Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Kingdom by the Sea - Fortress Monroe

From the Fall 2010 National Park Conservation Association Magazine, "Freedom’s Fortress At Virginia’s Fort Monroe, preserving the past may mean striking out in a new direction," by Jeff Rennicke -- Hushed voices. The slow slap of waves. The creak of an oar lock. It is May 23, 1861. Three figures, half-hidden by a cloak of darkness, set off from Sewell’s Point near Norfolk, Virginia, to row a small boat across the wind-stirred waters of Hampton Roads to Old Point Comfort at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

It is a simple act, yet one that will change the course of American history, spell the beginning of the end for slavery, and, 140 years later, sit squarely at the center of efforts to preserve an American landmark and create the newest unit of our National Park System. On this night, however, the three men simply take their bearings, lean hard into the oars, and row.
Jutting into the deep waters of Chesapeake Bay off Virginia’s eastern coast, Old Point Comfort is a natural lookout, a clenched fist protecting one of the largest natural harbors on the Eastern Seaboard. Archaeological evidence shows that humans used the point as a transportation route and hunted migrating waterfowl and sea life for more than 10,000 years before Europeans arrived. In 1608, Captain John Smith dubbed Old Point Comfort a place “fit for a castle.” Yet forts, not castles, would play the leading role in the history of the Point.

As early as 1609, the British built Algernoune Fort—a wooden structure “10 hands high” and large enough to hold 40 soldiers and seven mounted cannons. Fire claimed the fort three years later. In 1619, the first African slaves to set foot on North American soil stopped here aboard Dutch ships bound for Jamestown. In 1727, the more formidable Fort George was built to guard against French invasion. Constructed of brick and shell lime, this was a fort “no ship could pass … without running great risk,” as Governor William Gooch would write in 1736. It was no match, however, for the hurricane that destroyed it in 1749.

During the War of 1812, the fledgling United States was dealt a stinging reminder of the point’s strategic importance. The single lighthouse that guarded Old Point Comfort at the time was no deterrent to the British Navy, which moved uncontested up the waterways to strike deep into the heart of the new nation, sacking Baltimore and setting fire to Washington. The lesson was not lost on President James Madison. In 1819, he appointed French military engineer Simon Bernard to oversee construction of the largest moat-encircled stone fort ever built in America. And he ordered it built at Old Point Comfort.

Fifteen years in the making and sporting a price tag of nearly $2 million, Fort Monroe is a true fortress—63 acres encompassed by a mile-long moat and fortified with granite walls 10 feet thick. It holds 380 gun mounts and housed 2,600 men in times of war. Named for our fifth president, it was considered nearly impregnable by land or sea, secure enough to house Abraham Lincoln during the height of the Civil War. Its labyrinth of streets and buildings have seen a parade of famous figures and events—Robert E. Lee helped with construction of the moat; Edgar Allen Poe, who enlisted under the alias of “Edgar A. Perry,” set his famous poem “Annabel Lee” at this “kingdom by the sea”; Chief Blackhawk and Jefferson Davis were both prisoners within its walls; Harriet Tubman acted as a matron of the fort’s hospital; soldiers atop the walls of the fort witnessed the March 9, 1862, battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac (a.k.a. CSS Virginia), which would change naval history forever.

Yet for all of that, perhaps the fort’s greatest moment came that May night in 1861 when Frank Baker, Sheppard Mallory, and James Townsend—slaves belonging to Confederate General Charles Mallory—slipped a small, stolen boat into the waters of Hampton Roads and rowed for freedom.

What these three men did was an act of exceptional courage,” says Professor Robert Engs, author of Freedom’s First Generation. “Under the Fugitive Slave Act, there were dire consequences for runaway slaves.” Yet, if they did nothing, the men faced being ripped from their homes and families and taken south as part of the Confederate work force. And so they rowed for Fort Monroe hoping to find freedom, and according to Engs, became “the foot soldiers of a revolution that changed the course of U.S. history.”

At Fort Monroe, Union General Benjamin Butler deemed the men “contraband of war” and refused to send them back to their owner. The next day, eight more slaves showed up at the fort; 47 the day after that. The three men had touched off the first mass freedom movement of the Civil War. Eventually some 20,000 men, women, and children flocked to the fort, an act that weakened the Confederate labor force, changed the focus of the war into a fight over slavery, and led directly to the Emancipation Proclamation and the disintegration of the institution. “Fort Monroe,” says Professor Engs, “is where freedom for all Americans truly began.”
Echoes of History

Still an active military installation, Fort Monroe has seen its role gradually change from one of coastal defense to headquarters for a series of Army commands including, most recently, the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. But budget cuts and fort closures across the country had put the future of the fort in question. Finally, in 2005, the Department of Defense announced that on September 14, 2011, after 188 years of continual presence, the U.S. Army will vacate historic Fort Monroe. The move has touched off yet another battle in its long and storied history: the battle for the future of what has become known as “Freedom’s Fortress.”

The city of Hampton, where the fort resides, fired the first volley in that battle with its “draft reuse plan” released in 2006. Faced with an estimated 7-percent drop in tax revenue from the closure of the fort, the city sought to maximize development. Artists’ renditions accompanying the plan depicted dense concentrations of three-story office buildings and up to 2,500 residential units that, according to one observer, would have ended up “submerging the historic properties in a sea of new privately owned residences.”

A clause in the original 1838 deed makes it clear, however, that it is the Commonwealth of Virginia, not the city of Hampton, that will take over possession of Fort Monroe. In 2007, the state legislature created the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority (FMFADA). Bill Armbruster, FMFADA’s executive director, acknowledges that rumors of the fort’s fate have run rampant. “A number of scenarios have been put out there, and some of the early ideas did call for new dense urban development,” says the former Pentagon official. “I even heard a rumor of casinos. But the rumors are just not true.”

In 2008, then-Governor Tim Kaine called on FMFADA to produce a reuse plan in which “revenue maximization” was not “goal one.” The plan, signed by the governor in August 2008, calls for preservation of the core of the fort site as well as some new construction focusing on residential units, office space and “hospitality services,” which would, according to Armbruster, be leased to help raise operating funds. The plan also calls for preservation of nearly 40 percent of the site as green space. “We believe we can maintain the historic fabric of this place and make Fort Monroe a vibrant, self-sustaining destination—the two are not incompatible.”

“The FMFADA reuse plan is a step in the right direction,” says Mark Perreault, president of Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park. But even that plan, he says, leaves several major questions unanswered. One of these is the fate of the Wherry Quarter, a 100-acre parcel of land where mid-20th century housing is likely to be removed. Many hope that it will be restored to open space, marshlands, and beach-front property, and once again become the heart of Old Point Comfort. The plan labels the future of this section as “undetermined.” “That’s better than having it slated for development,” says Perreault, “but it also leaves a critical part of the future of the fort undefined and unprotected.”

An even bigger question mark revolves around something the FMFADA plan did not address: What role should the National Park Service play in the future of Freedom’s Fortress?
Fort Monroe National Park?

