Ragged Freedom in Louisiana: “No White men in Louisiana could have done more or better than these Negroes”

Cutting Sugar Cane
Cutting sugar cane in Louisiana [between 1880 and 1897]
By William Henry Jackson, 1843-1942, photographer; Detroit Publishing Co., publisher
Source: Library of Congress; Call Number/Physical Location LC-D418-8133 [P&P]; Reproduction Number LC-DIG-det-4a27003

During the period of 1861-1865, there were two significant over-arching events in the South: first, a war between the United States and the Confederate States; and second, the ongoing destruction of slavery.

When the Civil War began, 90% of all African Americans were enslaved. Enslavement was the default, common condition of a black man, woman, or child. Among all the states (including Border States that remained loyal to the Union), almost 4 million people were held in bondage. The war gave enslaved people the opportunity to be free. But opportunity did not knock on every door, nor did it knock at the same time for all. The “freedom” experience varied over space and time, as scholars like to say.

We sometimes think or imagine that gaining freedom was a glorious event. But in fact, freedom could be ugly. This is one story of ugly freedom.

H. Styles was an Inspector of Plantations in the US Treasury Department. In August of 1863, he visited a sugar plantation that was “situated 82 miles above this City (New Orleans) on the Grand Cailloux, Parish Terrebonne.” This was part of a United States effort to inventory the assets (such as plantations) in former Confederate territory that had been recovered by the US (with an eye to taxing or otherwise using plantation resources for the benefit of the Union).

Inspector Styles discovered that the plantation owner, Dick Robinson, had fled the area in fear of approaching Union forces, taking his able-bodied slaves with him. The remaining slaves, in Styles’ opinion, were “old and crippled” and had been left to starve.

But they didn’t starve. Styles reported:

On the 14th of August, I visited the plantation evacuated by the rebel, Dick Robinson; Some of the hovels are occupied by five or six Negroes in a destitute condition — The dwelling house is abandoned and stripped of the little furniture it contained, one fine piano is in the possession of Mrs. Baker in the town of Houmas —

The old Negroes up here to share the old house of their Master, it is open to the weather and is in a very filthy condition; the miserable hovels occupied by the Negroes are fast going to decay; the Sugarhouse also is in very miserable Condition

The Negroes remaining on the plantation have cultivated small parcels of ground, and made Sufficient Corn and vegetables to supply them; they have Some Cane, I have given them written permission to grind it for their own use —

The Negroes have succeeded beyond rebel Expectations in living without the assistance of white men—

Robinson took all his good or able Negroes to Texas, and left these old and crippled ones to starve— No White men in Louisiana could I have done more or better than these Negroes & day well deserved the reward of their labor (the Crop) and the Encouragement of the Government — one old wagon, two condemned mules — two old ploughs and Six old hoes Comprise the inventory of this joint Stock Company —

The condition of the Negro Cabins, no floors, no chimneys, built of pickets without regard to Comfort or Convenience, and their venerable appearance Confirms the Stories of cruelty related by the old Negroes of Dick Robinson the planter who may annually 600 Hhds (hogs heads) Sugar —​

Styles was so impressed that he suggested the farmers be allowed to keep the proceeds from the sale of their crop, some of which could have been taken as a tax by the government.

For these men and women, this was a ragged freedom. They had not been so much freed, as abandoned and left to perish. But they survived nonetheless, giving testimony to their grit and resourcefulness. They did not wait for a savior; they were the saviors that they had hoped for. This was their corner of the “emancipation” landscape.

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Black Bodies as Bait: Another Example of Black Confederates?

Social scientists, writers, and others sometimes employ the term “black body” to refer to the “objectification” of people of African descent. “Black bodies” are “things” as opposed to persons or humans that are worthy of sympathy or empathy. Objects can be broken, but not hurt; they do not experience pain, and can be used without concern for how they suffer or otherwise feel.

