Soldiers and Spirituals: South Carolina US Colored Troops


Photo Exhibit: The Black South of Dorothea Lange
• These Depression-era images are by the renowned American photographer Dorothea Lange. During the 1930s she and other photographers were part of a Farm Security Administration project that documented the effects of the Great Depression on the American people. These pictures were taken in Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas during the mid to late 1930s.
Image Source: The photographs can be found in the Library of Congress  Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
• The music is from a traditional spiritual performed by Texas gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson (vocal and guitar) and Willie B. Harris (vocal) in 1927. The song is titled “Keep Your Light Trimmed and Burning.” As noted in the text below, a version of this song (under the title “THIS WORLD ALMOST DONE”) was sung by African American soldiers in Civil War South Carolina, as follows:
“Brudder, keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
Keep your lamp trimmin’ and a-burnin’,
For dis world most done.”
Audio Source: From Wikipedia.com

———

As both a man of God and a man of letters, Union army colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson had an ear for spiritual music. He got earfuls of it listening to the black southern soldiers under his command during the Civil War.

As noted by Wikipedia, Higginson (1823 – 1911), born and raised in Massachusetts, “was an American Unitarian minister, author, abolitionist, and soldier. He was active in the American Abolitionism movement during the 1840s and 1850s, identifying himself with disunion and militant abolitionism. He was a member of the Secret Six who supported John Brown. During the Civil War, he served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized black regiment, from 1862–1864. Following the war, Higginson devoted much of the rest of his life to fighting for the rights of freed slaves, women and other disfranchised peoples.” The 1st South Carolina Volunteers were later reorganized as the 33rd Infantry regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT).

In literary circles, Higginson is known as “a prolific writer; his most highly regarded work was a memoir of his war years, Army Life in a Black Regiment… (He was the) co-editor of the first two collections of Emily Dickinson’s poems…” (per the online site for the The Emily Dickinson Museum)

In his book Army Life in a Black Regiment, first published in 1869, Higginson recounted army life among the former South Carolina slaves who made the stunning transformation into Union soldiers. One aspect of black soldier life that touched him greatly was their singing of spirituals. Higgins devotes a whole chapter of his book to those songs, and to describing the spirit in which they were sung. A partial excerpt from the book follows.

Of note is that, the spirituals were revised by the black soldiers to reflect their status as soldiers and participants in war. One song speaks of “One more valiant soldier here”; another says “We’re marching through Virginny fields, old Secesh done come and gone!” In their spirit, the soldiers seem to be saying, we are not just soldiers of the Union, or even soldiers of freedom; we are soldiers in God’s army.

Higginosn and Black Veterans
Left: Army Col Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Right: Unidentified veterans of the 33rd Infantry Regiment, USCT
Image Source: Dr. Bronson’s St. Augustine History

FROM: Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment, chapter 9, “Negro Spirituals”:

The war brought to some of us, besides its direct experiences, many a strange fulfilment of dreams of other days. For instance, the present writer had been a faithful student of the Scottish ballads, and had always envied Sir Walter the delight of tracing them out amid their own heather, and of writing them down piecemeal from the lips of aged crones. It was a strange enjoyment, therefore, to be suddenly brought into the midst of a kindred world of unwritten songs, as simple and indigenous as the Border Minstrelsy, more uniformly plaintive, almost always more quaint, and often as essentially poetic.

This interest was rather increased by the fact that I had for many years heard of this class of songs under the name of “Negro Spirituals,” and had even heard some of them sung by friends from South Carolina. I could now gather on their own soil these strange plants, which I had before seen as in museums alone. True, the individual songs rarely coincided; there was a line here, a chorus there,—just enough to fix the class, but this was unmistakable. It was not strange that they differed, for the range seemed almost endless, and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida seemed to have nothing but the generic character in common, until all were mingled in the united stock of camp-melodies.

Often in the starlit evening, I have returned from some lonely ride by the swift river, or on the plover-haunted barrens, and, entering the camp, have silently approached some glimmering fire, round which the dusky figures moved in the rhythmical barbaric dance the negroes call a “shout,” chanting, often harshly, but always in the most perfect time, some monotonous refrain.

