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

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

Going beyond the Confederate Flag Controversy: Missing Monuments – The Unfinished Work of Commemorating the African American Experience in the Civil War

Battle_flag_of_the_Confederate_States_of_America.svg
Many people are concerned about the presence of this…
Image: Confederate Battle Flag
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

African-American_Civil_War_Memorial
…but many more should be concerned about the relative absence of this.
Image: African American Civil War Memorial, Washington, DC
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial–the multi-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War–is just about over. There are already discussions about commemorating the Reconstruction Era, which followed the war. For example, the National Park Service is considering the development of sites that will memorialize Reconstruction Era events.

But recent controversies over the Confederate Battle Flag (see here and here and here, for example) suggest that the job of properly commemorating the war in our public and private spaces is not yet done.

I understand how and why the Confederate Battle Flag (CBF) is such a lightening rod for debate and dispute. But my own concern is not with the presence of the CBF on public or other spaces. I am concerned about the relative absence of memorials, monuments and other objects that reflect the roles and experiences of African Americans during the American Civil War. This is something that we Americans need to talk about, and hopefully, address with collective action.

There are easily hundreds of, if not over a thousand, statues, monuments and other objects that commemorate the Civil War. Overwhelmingly, these objects feature white soldiers, sailors, and civilians. The Civil War era presence of African Americans on the “commemorative landscape,” as many call it, is inadequate, if not woefully so.

This situation is a result of our history. Nine out of ten Civil War era African Americans lived in the Union and Confederate slave states, which were considered “the South.” After the Reconstruction Era, which saw many advances toward racial equality, the South devolved into a state of racial supremacy for whites, and racial subjugation for African Americans. Political, financial, and social conditions inhibited or even prevented African Americans from creating memorials that fairly depicted their wartime experience. The result was a commemorative landscape in which Civil War era black folks were out of sight and out of mind. Someone raised in the South prior to this century could look at the commemorative landscape of the era and easily (and wrongly) conclude that black people were a negligible and inconsequential part of the war.

Things have gotten better. For example, since the 1989 movie Glory, over a dozen or more monuments to black Civil War soldiers have been installed. (A review of monuments to African American Civil War soldiers is here.) But much more needs to be done. In way too many places, children of all backgrounds are growing up in a commemorative environment where the back presence in the Civil War in under-represented, or even unrepresented. We have the power to fix that.

The following are just are a few suggestions for new memorials that depict various aspects of the Civil War history of African Americans. The list is not meant to be comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start. If anyone has their own suggestions to offer, feel free to note them in the comments section below. I hope this becomes part of a conversation about creating a commemorative landscape that fully and truly reflects the richness and diversity of the Civil War experience.

So, here we go:

1) No state is more significant in the history of African American soldiery during Civil War than Louisiana. Louisiana provided more African American soldiers to the Union than any other state. Three of the first five black Union regiments were formed in the state. And finally, Louisiana probably produced the most black army officers of any state. A portion of these soldiers were free black Creoles, while others were former slaves. Many enlisted in the Louisiana Native Guards regiments that were organized in New Orleans.


Officers of Company C of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard at Fort Macomb, Louisiana, per Wikipedia
Image Source: Harpers Weekly, February 28, 1863, via Wikipedia

Yet, there is no monument or memorial to black soldiers in the city of New Orleans. Per my research, there is only one monument to black soldiers in the entire state — at Donaldsonville, Louisiana (which is between New Orleans and Baton Rouge).

This is an oversight that borders on being shameful. I hate to use such strong language. But it is past due that New Orleans and other places in the state recognize the pivotal role these soldiers played during the Civil War.

2) When the Civil War began, president Abraham Lincoln and the US Congress made it clear: the Union had no intent of disturbing the institution of slavery where it stood. Why? At the least, they hoped to maintain the loyalty of the slave states that had not seceded and joined the Confederacy. At best, they hoped that the Confederate states, secure in the promise that slavery was safe, would return to the Union, thereby avoiding a war. (Note that, Lincoln was adamant that slavery would not spread to the western territories – a policy stance that the secessionists found unacceptable.)

