Sunday, May 31, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Henry "Box" Brown

In studying the history of slavery in the United States one quickly comes to realize that slaves had a large hand in the eventual abolition of the institution. Slaves resisted their oppression in diverse ways. Some slaves ran away; sometimes for long periods, or permanently, sometimes just for a few hours or days. Some pretended to be ill to get out of work. Some broke their tools. Some poisoned or used violence or arson to get back at cruel masters. Some even played tricks on their unsuspecting and haughty owners. One story was told about slaves who had had their meat ration cut back. In order to get back at their master, they hit a couple of beef cattle in the head with a mallet and killed them. When the master came out to see what had happened to the cattle, the slaves explained that the cattle had died of "malletitis." Worried that the "diseased" beef would not be good for his own family, the master gave it to the slaves to slaughter and eat. Of course nothing was wrong with the meat, but the slaves got what they wanted and felt like they deserved.

One good example of the lengths that slaves would go to be free is Henry Box Brown. Brown was born into slavery in about 1815 on a plantation in Louisa County, Virginia. At around 15 years old or so, Henry was leased to a tobacco manufacturer in Richmond. While in Richmond Henry met a slave woman named Nancy and they started a family together. They eventually had three children. Henry paid part of his wages to his own owner and part to Nancy's owner for her family time away from her master. Abruptly, in 1848, Nancy and the children were sold to an owner in North Carolina. Henry had been warned as a child by his mother that a slave's fate was not his own; that only when free could he make decisions for himself.

Henry desperately wanted to be free and devised a solution he thought would work. He would ship himself to the North and make good on this plea for freedom. In 1849, while still in Richmond, Henry contacted a man he knew that was secretly sympathetic to slaves' conditions and paid the man to make arrangements for him to be "received" in Philadelphia. Although they had painted "This Side Up" on the wooden box, Henry spent much of the 27-hour trip on his head. The box was quite cramped as it only measured three feet long by two feet wide by two feet eight inched deep. He had taken a container of water and a small drill to bore air holes when needed, but there were times he said he felt like his head was going to burst and his eyes were going to pop out. The trip North included many different forms of transportation. Part of the way the box was taken by wagon, then train, then steamboat, a ferry, and then a wagon again, and finally delivered to the address marked on the box.

Henry became a leading speaker for anti-slavery societies, both in the North and in England. He published two versions of his narrative, one in 1849 in Boston, and the other in 1851, in England, called Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown. Brown had moved to England to avoid the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, where presented theatrical performances of his escape called "Mirror of Slavery." Brown returned to the United States in the 1870s, but his place, date and cause of death are not known.

Henry Box Brown is memorialized today by teachers who want their students to know the efforts that slaves made to be free in antebellum America. He is also honored by a simple monument, a metal box the same size as he escaped in, on the Richmond, Virginia canal walk. For pictures of the monument see the following link:

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Just finished reading - Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia by Brian D. McKnight

The southern Appalachian Mountain region of southwestern Virginia and southeastern Kentucky is the focus of fellow East Tennessee State University alum Brian D. McKnight's work, Contested Borderland. This area experienced a type of war that in many respects was both unique and common to other regions hit hard by the Civil War. Over the course of the war this area saw some of the most famous of Civil War personalities. Men such as Ambrose Burnside, John C. Breckinridge, George H. Thomas, William T. Sherman, and Edmund Kirby Smith, and Felix K. Zollicoffer, all participated in actions in this region or had command over troops that did. Others, not so known, such as Humphrey Marshall, Samuel Jones, Stephen Burbridge, and Samuel P. Carter had their war fortunes enhanced or detracted by their actions or lack of actions in the region.

No major battles along the lines of a Gettysburg or a Chickamauga occurred in the mountains, but a significant amount of minor actions and skirmishes kept the hostilities burning. McKnight puts it well in his conclusion of the book, "...Although the region hosted no major battles, saw few large armies, and witnessed changes of sentiment from day to day, house to house, and brother to brother, its wartime experience is perhaps one of the most elusive, yet satisfying, historical studies. Within this area, the Union and Confederacy dueled not only for the hearts, minds, and votes of men, but met challenges that armies in other regions could never imagine. These challenges proved especially true in the mountains of eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia, an important section of the war's front. Unlike other sections along the dividing line between the old nation and the new, this border remained both officially static but practically fluid for the full duration of the conflict."

At the start of the war the Confederates had a fairly firm control on eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia; other than the Unionist element within the local populations, which was not insignificant. A number of the problems that Confederate commanders faced in this area was due to the insurrectionist Union element. As the war progressed, grudgingly and in fits and starts, the Confederates withdrew leaving larger and larger chunks of territory in control of the Union armies. By 1863 Confederates had given up the Cumberland Gap and fallen back to defend the vital salt works at Saltville in the upper valley on the Tennessee/Virginia border (the Bristol/Abingdon area). The Union's first attempt to capture Saltville in October of 1864 proved unsuccessful, but another attempt in December 1864 proved fruitful and the salt works were destroyed. This was just another nail in the coffin in the Confederacy's casket as they desperately needed the salt production. Almost, if not as vital as the salt works, was the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad that ran through the valley from Knoxville to Bristol, and then to Lynchburg. This railway was an important connection between the eastern and western theaters for the Confederates. Raids by Samuel P. Carter (Elizabethton, TN native) and George Stoneman, at different points in the war destroyed parts of the railroad and burned its bridges.

One of the most terrible aspects of the war in this region was the personal violence that took over. Much like the guerrilla activities of Missouri, many mountain people used the war as an excuse to bring vengeance for real or perceived slights, threats, or pre-war feuds on their neighbors. McKnight relays one such story, and although it occurred in Scott County, Tennessee, it is a good example of the numerous horrible scenes that occurred in the Appalachian mountains during the war.

At one household a Unionist father nightly slept outdoors to avoid being ambushed by Confederate partisans in the area. One night the family was visited by a group of soldiers, and after harassing the wife and two daughters, all rode off except one. He apparently was more vengeful than the others because he began to chock the mother and poke his bayonet at one of the daughters. When the soldier was turned, one of the daughters picked up a wood ax and swung. The following is her account, "He chopped at me with the bayonet on his gun, I ran under the gun and chopped him in the face and breast with the ax, cut him to the hollow and split his chin open with the ax, getting the best of him. I knocked the gun from his hands. He staggered around and around and said 'don't chop me anymore.' But I did no stop. He got hold of the gun and stuck the bayonet in my forehead, burst my skull, knocked my brains out, put out my left eye and shot my third finger off my right hand. Father came up the stairs just as the gun fell out of his hands. Father shot him in the shoulder, he fell dead." Apparently this woman was one tough bird, because after a long recuperation, and being blinded in one eye and living with an open wound in her head, she lived to be ninety-one years old.