Writing down in the darkness, as I best could,—perhaps with my hand in the safe covert of my pocket,—the words of the song, I have afterwards carried it to my tent, like some captured bird or insect, and then, after examination, put it by… The music I could only retain by ear, and though the more common strains were repeated often enough to fix their impression, there were others that occurred only once or twice. The words will be here given, as nearly as possible, in the original dialect; and if the spelling seems sometimes inconsistent, or the misspelling insufficient, it is because I could get no nearer.

The favorite song in camp was the following, sung with no accompaniment but the measured clapping of hands and the clatter of many feet. It was sung perhaps twice as often as any other. This was partly due to the fact that it properly consisted of a chorus alone, with which the verses of other songs might be combined at random.

HOLD YOUR LIGHT.
"Hold your light, Brudder Robert,
Hold your light,
Hold your light on Canaan's shore.
"What make ole Satan for follow me so?
Satan ain't got notin' for do wid me.
Hold your light,
Hold your light,
Hold your light on Canaan's shore."

Continue reading

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“The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you”: Leviticus 25: 10-12

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

Leviticus 25: 10-12, New International Version

Pro-secessionist Minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer: The South’s God-given “trust… is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery”


Southern/Confederate religious leader Benjamin Morgan Palmer (January 25, 1818 – May 25, 1902)
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

“The argument which enforces the solemnity of this providential trust (slavery) is simple and condensed. It is bound upon us, then, by the principle of self preservation, that “first law” which is continually asserting its supremacy over all others. Need I pause to show how this system of servitude underlies and supports our material interests; that our wealth consists in our lands and in the serfs who till them; that from the nature of our products they can only be cultivated by labor which must be controlled in order to be certain; that any other than a tropical race must faint and wither beneath a tropical sun?

“Need I pause to show how this system is interwoven with our entire social fabric; that these slaves form parts of our households, even as our children; and that, too, through a relationship recognized and sanctioned in the Scriptures of God even as the other?”
Benjamin Morgan Palmer, Louisiana, 1860

In 1860-61, a group of slaveholding states decided to secede from the United States after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Politicians in the slave states argued that secession was necessary to protect them from the anti-slavery Lincoln and his Republican Party. The secessionists formed the Confederate States of America, which eventually went to war with Lincoln’s United States of America. Their war, the American Civil War, became the bloodiest in American history.

As observed by historian was Gordon Rhea, it was not just southern politicians who said secession was needed to protect the “institution,” as slavery was called. Community leaders,  and even preachers, joined the clamor.

One of those pro-secession religious leaders was Benjamin Morgan Palmer (January 25, 1818 – May 25, 1902). Per Wikipedia, Palmer, “a theologian and orator, was the first moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America.” He was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans when he gave an influential “Thanksgiving Sermon” on November 29, 1860, shortly after Lincoln won the White House. In his sermon, Palmer argues for a break from the Union. Why? To enable the South to fulfill its God given trust to “conserve and perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing.” The threat of northern abolitionists, whose goal was “setting bounds to what God alone can regulate,” called the South “to resent and resist,” Palmer claimed.

Palmer’s sermon might seem extraordinary today for its forthright, righteous, and holy defense of slavery. But in Palmer’s time, the idea of slavery as God’s divine will and order was common in the slaveholding states. Palmer was, to use an expression, preaching to the choir.

Some items of note in Palmer’s sermon:

• The slave, says Palmer, “stands to me in the relation of a child.” The slave is his “brother” and “friend,” while Palmer is the “guardian” and “father.” The slave “leans upon (the slaveholder) for protection, for counsel, and for blessing.” The God-given ties between master and slave thus “binds” the master with “the providential duty of preserving the relation”;  upsetting that relationship would be “a doom worse than death.” Palmer gets more specific: for slaves, “freedom would be their doom.”

• Palmer demonizes abolitionists by calling them atheists. Using language that is practically Orwellian, he says that the abolitionists cries’ of “liberty, fraternity, and equality” must be “interpreted” to mean “bondage, confiscation, and massacre.”

