The Discover Freedmen Project: Digitizing Freedmen’s Bureau Records for Genealogy and Other Research

Video for The Freedmen’s Bureau Project:

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is an effort to digitize records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which can be used for genealogical and other research. The Project’s website, http://www.discoverfreedmen.org, provides this background:

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is helping African Americans reconnect with their Civil War­-era ancestors. Join us in restoring thousands of records, and begin building your own family tree.

LEAD US INTO THE LIGHT

To help bring thousands of records to light, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project was created as a set of partnerships between FamilySearch International and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro­-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), and the California African American Museum.

Tens of thousands of volunteers are needed to make these records searchable online. No specific time commitment is required, and anyone may participate. Volunteers simply log on, pull up as many scanned documents as they like, and enter the names and dates into the fields provided. Once published, information for millions of African Americans will be accessible, allowing families to build their family trees and connect with their ancestors.

For those who are interested in the project, please go to the website to get more details.

Hat tip to Yulanda Burgess for this information. FYI, Angela Y. Walton-Raji of the USCT Chronicle blog appears in the above video.

Free Blacks in Baltimore, circa late 1850s, by Thomas Waterman Wood

Thomas_Waterman_Wood_-_Market_Woman_-_Google_Art_Project copy
Detail from “Market Woman” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1858; go here to see a full image of the painting.
From the book Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860, by Christopher Philips: “Wood’s 1858 oil painting ‘Market Woman’ portray(s) a free black street vendor in Baltimore. Many African American women were vendors, or ‘hucksters,’ in the antebellum years.”
Image Source: From Wikimedia Commons via the Google Art Project

Thomas-Waterman-Wood-xx-Moses,-The-Baltimore-News-Vendor Dupe
Detail from “Moses, The Baltimore News Vendor” by Thomas Waterman Wood, circa 1858; go here to see a full image of the painting.
From the Art Project of the Google Cultural Institute/de Young Museum: “This painting depicts the freed slave Moses Small, who was a well-known Baltimore newspaper vendor. Dressed in elegant but worn attire, Moses holds a stack of Baltimore Patriot newspapers in his left arm as he tips his hat to greet the next customer. (For some whites,) Moses may have symbolized the virtues of capitalism, which provided economic opportunities for many Americans. However, the selling of newspapers was one of a limited number of jobs available to free blacks in the pre–Civil War era.
Image Source: Artclon.com

Maryland in the late 1850s was, to use a phrase made popular by Abraham Lincoln, half slave and half free: 51% of the state’s African Americans were enslaved, while 49% were free. This post is about the artist Thomas Waterman Wood whose paintings gave vibrancy and dignity to African Americans in the part of the state that was half-free.

But first, some background: prior to the Civil War, Maryland had a split personality. Free labor and slave labor were prominent in different parts of the state. In the southern part of the state that bordered Virginia, slavery had a large presence. In the northern part of the state that was adjacent to Pennsylvania, it was mostly a free labor society.

In the late 1850s, the Maryland municipalities with the largest enslaved and free black populations, respectively, were Prince George’s County and Baltimore City. Perhaps fittingly, these two places were a mere 25 miles away from each other. Prince George’s County (PG County), which borders Washington, DC (DC was created from land that PG County donated) had the state’s largest enslaved population, with around 12,500 people held in bondage. The county has changed much over the years. Today PG County has one of the highest, if not the highest, per capita incomes of any majority-black county in the United States.

Time has not been as kind to the city of Baltimore. In 1860, it had almost 25,700 free blacks; this was the largest free black population of any city North or South. The city had a number of prominent social and civic institutions for African Americans, and industrial and shipping businesses would enjoy a boom there. But black and white middle-class flight in the second half of the 20th century has taken its toll on the city, whose urban dysfunction was cataloged in the HBO series The Wire. Recently, the city erupted into violence after a black man died while in police custody.

But in an earlier time, Thomas Waterman Wood found beautiful things in black Baltimore. A resident of the city in the late 1850s, the Vermont-born Wood became a prominent 19th century artist, known for his figure and portrait work. Several of his paintings from his stay in Baltimore stand out for their dignified treatment of the African-Americans who lived there. Recollect that, this was a time when African Americans were seen as degraded and even subhuman. Caricatured images of people of African descent were not uncommon in American art. But Wood’s art was not like that at all.

