US Colored Troops as Veterans; Happy Veterans Day, 11/11/2018


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

Norfolk-USCT-GAR-v2.jpg

GAR Norfolk USCT 2.jpg
Image Description: Photograph of a reunion of Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R) members, ca. 1910 in Norfolk, Virginia; the first image is a close-up of the second image. This is believed to have been taken at the West Point Cemetery. This was a cemetery for African Americans and was the resting place for many black soldiers from the Civil War the Spanish American War. It is also the home of a monument to those soldiers.
Image Source: from a LocalWiki entry for Hampton Roads, West Point Cemetery. Original source was the University of Virginia Library, Special Collections.

Image Description: “August 28, 1949 – Joseph Clovese, G.A.R. Veteran, 105 Years Old At The 83rd And Final G.A.R. Encampment In Indianapolis, Indiana.”
Image Source: from War History Online via Pinterest

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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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.
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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

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers”

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 1
From the 1901 book Candle-Lightin’ Time by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, photographer Leigh Richmond Miner, and illustrator Margaret Armstrong. The book is available at Archive.org.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet who gained national prominence in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Born in 1872, he was raised in Dayton, Ohio, where he was the lone black student in his high school. His father was an escaped slave from Kentucky who served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War.

In 1901, Dunbar published Candle-Lightin’ Time. The book was an artistic calloboration, featuring poems by Dunbar, photographs by Leigh Richmond Miner of the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and illustrated decorations by Margaret Armstrong. The work includes an ode to African American Civil War soldiers titled When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers, which is presented further below along with photographs from the book. The poem was no doubt inspired by his father.

The poem is interesting in that, while centering on the suffering and loss of a black mother for her son, it also speaks to the suffering of a white Confederate family. The poem’s narrator is the mother of a black Union soldier, but also, has a slave master who served in the Confederacy, along with the master’s son. Both master and son would feel the pain and anguish of war. In this, the slave mother and her mistress would share a bond that transcended race, section, and politics.

Candle-Lightin’ Time features other, non-Civil War content and makes for a fine read not only for its poetry but for its photographs.

Dunbar died in Dayton, Ohio at the age of 33 from tuberculosis.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers

Dey was talkin’ in de cabin, dey was talkin’ in de hall;
But I listened kin’ o’ keerless, not a-t’inkin’ ’bout it all;
An’ on Sunday, too, I noticed, dey was whisp’rin’ mighty much,
Stan’in’ all erroun’ de roadside w’en dey let us out o’ chu’ch.
But I did n’t t’ink erbout it ‘twell de middle of de week,
An’ my ‘Lias come to see me, an’ somehow he couldn’t speak.
Den I seed all in a minute whut he’d come to see me for; –
Dey had ‘listed colo’ed sojers, an’ my ‘Lias gwine to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 2

Oh, I hugged him, an’ I kissed him, an’ I baiged him not to go;
But he tol’ me dat his conscience, hit was callin’ to him so,
An’ he could n’t baih to lingah w’en he had a chanst to fight
For de freedom dey had gin him an’ de glory of de right.
So he kissed me, an’ he lef’ me, w’en I’d p’omised to be true;
An’ dey put a knapsack on him, an’ a coat all colo’ed blue.
So I gin him pap’s ol’ Bible, f’om de bottom of de draw’, –
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 3
But I t’ought of all de weary miles dat he would have to tramp,
An’ I could n’t be contented w’en dey tuk him to de camp.
W’y, my hea’t nigh broke wid grievin’ twell I seed him on de street;
Den I felt lak I could go an’ th’ow my body at his feet.
For his buttons was a-shinin’, an’ his face was shinin’, too,
An’ he looked so strong an’ mighty in his coat o’ sojer blue,
Dat I hollahed, “Step up, manny,” dough my th’oat was so’ an’ raw,-
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

Ol’ Mis’ cried w’en mastah lef’ huh, young Miss mou’ned huh brothah Ned,
An’ I did n’t know dey feelin’s is de ve’y wo’ds dey said
W’en I tol’ ’em I was so’y. Dey had done gin up dey all;
But dey only seem mo’ proudah dat dey men had hyeahd de call.
Bofe my mastahs went in gray suits, an’ I loved de Yankee blue,
But I t’ought dat I could sorrer for de losin’ of ’em too;
But I could n’t, for I did n’t know de ha’f o’ whut I saw,
‘Twell dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

Mastah Jack come home all sickly; he was broke for life, dey said;
An’ dey lef’ my po’ young mastah some’r’s on de roadside, – dead.
W’en de women cried an’ mou’ned ’em, I could feel it thoo an’ thoo,
For I had a loved un fightin’ in de way o’ dangah, too.
Den dey tol’ me dey had laid him some’r’s way down souf to res’,
Wid de flag dat he had fit for shinin’ daih acrost his breas’.
Well, I cried, but den I reckon dat’s what Gawd had called him for
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 4

