Flag, Freedom, and Fury: African American Soldier Tells his Wife “the black man is… coming… with all the terrible trappings of war.”

22nd-Infantry-USCT
Regimental flag of the 22nd Infantry Regiment, United States Colored Troops, circa 1863-1865. Art by David Bustill Bowser, an African American artist who designed several USCT flags. The motto at the top of the flag is “Sic semper tyrannis,” a Latin phrase meaning “thus always to tyrants,” and sometimes translated as “death to tyrants” or “down with the tyrant.”
Image Source: Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-23096; see here for more information.

Among academic and layman historians, there is sometimes a debate about why the common soldier fought in the Civil War. Menomine Maimi, an African American Union soldier, left no doubt about his motivations in a letter to his wife: “Do you know or think what the end of this war is to decide? It is to decide whether we are to have freedom to all or slavery to all. If the Southern Confederacy succeeds, then you may bid farewell to all liberty thereafter and either be driven to a foreign land or held in slavery here. If our government succeeds, then your race and our race will be free.”

Menomine Maimi, AKA Meunomennie Maimi, was an African American who first enlisted in a white regiment in Connecticut, and then was transferred to the famed 54th Massachusetts. In April 1863, he wrote a poignant letter to his spouse that was published in the Weekly Anglo-African, a black-audience newspaper in New York. He had been sick or injured, perhaps near death; but he was now well, and wanted to assure his wife that he was OK, and still spurred to service. Maimi was, to use a modern term, a man on a mission. Eventually, he left the army with a medical discharge.

Maimi’s letter is in equal parts profoundly patriotic, scathingly anti-slavery, aggressively assertive of his manly responsibilities, and undergirded by his belief in God. Apparently, his wife had urged him to leave the army — perhaps even desert — because he was mistreated by his fellow soldiers, probably because of his race. But his mission would not allow him to abandon his duty.

Maimi told his wife, emphatically, that he was a solider, and was duty bound to be true to his country, his fellow soldiers, and also, his “enslaved brothers.” His service had its rewards: the secessionists/Confederates who “denied that God made the black man a man at all” would now see “the black man… coming… with a rifle, saber, and all the terrible trappings of war.” By his actions, and those of the “black (and)… white sons” of the Union, “the (American) flag which so long has defended their institutions (i.e., slavery)” would become an “emblem of freedom to all, whether black or white.”

And if he suffered and even died while doing his duty, that was a price that he – and his wife – would have to pay.

This is a remarkable piece of writing; delve in. From the Weekly Anglo-American, New York, NY, April 18, 1863:

My Dear Wife

When I wrote you the last letter I was quite sick, And I did not to know as I should ever be able to write to you again; but I am much better now and write to relieve your mind… I shall come home, if permitted to come home, but as soon as my health will admit, will return to duty.

Do you know or think what the end of this war is to decide? It is to decide whether we are to have freedom to all or slavery to all. If the Southern Confederacy succeeds, then you may bid for farewell to all liberty thereafter and either be driven to a foreign land or held in slavery here. If our government succeeds, then your race and our race will be free. The government has torn down the only barrier that existed against us as a people. When slavery passes away, the prejudices that belonged to it must follow. The government calls for the colored man’s help and, if he is not a fool, he will give it.

… The white man thought again how to get his money without his own dear self having to broil beneath a hot sun or see his wife or delicate child stoop to the labor of picking the cotton from the field or gathering rice from its damp bed. The Indian had failed him; the few captives they took died when they came to forced labor upon them, that’s proving the red man unable to do the labor in those climes. His fiend-like eyes fell upon the black man. Thought he, “I have it. We will get some of the states that cannot grow these plants and do not need as many hands to help them as we do, to raise blacks for us, and we will purchase these of them, and they will keep their mouths shut about this liberty that was only meant for us and our children.”

They denied that God made the black man a man at all, and brought their most learned judges and doctors of the gospel and laws to attempt to prove by them that the sons of Africa were not even human. They try to convince the world that the black man sprang from the brute creation; that the kings and princes and noble sons of the sunny land sprang from the loins of monkeys and apes, who made the war with each other and slaves of each other in their mother country and it was but right to buy and steal the children of apes or monkeys and to enslave them.

