Party Fashion, circa 1774: In White, Black, and Color

Fop ’til you drop: Colonial era ballers with their Man(servant)

Yeah, that’s how they rolled. But as these guys would admit, we all look bad wearing last year’s fashions.

This image is from an article titled COLONIAL DRESS CODES, by Linda Baumgarten. It talks about how upper class Virginians dressed at balls and other events in particular, and about how other plantation workers (white and black) dressed in general. The piece is from the Colonial Williamsburg web site.

The men in the picture are historical re-enactors, wearing colonial period (circa 1774) dress. The man at the far right is portraying a slave; notice how his arms are in a neutral position, compared to the other (free white) men. Still, this manservant is dressed better than many white male farmers and laborers of the era.

The article also discusses the clothing worn by slaves. In contrast to the fancy dress of the manservant pictured above, Baumgarten says

Plantation records show that most slaveholders provided their agricultural laborers with a minimum of clothing, issued at the beginning of summer and winter. By the end of each season, the clothing must have been threadbare. Throughout most of the eighteenth century, planters typically ordered hundreds of yards of inexpensive woolens and linens from England for slaves’ suits, shirts, and shifts. With the approach of hostilities with England in the late 1760s and early 1770s, increasing numbers of planters turned to producing their own linen, cotton, or woolen “Virginia cloth” to lessen or eliminate their dependence on Great Britain. The economics of buying or producing textiles in bulk, not to mention the planters’ expectations of what slaves should wear, appeared to leave little room for individuality. Some runaway advertisements say groups of slaves were “all dressed alike” or wearing “the common dress of field slaves.”

Yet a careful reading of period sources shows that slaves not only desired individualized clothing but most managed to achieve it, to exert a measure of control over their appearance. Scholarship has shown that slaves enhanced their appearance and expressed personality by such techniques as styling the hair, wearing a large kerchief as a head wrap, dyeing clothing, purchasing or trading for pieces of clothing, wearing garments in new combinations, or adding pockets or patches.

This article is a great read, enjoy.


National Park Service: The Former ‘Unwritten Rule’ on Discussing the Causes of the Civil War

Note: Before I begin, let me be clear: this story is not a criticism of the National Park Service. They do a great job, and I appreciate their service in maintaining our public parks, including historic battlefields. This article would not be possible if not for the open and frank comments of current and former NPS employees. My goal is not to criticize the NPS, but rather, to show how our discussion of history at public places is affected by the views of the “general public.”

One of the most controversial subjects in American history – perhaps the most controversial – is the cause of the Civil War.

Actually, it’s not that controversial among history scholars in today’s colleges and universities. For them, there is a consensus that the “fundamental” cause of the Civil War was slavery. Or to be more precise, that the cause of the war was a conflict between a Northern society based on free white labor, and a Southern society based on African slave labor.

But outside the academic environment, there is a lot of conflict and division on this subject. There are many people who believe that the war had nothing to do with slavery, or, that slavery was a minor factor at most.

Much of this dissent comes from Confederate partisans and what many call “Lost Cause” advocates. The Lost Cause belief, which originated among former Confederates who wrote their own history of the Civil War, supposes among other things that the defense of states’ rights, not slavery, is what the led to the war. The Lost Cause belief was once prominent among history scholars, but it has faded, especially since the Civil Rights era. The details of the Lost Cause belief have evolved; at one time, Lost Causers claimed that slavery was a “benign institution” which led to the slaves being “contented” and “loyal.” Today, few people deny the horrors of slavery, but you will hear claims that tens of thousands of “Black Confederate soldiers” willingly and loyally fought for the “Southern” cause.

So, how does the National Park Service come into all of this?

The NPS is responsible for maintaining government parks, which includes many historic battlefields, and national monuments and memorials. NPS staff prepare markers at these sites, and give tours. As such, they have to make decisions about what to place on markers, and what to say to visitors.

Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, who was the Chief Historian at the National Park Service from 1995-2005, gave a talk recently about how the causes of the Civil War are discussed in public sites, such as those managed by the NPS. These particular comments made me go “wow”:

In 1998 a number of superintendents and NPS employees of Civil War battlefields met in Nashville to determine a number of issues related to battlefield management… one of those was the interpretation of the battlefield. They decided unanimously that it was time to start talking about the causes of the war in NPS battlefield sites.

