Remembering Fort Pillow: 150th Anniversary Activities at Fort Pillow State Park


Depiction of the Fort Pillow Massacre, Harper’s Weekly, 1864

The American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia bills itself as “the nation’s first museum to interpret the Civil War from Union, Confederate, and African American perspectives.” In doing so, it recognizes that there were indeed three very different vantage-points from which the Civil War was viewed and interpreted at the time. None of these perspectives is “better than” or “superior to” the others; they’re different, but all valid. Perhaps implied by the Museum, but not stated, is that throughout the post-war era, the African American Civil War experience has often been overlooked and even ignored. But it’s never too late to catch up with the past.

In that light, I am heartened to see the list of events and activities planned for the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the so-called Fort Pillow Massacre, to be held at Fort Pillow State Park on April 12 and 13. The list of events is at the bottom of this blog entry.

As many people who study the Civil War know, the Fort Pillow Massacre is one of the most infamous and controversial events of the American Civil War. Fort Pillow was a Union-held fort located 40 miles northeast of Memphis, Tennessee. The garrison at the Fort included a number of men from the US Colored Troops, perhaps half of the men there. The Fort was attacked on April 12, 1864, by Confederate forces under the command of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Confederates overran the fort, suffering moderate casualties. In the wake of the attack, around 300 Union soldiers were killed, most of them Colored Troops. The Union – the US military, members of the US government, the US press, and very important, many African Americans – considered Fort Pillow a race-based massacre, during which black soldiers were killed even after they surrendered. Confederates, most notably General Forrest himself, denied that a massacre occurred; they would call it the Battle of Fort Pillow.

The Massacre was a cause célèbre at the time, and remains controversial to this very day. Fort Pillow State Park, the preserved site of the Fort, is holding a series of activities and lectures to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Fort Pillow which, on the face of it at least, focus on the African American experience during this time of war and change, and, which highlight the issues of war, race, and slavery that have inflamed passions about the event to this very day. This focus will be seen especially in lectures scheduled on April 12, which will complement other activities such as living history programs and Union and Confederate encampments.

I say that I am heartened because, from a perusal of internet sources, there are many who feel that the more controversial issues surrounding Fort Pillow have been ignored in earlier commemorative events. Some might add that a single week-end of such focus is not enough; it’s catch-up ball, and more needs to be done in the long run. But clearly, events like this are a good way to start, and one hopes that there will be more to come.

So, for those in the vicinity of Fort Pillow State Park outside of Memphis, I recommend giving the place a visit to view the activities, which will take place during the coming week-end (April 12-13). Cost and distance will keep me from attending… sigh.

Note: I have an earlier blog entry related to Fort Pillow here.
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Fort Pillow – 150th Anniversary and Memorial Service
Fort Pillow State Park

Schedule of Activities:

Saturday Schedule (April 12, 1984)

Continue reading

African American Soldier in Union Infantry Sergeant’s Uniform

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Picture Title: “Unidentified African American soldier in Union infantry sergeant’s uniform and black mourning ribbon with bayonet in front of painted backdrop”
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-34365

This is one of many photographs of Civil War era African American soldiers that is available on-line from the Library of Congress.

A Letter to Lincoln from a Colored Soldier: “I… grasp at the Flag… and Declared it shall never fall”


Letter from Hannibal Cox, 14th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry to president Abraham Lincoln
Source: From The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress

This is a letter to Abraham Lincoln from an African American soldier which contains a poem:

From a man of no education. And have been doomed to slavery –
During life, and was born In Powhatan Co. and was raised in –
Richmond Virginia. And I am now a Soldier In U. S. Army. –
And I will Speak these few words In Answer to all whom it –
May Concern. Where Ever it may roam.

I have left my wife And Children but –
Tho. I. have not yet forsaken them. and made one grasp –
at the Flag of the union and Declared it shall never fall–
For we love it like the Sunshine, and the Stars and azure air. –

Ho for the flag of the union. the Stripes and the Stars of light.–
A million arms. Shall guard it. and may god defend the right.–
Ay, brothers let us love it, and let Every heart be true.–
And let Every arm be ready, for we have glorious work to do.–
Ho. for the Flag of the union. the Stripes and the Stars of Light.–
a million arms shall guard it. and may. God defend the right.–

I. Hope we may meet again In the bonds of love to greet
fare well I hope History may tell

Hannibal Cox
Co. B. 14th U. S. Colored Troops
Chattanooga Tenn
march 30th 1864

I. sends this for you to look at
you must not laugh at it

This poignant letter is from Hannibal Cox, a former enslaved person who joined the Union army and was a member of the 14th Infantry regiment, United States Colored Troops. The letter was sent to Abraham Lincoln via Benjamin Woodward, a Surgeon with the Union’s 22nd Illinois Regiment. Woodward wrote to Lincoln:

Permit me respectfully to enclose to You a letter received by me a few days since. The writer was a Slave held in bondage by a man named “Green” in Lincoln Co Tenn. In August last he escaped and came to me at the U S Gen Hospital at Tullahoma Tenn. While there the Soldiers taught him to read and write, for prior to that time he could do neither. Early this spring he enlisted as a Soldier.

