A Reunion in Richmond, VA, April 1865: “This is your mother, Garland, who has spent 20 years of grief about her son.”

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It was the beginning of the end of the American Civil War: The National Republican, a Washington, DC newspaper, reports that the city of Richmond, VA, which was the capital of the Confederacy, was captured by Union forces on April 3, 1865. And the US Colored Troops – the “black troops”  – led the way.
The US Colored Troops consisted primarily of African American soldiers. One of those soldiers experienced an unexpected family reunion which exemplifies the meaning of the war to African Americans, especially those who had been enslaved. See the blog post below.
Source: From the April 3, 1865 extra edition of The National Republican, a Washington, DC newspaper; as noted in the African American Civil War Museum blog.

On April 3, 1865, Richmond, Virginia – the capital of the Confederate States of America – was captured by the Union army. Soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (or USCT –  Union regiments primarily composed of African American soldiers) were the first to enter the city. Meanwhile, other USCT and Union regiments continued to pursue Confederate forces in the area led by General Robert E. Lee. General Lee would finally surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th, 1865, at Appomattox, Virginia. By the end of June 1865, almost all of the Confederate forces had surrendered and the Civil War, for all practical purposes, was over.

One member of the US Colored Troops that entered Richmond was a chaplain named Garland White, of the 28th US Colored Infantry. Chaplain White wrote for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) church. In the North, the AME was the most important church organization for free blacks. Garland White was a runaway slave from the Richmond/Petersburg area who fled to Canada, returned to the US, and joined the Union army  after policy changes by the federal government allowed black enlistment. In a Christian Recorder article (1), he wrote about the fall/liberation of Richmond; the joyous reactions of the city’s black residents; the presence of Abraham Lincoln; and an unexpected family reunion:

I have just returned from the city of Richmond; my regiment was among the first that entered that city. I marched at the head of the column, and soon I found myself called upon by the officers and men of my regiment to make a speech, with which, of course, I readily complied. A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him.

In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart. I refired to gain strength, so I lost many important topics worthy of note.

Among the densely crowded concourse there were parents looking for children who had been sold south of this state in tribes, and husbands came for the same purpose; here and there one was singled out in the ranks, and an effort was made to approach the gallant and marching soldiers, who were too obedient to orders to break ranks.

We continued our march as far as Camp Lee, at the extreme end of Broad Street, running westwards. In camp the multitude followed, and everybody could participate in shaking the friendly but hard hands of the poor slaves. Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere, was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for one by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy, and was bought by a lawyer named Robert Toombs (2), who lived in Georgia. Since the war has been going on she has seen Mr. Toombs in Richmond with troops from his state, and upon her asking him where his body-servant Garland was, he replied: “He ran off from me at Washington, and went to Canada. I have since learned that he is living somewhere in the State of Ohio.” Some of the boys knowing that I lived in Ohio, soon found me and said, “Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you.” I quickly turned, following the soldier until coming to a group of colored ladies. I was questioned as follows:

“What is your name, sir?”
“My name is Garland H. White.”
“What was your mother’s name?”
“Nancy.”
“Where was you born?”
“In Hanover County, in this State.”
“Where was you sold from?”
“From this city.”
“What was the name of the man who bought you?”
“Robert Toombs.”
“Where did he live?”
“In the State of Georgia.”
“Where did you leave him?”
“At Washington.”
“Where did you go then?”
“To Canada.”
“Where do you live now?”
“In Ohio.”

“This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.”

I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them. I have witnessed several such scenes among the other colored regiments.

Late in the afternoon, we were honored with his Excellency, the President of the United States, Lieutenant-General Grant, and other gentlemen of distincfion. We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis’s mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose. I never saw so many colored people in all my life, women and children of all sizes running after Father, or Master Abraham, as they called him.


RECEIVING THE PRESIDENT. Abraham Lincoln riding through Richmond, April 4th, 1865, after the evacuation of the city by the Confederates.
Source: The Black Phalanx: African American soldiers in the War of Independence, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, p 452, by Joseph T. Wilson; published 1890; book is available online at Project Gutenberg.
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Colored Troops enter Charleston, SC; “I’s waited for ye, and prayed for ye, long time… an ye has done come at last”

US Colored Troops enter Charleston
“Marching on!”–The Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Colored Regiment singing John Brown’s March in the streets of Charleston, February 21, 1865
Photo Source: Drawing from Harper’s Weekly, March 1865; image is at the Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-105560 (w film copy neg.) LC-USZ62-117999 (w film copy neg.)