Two of his pictures are displayed above. The first picture, a portrait of a female street vendor, is delightful. The woman in the picture is smartly and vibrantly dressed. She poses for the picture with an air of confidence and a smile. Perhaps she is simply self-assured, or maybe she is flattered to be painted by this white artist. Her posture is straight and comfortable; she seems to feel good in her own skin. Is this picture merely portraiture, or a political statement? Regardless, a viewer with sensitivity to such things might say that for her, freedom is becoming.

The second picture features a newspaper vendor and former slave named Moses Small. His attire is “elegant but worn.” He gracefully doffs his hat for the artist, a gesture he made to his many street customers. The former slave has an air of dignity about him. Perhaps he is not getting rich from his work, but he is is own man, and making an honest living. From his place on the streets of Baltimore, he could no doubt see the changes in the society around him, changes which gave liberties and opportunities, such as they were, to free man and women like himself. In several years, the American Civil War would come, and even more dramatic and substantial change would come to the streets of his hometown, and in America at large. I wonder if Moses Small was there when his city erupted into a riot in 1861, as residents attacked Union soldiers from the North who were on their way south to protect the District of Columbia and fight the Confederates.

Wood produced several other humane, dignified, and non-stereotypical paintings of 19th century African Americans; these are available for viewing with a quick search on Google (or other search engine). Not too many artists were doing such work at the time, and this makes us savor his work all the more.

Going beyond the Confederate Flag Controversy: Missing Monuments – The Unfinished Work of Commemorating the African American Experience in the Civil War

Battle_flag_of_the_Confederate_States_of_America.svg
Many people are concerned about the presence of this…
Image: Confederate Battle Flag
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

African-American_Civil_War_Memorial
…but many more should be concerned about the relative absence of this.
Image: African American Civil War Memorial, Washington, DC
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial–the multi-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War–is just about over. There are already discussions about commemorating the Reconstruction Era, which followed the war. For example, the National Park Service is considering the development of sites that will memorialize Reconstruction Era events.

But recent controversies over the Confederate Battle Flag (see here and here and here, for example) suggest that the job of properly commemorating the war in our public and private spaces is not yet done.

I understand how and why the Confederate Battle Flag (CBF) is such a lightening rod for debate and dispute. But my own concern is not with the presence of the CBF on public or other spaces. I am concerned about the relative absence of memorials, monuments and other objects that reflect the roles and experiences of African Americans during the American Civil War. This is something that we Americans need to talk about, and hopefully, address with collective action.

There are easily hundreds of, if not over a thousand, statues, monuments and other objects that commemorate the Civil War. Overwhelmingly, these objects feature white soldiers, sailors, and civilians. The Civil War era presence of African Americans on the “commemorative landscape,” as many call it, is inadequate, if not woefully so.

This situation is a result of our history. Nine out of ten Civil War era African Americans lived in the Union and Confederate slave states, which were considered “the South.” After the Reconstruction Era, which saw many advances toward racial equality, the South devolved into a state of racial supremacy for whites, and racial subjugation for African Americans. Political, financial, and social conditions inhibited or even prevented African Americans from creating memorials that fairly depicted their wartime experience. The result was a commemorative landscape in which Civil War era black folks were out of sight and out of mind. Someone raised in the South prior to this century could look at the commemorative landscape of the era and easily (and wrongly) conclude that black people were a negligible and inconsequential part of the war.

Things have gotten better. For example, since the 1989 movie Glory, over a dozen or more monuments to black Civil War soldiers have been installed. (A review of monuments to African American Civil War soldiers is here.) But much more needs to be done. In way too many places, children of all backgrounds are growing up in a commemorative environment where the back presence in the Civil War in under-represented, or even unrepresented. We have the power to fix that.

The following are just are a few suggestions for new memorials that depict various aspects of the Civil War history of African Americans. The list is not meant to be comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start. If anyone has their own suggestions to offer, feel free to note them in the comments section below. I hope this becomes part of a conversation about creating a commemorative landscape that fully and truly reflects the richness and diversity of the Civil War experience.

So, here we go:

1) No state is more significant in the history of African American soldiery during Civil War than Louisiana. Louisiana provided more African American soldiers to the Union than any other state. Three of the first five black Union regiments were formed in the state. And finally, Louisiana probably produced the most black army officers of any state. A portion of these soldiers were free black Creoles, while others were former slaves. Many enlisted in the Louisiana Native Guards regiments that were organized in New Orleans.


