Links of Interest, 2/26/2011

Some links of interest:

• Is it wrong for me to think this is funny?

• It’s Oscars weekend! Historian Gary Gallagher offers his thoughts on Civil War movies here and here. These are based on his book Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War.

• If you want do some reading about the US Colored Troops, The Sable Arm blog offers several suggestions in Top 12 Books: USCT Edition.

• Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates blog has an interesting post about a female African American member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

• Last but not least: the 6TH Regiment Infantry United States Colored Troops, Reenactors Inc. has an online photo album of reenactment activities that’s worth a quick look. Two groups of pictures caught my interest.

This is from a set of phots titled “Three Centuries of Black Soldiers.” (See the Announcement below.)

This is from a set of photos titled “Battle of Pensacola.” This appears to be a reenactment of the Revolutionary War’s Siege of Pensacola in 1781, (see picture 9 of 9), not the Battle of Pensacola that took place during the War of 1812.

Announcement: If you’re in the Trenton, NJ area on February 26-27, there will be a “Three Centuries of Black Soldiers” event at The Old Barracks Museum. Follow the link for more details.

Was Abraham Lincoln the Black Man’s “Friend?”

The enemy of my enemy is my “friend.”

The man who keeps me a slave is my “enemy.” Anybody who works to set me free is my ally, whether he “likes” me or not.

Was Lincoln the black man’s friend? He was compared to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Was Lincoln the black man’s friend before the Emancipation Proclamation? Nope.

Didn’t Jefferson Davis become the black man’s friend when the Confederacy passed a law enabling negroes to serve as soldiers in exchange for their freedom? Not as much as Lincoln was their friend. Davis’ “befriending” was too late regardless.

Is it really that simple? No, but it’s close.

Was Abraham Lincoln a Racist? Three Takes

TAKE 1: Quick Take

“Everybody was racist. EVERYBODY!”
– historian Gary Gallagher, expressing his amazement and frustration that so many people don’t realize that everybody in the Civil War era was racist. (See the 29th minute of the video at the link.)

TAKE 2: All racists are not alike; and being racist is not the same as being pro-slavery.

Was Abraham Lincoln racist?

That’s like asking “do fish swim” or “do birds fly.” A distinguishing characteristic of fish is that as a class, they all swim; likewise just about all birds fly. A distinguishing characteristic of the white population in Lincoln’s time is that they were “all” racist – or perhaps 95%+ were. Of course, there are no polls from the 19th century to provide a statistically exact or even estimated number. But most historians agree that the overwhelming number of white (northern and southern) Americans of the era were racially biased against blacks, Asians, and Native Americans – not to mention ethnically biased against Irish Americans.

But it’s important to understand this: all racists are not the same. There is a difference between a racist person who will not vote for an African American, and a racist person who will kill any African American who attempts to vote (and armed attacks were made on blacks seeking the vote during the Jim Crow era). Saying that both people are “equally racist” is ridiculous. It’s much more complicated than that.

What is racism, anyway? As some people see it, racism in not merely an idea or an intent, it is a set of behaviors. Some acts of racism are “relatively” benign (“I won’t vote for blacks”), others are more dangerous (“I will kill black voters”). There is a range of racist behaviors that can be objectively or subjectively classified by the “harm” they do. And views on race change over time: keeping blacks as slaves is understood to be a horribly racist act today, but that was very much in dispute 150 years ago.

Abraham Lincoln is a case study in the complexities of 19th century views on race and slavery. He lived in Illinois, which was the most anti-black of the Northwest Ordinance states. (Most people in the lower half of the state were “butternuts” who came to the state from the South.) Appeals to racial equality, and the possibility of whites competing for jobs with black laborers – free or slave – did not sit well here. Thus, Lincoln’s positions on those issues made him an outlier in the state. In 1854, Lincoln said in Peoria, “When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal,” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” Those kinds of statements were very progressive for Illinois in the 1850s, although Lincoln’s concept of racial equality was extremely limited based on today’s standards.

