Thursday, January 19, 2017

William Hayden, Kentucky Slave Barber


I find myself once again with an odd Thursday off from work and watching TCM, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to make another post.

This past week while reading Slavery and Forced Migration in the Antebellum South, by Damian Alan Pargas, I stumbled upon a slave narrative that had previously escaped my observation. When Pargas discusses the various ways that slaves were transported in the domestic slave trade he mentioned the Frankfort, Kentucky, slave William Hayden, who had traveled via steamboat to the Deep South.

I was naturally curious with this reference so I quickly checked the footnotes to find its source. It was from the Narrative of William Hayden: Containing a Faithful Account of his Travels for a Number of Years, whilst a Slave in the South, which was Hayden's autobiography and was self published in 1846.  I found a copy on Google Books.

Hayden was born in Stafford County, Virginia in 1785, and as a child was sent to Kentucky by his owner. There he was bought up as a house servant  boy and was afforded an education. Later, he was also trained in the art of rope making, working in several ropewalks in Franklin and Scott Counties. However, hemp rope work did not seem to appeal to Hayden, and almost by happenstance, he fell into the profession of barbering with the permission of his master. Due to my interest in African American barbers in the antebellum Upper South, I found this part particularly interesting.

In past research, I have found numerous references to free black barbers and how they were apprenticed by their elders in the hair cutting and shaving trade. However, there is relatively slim information on enslaved barbers. Hayden described his introduction to barbering:

"In the Spring of 1811, I packed up, and went back to Frankfort. I left my horse with a friend of mine with directions to sell him, and after paying himself out of the proceeds for his trouble, to remit me the balance wherewith to pay my hire. I then when to the Barber shop of Mr. John S. Gowans [Goins], who had formed a friendship for me during my boyhood, when acting in the capacity of a fish-monger, and who felt disposed to aid me in all his power. Hearing that I had come again to Frankfort, he held out the hand of fellowship to me, and the friendship has left its indelible mark upon my heart, which can never be erased, until I meet him again in the Land of Spirits, whither he has long since departed.

After telling my friend my circumstances, and my desires, I asked if he would undertake to learn me the trade.After a long parley, during which he gave me little encouragement, he requested me to call again after breakfast, and he would give me a final answer."

Hayden did as requested, and returned to watch the master shave some of his patrons and cut the hair of others. When Goins finished with his customers, the two men talked. Goins then gave Hayden a razor to sharpen. Hayden did so and Goins approved after inspecting it closely. Goins gave the slave Hayden another razor to hone, and likewise received high praise for his work. Hayden recalled:

"The [barber] apprentices were rather taken a-back, for at first, they had considered it a capital joke, that a factory boy should presume to learn the Tonsorial art; but who, now, no doubt concluded, with Sam Patch, that 'some things can be done as well as others.' He then advised me to get a cup and box, and having given me a pair of razors and a hone, he told me to take them, with a clean towel, and go the rounds of the town every morning, shaving as many as I could for half price, and that in the course of a few weeks, I would be able to set up shop for myself. Before parting with him, to enter upon the duties of my new occupation, I asked him what he charged for the kindness he had shown me, and the advice and instruction which he had given me? His reply was, 'the only recompense I ask, is, that if you see any of my children or grandchildren in need, you will aid them as well as you can.' To this I greatly assented."

Instead of remaining in Frankfort, Hayden walked to Georgetown, and followed Goins's instructions. Fortune smiled on the enslaved man. He entered an inn and came upon a stranger who requested the service of a shave. Hayden obliged and confidently performed his new job. When Hayden informed the stranger that he was the would-be barber's first-ever customer, the man "was astonished and predicted for me a high standing in my vocation."

Hayden continued to serve as Georgetown's "street barber," as he called himself and was happy to find that he had made a profit of $8.00 after his first month's work. Hayden got his master to lease him a piece of town property on which his master built a shop, with the agreement that the slave barber give a portion of his proceeds to his master. Catching the entrepreneurial spirit, Hayden combined forces with a female slave friend and they also entered into a confectionery business partnership. Along with his two businesses' earnings, Hayden won a couple of lotteries, which added to this growing wealth.

Still enslaved, Hayden unfortunately changed hands and served for a time as help for a slave trader making trips up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Hayden purchased his freedom in 1824 and received his deed of manumission from then owner Thomas Phillips of Paris, Bourbon County, Kentucky. He eventually settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked as a barber and wrote and published his slave narrative.

Friday, January 13, 2017

New Acquisitions to My Library


Lucky me received a generous Amazon gift card as a Christmas gift from my family. I used it to add a number of books that were on my "Wish List" to my personal library, which are finally starting to arrive in the mail each day. Is there anything much better than finding a book in your mailbox?


Books like Stephen Berry's All that Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South, which I read over a decade ago, stirred my interest in antebellum manhood and Southern honor studies. I'm hoping this one gives me some new things to think about.


Fredericksburg is one of my top three eastern theater battles to study. And George C. Rable's Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! is one of my all-time favorite books, but I have read excellent reviews on this one as well. I'm looking forward to historian and National Park Service Ranger O'Reilly's take on this December 1862 battle.


Studies on the domestic slave trade and the forced migrations of slaves to the Old Southwest has intrigued me for the past few years. Books like The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist are drawing more and more scholars to this important subject, who are presenting new interpretations. 


There are so many myths, tales, and misinformation floating around about the origins of the Ku Klux Klan. Therefore, I am looking forward to examining this author's take and seeing what evidence is used to tell the beginnings of this terrorist organization during Reconstruction.


Similar to the above mentioned Slavery and Forced Migration in the Antebellum South, Walter Johnson explores the internal slave trade and the expansion of the Cotton Kingdom in River of Dark Dreams. I learned a lot from Johnson's previous work, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, so I am sure this one will not disappoint either. 


Being always on the lookout for books about local history, the title to this one caught my attention, and since I am not too far from the book's location of focus, I am sure there many things I can learn and draw upon for work and for my personal knowledge. 


Just as there is much information about the Ku Klux Klan, there also is about the noted 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments. In 1989, the motion picture Glory brought significant attention to the 54th, and thus USCTs, but it also promoted some myths. I'm interested to read Edgerton's history of the 54th and 55th Infantries, and 5th Massachusetts Cavalry.

Well, I have to go. I have some serious reading to do.