“Fort Monroe is a national treasure,” says Stephen Corneliussen, a long-time resident and vice president of Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park. “It is grand public place that belongs to all of us, and the National Park Service is the only agency with the experience and expertise to take on the challenge of its protection and interpretation.”

That challenge is a big one—570 acres with more than 250 buildings, a mile-long moat, a 322-slip marina, three miles of promenade, an 85-acre wetland, not to mention an estimated $4-million annual operating budget. A May 2008 Park Service Reconnaissance Study acknowledges that daunting challenge by stating that while “the resources of Fort Monroe are likely to meet the criteria for national significance and suitability as a potential unit of the National Park System,” it is unlikely that the Park Service is in a position to take over management of the entire 570-acres or even the smaller 63-acre moated fort without “a strong and financially sustainable partner to contribute to the costs of managing, maintaining, and operating” the fort and grounds.
With a potential for up to 2 million square feet of leasable commercial space, more than 300 residential units, and an annual visitation of up to 250,000, the site could be part of a “strong and financially sustainable” partnership, says Corneliussen. “The problem is that if you say ‘national park,’ some people take that to mean that nothing changes whatsoever, that a velvet rope is placed across the gateway and all you can do is gaze adoringly at what existed in the past. That’s not what we have in mind at all.”

Some people have pointed to California’s Presidio as a potential model, but Perreault says the Presidio model is not simply an “overlay” for any potential new park unit at Fort Monroe, citing differences in real estate values, ownership, and the lack of a federal trust to act as seed money. “We have to think outside the moat here,” he says. “A solid, strong presence of the National Park Service is critical. Uncle Sam, through the National Park Service, should be a principal player at Fort Monroe. It is something the nation built. It is a part of our history, and so its protection should be seen as a national obligation.”

Whatever form it takes, engaging the Park Service in the future of Fort Monroe is an idea that is catching on. A recent poll in the Virginian-Pilot, the newspaper that serves the Hampton Roads area, revealed that 86 percent of local citizens like the idea of a new national park. FMFADA, under the direction of Bill Armbruster, recently voted unanimously to pursue a strong Park Service presence and will work closely with Congress to draft the necessary legislation. Even the city of Hampton, whose original plan led some to fear the fort would be lost, recently passed a resolution that envisions “the National Park Service playing a major, active role in the reuse of Fort Monroe and urges a specific emphasis on the unique history of African Americans at Fort Monroe including especially the Contraband Slave Story.”

“This is our Ellis Island,” says Gerri Hollins, a descendant of a “contraband” slave and a founder of the Contraband Historical Society. “It is a place that marks both the beginning of slavery and the beginning of the end of slavery in this country. More people need to understand what happened here and its value in American history.” Just what form that story will be told in and who will be responsible for its telling are yet to be decided. “It is really about finding what will work best for this place rather than having preconceived notions about one model or another that may have been used elsewhere,” says Kathleen Kilpatrick, head of Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources. “It is a question of finding the right model even if it means striking out on your own.” A fitting image for a place where three men changed the course of American history by striking out on their own in search of freedom. [source: National Park Conservation Association Magazine, Jeff Rennicke teaches environmental literature classes at Conserve School in Wisconsin’s North Woods.]

Kingdom by the Sea - Fortress Monroe

African-American abolitionist named Robert Purvis

African-American abolitionist named Robert Purvis (August 4, 1810 – April 15, 1898)

The Executive Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, c. 1851, included (seated, right to left) James Mott, Lucretia Mott, and Robert Purvis.

African-American abolitionist named Robert Purvis (August 4, 1810 – April 15, 1898)

The current condition of The Robert Purvis House on 1601 Mount Vernon Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

One of the original leaders of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, which helped to organize the city's Underground Railroad activities, Robert Purvis was also a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and president of its Pennsylvania chapter.

Although he appeared to many to be white, Purvis considered himself African American. His maternal grandfather, a German-Jewish immigrant, married his maternal grandmother, an African-born slave, in South Carolina. And there his mother married a wealthy white English businessman. Purvis was raised in Philadelphia, to which his parents had moved before his birth. After graduating from Amherst College, he married the daughter of noted Philadelphia black businessman James Forten.

Before the Civil War, the building where Purvis hid escaped slaves was located at Ninth and Lombard Streets, but it was not his primary residence. Purvis lived with his family at a farm in Byberry, Bucks County, because local white mobs, believing that he was a white man married to a black woman, kept targeting his city home for vandalism. The racism of his neighbors enraged Purvis, who wrote that "the apathy and inhumanity of the Whole community" demonstrated the "utter and complete nothingness" of blacks in nineteenth-century American society. (http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-107)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia

Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia
00 Clay Street Richmond, VA 23219
(804) 780-9093; www.blackhistorymuseum.org

The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is currently operating under new hours. This is all part of a campaign for the museum to raise 8 million for its preservation, relocation and expansion to the Leigh Street Armory in Richmond’s Historic Jackson Ward.

The Leigh Street Armory (or the First Battalion Virginia Volunteer Armory as it was know upon its completion) was built in 1895 and is the oldest armory structure in existence in Virginia.

The museum seeks to become a permanent repository for visual, oral and written records and artifacts commemorating the lives and accomplishments of Blacks in Virginia.

One of the many resources that the museum offers is the Black History Archive Program.
A program of major significance due to the scarcity of written records of the Black experience, for this program the museum collects documents, prints, arts, limited editions and photographs.

The new hours for the museum took effect on July 5, 2012 and during the renovation, the Black History Museum will continue to operate at 00 Clay Street, Richmond, Virginia. The hours are Tuesday to Thursday for tours for groups of 15 or more and the museum asks that you make a reservation in advance. Friday and Saturday, the museum is open to the general public from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The museum will remain closed on Sunday and Monday and for major holidays.

Slave Escape on the Scorner Pearl, 1848

From The Washington Post, "Escape on the Pearl: Daniel Drayton orchestrated the escape attempt by 77 D.C.-area slaves," by Mary Kay Ricks, on 12 August 1998 -- One hundred and fifty years ago today, the capital was still reeling from one of the most bitter and divisive events in its short history -- the daring slave escape and subsequent "Washington Riot" that inflamed partisans on both sides of the abolitionist debate and eventually helped to change the nation's conscience. On the evening of April 15, 1848, 77 slaves quietly slipped away from their quarters in Washington City, Georgetown and Alexandria. In a light rain, they walked through the unpaved and mostly unlit streets of Washington to the Pearl, a 54-ton, bay-craft schooner waiting in the Potomac River.

The runaways -- old and young, male and female, mothers with children -- had worked in homes, boardinghouses and hotels. Most were enslaved descendants of Africans brought to the Tidewater area on Liverpool slave ships to be sold to tobacco planters in Maryland and Virginia.

According to Josephine Pacheco, professor emeritus of history at George Mason University, former first lady Dolley Madison owned one slave heading for the Pearl. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison claimed that another worked in President James K. Polk's White House.

Two days before departure, three white men brought the Pearl to a secluded spot near the Seventh Street wharf. Daniel Drayton, who chartered the small schooner for $100, later wrote in his memoirs that he always believed in the nobility of the cause although he was paid for his services.

