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.

Continue reading

The War is Over; We Won; Time to Go Home – Victory and Freedom in Little Rock, Arkansas


African American soldiers mustered out at Little Rock, Arkansas, April 20, 1865; by Alfred Waud; published in Harper’s Weekly, v. 10, 1866 May 19, p. 308.
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-21005 (digital file from original item) LC-DIG-ppmsca-13485 (digital file from original item) 

To some, it seemed that the Civil War would never end. But end it did.

How sweet the taste of victory and freedom must have been, for the Union’s black military men! Perhaps as many as 70% or more of the 200,000 or so African Americans who served in the Union army and navy had been enslaved before the war. They understood the stakes: victory meant freedom; defeat meant the continuation of slavery, perhaps a harsher slavery in light of how many slaves supported the Union war effort.

On April 9, 1865, Confederate Gen Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union Gen Ulysses S. Grant. That surrender ushered in the end of the American Civil War. Union men all over were ecstatic from the news.

Alfred Waud’s drawing captures the exuberance of the Little Rock, Arkansas, African American community as the U. S. Colored Troops returned home from war; over 5,000 men from the state of Arkansas enlisted in the Union army.  The victorious soldiers are joyously greeted by women and children, who no doubt had their own stories of travail to tell, as black civilians in the Civil War South.

An uncertain future awaited them all. But for now, they could finally go about their way, ushered on the wings of a new birth of freedom, ushered on the winds of victory that had earned.

Mississippi Blue Flood Blues

The Colored Volunteer Marching Into Dixie
The Colored Soldier, Marching into Dixie; 1863; hand-colored lithograph; from New York: Published by Currier & Ives, New York; Originally part of a McAllister, Hart, Phillips Civil War scrapbook
Description: Portrait of an earnest African American Union soldier dressed in his blue uniform, a “U.S.” belt buckle, and a cap. He holds his rifle over his shoulder and carries a sleeping mat on his back.
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, African Americana Collection – African American Graphics Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.

The Mississippi Blue Flood Blues
By Alan Skerrett

There’s a blue flood in Mississippi
That’s where my baby be
There’s a blue flood in Mississippi
That’s where my baby be
They’re wearin’ eagles on their buttons [1]
Tellin’ us it’s Jubilee [2]

There’s a dark cloud over Vicksburg [3]
I hope my baby found a cave
There’s a dark cloud over Vicksburg
Sure hope my baby’s in a cave
But that blue flood is surely coming’
And I know my baby will be saved

There’s thunder and lighting in Natchez
Where there used to be crying on the block [4]
There’s thunder and lighting in Natchez
Where my baby was crying on the block
But when that blue flood comes to Natchez
We’ll take the keys and break the locks

There’s a horn blown’ in Jackson [5]
Blowing just like Jericho
Lord, there’s a horn blowin’ in Jackson
Strong and loud like Jericho
When you hear that horn a wailing,
Pack your bags, child, time to go!
—————

[1] African Americans soldiers were a vital part of the Union forces in the Mississippi Valley. Almost 18,000 black men from Mississippi enlisted in the Union army; only Louisiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee provided more African descent troops to the Union cause. During the war, Frederick Douglass famously said “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” Earnest McBride, in his essay “Black Mississippi troops in the Civil War,” writes that “the most noteworthy battles fought by Mississippi black troops to liberate themselves, their families and the entire nation are the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, June 7, 1863, as part of the Vicksburg Campaign; two battles in or near Yazoo City, February and March, 1864; Big Black and Concord Church, Nov. 23-Dec. 4, 1864; Brownsville, MS, April, 1864; Brice’s Crossroads, June 1-13, 1864; Tupelo, July 5-1864.”
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A Field Trip to the Freedom Fortress by Hampton Institute Students

Field Trip to Fort Monroe
Students at Hampton Institute, VA, view a cannon at Fort Monroe, circa 1899-1900; Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952, photographer.
Source: Library of Congress, Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection. Created/published in 1899 or 1900; LOC Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-117748

Fort Monroe, just outside modern day Hampton, Virginia, was a Union military base where three African American men – Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend – escaped to freedom early in the Civil War. In return for giving their labor to the Union, the US Army Major General Benjamin Butler gave them asylum from bondage  Those men blazed a trail that would eventually lead to freedom for millions of bondsmen.

After the war, numerous schools were founded as places where freedmen and women could improve themselves through education and training. Thus was born Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which today is called Hampton University. At the turn of the century (19th to 20th), these Institute students visited the place that was known to escaping slaves – perhaps their mothers and fathers – as the Freedom Fortress.

 

The Innocent Cause of All this War Trouble

These are three Civil War era envelopes, of undoubtedly Union origin, which make a statement about the role of enslaved persons in causing or contributing to the war. Note that, during the Civil War era, illustrated envelopes were a kind of social media. People used the mails to send these pre-printed envelopes which had artistic, political, or social content. The envelopes represent a kind of pop culture treatment of the issues of the day, such as, in this case, war and slavery.