Monday, January 9, 2017

O. Jennings Wise: Editor, Duelist, Soldier, Southerner


Richmond, Virginia's Hollywood Cemetery is a veritable "Who's Who" for the final resting places of notables in Old Dominion and Confederate history. United States presidents James Monroe and John Tyler are there, along with Confederate president Jefferson Davis. A host of Confederate generals, including  J.E.B. Stuart, George E. Pickett, Edward Johnson, John Imboden, and Henry A. Wise, also all rest at Hollywood.

Beside Governor Wise is a lesser known Confederate soldier; his son Captain Obadiah Jennings Wise. Known by family and close acquaintances as Obie, Wise was the governor's oldest son, and seemingly his favorite. Obie grew up to be Southern society's epitome of antebellum manhood.

O.Jennings Wise was born on April 12, 1831. He received his college education at William and Mary, and interestingly, Indiana University. After a term of service as a European diplomat, Wise returned to his native Virginia and eventually obtained the editorship of the Richmond Enquirer, the Capitol city's Democratic newspaper. Wise the younger's stint with the sheet coincided with his father's governorship; a situation that would bring trouble for Obie. Seemingly honor-bound to defend his father's name Wise fought at least eight duels within about two years, many over perceived injustices to his governor father.

Many of Wise's dueling opponents were fellow editors. A veritable war of words played out among Virginia's antebellum newspaper editors who were anything but "fair and balanced" in their coverage of political news. In 1858, he fought Robert Ridgeway, the editor of the Richmond Whig. That same year he battled Virginia politician Sherrard Clemmens. The gun play resulted in Clemmens being wounded in the groin. Wise was unharmed. The following year, 1859, Wise had a dust up with William Old of the Richmond Examiner. That year Obie fought Patrick Henry Aylett, who also worked for Examiner. Apparently Wise lived a blessed life, as it seems he escaped all of his many duels virtually unscathed.

While friends appreciated the pubic service of the Wises, it was not only dueling opponents who held both men in low regard. Virginia arch-secessionist Edmund Ruffin. Ruffin noted in his diary in August 1859: "The former [Obie], as well as his father, is a professional duelist, & a bravo, & by both precept & example, to make him a professional bully for political gain, & a murderer in intention, if not yet in deed."

When the Civil War broke out, Obie was made captain of Company A of the 46th Virginia Infantry. Company A was composed of members of the antebellum Richmond Light Infantry Blues militia unit. While serving on the North Carolina coast and fighting under his father's command at the Battle of Roanoke Island on February 8, 1862, Obie was wounded in the wrist of his sword arm. Shortly after bandaging this minor injury, he received grievous wound to his thigh. The captain was captured by Union forces and then died shortly thereafter. His body was returned to Richmond. A splendid funeral was held at St. James Episcopal church and he was interred at Hollywood Cemetery where he now rests, right beside his father.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

McGowan's Brigade Resolutions and Becoming Slaves to the Enemy


Recently, I started a book club for staff and volunteers at work. The first volume that was selected to discus was Damn Yankees!: Demonization and Defiance in the Confederate South by George C. Rable. In this valuable contribution to the understanding of Southern determination, much is made about the power of words to inspire action and instill nationalism. Painting one's enemy with dehumanizing characteristics, and in some cases greatly exaggerating tales of atrocities or what could be expected should defeat be realized, buoyed hopes and strengthened many Southerners' resolve to continue the fight.

To prepare for our actual discussion meeting, I made copies of a set of resolutions that I remembered reading, which were drafted in February 1865, by Gen. Samuel McGowan's men while they were camped and headquartered at what was then the Bouisseau family's Tudor Hall plantation and is now Pamplin Historical Park. What stood out in my memory of the document was their defiant stance, but when I re-read it, what stood out was their fear of being "enslaved" by their enemies.

In three different places, which I have placed in bold type, the author(s) of the document used some from of the term slave. In the second resolution it states: "That the reasons which induced us to take up arms at the beginning have not been impaired, but, on the contrary, infinitely strengthened by the progress of the war. Outrage and cruelty have not made us love the perpetrators. If we then judged that the enemy intended to impoverish and oppress us, we now know [emphasis in original] that they propose to subjugate, enslave, disgrace and destroy us."

In the fourth and final resolution it mentions slavery twice. However, again, not in the sense you might think. "To submit to our enemies now, would be more infamous than it would have been in the beginning. It would be cowardly yielding to power that was denied upon principle. It would be to yield the cherished right of self-government, and to acknowledge ourselves wrong in the assertion of it; to brand the names of our slaughtered companions as traitors; to forfeit the glory already won; to lose the fruits of all the sacrifices made and privations endured; to give up independence now nearly gained, and bring certain ruin, disgrace and eternal slavery upon our country. Therefore, unsubdued by past reverses, and unawed by the future dangers, we declare determination to battle to the end, and not to lay down our arms until independence is secured. Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it Heaven!"

I find it intriguing that the author(s) of these resolutions decided to use that specific term over and over. Did they fully believe that the status of slave was only reserved for those they considered an inferior race? Did they fully understand what it meant to be a slave?; to have no real self-determination; to labor for others without receiving compensation; to be ordered about; to be separated from one's family on the whim of another, all gathered through their exposure to and practice of the institution for generations? Did they understand the seriousness of the military situation and the influence such words would have on keeping men in the ranks and to oppose the gradual yet steady advances of the enemy. I would say, yes to all. Did they sincerely believe that they would literally be made slaves, like the African Americans on the farms and plantations of South Carolina? I highly doubt it. But to lose the war, and thus be made to give up their way of life; one that was based on chattel slavery, was likely thought to be about as close to actual slavery as one could get, and for many death was preferable.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Richmond's Washington Monument - Then and Now


This past summer, and then again a couple of months later, I was fortunate to get to tour around the Virginia State Capitol and grounds. Mr. Jefferson's edifice is certainly an impressive structure, and its service and place in the state's, as well as the Confederacy's history only increased its importance.

On the Capitol grounds stands a monument as impressive, if not more, so than the building it was meant to complement. Richmond's George Washington equestrian monument is a tribute to the state's native son. Washington's roles as a citizen planter, soldier, and statesman made him the ideal example for America's youth, but particularly for Virginia's young men as a model of manhood.  

The stunning monument was dedicated in 1858. It also features fellow Virginia notables, who were added to the memorial later: Thomas Jefferson; Patrick Henry; George Mason; Supreme Court justice John Marshall, Andrew Lewis, a French and Indian War and Revolutionary War officer; and Thomas Nelson, Jr., a governor and representative in the Continental Congress.