Can I provide an example of this? Consider this incident, which occurred in North Carolina during the Civil War. In early 1862, US General Ambrose Burnside writes about an encounter between Union and Confederate forces (this is from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Sers I, Vol IX, Chap XX, p 193-194):

Negro-woman-killed-in-NC

In this report, Gen. Burnside talks about a “negro woman” who was used by the Confederates to lure and ambush a group of United States soldiers. The Union men are in a gunboat when they see a negro woman approaching on a boat. They probably thought the woman was a runaway from bondage, until the Confederates sprang their trap. The Union men release a “volley” at the woman. Not being a soldier, her death will not be counted as a casualty of war; her loss is invisible. She becomes a military expediency.

By this way, the Confederacy used the resistance of enslaved people during the Civil War to its advantage. During the war many thousands of black Southerners fled to Union lines seeking refuge from bondage. The United States responded with evolving polices that included the Emancipation Proclamation and the post-war 13th Amendment that abolished slavery.

The exodus of enslaved Southerners to Union lines infuriated the Confederates. In a letter dated August 1862, a group of concerned citizens in Liberty County, GA, near Savannah, wrote this letter to Confederate Brigadier-General MERCER, Commanding Military District of Georgia, Savannah (this is from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Congressional Edition, Volume 3968, p 36-38):

GENERAL: The… citizens of Liberty County… respectfully present for your consideration a subject of grave moment… We allude to the escape of our slaves across the border lines landward, and out to the vessels of the enemy seaward, and to their being also enticed off by those who, having made their escape, return for that purpose… The injury inflicted upon the interests of the citizens of the Confederate States by this now constant drain is immense.

Independent of the forcible seizure of slaves by the enemy whenever it lies in his power, and to which we now make no allusion, as the indemnity for this loss will in due time occupy the attention of our Government from ascertained losses on certain parts of our coast, we may set down as a low estimate the number of slaves absconded and enticed off from our sea-board (from Virginia to Texas) at 20,000, and their value at from $12,000,000 to $15,000,000, to which loss may be added the insecurity of the property along our borders and the demoralization of the negroes that remain, which increases with the continuance of the evil, and may finally result in perfect disorganization and rebellion.

The absconding negroes hold the position of traitors, since they go over to the enemy and afford him aid and comfort by revealing the condition of the districts and cities from which they come, and aiding him in erecting fortifications and raising provisions for his support, and now that the United States have allowed their introduction into their Army and Navy, aiding the enemy by enlisting under his banners, and increasing his resources in men for our annoyance and destruction.

It is, indeed, a monstrous evil that we suffer…  Surely some remedy should be applied, and that speedily, for the protection of the country aside from all other considerations. A few executions of leading transgressors among them by hanging or shooting would dissipate the ignorance which may be supposed to possess their minds, and which may be pleaded in arrest of judgment.

The Confederates saw that enslaved people were liberating themselves, in droves, and going to the Union side. Knowing that, they could conceive a trap for Union men that employed a black woman as live bait. The Confederates surely knew that this ambush might cost the woman her life. But the potential loss of a black body did not seem to trouble them.

I wonder: would this woman be considered a Black Confederate? …an example of an African American who “gave his/her life for the Confederate cause?” How would her memory as a Confederate be claimed today, given how she was used as a disposable object by Confederates in the past?

BuzzFeed.com: “The Secret History Of The Photo At The Center Of The Black Confederate Myth”


Sergeant A.M. Chandler of the 44th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, Co. F., and Silas Chandler, family slave, with Bowie knives, revolvers, pepper-box, shotgun, and canteen; was Silas Chandler an enslaved camp servant, taking a photo amid movie studio props, or a bona fide black Confederate soldier?
Image Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-40073, also LC-DIG-ppmsca-40072

The website BuzzFeed.com has a great article about African Americans and the Civil War titled The Secret History Of The Photo At The Center Of The Black Confederate Myth. This is from the introduction to the article:

A 160-year-old tintype depicting Andrew Chandler and his slave Silas, both in Confederate uniform, has long been used as evidence that slaves willingly fought against the army that aimed to free them. Following the national backlash against Confederate iconography, Silas’s descendants seek to debunk this once and for all.

