Contraband Art: the White View of the Black Exodus

Contraband, Changing Quarters copy
Figure 1: “Contraband, Changing Quarters” In this image, a determined-looking slave exercises his agency and escapes from his master in the Confederate army to seek freedom with the Union army. Presumably, the fine white stallion belongs to his master; so the Union has gotten two properties for the price of one. The cap, I guess, is a fashion statement.
Image Source: The Philadelphia Print Shop, section on Civil War images of Blacks / “Contraband”

First and foremost, you must understand this: Civil War era northerners were intrigued, perhaps even fascinated, by the very idea of “contrabands”: human property that was “confiscated” from Confederates, and given asylum from bondage, in return for supporting the Union war effort. That intrigue and fascination played out in the art of the era, as shown in this post.

Some background is in order. The official Union policy at the start of the war was to do nothing to slavery where it stood. The goal of the Union was to end secession, not to end slavery. Men like Abraham Lincoln were uncompromising that slavery not spread into the territories west of the Mississippi River, but they believed that free persons in the slave states had the right to keep chattel property.

image.png
Figure 2: An enslaved person caricature with an impish grin says “I’se de INNOCENT CAUSE Ob All Dis War Trouble”
Image Description: This Civil War era envelope image shows an African American enslaved person slyly casting himself as the “innocent cause of all this war trouble.” Many African Americans no doubt agreed with this, but most likely, this reflects the sentiment of the illustrator and many white northerners. But the exigencies of war would transform the Negro from a mere trickster into a freedom seeker that the Union would embrace as “contraband.”
Image Source: Indiana State Library, Civil War Envelope Exhibit

Enslaved people had a different idea. They immediately saw the conflict between Union and Confederacy as an opportunity for freedom. In March 1861 – several weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War – two groups of slaves fled bondage and sought refuge at Fort Pickens, a Union occupied ports in northwest Florida. Their hopes for freedom were dashed. First Lieutenant A. J. Slemmer, a commander at the fort, reported to his superiors that “(o)n the morning of the 12th… four negroes (runaways) came to the fort entertaining the idea that we were placed here to protect them and grant them their freedom. I did what I could to teach them the contrary. In the afternoon I took them to Pensacola and delivered them to the city marshal to be returned to their owners. That same night four more made their appearance. They were also turned over to the authorities next morning.”

But just two months later, another group of runaway slaves got a different reception. On May 23, 1861, Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory fled bondage and sought asylum at a Union occupied fort outside of Hampton, Virginia, named Fort Monroe. Per Union policy, the fort’s commander, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, should have returned them to their master. But he reasoned that because the slaves were property that was 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. The Lincoln administration, and then legislation passed by the Congress and signed by Lincoln, gave official sanction to the contraband policy. Soon, all across the Confederate States, the Union was enabling the freedom of former slaves.


Figure 3: The Fort Monroe Three: Runaway slaves Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory meet with Union General Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe, Virginia, May 1861, seeking freedom from bondage. Butler will decide that this “contraband property” should be confiscated from the Confederates, and re-purposed for Union use.
Image Source: From The New York Public Library Digital Collections

This new policy created a sensation among northerners. Recollect that less than 2% of people living in the free states were of African descent. Millions of northern white Americans went their entire lives without ever seeing a real live African-American, much less a slave. What they did know of slaves was through a popular culture that commonly depicted slaves in a negative way, by, for example, using caricatures that exaggerated and “animalized” their appearance.

What were northerners thinking and feeling about this contraband policy? They might have thought about their Yankee ingenuity, in making what Southerners thought to be a strength – the unencumbered use of slave labor – into a weakness; and also, in finding a way to legally use enslaved peoples for the Union’s war aims. They might have thought about the irony, and the justice, of slaves gaining freedom just at the time when their masters needed them the most. Meanwhile, some northerners – such as Frederick Douglass – wondered why African Americans were called by a name that reinforced the idea of human beings as property.

Many white northerners no doubt wondered, just who were these people, anyway? Who were these people with dark skin, whom very few northerners had ever seen, but were at the crux of the divisions that caused the war, and were now being seen as being as a important to the Union’s success? They might also have wondered how the slaves felt about all of this… what did the slaves feel about their masters, the Union, and “freedom?”

And then there was the ultimate question: what did it mean for the Union to ask the support of, and give their support to, a class of people who were seen as ignorant, inferior, docile (when under control of their enslavers) yet savage (when uncontrolled), perhaps sub-human, but surely degraded?

