On Their High Horses: Black Cavalry Soldiers in Mississippi

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“The War in Mississippi—The 1st Mississippi Negro Cavalry Bringing into Vicksburg Rebel Prisoners Captured at Haines Bluff. –From a Sketch by our Special Artist, Fred B. Schell”
From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, December 19, 1863; see here and here

When the Civil War began, Mississippi was one of two states in which over half the population was of African descent. Enslaved Mississippians outnumbered free Mississippians by a count of 437,000 to 354,000. Given those numbers, the subjugation and control of slaves was an essential part of the social, legal, and security fabric of the state’s white-only polity and government.

The Union army unraveled white control of the slave population. Although the Union military suffered serious and numerous military setbacks in the East during the first half of the war, especially in Virginia, it was able to gain ground steadily along the Mississippi River and its adjacent states. A key event in the conquest of the River and its environs was the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. With that and previous victories, the Union was able to solidify its control and occupation of Confederate territory in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

From those occupied areas, the Union army garnered its most African American recruits. These four states provided the most black soldiers to the Union army:
o Louisiana 24,052
o Kentucky 23,703
o Tennessee 20,133
o Mississippi 17,869

The above image illustrates the momentous changes in the status of African Americans during the war. This sketch, from the December 19, 1863 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, shows black men transporting Confederate prisoners in the face of a mostly white crowd. A description of the image by the University of Michigan’s Clements Library website notes that “Black soldiers now guard white prisoners and tower over onlookers.”

Also of interest is the way the soldiers are drawn. Many period renderings of African Americans depict them as caricatures, with huge lips and ape-like features. This image depicts black men as, well, men. It is a humane and dignified portrayal, befitting their new status as freemen and soldiers.

The army regiment in the picture was actually named the First Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent). In its discussion of Mississippi’s black Union soldiers, Bernie McBride’s website bjmjr.net points out that

The National Park Services lists 10 black Union regiments organized in Mississippi. These are the First Regiment Cavalry; the First Regiment Mounted Rifles; the First, and Second heavy Artillery; the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Regiment Infantry, all officially designated “African Descent.”

Lest We Forget Website master Bennie McRae expands that list to 16 regiments under the official designation “United States Colored Troops.” The First Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent), for example, became the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry Regiment after the change to the USCT system. Ten infantry regiments, rather than the six listed above, were established at Vicksburg and Natchez. Two additional heavy artillery regiments and one of light artillery were established under Grant’s command by January 1864.

A discussion of the African American Monument in Vicksburg National Military Park is here.

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

He died for his master’s country

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Claim receipt for compensation to a slave owner, Peter Gaillard Stoney of South Carolina, for the loss of his slave Toby. Toby died while building military fortifications in the Charleston area.
Source: railsplitter.com, a site for the sale of Civil War era collectibles. See here, item number 894. This document had an estimated value of $200-300.

When the Civil War began, some Confederates opined that slavery would be a source of strength for their putative nation. Slaves would perform the drudgery type work that every country at war must have done; and white men could be dedicated to combat and garrison duty. Thus, even if negroes could not take arms for the Confederacy, they could be useful by providing valuable labor.

Slaves were used in various capacities. Many were employed building fortifications to protect positions within the CSA from attack by the Union. Working on these fortifications could be hazardous, due to heat, exhaustion, disease, accidents, or other perils. Some owners resisted this use of their slaves precisely because the work conditions could be so dangerous to their slave property.

In 1864, a slave known as Toby paid the ultimate price for his duty to his master and his master’s cause. He died while building fortifications in South Carolina. The monetary compensation for the loss – $1900 – indicates that Toby was considered a valuable slave. The payment went to the owner, who might have felt the loss of a slave – perhaps someone considered a loyal slave – on different levels. It is unclear if Toby’s family received a share of the monies.

Toby, of course, could not have died for his country… he had no country. As a slave, he was no more a citizen of the Confederacy than a horse or a mule. It was his role as a human beast of burden that would position him for his deadly enterprise, such as it was.

Toby’s death underscores the fact that many more people died during the war, directly because of the war, than are counted on military death rolls. And no doubt other men, black or white, Confederate or Union, died under similar conditions. These are the uncounted casualties of the Civil War.

Andy Hall of the website Dead Confederates has identified the slave owner as Peter Gaillard Stoney (1809-1884) of St. James, Goose Creek Parish, Charleston District of South Carolina. Stoney had 120 slaves according to the 1860 U.S. Census. The Stoneys’ home was Medway Plantation, that still stands.

This is a photo from the Medway Plantation. The date is unknown, but this was probably taken sometime after the end of the Civil War. The structure in the photo appears to be one of the former slave quarters. Perhaps Toby’s friends and family, or Toby himself, resided here.

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Former slave quarters(?), Medway Plantation, South Carolina; probably post Civil War.
Source: South Carolina Library, Digital Collections, Berkeley County Photograph Collection, Accession no. 1001.15, Folder 1001 Berkeley (1-22), housed at South Caroliniana Library

Child’s Play is Not Child’s Play on a Civil War Era Plantation

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“But seriously… did you have to go there?”
Source: Image of Miss Ophelia and Topsy from Selection from Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Digital Critical Edition: “Topsy”: Houghton, Osgood & Co. “New Edition,” 1879

Sometimes a game is not a game. Susan Snow, a former enslaved woman, learned this the hard way during the Civil War.

Snow was one of many former slaves who was interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era Work Projects Administration. During her interview with a Project writer, she recalled an incident from the War, when she was in her early teens:

I was born in Wilcox County, Alabama, in 1850. W.J. Snow was my old marster. He bought my ma from a man named Jerry Casey. Venus was her name, but dey mos’ly called her ‘Venie.’

“I got more whuppin’s dan any other Nigger on de place, ’cause I was mean like my mammy. Always a-fightin’ an’ scratchin’ wid white an’ black. I was so bad Marster made me go look at de Niggers dey hung to see what dey done to a Nigger dat harm a white man. 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.