Richmond's Washington monument became even more well known when it served as the backdrop for Jefferson Davis's inauguration in February 1862, and with its incorporation into the Great Seal of the Confederacy.


Historic photograph courtesy of the National Archives

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Sharp Seeking Calvin


On my days off, when I'm not reading, I often pass the time watching old films on TCM. If they happen to be showing a movie that I've seen before, I sometimes browse digital editions of nineteenth century newspapers, while the movies serve as background noise. Not a real exciting way to pass the time, but it can be educational. Well, anyway, that was the scene yesterday evening as I waited for the Oklahoma-Auburn game to get going.

During my online time travel through the headlines of 1862, I happened upon the above advertisement, which appeared in the May 30, 1862, issue of the Petersburg Daily Express. In it Confederate soldier Private Albert T. Sharp, of the Third Alabama Infantry, sought to reclaim his slave Calvin, who likely served Sharp as a camp servant. This practice was not at all uncommon. Calvin likely saw his owner's lack of vigilance as an opportunity to attempt to gain his freedom.

Pvt. Sharp left Calvin in Petersburg to recover from an undisclosed illness while Sharp was stationed at Drury's Bluff, which is located on the James River, between Petersburg and Richmond. The two weeks between leaving Calvin in Petersburg, and then finding him absconded, gave the enslaved man a significant amount of time to make his getaway. One has to wonder if Calvin was pretending to be sick as part of plan of escape.

I am almost always curious to learn more about the actors in these historical dramas, so I searched the 1860 census for Albert T. Sharp. He was located living in the household of his father, William, in Montgomery County, Alabama. Sharp the younger was eighteen years old in 1860. His noted occupation was farmer. William Sharp was sixty years old. The elder Sharp was a native of North Carolina. He likely immigrated to Alabama with a serious case of "cotton fever" during the previous decades. William Sharp owned seventeen slaves. Not a huge holding, but they certainly added up to a significant part of his $40,000 in personal property.

Albert Sharp enlisted in Company H of the Third Alabama Infantry Regiment in Lowndesboro, Alabama, two months before this advertisement ran. Pvt. Sharp's father probably allowed Albert to take one of the family slaves with him to the front to do camp chores like cooking, laundry, and other fatigue duties. Since Calvin's age is not listed in the runaway advertisement, it is difficult to match him to one of the slaves listed in the census as being owned by William Sharp. However, the census lists several male slaves in the sixteen to twenty-five year old age range that was common for camp servants.

I do not know if Pvt. Albert Sharp ever reclaimed Calvin, or if the enslaved man made good on his flight. However, Sharp was likely preoccupied when the advertisement ran. His regiment was part of Huger's Division who were held in reserve on May 31 at the Battle of Seven Pines, which was fought just east of Richmond. The following day, June 1, the Third Alabama saw significant fighting. The regiment's colonel was killed as well as thirty-seven other members of the unit. The regiment also lost 122 men were wounded, including its lieutenant colonel, Cullen A. Battle. Sharp apparently made it through the fray unscathed. He was not as fortunate a little later though. His records are conflicting, but either on June 20 or on June 27, 1862, he was wounded. One record says "accidentally." After Sharp's wounding he received a furlough of undetermined length of time to go back home to Alabama to recover.

If Sharp did catch Calvin, he likely came in handy as a nurse, as Sharp's service records indicate that he spent considerable time in various hospitals around Richmond dealing with different illnesses in 1862, 63, and 64. Sharp was captured at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on August 4, 1864. His service records noted he "deserted." Sharp and the Third Alabama were part of Jubal Early's forces that raided into Maryland and briefly threatened Washington D.C. that summer. Perhaps he wandered away from the column and was captured, or perhaps he did actually call it quits and deserted. Regardless, he was confined at Fort Delaware until he was release on May 5, 1865, after taking the oath of allegiance.

If Calvin made good on his freedom quest, I wonder if he and his former owner ever met up again back in Alabama. If so, was Albert resentful? Or did his military service provide him with an opportunity to appreciate a different perspective. I wonder.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Lincoln, Don Quixote, and John Brown Pikes


Happy New Year! I hope 2017 brings you everything that 2016 failed to deliver.

In my seemingly never ending quest to knockout those books remaining on my "to be read" shelf (I guess it would help toward that end if I stopped acquiring more books), I recently finished reading Lines of Contention: Political Cartoons of the Civil War by J. G. Lewin and P. J. Huff. The authors offered a number of images for discussion and text interpreting them.

I was familiar with a number of the anti-Lincoln portrayals by Adelbert Volck, a Baltimore dentist, from previous exposure in which he offered demonized images of the 16th president and made vivid use of John Brown and the militant abolitionist's pikes.

However, Volck also made comparisons between Lincoln and Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes's wouldbe romantic latter-day knight as a way of showing Volck's impression of the president's incompetence. In the image at the top, Lincoln (as Quixote) and his sidekick squire Gen. Benjamin Butler (as the simple Sancho Panza) go forth to allegedly correct the ills of society. To assist in conquering the South, Lincoln uses a John Brown pike as his tilting lance.

Similarly, in the image below, Lincoln's pike is propped up behind his chair, while an ax and split rail help identify the subject of the image and a Spanish helmet strengthens the association with the ill-famed wouldbe knight . Lincoln sits in his best Don Quixote attire and ponders ideas of "improving society." He dips his pen in a artillery mortar shaped inkwell, while making a list of recent Union defeats. His foot rests on books labeled as the "Constitution," "Law," and "Habeas Corpus." This image was apparently produced early in the war, as on the wall, a portrait shows Gen. Winfield Scott, known popularly as "Old Fuss and Feathers." Scott was replaced as General in Chief in November 1861 by Gen. George B. McClellan.


Political cartoons are effective means and can be used for both good and ill propaganda. Identifying Lincoln as Don Quixote and connecting the president to John Brown through the use of pike images remind us that politics, especially combined with warfare, has always been contentious ground.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

"A Christmas Dinner"


One of my favorite things about visiting my grandparent's farm in south-central Kentucky when I was a youngster was the sumptuous fare grandma always provided. The dinner table was a veritable cornucopia of culinary delights. Turkey, cooked in a pressure cooker to retain its tenderness and flavor, creamed corn, yeast rolls, green beans, lima beans, and a host of other belly fillers. Deserts included a menagerie of cakes, pies, jellies, and jellos. The memory of the pleasant smells of those Southern comfort foods bring a smile to face to this very day. I was always grateful for the bounty that was provided.

