Thursday, May 30, 2013

Civil War: Union Proud by Gary Gallagher

From The New York Times, "Union Proud," by Gary W. Gallagher, on 23 April 2011 --  It seemed like all of New York turned out for the April 20, rally in support of the Union. The event, which appropriately took place at Union Square, prompted diarist George Templeton Strong to suggest that “[f]ew assemblages have excelled it in numbers and unanimity.” Men, women and children carried flags or wore cockades, the Stars and Stripes hung from buildings and impromptu renderings of “The Star-Spangled Banner” echoed through the streets. “The city,” observed Strong, “seems to have gone suddenly wild and crazy.”

Unionism was, in the wake of Fort Sumter, a national obsession. What Walt Whitman later said of Lincoln and Union in the wake of the president’s assassination applied equally to most loyal Americans in those first days of war. “UNIONISM, in its truest and amplest sense, form’d the hard-pan of his character,” wrote the poet, who defined it as “a new virtue, unknown to other lands, and hardly yet really known here, but the foundation and tie of all, as the future will grandly develop.”

In a conflict that stretched across four years and claimed more than 800,000 federal casualties, the nation experienced huge swings of civilian and military morale before crushing the Confederacy. Through it all, Union remained the paramount goal, a fact clearly expressed by Abraham Lincoln in speeches and other statements designed to garner the widest popular support for the war effort. But what, exactly, did Whitman, Lincoln and others mean by Union in the first place?

For Whitman and millions like him, Union meant “the nation,” but in a way completely unlike the nationalism that often defined public sentiment elsewhere. To them it represented the cherished legacy of the founding generation, a democratic republic with a constitution that guaranteed political liberty and afforded individuals a chance to better themselves economically. From the perspective of loyal Americans, their republic stood as the only hope for democracy in a western world that had fallen more deeply into the stifling embrace of oligarchy since the failed European revolutions of the 1840s. Slaveholding aristocrats who established the Confederacy, believed untold unionists, posed a direct threat not only to the long-term success of the American republic but also to the broader future of democracy.

Should armies of citizen-soldiers fail to restore the Union, forces of privilege on both sides of the Atlantic could pronounce ordinary people incapable of self-government and render irrelevant the military sacrifices and political genius of the revolutionary fathers. Secretary of State William Henry Seward encapsulated much of this thinking in defining the Republican Party’s wartime agenda: “Their great work is the preservation of the Union and in that, the saving of popular government for the world.”

Nevertheless, as we approach the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the meaning of Union to mid-19th-century Americans has been almost completely lost. Americans today find it hard to believe that anyone would risk life or fortune for something as abstract as Union. A war to end slavery seems more compelling, the sort of war envisioned in the film “Glory.” There’s a corrective value to this view: slavery, emancipation and the actions of black people, unfairly marginalized for decades in writings about the conflict, have inspired a huge and rewarding literature since the mid-1960s. No longer can any serious reader fail to appreciate how African Americans figured in the political, social and military history of the war. Unfortunately, a concentration on emancipation and race sometimes suggests that Union victory had scant meaning apart from them.

Historical context is crucial on this point. Anyone remotely familiar with American democracy as practiced in 1860 knows that it denied women, free and enslaved African Americans, and other groups the basic liberties and freedoms that most northerners routinely attributed to their republic. Almost 99 percent of residents in the free states were white in 1860, and their racial views often offend our modern sensibilities. Yet a portrait of the nation that is dominated by racism, exclusion and oppression obscures more than it reveals.

Within the mid-19th century western world, the United States offered the broadest political franchise and the most economic opportunity. Vast numbers of immigrants believed that however difficult the circumstances they might find, immigration to the United States promised a brighter future. As one Irish-born Union soldier wrote, “this is my country as much as the man that was born on the soil.” If the Union lost the war, he added, “then the hopes of millions fall” and European aristocrats could claim “that such is the common end of all republics.”

Nor was Union merely the instigating motivation, ready to give way once the war entered its later years. During the last months of fighting, Lincoln and William Tecumseh Sherman spoke to the continued centrality of Union. The president’s fourth annual message to Congress, dated Dec. 6, 1864, mentioned the proposed 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, which had passed the Senate eight months earlier but failed to garner the requisite two-thirds’ majority in the House of Representatives. The issue should be revisited, Lincoln argued, in light of Republican success in the recent national elections. Those returns represented “the voice of the people now, for the first time, heard upon the question.” Lincoln framed his call for another vote in the House with reference to what he knew to be the bedrock of sentiment among loyal Americans. “In a great national crisis, like ours, unanimity of action among those seeking a common end is very desirable — almost indispensable,” he observed: “In this case the common end is the maintenance of the Union,” and the amendment stood “among the means to secure that end.”

Five-and-one-half months later, in the wake of United States victory, Sherman echoed Lincoln’s words in a congratulatory order to veterans he had led in Georgia and the Carolinas. “Three armies had come together from distant fields, with separate histories,” he said, “yet bound by one common cause — the union of our country, and the perpetuation of the Government of our inheritance.”

True, Republicans and many Democrats eventually accepted emancipation as a useful tool to help defeat the rebels and punish the slaveholding class most that Northerners blamed for secession and the outbreak of war. Most also came to believe that only a Union without slavery would be safe from internal threats in the future. But, except among abolitionists and some Radical Republicans, liberation of enslaved people always took a back seat.