• Also of note is Palmer’s belief that, through the products borne of slave labor, the South is the economic engine that fuels the world’s commerce. Palmer says that the South owes it to the world (and perhaps the world owes it to the South) to protect southern agriculture and its enslaved laborers.

Palmer’s comments give us cause to ponder: would slavery have ended anytime soon if not for the Civil War? Palmer went so far as to say that the defense of slavery “lifted” southerners “to the highest moral ground” and that they must “proclaim to all the world that we hold this trust from God, and in its occupancy we are prepared to stand or fall as God may appoint.” Southerners, said Palmer, must not abandon what God had given them without a fight. And then the war came.

The full text is here; this a longish but interesting excerpt:

In determining our duty in this emergency (the election of Lincoln and the threat to slavery) it is necessary that we should first ascertain the nature of the trust providentially committed to us. A nation often has a character as well defined and intense as that of an individual. This depends, of course upon a variety of causes operating through a long period of time. It is due largely to the original traits which distinguish the stock from which it springs, and to the providential training which has formed its education.

But, however derived, this individuality of character alone makes any people truly historic, competent to work out its specific mission, and to become a factor in the world’s progress. The particular trust assigned to such a people becomes the pledge of the divine protection; and their fidelity to it determines the fate by which it is finally overtaken. What that trust is must be ascertained from the necessities of their position, the institutions which are the outgrowth of their principles and the conflicts through which they preserve their identity and independence.

If then the South is such a people, what, at this juncture, is their providential trust? I answer, that it is to conserve and to perpetuate the institution of domestic slavery as now existing. Continue reading

Black Soldier to his enslaved children: “be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life”


African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-36454

In February of 1864, Spottswood (AKA Spotswood or Spottwood) Rice, a slave in Missouri, made a momentous decision: he fled bondage and enlisted in the Union army. Rice’s story is discussed in the previous blog post. Army enlistment gave Rice his freedom, but it did not free his children. But he was determined that he would have them.

One of Rice’s children, whose adult/married name was Mary A. Bell, was “owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs.” Back then, members of slave families might have different owners, and that could complicate the process of reuniting them.

By September 1864, Spottswood Rice had apparently made attempts to get his children, but was frustrated by his lack of success. He wrote two letters, one to his daughter Mary, the other to owner Katty (Kitty) Diggs, to let them know his plans. The letters, dated September 3, 1864, were written from Benton Barracks Hospital, St. Louis, Missouri, where Rice was recovering from chronic rheumatism.

Three things are striking in these letters. The first is Rice’s contempt for, and indignation at, the idea that he could “steal” his own children from their slaveowners. He tells Kitty Diggs “you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them.” Anyone who tries to prevent him from getting his children, he tells Diggs, is his “enemy.”

The second things that is striking is the sense of power and empowerment Rice has gotten from being a soldier. When Rice comes to get his daughter – and he says forcefully that he is coming – he warns that he “will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child… this whole Government gives chear to me.”

And finally, one cannot help but be struck by the religious language employed by Rice. He tells Diggs that his daughter Mary “is a God given rite of my own” and that “the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell.” He tells his daughter that Diggs “is the frist Christian that I ever hard say that aman could Steal his own child especially out of human bondage.” Although in fact the idea that slaveholder property rights trumped the slaves’ family rights was a common belief of most white southern Christians at the time. Unsurprisingly, Rice became a reverend in the African Methodist Episcopalian (A. M. E.) Church after the war.

Rice speaks with a righteous voice that proclaims, with God and government behind me, I shall prevail. His daughter would fondly recall many years later that she loved army men, and any man who would “fight for his rights.” And, she might have added, she loved men who fought for their children, just as her father fought for her.