I'm sure that many Civil War soldiers grew up eating similar meals. However, the transition from civilian to martial life included a steep learning curve for most. Acquiring skills (like cooking) that in peace time were clearly in the sphere of females or the enslaved made soldiering all that much more unpleasant.

Artist Edwin Forbes commented on Christmas as it was experienced by men on the forward picket line:
"After an hour or two of social chat over our pipes, we rode further down the line and stopped at various points to talk with friends who were on duty. None seemed to have fared as sumptuously as ourselves; most of the men were cooking salt pork, though one party had secured a turkey from a neighboring farmer and looked lovingly toward it as it roasted before the glowing camp-fire. Some of the men were fortunate enough to have received boxes from home, and their faces grew bright as the lifted out roast turkey, chickens, bread, cake and pies that kindly hands had prepared. An occasional bottle of "old rye," secreted in a turkey or loaf of bread, would give rise to much fun and expected enjoyment. The provost guard, however, seldom overlooked a bottle and confiscated any contraband liquor; and his long experience had bred in him a sort of special sense for any such little infractions of the rule, which was inflexible even for Christmas, and if got the better of at all had to be by a skillful and imperceptible breaking."

On this Christmas day, be sure to remember those of the past, and the present, who serve to protect our cherished freedoms often far removed from the comforts that family and friends bring. Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Former Virginia Slaves Remember Christmastime


Former Slave Fannie Berry remembered:
"Slaves lived jus' fo' Christmas to come round. Start gittin' ready de fus' snow fall. Commence to savin' nuts and apples, fixin' up party clothes, snitchin' lace an' beads fum de big house. General celebratin' time, you see, 'cause husbands is comin' home [from being leased out] an' families is gettin' 'nunited agin. Husbands hurry on home to see dey new babies. Ev'ybody happy. Marse always send a keg of whiskey down to de quarters by ole Uncle Silas, de house man. Ole Joe would drink all he kin long de way, but dey's plenty fo' all. Ef dat don' las ole Marse Shelton gonna bring some mo' down hisse'f."

Baily Cunningham:
"We didn't know but one holiday, that was Christmas day, and it was not much different from any other day. The field hands did not have to work on Christmas day. We didn't have any Christmas presents."

Julia Frazier:
"They had parties on Holidays (Easter, Christmas and Whitsun). On dem days we would play ring plays, jump rope an' dance. Then nights we'd dance juba. The girls got new dresses twice a year, but ole misstress us to give us second hand clothes."

Horace Muse:
"Marser Riles was a mean man. He never knew when you had wuked a 'nough. I done jes' 'zackly ez he tol' me. Dat's why I never git any beatin'. Ole Marser git cross an' he 'put you in his pocket.' Dat's what dey say when dey mean he give you to a mean man to wuk fer. When I was hired out, dey let me come home at Christmas fer' three o; four days. Den I had to go back to wuk."

Levi Pollard:
Christmas time Mars Charles gived us lots er things. Sometimes dey wold be a little extra, but us always got a peck er flour, a whole ham, 5 lbs., real cane sugar, en every body winter clothes. Every man gits two workin' shirts, one coat, one pair pants, one jacket, en one pair shoes. De women git near 'bout de same I reckon, I ain't never been good at 'memberin' things I ain't knowed nothin' 'bout, en I ain't never been married."

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Kitchen Ball at White Sulphur Springs, 1838


Visiting mineral springs was a popular pastime in antebellum America. Wealthy Southerners of this era often visited these hydrotherapy spas to socialize as much as for their supposed medicinal values. Being that noted mineral springs were often in mountainous area, they were a popular draw during the summer and early fall months as a retreat from the lowland heat and its associated illnesses.

One of the most frequented spas in the South was White Sulphur Springs, Virginia (now in present-day Greenbrier County, West Virginia). White Sulphur Springs boasted accommodations for over 500 people in its main hotel, as well as its family cottages. 

Naturally, when wealthy slave owning families visited White Sulphur Springs, they often brought their favorite domestic slaves to attend to their needs. It was on a visit in 1838 that German artist Christian Friedrich Mayr painted the above scene of "Kitchen Ball." It has been speculated that this image captured a slave wedding due to the focal point couple dancing in white attire. Whether it was wedding, or just an occasion for fellowship and recreation with fellow enslaved individuals, it captures a moment in time and away from their masters' gaze to enjoy some well deserved free time. The foreigner Mayr's painting shows the ball participants in a dignified manner without the unfortunate grotesque features common in images painted by Americans. Mayr also depicts African American musicians. He places a flute player, a cellist, and a fiddler. 

One wonders what sort of conversations these enslaved people held while free of their owners' control for a brief period. Did they compare notes on how to cope with slavery? Did they use the opportunity to just forget about their enslaved condition for a little while? Did they network in attempt to better their individual situations? Did they try to find out information about love they had been separated from?


White Sulphur Springs was visited for its springs as early as the late 1770s, but came into its own as noted resort in the period from 1830 to 1860. It hosted a number of presidents during this period as well as other noted politicians, celebrities, and their families. Although White Sulphur Springs has undergone a number of changes in the years since, it still operates, now as the Greenbrier: America's Resort. If you have traveled on I-64 between Lexington, Virginia, and Beckley, West Virginia, you have likely noticed it.

A Kitchen Ball image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Art
White Sulphur Springs image courtesy of the University of Virginia

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Interpretive Tools



When giving tours, one can paint pictures for visitors with words. Transporting guests' imaginations back 150 years ago, or even earlier, is a true art. However, occasionally, the pictures one can paint are limited to what the individual visitor brings from their own past experiences. For example, it is easier to discuss the process of planting, cultivating, and harvesting tobacco, if that guest grew up experiencing some of those aspects of agricultural work. Those people that have experienced the day-to-day work of hot, back-breaking field labor can probably better appreciate the toils of a field hand better than someone who has never even cut their own lawn. Then, adding in the fact that enslaved people received no compensation for their labor beyond the most basic of basics in the form of food, clothing, and shelter, a true understanding can begin to form.

In present-day America, one in which fewer and fewer people have agricultural roots, it can sometimes be difficult to make connections to a past that was largely experienced in a rural environment. I feel fortunate that I was able to experience farm life on a limited basis, both through visits to my grandparents farm in south-central Kentucky, as well as helping on the family farms of friends in southern Indiana. In addition, with my father being an avid hunter and angler, I feel I probably have a better understanding than the average person of the process and methods necessary for our ancestors to obtain food for themselves on a daily basis.