But the slaves had their own agenda. They saw the war as an opportunity for freedom. On May 23, 1861 – just weeks after the war began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina – Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory fled bondage and sought asylum at a Union occupied fort outside of Hampton, Virginia, named Fort Monroe.

The fort’s commander, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, had no duty to return the slaves; in fact, by Union policy, he should have returned them to their master. But he reasoned that because the slaves were property being used by Confederate insurrectionists, it was within his rights to confiscate that property and use it for the Union’s purposes. This was the beginning of the Union’s contraband policy.


Union General Benjamin Butler receives runaway slaves Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory at Fort Monroe, Virginia, May 1861
Image Source: From The Daily Press, Newport News, Virginia

The contraband policy, which gave bondsmen asylum from slavery in return for their providing labor to the Union, eventually morphed into the Emancipation Proclamation. But the Proclamation might never have happened if not for the three brave men who took the risk of liberating themselves and seeking aid and comfort with their master’s enemy. We need a monument outside of Fort Monroe, which still stands, to commemorate their actions and those of Gen. Benjamin Butler. Continue reading

Dick, sketched on the 6th of May, on return to camp

Dick in Camp in Virginia
This is a portrait of a young man in a Union Army camp during the Civil War, circa May 1863, in Virginia. He is probably a former slave who found work with the army. A high-resolution version of the image is here. The caption at the bottom of the picture reads “Dick Sketched on the 6th of May, the afternoon of Gen. Hookers retreat across the Rappahannock.” This was after the Battle of Chancellorsville, where forces led by Union General Joseph Hooker were beaten by Confederate forces led by Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

This picture is from the Prints and Photographs collection of the Library of Congress (LOC), and is titled “Dick, sketched on the 6th of May, on return to camp / E.F.” The drawing, of an African American man holding a mule by a rope, is by artist Edwin Forbes (1839-1895), and was done in May, 1863. The LOC Reproduction Numbers for the image are: LC-DIG-ppmsca-20539 (digital file from original item), LC-USZC4-4219 (color film copy transparency), LC-USZ62-21374 (b&w film copy neg.). The LOC Call Number is DRWG/US – Forbes, no. 64 (A size).

The Union Line

Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River Virginia, August 1862
African Americans, fleeing bondage, ford the Rappahannock River and enter Union lines, circa July-August 1862; near Rappahannock, Virginia, close to the site of the Second Battle of Bull Run (AKA Second Manssass).
During the American Civil War, tens of thousands – perhaps a hundred thousand and more – African Americans escaped enslavement and sought refuge in Union occupied territory. Before the war, they might have been captured by slave patrols, groups of men who guarded their neighborhoods against runaway or wayward slaves. The presence of Union troops in the South, and the loss of white southern men to Confederate military service, gave slaves the opportunity to free themselves from captivity. The Union gave refuge to the runaways in return for their labor and other support. Many of the African American men in these groups become Union soldiers or sailors.

Image Source: Library of Congress; see also here.

The Union Line
by Alan Skerrett

Baby girl is crying so loud
Maybe mother’s milk isn’t right
If she’s too loud, a patroller might hear
And if we get taken back to massa
Lord knows what he’ll do to us
But we’ll be free
If we can make it
to the Union line

Young son is shivering
It’s not always this cold in November
Is it bad luck? Or a warning?
But I made up my mind
I heard the Yankees have tents and blankets
We’ll be warm
If we can make it
to the Union line

Where are you mama? Where are you papa?
They sent me down that river so long ago
You told me never to forget you
And to be a good nigger
I guess I can do one
And maybe not the other
Maybe I won’t be a nigger at all
If we can just make it
To the Union line

I’m holding my wife and children’s hands so hard
I’ll never let them go
The road, it whips us
The rain, it whips us
The hunger is whipping us
Well, we’ve been whipped before
But we ain’t whipped yet!
Our hands are strong
Strong enough to push and pull ourselves to freedom
Once we make it
To the Union line