In Contested Borderland, McKnight weaves, political, military, economic, and social history to give the reader a real sense of what this area endured during the Civil War. And, athough the war ended, the violence did not stop immediately. Confederate and Unionist feuds would continue on into the 19th and 20th centuries, with roots back to these difficult years.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mary Ann Clark: Woman Confederate Soldier

While doing research this week I came across a primary source, a letter, that fascinated me. It was written by a woman named Mary Ann Clark to two female friends. The first time I read the pencil scribbles, I didn't know what to make of it. I was really confused...and then it hit me...this is a woman soldier. The situation became even clearer when I read an accompanying letter that was in the file from Clark's mother. Here is part of Clark's letter. I will explain the situation from Clark's mother's letter below.

"I have to ask a favor of you and it is this - I wish you would write to Mrs. E.A.W. Burbage for me and tell her all you know about me - how -where and when I was taken prisoner & tell her what a good rebel soldier I have been. She is my mother. She lives near Hardinsburg Breckenridge Co. Ky. tell her about me getting wounded and my detection. Tell her that Caroline Elizabeth and Gideon P. Walker [Clark's children] are in the care of Rev. Father Brady in Louisville the little girl is at the asylum. I don't know where Father Brady has placed the little boy. Tell her that I never expect to see her again - as I may get killed in battle - there is a battle impending at Vicksburg and I expect to be in it - our officers here tell me that they will exchanger me for a man. If you will be so kind as to do this for me I will be a thousand times obliged to you - I would write to her myself but I cannot, I get so filled with tears whenever I attempt it that I cannot write. You will find her one of the most uncompromising rebels in Kentucky. I expect to start to Vicksburg in the morning give my love to all of my friends in Louisville. Farewell and if I should ever come to L[ouisville] I will certainly call to see you both
Mary Ann Clark

Wow! See what i mean? What an interesting letter! Well, the story that Clark's mother paints makes it all that more interesting. Mary Ann Clark apparently married a Mr. Walker in the 1850s and they had the two children. One day Walker decided he was going to go to California and told Clark he would be back in two years. This event threw Clark into a state of depression and derangement according to her mother. While in California Walker wrote to Clark that he had married another woman out there. If Clark was not mentally unbalanced by being abandoned, she certainly was by this news. Then Walker wrote again that he was bringing his new wife back to Kentucky with him. According to Clark's mother this made her have another nervous breakdown. Clark's friends suggested she ask for a divorce due to abandonment and mistreatment, and after some extra encouragement, she finally petitioned and was given a divorce in 1860.

If all of this trauma was not enough, in 1861, Clark's brother-in-law a Confederate sympathizer and store owner was killed by Unionist home guards in his storeroom. Clark's mother believed that this was the final event that totally unhinged Clark and created her desire to enter the army. I was unable to find out from the letters when, how, and where Clark was wounded and captured, but some secondary source research indicated that she was wounded at the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky (August 29-30, 1862) and was taken prisoner there as well. Most certainly she was detected at this time too.

What is amazing to me is that after being wounded, captured and detected as a woman soldier, she was still willing and ready to go back for more. Certainly her mother saw her trauma as the cause to her behaving in an unfemale-like manner for 19th century women. Maybe she was mentally unbalanced. I don't think it was normal to leave two small children at an orphanage and go off to fight in the war. But, she certainly sounds fine in her letter. She writes as if her actions couldn't be more normal.

Such is the wonder of primary sources. There are great stories are out there, some waiting to be told; others are just looking to be read and wondered about.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Camp Nelson, Kentucky: On the Road to Freedom

Camp Nelson was established in June of 1863 by Major Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who commanded the Ninth Corps of the Army of the Ohio. The camp was founded in effort to provide a forwarding supply base for Burnside's campaign into East Tennessee. Since the beginning of the Civil War President Lincoln had expressed his concern for the Unionist population in East Tennessee and wished something could be done to relieve them of what he viewed as Confederate occupation. All of the previous military leaders before Burnside took command had not viewed East Tennessee as significant in the war effort, and although prodded by Lincoln, made no real effort to aid the Unionists. Burnside finally did campaign into East Tennessee in the fall of 1863, capturing Knoxville in September.

Camp Nelson became a beehive of activity during the East Tennessee campaign that lasted to the end of the war. Camp Nelson would always serve as a supply base, but after the Emancipation Proclamation, it also became the largest recruiting and training center for African American soldiers in Kentucky, and one of the largest in the United States.

Camp Nelson was named for Maj. Gen. William "Bull" Nelson (see 5/26/09 post), a native Kentuckian, and was chosen for its defensive position. It was located on a steep bluff in a sharp bend of the Kentucky River in Jessamine County, about 20 miles south of Lexington. It was also bordered by a creek on another side, giving it strong command of the ground it occupied. Although a railroad did not connect Camp Nelson to Lexington and Louisville, a rail line ran to Nicholasville, about six miles distant, and supplies were then brought by wagon to Camp Nelson.

Camp Nelson was usually garrisoned by anywhere from 3000 to 8000 soldiers and it employed over 2000 civilians. The civilian employees were carpenters, leather workers, and blacksmiths, and filled other necessary roles to support the army population. Camp Nelson had a prison brig that held unruly Union soldiers, troublesome civilians, and captured Confederates that were being held before being shipped off to prison camps in the North. Camp Nelson also had a hospital, a school, dormitories, dining halls, barracks, a commander's quarters, and numerous support structures such as blacksmith forges, laundries, bakeries, and barns.

When African American soldiers were recruited they not only brought themselves, they brought their families as well. These "contraband", many of them local runaways, saw Camp Nelson as their first steps toward freedom. One black soldier exclaimed, "Canada used to be 500 miles from its only 16 miles. Camp Nelson is our Canada." Camp Nelson became so burdened (in the eyes of commander Gen. Speed Fry) that in the late fall of 1864 he ordered the soldiers' families out of Camp Nelson. Many, without anywhere else to go, died of exposure. The order was later rescinded when black recruitment dipped due to this abuse. In fact, this incident at Camp Nelson was largely the reason that Congress passed an act to free the family members of men serving in United States Colored Troops regiments. Berea College founder, John G. Fee was instrumental in helping the freed people at Camp Nelson. He lobbied the army for supplies, medicine, and educational opportunities to help assist the freedmen in making the transition from slavery.

Camp Nelson functioned until 1866. It now contains a military cemetery, and due to the efforts of a determined group of individuals, Camp Nelson now has an interpretive center and conducts educational programs to help the public better understand the important role it played during the Civil War.

For more information on the wonderful work being done at Camp Nelson today, check out their website at:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Just finished reading - The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics by James Oakes

James Oakes doesn't try to write a co-biography of these two fascinating and complex men, rather he examines their differences and similarities, and how those differences and similarities changed over time to eventually work in concert to eliminate the institution of slavery from America.