This Mr Lincoln is but a sample of the glorious fruits of Your “Proclamation” of Liberty. When at Springfield Ill as You were leaving for Washington you said “Pray for me” a thousand hearts responded, and we now thank God who has so “led You into all truth” and thousands in the army rejoice in Your work and pray for you that you may be sustained till the great work which God has called You to is fully accomplished.

Hannibal Cox had fled bondage, but it was a troubled freedom. Liberation meant that he had to leave his wife and children behind. He swears to Lincoln, and perhaps himself, that he has not forsaken his family. In the meantime, his escape from slavery had given him literacy, a uniform, and a flag; and he was more than ready to fight for that flag.

Cox, as a “man of no education,” may have been uncomfortable with his use of words (and it’s possible that although he wrote the letter, it was transcribed by someone else) but he says firmly about his letter: “you must not laugh at it.” If Lincoln did read the letter, I don’t think he would have laughed. Lincoln might well have found it moving and touching, as no doubt many of us do today.

This is the grave marker for Hannibal Cox in Riverside Cemetery, Troy, Ohio from the website Find a Grave: :


Sources: Lincoln and the U.S. Colored Troops by John David Smith, p1-2; thanks to the member Littlestown at CivilWarTalk.com for information on Hannibal Cox’s gravesite.

Scenes from The Camp William Penn Sesquicentennial Commemoration: Bringing History to the People

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Reenactors/Living Historians at the Commemoration events for the 150th anniversary of Camp William Penn. The Camp trained 11 regiments of just under 11,000 men that were part of the United States Colored Troops.

This past weekend (September 20-21, 2013), the 150th Anniversary of Camp William Penn was commemorated with a number of events held in Cheltenham, PA, which is just outside of northwest Philadelphia. Camp William Penn was the first federal facility dedicated to training African Americans who enlisted in the United States Army during the American Civil War. Just under 11,000 men of African descent were trained at the site, and they formed 11 regiments in the United States Colored Troops (USCT), the part of the army which contained almost all of the US army’s black enlistees. Among the Union’s free states, more USCT regiments were organized in Pennsylvania than in any other state. At the time, Pennsylvania had the largest black population of any state outside the South (that is, states that did not allow slavery). These regiments also included men from nearby Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey.

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The events were organized, conducted, and sponsored by a number of groups, including Civil War USCT Living Historians for the 3rd, 6th, and 22nd USCT regiments (which were among the regiments formed at Camp Penn), and several others from across the country, as well as Citizens for the Preservation Historic La Mott and the Camp William Penn Museum. The activities included a parade, a learning camp where people could meet with living historians/reenactors to learn about the Civil War era, lectures, and a special opening of the Camp William Penn Museum. The Museum has been closed for renovations.

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Entrance to the Camp site.

I was able to attend several of the activities on Saturday (9/21) morning and afternoon, and I took some pictures which I am sharing here. Most of the photos were taken in the Encampment, the learning camp where Living Historians provided education about camp life, training, uniforms, weapons, and other aspects of being a Civil War soldier. As well, the role of USCTs in ending slavery and gaining full citizenship for African Americans was discussed.

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Mel Reid explains hardtack and camp life to a family of visitors.

It was a great event. The attendees included people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, and it was clear that under the right circumstances, African Americans will show as much interest in the Civil War and American history as anyone. One of the successes of the event was that, it was built around a neighborhood community center. As opposed to, for example, being organized around a far off battlefield. People could walk or drive or bus to the activities. So, the event came to the people, versus, people having to go far distances to attend an event. This is a very useful model for commemorating and presenting history, and I hope we see more of this in the future.

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That’s Joe Becton on the left, one of the event organizers. Much thanks to him and all the folks who worked so hard and extended their hospitality!

Lots more pictures are below the fold. Continue reading

Camp William Penn to be Commemorated with Parade, USCT Living History Association Conference – 9/20 & 9/21

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Flyer for Camp Penn Commemoration activities

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Second flyer for Camp Penn Commemoration activities

Camp William Penn, the US Army enlistment and training site for African Americans from the Philadelphia, PA/Delaware Valley area during the Civil War, will be commemorated with a number of activities on Friday, September 20, 2013, and Saturday, September 21, 2013 in Fort Washington and Elkins Park, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. This will include a parade on Saturday at 10 AM. Alongside the commemoration events, the United States Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA) is holding its Annual Meeting and Banquet.

Information about the events is provided on the flyers above, and more info is here on Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/USCTLHA#

A number of people have come together to organize these activites, including the 3rd and 6th Regiment of United States Colored Troops (USCT) Reenactors, Citizens for the Restoration of Historic La Mott (La Mott, PA, is the site of Camp Penn), the Camp William Penn Museum, and the USCTLHA.

The USCTLHA Annual Meeting activities will include a conference on Friday, September 20, at 4PM and a banquet on Saturday, September 21, at 6PM. The USCTLHA is a non-profit national organization “whose purpose is to promote and accurately interpret the history of the United States Colored Troops of the American Civil War and those that supported their efforts to abolish slavery and preserve the Union and to educate the public and promote research of the history and legacy of those who served in the Civil War.” Their website is here.