This is Rice’s letter to his childrendated 9/3/1864:

My Children I take my pen in hand to rite you A few lines to let you know that I have not forgot you and that I want to see you as bad as ever now my Dear Children I want you to be contented with whatever may be your lots be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life on the 28th of the mounth. 8 hundred White and 8 hundred blacke solders expects to start up the rivore to Glasgow and above there thats to be jeneraled by a jeneral that will give me both of you when they Come I expect to be with, them and expect to get you both in return. Dont be uneasy my children I expect to have you. If Diggs dont give you up this Government will and I feel confident that I will get you

Your Miss Kaitty said that I tried to steal you But I’ll let her know that god never intended for man to steal his own flesh and blood. If I had no cofidence in God I could have confidence in her But as it is If I ever had any Confidence in her I have none now and never expect to have And I want her to remember if she meets me with ten thousand soldiers she [will?] meet her enemy I once [thought] that I had some respect for them but now my respects is worn out and have no sympathy for Slaveholders. And as for her cristianantty I expect the Devil has Such in hell You tell her from me that She is the frist Christian that I ever hard say that aman could Steal his own child especially out of human bondage

You can tell her that She can hold to you as long as she can I never would expect to ask her again to let you come to me because I know that the devil has got her hot set againsts that that is write now my Dear children I am a going to close my letter to you Give my love to all enquiring friends tell them all that we are well and want to see them very much and Corra and Mary receive the greater part of it you sefves and dont think hard of us not sending you any thing I you father have a plenty for you when I see you Spott & Noah sends their love to both of you Oh! My Dear children how I do want to see you

[Spotswood Rice]

This is Rice’s letter to Katty Diggs, also dated 9/3/1864:

I received a leteter from Cariline telling me that you say I tried to steal to plunder my child away from you now I want you to understand that mary is my Child and she is a God given rite of my own and you may hold on to hear as long as you can but I want you to remembor this one thing that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their for we are now makeing up a bout one thoughsand blacke troops to Come up tharough and wont to come through Glasgow and when we come wo be to Copperhood rabbels and to the Slaveholding rebbels for we dont expect to leave them there root neor branch but we thinke how ever that we that have Children in the hands of you devels we will trie your [vertues?] the day that we enter Glasgow

I want you to understand kittey diggs that where ever you and I meets we are enmays to each orthere I offered once to pay you forty dollers for my own Child but I am glad now that you did not accept it Just hold on now as long as you can and the worse it will be for you you never in you life befor I came down hear did you give Children any thing not eny thing whatever not even a dollers worth of expencs

now you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them and when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child you will then know how to talke to me I will assure that and you will know how to talk rite too I want you now to just hold on to hear if you want to iff your conchosence tells thats the road go that road and what it will brig you to kittey diggs I have no fears about geting mary out of your hands this whole Government gives chear to me and you cannot help your self

Spotswood Rice

Notes:

[1] Slavery was abolished in Missouri in February, 1865. The13th Amendment, which abolished slavery nationwide, was ratified in December 1865.

[2] The two letters from Rice were forwarded to Union General William Rosecrans, Commander of the US Army’s Department of the Missouri, by F. W. Diggs. Diggs was the brother of Kitty Diggs, and owned one of Spottswood Rice’s children. Diggs wrote to the general, “I write this to ask the favour of you to send the scoundrel that wrote (the letters) down to the army  I do not think that he should be allowed to remain in the state… to be thus insulted by such a black scoundrel is more than I can stand.” All of the correspondence is in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867; Series 2, The Black Military Experience, ed. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland; pages 689-691.

Henry Bibb’s Christmas Wedding: Love, Hope and Heartbreak in the Age of Bondage

christmas
The Christmas Week, by Henry Louis Stephens, circa 1863.
Philadelphia artist Henry Louis Stephens produced a series of Civil War period cards that “illustrated the journey of a slave from plantation life to the struggle for liberty, for which he gives his life, as a Union soldier during the Civil War.” This card above shows slaves reveling in the Christmas holidays, when many slaves were given time off from labor.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-2527, LC-DIG-ppmsca-05453, LC-USZC4-6677

Henry Bibb, a 19th century African American Abolitionist, was born a Kentucky slave in 1815, and died free at the young age of 39 in 1854. His father might have been James Bibb, a Kentucky state senator; but Henry Bibb never knew his real father. Wikipedia says that “as he was growing up, Henry Bibb saw each of his six younger siblings, all boys, sold away to other slaveholders. (After escaping slavery and becoming an abolitionist he) traveled and lectured throughout the United States. In 1849-50 he published his autobiography Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself which became one of the best known slave narratives of the antebellum years.”