Again, this fact should not drain all value from a war for constitutional law and a democratic republic on the northern model. Rather, for the wartime generation, Union promised liberty, freedom and opportunity that, while restricted in many ways even with emancipation, would expand as the republic moved through the 19th century and into the 20th. That expansion often moved at a depressingly slow pace — even stopped altogether at various points — but likely would have been far more problematical if the Confederacy had succeeded, slavery had survived in some of the loyal states and the specter of additional groups of states separating themselves from a diminished Union had lingered on the political landscape.

Without an appreciation of why loyal citizens believed a Union that guaranteed democratic self-government was worth great sacrifice, no accurate understanding of the Civil War era is possible. A sesquicentennial that fails to make this clear will have failed in a fundamental way.  (source: The New York Times)

Civil War Reenacted in “Whistling Dixie” by Anderson Scott

“Whistling Dixie” by Anderson Scott (Columbia College Chicago Press)

As reported in Wired Magazine, "Civil War Lovers Can’t Leave the Past Behind at Awkward Reenactments," by Jakob Schiller, on 30 May 2013 -- Some of our favorite photographers are ones that bring a fresh eye to a stale topic, which is what Anderson Scott has done with Civil War re-enactors — a favorite subject among photographers. In his recent photo book Whistling Dixie, Scott delves into the American South with a dirty aesthetic and an eye for the strange.

But just like his photos defy our expectations, the events themselves actually caught him by surprise. Scott, a lawyer in Atlanta, was raised in the South, but years spent documenting the Civil War reenactment scene revealed a group of staunch Confederate supporters among the history buffs and hobbyists.

“On the benign end of the spectrum are the people who are into hoop skirts,” says Scott, who grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. “Then you move across the spectrum and you have Neo-Confederates who in turn bleed into white supremacists. But even for the folks whose motivations are ‘benign’ they are engaging in a willful ignorance. They are parading around under Confederate flags and that sends a message.”

For many outsiders, that message carries racist undertones given the role of slavery in the Civil War, though from a Southern perspective the Confederacy has become more about states’ rights and autonomy from the federal government. Scott says he appreciated and respected the parts of the reenactments that are designed to celebrate the region’s history and was impressed by the re-enactors’ dedication. But he says it was obvious some of the participants were there to make a political statement.

“[At the reenactments] I started hearing people talking about bringing back the values of the old South and I thought, ‘Either you haven’t thought about the values of the old South or you are a pretty scary person,’” he says.

Civil War reenactments actually began during the Civil War itself as a way for soldiers to commemorate their friends and educate others about war. The modern version of the reenactments, however, took off in the 1960s around the time of the Civil War Centennial. Some of the largest reenactments involve tens of thousands of participants and draw thousands of spectators.

Scott says Whistling Dixie is not him trying to take a jab at the participants. Instead, it’s principally a visual exploration of the beauty and incongruity of the events. Some of the other pictures, however, clearly speak to Scott’s growing distaste, like the photo of a young white girl sitting in a chair next to a giant Confederate flag while a young African American girl sits on the ground. He wondered why the African American girl decided to participate in the re-enactment.

“The thought that flashed through my mind was, ‘Where are your parents and do they know what you’re doing? And if they do what are they thinking?’” Scott says.

In the introduction to the book Scott writes about showing up to the events in his Toyota Prius and walking through a parking lot full of enormous American-made trucks. Plastered on those trucks were any number of pro-Confederate bumper stickers including one that said, “Citizen of the Confederate States of America, Fighting Federal Terrorism Since 1861,” and one that featured a photo of the U.S. Capitol flying the Confederate flag with the words, “I Have a Dream,” superimposed.

Today, Scott says he’s developed a newfound awareness to all things Confederate. He used to not notice when he drove by people’s cars with Confederate flag bumper stickers but now he can’t see one without cringing.

“At first I thought [the reenactments] were just nutty but over time the broader implications began to sink in and I realized there is a pretty substantial contingent who are still serious in their veneration of the Confederacy,” he says. “I came out the far end of the project much more vehement about it than I was going in.” (source: Wired Magazine)

Reconciliation Statues in Camden, South Carolina


From the Richmond Times Dispatch, "Parker: In South Carolina, a monument to reconciliation," by Kathleen Parker, on 5 April 2013 -- CAMDEN, S.C. It isn’t often that one gets to hear both the strains of “Dixie” and an African drum concert in the same public square. Nor, usually, are statue unveilings the riveting stuff of storytelling.

That is, unless one happens to be in the oldest inland city, population 7,000, of one of the oddest little states in a nation of oddness.

The unlikely combo of a brass band invoking the rebel anthem and a couple of dreadlocked musicians pounding drums provided the soundtrack for an Easter weekend unveiling of life-sized bronze statues celebrating two Camden-born national figures — African-American baseball legend Larry Doby and Jewish financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch.

The two men, an unlikely twosome not so long ago, both transcended racial and ethnic challenges that provided inspiration for subsequent generations.

Baruch, born in 1870, urged racial and religious understanding and counseled six presidents across party lines, setting an example few today seem willing to follow. Doby, born in 1923, conquered racial barriers by becoming the first black baseball player in the American League (for the Cleveland Indians) and the second African-American manager in baseball history (for the Chicago White Sox).

The sculpture featuring the two statues, brilliantly crafted by local artist Maria Kirby-Smith, is aptly titled “Reconciliation.”