This is a powerful piece about how we, as families and communities, remember the past. It asks important questions, such as: can we ever really trust the family history that has been handed down to us, given that it might combine both fact and fancy? And also: after we die, who gets to tell the story of our life: our families, “interested” social organizations, or somebody else? Silas Chandler (see the above picture), the young, enslaved person who was a camp servant during the Civil War, would never have guessed that 150 years after the war’s end, his memory would be as contested as it is now.

FYI, I met with Bobbie Chandler (one of the great-grandchildren of Silas) a few years ago in Washington, DC. He was visiting the African American Civil War Museum. He and several family members were quite skeptical of the black Confederate soldier narrative that had been applied to their ancestor, and he was trying to find information about the subject. We now know that his skepticism was well founded.

His search for the truth was touching. He was clearly frustrated that so many people had told this story about his forefather, but now it seemed like that story could not be trusted. So he had to go on a quest, you could call it, to find the real past.

I know a lot of people think that the black Confederate “controversy” is overblown, and perhaps not worth the time it’s given in the media, or in social media. But it did matter to these descendants of Silas Chandler that they finally learned the truth about his life, and it matters to them that his life be correctly rendered wherever it is told. Ultimately, it is this concern about family and truth that drives the controversy, as much as anything.

RIP, Silas Chandler

Voting with their feet: “This day ran away from my premises, servants…”


Voting with their feet: document from Virginia’s Nancy Rowe, dated June 1862, which lists African Americans who fled her enslavement during the Civil War. Per the blog Spotsylvania Memory, “Rowe filed an affidavit with the Corporation Court of Fredericksburg documenting the loss of her slave property. Slave owners throughout the south routinely filed such paperwork in the hope of some day being compensated for their loss. In her affidavit, Nancy listed the names, ages and values of those who ran away and did not come back.”
Image Source: From the blog Spotsylvania Memory

During the American Civil War, tens of thousands of enslaved people gained their freedom by fleeing their slave quarters and escaping to the Union lines. In the blog Spotsylvania Memory, Pat Sullivan discusses the story of a group of southerners who fled captivity in June 1862, south of the area that is famous as the location of the battles of Bull Run (see here and here). Sullivan goes on to discuss how some of these freedom rebels lived after the war. It is a wonderful read and you can see it by going here.

Sullivan’s research fleshes-out the stories of African Americans who liberated themselves during the war and gained refuge with the Union army. One of the most famous pictures of slave liberation during the war is this one, which shows a group of runaways entering Union lines along the Rappahannock River, southwest of the Bull Run battles. This picture was apparently taken a month or so after the slaves mentioned above made their escape.

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Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock River, VA; July-August 1862; Timothy H O’Sullivan photographer; taken in the vicinity of the Battle 2nd Battle of of Bull Run, Virginia., 1862, .
Source for Image, description: Library of Congress, Reproduction Numbers LC-DIG-cwpb-00218 (digital file from original neg.) LC-B8171-518 (b&w film neg.)

The fact that so many enslaved people – thousands of them – were able to flee to freedom in this part of Virginia is an illustration of how the war disturbed and stymied the local slave patrol and control machinery; and also, of how enslaved people were coming to see the Union as an ally for freedom. Recollect that a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation was not announced until September 1862, and the final version of the proclamation was not issued until January 1, 1863. But by this time, the so-called Contraband policy, which gave asylum to slaves so they could labor for the Union army, had been established in Hampton Roads and was certainly known by many enslaved people in northern Virginia. Additionally, the Union had by then abolished slavery in Washington, DC (on April 15, 1862); the city of Washington was just  65 miles from Spotsylvania, and of course Union soldiers had been in the area. For many enslaved people, it probably appeared that the time of Jubilee was at hand.


