Social Revolution, Writ Small: Wartime Emancipation, a Mother, and a Mistress in Smithfield, North Carolina

colored-troops-in-north-carolina
Colored Troops, under General Wild, liberating slaves in North Carolina.
Source: Harper’s Weekly, January 23, 1864; from www.sonofthesouth.net

The American Civil War was the start of a social revolution. The Union government policy of emancipating African Americans and enlisting them in the military led to a wartime transformation in the relations between white and black, master and slave, and the powerful and the powerless. In ways large and small, subtle and dramatic, encounters between black and white Union soldiers and black and white southerners led to a new navigation through the rushing and uncharted waters of social change.

Consider this reporting, dated May 15, 1865, from Army Chaplain Henry McNeal Turner. Turner, a leader in the black church of Washington, DC, was part of the First Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry that was recruited and mustered from the District of Columbia. He was also a wartime correspondent for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In his correspondence to the Recorder, Turner spoke of an incident involving a black woman and her mistress:

Shortly after our arrival in Smithfield (NC), one of our sergeants called my attention to a colored lady, whose child a rebel woman had hid. I immediately started for her sacred premises, and having entered her piazza, in company with the sergeant, colored woman, and a few others, the following conversation ensued: “Have you got this woman’s child?” “No! Her master carried it off.” “Where is her master as you call him?” “He is gone to the country.” “What did he carry the child away for?” “Because he wanted to.” “Did he not know the child belonged to this woman?” “Yes. But if it is her child, it is his negro. You Yankees have a heap of impudence. What are you meddling with our negroes for? You may think the south is conquered, but she has surrendered to superior numbers. But, sir, you are sadly mistaken.” “Stop, stop!” I replied, “I don’t want anymore of your rebel parlance. You are not too good to be hung, and you had better dry up, or you might get a rope around your neck in short order.”

At this stage in our dialogue, one of the General’s Staff rode up, and she began to tell a long story about me, weaving in a lie here, and a lie there.” But he soon silenced her by saying, “Oh, well! He has a right to say what he thinks proper! Madame, I want to know why this child is not given up!”

So she proceeded to chit chat the subject with him, and having heard as much as my stomach could digest at once, said I to the officer, “It is reported that the child is hid in town, but she says her husband has taken it into the country. I now propose, as he has five children standing here, that we take one, to be held as a hostage, until the colored child is returned to its mother.” The words had barely left my mouth, before such running, crying, and squealing took place among the children, that my indignation melted down into laughter. The very utterance of these words frightened the children nearly to death, and made the mother tremble.

At this juncture, learning that the General had taken the matter in hand, I left. But look at the inconsistency. To have taken one of their children, would have been pronounced, by the slave oligarchs, an act of fiendish cruelty, but for them to perpetuate the same crime on a poor slave woman, was only an inconsiderable circumstance. If a few of our Northern slave advocates had the tables thus turned on them, it would materially change the tone of some of their brutal sophistry, as well as morally improve that remonstrating gibberish, too often used to stay the designs of the administration, whose ultimate purpose seems to be the upbuilding of an depressed people.

Notes:
1. The January 23, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly provides the backstory for the above illustration. The person being referenced above is Brigadier General Edward A. Wild. According to the book Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, which was written by William A. Dobak, “In December 1863, Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild led more than seventeen hundred men from five black regiments through northeastern North Carolina, freeing slaves, hunting Confederate guerrillas, and enlisting black soldiers.”
2. Some details about the 1st Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry are here.
3. The full version of Turner’s May 15, 1865 letter to the Christian Recorded is in the books Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner, edited by Jean Cole; and An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War: The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner by Andre E. Johnson. Turner’s correspondence is discussed in other works, such as Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era, edited by John David Smith.
4. Turner was a notable African American figure in the war and post-war eras. I hope to write more about him in future posts.

Ronald Coddington discusses his book “African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album”

Author Ronald Coddington discusses his book “African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album,” with CivilWarMonitor.com.

In an earlier post, I talked about the book African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album by Ronald Coddington. The book features photographs of Civil War era African Americans – most of them members of the United States Colored Troops – along with a biographical sketch of the persons who are pictured. It’s the third book in Coddington’s “Faces of the Civil War” series. The first book features photos and stories of white Union soldiers, and the second features Confederate soldiers.

The video above is an interview with the Coddington, in which he discusses the process for creating the book, including the challenges he encountered and the insights he learned. The interview is conducted by Civilwarmonitor.com, the digital arm of The Civil War Monitor, a quarterly magazine about the history and memory of the Civil War.