The ceremony was a feast of ironies, cognitive surprises and the sort of historic gestures that permit respite from the political cynicism that dominates our day. The lineup of native-born speakers was its own commentary on the status of South Carolina’s evolution and quest for reconciliation, including businesswoman Darla Moore. Real leadership, said Moore, doesn’t happen in Washington or the state capital but in communities such as Camden where citizens embrace diversity “as a force to improve quality of life for all citizens.”

It wasn’t always so, of course — and some would argue that it isn’t yet — but art often expresses what we aspire to, and symbolic gestures count for something. Legislated correctives can do only so much in the service of racial equilibrium without the voluntary assent of willing neighbors.

The two statues, commissioned by local benefactors John and Anne Rainey, are such a gesture. Strategically placed along the town’s main drag, they depict Doby standing behind home plate autographing a baseball for Baruch, who is seated a few feet away on a park bench, his favorite perch for contemplation.

John Rainey began his own remarks with none other than Robert E. Lee. Oh dear. Must we Southerners always invoke the leader of the Confederacy’s army? But Lee had something to say about the future and reconciliation, and these were on Rainey’s mind.

Rainey recounted that after the Civil War, while president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University), Lee urged one Southerner: “Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States government. Recollect that we form one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.”

Almost a century and a half later, these words sound freshly minted and aimed at a state where the tea party thrives. Lee the conciliator likely would be disappointed by today’s rancorous rhetoric, which Rainey placed at the feet of “most of our leaders in the South since the end of the war, and you know who they are.”

“They have not adhered to Lee’s warning or followed his example, but instead have based their politics on division and disrespect. ... They have failed us.”

Rainey, a Vietnam vet, attorney and Republican activist, who once marched to protest the Confederate battle flag atop the state’s capitol dome, has the bona fides to speak of Lee’s legacy. A great-grandson of two Confederate soldiers who surrendered at Appomattox, he also is kin to a signer of the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession.

Who better to lead the charge for reconciliation than a descendant of those who started this fine mess? What will it take for South Carolina to gain recognition beyond comedians’ punch lines and the state’s benighted, racist past?

Let’s see, says Rainey, mentally checking diversity boxes: Gov. Nikki Haley is of Sikh Indian descent. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who spoke on behalf of Doby, defeated the sons of Strom Thurmond and former Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Scott is the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction.

We still have a way to go, but the old Southern stereotypes don’t fit as well as they once did. Reconciliation, like evolution, is a process, not an event. And the band wasn’t just playing “Dixie.” (source:  Richmond Times Dispatch)

First Market Shopping in Richmond, Virginia

The 17th Street Makret in 1854 Photo: Cook Collection, Valentine Richmond History

From the November 2012 issue of the Richmond Magazine, "First Market: Shopping at 17th Street," by Harry Kollatz, Jr., on 30 November 2012, [This piece appeared as a Flashback in November 1997 and again in Kollatz’s book “True Richmond Stories”]  --  The Virginia General Assembly established the “publick market” in 1779 as part of the state capital’s transfer from Williamsburg to Richmond. The legislative act also selected sites for the Capitol, Halls of Justice and the governor’s residence. At the time, 17th Street was known as First Street.

In 1792, “an open shed supported on wooden posts” occupied a site at First Street, east of what was Shockoe Creek, recalled Samuel Mordecai in his 1859 book Richmond In By-Gone Days. The slope down to Shockoe Creek “was a green pasture and considered a common, much used by laundresses whereon to dry their clothes which they washed in the stream.” This common on the south side of Main Street held a spring that later served the tavern built there.

Main Street was a country road wending between Williamsburg and Richmond, placing the market at an important intersection. Shockoe Creek was navigable by small oyster boats, and the market was the natural pivot of commerce.

Near present-day 17th and Franklin streets was the cage, an octagonal structure—the city’s first lockup—with attendant whipping post. The market was enlarged in 1812 and 1828, and other activities were centered there beside the jostling of market carts and the hucksters’ cries of melons, greens, herbs or fish. A famous market shopper was Chief Justice John Marshall. He was a casual dresser at a time when fastidiousness was the rule. Once at the market, a man who’d bought a turkey mistook Marshall for an errand runner and offered him a coin if he would carry the turkey up the hill for him. Marshall, then head of the U.S. Supreme Court, accepted. Versions conflict as to whether he took the gratuity or, with characteristic humor, declined.

Around the market prior to the Civil War, slave auctions and sales were conducted. Lumpkin’s Jail at 15th and Franklin streets was constructed to hold slaves before they were sold off. In 1867, Dr. Nathaniel Colver, a feisty grandfather, met Mary Ann Lumpkin, a former slave whose deceased husband, Robert Lumpkin, had earned his wealth from the slave trade. She rented the former jail to Colver, and there he founded what evolved into Virginia Union University.

A market building was completed in 1854. During the bulk of 58 years, it bustled as a vital component of the city’s commerce and government. Meats were sold on the first floor. The second floor included a police station, courtroom, community meeting room and a bell that rang the time to Main Street passersby. The market building was used for religious revivals, and during elections candidates encouraged votes with barrels of whiskey.

The market’s important civic function placed it in a eatured role during the 1870 civic unrest caused by the refusal of the Reconstruction-era mayor to leave office. The grand old market was demolished in 1912 for a far less interesting structure.