No wonder, then, that in the famous Lincoln-Douglass Illinois Senate debates of 1858, Democrat Stephen Douglas blasted Lincoln for being what would be called a “nig*** lover” in 20th century language. Lincoln, said Douglas, “believes that the Almighty made the Negro equal to the white man… He thinks that the Negro is his brother. I do not think the Negro is any kin to mine… This government… was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity, to be executed and managed by white men.” (One commonly used insult of the day was to call Lincoln’s Republican Party the “Black Republicans.”)
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Brer Possum Makes a Visit

Disney’s Brer Possum

I don’t know how it happened, but late last year, an opussum got in our house. How it got in, we don’t know. The screen on the backdoor to our basement has a hole in it, and the backdoor had been open all day; maybe that’s how brer possum snuck in. Anyhow, I spotted him in the kitchen, and that caused a minor panic. My daughter and 10 month-old granddaughter were visiting, and I didn’t want some varmint foraging through our place. I called animal control, and they said they would show up… sooner or later.

I was able to corner the animal in the back of the kitchen, at which point it got real quiet. Had it gone into “playing possum” mode? I started to get antsy. I didn’t want to spend all night watching this poor animal and waiting for the animal control people to come. Now, I love animals as much as anybody. But I was seriously thinking about going “old school” on this critter. Like anyone with an interest in history, I looked in one of my dusty tomes for inspiration or help – in this case, Eugene Genovese’s masterwork Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made:

In more general terms, Lizzie Davis of South Carolina proclaimed, “Yes, child, de slavery people sho had de hand to cook.” Children, both male and female, learned to cook before they grew large enough for field work. Their mothers taught them when they could, and when they could not or would not, some old slave usually stepped in.

The slave recipe that has come down to us most prominently is for opossum-significantly, a food they (the slaves) obtained for themselves. “The flesh of the coon is palatable,” wrote Solomon Northup, “but verily there is nothing in all butcherdom so delicious as a roasted ‘possum.” Raccoon, ground hog, and other self-procured foods had their supporters. Anthony Dawson, an ex-slave from South Carolina declared, “I love ‘possum and sweet ‘taters, but de coon meat more delicate, and de hair don’t stink up de meat.” But opossum remained the favorite of the great majority.

From one end of the South to the other, the slaves prepared opossum in roughly the same way: parboiled and then roasted with lard or fatback. They used locust or persimmon beer to wash the meat down, and roasted it with sweet potatoes. For variety, the slaves might dry and smoke possum as they would hams. If the animal was young, they had the option of frying it, but frying was, for the most part, reserved for young rabbits, which were considered especially tender. Prepared one way or the other, opossum inspired the slaves to sing:


Well, ‘possum meat’s so nice and sweet,
Carve ‘im in de heart;
You’ll always find hit good ter eat.
Carve ‘im in de heart.

Refrain: Carve dat ‘possum,
Carve dat ‘possum, chillun.
Carve dat ‘possum,
Oh, carve ‘im in de heart.


De way to cook de ‘possum nice,
Carve ‘im in de heart.
First parbile ‘im, stir ‘im twice,
Carve ‘im in de heart.


Den lay sweet taters in de pan
Carve ‘im in de heart.
Nuthin’ beats dat in de lan,
Carve ‘im in de heart.

I couldn’t get those lyrics out of my head: “Carve ‘im in de heart… Carve ‘im in de heart…” And I knew that as the man of the house, it was my duty to protect my family. I was starting to convince myself, “it’s him or me.” But for some reason, I was salivating.

Just then, there was a knock on the door. Much to my surprise, a guy from animal control had come, and I hadn’t waited more than 50 minutes. It took him all of 30 seconds to grab brer possum and place the animal in a small cage. He left before my other family members even knew he arrived.

A little bit later, I asked my wife if she was cooking anything for dinner. “I’m going to roast some chicken,” she said. Darn, I thought. Chicken. The same-old same-old.

“I’m going out,” I told her. “I need some supplies for the printers.” But actually, I thought I’d take a drive through the park.

Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 3

Part 2 of 3 of this Frederick Douglass birthday celebration is here.

President Lincoln recruiting the Negro: One good turn deserves another, London Punch, 1862.

