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:

President of the United States,
 January 1st, 1863. 
Come, then, able- bodied COLORED MEN, to the nearest U. S. 
Camp and fight for the 

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.