May 20, 2015: Celebrating Emancipation Day in Florida

Emancipation-Day Florida 2015
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: Tallahassee resident Brian Bibeau (center) portrays Brigadier General Edward McCook and presents a dramatic recitation of the Emancipation Proclamation from the front steps of the historic Knott House Museum. He is joined by the Leon Rifles 2nd Florida Volunteer Infantry Regiment Co. D, Captain Chris Ellrich Commanding, and the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit & Living History Association, led by Sgt. Major (Ret.) Jarvis Rosier.
Image Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com

May 20, 2015, marked the 150th anniversary of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. That date is observed as Emancipation Day in the state; thus, Florida Emancipation Day is the equivalent of Juneteenth in Texas. Activities were held throughout the state to commemorate the event, including a reenactment of the Proclamation reading in Tallahassee.

Here’s the history behind the Day: on May 10, 1865, Union soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Edward McCook entered Tallahassee. This was weeks after April 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces in Virginia, and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his forces in North Carolina. Successive waves of Confederate surrenders followed throughout the South. McCook and his men came to Tallahassee from Macon, Georgia, to facilitate the end of hostilities in the state and begin Union control. On May 20th, General McCook announced the Emancipation Proclamation in the city. Freedom in Florida was now “official.”

Of course May 20, 1865, was not the first time that slaves in Florida had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation or gained freedom as a result of the war. Union forces made forays into Florida throughout the Civil War. The state was not strategically important enough for the Union to conduct many operations there. But Union troops did, for example enter Jacksonville during the war, and that city changed handed hands several times throughout the conflict. Some of the Union forces consisted of men from the US Colored Troops (USCT). In NE Florida for sure there was an awareness of the Emancipation Proclamation, and slaves seesawed from slavery to freedom and back more than once as the Union and Confederacy took turns at controlling Jacksonville.


Emancipated slaves wait in front of the Provost Marshal’s office in Jacksonville about 1864. 

As noted here, the 2nd Infantry Regiment, USCT, did time in Florida. The source notes:

The 2nd U.S.C.T. was attached to the District of Key West, Florida, Department of of the Gulf, in February, 1864, and saw duty in New Orleans and Ships Island, Mississippi. In May the unit also participated in an attack on Confederate fortifications at Tampa, resulting in the destruction of the Confederate positions. The 2nd participated in several operation along Florida’s west coast between July 1st and 31st, 1864; including raids from Fort Myers to Bayport, and from Cedar Key to St. Andrew’s Bay. During the St. Andrew’s Bay expedition the 2nd skirmished with Confederate troops on the 18th of July.

There is a monument to the 2nd USCI in Fort Myers, FL, which is south of Tampa/St Petersburg:

My guess is that many slaves in west-central Florida – and admittedly, the huge part of the slave population resided in the northern part of the state – would have been aware of the Proclamation from Union soldiers.

Emancipation-Day FL  2nd USCT Reenactor speaks to school children
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: a member of the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit speaks to a group of school children.
Image Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com
Continue reading

Self-emancipation during the Civil War: Remembering the Corinth Contraband Camp, MS

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Statue and markers near the entrance to the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

The Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is winding down. In a scant few months, we will observe the 150th anniversary of Confederate general Robert E Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, which signaled the beginning of the end of the Civil War. This is a good moment to reflect on how the War was commemorated these past few years.

One disappointment of the Sesquicentennial, in my opinion, has been the relative lack of attention given to contrabands/runaways/self-emancipated slaves.

During the War, over a hundred thousand enslaved African Americans escaped their masters and sought refuge from bondage behind Union lines. At the start of the War, Union policy was to return these freedom seekers to their owners; the goal was to maintain the owners’ loyalty to, and support for, the Union cause. That policy unraveled as the Union came to see the slaves as valuable and necessary allies in the war against the Confederate regime.