Officers of Company C of the 1st Louisiana Native Guard at Fort Macomb, Louisiana, per Wikipedia
Image Source: Harpers Weekly, February 28, 1863, via Wikipedia

Yet, there is no monument or memorial to black soldiers in the city of New Orleans. Per my research, there is only one monument to black soldiers in the entire state — at Donaldsonville, Louisiana (which is between New Orleans and Baton Rouge).

This is an oversight that borders on being shameful. I hate to use such strong language. But it is past due that New Orleans and other places in the state recognize the pivotal role these soldiers played during the Civil War.

2) When the Civil War began, president Abraham Lincoln and the US Congress made it clear: the Union had no intent of disturbing the institution of slavery where it stood. Why? At the least, they hoped to maintain the loyalty of the slave states that had not seceded and joined the Confederacy. At best, they hoped that the Confederate states, secure in the promise that slavery was safe, would return to the Union, thereby avoiding a war. (Note that, Lincoln was adamant that slavery would not spread to the western territories – a policy stance that the secessionists found unacceptable.)

But the slaves had their own agenda. They saw the war as an opportunity for freedom. On May 23, 1861 – just weeks after the war began at Fort Sumter, South Carolina – Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory fled bondage and sought asylum at a Union occupied fort outside of Hampton, Virginia, named Fort Monroe.

The fort’s commander, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, had no duty to return the slaves; in fact, by Union policy, he should have returned them to their master. But he reasoned that because the slaves were property being used by Confederate insurrectionists, it was within his rights to confiscate that property and use it for the Union’s purposes. This was the beginning of the Union’s contraband policy.


Union General Benjamin Butler receives runaway slaves Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory at Fort Monroe, Virginia, May 1861
Image Source: From The Daily Press, Newport News, Virginia

The contraband policy, which gave bondsmen asylum from slavery in return for their providing labor to the Union, eventually morphed into the Emancipation Proclamation. But the Proclamation might never have happened if not for the three brave men who took the risk of liberating themselves and seeking aid and comfort with their master’s enemy. We need a monument outside of Fort Monroe, which still stands, to commemorate their actions and those of Gen. Benjamin Butler. Continue reading

Defacing monuments is wrong! Stop doing it!


Statue of Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia, after being defaced.
Image Source: Courtesy and copyright Richmond Times-Dispatch.


Statue dedicated to “Confederate Defenders of Charleston” in White Point Garden, Charleston, SC, after being defaced.
Image Source: TWITTER/PHILIP WEISS via The Root

The above acts of monument defacement are wrong. I hope the people who did this will just stop. The defacing of public monuments is unacceptable, and we should all righteously condemn the people who are responsible.

I have heard some people speculate that these were the acts of white supremacists. The theory goes that, like alleged serial killer Dylann Roof, these folks are trying to incite a race war by doing things which cause the ire and anger of various ethnic groups. I do not know if this theory is correct. I have nothing to say to such people, except that what they did was wrong and condemnable.

Some say these were the acts of foolish young people, who had nothing better to do than vandalize public property. I do not know if this is true. I have nothing to say to such people, except that what they did was wrong and condemnable.

Some say that this was indeed the work of “Black Lives Matter” activists, and that for various reasons, they decided to place their message on Confederate monuments. For them, I have two comments, beyond the usual statement that two wrongs don’t make a right.

First: the defacement of public memorials sets a horrible precedent. Once it becomes “OK” to vandalize some monuments, it opens the floodgates to vandalizing any and all of them. So, for example, we might see tit-for-tat or copycat defacements of memorials to the Underground Railroad or Civil Rights workers. Do we really want that to happen? I hope not.

Second: the use of vandalism is an ineffective and counter-productive way to put forth the message that black lives matter. The method used to deliver the message overshadows, cheapens, and debases the message. The people who see this stuff will not get the idea that black lives matter. The message they get is that the folks who did this are disrespectful, unlawful, uncaring, and self-serving idiots. For many people, these acts serve only to reinforce the idea that black people are nothing but thugs.

Simply put, there is no righteous justification for these acts of vandalism and defacement. All of us should reject and condemn them. Surely there are other, more creative ways of non-violent protest to advance the cause of positive change.

EDIT: Some have suggested that what we see above are, in effect, protests against these monuments (as opposed to agitation for the “Black Lives Matter” cause). Let me provide my comments on that.