The caption reads, “Why, I du declare, it’s my dear old friend Sambo. Course you’ll fight for us, Sambo. Lend us a hand, old hoss, du.” This cartoon was published a month before Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. More details on the cartoon are here.

One notable aspect of the cartoon is that the black character is depicted realistically, while the Lincoln figure is caricatured. In American cartoons, it was common to show blacks as having exaggerated and buffoonish facial features, such as huge lips.

I congratulate you, upon what may be called the greatest event of our nation’s history (issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation), if not the greatest event of the century…

In the hurry and excitement of the moment, it is difficult to grasp the full and complete significance of President Lincoln’s proclamation. The change in attitude of the Government is vast and startling. For more than sixty years the Federal Government has been little better than a stupendous engine of Slavery and oppression, through which Slavery has ruled us, as with a rod of iron. The boast that Cotton is King was no empty boast. Assuming that our Government and people will sustain the President and the Proclamation, we can scarcely conceive of a more complete revolution in the position of a nation…

I hail it as the doom of Slavery in all the States. I hail it as the end of all that miserable statesmanship, which has for 60 years juggled and deceived the people, by professing to reconcile what is irreconcilable.

We are all liberated by this proclamation. Everybody is liberated. The white man is liberated, the black man is liberated, the brave men now fighting the battles of their country against rebels and traitors are now liberated, and may strike with all their might, even if they do hurt the Rebels, at their most sensitive point. [Applause.] I congratulate you upon this amazing change—the amazing approximation toward the sacred truth of human liberty.
– Frederick Douglass, Speech at The Cooper Institute in New York, February 6, 1863


By February 1863, Frederick Douglass was surely feeling joyful and triumphant. On January 1 of 1863, president Abraham Lincoln issued the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation. America’s slaves were declared forever free – with the caveat that the slave-holding Border States (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) and some Unionist or Union controlled areas in the Confederacy (such as Tennessee and Louisiana) were exempted. But that wasn’t a show stopper for Douglass; he believed that the Proclamation marked the beginning of the end of slavery. Time would prove him correct.

But in the short run, there was a war to fight. After the issuance of the Proclamation, the Union’s efforts to recruit black men into the army began in earnest. And it wasn’t a sure thing that black men would enlist.

Many blacks were angry that they were denied enlistment when the war started, being told this was a “white man’s war.” The Emancipation Proclamation, for all the hope it offered, did not free slaves in Union strongholds; this was not the unequivocal call for black freedom that many wanted to see. And blacks were infuriated when they discovered that colored soldiers were paid less than their white counterparts. Wasn’t a black man’s life worth as much as a white man’s, they asked?

But where some had doubts, Douglass had resolve. No black leader was more prominent, insistent, and supportive of black enlistment than Douglass, at least in the several months after the Proclamation. Earlier, he said that unless the Union committed to ending slavery, “they don’t deserve the support of a single sable arm.” Now that the Union made the commitment, Douglass was all in.

While freedom for the slaves was paramount, Douglass saw another purpose in black military service: it would give colored people the opportunity to prove, through manly courage and performance of duty, that their race was worthy of full citizenship. Douglass understood that freedom and equality were not the same thing. If the colored man was to attain his due rights and respect, he must fight to earn it. If whites were fighting for their cause, then blacks could do no less for their own.

In his March 1863 “Men of Color to Arms” speech, Douglass argued

From East to West, from North to South, the sky is written all over, “Now or never.” Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster. “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.” “Better even die free, than to live slaves.” This is the sentiment of every brave colored man amongst us. There are weak and cowardly men in all nations. We have them amongst us. They tell you this is the “white man’s war”; and you will be “no better off after than before the war”; that the getting of you into the army is to “sacrifice you on the first opportunity.” Believe them not; cowards themselves, they do not wish to have their cowardice shamed by your brave example. Leave them to their timidity, or to whatever motive may hold them back.

Douglass’ play of the “coward card” was a harsh critique for those not wanting to enlist, coming as it did in a male dominated era where the willingness to stand-up for one’s self and fight was a necessary proof of manhood; and in a racist era where the black male was stereotyped as docile, submissive, and lacking in fortitude. His rhetorical challenge went to the heart of 19th century conceptions of what it meant to be a man: if you’re not man enough to fight in this war, Douglass argued to his fellows, then you deserve your degraded position in American society.
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Off Topic Saturday: The Black South of Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange is a famous American photographer. She worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) during the 1930s, going across the country to take pictures that documented the effects of the Great Depression on the American people.