Oakes states that, "Lincoln and Douglass were very different men. True, there were parallels. Both had grown up in poverty; they were largely self-taught; in a generation of great orators they were two of the greatest; in the century of the self-made man both came to see their lives as exemplary. Still, they were very different men, and not merely because one was born free and white and the other black and enslaved. Though both hated slavery, they hated it in different ways and not always for the same reasons. Their personalities were different as well. Douglass had the blustery, oversize persona of a nineteenth-century Romantic. When he spoke, he roared, his booming baritone complemented by waving arms and devastating mimicry. Abraham Lincoln was the cautious grandchild of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. He stood still when he spoke, hands behind his back, his voice high-pitched but clear enough to he heard over large audiences." Now, if that isn't great historical writing, I don't think I will ever see it.

Oakes's point about Lincoln and Douglass's differences on slavery is a large part of what the book is about. See, Douglass was an abolitionist. By that I mean he wanted an immediate, uncompensated end to slavery right the minute he was speaking or writing about it. Lincoln was known to be more, shall I say, "antislavery" in his attempts to end the institution. By antislavery I mean that Lincoln felt that a gradual, compensated plan along with colonizing the slaves back to Africa, Central America, or the Caribbean islands was the best way to end the practice. Lincoln was the consummate politician. He fully understood America's attitude toward blacks leading up to the Civil War, and he wanted to do as little as possible to hurt his chances at election - and once the war started, he didn't want to lose the slave holding border states that remained in the Union by acting too aggressively. Whereas Lincoln was seen by Douglass as slow to emancipation, Douglass was on fire. In fact, Douglass did not come to fully support Lincoln until after Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He felt that Lincoln's promise in his first inaugural address to not interfere with slavery where it already existed was bad policy and didn't go far enough to overturn the status quo. One example of their diverse views on slavery was Douglass's reverence for John Brown and his violent tactics to end slavery. Whereas Lincoln saw Brown's effort as largely foolish and damaging to the real current interests of the nation.

Douglass and Lincoln met three times during his administration. All three times were at the White House and a fourth invitation was arranged for tea at the Presidential Cottage, but didn't work out. Douglass came away impressed all three times with Lincoln's sincerity and friendliness. Although Douglass harbored thoughts and feelings that Lincoln could have done more and earlier against the institution, he genuinely respected Lincoln and the pressures of his position. In the end both got what they wanted in the beginning. Douglass saw the end of slavery and Lincoln saw the Union preserved and the threat of the extension of slavery thwarted.

This is the third book I have read by historian James Oakes, and it is just as informative and entertaining as the other two; The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders and Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South. I proudly recommend all three.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Personality Spotlight: William "Bull" Nelson

***Note: The following post was edited on September 20, 2010 with information provided by Donald A. Clark of Lexington, Kentucky, who will release a biography of Nelson in December 2010.***

William "Bull" Nelson was born in Mason County, Kentucky on September 27, 1824. He was educated at Norwich Academy in Vermont and served in the United States Navy as a midshipman in the 1840s. Nelson's service in the navy included a part in the Mexican War where he helped land Winfield Scott's army at Vera Cruz. Tragedy afforded Nelson an opportunity when two lieutenants went down on the USS Albany and he and East Tennessean Samuel P. Carter were called on to fill their places in 1855, but during Civil War he was to find himself off the water and on dry land.
William's brother Thomas was named by President Abraham Lincoln as the minister to Chile shortly after Lincoln was elected in 1860. William was quickly secured by the Lincoln administration to gage the political sentiment in Kentucky. He also established Camp Dick Robinson, a Union recruiting and training center in Garrard County. In September 1861 Nelson was detailed for duty in the Union army and made a brigadier general. By December of 1861 he was in charge of the 4th Division of the Army of the Ohio under Major General Don Carlos Buell.

Nelson led troops in battle at Shiloh in April 1862, and was promoted to major general in July of 1862. Nelson has the distinction of being the only naval officer to become a full-rank major general in the army; Union or Confederate, during the Civil War. Nelson's promotion in July 1862 put him in charge of the Army of Kentucky, which comprised the brigades of Mahlon Manson and Charles Cruft. On August 29 and 30, 1862, Manson's brigade engaged Confederate General Kirby Smith's force near Richmond, Kentucky. Manson's brigade was mainly made up of untrained Indiana soldiers. The veteran Confederates rapidly routed the Yankees at Richmond and took about 4000 of them prisoner. Nelson had hurried to the site of the battle and had tried to rally his troops, but he proved unsuccessful and was slightly wounded in the face, but did escape capture.

While recovering in Louisville he was placed in charge of the defense of the town to thwart Braxton Bragg's Confederate invasion of Kentucky. Nelson's replacement, acting Major General Charles C. Gilbert had accused the Indiana soldiers at Richmond of cowardice and had thus drawn the ire of native Hoosier General Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the Confederate president). After a number of disagreements, Nelson had ordered Davis under arrest and back to Cincinnati. While in Cincinnati Davis was advised by a comrade to return to Louisville, but to stay away from Nelson. On September 29, 1862, Davis and his party, which included Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton ran into Nelson in the lobby of the Galt House Hotel in Louisville. Davis, still fuming and feeling mistreated asked Nelson why he had been arrested and sent to Cincinnati. Nelson, a hulking man at over 6 feet and 300 pounds (thus the Bull nickname), brushed Davis off and ordered the "puppy" to leave his sight. Davis retaliated by throwing a crumpled up calling card at Nelson. Nelson then slapped Davis across the face and walked away. Davis shouted a few disparaging remarks at Nelson and then pursued him. Nelson stopped and turned and Davis shot Nelson once in the chest. Nelson died within minutes. Davis was not tried for the murder and the already shaky Union command structure was made even more unstable by Nelson's death. The largest battle in Kentucky, the Battle of Perryville, was fought just nine days after Nelson's shooting.

Camp Nelson, established in Jessamine County, Kentucky in 1863 was named for William Nelson and served as a major recruiting and training base of African American Kentucky troops.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Just finished reading - Ike's Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality, by Kasey S. Pipes

In Ike's Final Battle, author Kasey S. Pipes explains that Eisenhower's decision to use federal troops from the 101st Airborne Division to uphold desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in the fall of 1957 was as difficult as leading the D-Day Normandy invasion in 1944. Ike's use of federal troops in 1957 was the first time they had been used to restore order in the South since Reconstruction. Without a doubt the decision had weighed heavily on his mind.

America liked Ike in the 1950s so much probably because many saw pieces of themselves in him. But, in 1952 he came to the presidency during a very difficult time. Most Americans look back on the 1950s as the time of "Happy Days" and the birth of Rock N Roll, but things were much more strained domestically and globally than we sometimes wish to remember. We were wrapping up a war with Communist Korea, overthrowing Communist friendly regimes in Iran and Guatemala, and entering into the space race with the U.S.S.R, and at home the Civil Rights Movement was shaking America to the core; asking the difficult question: would freedom, liberty, and equality be available for all U.S. citizens everywhere?

