Outmanned and Outgunned: African Americans’ Separate and Unequal Experience with the Right to Bear Arms and Gun Control

African American Union Soldier with Pistol
African American Union Soldier with Pistol, circa Civil War era (1860s). It was very common for Civil War soldiers to take pictures with their firearms, or props of firearms.
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11298; see more information about the photo here.

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A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
– Second Amendment to the US Constitution

“The great object is, that every man be armed. […] Every one who is able may have a gun.”
– Patrick Henry

“[if negroes were] entitled to the privileges and immunities of [white] citizens, …it would give persons of the Negro race… the right… to keep and bear arms wherever they want… inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the state…”
– Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision

“Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty; and should your constitutional rights at the close of this war be denied, which in the nature of things, it cannot be, your brethren are safe while you have a Constitution which proclaims your right to keep and bear arms.”
– Frederick Douglass, in an 1863 recruitment speech imploring black to join the Union army during the Civil War

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[This is a re-blog of a post that I published in 2012.]

The current debate about gun control, spurred by incidents such as the Newtown Tragedy of December, 2012, and more recent shootings that can be found via Internet search (such as here), gives me pause me to reflect on the history of firearms access for African Americans. This history does not paint a pretty picture, but it adds a new perspective on our discussion of the right to bear arms.

A review of the history indicates that for over two centuries, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the national, state, and local governments have been engaged in a project to limit African Americans’ access to guns. This project was not conducted in secret; the people involved made it unequivocally clear that they did not want people of African descent to have firearms. Blacks with guns were seen as a threat to the safety, politics, and domination of the white majority, and the law was used to remove that threat. For African Americans, “gun control” has almost always been synonymous with “keep African Americans from getting guns.”

To be clear: I am not taking any position regarding gun access policy. I hope that no one who reads this piece will assume that I am advocating a particular viewpoint concerning gun rights and gun control issues.

What I do want to do, is provide an abridged and slightly selective timeline of African Americans’ experience with bearing arms. There is so much to this story, it’s impossible to contain it all within one blog post – and this post is somewhat lengthy as it is. But for those who are not familiar with the subject, this will be informative and useful.

There is a sadly ironic, perhaps tragic aspect to this history. Guns have become the scourge of the urban landscape. So-called “black on black” crime has become endemic in certain communities, and guns are an unfortunate aspect of this. During the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, laws left blacks relatively defenseless against a tide of racial terrorism; African Americans were outmanned and outgunned. But now many black communities are awash in guns, and instead of firearms being used for self-defense, they are being used for self-destruction. Sometimes the arc of history bends in the wrong direction.

For more information on this subject, two good “starter” pieces on this topic are here and here. Two useful books on the subject is Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876 by Stephen P. Halbrook, and Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms, by Nicholas Johnson. But there are many other journal articles, books, and other references that are available via Internet search for those who want to really get in depth on this subject.

I will begin at the middle of the 18th century, and go forward to the 21st century.
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1779 During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress – which represents American colonists seeking independence from Britain – offers slave masters in South Carolina and Georgia $1,000 for each slave they provide to the Continental army. However, the legislatures of both states refused the offer. Apparently, the risk of arming slaves, who might want or demand freedom in exchange for their service, is more threatening than the British Army.

1792 Congress passes the Militia Acts, which limit service in militias to free white males. This restriction is prompted in part by fears that, as in the case of the Haitian slave revolt, free blacks will unite with slaves and use their guns and military training to mount an armed insurrection against slaveholders. The measures are interpreted as meaning that blacks cannot join the United States army.

1811 Hundreds of slaves, armed with guns, knives, and axes, become part of the largest slave rebellion on American soil, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The importance of taking arms is noted in the book American Uprising: American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen,

Baptized with the blood of his former master, Charles (the leader of the slave rebellion) and his men broke into the stores in the basement (of his master’s) mansion, taking muskets and militia uniforms, stockpiled in case of domestic insurrection. Many of the slaves had learned to shoot muskets in African civil wars, while others would fight mor effectively with tha cane knives and axes they wielded in the hot Louisiana sun. As his men gathered weapons and shoved ammunition in bags, Charles and several of his fellow slaves cast off the distinctive cheap cotton slave clothes and put on the (master’s) uniforms.

Unfortunately for the slaves, their revolt was beaten back by the superior force of local authorities, and they suffered a horrible punishment after the smoke cleared.

1831 Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The rebels kill over 50 white people, the highest number of fatalities caused by slave uprisings in the South. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for over two months.

After the rebellion, legislatures in the slave states passed new laws prohibiting the education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.

1831 Three states – Florida, Maryland and Virginia – enact laws which ban black ownership of guns.

Continue reading

Have We Learned Anything from the Sesquicentennial?: the Case of Sherman’s March into Columbia, SC


“RAISING THE STARS AND STRIPES OVER THE CAPITOL AT COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA. – [SKETCHED BY DAVIS]”
Image Source: Civil War Harper’s Weekly, April 8, 1865; from here.

We are now in the closing days of the 150th (Sesquicentennial) Anniversary of the American Civil War. By the end of August 1865, the shooting war between the Union and the Confederacy was just about over, and the Reconstruction Period was proceeding in earnest.

I wonder: what have we Americans learned during this four year (the Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865) anniversary period? There have been numerous events during the Sesquicentennial, and I attended a number of them; I learned a lot. But then, I’m something of a Civil War nerd. I wonder how much the public at large got out of it.

On the Internet, I had an exchange recently with someone concerning the reaction of residents in Columbia, South Carolina, to the arrival of Union forces led by General William T. Sherman in February 1865. The person remarked that “there were no people in Columbia welcoming Sherman and his army.”

