The Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp

Moran-Slave_Hunt_Dismal_Swamp2
Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran, 1862

The Great Dismal Swamp is a huge marshy area that stretches from the city of Norfolk in southeastern Virginia to Elizabeth City in northeastern North Carolina. The swamp was infamous (to white slaveholders) in the pre-Civil War era as a refuge for freedom seeking African Americans. Communities of so-called Great Dismal Swamp maroons, along with a number of Native Americans, made it their home. Wikipedia provides this description of the maroons:

In his 1939 article “Maroons Within the Present Limits of the United States”, (historian) Herbert Aptheker stated that likely “about two thousand Negroes, fugitives, or the descendants of fugitives” lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, trading with white people outside the swamp. Results of a study published in 2007, “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp”, say that thousands of people lived in the swamp between 1630 and 1865, Native Americans, maroons and enslaved laborers on the canal (being built in the Swamp). A 2011 study speculated that thousands may have lived in the swamp between the 1600s and 1860.

While the precise number of maroons who lived in the swamp at that time is unknown, it is believed to have been one of the largest maroon colonies in the United States. It is established that “several thousand” were living there by the 19th century. Fear of slave unrest and fugitive slaves living among maroon population caused concern amongst local whites.

A militia with dogs went into the swamp in 1823 in an attempt to remove the maroons and destroy their community, but most people escaped. In 1847, North Carolina passed a law specifically aimed at apprehending the maroons in the swamp.However, unlike other maroon communities, where local militias often captured the residents and destroyed their homes, those in the Great Dismal Swamp mostly avoided capture or the discovery of their homes.

The theme of the Swamp as a place of escape and refuge was seen in several 19th Century works of art. One of the more well-known is the painting Slave Hunt, Dismal Swamp, Virginia by Thomas Moran. The picture, shown above, is centered around a slave family – father, mother, and child – that is on the run from slave catchers. The father holds a bloody knife, having killed a chasing dog. But two other dogs are shown in pursuit, and two slave-catchers loom in the dark background. The family seems frozen in time, as they look up at the on-coming dogs; freedom will not come easy, if it comes at all. The only thing we know for sure is that this family will put up a fight.

The painting was completed in 1862, in the early years of the Civil War. According to the book The Civil War in American Art, edited by Eleanor James Harvey, the picture was commissioned by an abolitionist, and may be based in part on a literary work by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Partially at the request of the ardent abolitionist Charles Sumner, Longfellow wrote a group of pieces in a collection called  Poems on Slavery. One of those works, The Slave in the Dismal Swamp, talks of the harsh life in the marsh:

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse’s tramp
And a bloodhound’s distant bay.

Where will-o’-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

Many historians today situate the Dismal Swamp maroon communities as part of the larger Underground Railroad network and African American anti-slavery resistance. There is a lot of material about the maroons in books and on the Web. I found this document, which is a general/pictorial history of the Swamp, quite interesting and it spurred me to do further reading on the subject.

Osman, a Great Dismal Swamp Maroon, by David Hunter Strother, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1856; image of an escaped slave in the North Carolina part of the Great Dismal Swamp
Source: Wikipedia Commons

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.

Wisconsin Union Soldiers and Runaway Freedwoman

Wisconsin-Union-Men-and-Freedwoman
Cropped photograph of Wisconsin Union soldiers who helped a runaway teenager from Kentucky escape to freedom in 1862.
This is titled “Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant, 25 Wisconsin Regiment of Racine, Wis. [and] Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster 22 Wisconsin of Geneva, Wis.” in the Library of Congress photograph collection.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-10940

This Civil War era image depicts a self-liberated teenaged woman (AKA runaway slave) from Kentucky who was eventually escorted to freedom with the aid of Union soldiers from Wisconsin. Recollect that Kentucky, while loyal to the Union, was a slave state throughout the course of the Civil War. (Maryland and Missouri, which were also Union slave states, abolished the institution before the war ended.)

The story behind the picture is provided at the Oxford African American Studies Center website. The two men in the photograph were part of Wisconsin’s 22nd Infantry Regiment, which was “composed of numerous sympathizers to the abolitionist cause.” They escorted the young woman in the picture from Nicholasville, Kentucky, to the home of Levi Coffin, an Underground Railroad operator in Cincinnati, Ohio, disguising her as a “mulatto soldier boy.” The picture was taken in Cincinnati. The young woman, whose name is not identified, was eventually sent to Racine, Wisconsin. An expanded version of the story is below the fold.

I want to offer a hat tip to Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthhamer for highlighting this interesting image in their book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery.

Continue reading

Phony or For Real: The Confederate Colonel or the Boss N*****?

OK, both, or one, or neither of the following movie trailers is fake. Can you guess which is phony and which is for real?

First, there’s the southern colonel who’s cooked up a recipe for revenge:


 
Then there’s the fugitive slave who’s gone out west for freedom, fame, and fortune:


 
The answers are below the jump. Continue reading