Coddington mentions that his desire to do the book came from a very brief interaction with a black woman who attended a talk he gave about his first book, the one that featured white Union soldiers. The woman looked through the book, told Coddington that there were black people who fought in the Civil War, and then just walked away. Right then an there, Coddington says, he knew he had to do a follow-up book that explored the black experience during the war. I think that woman would be more than pleased with the result.

Memorial Day Greetings; Remembering Joseph Clovese, of the USCT and the GAR

Clovese Photo
Joseph Clovese, late of the United States Colored Troops (USCT)
This is an unattributed photograph that purportedly shows Civil War veteran Joseph Clovese, who passed away at the age of 107 in 1951.

For this 2013 Memorial Day, I want to give thanks and honor to the men and women who fought, died, and otherwise served in defense of our freedom and liberty. And I especially want to ackowledge the contributions of the African American soldiers and sailors who served in the armed forces during the American Civil War.

I recently learned of the story of Joseph Clovese, which I am happy to share. Clovese may well have been the last surviving African American veteran of the Civil War. Reportedly, he passed away in July 1951 at the tender age of 107.

Michigan’s Messenger – The Newsletter of The Department of Michigan Sons Of Union Veterans Of The Civil War tells of Clovese’s early life and service:

He was born… on a plantation on January 30, 1844 in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Though born a slave, he received a good education as a favorite house boy of his master. At age 17 he ran away to join nearby Union soldiers.

He became a drummer boy during the siege of Vicksburg and later was enrolled in a regiment of “colored troops”.

Following the war he worked on Mississippi river steamboats. He later worked on the crew stringing the first telegraph wires between New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi.

Clovese was enlisted in the 63rd Regiment United States Colored Troops (USCT) Infantry, where his name is listed as Joseph Clovrse. For service information about the 63rd Regiment, look here.

At the age of 104, Clovese moved from Louisiana to Pontiac, Michigan to be with family. As further related by the Michigan’s Messenger,

Once “Uncle Joe’s” presence was known, the community of Pontiac embraced him. Large gatherings were organized for his 105th, 106th and 107th birthdays.

Joseph Clovese died at Dearborn Veterans hospital on July 13, 1951. More than 300 people were packed into the small Newman A.M.E. Church for the service. Hundreds more gathered at the grave site in Perry Mount Park cemetery. Oakland County Council of Veterans members served as pall bearers. A firing squad from Selfridge Air Force Base fired the final salute and taps was sounded over the cemetery.

Thus, Clovese received a tribute befitting the Great Generation of black soldiers in the United States armed forces.

I also want to give honor to my late uncle, Edward Cannon. He served in a segregated (African American) tank unit (761st Tank Battalion) under the command of General Patton. The unit was known as “the Black Panthers” based on their insignia. Rest in peace.

On Watch at the African American Civil War Memorial

On-Guard-at-Monument3

Marquett Milton, a Civil War reenactor, stands watch at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC. He is portraying a member of the United States Colored Troops, which was a part of the Union army during the Civil War. He is wearing a skyblue greatcoat, which was used during the winter months. Milton is also a volunteer at the African American Civil War Museum, which is across the street from the Memorial.

African American Soldiers on Guard for the Emanicpation Proclamation

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the (final version) of the Emancipation Proclamation, a copy of the document was on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC, from December 30, 2012, through January 1, 2013.

A group of Civil War re-enactors stood guard over the document for this photograph at the National Archives Facebook page. The re-enactors are from B Company, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, US Colored Troops.

Colored (African American) Soldier and Family in Civil War Era Photo Identified


Previously unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-36454

In May 2011, I posted a blog entry featuring the above photograph, which is from the Library of Congress. The photo shows a soldier in uniform, a wife in dress and hat, and two daughters wearing matching coats and hats. More details can be found at the Library of Congress record for the photo, which is here.

The Library of Congress description for the photo lists the soldier and family as “Unidentified.” But thanks to research whose results were published in the November 2012 issue of Kentucky Explorer Magazine, it is believd that the photo depicts Sergeant Samuel Smith of the 119th US Colored Infantry, his wife Molle and their daughters Mary and Maggie. Sergeant Smith enlisted at Camp Nelson, Kentucky. More details about the Smiths are provided by Angela Y. Walton-Raji at her blog The USCT Chronicle.

Thanks to Kentucky Explorer Magazine and Angela Y. Walton-Raji/The USCT Chronicle for providing this information!

PS, I met Angela Y. Walton-Raji several weeks ago during a visit to the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC. It was a brief meeting, but it was fun to talk to a fellow blogger. I wish her well on her labor of love.