It had been an unwritten policy since 1933 when Civil War battlefield were inherited from the Department of War that the Park Service didn’t talk about causes. It was too complex… too contentious… (they) didn’t want to rile the public.

In Virginia (which has a number of battlefields) that played out in a very interesting way… The NPS cut a deal with the state of Virginia that it would not produce any interpretive product – pamphlet, exhibit, slideshow – without getting the approval of the state historian and Douglas Southall Freemen. Just to make sure the Park service said nothing obnoxious about the South and about slavery.

The results of this meeting became public, it wasn’t a secret meeting. Over the next two years the National Park Service received 2200 cards and letters, most as a result of write-in campaigns from Sons of Confederate Veterans and Civil War Roundtables asking us to go in the other direction, to refute the decision of the Superintendents… to go back to not interpreting the causes.

A video of Dr. Pitcaithley’s illuminating and informative talk is further below. The National Park Services did not rescind its new policy.

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Buffalo Soldiers, 25th Infantry Regiment, Montana, 1890

This is one of the more iconic photos of the 25th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers. The picture title is “Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry, some wearing buffalo robes, Ft. Keogh, Montana.” This picture is from the Library of Congress.

For best viewing, be sure that this window extends the entire length of the screen.

A larger-sized version of the picture is here.

Do a Google Search on “confederacy confederate blog”… what do you get?

The Google search engine works, in part, by determining the most popular web sites for searches on certain words; and then using popularity to determine which search results will be listed first.

For example, if people doing a search on “dog” most often go the site “,” then Google will list that site first, and less popular sites thereafter.

(In addition to that, businesses pay Google to have their sites listed first when particular search terms are used; that’s one way that Google makes money.)

OK: do a Google search on “confederacy confederate blog.” Check out what leads the list… which is the most popular thing that people look at when they search the net using those words.

Who would have guessed it?

Awesome Truth: Sojourner’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” Speech

Isabella was born in the Catskills region of New York, north of New York City and south of Albany, in 1797, when New York was still a slave state. She did hard work in the fields during her early life, building strength and stature that she would point to with pride later in life.

Perhaps the second most important and transformative moment in her life was in 1827-28, when she successfully sued for the return of her five year old son, who had been sold South to Alabama in violation of New York’s gradual emancipation laws. She became the first black person to win this kind of case ever. Her victory was achieved with the help of Isaac and Maria Van Wagener, an antislavery couple who took her in during 1826 (and whose last name she took until the 1840s), the Quakers, and Dutch lawyers in Ulster County, New York. The first most important moment was probably the establishment of her relationship with God, as she would become a fervent believer and evangelist. Using today’s language, we would probably call her a Pentecostal.

Isabelle Wagener “re-branded” herself as Sojourner Truth in 1843.

Sojourner Truth, circa 1870 – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Sojourner Truth would go on to become one of the most prominent black female supporters of abolition and woman’s suffrage in the 19th century. She is certainly one of the most well known black women from the era in modern American memory. Much of that fame stems from her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.

Truth was illiterate, but she developed into a powerful speaker nonetheless. Nell Painter, a Sojourner Truth biographer, notes that fellow negro abolitionist Frederick Douglass described Truth as giving “quaint speeches” that had a “strange compound of wit and wisdom, of wild enthusiasm and flint-like common sense.” In an age where oratory ability and education were held in high esteem, Truth gained fame for having the former, despite lacking the latter.

In 1851, Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, where she gave her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

An excellent rendition of the speech is given by actress Cicely Tyson:

Confederate Secretary of War: Negroes Can’t be Soldiers… Unless They Can Pass for White

During the Civil War, it was generally understood in the Confederacy that negroes – “blacks” – would not or could not be used as soldiers. However, a question arose in 1863: what about using mixed-race people for soldiers?

Mobile, Alabama, along with New Orleans and Charleston, were Confederate cities with a sizable mixed-race population. Mixed-race people in the southern portions of Louisiana and Alabama were often called creoles or black creoles. Many of them were so light that they could pass for white, and often had much more in common with their white cousins than with their black cousins. Importantly, many of these creoles wanted to serve in the armed forces of the Confederate States of America (CSA).