She is best known for her Migrant Mother picture, which has been called “an iconic image of the Great Depression.” Lange’s work took her all over the South, where she took pictures of both struggling blacks and whites. Many of her FSA photographs are available from the Library of Congress’ online archives. I user several of her photos to create this slideshow of black life in the South during the Great Depression.

These photographs are a vivid reminder of how tough those days were. But it’s notable that the black folks in these pictures look hardened, but not broken. They are lean, strong, and unbowed. Life is hard, and they accept it as such. Indeed, for many of them, a hard life is the only life they’ve known.

These pictures were taken in Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas during the mid to late 1930s.

The music is from a traditional spiritual performed by Texas gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson (vocal and guitar) and Willie B. Harris (vocal) in 1927. The song is titled “Keep Your Light Trimmed and Burning.”

Frederick Douglass: The First Black Media Star?

The Photogenic Frederick Douglass: Portrait of the Abolitionist as a Young Man

Black was not beautiful in the 19th century. An 1862 editorial in the New York Times proclaimed that any interest in the negro could not “arise from his beauty, for no writer on aesthetics has ever pretended to find either beauty or grace in the shambling African.” There was even talk that dark skin was a sign of the mark of Ham, indicating that the negro was both stained and shamed in a Biblical sense.

You couldn’t tell any of that from looking at pictures of Frederick Douglass. To use a modern phrase, he loved the camera, and the camera loved him. Perhaps the white genes he inherited from his father, which both softened and sharpened his negro features, made him more appealing to those of European heritage. Perhaps it was broad, manly look and physical presence, which film was able to capture. Perhaps it was his obvious self-confidence. Maybe it was his old-school (old century?) afro, combed down (not out, as with 60s/70s style ‘fros), which framed his face like a lion’s mane. Or maybe it was simply because he had a lot of practice in front of the camera.

Whatever the reason, Fred Douglass was one of the most – perhaps the most – photographed and depicted negroes of his time. This only added to a fame that was built on being an outstanding orator, in an era when the ability to speak before a crowd was prized; and on his writing ability, as shown in his newspapers The North Star and Douglass’ Monthly. If not a king of all media, to use a modern term, he was at least a prince.

He was the face of the black community, but he also had crossover appeal. His communication skills and presence served him well with white and black audiences – and male and female audiences – equally well. (Douglass was a woman’s suffrage supporter and spoke at women’s rights meetings.)

He aged well, no less a sight in his older days than his youth. In truth, he was a media star for the ages.

Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 2

Part 1 of 3 of this Frederick Douglass birthday celebration is here.

“Do you not know, Mr. Langston, that this is a white man’s government; that white men are able to defend and protect it, and that to enlist a negro soldier would be to drive every white man out of the service? When we want you colored men we will notify you.”
Ohio Governor David Tod, in response to freeman John Mercer Langston’s offer to recruit black Ohioans for the Union army

The American people and the Government at Washington may refuse to recognize it for a time; but the “inexorable logic of events” will force it upon them in the end; that the war now being waged in this land is a war for and against slavery; and that it can never be effectually put down till one or the other of these vital forces is completely destroyed.
– Frederick Douglass, Douglass’ Monthly, May 1861

…four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war… One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
– Abraham Lincoln, Inaugural Speech, March 4, 1865

In his second inaugural speech, which followed several years of bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln was in a somber and reflective mood. We thought this would be a brief war, an “easy triumph,” he admitted. But the reality was much different. Prayers made had not been answered. He seemed to be pondering, What led us to this?

Slavery, he offered, had confounded them. “All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war,” but he wasn’t more specific. And nobody, he said, expected that “the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.”

