Monday, December 31, 2012
Of the 69 books I read this year Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861, is certainly in the top five. In this fascinating look at mixed race relationship issues, University of Alabama professor Joshua D. Rothman uses numerous court records from the early republic and antebellum periods to complete a fascinating and illuminating look at relationships that were more often than not taboo, but not so rare as once thought.
Rothman starts out the book by looking at what is probably the most famous mixed race relationship in American history; that of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Rothman particularly examines the political attack that James Callender, a writer for the Richmond Recorder, made on Jefferson in 1802 about this very issue. Rothman concludes that Callender misjudged the effect the exposed situation would have. White Virginians understood that interracial relationships were a fact of life in the slaveholding state, but they did not appreciate their "dirty laundry" being aired publicly, especially when it concerned a venerated son of Virginia. Rothman contends that Callender's expose backfired, "By moving the rumor of Jefferson's interracial sexual affairs from private to public discourse, Callender touched off whole new rounds of discussions about the president all over the country, but he also succeeded in cementing his own reputation as a scoundrel, a judgement that has lasted for two hundred years."
Another case that Rothman investigates closely was also from Charlottesville, Virginia. It involved the long-term relationship between Jewish mercantile business owner David Isaacs and free woman of color Nancy West. Not allowed to marry due to Virginia laws, Isaacs and West maintained a common law relationship that proved instead of being detrimental to be one of great benefit to each partner. The couple lived together for forty years and had seven children together. At times they faced harassing suits from business competitors intent on seeing a rival go out of business, but they persevered and prospered.
Chapter 3, "Sex and Race on the Streets of Richmond," is a fascinating look into the back alleys and dark illegal businesses that thrived in the antebellum capital of Virginia. Rothman makes strong use of Mayor Joseph Mayo's court records, which handled many of the misdemeanor cases that involved prostitution and illegal trading of goods with slaves. Urban slavery was quite different than rural plantation slavery. In cities such as Richmond, slaves often had more "liberty" to hire their time and make their own living arrangements. These "freedoms" often led to illegal activities that led to illicit ways to earn income. Rothman writes that "Interracial sex became not only unpalatable to Richmonders but something that needed to be rooted out and prevented. No matter how vigilant white Richmonders came to be by the onset of the Civil War, however, they never effectively stamped out the interracial vice in their midst."
Other fascinating chapters cover violence that slaves extracted on owners who took sexual advantage of women slaves; divorce petitions from men asking to sever their marriages to women who were found to have had relationships with black men - by pregnancy results or eyewitness accounts; and from women whose husbands flagrantly lived in adulterous relationships with slave women. I was amazed to find how blatant slaveowning husbands often were toward their wives. I suppose they were because they knew how powerless women were, both wives and slave partners, to effect much change in the male's behavior.
In the "Epilogue" Rothman sums up his findings quite nicely: "For most of the seventy-five years before the Civil War, whites met the discovery of sex across the color line with disapprobation but also with equanimity. They recognized that exploitative, familial, commercial, and adulterous interracial sexual liaisons were all unavoidable in a multiracial world, especially where 'our family, white and black,' served as one of the central metaphors of understanding social and economic relations in that world. Accommodation of such illicit sexuality was not without its consequences, foremost among which were the instabilities wrought by the emotional suffering of members of white and black families alike, the bitter tensions and ferocious violence provoked by the systematic sexual abuse of African American women, the periodic dissolution of marriages, and the blurring of the line theoretically separating black from white, and the existence of individuals and families who seemed beyond the reach of the laws designed to make their lives difficult and dangerous. But bending to the winds of social and legal contradiction helped keep early national and antebellum Virginia from breaking. Moreover, the presence of slavery guaranteed white supremacy, enabling white men in positions of power and authority at both the local and state levels to respond to situations involving interracial sex requiring their intervention without consistently making the enforcement of laws that demanded rigid racial and sexual boundaries their sole or even top priority."
I give Notorious in the Neighborhood a hearty recommendation to those wishing to better understand the seemingly contradictory nature of race relations during slavery in the South. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75.