This led Dabney H. Maury, a CSA Major-General, to formally request that creoles be used as soldiers in the CSA armed forces. This is his request, followed by the answer he got from the Confederate government:

Mobile, Ala., November 7, 1863.
Adjt. and Insp. Gen., C.S. Army, Richmond, Va.:

GENERAL: I again call your attention to my request to accept into the Confederate service the company of creoles of Mobile, because I think that perhaps the War Department is not exactly informed about the people I have reference to. When Spain ceded this territory to the United States in 1803, the creoles were guaranteed all the immunities and privileges of the citizens of the United States, and have continued to enjoy them up to this time. They have, many of them, negro blood in the degree which disqualifies other persons of negro race from the rights of citizens, but they do not stand here on the footing of negroes. They are very anxious to enter the Confederate service, and I propose to make heavy artillerists of them, for which they will be admirably qualified. Please let me hear at your earliest convenience if I may have them enrolled in a company, or in companies if I can find enough of them to make more than one company.

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

[First indorsement.]
November 20, 1863.
Respectfully submitted to the Secretary of War. An application to have a company of creoles at Mobile accepted into Confederate service.
By order, &c.:
Captain and Assistant Adjutant-General.

[Second indorsement.]
[NOVEMBER] 24, 1863.
Our position with the North and before the world will not allow the employment as armed soldiers of negroes.If these creoles can be naturally and properly discriminated from negroes, the authority may be considered as conferred; otherwise not, unless you can enlist them as “navvies” (to use the English term) or for subordinate working purposes.
J. A. S.,

Source: Official Records of the Rebellion, series 4, volume 2, page 941

The J. A. S in the above is CSA Secretary of War James Seddon. Seddon is asked: can we use freemen as soldiers? Seddon’s reply: no… unless they can pass for white (which many creoles could do).

I guess this is the Confederate version of don’t ask, don’t tell.

But just as gays were denied participation in the military under the don’t ask, don’t tell rules, so too were mixed race people denied under Confederate policy. One has to wonder how the creoles, who were willing to risk their lives in service to their nation, felt after being reminded of their “place” in Confederate society.

navvy -Brit., dated: a laborer employed in the excavation and construction of a road, railroad, or canal.
ORIGIN early 19th cent.: abbreviation of navigator.

Colored Girl, Georgia, Circa 1899-1900

This beautiful photograph is from a collection of images that was prepared for the 1900 Paris Exposition. The picture was included in a display devoted to the history and “present conditions” of African Americans.

W.E.B. Du Bois and special agent Thomas J. Calloway spearheaded the planning, collection and installation of the exhibit materials, which included 500 photographs. The Library of Congress holds approximately 220 mounted photographs reportedly displayed in the exhibition. Thankfully, this and other imagescollected by DuBois are available for viewing on-line from the Library of Congress. At the Library itself, the image is part of the Daniel Murray Collection.

Many of the pictures features images from the black middle class community in Atlanta and Georgia. DuBois worked at Atlanta University, a black college formed at the end of the Civil War. DuBois, one of the greatest activists and scholars, used the exhibit to show the culture and progress of the African American community to a world audience.

The title of this image is simply “African American girl, full-length portrait, standing next to chair, facing front.”

The Octoroon, a Tragic Mulatto Tale of the Old South

The Octoroon is a tragic mulatto play by Irish playwright and actor Dion Boucicault. It opened on Broadway in 1859, just a few years before the American Civil War. The play was based on Mayne Reid’s novel, The Quadroon, and the incidents relating to the murder of the slave in Albany Fonblanque’s novel, The Filibuster.

Wikipedia describes the tragic mulatto genre:

The Tragic mulatto is a stereotypical fictional character that appeared in American literature during the 19th and 20th centuries. The “tragic mulatto” is an archetypical mixed race person (a “mulatto”), who is assumed to be sad or even suicidal because he/she fails to completely fit in the “white world” or the “black world”. As such, the “tragic mulatto” is depicted as the victim of the society he/she lives in, a society divided by race. Because of society’s reluctance to acknowledge ambiguity in racial classifications, this character is particularly vulnerable.

