The Many Facets of the Remarkable Robert Webster

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Robert Webster: Confederate Slave, Union Supporter, Business Man, and the Allleged Son of “Black Dan” Webster
Source: Julie Rowlands Collection, from the October 2014 issue of Smithsonian magazine

The October issue of Smithsonian magazine features an article about a man who is rightly describe as remarkable. Writer Marc Wortman tells the story of Robert Webster, who “risked his life to undermine the Confederacy yet remained close to his former owner after the Civil War.”

The article, titled Why Was Robert Webster, a Slave, Wearing What Looks Like a Confederate Uniform?, introduces us to Webster, a slave who gained minor prominence during the Civil War. From the start of the piece:

As Confederate troops abandoned Atlanta during the night between September 1 and 2, 1864, they blew up a stranded 81-car train packed with munitions. A series of explosions, audible 80 miles away, leveled nearly everything within a quarter-mile and set the cotton warehouses aflame. The perplexed Union commander, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, said that from his position almost 20 miles distant, the sound of the fire was “like that of musketry.”

Yet when a few hundred stunned people clustered downtown on the morning after, one of them remarked, “I have never seen the city more quiet.” After living under siege for nearly six weeks, they watched nine of Atlanta’s leading citizens saddle up to ride out to surrender the city to Sherman’s 100,000 men. “Language falls short,” one of those on hand wrote, “in expressing the suspense and anxiety experienced by everyone.”

Perhaps the clearest signal that life in Atlanta would never be the same could be seen among the men who rode out under the white flag: One of them was black. And while technically still a slave, he was as rich as the white men riding beside him. “[He] was better off than any of us,” a white businessman would testify. Bob Yancey, as he was known at the time, was 44 years old. Over the course of his life he was also called Bob, Bob Gadsby, Bob Cunningham, Yancey and, finally, Robert Webster. After the war, he would insist that Webster was his rightful surname—a legacy from the famed Senator Daniel Webster, whom he claimed as his father.

The article title focuses on the uniform Webster is wearing in the above photograph. But Webster was not enlisted in the Confederate army, and there is no evidence he did any combat duty. I dislike the article title, as it seems to me that the uniform is almost a minor part of Webster’s story. Having said that, it does seem that an African American in (what might or might not be) a Confederate uniform draws a lot of attention in some places.

I found the story poignant in two ways. First, it illustrates the divide, which could be a wide divide, between the lives of plantation or so-called “field slaves” and “servants” or “body servants” or so-called “house slaves.” The black leader Malcolm X gave a speech which is famous to students of him and his era called “the field negro and the house negro” which explores this divide, albeit, in a very pointed way.

This is not to say Webster was a “house negro” in any derogatory sense. Rather, it’s clear that being a house servant gave him privileges and opportunities which he keenly maximized, and used to aid his master’s enemy – the Union – at some financial benefit to himself. It also seems he had some ability at working with diverse groups of people.

Second, I was intrigued by Webster’s alleged lineage from the Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, who was sometimes called “Black Dan” Webster due to relatively dark skin color.

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Daniel Webster, of Massachusetts, who served in the US House and Senate, and was twice US Secretary of State; was he Robert Webster’s father?
Source: Wikipedia Commons

If I could go back in time and meet Robert Webster, my first question would be, “how did your… belief that Dan Webster was your father affect you, and make you what you are?” The stories of mulattos and the impact of white parents on their lives is not something that I have seen discussed in extensive form, outside of individual biographies. That story is a part of my own family history, a story which my family has, in general, avoided discussion of (and this is not at all uncommon).

Two Views of Emancipation – Which is Right?

Which of these two monuments offers the best depiction of the relationship between African Americans and Abraham Lincoln, and the role each played in ending slavery? This one…

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The Emancipation Memorial, AKA the Freedman’s Memorial, in Washington, DC
Source: Wikipedia

…or this one?