The Christmas holiday figured prominently in Henry Bibb’s life: he was married and escaped bondage during separate Christmas holidays. He tells the story of his 1833 wedding to Malinda Jackson, also a slave, in his autobiography:

Malinda’s mother was free, and lived in Bedford, about a quarter of a mile from her daughter; and we often met and passed off the time pleasantly. Agreeable to promise, on one Saturday evening, I called to see Malinda, at her mother’s residence, with an intention of letting her know my mind upon the subject of marriage. It was a very bright moonlight night; the dear girl was standing in the door, anxiously waiting my arrival. As I approached the door she caught my hand with an affectionate smile, and bid me welcome to her mother’s fireside.

After having broached the subject of marriage, I informed her of the difficulties which I conceived to be in the way of our marriage; and that I could never engage myself to marry any girl only on certain conditions; near as I can recollect the substance of our conversation upon the subject, it was, that I was religiously inclined; that I intended to try to comply with the requisitions of the gospel, both theoretically and practically through life. Also that I was decided on becoming a free man before I died; and that I expected to get free by running away, and going to Canada, under the British Government. Agreement on those two cardinal questions I made my test for marriage.

I said, “I never will give my heart nor hand to any girl in marriage, until I first know her sentiments upon all important subjects of Religion and Liberty. No matter how well I might love her, nor how great the sacrifice in carrying out these God-given principles. And I here pledge myself, from this course never to be shaken while a single pulsation of my heart shall continue to throb for Liberty.” With this idea Malinda appeared to be well pleased, and with a smile she looked me in the face and said, “I have long entertained the same views, and this has been one of the greatest reasons why I have not felt inclined to enter the married state while a slave; I have always felt a desire to be free; I have long cherished a hope that I should yet be free, either by purchase or running away. In regard to the subject of Religion, I have always felt that it was a good thing, and something that I would seek for at some future period.”

After I found that Malinda was right upon these all important questions, and that she truly loved me well enough to make me an affectionate wife, I made proposals for marriage… (eventually we) entered upon a conditional contract of matrimony, viz: that we would marry if our minds should not change within one year; that after marriage we would change our former course and live a pious life; and that we would embrace the earliest opportunity of running away to Canada for our liberty.

Clasping each other by the hand, pledging our sacred honor that we would be true, we called on high heaven to witness the rectitude of our purpose. There was nothing that could be more binding upon us as slaves than this; for marriage among American slaves, is disregarded by the laws of this country. It is counted a mere temporary matter; it is a union which may be continued or broken off with or without the consent of a slaveholder, whether he is a priest or a libertine.

There is no legal marriage among the slaves of the South; I never saw nor heard of such a thing in my life, and I have been through seven of the slave states. A slave marrying according to law, is a thing unknown in the history of American Slavery. And be it known to the disgrace of our country that every slaveholder, who is the keeper of a number of slaves of both sexes, is also the keeper of a house or houses of ill-fame.

Henry_Bibb

Henry Bibb, from his autobiography “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself”

Licentious white men, can and do, enter at night or day the lodging places of slaves; break up the bonds of affection in families; destroy all their domestic and social union for life; and the laws of the country afford them no protection. Will any man count, if they can be counted, the churches of Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia, which have slaves connected with them, living in an open state of adultery, never having been married according to the laws of the State, and yet regular members of these various denominations, but more especially the Baptist and Methodist churches? And I hazard nothing in saying that this state of things exists to a very wide extent in the above states.

I am happy to state that many fugitive slaves, who have been enabled by the aid of an over-ruling providence to escape to the free North with those whom they claim as their wives, notwithstanding all their ignorance and superstition, are not at all disposed to live together like brutes, as they have been compelled to do in slaveholding Churches. But as soon as they got free from slavery they go before some anti-slavery clergyman, and have the solemn ceremony of marriage performed according to the laws of the country. And if they profess religion, and have been baptized by a slaveholding minister, they repudiate it after becoming free, and are re-baptized by a man who is worthy of doing it according to the gospel rule. Continue reading