Portraits of African American Civil War Veterans from the Library of Congress

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Unidentified African American Civil War veteran in Grand Army of the Republic uniform with two children, probably his grandchildren.
Created / Published: Goodman and Springer, photographer, Mt. Pleasant, Pa., ca. 1900
SOURCE: Library of Congress; https://www.loc.gov/item/2018652209/

The Library of Congress has a great archive of photographs which includes these wonderful portraits of African American Civil War veterans. These men are shown wearing clothing and accoutrements of the Grand Army of the Republic, or G. A. R. The G. A. R. was a nation-wide organization for Union veterans of the Civil War. Continue reading

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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

William Wells Brown gets his name


Image of author/historian/social activist William Wells Brown from his book, Three Years in Europe: Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met.
SOURCE: Wikipedia

William Wells Brown, as noted in Wikipedia, “was a prominent African-American abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian in the United States. Born into slavery in Kentucky, he escaped to Ohio in 1834 at the age of 20. He settled in Boston, Massachusetts, where he worked for abolitionist causes and became a prolific writer. While working for abolition, Brown also supported causes including: temperance, women’s suffrage, pacifism, prison reform, and an anti-tobacco movement. His novel Clotel (1853), considered the first novel written by an African American, was published in London, England, where he resided at the time; it was later published in the United States.”

Brown wrote many books, including the autobiographical Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written By Himself. The website DocSouth summarizes the book here, saying in part:

Embarking on a career as a lecturing agent for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society in 1843, Brown eventually moved to Boston in 1847, where he began his impressive literary career. In that same year, he wrote and published his autobiography, the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself. With its four American and five British editions appearing before 1850, Brown’s Narrative, second in popularity only to Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, brought him international celebrity.

As William Wells Brown’s first published work and his most widely read autobiography, the 1847 Narrative occupies an important place within not only his oeuvre but also the broader African American literary tradition.

In Narrative, Wells says that after he escaped from bondage in Kentucky, he took the route to freedom through Ohio. Among his many concerns as a freeman, interestingly enough, was his name. As a boy, he had been ordered to change his name, from William to Sandford; he found this “one of the most cruel acts that could be committed upon my rights.”

But as a free man, he could reclaim his name, which he did; this is from Narrative:

My escape to a land of freedom now appeared certain, and the prospects of the future occupied a great part of my thoughts. What should be my occupation, was a subject of much anxiety to me; and the next thing what should be my name? I have before stated that my old master, Dr. Young, had no children of his own, but had with him a nephew, the son of his brother, Benjamin Young. When this boy was brought to Doctor Young, his name being William, the same as mine, my mother was ordered to change mine to something else.

This, at the time, I thought to be one of the most cruel acts that could be committed upon my rights; and I received several very severe whippings for telling people that my name was William, after orders were given to change it. Though young, I was old enough to place a high appreciation upon my name. It was decided, however, to call me “Sandford,” and this name I was known by, not only upon my master’s plantation, but up to the time that I made my escape. I was sold under the name of Sandford.

But as soon as the subject came to my mind, I resolved on adopting my old name of William, and let Sandford go by the board, for I always hated it. Not because there was anything peculiar in the name; but because it had been forced upon me. It is sometimes common at the south, for slaves to take the name of their masters. Some have a legitimate right to do so. But I always detested the idea of being called by the name of either of my masters. And as for my father, I would rather have adopted the name of “Friday,” and been known as the servant of some Robinson Crusoe, than to have taken his name. (Editor’s note: William Wells Brown’s father was a white man.)
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Giving Thanks to God for the Jubilee


Day of Jubilee, Athens slaves remembered: From Online Athens/Athens Banner-Herald: “Visiors pray during the Day of Jubilee remembrance at Baldwin Hall at the University of Georgia in Athens Georgia, Thursday, May 4 2017. On May 4, 1865 Union soldiers road into the city and freed the slaves. The Athens Anti-Discrimination movement was also remembering the slaves that were recently moved from their original resting place near Baldwin Hall and removed to the Oconee Hill Cemetery Photo/John Roark, Athens-Banner Herald.” More here.

You shall count off seven Sabbaths of years, seven times seven years; and there shall be to you the days of seven Sabbaths of years, even forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land. You shall make the fiftieth year holy, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.