But Frederick Dougless always knew it would come to this. Douglass believed, from the start, that the war was caused by the slave states’ desire to protect their peculiar institution. He felt that if slavery could be toppled, the Confederacy would be toppled as well. But practical, political, and even constitutional issues prevented the Union from making the Civil War into a war for black southerner’s independence. Douglass saw that as folly. Sooner or later, he believed, it would all come down to the status of the negro – as a slave in the South; and perhaps also as a soldier in the North. The “inexorable logic of events” would force the issue upon them, he said.

By mid-1862, members of Congress and Lincoln cabinet were indeed feeling the force of events. A number of bloody battles, including conspicuous losses in Virginia, established that the war would not be an easy triumph. Lincoln’s initial call for 75,000 troops was now seen as inadequate. Many, many more soldiers would be needed for what would become the bloodiest war in American history. Continue reading

Frederick Douglass: Fighting Against a “White Man’s War”/Part 1

Frederick Douglass Appealing to President Lincoln by William Edouard Scott *

This mural shows Frederick Douglass asking President Abraham Lincoln to allow black soldiers to serve in the Union army during the Civil War. Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, and Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, are the two men standing in the back. The image surely depicts a fictional event: although Lincoln and Douglass met three times at the White House, those meetings took place after Congress approved the use of blacks as soldiers in the Union armed forces.

We are often asked by persons in the street as well as by letter, what our people will do in the present solemn crisis in the affairs of the country. Our answer is, would to God you would let us do something! We lack nothing but your consent. We are ready and would go, counting ourselves happy in being permitted to serve and suffer for the cause of freedom and free institutions. But you won’t let us go…
– Frederick Douglass, HOW TO END THE WAR, from Douglass’ Monthly, May, 1861

1861 was a time of war, and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass knew that you had to be in it to win it. But the Union government wasn’t letting the negro in. That led Douglass, the most prominent African American of the 19th century, to fight a rhetorical war on two fronts: first, to convince the Union government to allow the negro to fight; and second, to convince blacks that they should fight what some saw as a “white man’s war.” He would do so with the passion and eloquence that made him famous.

At the start of the Civil War, African Americans were, by law, prohibited from serving as soldiers for the United States. The Militia Act of 1792, passed around the time of the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (now called Haiti), specified that enrollment in the military (state militias) was for “free able-bodied white male citizen(s).” (Although some blacks, free and slave, did fight under then Major General Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, in the Battle of New Orleans. Historian Daniel Walker Howe notes that “Jackson addressed the blacks as ‘brave fellow citizens’ and had promised them pay and respect the equal of whites… (but when) the battle was over, Jackson ignored his promise to secure equal rewards for the black men who stood with him…” But that’s a story for another day.)

Despite the law, all throughout the North – in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, or anywhere with a sizable free black population – negroes volunteered to join the fight against the southern secessionists, but saw their efforts rebuffed. Douglass’ newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly, reported that in New York City, a group of black men was performing drills in anticipation of being called up to serve; the police told them to stop, apparently out of fear that the sight or sound of militant blacks would anger local whites and cause a riot.

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Off Topic Saturday: Peg Leg Stompin’

Back in the old days, they didn’t have these fancy prosthetics and stuff you see nowadays. If a man lost a leg, a piece of wood might have to do for a replacement.

Legend has it that before the Civil War, a sailor named Peg Leg Joe led slaves out of bondage through the Underground Railroad. However, no reliable evidence has been found to prove there was such a person. This mythical Peg Leg is credited with writing the song “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd”, which supposedly helped guide slaves on their way to freedom.

Another famous Peg Leg, the late Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson, would probably say that despite the loss of his leg, he wasn’t missing a thing. Although he was from what many would call “humble beginnings” in South Carolina, he became a wonderful blues singer, harp (harmonica) player, and story-teller. As noted here, “When he wasn’t riding the rails, (Sam) worked as an entertainer with a medicine show run by ‘Chief Thundercloud,’ a Potawotomi Indian… Sam was the last country bluesman to tour the U.S. with a medicine show. Back when the blues was mostly a rural genre, many bluesmen connected with these shows. Each was typically run by a ‘doctor’ whose goal was to make money hawking homemade remedies made primarily from alcohol.” In this excerpt from a documentry, Sam tells us a little bit about hard luck:

There’s nothing but good medicine in Sam’s soul-stirring performance of Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho, done with help from guitarist Louisiana Red; it’s from Sam’s album “Joshua”:

Perhaps the most famous Peg Leg of them all was the late Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates. Like Peg Leg Sam, Bates was from South Carolina. He lost a leg at the age of 12 in a cotton gin accident. According to wiki, “Bates was a well-known dancer in his day. He performed on The Ed Sullivan Show approximately 58 times, and had two command performances before the King & Queen of the England.” Bates ran the “Peg Leg Bates Country Club” in upstate New York, from 1951 to 1987, his wife. It was one of many segregated vacation spots that took black customers in the days of Jim Crow. My own family visited the Bates Country Club when I was a child.

Nobody could stomp and tap like Peg Leg Bates:

Burying the Dead

This iconic image from the Civil War is also one of its most grisly.

The photograph was taken on the site of the Battle of Cold Harbor. Wiki says the battle “is remembered as one of American history’s bloodiest, most lopsided battles. Thousands of Union soldiers were killed or wounded in a hopeless frontal assault against the fortified troops of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.” Cold Harbor, Virginia, is located near the Richmond-Petersburg area. The battle took place in May/June 1864, but the photograph was taken in 1865.

Some estimates put the number of Union deaths from Cold Harbor at around 1800 men; wounded and injured at around 9000 men; and captured and missing at around 1800 men. By contrast, some reports state that the Confederates suffered under 100 deaths, around 3000 wounded, and captured and missing around 1000. But the numbers vary by source, as the wiki article for the battle shows.

Somebody had to deal with all the dead, and in this case, it appears that contrabands – runaway slaves who fled to the Union lines – got that duty. I’ve read at least one description of the photo which says these men were members of the Union army, but I haven’t seen enough evidence to establish that description as correct. Although, the hats on the men in the background, which we can’t see all that well, do resemble soldier caps.

The website for the John Paul Getty Museum describes the picture:

This gruesome scene depicts the unpleasant job of burying the remains of fallen Union soldiers from the June 1864 battles of Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor. This task has fallen to a group of black men doing the menial work while a white man standing at upper left acts as overseer. The man seated in the center, next to the stretcher laden with human parts, looks directly at the camera, revealing no emotion that can be reconciled with his grisly cargo.

Already reduced to nothing more than a pile of bones, these bodies lay unburied for ten months until the war’s end, while the blistering heat and humidity of the Virginia summer hastened their decomposition. Local residents usually came forth to give a proper burial to the enemy troops that fell near their homes, but the scale of the casualties here–nearly sixty thousand Union soldiers were killed or wounded in this area–precluded this courtesy.

This picture highlights the fact that during the war, the Union army made good use of the newly-emancipated freedmen to perform these and other tasks. Thousands of black men and women provided noncombatant support for the Federals.

The photograph was taken by John Reekie, a photographer with the famous Mathew Brady studio in Washington, D.C.

Source: Washington, D.C. : Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. “[Cold Harbor, Va. African Americans collecting bones of soldiers killed in the battle]“
CALL NUMBER: LC-B817- 7926; REPRODUCTION NUMBER: LC-DIG-cwpb-04324 DLC (digital file from original neg.); LC-B8171-7926 DLC (b&w film neg.)

To view all of the photo images on this site so far, click here.

EDIT: Andy Hall, who publishes the excellent blog Dead Confederates, provided this:

Drew Faust reproduces this image in her book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. She identifies the men as being under the command of Captain James Moore, who would soon be transferred to the site of Andersonville to (with Clara Barton) supervise the disinterment and reburial of the Union dead there. The men in this image would seem to be USCTs:

InJune 1865 Captain James Moore, an assistant quartermaster who had’ been active in fledgling graves registration efforts during the war, was ordered to the Wilderness and Spotsylvania “for the purpose of superintending the interments of the remains of Union soldiers yet unburied and marking their burial-places for future identification.” Moore found hundreds of unmarked graves, as well as skeletons that had been left for more than two years without the dignity of burial. “By exposure to the weather,” he reported, “all traces oftheir identity were entirely obliterated.” Summer heat and “the unpleasant odor from decayed matter” prevented him from removing all bodies to a central location, but he made sure all were carefully interred, with remains appropriately “hidden from view.” On these two fields he estimated that he oversaw the burial offifteen hundred men, although the scattering of so many bones made an exact count impossible. Soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops, not yet mustered out of service, did the often repellent work. Moore reported that 785 tablets were erected over named graves, and he submitted a list ofthe officers and men he had identified.