One of the most important points that Ike's Final Battle makes is that Eisenhower honestly struggled internally with the problem of race. Ike was born in Abeline, Kansas in a white community with very few minorities. His early encounters with African Americans and other people of color were largely limited to football games and boyhood scuffles. In the segregated military of Eisenhower's day he didn't get a good chance to learn what black men were capable of doing in combat. His efforts at training Filipino troops in the 1930s clouded his judgement on people of color. Much of that changed in World War II when he called upon black troops (still segregated) to help meet the German thrust in the Battle of the Bulge. He came to appreciate the patriotism, determination, and courage of the black troops in that phase of the war.

Ike was also slow to accept the domestic Civil Rights Movement personally. But, as Ike's Final Battle shows, once laws were made, he took his role as the Executive of the government seriously and carried out those laws. His personal relationships with many Southern congressmen and governors suffered due to his insistence on upholding the law and providing basic civil liberties to citizens irrespective of color.

Although Pipes often heaps praise on Eisenhower, he also points out his shortcomings on civil rights. For instance, when Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, Till's mother wrote to Ike, but Ike never responded. In what could have been a moment to show sensitivity and alertness to the problem, Ike remained quiet and uncommitted.

In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that "separate but equal" education facilities were unconstitutional, the slow work of public school integration began. The first real battleground would be Little Rock, Arkansas. Governor Orval Faubus tried to thwart the admission of nine African American students to Central High School. Faubus went so far as to call out the National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school. Eisenhower responded by denouncing the Governor and then federalizing the National Guard troops and calling in the crowd-control-trained 101st Airborne to escort the students into the school and from class to class.

In the end Ike did the right thing. He struggled with his own personal prejudices, but he upheld the law and made a brave strike for equality. As his presidency ended in 1960, and the Civil Rights Movement continued on, he gained an even greater appreciation for what African Americans were willing to do and subject themselves to in order to gain basic civil liberties such as the right to vote and the ability to have equal access to public facilities.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Kentucky Historical Wart: The Day Law

The "Day Law", named for Kentucky state Representative Carl Day, prohibited desegregated schools in Kentucky. After visiting Berea College, an historically interracial, coeducational institute in Madison County, Kentucky in 1904, Day was shocked to see black and white students interacting as equals. Upon his return to Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, he introduced the legislation that would come to bear his name. The bill was quickly and overwhelmingly passed by both the Kentucky House and Senate.

In addition to prohibiting desegregated learning facilities, even at private institutions such as Berea, the law also stipulated that if an institution wanted to teach both races, they could only do so as segregated campuses at least 25 miles distant from each other. The penalty for disobeying the Day Law was a $1000 fine, plus an additional $100 per day fine until in compliance. Both students and faculty were subject to fines as well.

Berea took the matter to court in effort to have the Day Law declared unconstitutional. They believed that being a private institution that received no Kentucky state funding should exempt them from the law. They lost. Then the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled against Berea too. The Court of Appeals said that since Berea College operated in the state of Kentucky, then they were subject to Kentucky laws. The Court of Appeals also said that the Day Law was not discriminatory since whites could not attend black schools either. In a weak attempt to lessen the severity of the law, the Court of Appeals did strike out the "25 mile" clause as unreasonable.

In 1908 the case finally made it to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court also upheld the law. Justice John M. Harlan, a native Kentuckian, was only one of two justices that disagreed. He stated, that the law was "cruel...and ...inconsistent...with the great principle of equality before the law" (14th Amendment). Harlan railed, "Have we become so inoculated with prejudice of race that an American government, professedly based on the principles of freedom, charged with the protection of all citizens alike, can make distinctions between such citizens in the matter of their voluntary meeting for innocent purposes simply because of their respective races?"

The Day Law remained in effect until it was amended by the Kentucky state legislature in 1950. The Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision would proclaim "separate but equal" educational facilities unconstitutional four years later.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

To Commemorate, Not Celebrate Memorial Day

This week I have heard many people discussing their Memorial Day plans. One struck me as odd. I don't think they realized what they had said and I didn't call them, but it went something like this: "I plan to celebrate Memorial Day by doing nothing." I guess in one sense that is fine. Holidays are created to rest from work. But, I think Memorial Day is different. It is special. It is a time to remember those that have left us here on earth, especially those that have served their country in the armed forces. That is the first problem I had with that person's statement. The second issue I had was that they used the word celebrate. I know, it's probably not fair to complain, but to me celebrate is just entirely the wrong word for Memorial Day. I think a much better word choice would be commemorate.

Please don't just "do nothing" on Memorial Day. Use the time to visit a cemetery, remember past loved ones, or learn something about our service men and women who sacrifice so much to keep us free.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Processing and Producing History

The following are some notes that I took from a book I have been using at work to better understand how teacher's are getting their students excited about "doing" history. The book, Freedom's Unfinished Revolution: An Inquiry Into the Civil War and Reconstruction was produced by The American Social History Project. It strongly encourages primary source evaluation as a means to getting at the truth of a historical subject; something I have always strongly believed in.

1. History is the record of change. What makes the period so interesting and pertinent to our own lives is how the Civil War and Reconstruction changed American democracy.

2. History is the study of human relationships, behavior, and interaction. In the center of change are human actors; strong and weak, female and male, rich and poor, black, white, brown, and yellow.

3. History shapes the lives of ordinary people, and in turn ordinary people shape history. At times history has been made at the most basic levels of society. Presidents and politics are important to understand, but so are the "plain people." Don't forget their stories to understand the big picture.

4. History is observed and interpreted through many eyes. History gets filtered through many different entities; popular culture, agenda driven organizations, and biased writers, just to name a few. Historians must look at the past with a discerning eye and make decisions based on the evidence they collect.

5. History is the art of investigation. As a detective, the historian collects knowledge based on their reading and research. That general knowledge in turn helps them make decisions on the reliability or strength of future sources.

When you start with a confusing historical question that you want to solve, doing the research can be very rewarding. And, when you finally collect all the clues and assemble them, and then present your evidence, all the work that went into answering your question becomes worthwhile and self-satisfying.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Dennis and Diademia Doram

Dennis Doram was born into slavery in 1796 at Indian Queen Tavern, the estate of Thomas Barbee in Danville, Kentucky. His mother Lidia was a slave, and the daughter of Barbee and one of his slave women. It is believed that his Dennis's father was an Indian.

Barbee's 1797 will freed Doram's mother and made accommodations for the freedom of all six of Lidia's children when they reached adulthood. The will also specified that Dennis and his brothers would be provided with an education in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Dennis received his freedom in the 1820s. Dennis's freedom and chance at an education provided him with the opportunity to succeed. He founded several businesses including a rope and hemp factory and proved to be civic minded, as he helped establish the Caldwell School for Women.