Sunday, December 30, 2012
In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Stones River, or as the Confederates called it, the Battle of Murfreesboro, which occurred in Middle Tennessee, December 31-January 2, 1862, I thought I'd share a couple of short passages. One account is from the night before the battle, December 30, the other is from a Union soldier that was wounded on the first day of battle. These soldiers' vivid impression could have come from a soldier on either side, as on these days both Northerner and Southerner fought like furies in this terribly deadly fight.
"The thirtieth of December was a dreary day. 'Rain had fallen almost constantly,' reported A.M. Crary of the Seventy-fifth Illinois Infantry, 'and soldiers were saturated with water. Toward night the wind swept coldly from the north, and . . . no bivouac fires were allowed. . . .' A soldier in the Nineteenth Ohio Infantry said that some of the men, "having lost their blankets and knapsacks suffered terribly from the cold.'
Just as the men were preparing to get what sleep they could, one of the strange events of the war took place. In the stillness of the winter night, the military bands of both armies began to play their favorite tunes, and the music became something of a contest. 'Yankee Doodle' was answered by 'Dixie,' and "The Bonnie Blue Flag brought out a resounding version of 'Hail Columbia.' Ultimately, a Federal band struck of the familiar 'Home Sweet Home,' and a member of the Nineteenth Tennessee Infantry wrote: 'Immediately a Confederate band caught up the strain, then one after another until all the bands of each army were playing 'Home Sweet Home.' And after our bands ceased playing, we could hear the sweet refrain as it died away on the cool frosty air on the Federal side.' It was a strange prelude to one of the bloodiest battles of the war."
From Stones River: Bloody Winter in Tennessee by James Lee McDonough
Ira Owen of the 74th Ohio Volunteer Infantry had been shot in the leg during the fight on December 31. He was carried to a field hospital and bore witness to the day's slaughter:
"It was impossible to supply all the wounded with tents. Rails were hauled and thrown in piles . . . and large fires built. The wounded were brought and lain by these fires. Men were wounded in every conceivable way, some with their arms shot off, some wounded in the body, some in the head. It was heart-rending to hear to hear their cries and groans. One poor fellow who was near me was wounded in the head. He grew delirious during the night, and would very frequently call his mother. . . . The poor fellow died before morning with no mother near, to soothe him in his dying moments, or wipe the cold sweat from his brow. I saw the surgeons amputate limbs, then throw the quivering flesh into a pile. Every once in a while a man would stretch himself out and die. Next morning rows of men were laid out side by side for the soldiers' burial."
From No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River by Peter Cozzens
Saturday, December 29, 2012
The subject of lynching is one such topic. It is difficult for us today to understand how these episodes could happen, but author Amy Louise Wood in Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, handles the subject intelligently and provides explanations for why this type of terrorism was implemented and its publicity fortunately and ultimately proved to beckon its demise.
Lynching, although more common in the Southern United States than elsewhere in America, happened in locations across the nation. And, not only African American were the victims. Immigrants and others of non-Protestant religions also felt the wrath of mob vigilante actions. Wood concentrates her research, however, on towns and cities of mainly three Southern states; Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.
The focus of Wood's work is how lynchings became a form of visual interest. The South, after the Civil War, became less homogeneous with each passing year. Northerners came to the Southern states for a variety of reasons, and after slavery ended, immigrants no longer spurned the South as they had when the "peculiar institution" was the system of labor. Due to this lack of homogeneity white supremacy, according to Wood, had to be "constructed and established and that required constant replenishing and constant reenvisioning. That is, they needed to be performed and witnessed." And lynching often fit that bill.
Wood starts with a look at how public criminal executions were experienced and how they evolved from being open public events to being more restricted private occasions. She also covers how religion often figured into the the white supremacy mentality of lynching. Wood contends that "lynch mobs and their advocates had to impose the familiar Protestant notions of sin and retribution onto what were, in many ways, new forms of racial violence and new conceptions of white supremacy."