Drayton was in charge of arranging for the "cargo." Capt. Edward Sayres, owner of the Pearl, was in charge of the ship and its one-man crew, a young sailor and cook named Chester English.

To reach freedom, the Pearl would have to travel undetected more than 100 miles down the Potomac to the Chesapeake Bay, then another 120 miles up the bay, across the Delaware Canal and along the Delaware River to New Jersey, a free state.

The ship arrived as Washington was ablaze with bonfires and streets were crammed with crowds acclaiming the new democratic revolution in France and across Europe. Sayres and English joined the celebrations in Lafayette Park and listened to the impassioned speeches.

In one, Sen. Henry S. Foote of Mississippi, an unapologetic slave owner, proclaimed that the events in France held out "to the whole family of man a bright promise of the universal establishment of civil and religious liberty."

April 1848 was an exhilarating time. In Europe, revolution also had erupted in Germany, Austria and Italy. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had just completed a pamphlet titled The Communist Manifesto. Activists were arranging the first women's rights convention, which would be held three months later in upstate New York. And in Washington, the principles of freedom again were clashing with the reality of slavery, moving the nation toward civil war.

Spreading the Word

Small clusters of blacks, free and enslaved, rimmed the crowd. Three men, key figures in the Pearl escape plan, slipped away to inform trusted friends that a freedom ship would be ready for boarding on Saturday evening.

One was Paul Jennings, Sen. Daniel Webster's butler. The legendary orator may have met Jennings in the White House, where he had been brought as a valet for his owner, President James Madison, who had held office from 1809-17 and died in 1836. Years later, his widow, Dolley, returned to Washington with Jennings. By 1847, her financial affairs were in such disorder that she sold Jennings to an agent for $200.

Webster later purchased Jennnings for $120 and freed him on condition that Jennings would repay the purchase price at the rate of $8 a month. On the day that Jennings stood in the park, he still owed Webster a considerable sum.

Jennings had open access to Webster's library and traveled north with him frequently. He apparently met Capt. Drayton during a visit to Philadelphia.

The second black conspirator was Daniel Bell, who was the free husband of a slave family and is credited with financing the venture to bring his wife and children to freedom. Bell apparently was engaged in litigation over his family's legal status but feared ultimately losing the case or running out of money.

Such cases often went to court. Heirs often contested wills that diminished their inheritance by freeing slaves.

The third man was a "hired-out" slave named Samuel Edmonson, whose family plays the central role in this story. He and five of his 13 brothers and sisters planned to board the Pearl.

Mary and Emily Edmonson

Mary and Emily Edmonson--They were the children of Paul and Amelia Edmonson, a free black man and his wife, a slave. Under law, all 14 of the couple's children were slaves. When they reached the appropriate age, their Maryland owner hired them out in Washington as servants, laborers and skilled workers.

This practice grew largely out of the collapse of the formerly labor-intensive tobacco plantation system, leaving planters with too many slaves. Those not sold south serviced homes and hotels.

Revelations and Goodbyes

On Saturday, the day of departure, Samuel Edmonson left the elegant home of his employer, a prominent attorney who lived across from city hall, and hurried to the home of Elizabeth and John Brent, his sister and brother-in-law. The Brents' parlor was a haven for the Edmonson siblings working in Washington and the site of a Sunday morning gathering for a small religious group that had broken away from a congregation dominated by the white-controlled Foundry Methodist Church.

John and Elizabeth Edmonson Brent are considered founders of the John Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church now located at 14th and Corcoran streets NW. After purchasing his own freedom, Brent secured his wife's. The couple bought land and built their home on the southwest corner of 18th and L streets NW, now occupied by a Borders Book & Music store.

Much of the personal detail about the Edmonsons and their associates in this account comes from a book titled Fugitives of the Pearl, written in 1930 by John Paynter, a grandson of John and Elizabeth Brent.

Many historians consider Paynter's anecdotes to be unverifiable, apparently based on stories passed among family members and friends over the years. Actually, extremely few documented facts are known about how the enslaved Americans involved in the Pearl escape acted or felt.

That evening at the Brents' house, the gathering included Samuel's parents, who frequently came into Washington from their home in Maryland to visit and shop. Samuel revealed his plan to board the Pearl and take his siblings with him.

The Edmonson parents knew the risk only too well. Several years earlier, their oldest son, Hamilton, had been caught in an escape attempt and was sold south to New Orleans. They were concerned for their children's safety, particularly for the two young sisters, Mary and Emily, who descendants say were 15 and 13, respectively.

As time grew short, Samuel Edmonson left to collect Emily, hired to a family that lived near the corner of 22nd and G streets NW, and then Mary, at a home on G Street between 12th and 13th streets. The three stopped at a bakery on F Street and purchased six dozen buns, then went down 12th Street and crossed the malodorous Washington Canal (now paved over as Constitution Avenue).

In the twilight, they likely passed the construction site of the Smithsonian Institution; a few blocks to the west, they might have seen preparations for construction of the Washington Monument. To the east stood the Capitol that would not receive its permanent dome until the time of the Civil War.

As they finally neared the river, they crossed an expanse of open field in front of the wharf tucked under a high bank. Three of their brothers -- Richard, Ephraim and John -- were aboard the ship.

A cab driver named Judson Diggs also arrived near the ship with an escapee and his trunk. To Diggs's vexation, the penniless passenger simply promised to send money later to cover his fare. Diggs, who traded in information and goods, was well acquainted with the Edmonson family and knew that the siblings would be aboard.

Although less refined than the Brents, Diggs had been welcomed into the Brent home as a religious brother and sometimes joined the family at tea, according to Paynter. Then Emily Edmonson caught his eye. One evening, Diggs turned to Emily and awkwardly extended a piece of stale cake from his pocket and then a marriage proposal, proudly offering his mortgage-free home.

Diggs would not forget that Emily could not repress laughter at the sight of the cake or her distaste at the marriage proposal.

Off to a Bad Start

Close to midnight, the Pearl embarked in a light fog and moved little more than half a mile before the wind died. With the ship unable to go forward, the terrified passengers knew that they could not turn back.

At daybreak on Sunday, with the Pearl just past Alexandria, the wind picked up. The ship was uncomfortably close to homes in which families abandoned by the 77 slaves were waking, startled to find no fires, no breakfast and no servants.

Capt. Sayres opened his sails to speed south toward Point Lookout near the mouth of the Potomac. As the ship began to make good time, the passengers sang religious songs and listened to the young people read from Scripture. The older slaves probably could not read.

Back in Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria that morning -- as church bells heralded services and fire bells rang an alarm at the slave escape -- authorities assembled a posse that headed for the usual country roads. Runaways were hardly uncommon; newspaper ads featuring an icon of a black man with a pole over his shoulder were routine. However, the scope of this escape was beyond anyone's imagination. According to Washingtonian Vincent DeForest of the National Park Service, it was the single largest known escape attempt by enslaved Americans.

Not long after the Pearl reached Point Lookout, a powerful northwesterly squall arose, cutting off access to the bay. Drayton argued fiercely to take the ship south into the nearby Atlantic, but Sayres refused, saying his small craft could not handle rough seas. Instead, Sayres dropped anchor in a small cove called Cornfield Harbor, and Drayton suggested that everyone sleep.