Meat was the market’s principle product, although plenty else was available. A fish stand was located in another market building along 17th and Grace streets. Carts were parked along East Franklin and 18th, bearing fresh produce that was often simply strewn along the cobbles for inspection. In 1927, flooding from Shockoe Creek was tamed by the market’s concrete and brick walls. Merchants’ complaints of ceiling paint chips fluttering like snow onto their displays resulted in $10,000 worth of repairs in 1943.

Saturday was the big family marketing day. The larder could be replenished with cracklings for corn bread, chitterlings, fatback, sausage or pepper-coated Smithfield hams. The array of fruits included Virginia apples.

The city government maintained a market commission, but the market was in time placed under the jurisdiction of the city’s parks and recreation department. This move caused a certain sense of abandonment by the growers and sellers. Throughout the next 30 years, the market’s viability was assaulted by large indoor grocery stores and the decline of small farmers. The market building was razed in 1961 to accommodate parking and traffic snarls. A series of sheds and stands replaced the old building and it seemed the market was finished.

Various plans sought to relocate it to the Main Street Station or the state fairgrounds. The Shockoe Bottom renaissance of the 1980s brought new life to the market. Some shoppers, weary of fluorescent lighting, chemicals and sameness, got hungry not just for fresh eggplant but also for an authentic experience and good product at a reasonable price. A round of renovations soon followed.

In 1995, Farmers’ Market Commission was formed by the city to implement the next phase of the market’s history. Chris Scott, owner of None Such Place and Homer’s Real Sports Grill in Shockoe Bottom, was its chairman.

“Basically, we were asked by the city if we wanted to run it or should it just be let go,” said Scott, a native Richmonder. “But it’s too valuable to allow that.” A New York–based consulting firm recommended a $160,000 budget and expected the market could turn a $17,000 profit in three years. City Council provided an initial budget of $127,000 to hire a manager and make physical improvements.

“Our objective is to be self-sufficient in five years; we hope in three,” Scott said in 1997. In other cities, markets have brought up surrounding neighborhoods, while in Shockoe, the time has come to have the historical market diversify the district’s offerings.

Plans in 1997 called for not only daily produce offerings but also a nighttime arts and crafts market and a Sunday antiques fair. “We’re not talking about a flea market but a well-organized group selling quality items,” Scott said.  (source:  Richmond Magazine)

Slavery on the York River in Virginia

As reported in the Daily Press, "A cradle of slavery on the York," by Mark St. John Erickson, on 25 May 2013 -- When English colonists began settling on the south bank of the York River in the 1630s, enslaved black labor was the exception rather than the rule.

African field hands and house servants were not only prohibitively expensive but notoriously hard to find, even for the well-connected elite planters who increasingly favored them over indentured white workers.

Within a few decades, however, the rich alluvial soil at such plantations as Bellfield, Ringfield and Kiskiack was producing such bountiful crops of highly prized, sweet-scented tobacco that the York emerged as the epicenter of a landmark shift in the colony's history.

Flush with profits — and eager to acquire the hands needed to make more — the planters were poised to buy when the Royal African Company brought the transatlantic slave trade to Virginia in the 1670s. And when that monopoly ended in 1689 — opening the trade to other English merchants — the appetite for black labor quickly transformed the York into what was for 50 years by far the biggest slave market in Virginia.

When the buying spree ended just before the Revolution, an estimated 31,000 blacks had been sold into slavery along the York River.

That's why the once bustling colonial port of Yorktown will be the site of a remembrance ceremony and wayside dedication scheduled for 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Monday by the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project in association with the York County Historical Committee and Colonial National Historical Park.

"There were a lot of different forces at play, but the nature of the soil is where this shift starts," says Hampden-Sydney College historian John C. Coombs, who did his doctoral study on Virginia slavery at the College of William and Mary.

"In a relatively short time, Virginia moved from being a society in which slavery is dominated by elites to a society in which slavery is broadly based — and the York River was ground zero."

Tobacco and slavery

Just how critical a role the fine dark soil along the York played in this transformation can be seen in a 2006 study by Longwood University geographer David S. Hardin.

Of all the arable land in Tidewater, only 14 percent could produce sweet-scented tobacco, he says. And the mildest, densest, most abundant and profitable of those crops came from the south bank of the York.

The "very best of the best" came from Bellfield Plantation on what is now the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, where planter Edward Digges used his profits to erect a landmark three-story manor house. So renowned were his "E.D."-branded hogsheads of tobacco that York River leaf became the benchmark for England's luxury tobacco market.

With the wealth that resulted, the elite planters on the York could do what few other Virginia colonists could afford to do — buy expensive black slaves in what was for decades an erratic market.

"Slavery became a huge part of life in Yorktown," Richter says.

"You would have seen slaves working in the houses and taverns. You would have seen them working on the docks and in the fields. They would have been almost everywhere you looked — and in numbers you wouldn't have found in most other places."

In the first four decades of the 1700s, the York River plantations produced not only the highest quality but also the most tobacco in Virginia — and there were times when it shipped more to England than the rest of the colony combined. More than 200 slave ships landed at Yorktown during this period — and by 1745 the area had absorbed more than two-thirds of nearly 50,000 Africans transported to Virginia.

Over time, those enslaved blacks trickled down from the elite to the middling and smaller planters of York County, too, making it the first part of the American colony in which slavery became broadly based.

"It was the elites who figured out slavery first — and they had the wealth to afford it before anybody else," historian Edward Ayres of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation says.