Outgunned: African Americans’ Separate and Unequal Experience with the Right to Bear Arms and Gun Control

African American Union Soldier with Pistol
African American Union Soldier with Pistol, circa Civil War era (1860s). It was very common for Civil War soldiers to take pictures with their firearms. Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11298; see more information about the photo here.

****

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
– Second Amendment to the US Constitution

“The great object is, that every man be armed. [...] Every one who is able may have a gun.”
– Patrick Henry

“[if negroes were] entitled to the privileges and immunities of [white] citizens, …it would give persons of the Negro race… the right… to keep and bear arms wherever they want… inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the state…”
– Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision

“Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty; and should your constitutional rights at the close of this war be denied, which in the nature of things, it cannot be, your brethren are safe while you have a Constitution which proclaims your right to keep and bear arms.”
– Frederick Douglass, in an 1863 recruitment speech imploring black to join the Union army during the Civil War

****

The current debate about gun control, spurred by the Newtown Tragedy, causes me to reflect on the history of firearms access for African Americans. This history does not paint a pretty picture, but it adds a new perspective on our discussion of the right to bear arms.

A review of the history indicates that for over two centuries, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the national, state, and local governments have been engaged in a project to limit African Americans’ access to guns. This project was not conducted in secret; the people involved made it unequivocally clear that they did not want people of African descent to have firearms. Blacks with guns were seen as a threat to the safety, politics, and domination of the white majority, and the law was used to remove that threat. For African Americans, “gun control” has almost always been synonymous with “keep African Americans from getting guns.”

Now wait! I’m not taking any position (in this post, anyway) regarding gun access policy. I hope that no one who reads this piece will assume that I am advocating a particular viewpoint concerning gun rights and gun control issues.

What I do want to do, is provide an abridged and selective timeline of African Americans’ experience with bearing arms. There is so much to this story, it’s impossible to contain it all within one blog post – and this post is somewhat lengthy as it is. But for those who are not familiar with the subject, this will be informative and useful.

There is a sadly ironic, perhaps tragic aspect to this history. Guns have become the scourge of the urban landscape. So-called “black on black” crime has become endemic in certain communities, and guns are an unfortunate aspect of this. During the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, laws left blacks relatively defenseless against a tide of racial terrorism; African Americans were outmanned and outgunned. But now many black communities are awash in guns, and instead of firearms being used for self-defense, they are being used for self-destruction. Sometimes the arc of history bends in the wrong direction.

For more information on this subject, two good “starter” pieces on this topic are here and here. A useful book on the subject is Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876 by Stephen P. Halbrook. But there are many other journal articles, books, and other references that are availble via Internet search for those who want to really get in depth on this subject.

I will begin at the middle of the 18th century, and go forward to the 21st century.
****

1779 During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress – which represents American colonists seeking independence from Britain – offers slave masters in South Carolina and Georgia $1,000 for each slave they provide to the Continental army. However, the legislatures of both states refused the offer. Apparently, the risk of arming slaves, who might want or demand freedom in exchange for their service, is more threatening than the British Army.

1792 Congress passes the Militia Acts, which limit service in militias to free white males. This restriction is prompted in part by fears that, as in the case of the Haitian slave revolt, free blacks will unite with slaves and use their guns and military training to mount an armed insurrection against slaveholders. The measures are interpreted as meaning that blacks cannot join the United States army.

1811 Hundreds of slaves, armed with guns, knives, and axes, become part of the largest slave rebellion on American soil, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The importance of taking arms is noted in the book American Uprising: American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen,

Baptized with the blood of his former master, Charles (the leader of the slave rebellion) and his men broke into the stores in the basement (of his master’s) mansion, taking muskets and militia uniforms, stockpiled in case of domestic insurrection. Many of the slaves had learned to shoot muskets in African civil wars, while others would fight mor efeectively with tha cane knives and axes they weilded in the hot Louisiana sun. As his men gathered weapons and shoved ammunition in bags, Charles and several of his fellow slaves cast off the distictive cheap cotton slave clothes and put on the (master’s) uniforms.

Unfortunately for the slaves, their revolt was beaten back by the superior force of local authorities, and they suffered a horrible punishment after the smoke cleared.

1831 Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The rebels kill over 50 white people, the highest number of fatalities caused by slave uprisings in the South. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for over two months.

After the rebellion, legislatures in the slave states passed new laws prohibiting the education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.

1831 Three states – Florida, Maryland and Virginia – enact laws which ban black ownership of guns.

Continue reading