Dennis married Diademia Taylor in 1830. Diademia was born in 1810. Her father was a free black man who had purchased her and her mother Chole's freedom for $700 in 1814, and had brought them from St. Louis to Kentucky. The Dorams had at least two sons. One, Joshua, was a Union soldier with Co. F, 114th USCT who fought in Petersburg campaign, and the other was a
a Buffalo Soldier in the Indian Wars after the Civil War.

By the 1840's the Dorams had prospered like very few other African Americans in the slave states. They had accumulated several thousands of dollars in the bank and possessed hundreds of acres of land. The portraits show above illustrate the unique social position the Dorams had attained. Images such as these for African Americans in the antebellum period are very rare.

In March of 1866 Dennis served on the finance committee for the First Convention of Colored Men of Kentucky. He and the committee drafted a very strong and intelligent statement of intentions and a number of proclamations at this meeting. The following is a short excerpt of one such statement:

"We are native and to the manner born; we are part and parcel of the Great American body politic; we love our country and her institutions; we are proud of her greatness and glory in her might; we are intensely American, allied to the free institutions of our country by sacrifices, the deaths and the slumbering ashes of our sons and our fathers, whose patriotism, whose daring and devotion, led them to pledge their lives, the property and their sacred honor, to the maintenance of her freedom, and the majesty of her laws. Here we are intended to remain, and while we seek to cultivate all of those virtues that shall distinguish us as good and useful citizens, our destiny shall be that of earnest and faithful Americans, and we recognize no principle, we allow no doctrine that would make our destiny, other, than the destiny of our native land and fellow countrymen."

The portraits were acquired by the Kentucky Historical Society in 2000, and after careful cleaning and conservation they can now be seen in the Kentucky History Center's permanent exhibit, A Kentucky Journey. In 2005 Mrs. Viola Gross donated a large number of documents related to the Doram family including the 1814 manumission papers for Diademia. If you get to Frankfort stop in and see the Dorams portraits and all the other wonderful collections at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Just finished reading - Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk

As mentioned in an earlier post, Abraham Lincoln is with little doubt the most written about man in American history. Just about every aspect of his life has been examined....and still the books keep coming. This book largely interested me because, also as I have also mentioned in other posts, I like to learn about individuals of history; flaws and all.

In Lincoln's Melancholy author Joshua Shenk contends that Lincoln came by his depression tendencies honestly. According to period accounts both Lincoln's mother and father were both prone to bouts of "the blues." Shenk also explains that a melancholic disposition was viewed much differently in the nineteenth century than it is today. It was believed then that many contemplative individuals, especially philosophers and literary figures were prone to melancholy due to their deep thinking natures. In addition, life brought Lincoln many things to be depressed about. His youth was full of hard work. His mother died at a relatively young age. His first loved died. He failed in business. He was often in debt. He lost elections. Two of his sons died in youth. His life's theme song could have been "A Man of Constant Sorrow."

Shenk's work explains that Lincoln went through at least two extremely deep periods of depression. The first, in 1835, after the death of a young woman he deeply cared for; Anne Rutledge. The second was in the winter of 1840-41 when he had broken off his engagement to Mary Todd. In both of these instances friends believed that Lincoln came quite close to suicide.

Lincoln handled his depression in a number of ways. One was humor. He memorized humorous stories, jokes, tales, and riddles and shared them with friends and associates, often without contemplating their result or the setting in which he related them. Lincoln once said that, "If it were not for these stories - jokes -jests I should die; they give vent - are the vents of my moods & gloom." Another coping mechanism of Lincoln was throwing himself into his work. It seems that Lincoln's creativity flourished most during or near one of his episodes. Lincoln also relied on his friends. After his spell in the winter of 1840-41 he visited his old Springfield roommate Joshua Speed at Speed's Louisville, Kentucky plantation, Farmington. There Speed's mother noticed Lincoln's depression and offered the gift of a Bible. Apparently Lincoln took the Bible to heart, as once, when he was president, Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, once saw him reading Job during one of his bouts with melancholy.

Although Shenk says Lincoln's Melancholy is not a psycho-biography it has many parts that read that way, and I see no reason not to claim it as such. It as an interesting book and it illuminates the potential that individuals have even when possessed by the demons of depression in our age of narcotic treatments. I think this book can give some level of hope and understanding to those that suffer from depression today. And after all, aren't we supposed to gain lessons and understanding from reading history?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Well Shut My Mouth and Call Me Corn Pone!" The Civil War, Memory, and Looney Tunes?

Today I saw an old Looney Tunes cartoon that I remembered watching as a youngster on Saturday mornings. It was called "Dog Gone South," and it is quite funny. The story is about a vagrant dog that gets kicked off a train and lands in the South where he meets an Old South Colonel and tries to make a home by hook or crook. Things turn bad when the dog runs into Belvedere; the Colonel's bulldog. The dog thinks he finally has fooled old Belvedere, but the tables get turned and he ends up getting booted out of the South and back onto the train.

Seeing this old cartoon got me to remembering others I had seen as a boy that dealt with the South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. I remembered several, and with the help of You Tube I found a number of these. I am not sure what we can learn from these cartoons from the 1940s and 1950s, but they seem to say something about how we remembered the the Old South and the Civil War....before the Civil Rights Movement.

A number of these cartoons had less than flattering depictions of slaves, and I suppose the political correctness thing is part of the reason that they are not shown any more. For example, in "Confederate Honey," there is a scene of slaves picking cotton. Most are doing it by hand, but one is using a push lawn mower which throws the cotton into a bag on his back. The scene shifts to a boy handing cotton to his reclining father. When the boy puts too much cotton in his father's hand the father says something to the effect that he is being too ambitious, when the boy removes some the father says "that's better." This cartoon also takes some liberties with Gone with the Wind. Instead of Rhett Butler, Elmer Fudd is Ned Cutler, and instead of Scarlett O'Hara, she is Crimson O'Hair Oil.

In "Southern Fried Rabbit," Bugs Bunny meets up with his old antagonist Yosemite Sam, but this time Sam is a Confederate still fighting the war years later. Bugs's reason for going down South is to cash in on a bumper carrot crop in Alabama that he reads about in the newspaper. When Bugs reaches the South he exclaims, "Well shut my mouth and call me corn pone!" When Bugs meets Sam, he tells him the war has been over for 90 years. Sam replies classically as any unreconstructed Southerner would, "I'm no clock watcher!" When Sam accidentally runs across the "Mason-Dixon" line he surprisingly says, "Great horny toads...I'm up North!" He quickly retreats to Southern ground and says, "Gonna have to burn my boots, they touched Yankee soil." In this one Bugs uses a number of disguises to fool old Sam. He is a slave, Abe Lincoln, General "Brickwall" Jackson, and Southern Belle, "Scarlett." When he is Lincoln he asks Sam, "What's this I hear about you beating slaves?" Sam can only reply, "but, but, but, but." Bugs then walks off telling Sam to look him up at his Gettysburg address.