Meanwhile, a pursuing posse encountered Diggs, who was still rankled about the fare and directed pursuers toward the river. Constables and civilians jumped aboard the Salem, a steamboat owned by the prosperous Dodge family of Georgetown, who reportedly owned slaves on the Pearl. The Dodges owned the only tobacco warehouses that remain today at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue.

The Salem steamed south and almost abandoned pursuit before discovering the Pearl in Cornfield Harbor. Several of the unarmed slaves rose to fight the boarding party, but Drayton persuaded them to surrender. The crew members were taken from the ship and interrogated.

English, the young mate and cook, wept in fear. He argued persuasively that he believed that the 77 runaways were on a pleasure cruise, perhaps a picnic. He was later released.

Return to Bondage

On Tuesday, the Pearl was towed back to Washington. When it passed the wharves at Alexandria, the slaves were displayed in chains to angry whites. More crowds awaited them in Washington.

The male slaves were manacled, as were Drayton and Sayres, soon to be charged with theft and illegal transportation of slaves, and all were marched across Pennsylvania Avenue to the city jail.

Women and children were left unfettered. Mary and Emily Edmonson walked behind their brothers with heads high and arms around each other's waists. When the procession reached Gannon's slave market, its owner lunged with a knife at Daniel Drayton and cut his ear. Other people tried to get at Sayres.

In the growing panic, the guards hailed a cab and bundled the two white prisoners off to jail. A reporter recorded that a large, angry crowd had gathered and that "most bitter imprecations against the abolitionists and the abolition paper of the District" were heard.

(Although Drayton denied that abolitionists were behind the escape scheme, there is some evidence that William L. Chaplin, a member of the Anti-Slavery Society and owner of abolitionist newspapers in Rochester and Albany, also was involved in planning the escape and procuring the ship.)

Members of the crowd concluded that the culprit must be Gamaliel Bailey, editor of New Era, a moderate abolitionist newspaper recently relocated to Washington in a building across from the U.S. Patent Office (now the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of American Art).

About 1,000 people gathered in front of the newspaper, demanding that it be closed immediately, debating whether to lynch Bailey and hurling rocks and brickbats. Thus began the three-day standoff that became known as the Washington Riot of 1848.

Drayton and Sayres were awaiting prosecution by Philip Barton Key, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and son of Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem. The two were charged with 77 counts of theft and 77 counts of illegal transportation of slaves. Neither could meet his bond of $77,000, $1,000 for every slave.

The Alexandria slave-trading business of Bruin and Hill was busy at the jail, buying the captured slaves from their irate owners and preparing for a trip to the lucrative slave market in New Orleans. Some people who knew the Edmonson family rushed to help. The woman who had "hired" Mary unsuccessfully attempted to buy her. By the next day, the slave traders had purchased all of the Edmonson siblings.

Taking Sides

The turmoil soon continued in Congress. Rep. Joshua Giddings of Ohio introduced a resolution asking why, in the light of the popular struggles for freedom in Europe, the Pearl fugitives were being jailed for attempting to enjoy the freedom for which America's forefathers had died. Rep. Isaac E. Holmes of South Carolina retorted that, if the House considered such a resolution, he would move to add an amendment inquiring why the "scoundrels who caused the slaves to be there ought not to be hung." A new congressman named Abraham Lincoln voted with the moderates to close debate.

The mob eventually settled on a concrete demand, giving editor Bailey until 10 a.m. next day to remove his printing press from the city or have it destroyed.

As Bailey reported later in his paper, he told the crowd from his office steps that he refused "the surrender of a great constitutional right -- a right which I have used, but not abused -- in the preservation of which you are as deeply interested as I am."

He also published a statement denying complicity in the escape in the Daily National Intelligencer, a newspaper owned by Washington Mayor William Seaton.

On Wednesday, April 19, a justice of the peace, six auxiliary guards, several police and a few citizens deputized as constables, placed themselves between the National Era building and the tense crowd. When concern arose that the editor's home and family would be attacked, Seaton, also Bailey's neighbor, helped to move the children to safety.

The deadline for removal of the press passed, and the crowd thinned but returned the next day. On Thursday, concerned officials, including the postmaster general and the director of the Washington Monument Society, told President Polk that a riotous crowd was planning to pull down the National Era's press.

That evening, in front of the National Era, authorities increased protection. A correspondent for a New York newspaper reported that guards numbered 75 to 100, probably the largest amount of law enforcement muscle assembled in Washington before the Civil War.

In addition, the reporter stated, "there were present a great number of government clerks, who had been requested by the president and the heads of departments as conservators of law and order." The crowd was dispersed that night for good.

Sold South

After two weeks in the Baltimore slave pen, while the Edmonson parents desperately attempted to raise money to free their children, the captured fugitives were transported with other slaves on the brig Union.

Inclement weather extended the usually difficult seven-day trip to New Orleans by two days. Food and water supplies were low, and spirits even lower. On deck one bleak day, as the Union rounded the Florida Keys, family legend has it that Emily Edmonson began singing, and others joined in:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,

Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion . . . .

At the slave market in New Orleans, Emily and Mary were made to stand on an open porch to attract buyers.

One day, as if out of a dream, the oldest Edmonson sibling, Hamilton, who had been sold south in 1840 after an unsuccessful escape attempt, appeared at the jail. He had worked to obtain his freedom, was living in New Orleans and had opened his own business as a cooper.

Hamilton arranged for purchase of his brother Samuel by a prosperous English cotton merchant to work as his butler. But before Hamilton could do anything for his other brothers and sisters, the dreaded yellow fever hit New Orleans. To protect their investments, the slave traders transferred unsold slaves to Alexandria.

Daniel Drayton

Drayton and Sayres came to trial in July and were defended by the famous educator Horace Mann, who had come to Washington to fill the congressional seat of former President John Quincy Adams. A few years before, Adams had won freedom for Africans on the slave ship Amistad in argument before the Supreme Court.

Neither man was convicted on theft charges. Both, however, were convicted of transportation and remained jailed pending payment of $10,000 in fines and court costs.

Paul and Amelia Edmonson continued their crusade to raise money to buy the children. A $900 donation from John Jacob Astor III purchased only one sibling. The family decided that Richard Edmonson was most needed, and he became the first to be freed.

Paul Edmonson then took his campaign to free Mary and Emily to the New York offices of the Anti-Slavery Society and was sent to the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher whose church members raised the necessary funds. Edmonson hurried back to purchase the girls' freedom before they were returned to New Orleans.

Ephraim and John Edmonson, the other two brothers who had been on the Pearl, remained in New Orleans where Hamilton worked for their release.

The Pearl episode came to a close. But it would have repercussions for decades.

Many people believe that the affair significantly strengthened the anti-slavery cause. In 1849, Rep. Abraham Lincoln unsuccessfully proposed a bill for the "compensated emancipation" of slaves in the District. In 1852, Beecher's daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, published her monumental work, Uncle Tom's Cabin, in serial form in Bailey's National Era.