The Record of the Service of the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry – a book about the history of this majority black regiment during the Civil War – tells of an event that was miraculous for the times. It is hard for us, today, to realize how sublime and surreal it was that on February 21, 1865, African American soldiers entered the city of Charleston, South Carolina, liberating the enslaved people there from bondage. It was an event that was unthinkable just several years earlier. But 1865 was the Year of the Unthinkable – and for the enslaved people of Charleston, the Year of Jubilee. And freedom came with the face of black men in blue suits.

For northerners, South Carolina was considered the Cradle of the Confederacy. It was, after all, the first state to secede from the Union; ten other states would follow her lead and combine to form the Confederate States of America. The shooting war between the Union and Confederacy started on April 12, 1861, when Fort Sumter – a United States military fort that protected the entrance to Charleston harbor – was attacked by Confederate forces. The fort surrendered to the Confederates after two days of artillery shelling. Four years of fighting followed; anywhere from 620,000 to 750,000 men died, and that doesn’t include those who were injured or  missing in action. The American Civil War was an American bloodbath.

But African Americans saw South Carolina in a different negative light. At the start of the war, South Carolina was the blackest state in the Union: 57% of its residents were slaves, and another 1.4% were free blacks. Working conditions throughout the state could be harsh, especially in the rice fields along the Atlantic coast. Although the coastal town of Charleston was something of an outlier in this overwhelmingly rural state: it was an urban enclave with a white majority (in 1860, Charleston had a population of 23,000 whites, 14,000 slaves, and 3,200 free blacks). As the state’s major trading center, it was bustling with economic activity, including slave trading businesses that engaged in the sale of property in human beings. This place of white wealth was the site of many black broken hearts.

And if it had been South Carolina’s choice, it would remain that way. In its 1860 secession declaration, the state asserted that “we affirm that these ends for which (the United States) government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.” A new, Confederate nation would remove these threats to their system of bondage, but the war with the Union would have to be won first. A loss to the Union might make the state’s worst nightmares come true.

Over the course of the war, the Union made attempts to capture Charleston and the military forts around it. Most famously, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment – a majority black regiment – was repulsed in its attack on Fort Wagner in July 1863. The unit suffered heavy casualties. Although defeated, their spirited attack and sacrifice was recognized and celebrated throughout the northern states. Many years later, in 1989, the  54th Massachusetts became the focus of a movie named Glory.

But the Union would finally have its day. In January 1865, Union forces led by General William Sherman entered South Carolina from Georgia, and the Confederates could not give them much opposition. In February 1865, Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard ordered that Charleston be evacuated, although many residents remained thereafter. On February 15, the mayor of Charleston surrendered the city to Union General Alexander Schimmelfennig. This was followed by a procession of nearby Union troops into the city, which was headed by regiments of black troops.

The 55th Massachusetts Infantry and 21st United States Colored Infantry regiments led the way. The 21st USCI, formerly known as the 3rd and 4th Regiments of the South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (African Descent), included former slaves from the South Caroline Low Country, not too far away. The significance and symbolism of their actions – that they were black men who were freeing black people from slavery – was neither lost on them, nor on the enslaved people they liberated. Jubilee was indeed at hand.

The Record of the Service of the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which charts the history of the regiment, recounted the arrival of black troops into Charleston. It was an event, they said, that would live in memory forever:

…after a short delay to await the return of foraging parties, the line of march was resumed for (the town of) Mount Pleasant, opposite Charleston… the Fifty-fifth was the first body of troops to enter the town after its evacuation. Words would fail to describe the scene which those who witnessed it will never forget, — the welcome given to a regiment of colored troops by their people redeemed from slavery, As shouts, prayers, and blessings resounded on every side, all felt that the hardships and dangers of the siege were fully repaid. The few white inhabitants left in the town were either alarmed or indignant, and generally remained in their houses; but the colored people turned out en masse. Assiduously had they been taught to regard the ” Yanks ” as their enemies ; carefully had every channel of information been closed against them : but all to no purpose.

“Bress de Lord,” said an old, gray-haired woman, with streaming eyes, and hands clasped and raised toward heaven, “bress de Lord, I’s waited for ye, and prayed for ye, long time, and I knowed you’d come, an ye has done come at last;” and she expressed the feelings of all…

Daylight was fading when the line was formed to march through the city to a camping ground on Charleston Neck. Before the march commenced, three rousing cheers were given by the men of the Fifty-fifth, and given with a will. They were then told that the only restriction placed on them in passing through the city, would be to keep in the ranks, and that they might shout and sing as they chose.

Few people were on the wharf when the troops landed, or in the street when the line was formed; but the streets, on the route through the city, were crowded with the colored population. Cheers, blessings, prayers, and songs were heard on every side. Men and women crowded to shake hands with men and officers, Many of them talked earnestly and understandingly of the past and present. The white population remained within their houses, but curiosity led even them to peep through the blinds at the ‘black Yankees.”