To help historic sites paint clearer pictures for guests from diverse backgrounds, they often seek to obtain and display items that assist visitors in making connections with the past. Those items can come in the from of large recreated structures, such as a slave quarters, a corn crib, or a tobacco barn. But they can also come in smaller formats, like the tools that enslaved individuals used, or items that masters incorporated to regulate their slaves' lives.


Getting visitors to empathize with enslaved individuals' lives at plantation historic sites is one of the largest challenges for interpreters. Due to the rights and liberties that we enjoy in the 21st century, it is difficult for guests to step back in time (especially younger guests without the benefit of age experiences) to truly understand the limitations that were enforced upon enslaved African Americans. However, by using interpretive tools, that gulf can be party bridged.

A good example is that recently we installed a plantation bell at work. This interpretive tool will hopefully help us explain that sound devices were incorporated by owners to relate clock time to their enslaved workers. Slaves were not normally allowed to own such luxuries as clocks, therefore, owners who demanded an efficient plantation operation needed the ability to translate clock time to the slaves. This was most often done through the auditory devices of a bell or horn, which sounded to let them know when to wake, when to head to the fields, when to break for meals, and when to end the day's labor. I'm sure slaves grew to hate the sound of the bell or horn. Similarly, slaves also came to associate the sound of the bell with coerced labor. In a Works Progress Administration slave narrative account that I found while researching plantation bells, a slave mentioned that his plantation's bell rang every morning at four o'clock in the morning and that it said, "get up, I'm coming to get you."

Interpretive tools such as plantation bells are significant vehicles to help facilitate learning and encourage understanding. When used in conjunction with proper explanation and reference they can make all the difference between an average learning experience and one which inspires learning beyond the tour.


Black and white bell photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Recruiting United States Colored Troops


A few years back I purchased the above image printed in poster form from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. On the poster is small paragraph of text which notes it being a Civil War recruiting poster from 1863. It is certainly a striking image which shows past (slavery), present (soldiers), and future (freedom) scenes, and would seemingly have been effective for recruiting those who might not be literate. But in all of my reading on USCTs, I had never come in contact with its use in the field.

Well, that changed with my latest read. Looking for books by eminent historian John Hope Franklin, I came across The Diary of James T. Ayers: Civil War Recruiter. Franklin edited the diary for publication by the Illinois State Historical Society in 1947. Fortunately, Louisiana State University Press reprinted it in 1999.

James T. Ayers's diary recounts his experiences in Alabama and Tennessee attempting to get slaves to enlist in the numerous USCT regiments, brigades, and divisions forming there in 1863 and 1864. Ayers was born in Kentucky, but had moved with his family to Ohio as a child and as a young man to Illinois. There he apparently developed a disdain for the institution of slavery. But, although he abhorred the "peculiar institution," he did not believe in the equality of the races or refrain from using racist terms. In fact, one is surprised by the number of times Ayers uses the n-word instead of the more refrained "negro" or "colored."

On the May 7, 1864, entry Ayers commented on encountering a situation in which he used the above image in his recruiting work. Near Huntsville, Alabama, Ayers came upon a group of slaves on a Mr. Eldridge's plantation. The recruiter conversed with the enslaved men for a few minutes asking about their master and their situation. After a few minutes of talking they told Ayers they had to get back to work or suffer the consequences. Ayers informed them that according to President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, they were free. As Ayers described it from here:

"'Bress God,' said two or three voices as the same time.

'Well children, see here' getting off my horse then and handing them one of my Recruiting Pictures. 'Here is what Father Abraham is doin for you' showing them the Darky in Center with flagstaff flag waving and on the write [right], men knocking off the chains from the slaves wrists and some Just has got Loose and hands stretched upward shouting and Praising God for there Deliverance and on the left side A free school in full Operation with miriads of Little Darkies Each with his book . . . . '"

Ayers explained that on the opposite side of the image was the message:

ALL SLAVES were made FREEMEN 
BY ABRAHAM LINCOLN, 
President of the United States,
 January 1st, 1863. 
Come, then, able- bodied COLORED MEN, to the nearest U. S. 
Camp and fight for the 
STARS AND STRIPES!

After speaking with the men, Ayers encountered Eldridge as well as his daughter, whose husband was off in the Confederate army. After verbally sparring with both, Ayers rode off with four of Eldridge's slaves and two others from a neighboring farm. He had them enlisted in a Tennessee USCT regiment.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

An Englisman Witnesses a Virginia Slave Coffle


Like many Europeans who visited the United States in the antebellum era, British author and geographer George Featherstonehaugh saw a contradiction between the infant nation's claims of liberty and their practice of slavery.

While traveling through the Old Dominion in the 1830s, Featherstonehaugh happened upon a slave coffle operated by slave trader John Armfield, which was headed southwest up the Valley of Virginia and crossing the New River, likely near the present-day town of Radford. He wrote:

"Just as we reached New River, in the early grey of morning, we came up with a singular spectacle, the most striking one of a kind I have ever witnessed. It was a camp of negro slave-drivers, just packing up to start; they had about three hundred slaves with them, who had bivouacked the preceding night in chains in the woods; these they were conducting to Natchez [Mississippi], upon the Mississippi River, to work upon the sugar plantations in Louisiana. It resembled one of those coffles of slaves spoken of by Mungo Park, except they had a caravan of nine wagons and single-horse carriages, for the purpose of conducting the white people, and any of the black people who should fall lame, to which they were now putting the horses to pursue the march. The female slaves were, some of them, sitting on logs of wood, whilst some of them were standing, and a great many little black children were warming themselves at the fires of the bivouac. In front of them all, and prepared for the march, stood, in double files, about two hundred male slaves, manacled and chained to each other. I had never seen so revolting a sight before! Black men in fetters, torn from the lands where they were born, from the ties they had formed, and from the comparatively easy condition which agricultural labor affords, and driven, by white men, with liberty and equality in their mouths, to a distant and unhealthy country, to perish in the sugar-mills of Louisiana, where the duration of life for a sugar-mill slave does not exceed seen years! To make this spectacle still more disgusting and hideous, some of the principal white slave-drivers, who were tolerably well dressed, and had broad-brimmed white hats on, with black crepe around them, were standing near, laughing and smoking cigars."