I support the idea of engaging in discussions about the appropriateness of these monuments in today’s public spaces. To those who are committed, I say go ahead and build movements that advance the case and cause for change, and at least try to see if some type of democratic process can be used to affect that change.

But I do not support defacement as an appropriate means of protesting against monuments that many of us don’t like. Other citizens have rights, too. They have as much a right to support these monuments as others have to reject them. Vandalism and defacement serve only to delegitimize fair protest, it ruins objects that are fairly called works of art, and which, for good or ill, say something about our history. And, as mentioned above, these acts can lead to the general feeling that any memorial that anybody finds objectionable can be defaced and vandalized.

Regarding the defacement of memorials: just don’t it. Don’t even think about it. It is wrong.

Dick, sketched on the 6th of May, on return to camp

Dick in Camp in Virginia
This is a portrait of a young man in a Union Army camp during the Civil War, circa May 1863, in Virginia. He is probably a former slave who found work with the army. A high-resolution version of the image is here. The caption at the bottom of the picture reads “Dick Sketched on the 6th of May, the afternoon of Gen. Hookers retreat across the Rappahannock.” This was after the Battle of Chancellorsville, where forces led by Union General Joseph Hooker were beaten by Confederate forces led by Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

This picture is from the Prints and Photographs collection of the Library of Congress (LOC), and is titled “Dick, sketched on the 6th of May, on return to camp / E.F.” The drawing, of an African American man holding a mule by a rope, is by artist Edwin Forbes (1839-1895), and was done in May, 1863. The LOC Reproduction Numbers for the image are: LC-DIG-ppmsca-20539 (digital file from original item), LC-USZC4-4219 (color film copy transparency), LC-USZ62-21374 (b&w film copy neg.). The LOC Call Number is DRWG/US – Forbes, no. 64 (A size).

Why did South Carolina Secede from the Union? In Their Own Words: to Protect Their States Rights to Maintain Slavery.

One of the more controversial issues concerning the Civil War is, what was the “cause” of Confederate secession? Why did the slaveholding states feel the need to reject the election of president Abraham Lincoln, and form a separate Confederate nation?

Many say that the central issue of secession was slavery. Others say the central issue was the desire to protect their states rights.

Myself, I don’t think those are mutually exclusive statements. I believe that Confederate secession was about states rights – that is, the states’ rights to maintain slavery.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s let the Southerners tell their own tale.

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. On December 24, 1860, the state issued its Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. This document is South Carolina’s declaration of independence from the Union.

The following text is an excerpt from the document, and a very large excerpt at that. For emphasis, I have bolded the word slave, or other references to slavery, such as labor, which refers to slave labor; and persons. In some cases, I’ve added a parenthetical note, with the abbreviation Ed. (for Editor), to explain a comment which might not be immediately understood by the reader. I make some comments on the text further below.

I think it’s quite clear when you read this: South Carolina politicians believed that the institution of slavery was in peril, and they seceded as a way to protect that institution. Here, in their own words, is South Carolina’s reason for leaving the Union:
Continue reading

Black Soldier to his enslaved children: “be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life”


African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-36454

In February of 1864, Spottswood (AKA Spotswood or Spottwood) Rice, a slave in Missouri, made a momentous decision: he fled bondage and enlisted in the Union army. Rice’s story is discussed in the previous blog post. Army enlistment gave Rice his freedom, but it did not free his children. But he was determined that he would have them.

One of Rice’s children, whose adult/married name was Mary A. Bell, was “owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs.” Back then, members of slave families might have different owners, and that could complicate the process of reuniting them.

By September 1864, Spottswood Rice had apparently made attempts to get his children, but was frustrated by his lack of success. He wrote two letters, one to his daughter Mary, the other to owner Katty (Kitty) Diggs, to let them know his plans. The letters, dated September 3, 1864, were written from Benton Barracks Hospital, St. Louis, Missouri, where Rice was recovering from chronic rheumatism.

Three things are striking in these letters. The first is Rice’s contempt for, and indignation at, the idea that he could “steal” his own children from their slaveowners. He tells Kitty Diggs “you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them.” Anyone who tries to prevent him from getting his children, he tells Diggs, is his “enemy.”

The second things that is striking is the sense of power and empowerment Rice has gotten from being a soldier. When Rice comes to get his daughter – and he says forcefully that he is coming – he warns that he “will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child… this whole Government gives chear to me.”