The “tragic mulatta” figure is a woman of biracial heritage who must endure the hardships of African-Americans in the antebellum South, even though she may look white enough that her ethnicity is not immediately obvious. As the name implies, tragic mulattas almost always meet a bad end.

Generally, the tragic mulatta archetype falls into one of three categories:
• A woman who can “pass” for white attempts to do so, is accepted as white by society and falls in love with a white man. Eventually, her status as a bi-racial person is revealed and the story ends in tragedy.
• A woman appears to be white. She has suffered little hardship in her life, but upon the revelation that she is mixed race, she loses her social standing.
• A woman who has all the social graces that come along with being a middle-class or upper-class white woman is nonetheless subjected to slavery.

The play centers around its heroine Zoe, a Louisiana octoroon in the pre-Civil War era. An octoroon is a person who has one biracial grandparent, while the other three grandparents are white. An octoroon is the child of a white parent and a quadroon parent. A quadroon is the child of a white parent and a biracial parent.

Octoroons are very often light enough to appear white. However, under the era’s one-drop rule, they were considered black. Additionally, any child born to a slave was automatically considered a slave. So, an octoroon born to a quadroon mother, where the quadroon mother was born to a biracial slave mother, was herself a slave.


Zoe lives on the Louisiana slave plantation of the late Judge Peyton and his wife, Mrs. Peyton. Due to financial problems, Mrs. Peyton is being forced to sell the plantation and its slaves. Zoe is the daughter of Judge Peyton through one of the slaves. Zoe is light enough that she appears white. Zoe was raised as, and grew-up believing, she was a freewoman, but learns during the play that she is legally a slave.

The hero of the play is George, the nephew of Mrs. Peyton, who visits the plantation after an extended stay in France. George falls in love with Zoe, and he proposes to her. However, Zoe rejects the proposition, pointing out that the law prevents a white man from marrying a “black” woman. George offers to take her to a different country, but Zoe says wishes to stay with the plantation.

The villain of the play is Jacob McClosky, a scoundrel whose under-handed dealings with the late Judge Peyton led to the plantation’s financial problems. McClosky desires Zoe for himself, but she rejects him. He plots to have her sold with the plantation and the rest of the slaves, and then buy her and make her his mistress.

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Give No Quarter: Don’t Capture Colored Troops… Kill Them

Most people with an interest in the Civil War are familiar with what has been called the Fort Pillow Massacre. The following description of that event and others is taken from The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference (paperback, p435):

On April 12, 1864, while raiding important Federal communications facilities, Confederate cavalry commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked and captured Fort Pillow, TN. Many of the US Colored Troops defending the fort were murdered after they surrendered, as were some white defenders. Quickly termed a “massacre” by Northerners, Fort Pillow engendered an investigation by the US Congress… Many Northern soldiers, particularly black soldiers, adopted “Remember Fort Pillow” as a battle cry.

Six days later, April 18 at Poison Spring, Arkansas, 1200 Union troops on a foraging expedition-438 of them black troopers from the First Kansas Colored Volunteers-were attacked by nearly 3400 Confederates under General John Marmaduke and badly defeated. Over half the Union casualties were black, and witnesses reported that some of them were murdered. Though Confederates denied the charge, evidence supported it.

Almost immediately, black soldiers responded on the battlefield. At Jenkins Ferry, on the Sabine River River in Arkansas, April, 1864-an overall Union defeat-a charge by the Second Kansas Colored Volunteers shouting, “Remember Poison Springs!” overwhelmed a Confederate battery and resulted in numerous Southern casualties.

Other black troops reciprocated Confederate brutality with ferocity, or “under the black flag” (i.e., giving no quarter).

There has been considerable controversy over whether Fort Pillow actually was a “massacre,” and if it was, who was responsible for it. A congressional investigation basically exonerated Nathan Bedford Forrest from blame, but many historians do believe that a massacre took place.

Given all of that, I find the following correspondence between a set of Confederate officers very interesting. In the Trans-Mississippi region, an area that included Louisiana, it seems a military policy was developed which instructed that no quarter would be given to Colored Troops. If the meaning of “no quarter” isn’t clear yet, let me explain: “no quarter” means show no mercy, take no prisoners; whoever you fight, you kill.

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