Social Revolution, Writ Small: Turning the Tables on a Mistress in Smithfield, North Carolina

colored-troops-in-north-carolina
Colored Troops, under General Wild, liberating slaves in North Carolina.
Source: Harper’s Weekly, January 23, 1864 [1]; from www.sonofthesouth.net

The American Civil War was the start of a social revolution. The Union government policy of emancipating African Americans and enlisting them in the military led to a transformation in relations between white and black, master and slave, and the powerful and the powerless. In ways large and small, subtle and dramatic, encounters between black and white Union soldiers and black and white southerners led to a new navigation through the rushing and uncharted waters of social change.

Consider the following wartime report, dated May 15, 1865, from Army Chaplain Henry McNeal Turner[2]. Turner, a leader in the black church of Washington, DC, was a member of the First Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry[3] that was recruited from the District. He was also a wartime correspondent for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In his correspondence to the Recorder, Turner spoke of an incident[4] involving a black woman and her mistress:

Shortly after our arrival in Smithfield (NC), one of our sergeants called my attention to a colored lady, whose child a rebel woman had hid. I immediately started for her sacred premises, and having entered her piazza, in company with the sergeant, colored woman, and a few others, the following conversation ensued: “Have you got this woman’s child?” “No! Her master carried it off.” “Where is her master as you call him?” “He is gone to the country.” “What did he carry the child away for?” “Because he wanted to.” “Did he not know the child belonged to this woman?” “Yes. But if it is her child, it is his negro. You Yankees have a heap of impudence. What are you meddling with our negroes for? You may think the south is conquered, but she has surrendered to superior numbers. But, sir, you are sadly mistaken.” “Stop, stop!” I replied, “I don’t want anymore of your rebel parlance. You are not too good to be hung, and you had better dry up, or you might get a rope around your neck in short order.”

At this stage in our dialogue, one of the General’s [5] Staff rode up, and she began to tell a long story about me, weaving in a lie here, and a lie there. But he soon silenced her by saying, “Oh, well! He has a right to say what he thinks proper! Madame, I want to know why this child is not given up!”

So she proceeded to chit chat the subject with him, and having heard as much as my stomach could digest at once, said I to the officer, “It is reported that the child is hid in town, but she says her husband has taken it into the country. I now propose, as he has five children standing here, that we take one, to be held as a hostage, until the colored child is returned to its mother.” The words had barely left my mouth, before such running, crying, and squealing took place among the children, that my indignation melted down into laughter. The very utterance of these words frightened the children nearly to death, and made the mother tremble.

At this juncture, learning that the General had taken the matter in hand, I left. But look at the inconsistency. To have taken one of their children, would have been pronounced, by the slave oligarchs, an act of fiendish cruelty. But for them to perpetuate the same crime on a poor slave woman, was only an inconsiderable circumstance. If a few of our Northern slave advocates had the tables thus turned on them, it would materially change the tone of some of their brutal sophistry, as well as morally improve that remonstrating gibberish, too often used to stay the designs of the administration, whose ultimate purpose seems to be the upbuilding of an depressed people.

Notes:
[1] The January 23, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly provides the backstory for the above illustration.

[2] Turner was a notable African American figure in the war and post-war eras. I hope to write more about him in future posts.

[3] Some details about the 1st Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry are here.

[4] The full version of Turner’s May 15, 1865 letter to the Christian Recorded is in the books Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner, edited by Jean Cole; and An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War: The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner by Andre E. Johnson. Turner’s correspondence is discussed in other works, such as Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era, edited by John David Smith.

[5] “The General” is Brigadier General Edward A. Wild. According to the book Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, which was written by William A. Dobak, “In December 1863, Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild led more than seventeen hundred men from five black regiments through northeastern North Carolina, freeing slaves, hunting Confederate guerrillas, and enlisting black soldiers.”

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