It shall be a jubilee to you; and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee to you. In it you shall not sow, neither reap that which grows of itself, nor gather from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you. You shall eat of its increase out of the field. In this Year of Jubilee each of you shall return to his property. ​

Leviticus 25:8-13, the Bible

On January 1, 1866, Emancipation Day celebrations unfolded throughout the nation as they had since 1863. Near Fort Monroe, Virginia, where Jefferson Davis remained imprisoned, thousands of African Americans gathered at the schoolhouse for a procession composed of local organizations, men, women, and children. Banners with inscriptions such as “Abraham Lincoln, The Liberator and Friend of Our Race,” were are festooned in red, white, and blue along the schoolhouse walls as the crowd listened attentively to the various speakers.

In Petersburg, Virginia, several thousand freed men and women joined in a procession that extended for a nearly a mile before the crowd gathered for songs and general jubilation. In Richmond, 4,000 African Americans Assembled at a local church where the 24th Massachusetts (a regiment of black soldiers) supplied the music. The services opened with the singing of a poem:

Oh! Praise and tanks, the Lord he come
To get the people free,
And massa tink it day of doom
And we of Jubilee

– From Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation, by Caroline E Janney, pages 87– 88

For many African Americans, the end of the Civil War represented a religious reckoning. They believed that the combination of war and emancipation reflected the will of God. Like the Israelites of old, God had used his power to free men and women from harsh times. These persons, referencing their sacred text, interpreted their emancipation as the time of Jubilee that had been discusses in Leviticus, Chapter 5, of the Old testament.

This notion of the war and freedom as divinely inspired was quite common at the time, but is not well known to modern Americans. African Americans’ religious beliefs gave them a context and perspective in which to understand these momentous events, to reflect that God really was good, despite all that they endured, and gave them faith that better days were ahead.

Two other book passages further illustrate how African Americans place the war and their freedom into a religious context, one that references the idea of ‘Jubilee.’ Charles Royster’s 1991 book The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans talks about the fall of Columbia, SC, to the United States, and how various residents reacted:

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 were 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 dey 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.​

The book goes on to note that the slaves communicated with and aided Federal prisoners held in Columbia and also Union soldiers who came into the city and the surrounding area; and also how the slaves used the Union occupation to gain vengance against whites whom they believed had mistreated them.

Later in chapter 1, Royster writes

[Sometime after Union soldiers had entered the city, and there had been fires and some looting] …in Main Street, crowded with hurrying people and lit by burning stores, a [Union] 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.’

In his book The End of Days: African American Religion and Politics in the Age of Emancipation, historian Matthew Harper discusses the religious meaning of the war to black Southerners in the late stages of the war. He writes

On February 22, 1865, the 4th and the 37th U.S. Colored Troops, among others, occupied the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina. As the soldiers marched through the streets, they sang, “Christ died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” Slaves and free blacks lined the streets to cheer, dance, and celebrate. One African-American woman spotted her son among the soldiers. Young men who had left home as slaves now returned as liberators. Their presence meant the end of slavery.

White civilians stood aghast as black soldiers secured the city. For local whites, the control of Wilmington by armed black men was apocalyptic, a doomsday. One elderly white man heard a “shouting mass of ex-slaves” marching behind the lines a black Union soldiers, and in disgust, he called out,”Blow Gabriel, blow, for God’s sake blow.” He thought the world was ending, and he wanted it over quickly.

For local blacks, too, this day held eschatological meaning, though in a much different sense. Emancipation was the key moment in African American eschatology. That eschatology was on display the following Sunday when local African Americans gathered, as they usually did, for a sunrise prayer meeting at the Methodist church on Front Street. The church, a congregation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, had white and black members; it had a white pastor, even though the 800 black members easily outnumbered the 200 white members. Many of the church’s services were biracial with segregated seating, but the sunrise prayer service, a long-standing tradition, was attended only by the church’s African American members. On that Sunday it was no ordinary prayer service.

“The whole congregation was wild with excitement,” observed the church’s white pastor, “with shouts, groans, amens, and unseemly demonstrations.” A black leader named Charles chose the scripture lesson from the ninth Psalm: “Thou hast rebuked the heathen, thou hast destroyed the wicked, thou has put out their name for ever and ever.” Charles told the people to “study over this morning lesson on this day of Jubilee.”​

After the scripture reading, a black US Army chaplain, Rev. William H Hunter, stood up to speak. Born a slave in North Carolina, Hunter was freed at an early age and moved to New York. He later attended Wilberforce University and was ordained an African Methodist Episcopal minister. Chaplin Hunter had arrived with his regiment only days before, and he brought with him news that the world now looked very different. When he spoke, an observer noted Hunter stretching “himself to his full-size and displaying to the best advantage for a profound impression his fine uniform.”

[Hunter] proclaimed, “One week ago you were all slaves; now you are all free.” The congregation responded with “uproarious screamings.” Hunter continued, “Thank God the armies of the Lord and Gideon has triumphed and the Rebels have been driven back in confusion and scattered like chaff before the wind.”

