Lincoln’s Letter to Conkling: Let’s Make a Deal with the Negro; or, the Emancipation Proclamation as a Grand Bargain

In late August of 1863, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to fellow Illinois Republican James Conkling which contained his thoughts on various subjects, most prominently, the emancipation Proclamation. The letter has drawn much interest from historians. Louis Masur provides comments at the New York Time’s Disunion blog, and Brooks Simpson has comments here and here. At the second link from Simpson, he opines as to the most powerful part of the letter.

To me, the most salient passage of the Conkling letter is this:

But negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do any thing for us, if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive–even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made, must be kept.

There are three things that make this text so notable. First, it explicitly acknowledges the agency of African Americans. Negroes will not do something for nothing; Lincoln recognizes that they must be given good reason to act in favor of the Union. And he feels that if they are given good reason, they will act.

Second, Lincoln is under no illusion that African Americans are fighting for the same thing as white northerners. For African Americans, 90% of whom are enslaved southerners, the idea of preserving the Union – the so-called Union Cause – had limited resonance. A Union preserved with slavery intact was not going to garner the support of the black population. Lincoln understood that the price of black support was the promise of freedom; nothing else would do.

And finally, Lincoln characterizes the Proclamation as, essentially, a transaction. The Union is making a deal with African Americans: it promises freedom to the Negro, in exchange for the Negro’s support in destroying the Confederate regime. And Lincoln says emphatically: we will keep this promise.

And of course, all Lincoln could do is promise freedom. He was the president of the United States, not the Confederate States. The Proclamation infuriated Confederate slaveholders, but it had no legal power over them. It could not compel enslavers to free the enslaved; only a military victory by the Union could provide such compulsion.

As we know, both parties to the deal kept up their side of the bargain. Over 200,000 African Americans served in the Union military. And thousands of black civilians acted as spies, scouts, laborers, servants, and otherwise helped the Union military. African Americans were an integral part of the Union war effort that defeated the Confederate States.

And the United States abided by the deal with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere in the United States. On a de jure basis at least, the enslaved were forever free.

Sadly, when I talk to people about the Emancipation Proclamation, they have the notion that the Proclamation, in and of itself, ended slavery. It’s as if Lincoln was god-like; he gave the word, the word was made flesh, and freedom rang throughout the land. But as Lincoln himself suggests, it was nowhere near that simple.

“Battle of Manassas,” by Tom “Blind Tom” Wiggins

This is Battle of Manassas by Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, circa 1861. It might take two or three listens to “get” this piece, but once you get it, you might find it moving.

Tom Wiggins was black, blind, brilliant, autistic, artistic, and enslaved. His life defies our imagination, yet, there he was, and one of his gifts to us is his piano mashup “Battle of Manassas.”

As told at the website BlindTom.org, Tom was precocious child who defied the term “handicapped”:

Blind Tom was one of the nineteenth century’s most extraordinary performers. An autistic savant with an encyclopedic memory, all-consuming passion for the piano and mind-boggling capacity to replicate – musically and vocally – any sound he heard, his name was a byword for eccentricity and oddball genius.

Blind Tom was born into slavery in Columbus, Georgia in 1848. His master, Wiley Jones, unwilling to clothe and feed a disabled ‘runt’, wanted him dead and, if not for vigilance of his mother, Charity, Tom would not have survived his infancy. But when Tom was nine months old, Wiley Jones put the baby, his two older sisters and parents up for auction, intending to sell the family off individually and not as a unit. The chances of anyone buying blind infant were remote – his death was as good as certain.

Tom’s life was again spared, thanks to the tenacity of his mother. A few weeks before the auction, Charity approached a neighbor, General James Bethune, and begged him to save them from the auction block. At first he refused her, but on the day of the sale, the lawyer and newspaperman turned up at the slave mart and purchased the family.

Apart from his blindness, Tom was ‘just like any other baby’ at first, but a few months after arriving at the Bethune Farm, things began to change and the toddler began to echo the sounds around him. If a rooster crowed, he made the same noise. If a bird sang, he would pursue it or attack his younger siblings just to hear them scream. If left alone in the cabin, he would drag chairs across the floor or bang pans and pots together – anything to make a noise.