How do you fancy, wife, the idea of being part ape or monkey? I have often heard our grandmother tell what a noble man your great-grandfather was, how much he knew and was respected by his neighbors and the white man that owned him, and how her own father, who followed the condition of his father, who died a slave, suffered before he bought his freedom; how she and her little sisters and brothers were robbed of her hard-earned a property by one who cared not for the rights of the black child. Tell grandmother that Maimi will strike for her wrongs as well as for those of others.

They shall see these gentle monkeys, that they thought they had so fast in chains and fetters, coming on a long visit to them, with a rifle, saber, and all the terrible trappings of war. Not one at a time cringing like whipped hounds as we were, but by the thousands and if that doesn’t suffice, by millions. Like Pharaoh’s lice, we shall be found in all his palaces, will be his terror and his torment; he shall yet wish he had never heard of us. We will never forsake him, until he repents in sackcloth and ashes his crime of taking from us our manhood and reducing us to the brute creation.

We will accept nothing but, without any mental or other reservation, our rights and liberties. He shall give up his monkeyizing, his demonic, infernal plan of ruining our country and destroying our race. The black man shall yet hold up his head and be a man; not a poor despised brute. But his own good hands must help strike the blows and gain the victory through blood, before the American slavery-taught white man can believe that the poor, oppressed slave and the downtrodden black man is his true friend and brother-man. With all his books and the vast amounts of learning and the light of civilization shining on his path, he is still in the dark. In spite of his suffering at the hands of the slave power, the loss of his sons, who have fallen in the defense of his insulted flag, his loss of treasures and the threatened loss of his country, he is yet blind. He still bows down to these murdering slaveholders and is willing to kiss their feet, if they will but return to the Union as it was and kindly rule over him.

This is what the blind copperheads ask of them, but the slaveholder despises them and their offers, because they do it in the name of Democracy which they hate, as there are yet some few spots of freedom in that, and they hate everything which is free or points toward justice for any but themselves and their institutions. They ask, with arms in their hands, the right to buy and sell, to rob and murder all that are poor enough without respect to color or blood. They are selfish and care for no one but themselves.

They are my enemies, my flag’s enemies, the flag I was born under, have suffered so much under—the enemies to God and our government. It is they who have struck down the flag which so long has defended their institutions before they left our Union. It has by them been cast to the earth and trampled under foot, because it professed to be the flag of liberty and freedom, although it was only liberty for the white man, but it included the poor white man as well as the rich and noble sons of the south, the monkey-raisers and drivers. They tore that flag from its staff and in its place put their rebel rag, and swore by it that freedom should die. But they shall find that it cannot die, that its black sons as well as its loyal white sons are faithful, and will shed the last drop of blood in defense of the starry banner that is to be the emblem of freedom to all, whether black or white. Continue reading

Portaits from Natchez, Mississippi

Studio portrait of young African American girl copy
Studio portrait of African American young girl; circa late 19th century/early 20th century; by Norman Studios in Natchez, Mississippi (Click on the picture to get a full screen view of the image)
Image Source: Photograph courtesy Louisiana State University Libraries, Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection, Item Number 37780413114a

These fine portraits of African American females are from the Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection, a set of photographs in the Special Collections of the Louisiana State University Libraries.

The Gandy Collection contains photos from the Gurney and Norman studios, and features images from the Natchez, Mississippi area where the studios were located. As noted at the LSU web page describing the collection,

Brothers Henry and M. J. Gurney established a daguerreotype studio in Natchez in 1851 and began recording the lives of their fellow citizens using the latest in photographic technology. The Civil War brought economic disaster and social upheaval to the region, but Natchez quickly recovered.

In 1870, Henry Gurney hired a new employee, Henry Norman, and by 1876 Norman had opened his own studio, buying out Gurney’s studio to do so. Henry Norman became the best-known photographer in the region. When he died in 1913, his son Earl inherited the studio. Earl, like his father, became widely known for his photographic skills and left images spanning nearly 40 years.

The photographs were taken by the Norman Studios. The undated images were taken in the late 19th century or early 20th century.