Featherstonehaugh later commented on the coffle's New River crossing:
"It was an interesting, but melancholy spectacle, to see them effect the passage of the river; first a man on horseback selected a shallow place in the ford for the male slaves; then followed a wagon and four horses, attended by another man on horseback. The other wagons contained the children and some that were lame, whilst the scows, or flat-boats, crossed the women and some of the people belonging to the caravan. There was much method and vigilance observed, for this was one of the situations where the gangs--always watchful to obtain their liberty--often show a disposition to mutiny, knowing that if one or two of them could wrench their manacles off, the could soon free the rest, and either disperse themselves or overpower and slay their sordid keepers, and fly to the Free States. The slave-drivers, aware of this disposition in the unfortunate negroes, endeavor to mitigate their discontent by feeding them well on the march, and by encouraging them to sing "Old Virginia never tire," to the banjo."

The scene Featherstonehaugh's witnessed was not uncommon in the first half of the nineteenth century. Thousands of slaves went cross-country from the eastern and upper-South states to the Old Southwest to markets in Natchez and New Orleans, where their demand brought higher prices and where they were purchased for toil in the cotton fields and sugar plantations of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and East Texas.

A little later on in his travels, Featherstonhaugh ran into Armfield's coffle again, this time in East Tennessee. He stated about the scene: "Before we stopped for the night, but long after sunset, we came to a place where numerous fires were gleaming through the forest : it was the bivouac of the gang. Having prevailed upon the [stagecoach] driver to wait half an hour, I went with Pompey--who was to take leave of us here--into the woods, where they were all encamped. There were a great many blazing fires around, at which the female slave were warming themselves; the children were asleep in some tents; and the males, in chains, were lying on the ground, in groups of about a dozen each. The white men, who were the partners of Pompey's master, were standing about with whips in their hands; and the 'complete' was, I suppose, in her tent; for I judged, from the attendants being busy in packing the utensils away, that they had taken their evening's repast. It was a fearful and irritating spectacle, and I could not bear long to look at it."

Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Petersburg and the Business of Slavery


Back in August I shared a post on Petersburg slave trader Henry Davis. In that post I included an image of a document showing the sale of slaves once belonging to Richard Ransom Johnson of neighboring Chesterfield County. A number of those slave were purchased by trader Davis, but the sale was facilitated by businessman Thomas Branch and his family affiliates.

Thomas Branch and his sons, James Read Branch and John Patteson Branch, were involved in several interrelated businesses in Petersburg and operated out their building and offices at 1 Old Street (pictured above), just a block south of the Southside Railroad station. Branch's location along the Appomattox River and with ready access to the railroad likely helped him with his various banking and commission-merchant businesses.



As one might imagine, much of the Branch family's business involved different facets of slavery's interwoven nature in the local economy. Branch's banking interests most likely made numerous loans to individuals who sought credit for slave and land purchases. The Branches certainly arranged slave sales and slave leasing, as the previously mentioned enumerated list documents from William Ransom Johnson sale, as well as the newspaper advertisement shown above, which ran in the December 28, 1855, edition of the Petersburg Daily Express. This ad sought slaves to rent to the Petersburg Railroad and offered "liberal wages" to their owners for the slaves' labor. 

In that same issue, Branch and Sons ran another notice, offering: "Two Negroes for Sale at Auction - On Wednesday, 2nd January, at 12 o'clock, we shall sell, in front of our office, TWO NEGRO MEN. One has been running a lighter, and the other is a first rate farm hand-both have good characters. THOS. BRANCH & SONS, Auct'rs."


Branch and Sons were not the only Petersburg commission merchants and auctioneers to get in on the slave game. William Pannill, whose May 30, 1862, advertisement in the Petersburg Daily Express is shown above, also brokered rentals and sales of slaves from his offices at 61 Sycamore Street.


Attorneys Alexander and James M. Donnan also served as middle-men, or in today's terms "head-hunters," who worked on commission to match owners' needs with slaves' skills. In the advertisement above, which appeared in the December 15, 1860, issue of the Petersburg Daily Express, they offered "a number of Servants, of all ages, sexes and capacities--Factory and Field Hands, Draymen, Ostlers, Dining Room Servants, Smiths, Cooks, Washers, Nurses, and others." A veritable slaveholders one-stop shop.  The Donnans outlined that payment could be made twice during the year on an annual lease and that they required hiring individuals to provide the slaves with clothing and two pair of shoes during the year. Renters were asked to please return slaves to their owners by Christmas day "well clothed." 

When we think of slavery we often think of the family separations cauded by the selling apart of family members. Perhaps we should better remember that some enslaved family members were separated for the greatest part of the year when hired out, too. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Slavery's Expansion vs. Slavery's Extinction


One of the primary planks of the emerging Republican Party of the 1850s was preventing the extension of slavery to the emerging western territories. Most of those in the Democratic Party in the free states believed that slavery should be determined by popular sovereignty. In other words, when territories acquired a large enough population and petitioned Congress to become as state, those citizens could then vote by popular referendum whether to come into the Union as a free or slave state and encode such laws in that state's constitution. Most Democrats, whether North or South believed that geography and climate would ultimately determine if slavery would be feasible for a new state, but they wanted the option. 

Republicans, regardless of their political bent (conservative or radical on the slavery issue) believed that if slavery was not allowed to expand it would die. Southern Democrats viewed the issue likewise. Like a tree that has its roots narrowly confined, it will eventually wither and die over time. Or, another even more popular analogy of the period was that shown in the political cartoon above: A scorpion, when surrounded by a ring of fire, would chose to sting itself to death rather than be consumed by the flames.

Southerners, particular the planter politicians--but many yeoman, too, who benefited from planter gratuities and hoped to elevate themselves socioeconomically one day to become slave owners--believed that slavery must expand in order to survive. They fully understood how slavery benefited their section.  If slavery died, so would the Southern way of life. Politically, economically, socially, the South would change forever. Planter politician extraordinaire, John C. Calhoun, had argued during the debates over the Compromise of 1850--half a decade before the emergence of the Republican Party--that, "the Southern section regards the relation [between slaver and master] as one which can not be destroyed without subjecting the two races to the greatest calamity, and the [Southern] section to poverty, desolation, and wretchedness; and accordingly they feel bound by every consideration of interest and safety to defend it." And attempt to defend it they did.