Current map of Northern Virginia. The Bull Run Battles, AKA the Battles of Manassas, were fought in Prince William County. Note that Fredericksburg City and Spotsylvania County are further south of Prince William County.
Image Source: YardiMatrix.com


Current map of the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, and counties in northern Virginia.
Image Source: Shared Vision Planning.com 

 

Mississippi Governor Charles Clark on Confederate enlistment of slaves: Use them, but don’t free them – “Freedom would be a curse to them and the country”

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Some of the “black warriors” for the Union, as Lincoln called them: At least 18,000 African Americans from Mississippi, such as those in this image, served in the Union army. By 1865, Confederates pondered the use of slaves as soldiers in their army.
Image: “The War in Mississippi—The 1st Mississippi Negro Cavalry (USA) Bringing into Vicksburg Rebel Prisoners Captured at Haines Bluff. –From a Sketch by our Special Artist, Fred B. Schell”
Image Source: From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News, December 19, 1863; see here and here

[This is part of a series that looks at the Confederacy’s decision, in March 1865, to allow slaves to join the Confederate army.]

By February 1865, the Confederate States of America was on the brink of military collapse. Indeed, on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee would surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, an event which triggered the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.

But before defeat came desperation. All options were being put on the table. Confederates began to debate a fundamental shift in political and military policy: the use of slaves as soldiers in the Confederate army, along with emancipation for those who served.

Robert E. Lee had weighed-in on the issue in January, 1865. He recommended that slaves be “employ(ed) without delay” in the Confederate army, and be given freedom immediately upon enlistment. He recommended a  plan of “gradual and general emancipation” that would eventually free all the Confederacy’s slaves. These steps, he reasoned, would ensure the “efficiency and fidelity” of the slaves in their new roles as soldiers.

Lee was a popular figure in the Confederacy, but that did not make his views on slave enlistment and emancipation universally popular. A dissenting view came from Charles Clark, the governor of Mississippi.

Clark knew full well how former slaves soldiers helped the Union war effort. At least 18,000 African American from his state enlisted in the Union army by the end of the war. Black soldiers were among the Union forces that occupied the city of Jackson, the state capital. The state government was forced to flee the city to other places inside and outside the state. In his book Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front, Timothy B. Smith writes

The blue-clad cavalry arrived at Jackson, Mississippi, that July 1864, causing the inhabitants to fully realize what had happened to their state, their Confederacy, and, most important, their lives. These were not typical Union cavalrymen, which the citizens of Jackson and had seen before. These were African American Yankees, the Third Regiment Cavalry U.S. colored troops, raised and organized out of Mississippi slaves in 1863. Firmly in control of the city and all functions that took place in it, the cavalrymen openly displayed a new manner in Mississippi; old cultures and society were obviously changing.

A white officer in a black regiment noted the change: “the slaves are the masters and the masters, or rather, the mistresses, for there are a few masters at home, are the slaves, through fear.” One former slave put it more succinctly when he spoke of the “bottom rail on top.” That day had come in Mississippi.

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Confederate General Robert E. Lee, near the end of the Civil War: Enlist and emancipate the slaves; we can manage the ‘evil consequences’

On March 23, 1865, after a period of intense debate, the Confederate States of America embarked on a plan to enlist slaves into their armies. This is the first of a series of posts which will examine that event.

First up is Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s important letter of January 1865, in which he advocates for slave enlistment.

Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

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Confederate general Robert E. Lee: “I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves.”
Source: Image of Robert E. Lee; Julian Vannerson, photographer; from Wikipedia Commons; from an image at the Library of Congress, reproduction numbers LC-DIG-cwpb-04402, LC-B8172-0001

Desperate times require desperate measures. And in January of 1865, Robert E. Lee, the general in chief of the Confederate States of America, was desperate.

