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.

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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.
Continue reading

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

Giving Thanks, by Harry Herman Roseland

Jubilo! The Emancipation Century

image
Source: Liveauctioneers.com

This painting, titled Giving Thanks, is the work of Brooklyn, New York artist Harry Herman Roseland (c.1867—1950). He was a noted painter who received many awards for his work in his lifetime. According to Wikipedia, “Roseland was primarily known for paintings centered on poor African-Americans.”

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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“De Regreso Del Infierno” (“Back from Hell”): Bearing the flag at Ft. Wagner; and an ode to Medal of Honor winner Sgt. William H. Carney


Figure 1: This is an awesome 1/6 figurine depicting an African American soldier from the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, after the Battle of Fort Wagner. The piece is titled “De Regreso Del Inferno” (“Back from Hell”). This is from the Spanish language site Acción Uno Seis: foro español di figuras de acción a escala 1/6 (Action One Six: A Spanish Forum for 1/6 scale action figures). It shows a Union sergeant who holds the tattered, but surviving, United States flag in the wake of the battle.
From the site Acción Uno Seis (translated from Spanish): “The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment won international fame on July 18, 1863 for leading the assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina. In this battle, Colonel Shaw died along with 116 of his men. 156 others were wounded or captured.
“Although the Union was not able to take the fort, the 54th Massachusetts was widely hailed for his courage, and the event it helped spur enlistment and mobilization of African-Americans to join the Union Army. This was a key factor in the conflict. President Abraham Lincoln said the support of African-American troops had facilitated the final victory.
“In the figure, all is dirty and worn, especially the flag. As the focus of the Confederate fire, it was expected that after the attack the flag would be in bad shape!”
Created by: “egonzinc.” His full name is not indicated, although he is shown as being from Puerto Rico.
=> For more images of this figure (10 in all), please go to the website Acción Uno Seis.

Boys the Old Flag Never Touched The Ground (chorus)
by Henry Mather and George E. Lathrop, 1908

‘Twas the Blue against the Gray, Boys,
And he said to all around,
“I’ve only done my duty boys,
The old Flag never touch’d the ground.
“I’ve only done my duty boys,”
He said to all around,
“I’ve only done my duty boys,
It never touched the ground.

Per WikipediaBoys the Old Flag Never Touched The Ground is a patriotic song that celebrates the heroism of Civil War Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. William H. Carney of the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the Battle of Fort Wagner. The song was written by Henry Mather and George E. Lothrop after Carney’s death in 1908.


Cover for the sheet music to the song “Boys the Old Flag Never Touched The Ground,” 1909, with a photo of William H. Carney
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

In the Civil War era army, no duty was more honorable, or more dangerous, than that of the color, or flag, bearer. As noted here at About.com,

The regimental flags were critical in Civil War battles as they marked the position of the regiment on the battlefield, which could often be a very confused place. In the noise and smoke of battle, regiments could become scattered, and vocal commands, or even bugle calls, could not be heard. So a visual rallying point was essential, and soldiers were trained to follow the flag.

Because the regimental flags had genuine strategic importance in battle, designated teams of soldiers, known as the color guard, carried them. A typical regimental color guard would consist of two color bearers, one carrying the national flag (the U.S. flag or a Confederate flag) and one carrying the regimental flag. Often two other soldiers were assigned to guard the color bearers.

Being a color bearer was considered a mark of great distinction and it required a soldier of extraordinary bravery. The job was to carry the flag where the regimental officers directed, while unarmed and under fire. Most importantly, color bearers had to face the enemy and never break and run in retreat, or the entire regiment might follow. As the regimental flags were so conspicuous in battle, they were often used as a target for rifle and artillery fire. And, of course, the mortality rate of color bearers was high.