In "Rebel Without Claws" Tweety is a Confederate messenger pigeon. Now, I have never heard of using messenger pigeons in the Civil War, but how else are you going to work a bird into a cartoon about the Civil War? Sylvester is the Union's secret weapon to destroy the messenger. At one point Tweety says, "I thought I saw a damn Yankee cat." At another he says, "I wonder why they put the South so far South?" Sylvester and Tweety even have a scene on an ironclad ship. Tweety is finally caught and gives the famous Nathan Hale line (from the Revolutionary War), "I only regret that I have one life to give for my country." A group of misfit Yankee soldiers then proceed to shoot Sylvester standing nearby.

One that I couldn't find to re-watch was "Mississippi Hare." It of course is another that features Bugs Bunny, and if I remember correctly is much like the story lines of "Southern Fried Rabbit," and "Dog Gone South."

Again, I don't know what these tell us about history....if anything, but it is interesting to view them from through a post-Civil Rights Movement lens. Images of African Americans ,and white Southerners for that matter, have changed drastically since the 1960s. Hopefully we don't lose our sense of humor and we can still laugh at at least parts of these. But, at the same time, I hope we realize that part of what we see in these old cartoons can be offensive to some people, and that they are largely the views of days gone by for most people.

Here are links to some of these clips. Remember, some people may find parts of these offensive.

"Southern Fried Rabbit"

"Dog Gone South"

"Confederate Honey"

"Rebel Without Claws"

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Help Fight the Wilderness Walmart

We have just passed the 145 anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6, 1864). The woods and fields of the Wilderness are once again a battleground, only this time it's without guns, horses, and Union and Confederate soldiers. Walmart Corporation has plans to build a superstore on part of what was once this fiercely contested ground just west of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Civil War Preservation Trust (CWPT) and other preservation groups are doing their best to prevent this travesty, but Walmart and their executives appear determined to put up a fight for this land even though they have two other stores very near the area.

I would be ashamed of myself if I did not use every forum available to help the CWPT and their allies in opposing this encroachment by Walmart. The following is an appeal that I recently received from the CWPT. Please read it and see if there isn't something you too can do to help.

Dear Friend,
After nearly a year of heated debate, the controversy over building a Walmart superstore on the Wilderness Battlefield is coming to a conclusion. Public hearings are set to begin next week, and it is crucial that friends of the battlefield again weigh in about this threat. We firmly believe that the best solution for everyone is to move Walmart to a less historically sensitive location away from the National Park.
We are not alone in this view. In addition to our partners in the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition, the call for Walmart to find another site has been echoed by hundreds of historians, Academy Award-winning actors Robert Duvall and Richard Dreyfuss and two members of Congress. But to win this battle to save the Wilderness, we also need the help of concerned citizens like you.
The best solution to this dilemma was proposed by the Wilderness Battlefield Coalition months ago — a planning process to explore alternatives to development adjacent to the battlefield that would both protect the National Park and help local officials achieve their economic growth goals. Unfortunately, Orange County rejected this reasonable approach, with several local officials expressing contempt for the preservation community.

Attend public hearings: If you live in or near Orange County, please consider attending the public hearings. The first public hearing is before the Planning Commission on Thursday, May 21, at 7:00 at Prospect Heights Middle School, 202 Dailey Drive, Orange, VA 22960.
Click here for a map of the public hearing location.
Write to the Board of Supervisors: If you can’t make the hearing, please consider writing a letter to the Orange County Board of Supervisors even if you have written them before, please take a minute to do so again. Orange County’s elected officials need to know where people stand on this issue. Let them hear your personal frustration that they rejected a planning process that would have benefited all parties.
Click here to send a letter to the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
Write to your local newspaper: The construction of a Walmart on the doorstep of a National Park is an issue of national importance, so even if you live in another state, please consider writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your opposition to the proposed Walmart. Add your voice to others who have expressed concern about a big box superstore across the road from a National Park Click here to find a list of newspapers in your area.Please be sure to check your local paper for policies regarding Letters to the Editor.

Throughout this struggle, the preservation community has consistently sought a reasonable compromise. Now, more than ever, you must let Walmart and Orange County know that the Wilderness Battlefield is a national treasure and should be protected from development.
Please let us know if you have any questions (202-367-1861 ext. 220). The dramatic impact of decisions reached regarding Walmart will be felt for years to come. I hope we can count on your continued support to ensure the best possible future for the Wilderness Battlefield!
Thank you.
Brent Laurenz
P.S. To follow this issue, please visit
P.P.S. For photos and video of the news conference on the Wilderness Battlefield featuring Robert Duvall and Congressmen Poe and Welch, please visit

Thanks in advance for your efforts to keep the memory and honor of those brave soldiers who fought at the Wilderness alive for future generations.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sharing a Primary Source

Primary source documents are the historian's building blocks. These treasures of the past come in many forms. They could be period photographs, letters, journals, diaries, newspaper accounts, court transcripts, or even recordings. Primary sources of course are those things that are first hand accounts of the people of the past. I am fortunate to get to work with primary sources almost everyday. It doesn't take much to get me excited about history, but running across a document that unusually catches your attention and that helps puts you in a historic personality's shoes is still something special each time it happens.

Today, while doing some research on African American Kentuckians in the Civil War, I came across an affidavit taken from one William Jones, a former slave that ran away and joined the 124th United States Colored Troops (USCT) at Camp Nelson, Kentucky (Jessamine County). I will provide the document for you and you can judge for yourself how much this document helps us understand this moment in history. All spelling and punctuation is as was taken down by the recorder.

"Before enlisting I belonged to Newton Craig, Scott County, Ky. (Georgetown) My wife belonged to the same man. Desiring to enlist and thus free my wife and serve the Government during the balance of my days I ran away form my master in company with my wife on Saturday March 11 between nine and ten O'clock at night. Our clothes were packed up and some money we had saved from our earnings we carried with us. On our way to Camp Nelson we arrived in Lexington about three O'clock next morning Sunday March 12th 1865 where we were accosted by the Capt of the night watch James Cannon, who asked where we were going. I told him I was going to see my daughter. He said I was a damned liar, that I was going to Camp Nelson. I then told him I was going to Camp Nelson whereupon he arrested us, took our money from us taking Fifty eight (58) dollars from me and eight (8) dollars from my wife. I told him that the money was my own that I desired to have it. He told me that he would send it with the man who would take us back to our master and when we got there we should have it. I said that I would rather die than go back to master who said he would kill any of us niggers who when to Camp [Nelson]. Cannon made no reply but locked us up in the Watch house where he kept us all that day and night and on Monday Morning March 13 1865 he sent us back to our master in charge of an armed watchman whose name I believe was Harry Smith. When we arrived at my masters master was away from home and Smith delivered us to our mistress. I asked Smith to give me my money. He said Cannon had given him none but had kept the whole to himself. I ran away from home that day before master came home. I have never received a cent of the money which Cannon took from me. I have three sons and one son-in-law now in the Service of the United States. I want to get my money back."