Why did Southerners threaten, beat, and banish abolitionists and anti-slavery proponents that they found within their borders and in their communities during the antebellum years? Because, those that espoused such ideas were viewed as a deadly threat to that cherished way of life that they believed the Constitution entitled them to. Why did Southerners seemingly in haste begin the domino process of secession when Republican Party candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president in November 1860? For very much the same reason. Although Lincoln was no abolitionist--at least not in 1860--he was a Republican and his party had determined to limit slavery to those states where it currently existed and let it expand no more. That was a direct threat and challenge that Southern honor would not tolerate. After all, their forefathers had fought in the Revolutionary War, just as vitally as Northerners' ancestors had to establish an independent nation and create a form of government which they believed guaranteed their domestic institutions if they so chose them. 

Compromise was at an end. And then war came, and those that sowed the wind, reaped the whirlwind. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Forced Migration to the Cotton Kingdom


Being that I have a random Wednesday off from work this week, and owing to the fact that I am just sitting in front of the television watching TCM show World War II era films in honor of the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I thought I'd go ahead and take a few minutes to write up a post.

My reading pace this past year is a little slower than usual. I blame it on weariness, but there may be some laziness in there, too. It seems that I start to read, and before I know it, the book is hitting my chest and my eyes are dropping like lead. However, there are a few books that stand out among the thirty-five or so on my completed list from the last twelve months; none of which were more memorable than The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist (Basic Books, 2014). I had read several positive reviews about this book and had even placed it on my Amazon wish list, but it was a little more expensive than I wished to pay, even in used condition. During Thanksgiving, while browsing their online catalog, I found it at the Petersburg Public Library. I picked it up the following day and dived in immediately. From the first page it was an enthralling read.


The Half Has Never Been Told is an extremely powerful and and persuasive look at how the expansion of slavery in the seven decades following the American Revolution transformed the Old Southwest into a Cotton Kingdom, which in turn fueled the economy of the United States as a whole, making it a into a world power by 1860. In the process, hundreds of thousands of slaves were both sold and moved from the eastern states to the emerging Cotton Kingdom states, especially, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, and whose labor was extracted at higher and higher levels to increase efficiency and thus sustain economic growth. Baptist writes in an engaging style and uses a wealth of primary sources and slave narratives while telling this important story in our nation's history.

While reading it, I was curious to see if I could find some ready evidence of what Baptist was writing about. So, I took a break from reading and made a stab into the "Chronicling America" newspaper database on the Library of Congress website. I chose to search a random issue of a Mississippi newspaper from this expansion era and only had to review a few pages before finding the advertisement at the top of this post. It was located in the January 4, 1840 issue of the Piney Woods Planter, which was published in Liberty, Mississippi. Liberty is in Amite County, which is located in southwest Mississippi.

The advertisement offered "Virginia Negroes for Sale," by the H. & J. W. Taylor firm. As the notice implies, these slaves were purchased in Virginia and brought to the southwest to labor for those owners who had settled and began clearing the land in the preceding decades. Offered in the advertisement are "house Servants, Mechanics, and Field Hands." The ad claims the interested individuals may call on the traders and that they "may select from about forty as likely Negroes as have ever been offered in the Southern Market." In order to increase their potential customer base, the traders requested that the ad be ran on both sides of the Mississippi River; in Liberty, as well as Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

One wonders how many of these forty "Virginia Negroes" left behind fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters in the Old Dominion. One can also suppose that those that did leave "Old Folks at Home" never ever saw them again.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"The Cook" as experienced by Porte Crayon


I mentioned in my recent post "Enslaved Cooking," about attending a lecture earlier this month at Stratford Hall titled "Cookin' for the Big House: Virginia's Enslaved Cooks and their Kitchens." In the lecture, the speaker used the above image in her PowerPoint presentation. The drawing, which was later converted into an engraving for printing, appeared in the article Virginia Illustrated: Containing a Visit to the Virginia Canaan, and the Adventures of Porte Crayon and his Cousins, by David Hunter Strother (aka Porte Crayon).

During his early 1850s adventures through Virginia, Strother and his traveling party stopped in Amherst Court House, Virginia, just north of Lynchburg. He wrote:
"In Virginia, the village or collection of houses in which the seat of justice is located is called the Court House. Sometimes you find nothing more than a tavern, a store, and a smity. Besides the county buildings, Amherst Court House contains about a dozen houses, and has probably not attained the dignity of a corporate town. The soil of this, in common with many other piedmont counties, is of a bright red in many places, generally fertile, but poorly cultivated. The world down here seems to have been asleep for many years, and an air of loneliness pervades the whole region. As the roads were heavy, and the chances of finding entertainment but few, the driver stopped at an early hour in front of a house of rather unpromising exterior. Porte Crayon, who has the facility of making himself at home every where, when to the kitchen with a bunch of squirrels, the spoils of his German rifle. He returned in high spirits.

'Girls, we will be well fed here; we are fortunate. I have just seen the cook: not a mere black woman that does the cooking, but one bearing the patent stamped by the broad seal of nature; the type of a class whose skill is not of books or training, but a gift both rich and rare; who flourishes her spit like Amphitrite does her trident (or her husband's, which is all the same); whose ladle is as a royal scepter in her hands; who has grown sleek and fat on the steam of her own genius; whose children have the first dip in all the gravies, the exclusive right to all the livers and gizzards, not to mention breasts of fried chickens; who brazens her mistress, boxes her scullions, and scalds the dogs' (I'll warrant there is not a dog on the place with a full suit of hair on him). I was awed to that degree by the severity of her deportment, when I presented the squirrels, that my orders dwindled into a humble request, and, throwing a half dollar on the table as I retreated, I felt my coat-tails to ascertain whether she had not pinned a dishrag to them. In short she is a perfect she-Czar, and may I never butter another corn-cake if I don't have her portrait to-morrow."  

Strother's description implies that this enslaved cook (as was certainly the case with many others) exuded a certain disposition and exercised a certain level of power due to her skills and the importance of her role. Comparing the cook to the sea goddess Amphitrite, the wife of Poseidon, shows her strength, and his claim that she "brazens her mistress," and orders around those under her charge only seemed to impress him and cow him to an individual who he would have normally required deference.    


Strother (pictured above) was a native Virginian, born in Martinsburg (later West Virginia) in 1816. As a young man showed a talent at art and thus studied drawing and panting in Philadelphia and New York City. A job as author and illustrator with Harper's Monthly Magazine  soon developed with Strother using the pen name Porte Crayon. One of Strother's most remembered sets of works were those he captured shortly after John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. During the Civil War he followed many of this fellow western Virginia Unionists by joining the Federal army in 1862. He served as a mapmaker, and later on the staff of his distant cousin, Gen. David "Black Dave" Hunter, before assuming command of the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry.