And finally, one cannot help but be struck by the religious language employed by Rice. He tells Diggs that his daughter Mary “is a God given rite of my own” and that “the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell.” He tells his daughter that Diggs “is the frist Christian that I ever hard say that aman could Steal his own child especially out of human bondage.” Although in fact the idea that slaveholder property rights trumped the slaves’ family rights was a common belief of most white southern Christians at the time. Unsurprisingly, Rice became a reverend in the African Methodist Episcopalian (A. M. E.) Church after the war.

Rice speaks with a righteous voice that proclaims, with God and government behind me, I shall prevail. His daughter would fondly recall many years later that she loved army men, and any man who would “fight for his rights.” And, she might have added, she loved men who fought for their children, just as her father fought for her.

This is Rice’s letter to his childrendated 9/3/1864:

My Children I take my pen in hand to rite you A few lines to let you know that I have not forgot you and that I want to see you as bad as ever now my Dear Children I want you to be contented with whatever may be your lots be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life on the 28th of the mounth. 8 hundred White and 8 hundred blacke solders expects to start up the rivore to Glasgow and above there thats to be jeneraled by a jeneral that will give me both of you when they Come I expect to be with, them and expect to get you both in return. Dont be uneasy my children I expect to have you. If Diggs dont give you up this Government will and I feel confident that I will get you

Your Miss Kaitty said that I tried to steal you But I’ll let her know that god never intended for man to steal his own flesh and blood. If I had no cofidence in God I could have confidence in her But as it is If I ever had any Confidence in her I have none now and never expect to have And I want her to remember if she meets me with ten thousand soldiers she [will?] meet her enemy I once [thought] that I had some respect for them but now my respects is worn out and have no sympathy for Slaveholders. And as for her cristianantty I expect the Devil has Such in hell You tell her from me that She is the frist Christian that I ever hard say that aman could Steal his own child especially out of human bondage

You can tell her that She can hold to you as long as she can I never would expect to ask her again to let you come to me because I know that the devil has got her hot set againsts that that is write now my Dear children I am a going to close my letter to you Give my love to all enquiring friends tell them all that we are well and want to see them very much and Corra and Mary receive the greater part of it you sefves and dont think hard of us not sending you any thing I you father have a plenty for you when I see you Spott & Noah sends their love to both of you Oh! My Dear children how I do want to see you

[Spotswood Rice]

This is Rice’s letter to Katty Diggs, also dated 9/3/1864:

I received a leteter from Cariline telling me that you say I tried to steal to plunder my child away from you now I want you to understand that mary is my Child and she is a God given rite of my own and you may hold on to hear as long as you can but I want you to remembor this one thing that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their for we are now makeing up a bout one thoughsand blacke troops to Come up tharough and wont to come through Glasgow and when we come wo be to Copperhood rabbels and to the Slaveholding rebbels for we dont expect to leave them there root neor branch but we thinke how ever that we that have Children in the hands of you devels we will trie your [vertues?] the day that we enter Glasgow

I want you to understand kittey diggs that where ever you and I meets we are enmays to each orthere I offered once to pay you forty dollers for my own Child but I am glad now that you did not accept it Just hold on now as long as you can and the worse it will be for you you never in you life befor I came down hear did you give Children any thing not eny thing whatever not even a dollers worth of expencs

now you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them and when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child you will then know how to talke to me I will assure that and you will know how to talk rite too I want you now to just hold on to hear if you want to iff your conchosence tells thats the road go that road and what it will brig you to kittey diggs I have no fears about geting mary out of your hands this whole Government gives chear to me and you cannot help your self

Spotswood Rice

Notes:

[1] Slavery was abolished in Missouri in February, 1865. The13th Amendment, which abolished slavery nationwide, was ratified in December 1865.

[2] The two letters from Rice were forwarded to Union General William Rosecrans, Commander of the US Army’s Department of the Missouri, by F. W. Diggs. Diggs was the brother of Kitty Diggs, and owned one of Spottswood Rice’s children. Diggs wrote to the general, “I write this to ask the favour of you to send the scoundrel that wrote (the letters) down to the army  I do not think that he should be allowed to remain in the state… to be thus insulted by such a black scoundrel is more than I can stand.” All of the correspondence is in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867; Series 2, The Black Military Experience, ed. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland; pages 689-691.