The problem with primary sources is that you can't ask follow-up questions. If you are fortunate, then additional letters or information come to light, but more often than not the primary sources you get end in a dead end. I suppose that I should be content to find this little nugget of history and be satisfied that I now know more about the African American experience from having read it. But, I want to know more. Did his wife run away with him the second time? Did he end up fighting in any battles? Did he reunite with his sons and son-in-law while in the army? I guess I'll never know some of these answers, but that's something that historians come to expect when working with topics of the distant past.

Primary sources have to be weighed just like any piece of evidence. They can be biased or unreliable based on the author's point of view or circumstances in which they were produced. The historian has to be part detective and determine if what he has found is reliable and accurate and what inferences can be drawn from the document. Being that is was a sworn affidavit I would feel safe in making the determination that this document was indeed this man's thoughts and words.

Taking documents from the past and helping people better appreciate and understand them is about as good as it gets for me. It is very rewarding to help others make connections with the past and realize that the past still affects their lives today.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Henry Bibb

Since moving to the Bluegrass state I have been thrilled to learn about so many interesting Kentuckians. Many of their stories have been told before, but to to most Americans their names don't ring any bells. One such Kentuckian was Henry Bibb. Bibb was born a slave in Shelby County, Kentucky in May of 1815, and owned by David White. His mother was a mixed-race slave and his father was a white man. When he was a boy Bibb's mother told him his father was James Bibb. James Bibb was a Kentucky state senator who lived in Franklin County, Kentucky; the county just east of Shelby County.

As a boy, Henry was hired out to many different many different plantation owners in Shelby, Henry, Oldham, and Trimble counties. During one of Bibb's hiring out periods White sold Bibb's six brothers and sisters to another master.

Bibb first tried to run away while working for a Mr. Vires in New Castle (Henry County), Kentucky in 1825, after being severly mistreated by Mrs. Vires. He was captured after being a fugitive of just a few days. In 1837, after numerous other unsuccessful escape attempts, Bibb finally made good and fled from a Mr. Gatewood in Bedford (Trimble County), Kentucky, and made his way to Canada. Bibb had married a mixed-race slave woman named Malinda in 1833 and they had had a daughter named Mary Frances. Bibb attempted to return to Kentucky for his wife and child, and was quickly recaptured. Bibb was eventually sold to a Cherokee owner in Indian Territory and when this Indian owner died, Bibb made his escape yet again, this time making it to Detroit. Malinda and Mary Frances had previously been sold and Henry had no way of finding them.

In Detroit Bibb became an active abolitionist and lecturer. Bibb married Mary Miles in 1848 and the couple moved to Ontario, Canada in 1850 after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1849-50 Bibb published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. This slave narrative was one of the most popular of the antebellum era.

In Canada, Bibb worked tirelessly to help his black community. He founded a church, a school, and several anti-slavery societies. He also started the Voice of the Fugitive, Canada's first black-owned newspaper. Bibb's notoriety helped reunite him with three of his brothers in Canada, all of whom had run away separately.

At the height of his career and fame Henry Bibb died after a brief illness in 1854; he was only 39 years old. I highly recommend reading his autobiography. It gives a good picture of what slave life was like for many African Americans in Kentucky, and how one man with a resolve to be be free finally gained his liberty.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jefferson's Take on North/South Differences

Jefferson is a figure that has received his fair share of historical scholarship. Like Lincoln, he has his own memorial in Washington, his face on Mount Rushmore, and both have numbers of admirers and detractors. Jefferson's alleged relationship with slave Sally Hemmings has tainted his image with some Americans, both his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his purchase of the Louisiana territory, will probably always keep him near the top when ranking Americans of influence.

Jefferson was a cosmopolitan man. He was a student of almost everything; literature, architecture, agriculture, invention, and politics. His Democratic-Republican political thinking opposed that of Alexander Hamilton's Federalist ideal. Jefferson preferred an America of small farmers and states' rights, while Hamilton looked toward an industrial and manufacturing nation with a strong central government. Their opposing views provide an example of many differences between Northerners and Southerners on the eve of the Civil War.

Much like John Richard Dennett (previous post) found out on his tour of the South after the Civil War, Jefferson saw differences between the people of the sections many years before Dennett. In a letter to a Frenchman in 1785 Jefferson drew a vivid picture of the opposing natures of Northerners and Southerners.

In this letter Jefferson said that Southerners were fiery, voluptuary, indolent, unsteady, generous, candid, zealous for their own liberties but trampling on others, and without attachment or pretensions to any religion but that of the heart. Jefferson saw Northerners as cool, sober, laborious, persevering, interested, chicaning, jealous of their own liberties and just to those of others, and superstitious and hypocritical in their religion. The only similarity Jefferson listed between the two was their "independent" natures. He said also, "These characteristics grow weaker and weaker by gradation from North to South and South to North, insomuch that an observing traveler, without the aid of the quadrant may always know his latitude by the character of the people among whom he finds himself.

It is interesting to see that the differences that let to the nation fighting against itself were apparent only a few years after winning their independence from England.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Just finished reading - The South As It Is, 1865-1866 by John Richard Dennett

One of my favorite types of history books are period travel accounts. I have read a number of these that deal with the South. Some cover the antebellum era, others cover after the Civil War, and some even cover the war itself. One of my favorites is Frederick Law Olmsted's Cotton Kingdom. Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City, traveled extensively through the Southern states before the war and wrote down his experiences and impressions. Many of his comments are culturally biased, but he writes in such great detail it almost feels like you are there with him. Another favorite is John T. Trowbridge's The Desolate South, 1865-1866, which originally appeared as A Picture of the Desolated States and the Work of Restoration. Trowbridge sat out the war, writing in Boston. After the war Trowbridge was commissioned by publisher L. Stebbins to journey to the South and write about his experiences there. What Trowbridge produced is an amazing look at the war-torn South from many different angles and locations.

Much like Trowbridge, Dennett did not join the Union army. But, Dennett did participate in the Port Royal, South Carolina Experiment. Port Royal was captured early in the war (November 1861) and the freed slaves flocked to the Union army supply base there. Northern missionary agencies and various organizations came to Port Royal too. They set up schools, and hospitals, and some started cotton planting with the Freedmen as wage laborers.