These types of questions informed the popular art of the Civil War and post-war eras, the vast majority of which was produced by white men. Let’s take a look at some of those works:

Butler and slave contraband
Figure 4: Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “One of the F. F. V’s after his Contraband. General Butler “can’t see it.” Image Reference is to General Benjamin Butler; see text in the blog entry. F.F.V is short for ‘First Families of Virginia,’ a name given to the state’s elite class
Image Source: Encyclopedia Virginia; entry titled “Escaped Slaves at Fort Monroe”; image courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

During the Civil War era, illustrated envelopes were a kind of social media. People used the mails to send printed envelopes which had artistic, political, or social content. During 1861 and 1862 – that is, after the contraband policy started, but before the final Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863 – several printers made envelopes which addressed the “contraband” Issue.

The image above portrays a Virginia enslaver, bloodhound in hand, going after his runaway. The groveling bondsman is protected at the point of a sword by Union General Benjamin Butler. Butler, as mentioned above, originated the contraband policy at Fort Monroe. The image is based on an actual event: a Confederate officer, under flag of truce, met with Butler at the fort to retrieve a runaway slave. Butler responded that the slave would be returned, if the Confederate officer would take an oath of loyalty to the Union. Which, of course, the officer did not do.

Fort Monroe Doctrine cartoon
Figure 5: The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine, 1861. From the Library of Congress description: On May 27, 1861, Benjamin Butler, commander of the Union army in Virginia and North Carolina, decreed that slaves who fled to Union lines were legitimate “contraband of war,” and were not subject to return to their Confederate owners. The declaration precipitated scores of escapes to Union lines around Fortress Monroe, Butler’s headquarters in Virginia. In this crudely drawn caricature, a slave stands before the Union fort taunting his plantation master. The planter (right) waves his whip and cries, “Come back you black rascal.” The slave replies, “Can’t come back nohow massa Dis chile’s contraban”
Image Source:  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-36161; above image is from the Virginia Memory website.
Continue reading

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The Struggle of Black Civil War Veterans: “We will not allow n****** to come among us and brag about having been in the yankee army”


African American soldiers faced trials and tribulations during the Civil War. But the struggle did not end there.
Source: From Civil War Journeys; original source was not identified

There was much animus towards southern African Americans among white southerners after the Civil War. Something as simple as an African American’s pride in his military service could become a flashpoint for violence. Consider this case, from post-war Virginia:

Freedmen’s Bureau Agent at Brentsville, Virginia, to the Freedmen’s Bureau Superintendent of the 10th District of Virginia

Prince Wm Co. Va  Brentsville  Jan’y. 15″ 1866.

Sir:  I have the honor to inform you that a dastardly outrage was committed in this place yesterday, (Sunday,) within sight of my office, the circumstances of which are as follows.

A freedman named James Cook was conceived to be “impudent,” by a white man named John Cornwell; whereupon the whiteman cursed him and threatened him.  The freedman, being alarmed, started away, and was followed and threatened with “you d——d black yankee son of a b——h I will kill you”; and was fired upon with a pistol, the ball passing through his clothes.  He was then caught by the white man, and beaten with the but of a revolver, and dragged to the door of the Jail near where the affair occurred, where he was loosened and escaped.

He came to me soon after, bleeding from a deep cut over the eye, and reported the above, which was substantiated to me as fact by several witnesses.  I have heard both sides of the case fully, and the only charge that is brought against the freedman is “impudence”; and while being pounced upon as a “d——d Yankee,” and cursed and called all manner of names, this “impudence” consisted in the sole offense of saying, that he had been in the union army and was proud of it.  No other “impudence” was charged against him.

I know the freedman well, and know him to be uncommonly intelligent, inoffensive, and respectful.  He is an old grey-headed man, and has been a slave of the commonwealth attorney of this co. a long time.  He has the reputation I have given him among the citizens here, and has rented a farm near here for the coming season.  As an evidence of his pacific disposition, he had a revolver which was sold him by the Government, on his discharge from the army, which he did not draw, or threaten to use during the assault; choosing, in this instance at least, to suffer wrong rather than to do wrong.