Studio portrait of African American woman in long formal and feather fan hat 2
Studio portrait of African American woman in long formal and feather fan hat; circa late 19th century/early 20th century; by Norman Studios in Natchez, Mississippi (Click on the picture to get a full screen view of the image)
Image Source: Photograph courtesy Louisiana State University Libraries, Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection, Item Number 37780413103a

These photos were taken in the 1890s and 1900s. In 1900, Natchez had a population of 12,200 persons; it was one of just ten places in Mississippi whose population exceeded 4,000 people, according to the New International Encyclopædia, Volume 13. Its size and commerce (it was a Mississippi River port for cotton and other products) aided the development of African American middle class in the city. As with many Americans who could afford it, blacks from the Natchez area used photography to capture their images for posterity.

Of course, Mississippi at the time was in the midst of developing a Jim Crow system that would become infamous by the mid-20th century. But the grace and dignity personified in these images shows that, at least for a few moments, that African Americans could project a high sense of self and esteem that could help carry them through the hard times their community endured.

Studio portrait of African American young girl standing and holding a fan 2
Studio portrait of African American young girl standing and holding a fan; circa late 19th century/early 20th century; by Norman Studios in Natchez, Mississippi (Click on the picture to get a full screen view of the image)
Image Source: Photograph courtesy Louisiana State University Libraries, Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection, Item Number 37780413109a

Continue reading

The Grand Review of the Armies: 1865 and 2015

As noted in Wikipedia, “The Grand Review of the Armies was a military procession and celebration in Washington, DC, on May 23 and May 24, 1865, after the close of the American Civil War. Elements of the Union Army paraded through the streets of the capital to receive accolades from the crowds and reviewing politicians, officials, and prominent citizens, including the President Andrew Johnson.” The Grand Review was basically a victory parade for the Union as it celebrated the end of the Civil War, the preservation of the Union, and the defeat of the Confederacy.

This Youtube video that takes photographs from that event and stitches them into a video. Enjoy:

Some 180,000 African Americans enlisted in the Union army, and were members of the US Colored Troops (USCT) — the part of the army that was created for the enrollment and organization of black soldiers into the Union army. Yet, none of the USCT regiments were represented in the Grand Review. Some say this was a slight to the black soldiers; others have noted that USCT regiments were engaged in other activities that made them unavailable for the Grand Review (a number of troops were sent to Texas over concerns for the protection of the Mexican border). For whatever reason, the USCT were not present for that glorious victory celebration.

In May of this year, a number events were held in Washington DC to commemorate the Grand Review’s 150th anniversary. The activities culminated with a reenactment of the Grand Review Parade on May 17, 2015. In tribute to the African American soldiers who were not participants in the earlier parade, the May 17 event included reenactors from African American regiments, as well as descendants of black Civil War soldiers, along with reenactors from other Union regiments from around the country.

This Youtube video, from the C-SPAN network, provides footage from the May 17, 1865 reenactment. It includes useful commentary from Dr. Malcolm Beech, a USCT reenactor/living historian, who is the president of the USCTLHA – the USCT Living History Association:

An extended video of the reenactment, and additional comments from Dr. Malcolm Beech about the USCT Living History Association, is here, from the C-SPAN network.

These are additional photos from the May reenactment:

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Banner for the 25th Army Corps, which was comprised solely of USCT regiments

Banner for the 25th Army Corps, which was comprised solely of USCT regiments

More photos are below the fold: Continue reading

Sympathy (‘I know why the caged bird sings’), by Paul Laurence Dunbar

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Caged Bird in Tree; No credited illustrator; from an unknown book by author Alfred Gatty (1809-1873), published by Bell and Daldy, London
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Sympathy, by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
********

Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first African-American poets to gain national critical acclaim. He was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872. His parents were ex-slaves from Kentucky. His father was an escaped slave who served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War.

Dunbar was the lone black student in his high school in Dayton, OH. He excelled in school, where he was a member of the debating society, editor of the school paper and president of the school’s literary society. Two of his high school classmates were Wilbur and Orville Wright; they invested in his newspaper the Dayton Tattler, which was aimed at the city’s black community.


