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).

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.

African American Soldier in Union Infantry Sergeant’s Uniform

African-American-Sergeant
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.

Grand Army of the Republic, Central New York, circa 1900

GAR Camp 1900 Near Syracuse NY
Grand Army of the Republic, New York Post 160, Cazenovia, New York (near Syracuse), circa 1900
Source: blog.syracuse.com; collection of Angelo Scarlato

This is a wonderful photograph of an integrated post of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which was an organization for United States (Union) veterans of the American Civil War. The post, New York post number 160, was located in Cazenovia, New York, which is near Syracuse. The picture was taken around 1900, roughly 35 years after the end of the war. The image of these black and white soldiers, with its staging of a black man holding the American flag in the center of the shot, has a poignancy which reaches over a hundred years of time, and touches me today.

These men might not have known each other during the war, because Union regiments were segregated. Although, during the course of the war, different soldiers from different regiments often fought alongside each other at particular sites. But GAR units like this one might have been the first opportunity for black and white soldiers to meet, greet, and perhaps, become friends.

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) show “History Detectives” devoted a program segment to a discussion of the photo, the GAR, and race in the Civil War. A transcript of the segment, which aired in July 2007, is here. Thanks to the blog Syracuse.com for providing the link and the photograph, and additional information.

I have another entry on this blog which discusses African Americans and the GAR here.