In slave-owning territories such as Maryland, Delaware and the District, it was against the law for any free black or slave to possess Uncle Tom's Cabin or any other incendiary tract. Stowe later included the Edmonsons's story in her non-fiction work, Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In 1862, under President Lincoln and after the outbreak of the Civil War, slaves in the District became the first freed by federal law. Their owners were the only slaveholders compensated for loss of "property" under a law much like the one that Lincoln proposed 13 years earlier.

Mary and Emily Edmonson attended Oberlin College through the support of Rev. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mary Edmonson died within the year, however, and a grief-stricken Emily returned to Washington. She joined the legendary educator, Myrtilla Miner, who alarmed the city's white citizens by opening the Normal School for Colored Girls, a college preparatory school in a city where slavery remained legal. In 1854, Minor wrote:

"Emily and I lived here alone, unprotected, except by God. The rowdies occasionally stone our house in the evening. Emily and I have been seen practicing shotting with a pistol. The family [Paul and Amelia Edmonson] have come with a dog."

City official Walter Lennox, who had co-authored a 1848 handbill calling for calm during the Washington Riot, published a statement in the National Intelligencer on May 6, 1857. Describing the school as "misguided philanthropy," he warned that "we cannot forget the events which disturbed the peace of our country some few years since, consequent upon the act of Drayton and Sayres. . . ."

The school property, three acres between 19th and 20th streets and N Street and New Hampshire Avenue up to Dupont Circle, was purchased for $4,000 and later sold for $40,000 in 1872. The school eventually became part of D.C. Teachers College, incorporated in 1976 into the University of the District of Colubmia.

Drayton and Sayres, widely admired in the black community, were pardoned by President Millard Fillmore after serving four years and four months. In 1859, Philip Barton Key, who successfully prosecuted Drayton and Sayres, was killed by Rep. Daniel Sickles of New York, the outraged husband of Key's lover.

Key had rented a house on 15th Street NW in a black neighborhood where he and Mrs. Sickles frequently met. Sickles received an anonymous letter from someone familiar with the comings and goings on 15th Street.

Who sent the letter remains unknown. Perhaps it's coincidence, but John Brent's will shows that, in addition to his house at 18th and L streets NW, he also owned a house on 15th Street.

Samuel Edmonson never abandoned his pursuit of freedom. After a few years as a slave in New Orleans, according to John Paynter, Samuel escaped on a ship to Jamaica. From there he went on to Liverpool and, with his wife and child, sailed to a new life in Australia.

Many descendants of the Edmonson family live in the Washington area, and a family reunion was scheduled last weekend. "We are committed to passing our heritage on to our children," the reunion announcement stated, "and continue to live the good life and fight the good fight."

Mary Kay Ricks is director of Tour D.C., which specializes in walking tours of Georgetown. (source: The Washington Post)

Slave Descendants Remember Escape on the Pearl -... by cbnonline

Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center

From the May 2012 issue of the Minnesota Monthly, "Say It Loud: Roxanne Givens on the long march to opening the state’s first black history museum," Interview by Tim Gihring   --  It’s been two centuries since the first black settlers arrived in Minnesota, and 40 years since Roxanne Givens’s father, Archie, began his namesake foundation, having become the state’s first black millionaire. Roxanne is now leading the volunteer effort to open the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center near the Minneapolis Convention Center, revealing a long-neglected heritage. We caught up with her inside the museum, housed in the former Coe Mansion, where a portrait of Archie hangs near the door.

This house is fabulous. How did you find it?
I was driving by and I was lost—me, a sixth-generation Twin Citian. So I pulled over in front of this place, and I noticed it had a “for sale” sign. I said, “I have to check this out.” It screamed museum!

Minnesota has never had an African American museum before. What has that meant?
It’s meant there’s never been a repository for African Americans to leave their heritage. So people trashed everything: photos, books, clothes, heirlooms. Our first exhibit will be on African American baseball teams in rural Minnesota, and we had to hunt for photos and uniforms. Without these things, the knowledge evaporates.

And then you’ve lost your roots.
Exactly. And if you don’t know who you are, neither do other people. When we were looking for money to open the museum, people said, “What are you talking about, African Americans just got here in the 1960s.” Or, “Your numbers are so small here, how could you have contributed anything?”

How did you learn your own history?
My family was always telling stories, though my father was orphaned at about 16. It helped to know who I was because you have to feel like you’re a part of the fabric to make a contribution to society.

What about black history in general?
As a teenager in the late 1960s, I traveled to southern cities and I knew there was another way for African Americans to exist, keeping that history alive. I started interviewing relatives. I have tapes full of stories. So I knew about Fred Jones [from Minneapolis] who invented the snowmobile and truck refrigeration and had 60 patents. I knew that Willie Mays played for the Minneapolis Millers. You also have to remember, the North Side was bustling then. There was more African American history around when I was growing up than there is now.

Some of that history is ugly, like the 1920 lynchings in Duluth. Will the museum include this side, as well?
All of it—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The key is having context. For instance, we got a call from the Hennepin History Museum that they have this Ku Klux Klan hood. Well, how do we display it? Is it too provocative? An artifact without the right programming isn’t going to have much value.

Did you always feel like you belonged in Minnesota?
When I graduated from high school, I couldn’t wait to leave. This place didn’t answer my social needs as a young African American woman. I always saw the beauty in an African American lifestyle and that was lacking here. We aren’t Atlanta or Memphis. But I came back to raise a family. I’m here for now—and I’ve been saying that for 30 years!

The African American Museum and Cultural Center opens its first exhibit, Bringing It Home, about black baseball in Minnesota, on June 1. Visit maamcc.org for details. [source: Tim Gihring is a senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.]

New Museums in Trying Times from Minnesota Association of Museums on Vimeo.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Reconstruction: The Second Civil War

NARRATOR: April 11th, 1865, two days after the end of the Civil War. In the White House, President Abraham Lincoln agonized over his first speech since the defeat of the South. The jubilant crowd outside expected a celebration of the Union victory. Instead, the president warned that "Reconstruction," as he called it, would be "fraught with great difficulty."

EDWARD AYERS, HISTORIAN: The war has spiraled far beyond the worst imaginings of anyone. Over six hundred thousand people had died in the last four years. The largest slave system in the modern world is in shambles and no one knows what is going to replace it. People just can't imagine how they're going to put the country back together again.

DAVID BLIGHT, HISTORIAN: It is a revolutionary, chaotic situation, and the responsibility now was to come up with a plan to restore this society. But you also had to do it with this deep and abiding division over race.

NARRATOR: Three days later, the statesman who led the Union through the Civil War was assassinated. Suddenly, the extraordinary challenge of reconstructing the nation was in the hands of ordinary men and women. A Yankee officer would venture to the most violent corner of Louisiana to try to impose order. A plantation mistress whose slaves were now free would struggle to reclaim her place in the world. A fiery black minister would mount a pitched battle with white landowners. And a new President would force a dramatic showdown with Congress.

ERIC FONER, HISTORIAN: An old order, an old social order has been destroyed; and everything is up for grabs.

CLARENCE WALKER, HISTORIAN: The violence in the South was a way to reestablish white Supremacy. This was a war of terror.