I will not be able to attend the event, unfortunately for me. I wish the best to those who are conducting and participating in these activities.

The Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp

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Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran, 1862

The Great Dismal Swamp is a huge marshy area that stretches from the city of Norfolk in southeastern Virginia to Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina. The swamp was infamous (to white slaveholders) in the pre-Civil War era as a refuge for freedom seeking African Americans. Communities of so-called Great Dismal Swamp maroons, along with a number of Native Americans, made it their home. Wikipedia provides this description of the maroons:

Herbert Aptheker stated already in 1939, in “Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States”, that likely “about two thousand Negroes, fugitives, or the descendants of fugitives” lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, trading with white people outside the swamp. Results of a study published in 2007, “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp”, say that thousands of people lived in the swamp between 1630 and 1865, Native Americans, maroons and enslaved laborers on the canal. A 2011 study speculated that thousands may have lived in the swamp between the 1600s and 1860.

While the precise number of maroons who lived in the swamp at that time is unknown, it is believed to have been one of the largest maroon colonies in the United States. It is established that “several thousand” were living there by the 19th century. However, fear of slave unrest and fugitive slaves living among maroon population caused concern amongst local whites.

A militia with dogs went into the swamp in 1823 in an attempt to remove the maroons and destroy their community, but most people escaped. In 1847, North Carolina passed a law specifically aimed at apprehending the maroons in the swamp.However, unlike other maroon communities, where local militias often captured the residents and destroyed their homes, those in the Great Dismal Swamp mostly avoided capture or the discovery of their homes.

The theme of the Swamp as a place of escape and refuge was seen in several 19th Century works of art. One of the more well-known is the painting Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran. The picture, shown above, is centered around a slave family – father, mother, and child – that is on the run from slave catchers. The father holds a bloody knife, having killed a chasing dog. But two other dogs are shown in pursuit, and two slave-catchers loom in the dark background. The family seems frozen in time, as they look up at the on-coming dogs; freedom will not come easy, if it comes at all. The only thing we know for sure is that this family will put up a fight.

The painting was completed in 1862, in the early years of the Civil War. According to the book The Civil War in American Art, edited by Eleanor James Harvey, the picture was commissioned by an abolitionist, and may be based in part on a literary work by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow, partially at the request of the ardent abolitionist Charles Sumner, Longfellow wrote a group of pieces in his collection Poems on Slavery. One of those works, The Slave in the Dismal Swamp, talks of the harsh life in the marsh:

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse’s tramp
And a bloodhound’s distant bay.

Where will-o’-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

Many historians today situate the Dismal Swamp maroon communities as part of the larger Underground Railroad network and African American anti-slavery resistance. There is a lot of material about the maroons in books and on the Web. I found this document, which is a general/pictorial history of the Swamp, quite interesting and it spurred me to do further reading on the subject.

Lincoln’s Letter to Conkling: Let’s Make a Deal with the Negro; or, the Emancipation Proclamation as a Grand Bargain

In late August of 1863, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to fellow Illinois Republican James Conkling which contained his thoughts on various subjects, most prominently, the Emancipation Proclamation. The letter has drawn much interest from historians. Louis Masur provides comments at the New York Time’s Disunion blog, and Brooks Simpson has comments here and here. At the second link from Simpson, he opines as to the most powerful part of the letter.

To me, the most salient passage of the Conkling letter is this:

But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.

There are three things that make this text so notable. First, it explicitly acknowledges the agency of African Americans. Negroes will not do something for nothing; Lincoln recognizes that they must be given good reason to act in favor of the Union. And he feels that if they are given good reason, they will act.

Second, Lincoln is under no illusion that African Americans are fighting for the same thing as white northerners. For African Americans, 90% of whom are enslaved southerners, the idea of preserving the Union – the so-called Union Cause – had limited resonance. A Union preserved with slavery intact was not going to garner the support of the black population. Lincoln understood that the price of black support was the promise of freedom; nothing else would do.

And finally, Lincoln characterizes the Proclamation as, essentially, a transaction. The Union is making a deal with African Americans: it promises freedom to the Negro, in exchange for the Negro’s support in destroying the Confederate regime. And Lincoln says emphatically: we will keep this promise.

And of course, all Lincoln could do is promise freedom. He was the president of the United States, not the Confederate States. The Proclamation infuriated Confederate slaveholders, but it had no legal power over them. It could not compel enslavers to free the enslaved; only a military victory by the Union could provide such compulsion.

As we know, both parties to the deal kept up their side of the bargain. Over 200,000 African Americans served in the Union military. And thousands of black civilians acted as spies, scouts, laborers, servants, and otherwise helped the Union military. African Americans were an integral part of the Union war effort that defeated the Confederate States.

And the United States abided by the deal with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere in the United States. On a de jure basis at least, the enslaved were forever free.

Sadly, when I talk to people about the Emancipation Proclamation, they have the notion that the Proclamation, in and of itself, ended slavery. It’s as if Lincoln was god-like; he gave the word, the word was made flesh, and freedom rang throughout the land. But as Lincoln himself suggests, it was nowhere near that simple.