To show you the state of feeling here among many people, (not all) in regard to such a transaction, Dr. C. H. Lambert, the practicing physician of this place, followed the freedman to me, and said, that “Subdued and miserable as we are, we will not allow niggers to come among us and brag about having been in the yankee army.  It is as much as we can do to tolerate it in white men.”  He thought “It would be a good lesson to the niggers” &c. &c.  I have heard many similar, and some more violent remarks, on this, and other subjects connected with the freedmen.

I would not convey the impression however, that there is the slightest danger to any white man, from these vile and cowardly devils.  But where there are enough of them together, they glory in the conquest of a “nigger.”  They hold an insane malice against the freedman, from which he must be protected, or he is worse off than when he was a slave.

Marcus. S. Hopkins.

Source: Excerpt from 1″ Lieut. Marcus. S. Hopkins to Maj. James Johnson, 15 Jan. 1866, H-59 1866, Registered Letters Received, series 3798, VA Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.

And this is certainly related to the above: These are the only monuments to African American Union soldiers that were installed below the Mason-Dixon Line prior to 1990 (the movie Glory was released 1989):


Colored Soldiers Monument, Kentucky


Monument to the 56th USCT Infantry, Missouri


Monument to the Colored Union Soldiers, North Carolina


West Point Monument, Norfolk, Virginia


Civil War Monument at Lincoln Cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia
Source for photographs: see here.

Three monuments are in former Confederate states, two are in Border (Union slave) states. By contrast there are hundreds of monuments to Confederate soldiers spread throughout the former Confederate and Border states by 1990. Note that the two Virginia monuments are in African American cemeteries. Continue reading

American Esoterica: African Americans and Oxen

Slaves Fording River
Rappahannock River, Virginia; African Americans who escaped bondage ford the Rappahannock during the Civil War, 1862
• Image Source: Library of Congress
• Created / Published: 1862 August.
• Photograph from the main eastern theater of the Civil War, Bull Run, 2nd Battle of, Va., 1862, July-August 1862.
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This post is filed under the category “Esoterica”: humans have more than one four-legged friend, as we can see:

Plowing-in-South-Carolina,-by-Jame-E.-Taylor,-is-from-Frank-Leslie's-Illustrated-Newspaper,-dated-October-20,-1866
Plowing in South Carolina, from a sketch by Jas. E. Taylor; James E.Taylor artist; 1866; Illus. in: Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. 23, no. 577 (1866 October 20), p. 76.
• Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-134227; Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
•  Created/Published: 1866 Oct. 20.
• Print shows a freedman plowing with a primitive plow.

Couple-with-Ox-2
African American man and woman seated in wooden ox-drawn cart, circa 1880
• Image Source: Loewentheil Collection of African-American Photographs, #08043, accessed 2 October 2018. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they didn’t starve. Styles reported:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Bodies as Bait: Another Example of Black Confederates?

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

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

Black Woman Killed in NC

Per the report, Union men are in a gunboat along the Chowan River when they approach the town of Winton. There, they see a negro woman who motions them to approach. Gen. Burnside say the woman, whom the Union men probably thought was a runaway, was used to lure the men into a Confederate trap. The Union men released a “volley” at the woman. Not being a soldier, her death will not be counted as a casualty of war; her loss is invisible. She becomes a military expediency.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

[​IMG]
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 

 

February 1: It’s National Freedom Day!

Freedom Day, performed by the Max Roach Combo. Max Roach, drums; Clifford Jordan, saxophone; Eddie Khan, bass; Coleridge Parkinson, piano; Abbey Lincoln, vocals. Circa 1960s. From the “Freedom Now Suite,” written by drummer Max Roach and writer-singer Oscar Brown Jr. An essay about the “Freedom Now Suite” is here. An alternate take is below.

Freedom Day lyrics

Whisper, listen, whisper, listen. Whispers say we’re free.
Rumors flyin’, must be lyin’. Can it really be?
Can’t conceive it, can’t believe it. But that’s what they say.
Slave no longer, slave no longer, this is Freedom Day.

Freedom Day, it’s Freedom Day. Throw those shacklin’ chains away.
Everybody that I see says it’s really true, we’re free.

Whisper, listen, whisper, listen. Whispers say we’re free.
Rumors flyin’, must be lyin’. Can it really be?
Can’t conceive it, don’t believe it. But that’s what they say.
Slave no longer, slave no longer, this is Freedom Day.

Freedom Day, it’s Freedom Day. Throw those shacklin’ chains away.
Everybody that I see says it’s really true, we’re free.