Of special interest to me was Wood's coverage of how photography, especially postcards, were used to spread the "spectacle" of lynching to those that had not attended the event. "Photographing a lynching marked the occasion as special, worthy of the camera's view, but it also made what was an extraordinary event somewhat familiar, especially because white southerners would have posed for and interpreted these images through their experiences with other, more typical photographic forms and practices, such as portraiture and hunting photographs." Wood's comparison of lynching images and those of animal hunting parties, what with dogs and men and guns, and both with their hanged prey displayed is especially disturbing but significant.
Turning the tables, Wood shows how individual and group anti-lynching advocates, such as Ida Wells Barnett and the NAACP skillfully used the same photographic images to attack lynching that spectators used to promoted the act. Lynching images were provided to show the grisly, inhumane, and unlawful realty of vigilante justice. These were printed in advocacy newspapers and magazines and made available to state and especially national lawmakers in the hope of changing public opinion and spurring legislative measures against lynching.
Also discussed at length was how early moving pictures such as Birth of a Nation and others were viewed by many African Americans as promoting lynching, and finally how Hollywood used movies like Fury and They Won't Forget to "indict" lynching.
While it was indeed disturbing to see the images of lynching parties and read about the results of their acts, what I learned from Lynching and Spectacle was certainly important. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5.
Friday, December 28, 2012
I saw an online article yesterday that claimed that the current Congress was the least productive since the 1940s. It's difficult to argue with that, what with all the partisanship, non-compromise, fiscal cliff wheel spinning that is currently going on.
However, I also saw another short article that showed that at least one part of our government is doing something positive.
The National Coalition for History reported that:
"National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis recently announced the award of more the $2.4 million in grants to help with land acquisition at eight Civil War battlefields.
Grant projects include fee simple purchases at Perryville, Kentucky ($43,715); Mill Springs, Kentucky ($330,000); Bentonville, North Carolina ($168,720); Franklin, Tennessee ($112,800); Second Manassas, Virginia ($196,500); Peebles' Farm, Virginia; and Topopotomoy Creek, Virginia ($91,600); and the purchase of an easement at Cool Springs, Virginia ($1,500,000).
The grants were made from the National Park Service's American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) to help states and local communities acquire and preserve threatened Civil War battlefield land outside the boundaries of National Park units. Priority was given to battlefields listed in the Park Service's Civil War Site Advisory Commission Report on the Nation's Civil War Battlefields (CWSAC Report). Funds were based on the property's location within CWSAC-defined core and/or study areas, the threat to the battlefield land to be acquired, and the availability of required non-Federal matching funds.
The grants were made available under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 (Public Law 112-74), which appropriated $8,985,600 for the Civil War battlefield lands acquisition grants program."
Thursday, December 27, 2012
With a keyword search using "Underground Railroad" I came across this image on the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs online catalog. I wasn't able to make out many of the details at first so I downloaded the TIFF image and enlarged it. I must admit the image was kind of grotesque. The beasts portrayed, whether dragons, demons or some other monsters - flying or creeping or shooting cannonballs - are a seeming chorus from of Dante's Inferno.
Thankfully the kind people at the Library of Congress provided an interpretation of this image called "A Dream Caused by a Perusal of Mrs. H. Beecher Stowe's Popular Work Uncle Tom's Cabin." To me it appears to me more of nightmare than a dream. But it goes a long way toward showing how some people interpreted the potential impact that the book could or would have on society. Interestingly, it was published in 1853 by a firm (J.C. Frost and G.W. Hall) from Louisville, Kentucky, and was apparently drawn by lithographer Colin R. Milne.