NARRATOR: After four bloody years of Civil War, Americans, North and South would continue to fight over the meaning of freedom, the meaning of citizenship, and the survival of the nation itself.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Confederate Reckoning and The Long Shadow of the Civil War

From the Nation Magazine, "Restless Confederates," by Eric Foner, on 14  July 2010  --  The bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth has come and gone, and with it a flood of books about the sixteenth president. But the sesquicentennial of the Civil War now looms on the horizon, promising its own deluge of books of every size, shape and description. We will be fortunate indeed if in sheer originality and insight they measure up to Confederate Reckoning and The Long Shadow of the Civil War, new works by Stephanie McCurry and Victoria Bynum, respectively, on the Confederate experience.

Most scholarly history on the Confederacy has been shaped, implicitly or explicitly, by a desire to explain Southern defeat. Devotees of the Lost Cause insist that gallant Southern soldiers inevitably succumbed to the Union's overwhelming advantages in manpower and economic resources. The stronger side, however, does not always win a war, as the United States learned in Vietnam. This fact has led historians to try to locate internal causes for the failure of the quest for Southern independence. They have identified such culprits as poor political leadership, excessive individualism, desertion from the army by non-slaveholding soldiers, waning enthusiasm for the war among upper-class white women and disaffection among the slaves.

McCurry and Bynum are less interested in why the South lost—although their books shed light on this question—than in the social and political consequences of how it conducted the war. Taken together, they show how the effort to create a slaveholders' republic sundered Southern society and changed the contours of Southern politics. The subtitle of McCurry's book—"Power and Politics in the Civil War South"—is surely meant to be ironic. Most readers will no doubt expect another study of Jefferson Davis's administration or the battle between advocates of states' rights and central control. But McCurry challenges us to expand our definition of politics to encompass not simply government but the entire public sphere. The struggle for Southern independence, she shows, opened the door for the mobilization of two groups previously outside the political nation—white women of the nonslaveholding class and slaves.

McCurry begins by stating what should be obvious but is frequently denied, that the Confederacy was something decidedly odd in the nineteenth century: "an independent proslavery nation." The Confederate and state constitutions made clear that protecting slavery was their raison d'être. Abandoning euphemisms like "other persons" by which the US Constitution referred to slaves without directly acknowledging their existence, Confederates forthrightly named the institution, erected protections around it and explicitly limited citizenship to white persons. McCurry implicitly pokes holes in other explanations for Southern secession, such as opposition to Republican economic policies like the tariff or fear for the future of personal freedom under a Lincoln administration. Georgia, she notes, passed a law in 1861 that made continuing loyalty to the Union a capital offense, hardly the action of a government concerned about individual liberty or the rights of minorities.

The Confederacy, McCurry writes, was conceived as a "republic of white men." But since of its 9 million people more than 3 million were slaves and half of the remainder disenfranchised white women, the new nation faced from the outset a "crisis of legitimacy." However much the law defined white women as appendages of their husbands, entitled to protection but not a public voice, and slaves simply as property, Southern leaders realized early that they would have to compete with the Union for the loyalty of these groups, treating them, in effect, as independent actors. The need to generate consent allowed "the Confederate unenfranchised" to step onto the stage of politics, with their own demands, grievances and actions.

McCurry's chapters delineating the political emergence of poor white women constitute the most dramatic and original parts of Confederate Reckoning. She makes clear that introducing gender as a category of analysis changes the definition of politics and power, but simultaneously warns against considering "woman" a unitary identity independent of class. All Confederate women struggled to cope as their loved ones were drawn off into the army, many never to return. Women of all classes called upon the state for assistance during the war. But when wealthy women made demands on the Confederate government, they did so as members of a national elite.

Poorer women forged a different political identity. They spoke the language not of Southern nationalism or upper-class identity but of family and community. They described themselves as soldiers' wives and invoked what McCurry calls a "politics of subsistence." Lacking the aid of slave labor, they found that the absence of their husbands from their previously self-sufficient farms made it impossible to feed themselves and their children. As the war progressed and the economic situation deteriorated, they flooded Confederate authorities with petitions seeking assistance, not as charity but as a right. In demanding aid from local, state and national governments, these women articulated a new vision of themselves as citizens with legitimate claims upon the state. Eventually, poor women took to the streets in food riots in major Confederate cities, the most dramatic example of their emergence as a political force.

The policies of the Confederate government and the actions of slaveowning planters exacerbated these women's sense of grievance. The Confederate Congress enacted the twenty-Negro exemption, allowing one adult man to remain at home for every twenty slaves on a plantation in order to forestall slave resistance. Policies like impressment and the tax-in-kind, which allowed the army to appropriate farm goods, were applied much more rigorously against poorer Southerners than wealthy ones. Planters showed little interest in assisting their suffering neighbors and resisted calls by Confederate authorities to grow edible crops instead of cotton. "The rich people about here there hearts are of steel," one Virginia woman wrote to Jefferson Davis. Indeed, planters' unwillingness to sacrifice self-interest for the common good is a recurring theme of Confederate Reckoning. Having created a nation based on slavery, they proved reluctant to provide blacks for military labor, fearing this would interfere with their hold on their slave property. "You cheerfully yield your children to your country," one antiplanter broadside asked, "how you refuse your servants?"

Later generations would create the myth of the ardently patriotic Southern woman. Contemporaries knew better. The agitation of poor women, McCurry shows, alarmed Southern officials and directly affected Confederate policy. Politicians could not ignore the pleas of soldiers' wives. Congress moved to exempt poor families from taxation. Governors like Zebulon Vance of North Carolina and Joseph Brown of Georgia distributed supplies to needy families. By the end of the war, McCurry writes, the Confederacy had created a significant "welfare system." Georgia spent more money on relief in one year than Massachusetts (a state with a significant poor population) did during the entire war.

In the second half of Confederate Reckoning, McCurry turns to the actions of slaves during the war. Here she covers more familiar ground but still manages to offer striking new insights. It is now widely recognized that the actions of slaves who ran away to Union lines helped to put the slavery issue on the agenda of the Lincoln administration, and that by serving in the Union army black soldiers staked a claim to citizenship in the post-bellum world. Most slaves, however, lived out the war behind Confederate lines. The government they had to deal with, McCurry points out, was Davis's, not Lincoln's.

From the outset, McCurry shows, slaves carefully followed national politics and the course of the war. Even before Lincoln's election, the planter Charles Manigault noted, his slaves had "very generally got the idea of being emancipated when 'Lincon' comes in." Once the war began, slaves took every opportunity to aid Union forces and resist the demands of their owners. McCurry describes Manigault's plantations as being "in a state of barely suppressed insurrection." How to characterize slaves' actions has long posed a challenge for historians. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of a "general strike" in the Confederacy. McCurry goes even further, using the phrase "a massive slave rebellion." This seems an exaggeration. But she is on firm ground when she insists that a battle ensued between North and South for slaves' "political allegiance."