"But by the time of the Revolution it had penetrated down so far that half of the households in York County owned slaves."  (source: Daily PressFind more stories on Hampton Roads history at

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Planter Oligarchy on Virginia's Northern Neck

Planter Oligarchy on Virginia's Northern Neck

On October 4, 2012, John C. Coombs delivered a Banner Lecture entitled Planter Oligarchy on Virginia’s Northern Neck. The rise of a distinct class of affluent families to economic, social, and political dominance in Virginia during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is without doubt one of the most important developments in the Old Dominion's early history. 

As a group, however, the “gentry” were far from homogenous. John C. Coombs will draw on research for his forthcoming book "The Rise of Virginia Slavery" to discuss the foundations of power that were common across all ranks of the elite, as well as the circumstances that allowed the Carters, Lees, and Tayloes to achieve distinction as the colony's “first families.” Dr. Coombs is a professor of history at Hampden-Sydney College and coeditor of Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion. This lecture is cosponsored by The Menokin Foundation, which owns and operates the Richmond County plantation home of Francis Lightfoot Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his wife Rebecca Tayloe Lee.(Introduction by Paul Levengood and Sarah Dillard Pope)  [source: Virginia Historical Society]

The History of Texas Slavery

From the Texas State Historical Association --  SLAVERY. Texas was the last frontier of slavery in the United States. In fewer than fifty years, from 1821 to 1865, the "Peculiar Institution," as Southerners called it, spread over the eastern two-fifths of the state. The rate of growth accelerated rapidly during the 1840s and 1850s. The rich soil of Texas held much of the future of slavery, and Texans knew it. James S. Mayfield undoubtedly spoke for many when he told the Constitutional Convention of 1845 that "the true policy and prosperity of this country depend upon the maintenance" of slavery. Slavery as an institution of significance in Texas began in Stephen F. Austin's colony. The original empresario commission given Moses Austin by Spanish authorities in 1821 did not mention slaves, but when Stephen Austin was recognized as heir to his father's contract later that year, it was agreed that settlers could receive eighty acres of land for each bondsman brought to Texas. Enough of Austin's original 300 families brought slaves with them that a census of his colony in 1825 showed 443 in a total population of 1,800. The independence of Mexico cast doubt on the future of the institution in Texas. From 1821 until 1836 both the national government in Mexico City and the state government of Coahuila and Texas threatened to restrict or destroy black servitude. Neither government adopted any consistent or effective policy to prevent slavery in Texas; nevertheless, their threats worried slaveholders and possibly retarded the immigration of planters from the Old South. In 1836 Texas had an estimated population of 38,470, only 5,000 of whom were slaves. The Texas Revolution assured slaveholders of the future of their institution. The Constitution of the Republic of Texas (1836) provided that slaves would remain the property of their owners, that the Texas Congress could not prohibit the immigration of slaveholders bringing their property, and that slaves could be imported from the United States (although not from Africa). Given those protections, slavery expanded rapidly during the period of the republic. By 1845, when Texas joined the United States, the state was home to at least 30,000 bondsmen. After statehood, in antebellum Texas, slavery grew spectacularly. The census of 1850 reported 58,161 slaves, 27.4 percent of the 212,592 people in Texas, and the census of 1860 enumerated 182,566 bondsmen, 30.2 percent of the total population. Slaves were increasing more rapidly than the population as a whole.

The great majority of slaves in Texas came with their owners from the older slave states. Sizable numbers, however, came through the domestic slave trade. New Orleans was the center of this trade in the Deep South, but there were slave dealers in Galveston and Houston, too. A few slaves, perhaps as many as 2,000 between 1835 and 1865, came through the illegal African trade.

Slave prices inflated rapidly as the institution expanded in Texas. The average price of a bondsman, regardless of age, sex, or condition, rose from approximately $400 in 1850 to nearly $800 by 1860. During the late 1850s, prime male field hands aged eighteen to thirty cost on the average $1,200, and skilled slaves such as blacksmiths often were valued at more than $2,000. In comparison, good Texas cotton land could be bought for as little as six dollars an acre. Slavery spread over the eastern two-fifths of Texas by 1860 but flourished most vigorously along the rivers that provided rich soil and relatively inexpensive transportation. The greatest concentration of large slave plantations was along the lower Brazos and Colorado rivers in Brazoria, Matagorda, Fort Bend, and Wharton counties. Truly giant slaveholders such as Robert and D. G. Mills, who owned more than 300 bondsmen in 1860 (the largest holding in Texas), had plantations in this area, and the population resembled that of the Old South's famed Black Belt. Brazoria County, for example, was 72 percent slave in 1860, while north central Texas, the area from Hunt County west to Jack and Palo Pinto counties and south to McLennan County, had fewer slaves than any other settled part of the state, except for Hispanic areas such as Cameron County. However, the north central region held much excellent cotton land, and slavery would probably have developed rapidly there once rail transportation was built. The last frontier of slavery was by no means closed on the eve of the Civil War.