The Confederates were losing the bloody American Civil War against the United States, AKA the Union. By January 1865, the Union controlled the Mississippi River and large swaths of land to the river’s east and west; the December 1864 Battle of Nashville had beaten the largest remaining Confederate forces west of the Appalachian Mountains; Union General William Sherman had completed his almost unimpeded march through Georgia, and was heading for South…

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Al Arnold’s Black Confederate Journey

The controversy over Black Confederates is one hot mess. A recent addition to the messiness in one Dr Al Arnold of Jackson, MS. Dr Arnold seems to be a relative newcomer to the topic: at one point his Facebook page or Twitter page featured an image of black Union soldiers that was used in a black Confederate soldier’s hoax… that’s not a good way to establish one’s Black Confederate bona fides. I want to discuss what he’s recently brought to the Black Confederate table.

Dr Arnold – whose degree is in physical therapy – has a Civil War era ancestor named Turner Hall, Jr. Hall’s claim to fame is that he was owned by, and was an acquaintance of, prominent Civil War/Reconstruction figure Nathan Bedford Forrest; and that he was a servant of the most preeminent of Confederates, general Robert E. Lee. Hall is said to have cared for Lee’s famous steed, Traveller. Dr Arnold has cited his ancestor’s history in his book titled Robert E. Lee’s Orderly: A Modern Black Man’s Confederate Journey. On the face of it, it looks like this could be an interesting and even provocative read.

But then I saw this interview with Dr Arnold on Memphis, TN, TV station WREG. That six-minute talk raised more issues and red flags than I could count. I will talk about just a few of them in this post.

My first issue is with Dr Arnold’s statement near the end of the interview that “our (black) people… because northern writers and the Southern Lost Cause writers refuse to write about the roles of African-Americans… many don’t know that their ancestors had prominent roles in the Civil War whether on the Union side or the southern side.” His claim – that “northern writers… refuse to write about the roles of African-Americans in the Civil War” is simply not true.

How do I know that claim is untrue? By simply looking at my bookshelf. On the subject of African American Union soldiers alone, I have almost three dozen books. The set begins with works from two black Union veterans: George Washington Williams’ A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 which was published in 1887; and Joseph T. Wilson’s The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the wars 1775-1812, 1861-1865, also published in 1887. These books are in the public domain and available on the Internet; I highly recommend them as a introduction to black Union soldiery.

But there’s a lot more on my shelf, including:
•  Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, William Dobak’s comprehensive military history of Civil War era African American soldiers
• The Black Military Experience, ed. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, which is a documentary history of African Americans in the Union army
•  Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865, by Noah Andre Trudeau, which focuses on the many battles that involved black soldiers
• Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory, by Linda Barnickel, which discusses the role of black soldiers in one of their earliest battles
• A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army 1861-1865, by Edwin S. Redkey
• Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers, by Joseph T. Glatthaar
• Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers During the Civil War, by Keith P. Wilson
• After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans, by Donald R. Shaffer
• African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album, by Ronald S. Coddington, which features photographs and brief biographical sketches of over 70 Civil War era African American men
• Separate histories of African American Union soldiers and regiments from Illinois; Kansas; Louisiana; Pennsylvania; North Carolina (two of them), South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington, DC
• Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial, a beautiful coffee-table by Sarah Greenough and Nancy K. Anderson.

This is only a portion of the books that I own on the general subject of Civil War African Americans; there are many, many others I don’t own.
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The “colored wing”: “A peculiar institution of our (Confederate) army”

Photograph of the 57 Georgia Regiment
Officers and Cook, 57 Georgia Regiment, Confederate States of America Army (Officers of Company H (Independent Volunteers) of the 57th Georgia Regiment, Army of Tennessee, 1863. Left to right, First Lieutenant Archibald C. McKinley, Captain John Richard Bonner, Scott (cook), and Second Lieutenant William S. Stetson), circa 1860’s, photographer unknown
Image Source: Flickr.com page for Georgia College & State University Special Collections, James Bonner Collection, Identifier: JCB_Photo_57_Georgia_1863; retrieved 10/13/2015

During the American Civil War, thousands of slaves accompanied slaveowners who enlisted in the Confederate army to camp. These slaves – often called body servants – were not themselves enlisted in the army; slaves could not enlist in the Confederate army until March 1865 (Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865). The servants kept their master’s quarters clean, washed clothes, groomed uniforms, secured rations and cooked food, cut hair, and cared for animals.