​For the freedpeople, the war was an affirmation that they were God’s children, that they were blessed, and that they could have a future as bright as that of any believer. God had not merely freed them, he changed them, and made them a way into a new future. For that, they freely and joyously gave thanks. Our tradition of celebrating emancipation and the Jubilee is long forgotten; perhaps this is something we should dust off and consider making anew.

US Colored Troops as Veterans; Happy Veterans Day, 11/11/2017


Negro members of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans organization, parading, New York City, May 30, 1912
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-132913; see more information about the photo here.

Happy Veterans Day! In this post I am showing images of African American Civil War veterans. These are wonderful images of the men who helped to save the Union and destroy slavery. The photograph above features African American Civil War veterans, and family and friends, marching in a Grand Army of the Republic parade in New York in the early twentieth century. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was an organization of United States (Union) veterans of the Civil War, including men from the Army, Navy, Marines and Revenue Cutter Service. Wikipedia discusses the GAR:

After the end of American Civil War, organizations were formed for veterans to network and maintain connections with each other. Many of the veterans used their shared experiences as a basis for fellowship. Groups of men began joining together, first for camaraderie and later for political power. Emerging as most influential among the various organizations was the Grand Army of the Republic, founded on April 6, 1866, on the principles of “Fraternity, Charity and Loyalty,” in Decatur, Illinois, by Benjamin F. Stephenson.

The GAR initially grew and prospered as a de facto political arm of the Republican Party during the heated political contests of the Reconstruction era. The commemoration of Union veterans, black and white, immediately became entwined with partisan politics. The GAR promoted voting rights for black veterans, as many veterans recognized their demonstrated patriotism. Black veterans, who enthusiastically embraced the message of equality, shunned black veterans’ organizations in preference for racially inclusive groups. But when the Republican Party’s commitment to reform in the South gradually decreased, the GAR’s mission became ill-defined and the organization floundered. The GAR almost disappeared in the early 1870s, and many divisions ceased to exist.

In the 1880s, the organization revived under new leadership that provided a platform for renewed growth, by advocating federal pensions for veterans. As the organization revived, black veterans joined in significant numbers and organized local posts.

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Grand Army of the Republic, New York Post 160, Cazenovia, New York (near Syracuse), circa 1900
Image Source: blog.syracuse.com; collection of Angelo Scarlato

This is a wonderful photograph of an integrated GAR post. The post, New York post number 160, was located in Cazenovia, New York, which is near Syracuse. The picture was taken around 1900, roughly 35 years after the end of the war. The image of these black and white soldiers, with its staging of a black man holding the American flag in the center of the shot, has a poignancy which reaches over a hundred years of time, and touches me today.

These men might not have known each other during the war, because Union regiments were segregated. Although, during the course of the war, different soldiers from different regiments often fought alongside each other at particular sites. But GAR units like this one might have been the first opportunity for black and white soldiers to meet, greet, and perhaps, become friends.

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) show “History Detectives” devoted a program segment to a discussion of the photo, the GAR, and race in the Civil War. A transcript of the segment, which aired in July 2007, is here. Thanks to the blog Syracuse.com for providing the link and the photograph, and additional information.


Image Description: G.A.R. Post (Civil War veterans. Photoprint) 1935; perhaps in the Washington, DC or southern Maryland area; Addison Scurlock, photographer
Image and Description Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Local Number: 618ps0229581-01pg.tif (AC scan no.), Box 68

civil20war2010
Image Description: “Members from the Grand Army of the Republic, Samuel Walker Post No. 365, at Lawrence, Kansas. The Grand Army of the Republic was organized at the end of the Civil War by veterans of the Union Army. Six African-American GAR posts were established throughout Kansas and were located in the cities of Lawrence, Fort Scott, Topeka, Atchison, Kansas City, and Leavenworth.”
Image and Description Source: The Wichita Eagle, content courtesy of Kansas State Historical Society

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Some quick thoughts on Colson Whitehead’s recent novel “Underground Railroad”

I just finished reading Colson Whitehead’s recent novel Underground Railroad. This is from the book review on Amazon.com

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the #1 New York Times bestseller from Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

The book is a very inventive and ingenious blend of fact and fantasy. Crafted based on historical events that informed readers will recognize, part of the “fun” of the book is seeing how the author takes disparate elements of the past and creates an imagined whole that is at once odd and eerily familiar.