Image of "The Cook," Image reference HARP01, as shown on www.slaveimages.com, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.
Image of Strother courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Monday, November 28, 2016

In Print in Ohio Valley History


Back during my latest dry spell of posts here on "Random Thoughts" (October) I was honored to receive several complimentary copies of the Ohio Valley History journal's (Vol. 16, No. 3 - Fall 2016) issue that my article, "Telling Testimony: Slavery Advertisements in Kentucky's Civil War Newspapers" appeared in.

This project began as a twelve-page paper for the Symposium on the 19th Century Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which I presented back in November 2013. I had presented at this conference in 2012 on Kentuckians' reactions to John Brown's raid and had received some nice feedback. The John Brown paper was later selected for publishing in A Press Divided: Newspaper Coverage in the Civil War (Transaction Publishers, 2014), so I though I'd try again on a different topic and see if a similar positive outcome resulted.

While researching the John Brown paper I often became distracted by the diverse advertisements in newspaper sources. Doing so developed my curiosity and caused me to question how slavery advertisements changed over the course of the Civil War in Kentucky.

The time spent researching the various slavery advertisements in Kentucky's Civil War newspapers amounted to countless hours spent in front of microfilm machines at various repositories across the Commonwealth. Then the many hours developing and populating the databases for cataloging the owner posted runaway ads and the jailer posted captured runaway ads, as well as the writing and revising of the paper made me wonder more than once if it all would be worth it. Well, the paper ended up being awarded at the conference, so obviously I was pleased.

In 2014, I submitted the paper for inclusion at a conference being held a the Filson Historical Society in Louisville. I admittedly was a little disappointed that it was not accepted. However, it was not much longer after that that I was contacted by the editor of Ohio Valley History, who is affiliated with the Filson. She explained in her email that she found my research topic intriguing and wondered if I might perhaps be able to expand the study and develop a strengthened argument for potential consideration in an special issue on emancipation the journal was anticipating publishing.

Fortunately, I had kept my thorough notes and the databases that I had developed. These helped me add significantly to the orthogonal conference paper. Then with constructive criticism from a couple of anonymous peer review readers, as well as grammatical help from the editors, the paper was accepted and included in the fall 2016 issue, the cover image of which is shown below. I must say that I am very pleased with the final product and the experience was one that I feel with benefit me in the future.

If anyone has access the article, I would be interested in your thoughts about it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Recent Acquisitions to My Library


As one can infer from the majority of my posts, my main regional interest is Southern history. However, my interest in the Northern home front was piqued recently by reading a collection of essays titled, Union Heartland: The Midwestern Home Front during the Civil War, so I am looking to add to my growing knowledge of how the war was experienced outside the South.


I purchased this book before attending a lecture at Statford Hall two weekends ago, titled "Cookin' for the Big House: Virginia's Enslaved Cooks and their Kitchens," but did not get around to reading it until after. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about how African foods and African American cooking has influenced America's palate at large.


This book is one that I had on my reading wish list for quite a while and finally purchased it after a visit to the National Park Service's Chimborazo visitor center and museum in Richmond back in late September. Although first published in the early 1980s, this study stands the test of time and provides a wealth of information about how slaves treated themselves and how masters sought to keep their enslaved workers healthy.


The experiences of those who flocked to contraband camps is an area of my Civil War knowledge that could use some improvement. Therefore, I'm looking forward to diving into this recently published volume very soon.


Slave breeding is a controversial topic that historians seemingly avoided or just lightly touched upon until quite recently. Scholars have debated whether organized slave breeding for profit existed, and if so to what extent. Hopefully this work will shed new light on this dark subject.


Other than the 1800-1880 time period, my next favorite era would probably be the 1930s and 1940s. Like my favorite historical period, the 30s and 40s were a time of extreme change. The story of the Dust Bowl is one that I look forward to learning about more. Being an Oklahoma Sooners football fan this particular subject has a significant tie in. It was largely through the experience of the double-whammy that was the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that deprecating titles such as Okies and humiliating images of extreme poverty emerged and that University of Oklahoma sought to banish by developing a championship caliber football team in the late 1940s.


Gen. Robert E. Lee once mentioned something to the effect that he could not imagine the army without music. The impact of music on the soldiers in the field, as well as the citizens at home, was indeed enormous. That impact resonated long past the silence of the guns. Many of the tunes that developed during the Civil War years remain with us as part of American culture. This looks to be an intriguing read. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Enslaved Cooking


Although Thanksgiving did not become an official national holiday until a presidential proclamation in 1863 (and then only initially in the Union states), the weeks and months after harvest in the antebellum South often came to be viewed as a time of plenty. In the autumn, food larders were replenished from the gathering and processing of that year's subsistence crops and the annual fall animal slaughters. As the leaves from the trees fell, food seemed to be in more abundance than at any other time of the year.

In the time before food was prepared on wood stoves, most culinary skills were honed by open hearth cooking. Like the field slaves' work, domestic slaves' duties of cooking and cleaning were labor intensive, and dangerous. Preparing three daily meals for the slave owning family (and probably more during the holiday season) meant long hours and aching muscles for the enslaved cook.

The process of cooking at the time did not just involve policing the goodness frying in the pans, boiling in the pots, and baking in the dutch ovens; the work to prepare for the cooking process alone was more physical work than some people did all day. Wood for fuel had to be chopped, spit, and carried to the hearth. Water had to be drawn from the well and toted to the kitchen for both cooking and cleaning. Poultry had to be killed, plucked, and dressed. Ingredients had to be gathered and measured.

Open hearth cooking was dangerous work. Clothing fires were not uncommon. Some female cooks had to wet their skirts or aprons to avoid their catching fire. The closeness to heating sources was also a problem due to breathing in wood smoke and the potential contact of hot metal handles with bare skin hands. Bending over heavy pots and pans to reach them on the hearth floor, where the cooking was completed to help control the piles of embers, and thus the various required temperatures, meant sore backs, necks, shoulders, knees, and legs.

Enslaved cooks probably received little recognition for their labors. A congratulations may be forthcoming if the mistress was in such a mood. A little taste while cooking or potential leftovers were sometimes the only compensation they received. All of which was little consolation knowing that the whole process would need to be started again almost immediately for the next meal. The cooks knew it would be the same the following day, and the next, and the next. And unlike the enslaved field hands, the domestic slaves more often than not did not get to enjoy a day of rest during the week. Is there any surprise then that if given an opportunity to escape their condition, it was the domestic slaves who often made first efforts?


Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.