The actions and behavior of these slaves were sometimes a source of amusement and derision for Confederate officers and soldiers. In his memoirs (page 383), Confederate general John B. Gordon mentions a humorous story told by Robert E. Lee. In this tale, Lee spoke about a black servant, a cook for one of the officers on his staff, who called on him one day at his headquarters:

“General Lee,” the old man said, pulling off his hat, “I have been wanting to see you a long time. I’m a soldier.”

“Ah?” Lee replied, “To what army do you belong—to the Union army or to the Southern army?”

“Oh, General, I belong to your army,” the man said.

“Well, have you been shot?” Lee asked.

“No, sir; I ain’t been shot yet,” he answered.

“How is that?” Lee asked. “Nearly all of our men get shot.”

“Why, General,” the old black man replied, “I ain’t been shot ‘cause I stay back whar de generals stay.”​

The story attributed to Lee may have been apocryphal, but the attitude it displays is not unique. Consider the following “Observations on the camp life of Confederate soldiers in Middle Tennessee,” which are noted in The Tennessee Civil War Sourcebook. The “observations” are from a letter that was written from Shelbyville, TN, by a soldier named “I. G.,” and published in the Mobile Register and Advertiser of April 19, 1863. The letter discusses several aspects of camp life, including a portion concerning ‘military niggers,’ as the writer calls the servants. The letter is filled with language that many today find offensive, but was not uncommon back then. Still, the words used and feelings described give us a view into the sentiments some Confederates had toward the slaves in their midst:

A peculiar institution of our army here is the “colored wing”— the military niggers — I mean the officers’ servants. They dress well, ride thousand dollar horses, smoke two-bit cigars, live on the fat of the land, get up five dollar dancing parties, put on airs over the country niggers, break the wenches’ hearts, and lay over the army and mankind in general. So far as ease, comfort and pleasure go, they seem to be the finest gentlemen in the army. Continue reading

Four women and two children at the ruins of the Richmond & Petersburg railroad bridge; Richmond, Virginia, April 1865

Ruins of Richmond copy3

“Ruins of Richmond & Petersburg railroad bridge from island in James River.” Richmond, Virginia, April 1865;  Alexander Gardner, photographer. Shows group of five African American females (perhaps four women and a girl) and a boy on an island in the James River.
Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. “Ruins of Richmond & Petersburg railroad bridge from island in James River,”   Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-cwpb-00388, Call Number: LC-B815- 846

This very curious Civil War era photograph was taken in Richmond, Virginia. The  city had been the Capitol of the Confederate States of America, but in April 1865, it was captured and occupied by Union troops. In the wake of the attack on the city, damage was done to its infrastructure. Some of the damage was done by evacuating Confederate military, to limit the use that the Union army could make of the place.

Alexander Gardner, one of the War’s famed photographers, took this photograph of several African American females and a European American boy near the ruins of the Richmond & Petersburg railroad bridge. The picture was taken at an island in the James River, which flows through the city. The face of the girl in the rear is clouded, probably from shaking her face while the photo was taken. The boy is wearing what appears to be a soldier’s cap; if so, this is a very interesting way to represent the Union army’s presence.

The women might have been enslaved when Richmond fell to federal forces; here they were, in their first days of freedom, posing for a photograph in view of their city’s ruins. Don’t forget about us, they say silently to the camera, and to history. Soon after, they, the rest of the city, and the rest of the South, would go through the process of putting the pieces back together and reconstructing a new South.