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Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
Image © Dave Wiegers Photography, see here and here. Wiegers has done a number of photos of monuments to Abraham Lincoln. 

My thoughts are below the fold. Continue reading

Martin Jackson: Recollections of a Confederate Servant

Martin Jackson
Martin Jackson at age 90: Texan, house slave, Confederate servant, freedman, and WWI veteran
Source: Gelatin-silver photographic print of Martin Jackson, San Antonio, Texas, 1937. Prints and Photographs Division and Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Photo was taken by or for the Federal Writers’ Project, which was part of the Works Progress Administration.

Martin Jackson had a long and interesting life. As a slave during the Civil War, he rescued Confederate wounded from the battlefield – he was an “official lugger-in of men,” he called himself. Much later, during World War I, he enlisted as a cook! This is not a story you will hear much.

Jackson was a long time resident of Texas. At the age of 90, he was interviewed about his life as a slave for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. He recalled his early life, mentioned the “good treatment” he enjoyed as a house slave, spoke about the difficulty of telling the true story of slavery to strangers (such as, perhaps, those who conducted these slave interviews for the WPA), and his experiences during the Civil War.

Some have applied the label “black Confederate” to men like Jackson, saying that they “served” the Confederacy. But Jackson’s comments provide a much more complex understanding of his “service.” Rather than characterize his statements in any way, I will let Jackson’s words speak for themselves.

This is an abridged and edited version of the WPA interview. Mainly, I have moved paragraphs around so that they follow a linear timeline; the original interview kind of skipped all over the place in time. Here it is:

“My earliest recollection is the day my old boss presented me to his son, Joe, as his property. I was about five years old and my new master was only two.

“Lots of old slaves closes the door before they tell the truth about their days of slavery. When the door is open, they tell how kind their masters was and how rosy it all was. You can’t blame them for this, because they had plenty of early discipline, making them cautious about saying anything uncomplimentary about their masters. I, myself, was in a little different position than most slaves and, as a consequence, have no grudges or resentment. However, I can tell you the life of the average slave was not rosy. They were dealt out plenty of cruel suffering. Continue reading

This Friday evening (8/22/2014) on C-SPAN3: Slavery in Cinema

The C-SPAN network will air a trio of shows tonight that focus on the depiction of slavery in film:

The Civil War: Slavery & Cinema (8PM ET 8/21/2014; 11:42PM ET 8/21/2014)

A panel of history professors traces the evolution of slavery as depicted in film since the 1930s. Drawing examples from films like “Mandingo,” “Amistad” and “12 Years a Slave,” panelists discuss how filmmakers have framed the idea of slavery. They also describe changes in race relations and gender portrayals in films and how slave characters have shifted from the background into leading roles. (This can be viewed online; see here. The video might require the Flash web-browser plug-in for viewing.)

Hollywood and the Passage of the 13th Amendment (9:30PM ET 8/21/2014; 2AM ET 8/22/2014)

Professor Matthew Pinsker talks about Stephen Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, analyzing what is fact and what is Hollywood fiction. The video for this should be available online by Tuesday, August 28, 2014.

Civil War History and the Film Gone With the Wind (10:20PM ET 8/21/2014; 1:12AM ET 8/22/2014)

Jeffrey McClurken talked about the 1939 movie “Gone with the Wind,” looking at it as a source on southern culture during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and reflective of the Depression era in which it was created. (This can be viewed online; see here. The video might require the Flash web-browser plug-in for viewing.)

These three videos will be useful for folks interested in slavery and the way that slavery and emancipation have been portrayed on film, especially by Hollywood.

Also of interest is this article on Examiner.com: Black slave movies are proven winners in Hollywood, which identifies the most popular slave movies to date.

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.

What if Slaves Wrote the History of Georgia?


A slave family in Georgia, circa 1850. How would they write the history of Georgia?
Source: New York Historical Society

As the historian Melvyn Stokes has observed, “the traditional focus” of American history has been “on the centers of political, economic, and social power and the doings of elite white men.” He also observed that in the last several decades, historical study has turned its eyes on groups that had largely been “ignored and misinterpreted.”