Underground Railroad is both a hard read, due to the subject matter, and a fast read, because it’s so easy to become invested in the main character that readers really really really want to see how her journey finally ends. For the most part, the story is relentlessly bleak and sad. So many bad things happen that I wanted and almost needed the main character Cora to have a happy ending. And I don’t know if she has one, although the author has called the ending “hopeful.”

For me, the only relief is knowing that, there but for the grace of God, go I. That, and the knowledge that things do get better, and we should be thankful that they do.

– Alan

Al Arnold’s Black Confederate Journey

The controversy over Black Confederates is one hot mess. A recent addition to the messiness in one Dr Al Arnold of Jackson, MS. Dr Arnold seems to be a relative newcomer to the topic: at one point his Facebook page or Twitter page featured an image of black Union soldiers that was used in a black Confederate soldier’s hoax… that’s not a good way to establish one’s Black Confederate bona fides. I want to discuss what he’s recently brought to the Black Confederate table.

Dr Arnold – whose degree is in physical therapy – has a Civil War era ancestor named Turner Hall, Jr. Hall’s claim to fame is that he was owned by, and was an acquaintance of, prominent Civil War/Reconstruction figure Nathan Bedford Forrest; and that he was a servant of the most preeminent of Confederates, general Robert E. Lee. Hall is said to have cared for Lee’s famous steed, Traveller. Dr Arnold has cited his ancestor’s history in his book titled Robert E. Lee’s Orderly: A Modern Black Man’s Confederate Journey. On the face of it, it looks like this could be an interesting and even provocative read.

But then I saw this interview with Dr Arnold on Memphis, TN, TV station WREG. That six-minute talk raised more issues and red flags than I could count. I will talk about just a few of them in this post.

My first issue is with Dr Arnold’s statement near the end of the interview that “our (black) people… because northern writers and the Southern Lost Cause writers refuse to write about the roles of African-Americans… many don’t know that their ancestors had prominent roles in the Civil War whether on the Union side or the southern side.” His claim – that “northern writers… refuse to write about the roles of African-Americans in the Civil War” is simply not true.

How do I know that claim is untrue? By simply looking at my bookshelf. On the subject of African American Union soldiers alone, I have almost three dozen books. The set begins with works from two black Union veterans: George Washington Williams’ A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865 which was published in 1887; and Joseph T. Wilson’s The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States in the wars 1775-1812, 1861-1865, also published in 1887. These books are in the public domain and available on the Internet; I highly recommend them as a introduction to black Union soldiery.

But there’s a lot more on my shelf, including:
•  Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, William Dobak’s comprehensive military history of Civil War era African American soldiers
• The Black Military Experience, ed. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, which is a documentary history of African Americans in the Union army
•  Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War 1862-1865, by Noah Andre Trudeau, which focuses on the many battles that involved black soldiers
• Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory, by Linda Barnickel, which discusses the role of black soldiers in one of their earliest battles
• A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army 1861-1865, by Edwin S. Redkey
• Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers, by Joseph T. Glatthaar
• Campfires of Freedom: The Camp Life of Black Soldiers During the Civil War, by Keith P. Wilson
• After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans, by Donald R. Shaffer
• African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album, by Ronald S. Coddington, which features photographs and brief biographical sketches of over 70 Civil War era African American men
• Separate histories of African American Union soldiers and regiments from Illinois; Kansas; Louisiana; Pennsylvania; North Carolina (two of them), South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington, DC
• Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial, a beautiful coffee-table by Sarah Greenough and Nancy K. Anderson.

This is only a portion of the books that I own on the general subject of Civil War African Americans; there are many, many others I don’t own.
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Is it time for a national monument to slavery?

Professors Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle of California State University, Fresno, writing in the New York Times, argue that “America Needs a National Slavery Monument.”

I agree. Such a project would have to be financed by private contributions, and that might be a daunting task in the current economy. But it can be done.

I would add that, the creation of a national monument does not eliminate the need for such monuments on the local level. It would be great to see these all throughout the country, wherever there was presence of enslaved people.

One monuments to enslaved people is the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan, New York. It provides a useful model to other localities. Note that, this is a “national” monument in that it is maintained by the National Park Service, and is intended for a national audience; but it is not intended to commemorate the entire national experience with regard to slavery.


African Burial Ground National Monument, Exterior View; Manhattan, New York
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons


Renewal, by Tomie Aria; silkscreen on canvas mural; in the lobby of the Ted Weiss Federal Building, 290 Broadway, NY (This is where the interior portion of the African Burial Ground monument site is located). From here: “The mural pays tribute to the first enslaved Africans whose labor helped to build colonial New York, spanning the period of time which covers the recorded existence of the African Burial Ground, from 1712 to 1792.”
Image Source: Tomie Arai.com