By the age of four, Tom could repeat conversations ten minutes in length, but expressed his own needs in whines and tugs. Unless constantly watched, he would escape: to the chicken coop, woods and finally to the piano in his master’s house, the sound of each note causing his young body to tremble in ecstasy. After a string of unwelcome visits, General Bethune finally recognized the stirrings of a musical prodigy in the raggedy slave child and installed him in the Big House where he underwent extensive tuition.

Music saved – and changed – Tom Wiggins’ life. He went on to become a great performer, something akin to the Fats Waller or Liberace of his era. His unlikely combination of blackness, autism, virtuosity, and creativity made for an irresistible combination on the stage. According to one source, he was the first African AMerican to perform at the White House, when he performed for president Patrick Buchanan (who preceded Abraham Lincoln in office).

One of Wiggins’ most memorable performances was “Battle of Manassas.” Dedicated to the July 1861 Confederate victory in Northern Virginia that made Stonewall Jackson famous (it was also known as the Battle of Bull Run), it combined music from several songs and his own unique arrangement and vocalizations to produce a stunning work. As described at Blind Tom.org,

Tom’s impressionistic musical description of the battle pits the harmony of the right hand against the discord of the left. An insistent bass conjures the trudge of marching columns, tonal clusters evoke the roar of cannon and musketry. A brooding soundscape then ducks, weaves and punches its way into a medley of popular and patriotic songs – Yankee Doodle, Dixie, The Star Spangled Banner and Le Marseillaise – discord tugging at the heels of the melody until it finally implodes into the chaos of a harem-scarem finale. “In an age before recorded sound, Blind Tom’s Battle of Manassas was perhaps the only reference point whereby soldiers, citizens and slaves could make sense of the aural assault”, said biographer Deirdre O’Connell, author of The Ballad of Blind Tom.

The song is a fine piece, but it might take several hearings to fully understand the depth and imagination of the piece. What Jimi Hedrix’s Star Spangled Banner was to the young generation of the 1960s and 1970s, Wiggins’ Battle of Manassas was to the Civil War generation. Its stunning, bombastic end properly recalls the boom of war, and then some.

The website BlindTom.org is an excellent way to learn more about Wiggins. This web video gives a quick recap of his life:

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.

A different view of secession


Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

Ah, you can’t beat that old time humor. This is a Civil War era envelope that I saw in the Library of Congress (LOC) online archives. This is from the LOC description of the item:

Date Created/Published:[between 1861 and 1865]
Medium: 1 print : wood engraving on envelope ; image and text 5 x 4.5 cm, on envelope 8 x 14 cm.
Summary: Picture shows an African American boy and mother with a bundle running.
Notes: Title from item.
Gladstone’s inventory code and notes: Envelope 20; illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.

The characters in the image are, to say the least, unflatteringly depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Of course we of today find this outrageously offensive. But this is how they rolled back in the day. Note that, the face of the child in this picture is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But I suggest that observers not get too hung-up about the picture’s visual vulgarity. This image wasn’t so much about mocking African Americans. It was about satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy, and secondarily, a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands (a term used in the North to describe runaway slaves) adds to its poignancy.

There were tens of thousands of enslaved people who liberated themselves during the war, and their story is not well known or understood in American memory. But as this tiny bit of humor indicates, it was on the minds of wartime Americans. As we commemorate and consider this 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation, it’s something that should be on our minds as well. But I’m not sure if people have focused on this much as we reach the halfway point of the Sesquicentennial.

Perhaps it’s because the process of emancipation was not always a pretty sight. But we can’t look away at truth and insight, simply because it’s ugly.

Like Father, Like Sons: An African American Civil War Sailor and His Heirs

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Photograph of Union Navy veteran William B. Gould with his six sons.
This photograph of the Gould veterans originally appeared in the NAACP’s magazine, Crisis, in December 1917. All of the sons were veterans of World War I except William B. Gould, Jr., a Spanish-American War veteran. William B. Gould, already in his 80s, is seated wearing his GAR uniform. Standing behind elder Gould are, from left to right: Lawrence Wheeler Gould, James Edward Gould, William Benjamin Gould, Jr., Ernest Moore Gould, Herbert Richardson Gould, and Frederick Crawford Gould. (GAR = Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Union veterans)

William B. Gould was born a slave, but that would not define him or confine him. By the end of his life, he would leave a legacy of service for which any American would be proud. And it seems his sons learned from his example.