Figure 2: Alternate view “De Regreso Del Inferno” (“Back from Hell”).  Continue reading

Nov 13-15, 2015: 150th Anniversary of the Grand Review of United States Colored Troops (USCT), Harrisburg PA

2015 Grand Review Harrisburg, PA USCT copy

The 150th Anniversary of the Grand Review of United States Colored Troops (USCT) will be commemorated in Harrisburg, PA, on November 13-15, 2015. The original Grand Review, in November 1865, featured a military parade of USCT soldiers who were recognized and celebrated for their role in winning the Civil War. The Grand Review website is here; this is from the site:

The place to be on November 13-15, 2015 is Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the 150th anniversary of the Grand Review. You can be part of these history-making events that will take place each day with the actual Grand Review precession on November 14. United States Colored Troops (USCT) re-enactors from several states will be part of the Grand Procession taking place and many of the other events connected to it. In fact, the USCT re-enactors are conducting their national annual meeting here in Harrisburg in conjunction with the Grand Review.

On Friday and Saturday Strawberry Square, the urban mall at Third and Market streets, will be transformed into a “chautauqua showcase” where history buffs, educators, visitors, and locals can enjoy the various displays from the USCT regiment re-enactors and living history actors. We encourage you to bring your children to this family event.

The US Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA) will hold its Annual Meeting during the weekend. Go here (USCTLHA Facebook page) for more information.

There was a Grand Review Event in 2010; pictures therefrom are here.

Harrisburg Grand Review 3
Scene from the 2010 Grand Review of the USCT Parade in Harrisburg, PA

Blackface Halloween?

Philadelphia children in blackface
Philadelphia children in blackface; by photographer James Bartlett Rich (1866-1942); ca. 1895.
Image Source: Library Company of Philadelphia
Image Description: (From the Library Company of Philadelphia:) “Group portrait in a house foyer of several children in costume, most in blackface, holding tin horns. The children, possibly attired to perform a minstrel show for home entertainment, include the photographer’s daughter, Hazel, seated on a rocker in a large ruffled hat with a mask-like cloth veil.”
Biographical/ historical note: (From the Library Company of Philadelphia:) James Bartlett Rich was a professional Philadelphia landscape photographer who produced several candid portraits of family and friends.

From Wikipedia:

Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used by performers to represent a black person. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon”. In 1848, blackface minstrel shows were an American national art of the time, translating formal art such as opera into popular terms for a general audience. Early in the 20th century, blackface branched off from the minstrel show and became a form in its own right, until it ended in the United States with the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Continue reading

Civil War Contraband Art

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”

You must understand this: Civil War era northerners were intrigued, perhaps even fascinated, by the very idea of “contrabands”: enslaved men and women who were “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.

First, some background. 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.

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 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. 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.


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 Daily Press, Newport News, Virginia

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 in finding a way to legally use the slaves 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. Some northerners – such as Frederick Douglass – wondered why African Americans were called by a name that reinforced the idea of human beings as property.

They might have wondered: just who were these people, anyway? Who were these enslaved 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 key to ending the war successfully for the Union? They might 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 2: 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 these pre-printed envelopes which had artistic, political, or social content. During 1861 and 1862 – that is, right 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 3: 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.

This illustration depicts a runaway slave “thumbing his nose” ~ a gesture of contempt that, thankfully, has fallen into disuse ~ at an enslaver as he runs for shelter at Fort Monroe. Behind him, other slaves make a mad dash toward freedom. In fact, hundreds of slaves escaped and found shelter around the fort, which gained the nickname “Freedom Fortress.”

Contraband camps sprang up not only around this fort, but in places as close as coastal North Carolina, as far west as Arkansas, and as far south as Florida. Gaining freedom was not an easy, giddy task for the slaves: images like this do not relate the physical hardships that many slaves suffered as they liberated themselves from their masters and then navigated to the Union lines. On the other hand, the fact that so many slaves did successfully escape underscores how much the South’s slave patrol and control mechanisms crumbled under the pressure of war.

Of note is that the slave who is the central figure of the image calls himself “contraban.” Although the term “contraband” became popular in the northern lexicon, it is not clear to me that enslaved men or women actually applied that name to themselves.


Figure 4: Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Image descriptions per the Library of Congress: “illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.”
Image Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

The female character in this image is depicted with an almost hideous caricature. The face of the child is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But this image may not have been so much about mocking African Americans, as it was satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy; and a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands adds to its poignancy… if you can get past the awful imagery of the mother. Continue reading