“The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you”: Leviticus 25: 10-12

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

Leviticus 25: 10-12, New International Version

At the Dedication of the Freedmans Village Bridge, Arlington, Virginia

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Civil War reenactors/living historians Ed Gantt, Marquett Milton, and Michael Schaffner at the dedication of Freedmans Village Bridge in Arlington, Virginia. Milton is holding the regimental flag of the XXV Army Corps of the United States army. The XXV Corps, which was created during the American Civil War, was composed entirely of soldiers from the United States Colored Troops.

Image Source: Courtesy Ed Gasaway of the African American Civil War Museum 

Northern Virginia, which is part of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, was awash with freedom during the American Civil War. A combination of events – the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia in April, 1862; the Emancipation Proclamation, in January 1863; the presence of federal troops throughout the area; and the movements of slaves themselves – caused the DC area to be flooded with former bondsmen and bondswomen, looking to start new lives as free people. On September 10, 2015, a bridge in Arlington, Virginia was dedicated to the memory of the community they created, which was named Freedmans Village.

Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, US Congressman Jim Moran, and other state and local officials were on hand to commemorate Freedmans Village Bridge, in Arlington. The crowd included descendants of Freedman’s Village residents. The new bridge replaces an aging structure that was in dire need of repair. Public officials and community members used the new bridge as an opportunity to commemorate the African Americans who made homes and a neighborhood for themselves across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.

Freedmans Village Harpers
Freedmans Village, Arlington, Virginia, circa 1863-1865; from Harper’s Magazine

Created in 1863, at the midpoint of the the Civil War, Freedmans Village was the home of hundreds of former slaves, from Washington, DC (which was less than ten miles away), northern Virginia, and perhaps even nearby Maryland. The site is notable in part for having been created from land that was inherited by Mary Anna Randolph Custis, a descendant of Martha Washington (husband of George Washington). Mary Anna was also the wife of Robert E. Lee, who became general in chief of the Confederate army during the Civil War.

This YouTube video, produced in 2009 by Arlington County, discusses the history of the Village:

Freedman’s Village was built on land that is now part of Arlington National Cemetery. According to the Arlington Public Library, “more than 28,000 residents of Freedman’s Village are buried in Section 27 of Arlington National Cemetery.”

Today, Freedmans Village is referred to as Freedmans Village. More history of the Freedman’s Village is here:
• Another YouTube video from Arlington County about the Village
Freedman’s Village
Remembering Freedman’s Village
• Freedman’s Village: a lost chapter of Arlington’s Black History

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Civil War reenactors/living historians Ed Gantt, Marquett Milton, Michael Schaffner and Alan Skerrett at the dedication of the Freedmans Village Bridge in Arlington, Virginia.

The Forgotten: The Contraband of America and the Road to Freedom

This video, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, talks about the “contrabands” of the Civil War – slaves who escaped their masters or otherwise found asylum from bondage behind Union lines during the Civil War. From YouTube

“As we celebrate the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, it is important that we not just focus on the heroic tales of generals and battlefield strategy, but on the full story of that historic conflict. One hundred fifty years ago, three enslaved men risked everything for their freedom, escaping on a small boat to a Union-controlled outposts in Virginia. Rather than return the runaways, Gen. Benjamin Butler seized the men at Fort Monroe as contraband — a decision that encouraged approximately half a million enslaved people and other African American refugees to seek protection behind enemy lines by the end of the war. Not only did these contraband, as they became known, make slavery a central issue of the war, they helped secure their freedom by aiding the Union cause. This video explores two sites near the nation’s capital with links to contraband heritage, as well as an interview with a descendant of one of the original escaped slaves who fled to Fort Monroe. To learn more, visit http://bit.ly/jrP8b8.”

A Labor Day question: What would the South – and America – have been like without slave labor?

Planting Rice in the South. From Harper’s Monthly Magazine (1859), vol. 19, p. 726; accompanies article by T. Addison Richards, “The Rice Lands of the South” (pp. 721-38).
Image Source: From the website “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record”; Image Reference NW0078, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

Here’s a Labor Day question: What would the South have looked like, economically, if not for the labor provided by its enslaved population? Do you believe that enslaved people get enough credit for the role they played in building the southern and American economies?

Any thoughts?