Gould grew up in the North Carolina port city of Wilmington, NC (which is now famous for its movie industry and for being the hometown of NCAA/NBA great Michael Jordan). On September 21, 1862, Gould and seven other men liberated themselves from captivity by navigating a boat down the Cape Fear River. Gould and the others were picked up by the USS Cambridge, and he became a member of the ship’s crew.

Gould was literate, and kept a diary of his days as a Union sailor. One of his descendants, William B. Gould, IV, used that diary to form the basis of Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. This is from the press release for the book:

The heart of this book is the remarkable Civil War diary of the author’s great-grandfather, William Benjamin Gould, an escaped slave who served in the United States Navy from 1862 until the end of the war. The diary vividly records Gould’s activity as part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off the coast of North Carolina and Virginia; his visits to New York and Boston; the pursuit to Nova Scotia of a hijacked Confederate cruiser; and service in European waters pursuing Confederate ships constructed in Great Britain and France.

Gould’s diary is one of only three known diaries of African American sailors in the Civil War. It is distinguished not only by its details and eloquent tone, but also by its reflections on war, on race, on race relations in the Navy, and on what African Americans might expect after the war.

The book includes introductory chapters that establish the context of the diary narrative, an annotated version of the diary, and a brief account of Gould’s life in Massachusetts after the war.

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The elder Gould was clearly an inspiration to his sons. They enlisted in the US Army, and became part of the next generation of African American soldiers who served in the Spanish-American War and World War I.

As an accompaniment to the book, Stanford University hosts the website Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. The site features primary sources and photographs that tell the story of Gould in an interesting and compelling fashion. I very much enjoyed the site, and I look forward to reading the book. Highly recommended.

Jump Jim Crow

A short video showing images of Thomas Rice as “Jim Crow,” minstrel inspired toys, and clips from minstrel performances. Video features the “Jump Jim Crow” tune. Video created by Office of Diversity and Inclusion in conjunction with the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University ( http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/ )

The term “Jim Crow” is commonly used to refer to the period of racial segregation that lasted from the end of Reconstruction Era (around 1877) to the 1960s, when judicial decisions, congressional legislation, and executive actions officially ended the practice of separate and equal – a practice which almost always resulted in the separate and disciminatory treatment of African Americans.

But where did the term “Jim Crow” come from? It appears to come from the “blackface” minstrel performer Thomas “Daddy” Rice, who darkened his face with charcoal paste or burnt cork and danced a jig while singing the lyrics to his song, “Jump Jim Crow.”

The Jim Crow Museum website provides some details:

“Come listen all you galls and boys,
I’m going to sing a little song,
My name is Jim Crow.
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.”

These words are from the song, “Jim Crow,” as it appeared in sheet music written by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice. Rice, a struggling “actor” (he did short solo skits between play scenes) at the Park Theater in New York, happened upon a black person singing the above song — some accounts say it was an old black slave who walked with difficulty, others say it was a ragged black stable boy. Whether modeled on an old man or a young boy we will never know, but we know that in 1828 Rice appeared on stage as “Jim Crow” — an exaggerated, highly stereotypical black character.

Rice, a white man, was one of the first performers to wear blackface makeup — his skin was darkened with burnt cork. His Jim Crow song-and-dance routine was an astounding success that took him from Louisville to Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and finally to New York in 1832. He also performed to great acclaim in London and Dublin. By then “Jim Crow” was a stock character in minstrel shows, along with counterparts Jim Dandy and Zip Coon. Rice’s subsequent blackface characters were Sambos, Coons, and Dandies. White audiences were receptive to the portrayals of blacks as singing, dancing, grinning fools.

By 1838, the term “Jim Crow” was being used as a collective racial epithet for blacks, not as offensive as nigger, but similar to coon or darkie. The popularity of minstrel shows clearly aided the spread of Jim Crow as a racial slur. This use of the term only lasted half a century. By the end of the 19th century, the words Jim Crow were less likely to be used to derisively describe blacks; instead, the phrase Jim Crow was being used to describe laws and customs which oppressed blacks.

Continue reading

Shotgun Wedding, Civil War Style? (“A Subject of Morality”… and More)

Slavery and wartime, too, can make for strange bedfellows. Or just plain strangeness.

Consider the following Civil War “incident” that is at once bizarre, amusing, disturbing, outrageous and wonderful, but also, uniquely American. It raises all kinds of questions about race, slavery, and family; and about the authority of an occupying power to control, and even force certain behaviors on, an occupied population.