Some background: General Sherman is, in the minds of many (mostly white southern) people, infamous for his “March to the Sea,” in which his army barreled its way through Georgia, then South Carolina, and eventually North Carolina. Along the way, according to many people, he inflicted a hard-handed brand of war against the Confederacy, including Confederate civilians. Cities such as Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, were given the burnt-earth treatment by Sherman and his men… or at least, that’s what many people believe. Given this “memory” of the war, which was very popular prior to the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, it must certainly be true that nobody in Columbia was happy to see Sherman and his Union army marching through their town.

The thing is, it is NOT true. There were Columbians who were happy to see Sherman. In his 1991 book The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans, which won the Bancroft Prize, historian Charles Royster writes

War had changed Columbia. The city had never been large, numbering about 8,000 people in peacetime; but the war had more than tripled its population. Some people were forced into Columbia: slaveholders moved their human property. The number of black people in Columbia, usually about one third of the population, swelled with the influx of slaves. Some blacks had escaped during the relocation, had hidden in swamps, and where greeting the approaching Federal soldiers with the descriptions of the roads ahead. Blacks in the city felt sure of Sherman’s destination sooner than his own men did. On January 29, a white man who heard them noted: “The niggers sing hallelujah’s for him every day.”

Some of the slaves concentrated in Columbia grew restive, and white people reacted harshly. They set up a whipping post near the market in the Assembly Street. A black man caught smuggling News to Federal prisoners in the city received 100 lashes and a promise that if he repeated the offense, he would be killed. Afterward, he told the prisoners, “Dey may kill dis nigger, but they cain’t make him hate de Yankees.” The daily whippings aroused bitter resentment among young Black men. Some of them called the Market post “Hell” and agreed among themselves to make a hell of the city once the Yankees came.

Royster goes on to note that the slaves had communicated with and helped Federal prisoners held in Columbia before Sherman’s arrival, and gave aid and assistance to the Union soldiers who arrived in the city and the surrounding area. It also appears that some African Americans took advantage of the Union occupation to enact acts of revenge against whites whom they believed had mistreated them.

Also from Royster’s Book:

(sometime after Union soldiers had entered the city, and there had been fires and some looting) …on Main Street, crowded with hurrying people and lit by burning stores, a lieutenant asked an old black man: “What do you think of the night, sir?” The man replied; ‘Wall I’ll tell you what I dinks I dinks de day of Jubilee for me hab come.”​

Many of the African American residents of Columbia were quite happy not just to see Sherman, but also to give him and his men military intelligence and other support.

So, here is what I hoped the Sesquicentennial commemorations might accomplish: the replacement of older and previously “popular” notions about the war with up-to-date and correct understandings. Such as the understanding that African Americans were not merely bystanders during the war, but had their own role to play, and exercised their own agency and independent action during the war.

But, here was someone stating with some conviction that “there were no people in Columbia welcoming Sherman and his army” (emphasis added). For this person, the idea that there might have been black people in Columbia (note that over 55% of South Carolina’s population was of African descent when the war began) who supported the Union (which, after all, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation) never entered his mind.

And that is a concern. It seems that many people still lack an informed, comprehensive view of the Civil War despite a four-year period of attention and events, many of which did focus on the role of African Americans. It’s something we’ll have to continue to work on, until we get it right. And we will.

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. 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

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

Pro-secessionist Minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer: Our 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

Would You Choose Freedom or Your Wife?

John Boston Letter to enslaved wife
Letter from runaway slave/freedman John Boston to his wife Elizabeth. John tells his wife he has escaped to freedom with the Union army — and might never see her again.
Image Source: National Archives

Would you leave your wife and family to gain freedom for yourself?

That dilemma was faced by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of slaves during the Civil War. Many enslaved Southerners fled their masters and sought freedom behind Union lines. But the chance for escape did not always afford the opportunity to take all the family along. [1]

This was apparently the case for John Boston, who escaped enslavement in Owensville, MD, by taking refuge with a New York regiment that was heading south. Boston wrote a letter to his wife, transcribed below, where he exclaims his joy at being free, and expresses his regret that he has left his wife (and perhaps a child named Daniel) behind. It is not clear if Boston wrote the letter himself, or if one of the regiment’s soldiers wrote it.

John Boston says in the letter “i trust the time Will Come When We Shal meet again And if We dont met on earth We Will Meet in heven Whare Jesas ranes.” He has no certainty about what the future holds; for now, he has cast his lot with the Union army, and all he can do is hope that God will take care of the rest. It is worth noting that the letter was written in January 1862. The legislation authorizing the Emancipation Proclamation was not passed by the US Congress until July 1862; and Lincoln did not issue the final version of the Proclamation until January 1, 1863. The notion of emancipating the slaves was not yet Union policy.

(In any event, the final version of the Proclamation did not apply to Boston’s home state of Maryland; it was only effective for states that had seceded and joined the Confederacy. Maryland did finally abolish slavery in November 1864 – notably, this was more than a year before the 13th Amendment was ratified.)

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Envelope for the letter from runaway slave/freedman John Boston to his wife Elizabeth.
Image Source: National Archives

It does not appear that Elizabeth Boston ever received this letter. It was intercepted and eventually forwarded to US Secretary of War Edwin Stanton by a group of Marylanders who wanted something to be done about runaway slaves who were being harbored in Union army camps. At the time, The War department wrote back that the situation would be handled when “time permitted.”

This is the content of the letter[2]: Continue reading