Library of Congress interpretation: "An imaginative and biting satire on Harriet Beecher Stowe and her recently published antislavery novel 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' Printed serially beginning in June 1851, the novel first appeared in book form in 1852. The artist has concocted a chaotic, nightmarish vision, where armies demons and other monsters battle in a barren, desert setting reminiscent of the infernal visions of Hieronymus Bosch and Jacques Callot. (Murrell points out, in fact, that the plate owes its central motif - an enormous flying dragon - from Callot's 'Temptation of St. Anthony.') In the center a leering black man dressed as a Quaker holds a flag 'Women of England to the Rescue.' To the left, near the mouth of the cave marked 'Underground Railway,' Mrs. Stowe is pulled and harassed by demons. She holds up a book that reads 'Uncle Tom's Cabin, I Love the Blacks.' Another woman, (or perhaps Mrs. Stowe again) rides in a parade of demons on the right. In the distance several monsters feed copies of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' to a blazing fire."
The TIFF version can be downloaded here.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Christmas being the romantic time of year that it is, I thought I'd share an interesting document that I came across recently. It is a marriage license issued by the Freedmen's Bureau in Lebanon, Tennessee in 1866.
The individuals listed as husband and wife were a Christmas-themed couple, Joseph and Mary Provines. It states that Mary used "to belong to W." someone - the last name is difficult to make out. The document states that the two lived together, apparently in slavery - at least Mary was enslaved; Joseph possibly could have been free, or the disclaimer of the former owner could perhaps pertain to both of them - for 21 years.
Included is information on Joseph and Mary's son, Stephen Provines, who was about 19 years old. It claims that "Stephen went off with Genl. [John T.] Wilder's command of U.S Troops in 1863, and was heard from at Louisville, Ky soon after Hood's raid to Nashville [Dec. 1864], probably went by the name of Sanders or Calhoun."
It was not unusual that a couple would, after 21 years of common law slave marriage, take the time and make the effort to get their partnership legalized. For many freedmen making the family union legitimate in the eyes of the law was a first step toward citizenship and equality.
Image courtesy of the National Archives.
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Savannah, [Georgia] Dec. 22, 1864
To His Excellency,
I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.
Image courtesy of the National Archives
Monday, December 24, 2012
Sunday, December 23, 2012
The back of the image indicates that it was made at J.P. Ball's Photographic Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has the date September 16-22, 1862 written in pencil. Also written on the back are the names of the men pictured standing and holding pistols. Confusingly, both men are indicated as being on the left, so I am not sure who is who. One of the men is Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant of the 22th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment and of Racine, Wisconsin. The other man is Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster of the 22nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, from Geneva, Wisconsin. Sitting between the two soldiers is a young African American woman.
So, what's the story here?
I did an internet search and found an entry on the Oxford African American Studies Center located here. It provided a brief description of the incident depicted. It states:
"In the fall of 1862, two soldiers from Wisconsin's 22nd Infantry Regiment escorted an escaped teenage slave from Nicholasville, Kentucky, to the home of famed Underground Railroad operator Levi Coffin in Cincinnati. The regiment, composed of numerous sympathizers to the abolitionist cause, had been stationed in Nicholasville to fend off a rumored attack by by Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith. The soldiers were Frank M. Rockwell (left), a twenty-two-year-old postmaster from the town of Geneva, and Jesse L. Berch, a twenty-five-year-old quartermaster sergeant from Racine. With the young fugitive disguised as a 'mulatto soldier boy,' Rockwell and Berch traveled the one hundred miles to Coffin's house at a rapid pace. The party arrived safely and spent two days at the Coffin residence. Before sending the girl off to Racine (where the soldiers had friends ready to take the girl in), however, they posed with her for the above daguerreotype, taken at J.P. Ball Photographic Gallery in Cincinnati."
The information from Oxford did not include citations where their additional information was found, or how they determined that it was Rockwell on the left, since as I mentioned above, both men are indicated as being on the left. However, from what I know, much of the narrative holds up. The 22nd Wisconsin did in fact have a number of strident abolitionists. For one such soldier see my post about the 22nd's Col. William Utley, which can be viewed here.
There might possibly be a mistake though on the date indicated on the back of the photograph. Another internet search indicates that the 22nd Wisconsin was only mustered into service on September 2, 1862, and that they left Wisconsin on September 16 and were in Cincinnati and then Covington, Kentucky, on September 22. They appear to have been in the Nicholasville, Kentucky area a month later, after the Confederates had retreated from the state after the Battle of Perryville.