Like the actions of white women, those of slaves strongly affected public policy, in ways that weakened Southern unity and wartime mobilization. Unrest on the plantations led to the twenty-Negro exemption, which, in turn, heightened discontent among nonslaveholding farm families. Slaves' propensity to escape when near Union lines explains why planters resisted their use as military laborers, weakening the war effort. Planter resistance to the army's impressment of slave labor drew support from state governments that tried to undermine the policies of the Davis administration. The well-known battles over states' rights in the Confederacy, McCurry convincingly argues, were really arguments over whether the needs of the national government should take precedence over the property rights of slaveholders.

The struggle over slave impressment offered a prelude to the well-known debate of 1864–65 over the enrollment of slaves in the Confederate army. In the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln had authorized black enlistment, and by war's end some 200,000 black men had served in the Union army and navy. As the Confederacy's situation worsened, military leaders including Robert E. Lee called for enrolling blacks. Lee went so far as to propose coupling enlistment with a plan for "gradual and general emancipation." This was far more than the Confederate Congress could stomach. In March 1865, it finally authorized slave enlistment, in a law that made no mention of freedom. In his implementation order, however, Jefferson Davis promised freedom to those who agreed to serve. In other words, Davis acknowledged that slaves were able to make independent decisions and that their loyalty had to be won, not simply commanded.

McCurry correctly points out that enlisting blacks in the Confederate army and offering them freedom did not necessarily mean the end of slavery. Both the British and the Americans had used slave soldiers in the War of Independence, yet slavery survived. It did so as well in the West Indies, where the British raised and freed slave regiments. Had the Confederacy emerged victorious, slavery would certainly have continued. In any event, a few days before the war ended, two companies of Confederate black soldiers from Richmond were sent to the front. Most of these men had already been impressed to work in a Confederate hospital; whether they were truly volunteers may be doubted. Certainly, as McCurry makes clear, the idea that legions of slaves fought for the slaveholders' republic—a notion propagated by neo-Confederate organizations and widely disseminated on the Internet—is a myth.

Confederate Reckoning offers a powerful new paradigm for understanding events on the Confederate home front. Unfortunately, the book's structure to some extent stands at cross-purposes with its argument. Its two parts are not really integrated. White women pretty much disappear from the second half of the narrative, and there is little attention to how the political mobilization of slaves and white women of the nonslaveholding class, so expertly delineated, intersected. Moreover, a full account of how the war politicized previously marginalized groups and heightened tensions within Southern society would require attention to a group neglected in this study—disaffected white men from the nonslaveholding class.

McCurry explains her decision not to write about these white men by pointing out that, thanks to studies of desertion from the Confederate army, we already "know a great deal" about them. But as Victoria Bynum notes in The Long Shadow of the Civil War, the "communities of dissent" that emerged in the Civil War South involved both men and women. Bynum studies three areas of disaffection within the Confederacy: the "Quaker belt" of central North Carolina; Jones County in southern Mississippi's Piney Woods; and the Big Thicket of East Texas. These localities lay outside the main plantation region and were populated mostly by nonslaveholding families. The three regions shared more than a similar demography. Many of the Mississippi Unionists had relatives in North Carolina, and some of the Texas guerrillas had emigrated from Jones County.

Bynum's subjects "hated the Confederacy" and in some cases took up arms against it. In these areas, bands of deserters plagued the Confederate war effort, and an internal civil war took place that pitted neighbor against neighbor. Unionist activity rested on extended family networks. The wives of deserters and draft dodgers acted not as Confederate soldiers' wives but as anti-Confederate cadres. They threatened public officials; stole from wealthier neighbors; and provided shelter, food and information to male relatives hiding out in the woods.

Bynum, whose well-regarded book on Jones County, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War, dispelled the idea that it actually "seceded" from the Confederacy, clearly sympathizes with her subjects. Some of her ancestors, she writes, were among these lower-class Unionists. But she avoids over-romanticization. Bill Owens, the leading Unionist guerrilla in North Carolina, she notes, was a cold-blooded killer. But heinous acts were not limited to one side. Confederate soldiers tortured Owens's wife to gain information about his whereabouts. Local militia units mistreated Unionist women and children. Owens himself, after his capture toward the end of the war, was taken from his jail cell by unknown parties and murdered.

Bynum's book is not so much a narrative history as a series of discrete, overlapping and somewhat disjointed case studies. But it adds a dimension to McCurry's far broader study by taking the story beyond the end of the Civil War to trace the long-term legacy of pro-Union activism. One chapter shows how family traditions of dissent survived in new forms as veterans of the "inner Civil War" and their descendants joined the biracial Republican Party during Reconstruction and emerged as leaders of Populism in the 1890s and the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs. The legacy of violent white supremacy also survived. The wartime Confederate militia was succeeded by the Ku Klux Klan after the war and "whitecappers" around the turn of the century.

Bynum invokes court cases to track the shifting political fortunes of the postwar South. In one North Carolina county, the members of an extended family challenged the right of a female relative to inherit land on the grounds that she had African ancestry. In 1892 a court ruled against the woman, and she lost the farm she and her late husband had tilled for two decades. Honor, supposedly a central characteristic of white Southern culture, seems to have been in short supply after the Civil War.

One of the more fascinating figures Bynum discusses is Newt Knight, the leader of an armed band of Unionists in Jones County who lived with a black woman and became "the patriarch of an extensive mixed-race community." Bynum relates his long, unsuccessful campaign for monetary compensation from the federal government for his wartime activities. She also explores the fate of his mixed-race children and grandchildren. Some identified as people of color; some disappeared into white society. One descendant, David Knight, served in the Army during World War II, married a white woman in 1946 and two years later was convicted in Mississippi of the crime of miscegenation. The Confederacy certainly cast a long shadow.  (Nation Magazine)

Stephanie McCurry: War, Slavery, and Emancipation from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.

Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War

Some myths in American history have tenacious endurance. Such was the case for a century or more with the idea of faithful slaves in the Old South and during the Civil War. Slave fidelity to their masters’ cause, a myth justifying the claim that the war was not about slavery, formed one of the staple arguments in Lost Cause ideology at the turn of the twentieth century and beyond. In dealing with such cultural myths, which are critical to human identity, historians often analyze their tenacity instead of their veracity.

Not so Bruce Levine in his brilliantly-researched and persuasively-argued Confederate Emancipation. In the past decade, the neo-Confederate fringe of Civil War enthusiasm (with some tentative support from academic historians) has contended that thousands of African Americans, slave and free, willingly joined the Confederate war effort — as soldiers — and fought for their "homeland." A quasi-debate over the existence of "black Confederates" has seeped into academic conferences, historical journals, and many web sites. The issue, one of competing popular memories, is driven largely by the desire of current white supremacists to re-legitimize the Confederacy, while they tacitly reject the victories of the modern civil rights movement. What could better buttress the claims of "color-blind conservatism" in our own time than the suppositions that the slaveholding leaders of the Confederacy were themselves the true emancipators, and that many slaves were devoted to the southern rebellion? George Orwell warned us: who needs real history when you can control public language and political debate? This book is a scholarly, well-written demolition of the invented tradition of "black Confederates." Levine’s intrepid research overwhelms the myth, although it will never kill it as long as such stories serve current social needs.

Bruce Levine, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War. Oxford University Press, 2005, 252 pages.