On through the streets of the rebel city passed the column, on through the chief seat of that slave power, tottering to its fall. Its walls rung to the chorus of manly voices singing “John Brown,” ” Babylon is falling,” and the “Battle-Cry of Freedom”; while, at intervals, the national airs, long unheard there, were played by the regimental band. The glory and the triumph of this hour may be imagined, but can never be described. It was one of those occasions which happen but once in a lifetime, to be lived over in memory for ever.

On BET TV tonight: debut of “The Book of Negroes” Miniseries, about 18th Century slavery and freedom

Tonight (2/16/2015), “The Book of Negroes” miniseries, about 18th Century slavery and freedom, will debut on the BET TV cable network. The film, based on the novel of the same name by Canadian author Lawrence Hill, is about a woman from western Africa who is sold into bondage in the British American colonies; escapes from Manhattan at the end of the Revolutionary War; emigrates to Nova Scotia, Canada; and finally returns to Africa. The cast includes lead actress Aunjanue Ellis, Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr., and Academy Award and Primetime Emmy Award winner Lou Gossett Jr. This is a 6-part miniseries, with parts 1 and 2 airing tonight.

Although it is not well known, many African Americans were supportive of the British during their war – the Revolutionary War – with the American Patriots. When the War ended, some 3,000 African American slaves and loyalists (persons who were loyal to Britain) fled Manhattan in British ships and were resettled in Nova Scotia; the British had promised freedom to the slaves, and for these people at least, the promise was kept. If memory serves me, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among the Patriots who lost slave property during the War. A ledger called the Book of Negroes was used to record the names of those who left the American colonies to have their freedom.

This looks to be an interesting film, for at least a couple of reasons. First, the lead character is an African woman (she’s born in Africa and eventually returns there), and we don’t see that much in American film. (The film’s director,like the author of the novel, are Canadians of African descent.) Second, it covers the 18th Century, including the Revolutionary War. Not too many people are aware that many historians believe that more Africans supported Britain over the American colonists, in this war that created the United States.

The BET website has details of the miniseries here.

Remembering Willis Howcott: a Civil War monument to a Mississippi slave

Howcott-memorial copy
Monument in Memory of Colored Servants of Harvey Scouts. Canton Miss. Erected by W. H. Howcott Click here for a larger image.
Per here: Monument erected by William H. Howcott, a veteran of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit. The base reads “To the memory of the good and loyal servants who followed the fortunes of Harvey’s Scouts during the civil War.”
Image Source: Howcott Memorial, from the blog Finding Josephine; photo courtesy Joel Brink.

The blog Confederate Digest – which claims to provide “historically accurate” commentary about the Confederate States – has a blog entry about a rare type of monument in Canton, Mississippi: it was erected in honor of a Confederate slave.

The monument honors Willis Howcott, who was the slave of William Howcott. William Howcott was a member of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit from Mississippi made up of around 128 soldiers. A history of Harvey’s Scouts, written by John Claiborne and published in 1885, is here. While the names of the Scout’s soldiers are listed, neither the names of the slaves who were with the soldiers, nor a count of those slaves, is indicated in Claiborne’s history.

The Confederate Digest blog entry says that “William was 15 years old when he joined Harvey’s Scouts in 1864. Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend. Willis was, tragically, killed in combat sometime in 1865 at the age of 14.” This is based on family memoirs and memories.

This same blog entry makes the claim, which is largely discredited, that an “estimated 65,000 or more African American men, both free and slave, were Confederate soldiers.” Was Willis Howcott one of these black Confederate soldiers?

First, some quick background. During the Civil War, many masters took their slaves with them as they went off to war. These slaves performed a number of tasks: they cooked, foraged for food, washed laundry, cut hair, cared for animals, etc. These slaves were not enlisted in the army; slave enlistment was prohibited by the Confederate government until March 1865. (One month later, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia.)

I read through Claiborne’s history of the Scouts, and found no mention of Willis Howcott. Claiborne’s list of the unit’s dead (12 men in all) does not include Willis Howcott’s name. If Willis Howcott did die in battle, it is not recorded in this history, which was developed “out of a considerable amount of material furnished by different persons, and placed at his (Claiborne’s) disposal.”

In fact, Claiborne’s history of Harvey’s Scouts makes no mention of the unit’s slaves at all. Interestingly, Claiborne does document an encounter the Scouts had with a group of US Colored Troops, black men who enlisted in the Union army. Claiborne writes that the “Scouts fell in with a long wagon train from Natchez, guarded by a colored regiment. A desperate fight ensued. The negroes had been taught that we would show them no quarter, and fought like devils.” But there is no mention of the negroes who were with the Scouts. In Claiborne’s history, the slaves are not soldiers, but rather, invisible men.