I think the men in this image are, in fact, USCTs, not only because of their kepis, but because their clothing is uniform and in good shape — contrabands generally appear in photos to be much less well clothed.

Library of Congress high-res TIFF versions available:

Keep up the good work. (I almost said “keep digging,” but, you know. . . .)

It’s Too Cold for the Negro… Just Don’t Tell Matthew Henson

This is another tale from the “what were they thinking” annals.

In 1862, when the Civil War was raging in earnest, the Republican Party faced a vexing question that would never go away: what shall we do with the negro? The Lincoln White House had floated a plan to emancipate the slaves as a means of de-stabilizing the Confederacy, but this caused some trepidation in the Union states. There were concerns that the freedmen would flee to the North, overrunning the section with negroes. It was a political issue that had to be addressed in some way.

One way was to promote colonization, a plan to relocate blacks to Africa or the West Indies. Practical considerations aside, people wondered if the negro was willing to leave his American home and take a risk on a place he had never seen. (The international slave trade was {legally} ended in the Unites States in 1808. By 1860, most African slaves were truly American.)

Have no fear, said some Republicans. Echoing an argument made earlier by Democrats, they explained that northerners had nothing to worry about because, after all, coloreds don’t like cold weather. Historian Mark Neely, in his essay Colonization, from the book Lincoln’s Proclamation, explains:

Emphasis on colonization has obscured a real argument used by Republicans to anticipate or meet criticism of the Emancipation Proclamation: they embraced isothermalism. That is, Republicans insisted that because of climate, African Americans were suited only to tropical climes and would never come north. In fact, Republicans argued, the only reason African Americans came north now was to escape slavery. Abolish slavery and no more would leave the South, and those in the North would depart for the South.

Even the radical Republican nominee for governor in New York, Gen James Wadsworth, stated the typical Republican position: “The emancipation, once affected, the Northern States would be forever relieved, as it is right that they should be, from the fears of a great influx of African laborers… This done, and the whole African population will drift to the South, where it will find a congenial climate, and vast tracts of land never cultivated.” Commenting on Wadsworth’s idea, the newspaper in Oneida, New York, observed: “This is truth and common sense… Were the institutions of the South rendered tolerant to the black man, not a person of African blood would remain in our northern climate… The way to clear the North of blacks is to guarantee freedom to them at the South.”

President Lincoln eventually embraced the isothermal argument himself, but he did not lead in devising it. In his annual message to Congress of December 1, 1862, Lincoln began to hop on the political bandwagon of soothing racism invented by other Republicans while still blending it with his old favorite, colonization. “It is dreaded,” he said, “that the freed people will swarm forth, and cover the land. Are they not already in the land? Will liberation make them any more numerous?” He went on to offer an important caveat:

But why should emancipation south, send the free people north? People of any color seldom run, unless there is something to run from. Heretofore colored people, to some extent, have fled north from bondage; and now perhaps from both bondage and destitution. But if gradual emancipation and deportation be adopted. they will have nothing to flee from. Their old masters will give them wages at least until new laborers can be procured; and the freed men, in turn, will gladly give their labor for the wages, till new homes can be found for them, in congenial climes, and with people of their own blood and race…

The embrace of isothermalism constituted the greatest reverse of principle in the history of the Republican Party to date. It had been founded back in the mid-1850s on the premise that only Congressional law could keep slavery out of unsettled territories. The northern Democrats had argued that isothermalism would keep slavery and, with it, African Americans, out of the territories, and there was therefore no need to pass laws obnoxious to proud white southerners; the climate did not suit.

