Social Revolution, Writ Small: Wartime Emancipation, a Mother, and a Mistress in Smithfield, North Carolina

colored-troops-in-north-carolina
Colored Troops, under General Wild, liberating slaves in North Carolina.
Source: Harper’s Weekly, January 23, 1864; from www.sonofthesouth.net

The American Civil War was the start of a social revolution. The Union government policy of emancipating African Americans and enlisting them in the military led to a wartime transformation in the relations between white and black, master and slave, and the powerful and the powerless. In ways large and small, subtle and dramatic, encounters between black and white Union soldiers and black and white southerners led to a new navigation through the rushing and uncharted waters of social change.

Consider this reporting, dated May 15, 1865, from Army Chaplain Henry McNeal Turner. Turner, a leader in the black church of Washington, DC, was part of the First Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry that was recruited and mustered from the District of Columbia. He was also a wartime correspondent for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In his correspondence to the Recorder, Turner spoke of an incident involving a black woman and her mistress:

Shortly after our arrival in Smithfield (NC), one of our sergeants called my attention to a colored lady, whose child a rebel woman had hid. I immediately started for her sacred premises, and having entered her piazza, in company with the sergeant, colored woman, and a few others, the following conversation ensued: “Have you got this woman’s child?” “No! Her master carried it off.” “Where is her master as you call him?” “He is gone to the country.” “What did he carry the child away for?” “Because he wanted to.” “Did he not know the child belonged to this woman?” “Yes. But if it is her child, it is his negro. You Yankees have a heap of impudence. What are you meddling with our negroes for? You may think the south is conquered, but she has surrendered to superior numbers. But, sir, you are sadly mistaken.” “Stop, stop!” I replied, “I don’t want anymore of your rebel parlance. You are not too good to be hung, and you had better dry up, or you might get a rope around your neck in short order.”

At this stage in our dialogue, one of the General’s Staff rode up, and she began to tell a long story about me, weaving in a lie here, and a lie there.” But he soon silenced her by saying, “Oh, well! He has a right to say what he thinks proper! Madame, I want to know why this child is not given up!”

So she proceeded to chit chat the subject with him, and having heard as much as my stomach could digest at once, said I to the officer, “It is reported that the child is hid in town, but she says her husband has taken it into the country. I now propose, as he has five children standing here, that we take one, to be held as a hostage, until the colored child is returned to its mother.” The words had barely left my mouth, before such running, crying, and squealing took place among the children, that my indignation melted down into laughter. The very utterance of these words frightened the children nearly to death, and made the mother tremble.

At this juncture, learning that the General had taken the matter in hand, I left. But look at the inconsistency. To have taken one of their children, would have been pronounced, by the slave oligarchs, an act of fiendish cruelty, but for them to perpetuate the same crime on a poor slave woman, was only an inconsiderable circumstance. If a few of our Northern slave advocates had the tables thus turned on them, it would materially change the tone of some of their brutal sophistry, as well as morally improve that remonstrating gibberish, too often used to stay the designs of the administration, whose ultimate purpose seems to be the upbuilding of an depressed people.

Notes:
1. The January 23, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly provides the backstory for the above illustration. The person being referenced above is Brigadier General Edward A. Wild. According to the book Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, which was written by William A. Dobak, “In December 1863, Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild led more than seventeen hundred men from five black regiments through northeastern North Carolina, freeing slaves, hunting Confederate guerrillas, and enlisting black soldiers.”
2. Some details about the 1st Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry are here.
3. The full version of Turner’s May 15, 1865 letter to the Christian Recorded is in the books Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner, edited by Jean Cole; and An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War: The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner by Andre E. Johnson. Turner’s correspondence is discussed in other works, such as Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era, edited by John David Smith.
4. Turner was a notable African American figure in the war and post-war eras. I hope to write more about him in future posts.

They are coming!


Law graduating class at Howard University, Washington, D.C., circa 1900
This is one of many photographs of African Americans that was assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition by W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway. This picture is in the on-line archives of the Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-35752; click here for more details.

THEY ARE COMING
by Josephine Heard (1861-1921)

They are coming, coming slowly -
They are coming, surely, surely -
In each avenue you hear the steady tread.
From the depths of foul oppression,
Comes a swarthy-hued procession,
And victory perches on their banners’ head.

They are coming, coming slowly -
They are coming; yes, the lowly,
No longer writhing in their servile bands.
From the rice fields and plantation
Comes a factor of the nation,
And threatening, like Banquo’s ghost, it stands.

They are coming, coming proudly
They are crying, crying loudly:
O, for justice from the rulers of the land!
And that justice will be given,
For the mighty God of heaven
Holds the balances of power in his hand.

Prayers have risen, risen, risen,
From the cotton fields and prison;
Though the overseer stood with lash in hand,
Groaned the overburdened heart;
Not a tear-drop dared to start -
But the Slaves’ petition reach’d the glory-land.