Regardless of Willis Howcott’s role in his master’s army unit, there is no doubt that his death was heartfelt by William Howcott: in the 1890s, William paid for a 20-foot high granite obelisk monument to the memory of Willis in Canton, MS. While there are hundreds of monuments to Confederate soldiers, monuments recognizing slaves who accompanied Confederate military units are quite rare. (Consider the monuments here and here.) The inscription on the monument William Howcott dedicated to Willis Howcott poignantly reads, “A tribute to my faithful servant and friend, Willis Howcott, a colored boy of rare loyalty and faithfulness, whose memory I cherish with deep gratitude.” Of note is that Willis Howcott is identified as a servant who was loyal to his master, not as a soldier who was loyal to his country. And there is no mention of how Willis died. In any event, William Howcott was clearly hurt by the loss.

Did William Howcott ultimately blame himself for the loss of his slave and friend? Should he have?

The monument raises the question: how should we, today, look at the death of Willis Howcott? When soldiers fight and die for a great cause – such as the independence of their country, or liberation from bondage – we thank the soldier and honor his sacrifice. But Willis Howcott died a slave. He died because his master chose to bring him into a war zone, for the master’s convenience. In death, Willis Howcott paid the highest price that could be paid by a slave in his service to his master. Is it honorable or right that a slave master should put his slave in that position? Beyond his master’s respect and gratitude, what did the slave stand to gain by being placed in such hazardous conditions… is what the slave stood to gain “worth” the loss of his life? Is the death of this exploited laborer much more tragic than it was possibly heroic (assuming that the 14 year old Willis did die in battle)?

(The Confederate Digest post says “Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend.” Really?… a 13 year old slave boy had the authority to dictate that he would join his young master in a military unit? Willis Howcott’s presence in the unit was surely not his decision to make, and probably not solely William Howcott’s decision; William’s parents or guardians at least would have approved it. The parents/guardians of William no doubt felt better about William’s military service with servant Willis at his side to help out with the rigors of camp life. And it’s not unlikely that young Willis wanted to accompany his master. The idea of going off to war might have been a thrill for both these young teenagers. It is unknown if Willis’s parents approved, or had veto power over, the taking of their son.)

The black man in the above picture is unidentified. He stands almost like a sentinel, as if he was guarding the memory of Willis Howcott itself. Was he a relative of Willis?  African Americans, in Mississippi and elsewhere, typically lacked the resources to erect their own such monuments. So the family’s feelings about Willis’s death were not etched in stone, for us to see. This possible relative might well have been thankful that Willis received due recognition for his sacrifice, no matter what the circumstances of his death. This, as opposed to so many unnamed and unnoticed black men and women, who did the very best they could do under trying times, and yet have nothing in the commemorative landscape to show for the lives they lived. Willis Howcott’s death is worth remembering. As to how that death should be remembered… that is another question.

EDIT: As noted in a response from Francis Howcutt (see comments below), the Willis Howcott monument was moved a few years ago from the site shown in the picture to a burial ground near the Old Jail at Canton, Mississippi.

“Bid Em In” – A Video for Oscar Brown Jr’s Biting Riposte on Slave Auctions

This video is based on Oscar Brown Jr’s song “Bid Em In.” This was the subject of one of my first posts when I opened this blog four years ago. I find the video moving even after numerous views.

Thanks and congratulations to Neal Sopata for his excellent animation work.

Toy Soldiers

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Figurines of United States Colored Troops from the American Civil War.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

These are pictures of some very cool figurine displays that were posted to the Facebook page of the United States Colored Troops Living History Association. Unfortunately, the site of these displays is not clearly identified. Too bad; I’d love to see them in person. If anybody knows where these are, please drop me a line.

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Figurines of soldiers from the American Revolutionary War. The figure to the far right is wearing the uniform of the First Rhode Island Regiment, which fought with the Patriots.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

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I suspect this scene is based on the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a 19th-century Virginia slave who escaped to freedom by having himself mailed in a wooden crate to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania abolitionists.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

How will you observe National Freedom Day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Freedom Day is one of many conflicting, and to some, conflicted celebrations of the end of slavery in the United States. Perhaps the most prominent day designated for commemorating emancipation and abolition is Juneteenth (June 19th), which is celebrated in Texas and several other states. But National Freedom Day is the first and only day that the federal government has established for a nationwide observance of slavery’s end. Continue reading