Lincoln himself had once strained to answer that argument. In his Peoria speech of October 16, 1854, Lincoln had laid the ground carefully for the rejection of isothermalism: “It is argued that slavery will not go to Knasas and Nebraska, in any event. This is a palliation-a lullaby… As to climate, a glance at the map shows that there are five slave states – Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri-and also the District of Columbia, all north of the Missouri compromise line… It is not climate, then, that will keep slavery out of these territories.” “It takes the law to keep it out,” he insisted in his famous debates with Douglas in 1858.

I wonder what this man, born August 8, 1866 in Maryland, thought of all that isothermal stuff? He probably heard a lot of jokes about his ability to handle various kinds of weather in his many travels. But in the end, I think he proved he could take the cold as well as the heat.

Matthew Henson, explorer

The picture is from the Library of Congress.

Bravery, Not Slavery: Why Some Black Folks Want to Believe in Black Confederate Soldiers

At Civil War, there is an interesting and “complicated” story about Richard Quarles, a Civil War era slave who is identified and honored as a “Confederate soldier.” As the tale is told, Quarles went with his master to join the Confederate army. In the course of engaging the Union army, Quarles’ master was hurt. This prompted Quarles to pick up a weapon, fire back at the enemy, and recover his master from the battlefield. For this, the slave was honored recently by the Sons of Confederate Veterans… and perhaps, way back in the day, by the KKK in its own unique manner (check the video at the link for details).

From the details provided, Quarles was, to use a term in historian James Hollandsworth’s study of black Confederate pensioners, a “black noncombatant.” That is, he was not enlisted as a soldier in the Confederacy, but rather, was part of a particular Confederate unit solely due to service to his master. Hollandsworth’s study indicates that 85% of these black noncombatant pensioners served as cooks, launders, teamsters, or did other types of menial labor.

Yet, we get no sense of that kind of service from this story of a so-called Confederate “soldier.” At one point, the great grand daughter of the slave says, “Well, he was forced into the army, and… you either fight or die.”

But here’s the thing: he was not forced into the army to fight and die. Rather, he followed his master who went into the army, to perform those menial – but nonetheless important – tasks that were mentioned earlier. Military service is a duty and obligation of citizenship; slaves were not citizens. The slave’s duty was to not to battle the enemy, but to serve his master. There is a huge difference between those two things.

We’ve seen this before: black families filled with honor at the recognition given to their enslaved ancestors, for the reason that those ancestors somehow fought for what was a pro-slavery regime. The sense of conflict inherent in that is hardly mentioned. I got to thinking: how is it that so many black families ignore these details of their ancestors’ lives, status, and circumstances? Why is it that they are not addressing a key part of the story? After a little bit of thought, one answer was obvious. Black folks are like everyone else: they want to feel that their ancestors were heroes.

Simply put, there is no honor or glory in acknowledging that a long deceased relative was near a battlefield solely to do menial work as act of submission and service to a slave master. People would much rather believe that their ancestors were called to fight – which would be a recognition of their manhood, of their worthiness to do battle, and of their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice.

But here’s the rub: if these slaves were in fact recognized for their manhood and worthiness – then why were they slaves in the first place? The reality is, black men were seen as degraded, to use a common term of the era, and subservient. Loyalty, not the capacity for courage, was most valued in a slave. After all, a bondsman who was intrepid enough to flee for his freedom – and perhaps fight for the Union – was of no use to a slavemaster on the battlefield.

But people of today want to see their ancestors through their own eyes, and they want to see those ancestors as brave and courageous. This focus on “bravery not slavery” dovetails perfectly with the “heritage not hate” narrative of groups like the Sons of Confederates Veterans. By maintaining an unspoken rule to avoid the unspeakable – the horrors of slavery and the contradiction of a slave fighting for a slave nation – both sides get to honor their ancestors without pondering the issues this “service” raises.

None of this is to say that the slaves who performed acts of heroism should be denied the honor that is due them. Whether or not he was considered a “man” by the Confederate state, or anyone, Quarles’ bravery showed him to be a man, and it’s fair – it’s righteous – to acknowledge that.

Indeed, the fact that this man was a slave does not make his bravery less impressive; it is makes it all the more remarkable. Unfortunately, that nuance is totally lost in what is surely being described in many places as an example of another “black Confederate soldier.” I think the memory of Richard Quarles deserves better.