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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus. S. Hopkins.

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

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


Colored Soldiers Monument, Kentucky


Monument to the 56th USCT Infantry, Missouri


Monument to the Colored Union Soldiers, North Carolina


West Point Monument, Norfolk, Virginia


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

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

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

Richard Brown gets 40 acres… for a while, at least.

40 Acres to Richard Borwn
Land Order for Richard Brown, April 1, 1865: “permission is hereby granted to Richard Brown to take possession of and occupy forty acres of land,” situated in St. Andrews Parish, Island of James, South Carolina, Berkley District.
Image Source: National Archives, Labor Contracts M1910, roll 62; from the Archive’s Freedmen’s Bureau records.

In 1865, US General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Field Order 15. As discussed in the New Georgia Encyclopedia,

On January 16, 1865, during the Civil War (1861-65), Union general William T. Sherman issued Field Order No. 15, calling for the redistribution of confiscated Southern land to freedmen in forty-acre plots. The order was rescinded later that same year, and much of the land was returned to the original white owners.

William T. Sherman issued his Special Field Order No. 15, which confiscated as Union property a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast. The order redistributed the roughly 400,000 acres of land to newly freed black families in forty-acre segments.

Sherman’s order came on the heels of his successful March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah and just prior to his march northward into South Carolina. Radical Republicans in the U.S. Congress, like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, for some time had pushed for land redistribution in order to break the back of Southern slaveholders’ power. Feeling pressure from within his own party, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln sent his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, to Savannah in order to facilitate a conversation with Sherman over what to do with Southern planters’ lands.

On January 12 Sherman and Stanton met with twenty black leaders of the Savannah community, mostly Baptist and Methodist ministers, to discuss the question of emancipation. Lincoln approved Field Order No. 15 before Sherman issued it just four days after meeting with the black leaders. From Sherman’s perspective the most important priority in issuing the directive was military expediency. It served as a means of providing for the thousands of black refugees who had been following his army since its invasion of Georgia. He could not afford to support or protect these refugees while on campaign.

Details from Sherman’s meeting with the African American leaders of the Savannah are here. In that meeting, the leaders are asked to “State in what manner you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the Government in maintaining your freedom.” The leaders respond that the “way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor–that is, by the labor of the women and children and old men; and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare.”

Richard Brown was one of those fortunate freedmen who received 40 acres, as shown by the above certificate. The land was in St. Andrew’s Parish, SC.  (Until the late 19th century, the South Carolina Lowcountry was divided into parishes which in turn were subdivided several “districts”; the Berkley and Charleston Districts were in St. Andrew.) The land was on James Island, which is south of Charleston on the other side of Charleston Harbor, from one of the Heyward plantations. The owner, whom I believe to be Charles Heyward, had several plantations. This website identifies several of the 491 enslaved people who were freed from his plantations in July 1865.

Brown’s certificate from the Office of the Superintendent of Freedmen. It is numbered as  No. 118, indicating that a good number of persons had already gotten land before him.

Brown’s claim to the land did not last. As noted by Libby Coleman in her article Flashback: When the U.S. Promised Former Slaves 40 Acres and a Mule: 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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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…”

Freedom from Shame: “A Christian and civilized city… should not be subjected… to the humiliating spectacle of a woman chained and pinioned and driven along the streets”


Slaves in chains: a not uncommon sight in the Antebellum South
Image: A slave-coffle passing the Capitol; Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-2574

Shame freed two black women from bondage in Tennessee during the Civil War.

The state of Tennessee was not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation. At the time the EP was issued (1/1/1863), most of the state was under US military control. As such, Tennessee was no longer considered to be in rebellion against the United States; and only  states that were controlled by Confederate rebels were covered by the Proclamation.

As such, slaveholders in Tennessee still had a legal right to chattel property. However, in March 1862, “the US Congress adopted an additional article of war forbidding members of the army and navy to return fugitive slaves to their owners.” In addition, Union Provost Marshal organizations had some leeway to enforce the law as they deemed appropriate and necessary. The Provost Marshal were Union military authorities who acted as a local police force in areas that were reclaimed from the Confederates. This would give the enslaved opportunities for freedom even in a Union slave state.

In February 1864, Major John W Horner, a Provost Marshal in Nashville, TN, was disturbed to see a young woman “with her arms securely tied behind her” walking behind a buggy on the streets of the city. He found the scene a “brutal and revolting act” that “subject(ed) a civilized and Christian city to the humiliating spectacle of a women chained and pinioned and driven along the streets.”

He details the scene and his response to it in this correspondence to the Provost Marshal of the District of Nashville, dated February 27, 1864:
Continue reading

Slavery: Inhumane… or Definitively Human?


Theodore Parker, 19th Century Abolitionist and Religious Leader: ‘I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways… But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.’

How many times have you seen or heard the expression that slavery is an example of “man’s inhumanity to man?” A lot, I would bet.

Well, Walter Johnson, a history scholar who specializes in the subject of American slavery, is not having it. In an essay in the Boston Review he writes:

Historians sometimes argue that some aspects of slavery were so violent, so obscene, so “inhuman” that, in order to live with themselves, the perpetrators had to somehow “dehumanize” their victims…

The apparent right-mindedness of such arguments notwithstanding, this language of “dehumanization” is misleading because slavery depended upon the human capacities of enslaved people. It depended upon their reproduction. It depended upon their labor. And it depended upon their sentience. Enslaved people could be taught: their intelligence made them valuable. They could be manipulated: their desires could make them pliable. They could be terrorized: their fears could make them controllable. And they could be tortured: beaten, starved, raped, humiliated, degraded.

It is these last that are conventionally understood to be the most “inhuman” of slaveholders’ actions and those that most “dehumanized” enslaved people. And yet these actions epitomize the failure of this set of terms to capture what was at stake in slaveholding violence: the extent to which slaveholders depended upon violated slaves to bear witness, to provide satisfaction, to provide a living, human register of slaveholders’ power.

Johnson says “by terming these actions “inhuman” and suggesting that they either relied upon or accomplished the “dehumanization” of enslaved people, however, we are participating in a sort of ideological exchange that is no less baleful for being so familiar. We are separating a normative and aspirational notion of humanity from the sorts of exploitation and violence that history suggests may well be definitive of human beings: we are separating ourselves from our own histories of perpetration.”

As stated by Johnson, slavery is not an example of inhumanity; it is a definitive example of how humans treat other humans. That’s a profound thought.

I have made the point that, the thing that separates us humans from non-sentient creatures is our intellect. Humans are subject to many ‘base’ impulses: we are materialistic, selfish, violent, tribalistic, and illogical. But our intellect enables us to create morals and ethics and values by which we can conquer, or aspire to conquer, our base instincts.

Theodore Parker, the clergyman and abolitionist who died in 1860, said ‘I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.’ But Parker did not believe that the arc would bend, inevitably, on its own; he believed it was up to humans to engage in acts that would force the arc to bend.

I do think it is dangerous to assume that the values we have today, such as the notion that all men are created equal and deserving of rights, are set in stone and will never change. I think we need to constantly reinforce those values. And I do think we need to look to the past to understand what mistakes were made, moral or otherwise, so that we don’t repeat them.

And part of that reinforcement is the acknowledgement that, despite our exquisite American beliefs in liberty, equality, and justice for all, we Americans have been all too human in our dealings with each other.

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.