Regardless of the complete story, it is a fascinating photograph that seems to indicate that some Union soldiers were fighting the war for social changes in addition to preserving the United States.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
I came across the above drawing, titled "Negroes Leaving the Plough," while browsing through the Library of Congress online images for a project at work. The image shows what are apparently four slaves who have unharnessed and then mounted plow horses in a field as Union troops pass by on the road. It is obvious that the slaves planned to leave their field work and the plow behind and follow the troops to experience some level of freedom.
The image was sketched by noted Civil War battlefield artist Alfred R. Waud. It was reprinted as an engraving in the March 26, 1864 issue of Harper's Weekly shown above.
We should all feel fortunate that artists such as Waud followed the armies so closely and captured moments like this that were probably too fleeting for period photography to catch, but yet likely happened quite often as the Union army moved into slaveholding areas. The Harper's Weekly picture is part of a collage titled "Scenes Connected with General Custer's Movement Across the Rapidan [River]."
We will never know for sure the grand total of slaves that took advantage of the proximity of the Union army to make their escape from bondage during the Civil War. But they certainly understood that the war provided occasions to end the slave life they had known and the opportunity to see what it was like to make decisions for themselves and earn a wage for their labor.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
While the Family or Freedom part of the title fits quite nicely with the subject of the book, I found the subtitle somewhat ambiguous (or vague - I get those two mixed up). People of Color in the Antebellum South, to me, covers both the approximately 250,000 free people of color as well as the almost 4 million enslaved people of color. But clearly the focus of the book is free people of color. Anyhow, that's just my little gripe, and certainly the title did not take away from the quality or readability of the book.
The author, Emily West, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Reading, looks at various petitions by free people of color to voluntarily re-enslave themselves. This is something that I have wondered about, as several times I have come across accounts in newspapers where this was mentioned in a proslavery framework. That is, that the free person of color realized that life was better as a slave than being free and chose to go into slavery.
West's research into these petitions found that the main reason free people of color most often chose to be enslaved was to remain with family. Most of the states the enacted voluntary enslavement legislation allowed free people of color to choose their master and West's use of census data shows that most likely those that chose enslavement wanted to live with a spouse or children owned by a certain master. Another lesser motivation for voluntary enslavement was destitute poverty. Free people of color often lived in a quasi-slavery anyway that reduced their rights and limited their opportunities for advancement, so some of the petitioners chose enslavement to have basic needs (housing, food, clothing) met. It makes one wonder how bad free life had to be to chose to be owned by someone else.
The other major factor for voluntary self enslavement was the numerous debates that many states had on exiling free people of color from their borders. And, while it appears that Arkansas (1860) was the only state that did in fact do so, many other states (including Kentucky) discussed it in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Some free people of color simply chose to be enslaved rather risking the possibility of being uprooted from their home areas, and similar to above, away from an enslaved spouse or other family members.
This book was a fascinating read. It brought up many issues to ponder. I highly recommend it to anyone that is interested in learning more about free people of color in the antebellum South and the myriad of challenges they faced. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5.
Monday, December 17, 2012
This image commemorates the signing of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which allowed all male citizens of age to vote. President Grant is shown signing the amendment and seated around him in the front row is Edwin M. Stanton (Secretary of War), Schuyler Colfax (Vice President), Abraham Lincoln (interesting that he is included as he had been dead for five years), Grant, William H. Seward (Secretary of State), and Frederick Douglass. In the rear row is Horace Greeley (newspaper editor), Salmon Chase (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), Robert Smalls (later congressman from South Carolina), Charles Sumner Massachusetts Senator), Hiram Revels (Mississippi Senator), Benjamin F. Butler (Massachusetts Congressman), and William T. Sherman (Commanding General of the U.S. Army). Above the men is a portrait of John Brown.