American slavery was preeminently an economic institution-a system of unfree labor used to produce cash crops for profit. Questions concerning its profitability are complex and always open to debate. The evidence is strong, however, that in Texas slaves were generally profitable as a business investment for individual slaveholders. Slave labor produced cotton (and sugar on the lower Brazos River) for profit and also cultivated the foodstuffs necessary for self-sufficiency. The effect of the institution on the state's general economic development is less clear. Slavery certainly promoted development of the agricultural economy; it provided the labor for a 600 percent increase in cotton production during the 1850s. On the other hand, the institution may well have contributed in several ways to retarding commercialization and industrialization. Planters, for example, being generally satisfied with their lives as slaveholders, were largely unwilling to involve themselves in commerce and industry, even if there was a chance for greater profits. Slavery may have thus hindered economic modernization in Texas. Once established as an economic institution, slavery became a key social institution as well. Only one in every four families in antebellum Texas owned slaves, but these slaveholders, especially the planters who held twenty or more bondsmen, generally constituted the state's wealthiest class. Because of their economic success, these planters represented the social ideal for many other Texans. Slavery was also vital socially because it reflected basic racial views. Most whites thought that blacks were inferior and wanted to be sure that they remained in an inferior social position. Slavery guaranteed this.

Lack Jackson Plantation main house
Lake Jackson Plantation, home of Abner and Margaret Jackson and headquarters of a thriving sugar refinery. First slaves, then convicts provided the backbreaking labor necessary to grow and process the cane. This photograph, taken prior to 1900, preserves the mansion's final days before a hurricane destroyed many of the buildings on the plantation. Image courtesy Brazoria County Historical Museum. (source: Texas Beyond History)

Although the law contained some recognition of their humanity, slaves in Texas generally had the legal status of personal property. They could be bought and sold, mortgaged, and hired out. They had no legally prescribed way to gain freedom. They had no property rights themselves and no legal rights of marriage and family. Slaveowners had broad powers of discipline subject only to constitutional provisions that slaves be treated "with humanity" and that punishment not extend to the taking of life and limb. A bondsman had a right to trial by jury and a court-appointed attorney when charged with a crime greater than petty larceny. Blacks, however, could not testify against whites in court, a prohibition that largely negated their constitutional protection. Bondsmen who did not work satisfactorily or otherwise displeased their owners were commonly punished by whipping. Many slaves may have escaped such punishment, but every bondsman lived with the knowledge that he could be whipped at his owner's discretion.

The majority of adult slaves were field hands, but a sizable minority worked as skilled craftsmen, house servants, and livestock handlers. Field hands generally labored "from sun to sun" five days a week and half a day on Saturday. House servants and craftsmen worked long hours, too, but their labor was not so burdensome physically. Theirs was apparently a favored position, at least in this regard. A small minority (about 6 percent) of the slaves in Texas did not belong to farmers or planters but lived instead in the state's towns, working as domestic servants, day laborers, and mechanics .

convict and horse
After the emancipation of slaves in Texas in 1865, sugar growers leased prisoners from the state prison system to continue operations in the fields and mills. Photo : Brazoria County Historical Museum.

The material conditions of slave life in Texas could probably best be described as adequate, in that most bondsmen had the food, shelter, and clothing necessary to live and work effectively. On the other hand, there was little comfort and no luxury. Slaves ate primarily corn and pork, foods that contained enough calories to provide adequate energy but were limited in essential vitamins and minerals. Most bondsmen, however, supplemented their basic diet with sweet potatoes, garden vegetables, wild game, and fish and were thus adequately fed. Slave houses were usually small log cabins with fireplaces for cooking. Dirt floors were common, and beds attached to the walls were the only standard furnishings. Slave clothing was made of cheap, coarse materials; shoes were stiff and rarely fitted. Medical care in antebellum Texas was woefully inadequate for whites and blacks alike, but slaves had a harder daily life and were therefore more likely to be injured or develop diseases that doctors could not treat (see HEALTH AND MEDICINE). Texas slaves had a distinct family-centered social life and culture that flourished in the slave quarters, where bondsmen were largely on their own, at least from sundown to sunup. Although slave marriages and families had no legal protections, the majority of bondsmen were reared and lived day to day in a family setting. This was in the slaveowners' self-interest, for marriage encouraged reproduction under socially acceptable conditions, and slave children were valuable. Moreover, individuals with family ties were probably more easily controlled than those who had none. The slaves themselves, however, also insisted on family ties. They often made matches with bondsmen on neighboring farms and spent as much time as possible together, even if one owner or the other could not be persuaded to arrange for husband and wife to live on the same place. They fought bitterly against the disruption of their families by sale or migration and at times virtually forced masters to respect family ties. Many slave families, however, were disrupted. All slaves had to live with the knowledge that their families could be broken up, and yet the basic social unit survived. Family ties were a source of strength for people enduring bondage and a mark of their humanity, too. Religion and music were also key elements of slave culture. Many owners encouraged worship, primarily on the grounds that it would teach proper subjection and good behavior. Slaves, however, tended to hear the message of individual equality before God and salvation for all. The promise of ultimate deliverance helped many to resist the psychological assault of bondage. Music and song served to set a pace for work and to express sorrow and hope.