Innocent cause of war envelope
Figure 1: “Innocent Cause of War” envelope cover, circa American Civil War (1861-1865). A caricatured enslaved person, with what appears (to me) to be an impish grin, says “I’se De INNOCENT CAUSE ob all dis WAR TRUBBLE.”
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, from the Civil War Envelope Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.

Innocent cause of war envelope 2
Figure 2: “Innocent Cause of War” envelope cover, circa American Civil War (1861-1865). This is similar to the envelope in Figure 1, but without the use of caricatured dialect, and with less of the grin.
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, from the Civil War Envelope Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.

Cornerstones envelope
Figure 3: “Cornerstones” envelope cover, circa American Civil War (1861-1865). This uses the enslaved person image seen in Figure 1. A bust of George Washington is at the top left. Washington is called the ‘Corner Stone of the Federal Union’ while the slave is called the ‘Corner Stone of the “Southern Confederacy.”‘ Published by James Gates, Cincinnati.
Note: In March 1861, Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederate States, made a now famous oration that has been called the “Cornerstone Speech.” In it, Stephens is said to have stated “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Image and Description Source: Library Company of  Philadelphia, from the Civil War Envelope Collection; see here for Library Company of Philadelphia’s homepage.

Major Martin Delany to the Freedpeople of SC: “(W)e would not have become free, had we not armed ourselves and fought out our independence.”

Major Martin Delaney
US Army Major Martin R. Delany: Delany was a free born “African American abolitionist, journalist, physician, and writer.” (per Wikipedia.com) Among other activities, he was co-publisher of the North Star newspaper along with Frederick Douglass. During the Civil War, “Delany recruited thousands of men for the Union Army. In February 1865, after meeting with President Abraham Lincoln to persuade the administration to create an all-black Corps led by African American officers, Delaney was commissioned a Major” in the US Colored Troops (per Blackpast.org).
Image Source: US Military History Institute, via The Senator John Heinz History Center

Edward M. Stoeber, a lieutenant in the 104th US Colored Troops, US Army, was shocked. He had just attended a “lecture” in St. Helena Island, SC, given by army Major Martin Robinson Delany to a group of fellow African Americans in July 1865, as the American Civil War was coming to an end. Delany’s audience had been enslaved, but were now unbound. Delany – who was commissioned an army major by Abraham Lincoln after appealing for the creation of black regiments led by black officers – gave the freedmen and women advice for how to move forward, advice which drove the white Lieutenant Stoeber to disgust.

Why was Stoeber so upset? For one, Delany told the freedmen that they had had freed themselves by enlisting and fighting in the Union army. Stoeber disagreed, evidently unable or unwilling to acknowledge African American agency, or perhaps, angry that the martyred Abraham Lincoln was not getting enough credit. “This is a falsehood and a misrepresentation. Our President Abraham Lincoln declared the colored race free, before there was even an idea of arming colored men,” said Stoeber in a letter to his superiors. “This (talk from Delaney) is decidedly calculated to create bad feeling against the Government,” he insisted.

Additionally, Stoeber was concerned that in “acquaint(ing) (the freedmen) with the fact that slavery was absolutely abolished,” Delany had thrown “thunders of damnations and maledictions on all the former slaveowners and people of the South, and almost condemned their souls to hell.” Stoeber might not have been aware that jeremiads against slavery and the South were not uncommon for black abolitionists, perhaps even some white ones.

Stoeber was also alarmed that Delany warned the freedmen to beware of white “ministers, schoolteachers, Emissaries, (and others who would come South to help the freedmen) because they never tell you the truth.” Such talk, said Stoeber, “is only to bring distrust against all, and gives them to understand that they shall believe men of their own race. He openly acts and speaks contrary to the policy of the Government, advising them not to work for any man, but for themselves.” Such talk was dangerous, according to Stoeber: “In my opinion of this discourse he was trying to encourage them to break the peace of society and force their way by insurrection to a position he is ambitious they should attain to.” Delany’s views were informed  by a lifetime of prejudice against himself and other African Americans living in the North; this included his dismissal from Harvard Medical School after just a month of attendance, when white students wrote of their objection to the presence of blacks at the school.

Delany and Stoeber seemed to have irreconcilable views of the past, present, and future. Major Delany, an activist African American from the North, had his own ideas about the role of African Americans in building the South and winning the Civil War, and in charting their own future as free people. For him, self-pride, self-worth, economic self-sufficiency, and a healthy dose of skepticism concerning the intentions of, and advice from, whites were key for black progress. But as far as Lt. Stoeber was concerned, Delany was a “a thorough hater of the white race (who) excites the colored people unnecessarily” and horrified white onlookers. Stoeber was also concerned that Delany gave incorrect information about the Union government’s land and labor policies, information that he feared would create false expectations and eventually result in anger among the freedpeople.

Delany was not the first to speak to what some might call a “black” (others might say “correct”) understanding of the war, emancipation, and permanent freedom, nor would he be the last. Stoeber’s reaction to his comments underscores that the memory and interpretation of the Civil War, as well as the strategies and policies for African American independence, would be contested, even among those who were on the Union side, and lead to outcomes that no one could predict.