Paul Laurence Dunbar stamp, US Postal Service

Dunbar died in 1906, at the young age of 33, due to tuberculosis. Even so, he created a huge body of work, including poetry, short stories and novels. He was also a lyricist for the musical comedy In Dahomey which was the first full-length musical written and performed by blacks to be booked into a Broadway theater. The play included the talents of fellow lyricist James Weldon Johnson and the vaudeville stars Bert Williams and George Walker.

Frederick Douglass: He knew why the caged bird sang

From YouTube: This is a clip from the film 12 Years a Slave. The slaves sing “Roll Jordan Roll” during a funeral for one of their own.

Frederick Douglass, as I like to say, was the most eminently quotable man of his generation. This 19th century abolitionist, writer, publisher, orator, community activist, civil servant, and former slave, was perhaps the spokesman for the African American community during his lifetime.

In his memoir My Bondage and My Freedom – which was part of the slave narrative literary genre – Douglass spoke about the meaning of song to enslaved African Americans. Songs had many purposes. They were utilitarian: they helped overseers keep track of slaves working in the fields. They were flattering: they praised the slave master in a way that might curry his or her favor. And they were healing: they helped purge the soul of the pain that bondage brought to the body.

Douglass warned, don’t mistake the slaves’ songs as a sign of their contentment: “Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy and peace. Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness.”

These are Douglass’ thoughts on the meaning and value of song to the enslaved, from My Bondage and My Freedom:

Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. “Make a noise,” “make a noise,” and “bear a hand,” are the words usually addressed to the slaves when there is silence amongst them. This may account for the almost constant singing heard in the southern states. There was, generally, more or less singing among the teamsters, as it was one means of letting the overseer know where they were, and that they were moving on with the work.

But, on allowance day, those who visited the great house farm were peculiarly excited and noisy. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild notes. These were not always merry because they were wild. On the contrary, they were mostly of a plaintive cast, and told a tale of grief and sorrow. In the most boisterous outbursts of rapturous sentiment, there was ever a tinge of deep melancholy.

In all the songs of the slaves, there was ever some expression in praise of the great house farm; something which would flatter the pride of the owner, and, possibly, draw a favorable glance from him.

I am going away to the great house farm,
O yea! O yea! O yea!
My old master is a good old master,
O yea! O yea! O yea!

This they would sing, with other words of their own improvising—jargon to others, but full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought, that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress truly spiritual-minded men and women with the soul-crushing and death-dealing character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of its mere physical cruelties. They speak to the heart and to the soul of the thoughtful. I cannot better express my sense of them now, than ten years ago, when, in sketching my life, I thus spoke of this feature of my plantation experience:

I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those rude, and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle, so that I neither saw or heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirits, and filled my heart with ineffable sadness. The mere recurrence, even now, afflicts my spirit, and while I am writing these lines, my tears are falling.

To those songs I trace my first glimmering conceptions of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.

The remark is not unfrequently made, that slaves are the most contended and happy laborers in the world. They dance and sing, and make all manner of joyful noises—so they do; but it is a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sing. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the joys, of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that, when pressed to extremes, it often avails itself of the most opposite methods… The singing of a man cast away on a desolate island, might be as appropriately considered an evidence of his contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave. Sorrow and desolation have their songs, as well as joy and peace. Slaves sing more to make themselves happy, than to express their happiness.

Continue reading

Gen W T Sherman: Stop recruiting for soldiers from my black laborers; “I must have (negro) labor and a large quantity of it.”


Union General William T. Sherman
Image Source: Old Pictures.com

On June 21, 1864, Union General William T. Sherman was in a foul mood. The cause of his exasperation this day was the loss of black labor due to the aggressive soldier recruitment efforts of Union General Lorenzo Thomas. Thomas had been tasked with enlisting former slaves into the Union army along the Mississippi River and Mississippi Valley, and he was doing too good a job as far as Sherman was concerned.

In the following communication, Sherman makes it clear: “I must have (negro) labor and a large quantity of it.” The fact that the army needed the support of African Americans was not up for debate. Sherman wanted them as laborers, whereas Thomas wanted them as soldiers.