 



This video excerpt, from the 1990 video “The Eyes of the Poet,” features Herbert Woodward Martin performing the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dr. Martin, University of Dayton professor emeritus, is an acclaimed scholar and interpreter of Dunbar’s works.
University of Dayton; Published on Oct 14, 2014

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

Update to the List of Monuments to United States Colored Troops: Memorial to the Forgotten Soldiers, Key West, Florida

One of the most popular entries on this blog is the list of monuments to African American soldiers who served in the Civil War. FYI, I have made an update to that entry. The list now includes:

Memorial to the Forgotten Soldiers
Key West, Florida

Monument Key West Civil War Black Soldier copyCivil War historical re-enactor David Flemming, right, stands by a bronze sculpture honoring black soldiers who served in Key West, FL. The dedication ceremony took pace on February 16, 2016.
Source: Rob O’Neal/Florida Keys News Bureau via AP via The Washington Post

This monument, in Key West’s Bayview Park, commemorates African American troops who served in this southern-most outpost of the United States during the Civil War. Key West remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War and was headquarters for the Navy Gulf Blockading Squadron.

This article from CBS 4 Miami notes:

According to historians, Col. James Montgomery of Kansas came to Key West in February 1863 to recruit after being authorized to raise a regiment of troops consisting entirely of free blacks and former refugee slaves.

Called “The Forgotten Soldier” and standing in Key West’s Bayview Park, the large-scale bronze sculpture depicts a uniformed soldier holding a rifle, with one arm upraised. Its unveiling and dedication marked the 153rd anniversary of the date in 1863 when more than 120 African-American soldiers from Key West were instructed to report for duty.

A Civil War reenactor gave a “roll call” of the recently rediscovered names of the African-Americans from Key West, who served in the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Attendees placed yellow carnations at the base of the sculpture as the soldiers’ names were read.

“They were never recognized before — the fact that they came from a city that was in the far south but yet a Union outpost, and that they joined the Union army,” said Lopez.

“The Forgotten Soldier” sculpture was commissioned and donated by the late Edward Knight, a Key West businessman who did much in the way of historic preservation. There are several other veterans’ memorials in Key West, including one to Confederate soldiers and sailors.

A video of the February 16, 2016  dedication ceremony is here. 

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If anyone knows of monuments to Civil War era black soldiers or sailors which I have not identified, please respond to this post, and I will update the list as time allows. I appreciate those of you who have helped me make what I believe is the definitive list of monuments to these men.

The Joy of Being a Black Confederate

A young slave is brought to a Confederate army camp during the Civil War. He meets an older slave who’s been there a while.

Young Person: “How you doin’ old timer?”

Older Person: “Just trying to stay alive, son.”

YP: “What you mean, old man? We’re Black Confederates. I’m excited! Can’t wait to whip them Yankees!”

OP: “What you mean, boy? You’re a cook. Fighting Yankees, that’s what white Confederates do.”

YP: “Well, at least I don’t have to worry about my family being sold down the river, right?”

OP: “No no no, that’s white Confederates that got family rights, not you. You’re a Black Confederate. You can still go to the auction block if you don’t act right.”

YP: “Well maybe I can vote? Serve on a jury? I’m a Confederate citizen, right?”

OP: “Are you crazy? White Confederates are Confederate citizens. You’re a Black Confederate.”

YP: “Well, I’m gonna be free right? They gonna free all of us right?”

OP: “I’m gonna stop talking to you, you ain’t listening. Freedom is for white Confederates. You’re black. Instead of doing n****** work on massa’s plantation, you’re doing it for his army. And being a Black Confederate, they calls that your reward. Don’t seem like much of a prize to me, though.”

YP: “Darn, is that it? What good is that?”

OP: “Look here, son. My advice is, treat your massa good. Talk about how great the Confederacy is. Do whatever you’re told, and then some. When you get older, massa will remember. Might treat you better for your loyalty. Maybe they even make a statue for you. You know, them people can be very sentimental.”

YP: “Well… I guess that’s better than nothing.”

OP: “And watch out for them damn Yankees. Yankee bullet don’t care what color you are. Some of them even think we’re soldiers and shoot at us. Watch your back, son.”

YP: “You know, all of sudden, I don’t think I like this Black Confederate stuff.”

OP: “Don’t be down, son. I got this camp song for you. Ah ah ah ah, staying alive, staying alive. Ah ah ah ah…”

YP: “Oh my, that’s catchy. Ah ah ah ah…”

OP: “Oh yeah, you’re finally starting to get it. Sing boy!”

YP: “Oh yeah! Ah ah ah ah…”

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.

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.