This (partial) text of Delany’s July 1865 speech to former slaves in Beaufort, South Carolina, is based on the recollection of Lt. Stoeber, as written in letter to Brevet Maj. S. M. Taylor, Assistant Adjutant General with the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (AKA the Freedmen’s Bureau). There was some fear among (white) government officials that Delaney might be using inappropriate language or giving improper instruction and advice to the freedmen, hence Stoeber’s presence at the speech.
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Partial text of letter from Lt Edward M. Stoeber, dated July 24th, 1865, written to the Freedmen’s Bureau, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (For the full text, including more of the white reaction to the speech, see the source: Columbia University):

Major:

In obedience to your request, I proceeded to St. Helena Island, yesterday morning for the purpose of listening to the public delivery of a lecture by Major Delany 104th Ne[gro] S.C. Troops. I was accompanied by Lieut. A. Whyte Jr. 128th Ne[gro] S.C. Troops, Com[an]d’g Post. The meeting was held near “Brick Church,” the congregation numbering from 500 to 600.

As introduction Maj. Delany made them acquainted with the fact, that slavery is absolutely abolished, throwing thunders of damnations and maledictions on all the former slaveowners and people of the South, and almost condemned their souls to hell.

He says “It was only a War policy of the Government, to declare the slaves of the South free, knowing that the whole power of the South, laid in the possession of the Slaves. But I want you to understand, that we would not have become free, had we not armed ourselves and fought out our independence” (this he repeated twice). Continue reading

Drunk History: Harriet Tubman leads slaves to freedom during the Civil War

Harriet Tubman, a conductor on the Underground Railroad, was a spy for the Union during the Civil War, eventually leading raids on plantations in South Carolina that freed over 700 slaves.

Comedy Central’s Drunk History show does a hilarious take on her wartime heroics:

While it is hilarious, it is based on a true story. Much of this seems based in part on the book Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent: How Daring Slaves and Free Blacks Spied for the Union During the Civil War, by Thomas B. Allen, which is a good read.

Crissle West of The Read does most of the voice-over for this video.

Request to the Confederate Army: Treat runaway slaves as traitors – so they can be summarily executed

On to Liberty, Edited
On to Liberty, Theodor Kaufmann, oil painting, 1867; see here for a higher resolution image. (Highly recommended)
Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1982.443.3, Gift of Erving and Joyce Wolf, in memory of Diane R. Wolf, 1982
Source Description: Before coming to the United States in 1850, the German-born Kaufmann studied painting in Düsseldorf and Munich and fought in the 1848 popular uprisings in favor of national unity for Germany. As a Union soldier in the American Civil War, he may have seen retreating Confederate troops take their adult male slaves with them, leaving behind the women and children. Here, his portrayal of a group of fleeing figures suggests the lack of a clear route to liberty. They emerge from darkness into light but must traverse a rockstrewn path before arriving on the smooth road leading to the Stars and Stripes, which, however, remains frighteningly close to the ongoing battle.

In November 1860, on the eve of secession and Civil War, Georgia governor Joseph Brown confidently predicted that “we (white southerners) have… little cause of apprehension from a rebellion of our slaves.” He was responding to concerns that a civil war might provide opportunities for slaves to rebel for their freedom.

Governor Brown, who strongly advocated for secession and a confederacy of slave states, was undaunted. Second, he cited what I call the “anti-insurrection infrastructure,” that is, the policies and practices used to prevent an effective slave resistance movement: “The slaves,” he argued, “are usually under the eye of their masters or overseers. Few of them can read or write. They are not permitted to travel on our Railroads, or other public conveyances, without the consent of those having the control of them. They have no mail facilities… and no means of communication with each other at a distance. They are entirely unarmed, and unskilled in the use of arms.” Brown concluded that a “general revolt would therefore be impossible.”

Additionally, he noted, “nine-tenths of them are truly and devotedly attached to their masters and mistresses, and would shed in their defense, the last drop of their blood.” For all to these reasons, Brown saw no reason to worry about the slaves. That was in November 1860, six months before the Civil War began at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina.

A year and six months after the attack on Ft. Sumter, during which the Confederacy and the Union were engaged in a bloody war, a group of Georgians sent a letter to the Confederate government that, if he saw it, would certainly have caused governor Brown great concern. Writing from Liberty County, which is positioned along the Atlantic coast near Savannah, the concerned citizens complained that by August 1862, 20,000 slaves had fled to Union lines. The runaways were giving “aid and comfort” to the enemy by “erecting fortifications and raising provisions” for the Union, acting as spies and guides, even by being “pilots to their vessels on the waters of our inlets and rivers.” This was not only a loss of labor and assets, but it “demoralized” the remaining slave population.

One problem as some whites saw it was that laws for the protection of slave property and the slaves’ lives made it difficult to appropriately punish these fugitives from labor. So, they proposed a solution: the Confederate military should treat these runaways as traitors, and summarily execute them. Continue reading