As you think about that question, consider the following statements. They are from southerners, who spoke about slavery and its role in US and global commerce, before and during the slave state secessions that preceded the American Civil War. These are excerpts from various speeches, books, and documents from the persons noted; links to the full text for the excerpts are provided. The view of these men is quite clear: the future of commerce in the South, the United States, and the world – indeed, the future of civilization itself – depended on the existence and continuation of slave labor in their section.
A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.
January, 1861

In January 1861, the state of Mississippi announced that it was “dissolving” its bonds with the federal Union. The state released a declaration, akin to the Declaration of Independence issued during the Revolutionary War by the American colonists, which explained why Mississippi was seceding from the United States:

“In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.” Continue reading

Street Scene – Savannah, Georgia circa 1880s

Street Scene Savannah Georgia 1880s
“The lightening express, Savannah, Georgia”; African American with bull-drawn wagon; by photographer George Baker, 1886.
Image Source: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The lightening express, Savannah, Georgia.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, retrieved from “http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-ee5d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99” on September 3, 2015.

The American Civil War and the end of slavery wrought a sweeping transformation upon Savannah, Georgia, as they did on almost all the South. In her book Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War, pages 347-8, historian Jacqueline Jones writes about how African Americans in Savannah experienced their new-found freedom by making reference to records from the 1870 Census. Her text gives an insight into the world that the man above entered in the wake of Jubilee in the post-war South: Continue reading

Outmanned and Outgunned: African Americans’ Separate and Unequal Experience with the Right to Bear Arms and Gun Control

African American Union Soldier with Pistol
African American Union Soldier with Pistol, circa Civil War era (1860s). It was very common for Civil War soldiers to take pictures with their firearms, or props of firearms.
Image Source: Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-11298; see more information about the photo here.


A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
– Second Amendment to the US Constitution

“The great object is, that every man be armed. […] Every one who is able may have a gun.”
– Patrick Henry

“[if negroes were] entitled to the privileges and immunities of [white] citizens, …it would give persons of the Negro race… the right… to keep and bear arms wherever they want… inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the state…”
– Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision

“Remember that the musket – the United States musket with its bayonet of steel – is better than all mere parchment guarantees of liberty. In your hands that musket means liberty; and should your constitutional rights at the close of this war be denied, which in the nature of things, it cannot be, your brethren are safe while you have a Constitution which proclaims your right to keep and bear arms.”
– Frederick Douglass, in an 1863 recruitment speech imploring black to join the Union army during the Civil War


[This is a re-blog of a post that I published in 2012.]

The current debate about gun control, spurred by incidents such as the Newtown Tragedy of December, 2012, and more recent shootings that can be found via Internet search (such as here), gives me pause me to reflect on the history of firearms access for African Americans. This history does not paint a pretty picture, but it adds a new perspective on our discussion of the right to bear arms.

A review of the history indicates that for over two centuries, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the national, state, and local governments have been engaged in a project to limit African Americans’ access to guns. This project was not conducted in secret; the people involved made it unequivocally clear that they did not want people of African descent to have firearms. Blacks with guns were seen as a threat to the safety, politics, and domination of the white majority, and the law was used to remove that threat. For African Americans, “gun control” has almost always been synonymous with “keep African Americans from getting guns.”

To be clear: I am not taking any position regarding gun access policy. I hope that no one who reads this piece will assume that I am advocating a particular viewpoint concerning gun rights and gun control issues.

What I do want to do, is provide an abridged and slightly selective timeline of African Americans’ experience with bearing arms. There is so much to this story, it’s impossible to contain it all within one blog post – and this post is somewhat lengthy as it is. But for those who are not familiar with the subject, this will be informative and useful.

There is a sadly ironic, perhaps tragic aspect to this history. Guns have become the scourge of the urban landscape. So-called “black on black” crime has become endemic in certain communities, and guns are an unfortunate aspect of this. During the slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, laws left blacks relatively defenseless against a tide of racial terrorism; African Americans were outmanned and outgunned. But now many black communities are awash in guns, and instead of firearms being used for self-defense, they are being used for self-destruction. Sometimes the arc of history bends in the wrong direction.

For more information on this subject, two good “starter” pieces on this topic are here and here. Two useful books on the subject is Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms, 1866-1876 by Stephen P. Halbrook, and Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms, by Nicholas Johnson. But there are many other journal articles, books, and other references that are available via Internet search for those who want to really get in depth on this subject.

I will begin at the middle of the 18th century, and go forward to the 21st century.

1779 During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress – which represents American colonists seeking independence from Britain – offers slave masters in South Carolina and Georgia $1,000 for each slave they provide to the Continental army. However, the legislatures of both states refused the offer. Apparently, the risk of arming slaves, who might want or demand freedom in exchange for their service, is more threatening than the British Army.