In December, 1863, after numerous Confederate military defeats, General Patrick Cleburne, an Irish-born Arkansan, presented a stunning memorandum to his fellow officers in the Army of the Tennessee. Cleburne judged the Confederacy in dire straits, "hemmed in" by "superior forces" on virtually all fronts. The South faced a "fatal apathy" in its own ranks, and would in time be "subjugated" by the federal armies unless Confederate took the radical step of arming slaves. Cleburne assumed widespread slave loyalty to the Confederacy; yet, he admitted that black battlefield service could only be purchased with the promise of freedom to soldiers and their families. The Confederacy faced a desperate choice according to Cleburne: "the loss of independence" or the "loss of slavery." The true southern patriot, he contended, must "give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself" (p. 27). Although largely suppressed, this memo made it to President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, which on first reading rejected it almost unanimously.

But later in 1864, after further military setbacks, the idea of arming slaves developed an influencial, although minority, following among white Southerners, especially Judah Benjamin, Davis’s closest cabinet advisor, General Robert E. Lee, and Davis himself. Public calls to enlist slaves emanated from Union occupied sections of Mississippi and Alabama, and in the wake of the fall of Atlanta in September, 1864, five southern governors supported some kind of black soldier policy. When Davis finally embraced the idea in November, 1864, he did so gingerly, first suggesting the outright purchase of slaves from their owners. Levine illuminates a "wide-ranging public dispute [over arming slaves] that dominated political life during the Confederacy’s final six months" (p. 3). Once unleashed, especially in newspapers, the idea of slave soldiers and Confederate emancipation met fierce opposition. Critics repeatedly labeled any form of the plan an "insult" to white soldiers and "embarrassing" (p. 41, 48) before the world. Some raised the specters of slave revolt and miscegenation, while other critics rehearsed familiar proslavery arguments about the inherent inferiority of black people, and the benign, natural character of racial slavery.

Most poignantly, as Levine illustrates in one crisp, convincing quotation after another, Confederates declared that the war had been all about preserving their "property" in slaves. Plantation mistress, Catherine Edmondston, condemned any attempt to arm slaves because it would "destroy at one blow the highest jewel in the crown." "Our independence," chimed in North Carolina governor, Zebulon Vance, "is chiefly desirable for the preservation of our political institutions, the principle of which is slavery." And one Brig. Gen. spoke for most Confederate officers when he announced: "if slavery is to be abolished then I take no more interest in our fight" (p. 53, 56-58). While many other historians have gamely mustered the same argument in this struggle between scholarship and public memory, Levine delivers what ought to be a death blow to the still popular refrain in Lost Cause rhetoric that the war had never been fought for slavery. The increasingly embittered debate of 1864-65 over black enlistment elicited accusations by the policy’s proponents that their fellow Southerners, according to a Georgia congressman, would "give up their sons, husbands, brothers…, and often without murmuring, to the army; but let one of their negroes be taken, and what a howl you will hear" (p. 135). Deftly, and with archival authority, Levine hangs his victims on their own petards.

The most revealing feature of Levine’s argument is his analysis of motivation among the advocates of a black soldier policy. Davis and Lee, he contends, were never the enlightened advocates of emancipation their Lost Cause defenders, as well as some distinguished biographers, have fashioned. They were staunch Confederate nationalists, determined to do whatever it took to win a war of southern independence, and in so doing, preserve ultimate control over blacks in the post-war South. Among some Confederate leaders, a growing realization of two conditions drove them to support emancipation through soldiering: one, that by 1864 the demise of slavery in this war could not be stopped, and two, most difficult of all to square with their values, that slaves dearly wanted their freedom. But as Levine makes clear, those Confederates who supported black enlistment coupled with emancipation did so in the hope of controlling the lives, prospects, and especially the labor of the people they would free. Their best intentions were thwarted by both their own caution and by African Americans themselves, who chose by the hundreds of thousands to flee to and join the armies in blue rather than gray.

Silas, slave in Confederate Uniform

With some effective use of comparison to emancipation in the West Indies, Japan, and Russia, as well as to other transformations of labor in European history, Levine reveals Confederate would-be emancipators to be "revolutionaries from above" (p. 108). The rhetoric of a Lee or a Cleburne is similar, Levine shows, to Otto von Bismarck’s assertion: "If there is to be a revolution, we want to make it rather than suffer it" (p. 107). Advocates of Confederate emancipation sought to use hundreds of thousands of black men not only as cannon fodder to win their [white slaveholders’] war, but also as a lease on the life of slavery, in the form of serfdom or apprenticeship, and most definitely a racial order of white supremacy. As the Richmond Sentinel put it, "partial emancipation" was the "very means to gain" slavery’s ultimate survival for "the rest" (p. 96) of southern blacks.

In late February and early March, 1865, after intensive debate and facing huge desertion rates in the Southern forces, the Confederate Congress adopted a half-hearted bill authorizing black enlistment. The House voted 40-37 and the Senate 9-8 to allow Davis to adopt a voluntary plan in which no slaves were to be conscripted. Owners had to come forward and give their slaves to the cause. The law itself did not free a single slave and operated, as one of its proponents frustratingly admitted, as a "free-will offering" (p. 118). General Lee demanded urgent action to usher black men into his army which was about to collapse in front of Petersburg. The war ended before anything could come of this last-ditch Confederate effort to find manpower — which now looked, as a Mississippian gravely confessed, "like a drowning man catching at straws," (p. 140). Only in Virginia were any blacks actually mustered into companies, at most perhaps 200 men. None saw meaningful combat, and as Levine found, some of those who did wear Confederate gray did so as a means of running away to Union lines.

Levine’s book is not a thesis-driven conjecture on a controversial subject. His research in diaries, letters, and newspapers drives a dagger into the heart of the "black Confederate" fable. Sometimes Levine lets his research dominate when one would wish for more of his own narrative voice. But his conclusions are judiciously tethered to evidence. And, analytically, how can he avoid letting despairing Confederates speak for themselves, as does a South Carolina planter with remarkable candor right after Appomattox. "Born and raised amid" slavery, said Augustin Taveau, he had believed "that these people were content, happy, and attached to their masters." But "the conduct of the Negro in the late crisis of our affairs convinced me that we have all been laboring under a delusion." The delusion of the loyal slave both made and unmade the Confederate quest to arm blacks in order to save their slaveholders’ republic. Thus, in the end, can Levine confidently employ the word "truth" against the "spirit of reactionary nostalgia" that has fueled the "black Confederate" mythology (p. 151, 164). For more than a century, the pernicious story of the faithful slave took deep root in the American imagination, where it still supplies an active, if declining, currency in race relations.

Slaves with the 2nd SC Infantry

All memories are not equal. Levine breathes some welcome truths into this dispute over public memory. "The Confederacy had come into the world to protect slavery," he writes. And those leaders who urged arming slaves by freeing them did so "not despite their antebellum values but because of them. In pushing to enact this measure, they were trying to preserve as much of the Old South as they could" (p. 152-53). The history of Reconstruction and its long aftermath in American memory suggests the Confederates almost won the war by losing it.  [David W. Blight is professor of history at Yale University, editor of Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory, and author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.]


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