Slaves adjusted their behavior to the conditions of servitude in a variety of ways. Some felt well-treated by their owners and generally behaved as loyal servants. Others hated their masters and their situation and rebelled by running away or using violence. Texas had many runaways, and thousands escaped to Mexico. Although no major rebellions occurred, individual acts of violence against owners were carried out. Most slaves, however, were neither loyal servants nor rebels. Instead, the majority recognized all the controls such as slave patrols that existed to keep them in bondage and saw also that runaways and rebels generally paid heavy prices for overt resistance. They therefore followed a basic human instinct and sought to survive on the best terms possible. This did not mean that the majority of slaves were content with their status. They were not, and even the best-treated bondsmen dreamed of freedom. Slavery in Texas was not a matter of content, well-cared for servants as idealized in some views of the Old South. On the other hand, the institution was not absolutely brutal or degrading. Slaves were not reduced to the level of animals, and they did not live every day in sullen rage. Instead, bondsmen had enough "room"-time of their own and control of their own lives-within the slave system to maintain physical, psychological, and spiritual strength. In part this limited autonomy was given by the masters, who generally wanted loyal and cheerful servants. Slaves increased their minimal self-determination by taking what they could get from their owners and then pressing for additional latitude. For example, slaves worked hard, but they tried to work at their own pace and offered many forms of nonviolent resistance if pushed too hard. Slaves in general were not revolutionaries who overcame all the limits placed on them, but they did not surrender totally to the system, either. One way or another they had enough room to endure. This fact is not a tribute to the benevolence of slavery, but a testimony to the human spirit of the enslaved blacks.

Though slaves obviously freed their owners from the drudgery of manual labor and daily chores, they were a troublesome property in many ways. Masters had to discipline their bondsmen, get the labor they wanted, and yet avoid too many problems of resistance such as running away and feigning illness. Many owners wished to appear as benevolent "fathers," and yet most knew that there would be times when they would treat members of their "families" as property pure and simple. Most lived with a certain amount of fear of their supposedly happy servants, for the slightest threat of a slave rebellion could touch off a violent reaction. Slavery was thus a constant source of tension in the lives of slaveholders.

White society as a whole in antebellum Texas was dominated by its slaveholding minority. Economically, slaveowners had a disproportionately large share of the state's wealth and produced virtually all of the cash crops. Politically, slaveholders dominated public officeholding at all levels. Socially, slaveholders, at least the large planters, embodied an ideal to most Texans.

The progress of the Civil War did not drastically affect slavery in Texas because no major slaveholding area was invaded. In general, Texas slaves continued to work and live as they had before the war. A great many did, however, get the idea that they would be free if the South lost. They listened as best they could for any war news and passed it around among themselves. Slavery formally ended in Texas after June 19, 1865 (Juneteenth), when Gen. Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston with occupying federal forces and announced emancipation. A few owners angrily told their slaves to leave immediately, but most expressed sorrow at the end of the institution and asked their bondsmen to stay and work for wages. The emancipated slaves celebrated joyously (if whites allowed it). But then they had to find out just what freedom meant. They knew that they would not be forced to labor anymore and that they could move about as they chose. But how would they make their way in the world after 1865? Blacks had maintained a degree of human dignity even in bondage (most owners had allowed them to do so), and Texas could not have grown as it had before 1865 without the slaves' contributions. Nevertheless, slavery was a curse to Texans, white and black alike.  (

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Oregon's Slave Issue

From The Oregonian, "'Breaking Chains' review: The slavery issue in Oregon," by Marc Covert, on 18 May 2013 --  It's easy for Oregonians to see themselves as historically detached from issues that led up to the Civil War, especially when it comes to slavery. Oregon gained admission to the Union as a free state in 1859, and while Oregonians did fight in the Civil War, the ravages of that horrific conflict took place thousands of miles away.

R. Gregory Nokes, author of the disquieting history "Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon" (2009), isn't buying it.

"If I were in school again, I would want to understand the real history of our state, not a sanitized version that misleads us into myths and misplaced self-satisfaction," he writes in the prologue to his new book, "Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory."

"We can learn from our past. We should."

BREAKING CHAINS, by R. Gregory Nokes (Oregon State University Press)

Oregon was, in fact, deeply embroiled in the slavery vs. abolition argument, and racial issues overshadowed nearly every discussion and debate of the 1857 Constitutional Convention leading up to statehood. Many prominent Oregonians -- including territorial governor and U.S. senator Joseph Lane -- were pro-slavery, and the final constitution set before voters in 1857 contained a yes-or-no slavery clause. While that clause was soundly defeated, the newly approved Oregon Constitution contained another that gained our state a dubious distinction.

"When Congress approved Oregon as the thirty-third state on February 14, 1859, Oregon became the only free state admitted with an exclusion clause against blacks in its constitution," writes Nokes. "While the clause was never enforced, it remained a part of the constitution for nearly seventy years, until finally removed by voters on November 2, 1926."

While the institution of slavery was rejected, so too were African Americans who wished to emigrate to Oregon and enjoy the benefits of full legal citizenship.

Nokes employs a landmark court case, Holmes vs. Ford (1853), to illustrate the conflicted racial attitudes and policies of the Oregon frontier. Robin and Polly Holmes were two of the first African Americans to live in Oregon, coming as slaves with their three children over the Oregon Trail with their owner, Nathaniel Ford, and his family in 1844. While slavery never existed legally in Oregon, slave owners like Ford were given a three-year grace period to free their slaves or return them to slave states; even then most citizens and officials turned a blind eye to the practice. Promised freedom in exchange for working on the Fords' donation land claim in today's tiny community of Rickreall, Robin Holmes finally had to sue his former owner for the return of his three children. Newly appointed Oregon Supreme Court judge George H. Williams ruled in favor of the Holmes family.

Williams, who seems an unlikely hero given his later ideas to "consecrate Oregon for whites," refuted Ford's contention that keeping the Holmes children was his payment for granting the family their freedom, stating "To convey (freedom) to a person which at the time is absolutely his by law, plainly amounts to nothing."

