Shotgun Wedding, Civil War Style? (“A Subject of Morality”… and More)

Slavery and wartime, too, can make for strange bedfellows. Or just plain strangeness.

Consider the following Civil War “incident” that is at once bizarre, amusing, disturbing, outrageous and wonderful, but also, uniquely American. It raises all kinds of questions about race, slavery, and family; and about the authority of an occupying power to control, and even force certain behaviors on, an occupied population.

The story comes from Army Chaplain Henry McNeal Turner. As I mentioned in my previous post, Turner was a leader in the black church of Washington, DC, and part of the First Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry. He was also a wartime correspondent for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in which this story was published.

First, some backstory. It’s June/July of 1865. Several months earlier, Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Union General William Sherman in Durham, North Carolina, one of the steps in the end of the Civil War and the demise of the Confederacy. But going as far back as early 1862, the Union Army has captured and occupied various parts of the North Carolina coast. This includes Roanoke Island, the site of a large contraband camp/freedmen’s village.

During this occupation, the Union is “the law.” A Colonel named Holman is acting as judge, jury, and… executioner… while he addresses “legal” and other interactions among the inhabitants in the east NC area under his control. Holman has asked Chaplain Turner to help mediate a case involving “morality”… Turner tells the story:

Roanoke Island is still the theatre of many interesting incidents. Every imaginable phase of characters, every question having… virtue, however hatched with uncertainties through the phantasm scope of suspicion, or open in the vulgar revelry of the unconscionable audacious, are ever and anon before the bar of adjustment… It is nothing uncommon to have reports of the dogs barking, and such trivial affairs, handed in at Head Quarters… Colonel Holman, however, listens to them all, passes judgment upon them, and the parties respectfully retire.

But here is a circumstance to which I most respectfully invite your attention. The narrative runs as follows: Near Edenton, (a place about one hundred mile from the island,) lives an old rich slave-holder, who in the days of southern rights wielded an immense power in that community, or, in other words, he was one of the lords of the land.

He visited Wilmington about twelve years ago, and there saw a very handsome mulatto girl, or rather lady, and conveyed to his country mansion, and admitted to the lofty honors of sacred concubinage. In that very wholesome situation she has remained ever since, giving birth to six children, all illegitimate production of purchased connection. Providentially, both of these individuals had business before the Colonel, and during the investigation the Colonel’s attention was called to their mode of living.

The matter was referred to the Chaplain for counsel and advice, as it was a subject of morality, who decided with the Colonel that he should marry her at once. But he (the slaveholder) could not see the point; he showed many reasons why it would not do to marry a colored woman, in that part of the country. He argued skillfully in the false logic generally produced by slave-owners; finally, he was dismissed, and left with an exultant sense of his victory over Yankee morality.

Colonel Holman, after weighing the matter again, sent for me and finding the parties already there, rose upon his feet, and commenced as follows: “Sir, (looking at the slave-owner,) I have talked to you as a brother and friend: you have had this woman twelve years acting as your wife; she, in the sacred honesty of a lady, has in return given to you, your country and your God, six children: you brought her away from her home, her relations and friends, as a man would convey his wife; you have also devoured the flower of her youth, and torn from her cheeks the flush beauties of maiden-hood; you have reaped and consumed these charms, which God gave her to find a happy partner in life, and make her existence pleasant to the grave, ay! and to an eternal future. You have desecrated the sanctity of the matrimonial institution by force and unjust authority.

“But your day is gone: this is my day, and this great nation’s day-and as an officer of the United States, invested with power to execute justice, and carry out the proclamations of the President,–I tell you and your comrades, I tell all in my military district, such conduct shall not be tolerated. You can take your choice, either marry the woman or endow her and her children with property sufficient to support them for life, or I will demolish everything you have, hang, shoot, or bury you alive, before you shall turn that helpless woman and your ill begotten children away to die, or to be fed by my country, and your property given to hellish rebels. You starved our prisoners to death, and murdered in cold blood the best men God ever made, to sustain your infamous rotten oligarchy, and now, to add insult and injury, you propose to turn out your children. By the eternal God, I will sweep you all with one blast.”

At this point he (slave-owner) raised his voice, and in a trembling voice said: “Colonel, you need not say anymore. I can’t marry Susie and stay here; but if you will allow me time to dispose of my personal property, I will take her and go to the North, or to Canada and there marry her; I will sell my lower plantation, but my upper one I will hold on to.”

“Well, “ said the Colonel, “do you promise in the presence of myself and the chaplain to marry Miss Susan?”

“Yes, sir, I will: for I know it is wrong to throw her and the children away, for Suse has been a mighty good gal.”

At this point we all shook hands over the prospects, and the court adjourned, to meet again when he gets ready to marry Susan and go North.

The floor is open – what are your thoughts on this?

Note: The text from Turner is in An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War: The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner by Andre E. Johnson.

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.”