They are coming, they are coming,
From away in tangled swamp,
Where the slimy reptile hid its poisonous head;
Through the long night and the day,
They have heard the bloodhounds’ bay,
While the morass furnished them an humble bed.

They are coming, rising, rising,
And their progress is surprising,
By their brawny muscles earning daily bread;
Though their wages be a pittance,
Still each week a small remittance,
Builds a shelter for the weary toiling head.

They are coming, they are coming -
Listen! You will hear the humming
Of the thousands that are falling into line:
There are Doctors, Lawyers, Preachers;
There are Sculptors, Poets, Teachers -
Men and women, who with honor yet shall shine.

They are coming, coming boldly,
Though the Nation greets them coldly;
They are coming from the hillside and the plain.
With their scars they tell the story
Of the canebrakes wet and gory,
Where their brothers’ bones lie bleaching with the slain.

They are coming, coming singing,
Their Thanksgiving hymn is ringing.
For the clouds are slowly breaking now away,
And there comes a brighter dawning -
It is liberty’s fair morning,
They are coming surely, coming, clear the way.

Yes, they come, their stopping’s steady,
And their power is felt already -
God has heard the lowly cry of the oppressed:
And beneath his mighty frown,
Every wrong shall crumble down,
When the right shall triumph and the world be blest!

Continue reading

Henry Highland Garnet’s Call to Rebellion: “…rather die freemen, than live to be slaves… let your motto be resistance!”

The African American abolitionist and activist Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882) was a religious man. And on this day, he was raising Hell.

Garnet was all of 27 years old when, in August of 1843, he addressed the National Negro Convention in Buffalo, New York. The meeting was part of the decades long National Negro Convention Movement, in which northern free blacks met to discuss strategies for achieving racial equality and civil rights for freemen in the North, and emancipation and liberty for enslaved blacks in the South. These discussions often centered on the benefits of using “moral suasion versus political action” – that is, whether or not blacks and whites should use moral persuasion to convince American society to end racial prejudice, or, engage in direct political action to gain liberty and equality for people of African descent. (The influential white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was among those who eschewed political activism.)

Garnet had a much more radical approach to the problems of those in bondage. The son of a fugitive slave (one source indicates his grandfather was a Mandingo warrior prince), the youthful Garnet and his family were always fearful of being taken by slave catchers; his father once made a narrow escape from slave hunters, and his sister was taken into slavery for a time. His life experiences may have made him more open to solutions that went beyond suasion and politics, because in August of 1843, Garnet was openly calling for a slave rebellion.

Garnet’s speech was not just some angry rant. He grew up in New York City, with acquaintances such as Alexander Crummell, Samuel Ringgold Ward, James McCune Smith, Ira Aldridge, and Charles Reason, men who are among a who’s who of early 19th century northern black leaders. He attended a free school in New York, and sailed on ships to Cuba as a cabin boy. He had theological training and served as a Presbyterian pastor. Garnet was educated and worldly, and his speech reflected that, with references to pride in African heritage, slavery policy in the colonial and Revolutionary War eras, and the global context of abolitionism. This was in addition to his speech’s major themes that slavery was anti-Christian, and resistance to slavery pro-Christian; and that manhood and honor dictated that (male) slaves use “every means” necessary to liberate themselves.

It’s probably too much to say that in tone, Garnet sounded to his contemporaries like Malcolm X did to his. But Garnet’s righteous and religious anger, and his open call for manhood-based armed resistance, was surely uncomfortable to the more pacifist natures of current day black and white abolitionists. Fellow convention attendee Frederick Douglass, who was associated with William Lloyd Garrison, made a rebuttal to Garnet’s speech; unfortunately, Douglass’ speech did not survive for us to read it today.

An abridged version of Garnet’s speech is below. More about Garnet can be found here, here, and here. More about Garnet’s speech is here, here, and here (full text).

(Notes: The phrase “Rather Die Freemen, Than Live to be Slaves” is used on the flag of the 3rd Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. The phrase “let your motto be resistance” is the title of a book and an exhibit of African American portraits.)
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This is an abridged version of Garnet’s speech to the 1843 National Negro Convention, which is often referred to as his “Address to the Slaves”:

BRETHREN AND FELLOW CITIZENS: Your Brethren of the North, East, and West have been accustomed to meet together in National Conventions, to sympathize with each Other, and to weep over your unhappy condition. In these meetings we have addressed all classes of the free, but we have never until this time, sent a word of consolation and advice to you. We have been contented in sitting still and mourning over your sorrows, earnestly hoping that before this day your sacred liberty would have been restored. But, we have hoped in vain. Years have rolled on, and tens of thousands have been borne on streams of blood and tears, to the shores of eternity. While you have been oppressed, we have also been partakers with you; nor can we be free while you are enslaved. We, therefore, write to you as being bound with you. Continue reading