Rich with historical fact, fascinating characters, and often shocking personal narratives, "Breaking Chains" is an excellent telling of Oregon's convoluted flirtation with "our peculiar institution."  (source:The Oregonian)

Faith, National Monument to the Forefathers, 1877

Faith, National Monument to the Forefathers, Hallowell, 1877
Faith, National Monument to the Forefathers, Hallowell, 1877

Faith, the central figure on the National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is 36 feet tall. Statuary cutter Joseph Archie stands on Faith's outstretched arm. He was the primary cutter and Postasio Neri supervised the carving of base statues Morality, Education, Law and Liberty. Although the statue appears solid, it was carved in sections and most likely transported to Plymouth in one of the two large ships owned by the Hallowell Granite Works.

The photo was taken in the cutting yard on Franklin Street and the one-time steeple of the Baptist church can be seen in the background. []

Monday, May 27, 2013

David Blight: The First Decoration Day (Memorial Day)

From the website of David W. Blight (Yale University), For the Newark Star Ledger, "The First Decoration Day" -- Americans understand that Memorial Day, or "Decoration Day," as my parents called it, has something to do with honoring the nation's war dead. It is also a day devoted to picnics, road races, commencements, and double-headers. But where did it begin, who created it, and why?

As a nation we are at war now, but for most Americans the scale of death and suffering in this seemingly endless wartime belongs to other people far away, or to people in other neighborhoods. Collectively, we are not even allowed to see our war dead today. That was not the case in 1865.

Washington Race Track, Charleston, South Carolina

At the end of the Civil War the dead were everywhere, some in half buried coffins and some visible only as unidentified bones strewn on the killing fields of Virginia or Georgia. Americans, north and south, faced an enormous spiritual and logistical challenge of memorialization. The dead were visible by their massive absence. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died in the war. American deaths in all other wars combined through the Korean conflict totaled 606,000. If the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as died in the Civil War, 4 million names would be on the Vietnam Memorial. The most immediate legacy of the Civil War was its slaughter and how remember it.

War kills people and destroys human creation; but as though mocking war's devastation, flowers inevitably bloom through its ruins. After a long siege, a prolonged bombardment for months from all around the harbor, and numerous fires, the beautiful port city of Charleston, South Carolina, where the war had begun in April, 1861, lay in ruin by the spring of 1865. The city was largely abandoned by white residents by late February. Among the first troops to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the Twenty First U. S. Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the formal surrender of the city.

Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, and unknown until some extraordinary luck in my recent research, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters' horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, "Martyrs of the Race Course."

Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders' race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy's horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing "a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before."

At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing "John Brown's Body." The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathering in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens' choir sang "We'll Rally around the Flag," the "Star-Spangled Banner," and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rung out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: "for it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you… in the year of this jubilee he shall return every man unto his own possession."

Following the solemn dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: they enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches, and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantry participating was the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite. The war was over, and Decoration Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been all about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders' republic, and not about state rights, defense of home, nor merely soldiers' valor and sacrifice.

According to a reminiscence written long after the fact, "several slight disturbances" occurred during the ceremonies on this first Decoration Day, as well as "much harsh talk about the event locally afterward." But a measure of how white Charlestonians suppressed from memory this founding in favor of their own creation of the practice later came fifty-one years afterward, when the president of the Ladies Memorial Association of Charleston received an inquiry about the May 1, 1865 parade. A United Daughters of the Confederacy official from New Orleans wanted to know if it was true that blacks had engaged in such a burial rite. Mrs. S. C. Beckwith responded tersely: "I regret that I was unable to gather any official information in answer to this." In the struggle over memory and meaning in any society, some stories just get lost while others attain mainstream dominance.

Officially, as a national holiday, Memorial Day emerged in 1868 when General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans organization, called on all former northern soldiers and their communities to conduct ceremonies and decorate graves of their dead comrades. On May 30, 1868, when flowers were plentiful, funereal ceremonies were attended by thousands of people in 183 cemeteries in twenty-seven states. The following year, some 336 cities and towns in thirty-one states, including the South, arranged parades and orations. The observance grew manifold with time. In the South Confederate Memorial Day took shape on three different dates: on April 26 in many deep South states, the anniversary of General Joseph Johnston's final surrender to General William T. Sherman; on May 10 in South and North Carolina, the birthday of Stonewall Jackson; and on June 3 in Virginia, the birthday of Jefferson Davis.

Over time several American towns, north and south, claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. But all of them commemorate cemetery decoration events from 1866. Pride of place as the first large scale ritual of Decoration Day, therefore, goes to African Americans in Charleston. By their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of flowers and marching feet on their former owners' race course, they created for themselves, and for us, the Independence Day of the Second American Revolution.

The old race track is still there — an oval roadway in Hampton Park in Charleston, named for Wade Hampton, former Confederate general and the white supremacist Redeemer governor of South Carolina after the end of Reconstruction. The lovely park sits adjacent to the Citadel, the military academy of South Carolina, and cadets can be seen jogging on the old track any day of the week. The old gravesite dedicated to the "Martyrs of the Race Course" is gone; those Union dead were reinterred in the 1880s to a national cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina. Some stories endure, some disappear, some are rediscovered in dusty archives, the pages of old newspapers, and in oral history. All such stories as the First Decoration Day are but prelude to future reckonings. All memory is prelude.


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