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.

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