In the top left is a vignette of a court room that it labeled "Justice for All," and shows the importance of African Americans being allowed to provide testimony in court and to initiate suits.
Opposite is an image of African Americans in line to cast their votes that is titled "A Freeman's Right."
Below this image is a soldier to represent African American service to the "Army," and to the left is a sailor to show the "Navy."
The bottom row of images from left to right depict the Battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana, a farm scene titled "Peace," an education scene "School," and finally another battle scene at "Petersburg," Virginia.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Sunday, December 16, 2012
Somehow, since its publication in 2000, I had overlooked Southern Families at War: Loyalty and Conflict in the Civil War South. This collection of essays edited by respected Southern and women's historian Catherine Clinton cover a set of topics as diverse as the geography of the South.
With these essays we get a glimpse of life for Southern people - black, white, rich, poor, religious, secular, native, immigrant, during and immediately after, behind, and sometimes caught up in the battle lines of the Civil War.
As always seem to be the case, some of these essays spoke to me and interested me more than others. Of course, the main reason for that is because they cover topics that I find personally intriguing or because they cover events that happened in locations that I am familiar with.
The first essay offered up in this collection, "Looking for Lost Kin: Efforts to Reunite Freed Families after Emancipation," by Michael P. Johnson, looks at the effort former slaves made in trying to locate their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and extended family after the Civil War. Johnson closely examines the advertisements in the Christian Recorder, a weekly newspaper of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church. Johnson contends that the ads were submitted in such a way to take advantage of the African American "grapevine" that extended throughout the nation; that is, that these ads were meant to be read to congregations and other gatherings and then discussed among each other. The ultimate desired end result was reunion, but just getting some word about the condition and locality of separated loved ones often too provided a sense of comfort for those that had been estranged for years or even decades.
"In the Shadow of the Old Constitution: Black Civil War Veterans and the Persistence of Slave Marriage Customs," by Donald R. Shaffer, offers another fascinating study. Here Shaffer examined pensions of former USCT soldiers to find that some abandoned the "old constitution," that is, the old slave marriage customs, while others continued in that style of informal common-law relationships that had been prevalent in slave days. Shaffer explains that these marriages caused issues when wives or widows attempted to provide proof of marriage when potentially collecting a pension. One reason for the persistence of slave-type relationships that Shaffer cites is the cost of formal marriages and especially divorces. Before the days of no-fault divorces, the court costs could prove quite prohibitive to African Americans barely scraping by. As Shaffer summarizes "Hence, even as former slaves embraced the possibilities of freedom, their years in bondage continued to shape their behavior in a significant way even decades later."
Another essay that caught my attention was "A Family of Women and Children: The Fains of East Tennessee during Wartime," by Daniel W. Stowell. Having lived in East Tennessee for a number of years as a youth and later as an adult made me acutely aware of many of the places and circumstance included in this selection. The Fains were from Hawkins County, Tennessee and were unique for their location in that they supported the Confederacy, while the majority of their neighbors were Unionists. Eliza Fain left an incredible record of her life experience in the series of diaries she kept from 1835 to 1892. Her records on the war years are a fascinating look into the tumultuous life she and her family experienced in East Tennessee. She wrote about her experiences with her slaves, her Unionist neighbors, guerrillas, and the Union forces that rode through and occupied her land. In the end, with her husband and sons off fighting for the Confederacy, Eliza assumed the probably unwanted position of farm and slave manager and sole influential parent. She relied heavily on her intelligence and strong faith to survive the terrible conflict that turned her world upside down.
Other essays that I especially enjoyed were, "Good Angels: Confederate Widowhood in Virginia," "The White Wings of Eros: Courtship and Marriage in Confederate Richmond," "Power, Sex, and Gender Roles: The Transformation of an Alabama Planter Family during the Civil War," and, "Patriarchy in the World Where There Is No Parting?: Power Relations in the Confederate Heaven."
I highly recommend this great collection of essays. In fact, I enjoyed reading Southern Families at War, so much, that on a scale from 1 to 5, I feel confident in giving it a 5.