Sherman complained that slaveowners were fleeing north Georgia, for example, and taking their slaves with them. That created a problem for Sherman because he seemed to expect that he could use those slaves as laborers to support his military operations. Although Sherman had his doubts about the viability of negroes as soldiers, he is explicit that he doesn’t mind blacks being enlisted, per se… as long as he could get all the black laborers he needed first.

So great is the value of these laborers that Sherman orders a halt Lorenzo Thomas’ recruiting efforts:

Hdqrs. Military Division Of The Mississippi,
In the Field, Big Shanty, June 21, 1864.

General Lorenzo Thomas,
Chattanooga:

It has repeatedly come to my knowledge, on the Mississippi, and recently Colonel Beckwith, my chief commissary, reported officially that his negro cattle drivers and gangs for unloading cars were stampeded and broken up by recruiting officers who actually used their authority to carry them off by a species of force. I had to stop it at once.

I am receiving no negroes now, because their owners have driven them to Southwest Georgia. I believe that negroes better serve the Army as teamsters, pioneers, and servants, and have no objection to the surplus, if any, being enlisted as soldiers, but I must have labor and a large quantity of it. I confess I would prefer 300 negroes armed with spades and axes than 1,000 as soldiers.

Still I repeat I have no objection to the enlistment of negroes if my working parties are not interfered with, and if they are interfered with I must put a summary stop to it. For God’s sake let the negro question develop itself slowly and naturally, and not by premature cultivation make it a weak element in our policy. I think I understand the negro as well as anybody, and profess as much conviction in the fact of his certain freedom as you or any one, but he, like all other of the genus homo, must pass through a probationary state before he is qualified for utter and complete freedom. As soldiers it is still an open question, which I am perfectly willing should be fairly and honestly tested. Negroes are as scarce in North Georgia as in Ohio. All are at and below Macon and Columbus, Ga.

W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General, Commanding.

Source: THE MISCELLANEOUS DOCUMENTS OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES FOR THE FIRST SESSION OF THE FIFTY-SECOND CONGRESS, 1891-’92.

What are we to make of Sherman’s remarks? I have a few thoughts:

o Sherman’s comments highlight an unappreciated fact: that African American labor was an essential part of the Union war effort. We know a lot about the black sailors and soldiers who numbered over 200,000, and were a part of the Union’s war machine. But there were tens of thousands, perhaps over a hundred thousand, African Americans who acted as servants, cooks, teamsters, pioneers, construction workers, medical aides, animal caretakers, etc, and were key parts of the civilian population that directly supported the Union efforts. I don’t think this gets enough recognition or attention.

It might be too strong to say the Union would have lost without the support of black civilians. But at the least, African American laborers enabled tens of thousands more soldiers to be dedicated to combat and other duties. By fulfilling various logistical and operational functions, these black men and women helped to, sometimes literally, pave the way for Union army in the South. Continue reading

Studio portrait of African American man with walrus mustache

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Studio portrait of African American man with walrus mustache; circa late 19th century/early 20th century; probably in Natchez, Mississippi
Image Source: Photograph courtesy Louisiana State University Libraries, Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection, Item Number 37780413106a; see details below

This fine portrait of an African American male, perhaps named Alex Mazique, is from the Thomas H. and Joan W. Gandy Photograph Collection, a set of photographs in the Special Collections of the Louisiana State University Libraries.

The Gandy Collection contains photos from the Gurney and Norman studios, and features images from the Natchez, Mississippi area where the studios were located. As noted at the LSU web page describing the collection,

Brothers Henry and M. J. Gurney established a daguerreotype studio in Natchez in 1851 and began recording the lives of their fellow citizens using the latest in photographic technology. The Civil War brought economic disaster and social upheaval to the region, but Natchez quickly recovered.

In 1870, Henry Gurney hired a new employee, Henry Norman, and by 1876 Norman had opened his own studio, buying out Gurney’s studio to do so. Henry Norman became the best-known photographer in the region. When he died in 1913, his son Earl inherited the studio. Earl, like his father, became widely known for his photographic skills and left images spanning nearly 40 years.

The photograph was taken by the Norman Studios. This undated image was taken in the late 19th century or early 20th century.