Freedom Day, it’s Freedom Day. Free to vote and earn my pay.
Dim my path and hide the way. But we’ve made it Freedom Day.

Considering the arc of American memory, why is it no surprise that few people have heard of National Freedom Day – a federal observance of the end of slavery in the United States?

But yes, there is a National Freedom Day. It commemorates the date (February 1, 1865) that Abraham Lincoln signed a joint resolution of the US Congress which proposed the 13th amendment to the Constitution, to abolish slavery in the United States. This amendment passed Congress after a very rancorous debate, as shown in the movie Lincoln. The amendment was ratified by the required number of states in December 1865. National Freedom Day was proclaimed a national day of observance by President Harry Truman in January 1949:

Whereas, near the end of the tragic conflict between the Northern and Southern States, the Congress adopted a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution which would outlaw slavery in the United States and in every place subject to its jurisdiction; and

Whereas the resolution was signed by President Lincoln on February 1, 1865, and thereafter led to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution; and

Whereas that Amendment is a corner stone in the foundation of our American traditions, and the signing of the resolution is a landmark in the Nation’s effort to fulfill the principles of freedom and justice proclaimed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution; and

Whereas, by a joint resolution approved June 30, 1948 (62 Stat. 1150), the Congress authorized the President to proclaim the first day of February of each year as National Freedom Day in commemoration of the signing of the resolution of February 1, 1865; and

Whereas the Government and people of the United States wholeheartedly support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, which declares that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”:

Now, Therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate February 1, 1949, and each succeeding February 1, as national Freedom Day; and I call upon the people of the United States to pause on that day in solemn contemplation of the glorious blessings of freedom which we humbly and thankfully enjoy.

Truman proclaims National Freedom Day copy
Image source: “A beacon to oppressed peoples everywhere”: Major Richard R. Wright Sr., National Freedom Day, and the Rhetoric of Freedom in the 1940s,”by Mitch Kachun. See also the Library of Congress’s America’s Story from America’s Library website. 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.

Fighting over Freedom in Post-war South Carolina, Part 2: We Want to “to raise up an oppressed and deeply injured people”

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s04415
Freedman’s school, possibly in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1863 – 1865
> In November 1865, a  Colored People’s Convention of the state of South Carolina, meeting in Charleston, asked “that the three great agents of civilized society—the school, the pulpit, the press— be as secure in South Carolina as in Massachusetts or Vermont.”
Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-stereo-1s04415 (digital file from original item, front) LC-DIG-stereo-2s04415 (digital file from original item, back)

By the end of 1865, the American Civil War was over, and the United States had defeated the Confederate States. With the Union now “preserved,” it was clear that the wartime goal of emancipating the slaves would be achieved.  But the question remained: how “free” was “free?” Freedom meant different things to different people, and no one, definitive meaning had been determined. And so a contest to determine the scope and extent of the former slaves’ freedom was on.

On one side of this contest was men like South Carolina’s Edmund Rhett, Jr, a former Confederate army officer and editor of a prominent newspaper in Charleston. In correspondence discussing the post-war status of the freedpeople, he recommended a set of laws that would prohibit freedpeople from ever owning land, restrict “the method of (their) movements,” prevent Negroes from “competing with white men,” “control him, and keep him under good discipline,” and otherwise keep negroes “as near to the condition of slavery as possible.” If Negroes could no longer be owned, they would at least be controlled and subjugated.

African Americans had another idea. They were not ignorant of or naive about the intentions of former Confederates. After the war, they assembled at conventions throughout the South and North to discuss their dreams, goals, and action plans for improvement and progress. In November 1865, the Colored People’s Convention of the state of South Carolina met in Charleston and issued a statement (called a “memorial”) to the Congress which: protested so-called  “black codes” legislation that would place the freedmen in a state of virtual enslavement; demanded that their right to bear arms be protected; asked for suffrage rights equivalent to those of white men; and expressed hope that the “great agents of civilized society—the school, the pulpit, the press— be as secure in South Carolina as in Massachusetts or Vermont.” If there was to be a war of words, South Carolina’s black community was more than willing to exchange fire.

And as it turned out, the fight for a truly full-featured freedom would extend far into the future, to the Civil Rights era. Consider this one of the first volleys in the post-war struggle for liberation:

We, the colored people of the state of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, respectfully present for your attention some prominent facts in relation to our present condition, and make a modest yet earnest appeal to your considerate judgment. Continue reading