“Jungle Fever” by the Mills Brothers, plus Female Blackface, from the Civil War Film “Operator 13″

This video is from the 1934 Civil War film Operator 13, which features the Mills Brothers. As noted in Wikipedia, the Mills, from southwestern Ohio, were “an American jazz and pop vocal quartet of the 20th century who made more than 2,000 recordings that combined sold more than 50 million copies, and garnered at least three dozen gold records.” The Mills had phenomenal success in America and Europe, but sadly, are not well known today.

Set amidst a sea of black faces, the Mills perform the song Jungle Fever as part of a Civil War era minstrel show. The song is an ode to the African homeland, albeit with lyrics that some might say reinforce stereotypes of Africans as animalistic and primitive:

Jungle Fever lyrics:

Ever see the Congo when it’s steaming in the night?
Ever hear the jungle with the animals in fright?
Put me in the Congo in the jungle and I’m right.

(chorus)I got that fever that jungle fever
You know the reason that I long to go

Dusky maiden, dark haired siren
Congo sweetheart
I’m comin’ back to you

Wild eyed woman, native dreamgirl
Jungle fever is in my blood for you

Every hear a kettle drum
Pounding out of beat
Ever fight the silence
And the madness and the heat
That’s the thrill I’m cravin’
And the music is so sweet

Oh, the congos callin’
And I’m longin’ to go

This clip is from the curious film Operator 13, starring Marion Davies and Gary Cooper. The movie is about a white woman (Davies) who, in a portion of the film, uses blackface to disguise herself as a slave in order to spy on the Confederates! I’m not making this up.


Marion Davies, at left, made-up as a slave in the movie “Operator 13″
Source: DoctorMacro.com

As noted in the Wikipedia description of the film,

Operator 13 is a 1934 American romance film directed by Richard Boleslawski and starring Marion Davies, Gary Cooper, and Jean Parker. Based on stories written by Robert W. Chambers, the film is about a Union spy who impersonates a black maid in the early days of the Civil War, but complications arise when she falls in love with a Confederate officer.The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography.

PLOT: Shortly after the Battle of Bull Run, the Union forces are in retreat. In a US Military Hospital, the Pauline Cushman Players are performing for wounded soldiers. Pauline the spy who works for Allen Pinkerton persuades Gail (Marion Davies) to become a spy for the Union cause, under the code name Operator 13. (Allen Pinkerton headed the Union Intelligence Service and was in charge of spying and other activities for the United States during the Civil War.)

Gail, in blackface as a disguise, accompanies Pauline as her African American maid (so-called “octaroon” the out-of-date term for a person of 1/8th African ancestry) and while washing General Stuart’s clothes, hears he will attend a ball that night. At the ball, Captain Gailliard suspects that Pauline is a spy and finds evidence in her room. Pauline, trying to flee is arrested and is to be a witness against Gail who is later sentenced to death. Both women manage to escape to the Union lines.

After the women escape, the Gail character eschew her blackface role and gets romantic with Gary Cooper, who plays a Confederate officer.


Marion Davies as a blond with Gary Cooper, from the movie “Operator 13.” It seems like – dare I say it? – blonds do have more fun.
Source: DoctorMacro.com
Continue reading

Our Slaves Were Led Into Temptation: Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ Lost Cause View of Black Emancipation and Enlistment

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Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis: Slaves were “decoyed with the magic word of ‘freedom.’”
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Jefferson Davis was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America. In 1881, two decades after the Civil War began, his two volume book The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government was published. Ostensibly the book is a history of the Confederate States. But at its core, the book is a legal, political, and moral critique – perhaps condemnation is not too strong a word – of the various policies and actions taken by the Union in challenging secession, prosecuting the Civil War, and ending slavery.

Davis’ book doesn’t say much about the Civil War experiences of African Americans who resided in the Confederacy, even though they were almost 40% of the Confederate States’ population. Davis does have a lot to say about the Union’s emancipation and black enlistment policies, however. Among other things, Davis says that those acts were politically motivated by abolitionists; counter to international mores and constitutional law; and a clear attempt to destroy southern society by undermining its foundational institution, African slavery.

Within that context, Davis makes a number of comments about those held in bondage. His statements echo a key position of so-called Lost Cause advocates of the Confederacy: that enslaved African Americans’ “servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot… Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due.” In other words, black people loved being slaves.

But if these enslaved persons were so loyal and so happy with their lot, why did so many of them flee their masters, and why did so many become soldiers and sailors for the Union military? Davis blames it on the Union, which was a “tempter” “like the serpent in Eden” that “decoyed (slaves) with the magic word of ‘freedom.'”

Davis spells it out in Chapter XXVI of his book:

In his message to Congress … on December 8, 1863, President  (Abraham Lincoln) thus boasts of his proclamation:

“(In January 1863) the final proclamation came, including the announcement that colored men of suitable condition would be received into the war service. The policy of emancipation and of employing black soldiers gave to the future a new aspect, about which hope and fear and doubt contended in uncertain conflict.

According to our political system, as a matter of civil administration, the General Government had no lawful power to effect emancipation in any State, and for a long time it had been hoped that the rebellion could be suppressed without resorting to it as a military measure. . . .

Of those who were slaves at the beginning of the rebellion, full one hundred thousand are now in the United States military service, about one half of which number actually bear arms in the ranks, thus giving the double advantage of taking so much labor from the insurgent cause, and supplying the places which otherwise must be filled with so many white men. So far as tested, it is difficult to say they are not as good soldiers as any.”

