Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Revelation of a Revolution
While reading This Astounding Close: The Road to Bennett Place the author used a source to illustrate the long road home many Confederates had to take after the surrender. I had this read this specific account a number of year's back and fortunately I owned the book it came from: One of Cleburne's Command: The Civil War Reminiscences and Diary of Capt. Samuel T. Foster, Grandbury's Texas Brigade, CSA, so I can share it here.
On Foster's 1500 mile trip back to to Texas from Greensboro, North Carolina, he stopped in Greeneville, Tennessee. Greeneville was the hometown of then President Andrew Johnson and had been a Unionist stronghold in Union sympathizing East Tennessee.
On May 17, 1865, Foster noted:
"Traveled about 12 miles and stopped at 11AM 2 miles from Greenville [sic] E. [East] T. [Tennnessee] where we expect to take the RR for Nashville (if the authorities will take us).
We are near a Yankee camp, and their officers are about our camp all talking freely and friendly with us. The feeling among our men is to go home and go to work and build up the country again, and have peace once more in the land.
After resting we pass through Greenville, and the house where Andy Johnson worked at the Tailors trade is pointed out to us. Also the house were Genl [John Hunt] Morgan was sleeping when the Yanks charged the house, from whence he fled to the Gardern where he was killed by them. As we came into town we passed through a negro soldiers camp or rather we pass near it -
They come out to the road to see us, and litterally [sic] line each side of the road.
Our men begin to make sport of them.
One man [Confederate soldier] wants a candle, 'Says it is so dark he can't see'. Another says 'If he owned all that gang of negroes he would put them to a better use' - One negro says - 'You used to be de top rail, but whar is you now' - Another says 'I used to be in de cotton patch hoin cotton, and now where am I.' - That kind of nonsense was going on while we were on the march along the road, and about the last of them was an old negro with a stove pipe hat on, with the mark of a Corporal on his coat. He says to the younger negroes who were talking so impudent to us - says he 'You'd better mind what you'se about, if one of dem dar white men gits hold on yer - dey will wear you off to a frazle. One o'dem will whip 5 or 6 of you if he catch you out o'sight.' Then shaking his head kinder knowingly at them 'Says you mind what yer unkle Joe is er sayin' fur I knose what ise talking 'bout.'"
This account is an interesting turn of events and shows to some extent the racial change that took place as the war progressed and then ended. While the Southerners were still comfortable to degrade African Americans - even armed soldiers - the black men felt confident enough to give as good as they took. The older corporal though would have none of it and sought to take a more deferential stance toward the defeated Confederates.
On May 18 Foster and his group were still in Greeneville, but he explained that "there has not been a negro seen near our camp yet." The black soldiers were on guard in Greeneville, but apparrently Foster and his men went about their business "without being molested by them."
The next day, the 19th, was in my opinion, the most fascinating entry of his post-war accounts. After a battle of Union and Confederate bands, in which apparently the Southerners got that last say, Foster got his first sight of black children being educated. "I saw some negro children going to school this morning, for the first time in my life. In fact I never hear of such a thing before, nor had such a thing ever crossed my mind. - I stoped a little negro girl about 12 years old dressed neat and clean, going to school with her books - I asked her to let me see what she was studying - She pulled out a 4th Reader a Grammer Arithmetic and a Geography - I opened the Grammer about the middle of the book and asked her a few questions - which she answered very readily and correctly. Same with her Geography and Arithmetic. I never was more surprised in my life! The idea was new to me.
I asked her who was her teacher. She said 'a lady from the north.'
I returned to camp and think over what I have seen. I can see that all the negro children will be educated the same as the white children are. That the present generation will live and die in ignorance, as they have done heretofore - I can see that our white children will have to study hard, and apply themselves closely, else they will have to ride behind, and let the negro hold the reins - I can see that the next generation will find lawyers doctors preachers, school teachers farmers merchants & c divided some white and some black, and the smartest man will succeed without regard to his color. If the negro lawyer is more successful than the white one then the negro will get the practice.
The color will not be so much in the future as knowledge. The smartest man will win - in every department of life. Our children will have to contend for the honors in life against the negro in the future - They will oppose each other as lawyers in the same case. They will oppose each other as mechanics, carpenters, house builders, blacksmith, silver and gold smiths shoemakers, saddle makers &c.
And the man that is the best mechanic lawyer, doctor or teacher &c will succeed."
I have to wonder when Foster would have come to this revelation if he had not run into that African American school girl in Greeneville, Tennessee. Would he have remained blind to the changes wrought by four years of terrible war? Regardless, of whether he would have or when he would have; he did. The light hit him that without the bonds of slavery, "The color will not be so much in the future as knowledge." That's quite a revelation in 1865.