Over time the Union evolved new policies, under which slaves who escaped their masters would be given asylum, usually in war refugee/labor camps that were in or near army encampments or forts. These places were variously called contraband camps or freedom colonies or freedom villages. The escaped slaves were called ‘contraband’ by northerners, on the basis that they were property that was seized from Confederates. I do not know if the self-emancipators defined themselves using this northerners’ lexicon.

There has been a very good focus during the Sesquicentennial, I think, on the role of African descent soldiers during the War, due in part to the efforts of African American reenactors and living historians. But the black southern soldier was a subset of a larger group of people who escaped bondage. And the story of that larger group hasn’t seen as much attention, as I look back at the spate of events and activities since the Sesquicentennial period began in 2011.

Many of the stories of these former slaves are about families, women and children especially, taking huge risks, and enduring much suffering in the process, to gain their freedom. Even if these families were successful in reaching a contraband camp, they sometimes lived in harsh conditions. Many of their menfolk joined the United States armed forces; by the War’s end, over 135,000 men from Confederate or Union slave states joined the US army, and thousands more joined the navy. With the men gone, black women were forced to care for themselves, their children and the elderly, in places that might seem like war refugee camps today. Groups like the American Missionary Association aided the military in providing educational and other services to the freedmen and women.

We know much about the black men who joined the armed forces because of the records that were kept about their service. But literacy, gender, age (again, many of these former slaves were children) and other factors have resulted in a more spare record of the former slaves at these camps.

This is not to say that the memory of these folks has been completely ignored in the commemorative landscape, that is, the public and non-public spaces which memorialize the past. An exemplary public site for the recognition of the runaways is the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi, near the state border with Tennessee.

End of Slavery Civil War exhibit in Corinth, Mississippi

Statues inside the Civil War Interpretive Center at Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi; featuring an African American Union soldier and a freedwoman taking a class.
Image Source: Photo/Copyright by Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright. Photo is not in the public domain. 

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Statue of freedwoman and child reading a book at the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

The Camp is a National Park Service (NPS) site, and part of the larger Shiloh National Park complex. This is from the NPS description of the site:

As Federal forces occupied major portions of the South, enslaved people escaped from farms and plantations and fled to safety behind Union lines. Once President Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862, the number of freedom seekers increased considerably in Union occupied Corinth.The Corinth Contraband Camp was established by Union General Grenville M. Dodge to accommodate these refugees.

The camp featured numerous homes, a church, school and hospital. The freedmen cultivated and sold cotton and vegetables in a progressive cooperative farm program. By May 1863, the camp was making a clear profit of $4,000 to $5,000 from it enterprises. By August, over 1,000 African American children and adults gained the ability to read through the efforts of various benevolent organizations.

Although the camp had a modest beginning, it became a model camp and allowed for approximately 6,000 ex-slaves to establish their own individual identities. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was implemented, nearly 2,000 of the newly freed men at the Corinth Contraband Camp had their first opportunity to protect their way of life and made up a new regiment in the Union army. Since most of the men came from Alabama, the unit was named the 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops.

In December 1863, the camp was moved to Memphis and the freedmen resided in a more traditional refugee facility for the remainder of the war.

The Corinth Contraband Camp was the first step on the road to freedom and the struggle for equality for thousands of former slaves.Today a portion of the historic Corinth Contraband Camp is preserved to commemorate those who began their journey to freedom there in 1862-1863. This land now hosts a quarter mile walkway which exhibits six life-size bronze sculptures depicting the men, women, and children who inhabited the camp.​

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Statue of United States Colored Troops solider at the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
The 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops, was formed at the Corinth Camp.

Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

One of the wonderful things about the statues in the park is that women are so well represented. The inclusiveness is important, and for visitors, informative and even enlightening.

The Corinth site is in northeast Mississippi, about 60 miles from Jackson, TN, about 100 miles from either Memphis, TN, or Decatur, AL, and about 120 miles from Huntsville, AL. This will make for a great visit for those who want to learn about this important part of Civil War and American history.