Let the reader pause for a moment and look calmly at the facts presented in this statement. The forefathers of these negro soldiers were gathered from the torrid plains and malarial swamps of inhospitable Africa. Generally they were born the slaves of barbarian masters, untaught in all the useful arts and occupations, reared in heathen darkness, and, sold by heathen masters, they were transferred to shores enlightened by the rays of Christianity.

There, put to servitude, they were trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and civilization; they increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers. Their servile instincts rendered them contented with their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal attachment secured faithful service to those to whom their service or labor was due. A strong mutual affection was the natural result of this life-long relation, a feeling best if not only understood by those who have grown from childhood under its influence.

Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other. Continue reading

To the Highest Bidder, by Harry Herman Roseland

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Picture source: AskArt.com

This poignant painting, titled To the Highest Bidder, is the work of Brooklyn, New York artist Harry Herman Roseland (c.1867—1950). He was a noted painter who received many awards for his work in his lifetime. According to Wikipedia,

Roseland was primarily known for paintings centered on poor African-Americans… One of his most popular subjects were his paintings of black women fortune tellers who read the palms and tea leaves of white women clients.

Oprah Winfrey has stated that her favorite painting in her personal collection is Roseland’s 1904 work, To the Highest Bidder. This painting, which unlike most of Roseland’s pieces is actually a pre-Civil War scene, depicts a mother and daughter that are about to be separated by a slave auction.

I am taken by the somber desperation in the eyes of the mother. Her gaze seems to both shame and challenge the viewer: how can you look at me, and know what is about to happen, and yet do nothing?

More Photos from the New Market Heights Reenactment on Civilwartalk.com

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United States Colored Troops (USCT) reenactor/living historian Marcellus Williams of Washington, DC at the commemoration of the Battle of New Market Heights. All photos by Neil Hamilton.

As mentioned in a previous post, the 150th anniversary of the US Civil War’s Battle of New Market Heights was commemorated during the weekend of September 27, 2014 in Henrico County, Virginia. The commemoration included a number of events, the highlight being a staging of the battle by a large group of Confederate and Union soldier reenactors.

The web forum Civilwartalk.com has a discussion thread which contains a bunch of wonderful photographs from the reenactment events. The photographs appear starting on page three of the discussion thread. A handful of the pictures are displayed below.

I do have a request. If you can identify any of the people or units in the pictures, it would be greatly appreciated. For the photos here, you can leave a comment below. For the photos on Civilwartalk.com, you can join the forum (membership is free) and make a post with your information. Having these details will enhance the record of the event. Thanks!

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USCT in camp, preparing for the day’s events.

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USCT and Confederate reenactors after their staging of the Battle of New Market Heights. The USCT soldier at the far right, holding a sword with a Confdederate soldier, is Bill Radcliffe. Radcliffe was the model for the monument to United States Colored Troops National Monument in the Nashville National Cemetery.

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More reenactors/living historians who were at the event. The woman at the far right is Yulanda Burgess, whose history specialty is the American Missionary Association.

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Another scene from the commemoration events.

Commemorating the Battle of New Market Heights, Henrico County, Virginia

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Bennie White of Company A, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; he was one of the many Reenactors/Living Historian at the Battle of New Market Heights Commemoration, September 27, 2014

This past weekend (September 27, 2014) I attended a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the US Civil War’s Battle of New Market Heights in Henrico County, Virginia. The county borders the city of Richmond, which was the Capital of the Confederacy. Many battles took place in the vicinity before the end of the war in early 1865.

The commemoration included a number of events, the highlight being a staging of the battle by a large group of Confederate and Union soldier reenactors.

New Market Heights is significant as the battle which earned the Medal of Honor for more than a dozen soldiers of the United States Colored Troops, or USCT. The USCT was the part of the Union army which contained just about all of its black enlistees. A ceremony was held at the end of the day to honor the medal winners, which included some of those soldier’s descendants. I found that to be a very poignant event,

I didn’t get a lot of great photos during my visit, but I am fond of the one which is above. The gentleman in the photo is Bennie White of Company A, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which is based in Boston, Massachusetts. He mentioned that his involvement in reenacting dates back to the movie Glory – and many African American reenactors/living historians have told me the same. That movie has sparked more black interest in the war than any book, it seems to me. Which says more about the books that have been used to teach the history of the war, than the movie, I think.

I want to give a shout out to my friend Marquett Milton. Milton, who is young, energetic, and enthusiastic, was chosen to lead the charge that captured the New Market Heights earthen fort. After doing so, he was very pumped up, as you can imagine. We drove back to Washington, DC, when the day’s events were finished, and he fell asleep after just 10 minutes. Although some very late night banter from the previous day with his fellow camp mates may have contributed to his fatigue. (Many reenactors slept in a tent camp the previous night, and had a good time while at it.)

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Marquett Milton, United States Colored Troops Reenactor/Living Historian at the Battle of New Market Heights Commemoration, September 27, 2014

Finally, hats off to the folks of Henrico County for a great event.

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Reenactors/Living Historians at the Battle of New Market Heights Commemoration, September 27, 2014. These men took part in the ceremony that honored the members of the US Colored Troops who earned the Medal of Honor during the Battle.

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