The story comes from Army Chaplain Henry McNeal Turner. As I mentioned in my previous post, Turner was a leader in the black church of Washington, DC, and part of the First Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry. He was also a wartime correspondent for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in which this story was published.

First, some backstory. It’s June/July of 1865. Several months earlier, Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Union General William Sherman in Durham, North Carolina, one of the steps in the end of the Civil War and the demise of the Confederacy. But going as far back as early 1862, the Union Army has captured and occupied various parts of the North Carolina coast. This includes Roanoke Island, the site of a large contraband camp/freedmen’s village.

During this occupation, the Union is “the law.” A Colonel named Holman is acting as judge, jury, and… executioner… while he addresses “legal” and other interactions among the inhabitants in the east NC area under his control. Holman has asked Chaplain Turner to help mediate a case involving “morality”… Turner tells the story:

Roanoke Island is still the theatre of many interesting incidents. Every imaginable phase of characters, every question having… virtue, however hatched with uncertainties through the phantasm scope of suspicion, or open in the vulgar revelry of the unconscionable audacious, are ever and anon before the bar of adjustment… It is nothing uncommon to have reports of the dogs barking, and such trivial affairs, handed in at Head Quarters… Colonel Holman, however, listens to them all, passes judgment upon them, and the parties respectfully retire.

But here is a circumstance to which I most respectfully invite your attention. The narrative runs as follows: Near Edenton, (a place about one hundred mile from the island,) lives an old rich slave-holder, who in the days of southern rights wielded an immense power in that community, or, in other words, he was one of the lords of the land.

He visited Wilmington about twelve years ago, and there saw a very handsome mulatto girl, or rather lady, and conveyed to his country mansion, and admitted to the lofty honors of sacred concubinage. In that very wholesome situation she has remained ever since, giving birth to six children, all illegitimate production of purchased connection. Providentially, both of these individuals had business before the Colonel, and during the investigation the Colonel’s attention was called to their mode of living.

The matter was referred to the Chaplain for counsel and advice, as it was a subject of morality, who decided with the Colonel that he should marry her at once. But he (the slaveholder) could not see the point; he showed many reasons why it would not do to marry a colored woman, in that part of the country. He argued skillfully in the false logic generally produced by slave-owners; finally, he was dismissed, and left with an exultant sense of his victory over Yankee morality.

Colonel Holman, after weighing the matter again, sent for me and finding the parties already there, rose upon his feet, and commenced as follows: “Sir, (looking at the slave-owner,) I have talked to you as a brother and friend: you have had this woman twelve years acting as your wife; she, in the sacred honesty of a lady, has in return given to you, your country and your God, six children: you brought her away from her home, her relations and friends, as a man would convey his wife; you have also devoured the flower of her youth, and torn from her cheeks the flush beauties of maiden-hood; you have reaped and consumed these charms, which God gave her to find a happy partner in life, and make her existence pleasant to the grave, ay! and to an eternal future. You have desecrated the sanctity of the matrimonial institution by force and unjust authority.

“But your day is gone: this is my day, and this great nation’s day-and as an officer of the United States, invested with power to execute justice, and carry out the proclamations of the President,–I tell you and your comrades, I tell all in my military district, such conduct shall not be tolerated. You can take your choice, either marry the woman or endow her and her children with property sufficient to support them for life, or I will demolish everything you have, hang, shoot, or bury you alive, before you shall turn that helpless woman and your ill begotten children away to die, or to be fed by my country, and your property given to hellish rebels. You starved our prisoners to death, and murdered in cold blood the best men God ever made, to sustain your infamous rotten oligarchy, and now, to add insult and injury, you propose to turn out your children. By the eternal God, I will sweep you all with one blast.”

At this point he (slave-owner) raised his voice, and in a trembling voice said: “Colonel, you need not say anymore. I can’t marry Susie and stay here; but if you will allow me time to dispose of my personal property, I will take her and go to the North, or to Canada and there marry her; I will sell my lower plantation, but my upper one I will hold on to.”

“Well, “ said the Colonel, “do you promise in the presence of myself and the chaplain to marry Miss Susan?”

“Yes, sir, I will: for I know it is wrong to throw her and the children away, for Suse has been a mighty good gal.”

At this point we all shook hands over the prospects, and the court adjourned, to meet again when he gets ready to marry Susan and go North.

The floor is open – what are your thoughts on this?

Note: The text from Turner is in An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War: The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner by Andre E. Johnson.