The history of the United States with respect to the role of enslaved people is a case in point. Much of US history, in our schoolbooks and popular culture, has been told from the perspective of white slaveholders and nonslaveholders; the viewpoint of slaves themselves was often ignored. There has been, though, a sea change in this since the 1950s, thanks to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the growth of an educated African American middle class, and modern historians of all races and backgrounds.

But it’s not as if, throughout history, African Americans have made no attempt at their own telling the story of America. One example of this is the 1890 book A School History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1890, written by Edward A. Johnson (1860-1944). Johnson was born enslaved, and grew-up to become an educator, historian, attorney, and politician. As noted by Andrew Leiter at the Documenting the American South website,

Edward Johnson wrote this book in 1890 to counteract the lack of African American representation in textbooks, or to correct, as he says, “the sin of omission and commission on the part of white authors.” He offers sketches of slavery as it existed in the colonies–northern and southern. He presents the accomplishments of some of the most distinguished slaves, including poets Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton, as well as the mathematician and astronomer, Benjamin Banneker. Johnson is particularly interested in presenting the valorous roles African Americans played in America’s various wars…

The latter part of Johnson’s book is devoted to the progress of the African American race since Emancipation. He describes the early successes of reconstruction despite southern white resistance… Johnson includes this information on the progress of the race in his textbook “to inspire new zeal and fresh courage, that each one of you may add something more to what has already been accomplished.” Johnson concludes his book with a collection of sketches of notable secular and religious African Americans.

In his book, Johnson provides a brief history of the state of Georgia. Compare this to what you’ve learned and know about the state from school and other sources:

GEORGIA.

From the time of its settlement in 1732 till 1750 this colony held no slaves. Many of the inhabitants were anxious for the introduction of slaves, and when the condition of the colony finally became hopeless they sent many long petitions to the Trustees, stating that “the one thing needful” for their prosperity was Negroes.

It was a long time before the Trustees would give their consent; they said that the colony of Georgia was designed to be a protection to South Carolina and the other more Northern colonies against the Spanish, who were then occupying Florida, and if the colonists had to control slaves it would weaken their power to defend their colonies. Finally, owing to the hopeless condition of the Georgia colony, the Trustees yielded. Slaves were introduced in large numbers.

The famous minister, George Whitfield, referring to his plantation in this colony, said: “Upward of five thousand pounds have been expended in the undertaking, and yet very little proficiency made in the cultivation of my tract of land, and that entirely owing to the necessity I lay under of making use of white hands. Had a Negro been allowed I should now have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans, without expending above half the sum which has been laid out.” He purchased a plantation in South Carolina, where slavery existed, and speaks of it thus: “Blessed be God! This plantation has succeeded; and though at present I have only eight working hands, yet, in all probability, there will be more raised in one year, and without a quarter of the expense, than has been produced at Bethesda for several years past. This confirms me in the opinion I have entertained for a long time, that Georgia never can or will be a flourishing province without Negroes are allowed.”

Prosperity came with the slaves, and, as in the case of Virginia, the colony of Georgia took a fresh start and began to prosper. White labor proved a failure. It was the honest and faithful toil of the Negro that turned the richness of Georgia’s soil into English gold, built cities and created large estates, gilded mansions furnished with gold and silver plate.

(James) Oglethorpe (who founded the colony) planned the Georgia colony as a home for Englishmen who had failed in business and were imprisoned for their debts. These English people were out of place in the wild woods of America, and continued a failure in America, as well as in England, until the toiling but “heathen” African came to their aid.

Cotton Plantations were numerous in Georgia under the slave system. The slave-owners had large estates, numbering thousands of acres in many cases. The slaves were experts in the culture of cotton. The climate was adapted to sugarcane and rice, both of which were raised in abundance.

As they say, this puts a whole different spin on things.