1792 Congress passes the Militia Acts, which limit service in militias to free white males. This restriction is prompted in part by fears that, as in the case of the Haitian slave revolt, free blacks will unite with slaves and use their guns and military training to mount an armed insurrection against slaveholders. The measures are interpreted as meaning that blacks cannot join the United States army.

1811 Hundreds of slaves, armed with guns, knives, and axes, become part of the largest slave rebellion on American soil, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The importance of taking arms is noted in the book American Uprising: American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen,

Baptized with the blood of his former master, Charles (the leader of the slave rebellion) and his men broke into the stores in the basement (of his master’s) mansion, taking muskets and militia uniforms, stockpiled in case of domestic insurrection. Many of the slaves had learned to shoot muskets in African civil wars, while others would fight mor effectively with tha cane knives and axes they wielded in the hot Louisiana sun. As his men gathered weapons and shoved ammunition in bags, Charles and several of his fellow slaves cast off the distinctive cheap cotton slave clothes and put on the (master’s) uniforms.

Unfortunately for the slaves, their revolt was beaten back by the superior force of local authorities, and they suffered a horrible punishment after the smoke cleared.

1831 Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The rebels kill over 50 white people, the highest number of fatalities caused by slave uprisings in the South. The rebellion was put down within a few days, but Turner survived in hiding for over two months.

After the rebellion, legislatures in the slave states passed new laws prohibiting the education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.

1831 Three states – Florida, Maryland and Virginia – enact laws which ban black ownership of guns.

Continue reading

Have We Learned Anything from the Sesquicentennial?: the Case of Sherman’s March into Columbia, SC

Image Source: Civil War Harper’s Weekly, April 8, 1865; from here.

We are now in the closing days of the 150th (Sesquicentennial) Anniversary of the American Civil War. By the end of August 1865, the shooting war between the Union and the Confederacy was just about over, and the Reconstruction Period was proceeding in earnest.

I wonder: what have we Americans learned during this four year (the Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865) anniversary period? There have been numerous events during the Sesquicentennial, and I attended a number of them; I learned a lot. But then, I’m something of a Civil War nerd. I wonder how much the public at large got out of it.

On the Internet, I had an exchange recently with someone concerning the reaction of residents in Columbia, South Carolina, to the arrival of Union forces led by General William T. Sherman in February 1865. The person remarked that “there were no people in Columbia welcoming Sherman and his army.”

Some background: General Sherman is, in the minds of many (mostly white southern) people, infamous for his “March to the Sea,” in which his army barreled its way through Georgia, then South Carolina, and eventually North Carolina. Along the way, according to many people, he inflicted a hard-handed brand of war against the Confederacy, including Confederate civilians. Cities such as Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, were given the burnt-earth treatment by Sherman and his men… or at least, that’s what many people believe. Given this “memory” of the war, which was very popular prior to the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, it must certainly be true that nobody in Columbia was happy to see Sherman and his Union army marching through their town.

The thing is, it is NOT true. There were Columbians who were happy to see Sherman. In his 1991 book The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans, which won the Bancroft Prize, historian Charles Royster writes

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 where 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 they 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.

Royster goes on to note that the slaves had communicated with and helped Federal prisoners held in Columbia before Sherman’s arrival, and gave aid and assistance to the Union soldiers who arrived in the city and the surrounding area. It also appears that some African Americans took advantage of the Union occupation to enact acts of revenge against whites whom they believed had mistreated them.

Also from Royster’s Book:

(sometime after Union soldiers had entered the city, and there had been fires and some looting) …on Main Street, crowded with hurrying people and lit by burning stores, a 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.”​

Many of the African American residents of Columbia were quite happy not just to see Sherman, but also to give him and his men military intelligence and other support.

So, here is what I hoped the Sesquicentennial commemorations might accomplish: the replacement of older and previously “popular” notions about the war with up-to-date and correct understandings. Such as the understanding that African Americans were not merely bystanders during the war, but had their own role to play, and exercised their own agency and independent action during the war.

But, here was someone stating with some conviction that “there were no people in Columbia welcoming Sherman and his army” (emphasis added). For this person, the idea that there might have been black people in Columbia (note that over 55% of South Carolina’s population was of African descent when the war began) who supported the Union (which, after all, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation) never entered his mind.

And that is a concern. It seems that many people still lack an informed, comprehensive view of the Civil War despite a four-year period of attention and events, many of which did focus on the role of African Americans. It’s something we’ll have to continue to work on, until we get it right. And we will.