Dennett was an educated man who had graduated from Harvard and was also known as an amateur writer. He had started back to Harvard to attend law school when he took the assignment to travel throughout the South as write what he saw " it is." Dennett's kept mostly an unbiased view as he completed his travels through the South, but one fellow Northerner who Dennett met while in the Louisiana had changed the way he felt about the South and Southerners. This Northerner told Dennett, "I believed what we used to hear, that the North didn't understand the South. I believe it yet, but in a very different sense....I came out [started] with the kindest feelings for these people down here; I wanted to see it [Reconstruction] made easy; we had whipped them, and I wanted it to rest there. I thought the South wanted it to end there. But I was tremendously mistaken. They hate us and despise us and all belonging to us....The only people that I find that a Northern man can make a friend of, the only ones that like the Government and believe in it, are the Negroes. I'm convinced they can vote just as intelligently as the poor whites...I've learned to hate Southerners as I find them, and they can hate me if they want to."

Dennett started his tour in Richmond, Virginia; then went west to Lynchburg. After Lynchburg he turned south through the piney woods of North Carolina and into South Carolina, where he visited Columbia and Charleston. Then he went to Georgia visiting Augusta, Macon, Atlanta, and Columbus. He visited Montgomery, Alabama, the first capital of the Confederacy, and then to Mobile. From Mobile he went to New Orleans, then to Baton Rouge, and finally to Vicksburg, Mississippi. I don't know how many miles he traveled, but he used just about every means of transportation available in those days; by railroad, stagecoach, walking, horse riding, and by steamboat.

The most interesting part of the book, as it is with most travel accounts, was Dennett's conversations with the local people at each stop. He interviewed a diverse sample of individuals along the way. Dennett talked with former planters, former Confederate soldiers, old and young white men and women, and freedmen and freedwomen. His conversations with poor whites were especially interesting. They almost universally could not believe that the newly freed slaves would survive. They did not believe that the freedmen would work to support themselves and would be exterminated through starvation or would be killed by the whites for stealing and other mischief. The more prosperous whites often felt the same way. The following is one such quote, "The Negro," said Mr. K___, "I sincerely hope may disappoint my expectations. But if he does not, he is doomed to undergo extinction. Less than a hundred years of freedom will see the race practically exterminated. The Negro will not work more than enough to supply his bare necessities. There isn't a county of Virginia where we haven't had some hundreds of free Negroes, and they have been always perfectly worthless and lived in wretchedness. The Negro stands as much in need of a master to guide him as a child does. When I look at my servants, I feel weighing upon me all the responsibilities of a parent."

Dennett ran into many whites concerned that blacks would get to vote and be able to testify in courts of law. One black man that Dennett met understood his circumstance quite well, and although labeled by whites as ignorant, Dennett was amazed at his intelligence. "Yes, yes, we are ignorant. We know it. I am ignorant for one, and they say all niggers is. They say we don't know what the word constitution means. But if we don't know enough to know what the Constitution is, we know enough to know what justice is. I can see for myself down at my own court-house. If they makes a white man pay five dollars for doing something today, and makes a nigger pay ten dollars for doing that thing tomorrow, don't I know that ain't justice."

Travel accounts make history real. They are the real observations of real people in real situations commenting on what they see, hear, feel, and smell around them. It doesn't get much closer to being there than reading some of these eye-witness accounts, and those that are written well are true treasures.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Words Change Over Time Too?

Several posts back I discussed the provisional nature of history; how we see events and people of the past changes based on our present and past personal experiences, as well as current events. Well, I'd like to propose that words change over time too. The easiest example that I can think of to illustrate this is the term, gay. Once this word mainly meant, according to Webster's; "1. a. happily excited: MERRY, b: keenly alive and exuberant: having or inducing high spirits," and is even still listed that way. But, in America's social understanding the word has come to be more closely associated with the following: "4 a: homosexual b. of, relating to, or used by homosexuals ." I have no idea how this word came to change its meaning to most Americans, but I think it can be argued quite easily that it has changed.

Words that I have come across in reading history also seemed to have changed, or at the least are used with double meanings. I will use two words to illustrate my point: peculiar, and likely.

Most students of slavery are familiar with these terms, especially peculiar. The term has been used endlessly to describe the practice of slavery itself. John C. Calhoun seemed to have first used the phrase "peculiar institution" in a speech on February 2, 1837, while arguing against the reception of antislavery petitions in Congress. To most people today peculiar means odd, strange, weird, unusual, but I personally think that Calhoun mean peculiar in a much different way. Webster's gives the following definition: "characteristic of only one person, group, or thing : DISTINCTIVE." Only the next listed definition connotes strangeness. Here is Calhoun's quote: "The peculiar institution of the South - that, on the maintenance of which the very existence of the slave holding States depends, is pronounced to be be sinful and odious in the sight of God and man; and this with a systematic design of rendering us hateful in the eyes of the world - with a view to a general crusade against us and our institutions." From this I think that he meant distinctive or characteristic to the South, not strange or unusual, especially since he used "us and our" for clarification.

Here is an example from history that will give the same use of peculiar that I personally believe Calhoun meant. This is from Mississippi's statement of justification for secession written in 1861. "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery - the greatest material interest in the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. The products are peculiar to the climate verging on tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.

The other word, likely, seems to have been used both similarly to how we use it today and also quite differently. Likely to me today means probably. Webster's says, "having a high probability of occurring or being true." I often say something similar to, "It is likely to rain today." But after reading numerous slave sales and runaway advertisements, people of the past had a different meaning for likely. For example, "To be SOLD, for want of employment, an exceedingly likely NEGRO GIRL, aged sixteen," reads one such advertisement. Another says, "Twenty Dollars Reward. Ran Away from he subscriber, on the 1st of May, Patty, a likely Negro wench, about twenty years of age...." In these instances likely is to meant to follow Webster's current fourth and fifth listed definitions; "4 : PROMISING, 5 : ATTRACTIVE.

I did find an historical example that uses likely in both the modern and historical meanings. "Run away from Sachervall Wood, living in Philadelphia, on 25th of October last: One James Anderson, an apprentice lad between 18 and 19 years of age, about 5 feet 8 inches high, a tailor by trade, and had better than 2 years to serve, he has a smooth face and fair complexion, and wears his own hair, and is pretty likely...He has a Mother and a Brother living in East town in the Jerseys, its likely he may be gone that way.

I have been searching for quite a while for a mid-19th century dictionary to help me when I run into instances such as this. I doubt that I will find one other than in an archive or special collections, but it would be helpful to have for such instances.

So, if you run into words while reading primary sources that don't sound quite right, don't be too concerned, it is quite likely that these peculiar words have changed over time too. Happy reading!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Visit to the Louisville CWRT: The H.L. Hunley Then and Now

Last evening I was privileged to attend the May meeting of the Louisville Civil War Round Table.
Speaking at the meeting was Rick Hatcher, historian for the Fort Sumter National Monument. Mr. Hatcher delivered and excellent talk on the H.L. Hunley, the first warfare submarine in history to sink an enemy vessel. I would like to share some of the notes I took during Mr. Hatcher's talk.

Horace L. Hunley was born in 1823, in Gallatin, Tennessee. His parents moved from Tennessee to New Orleans when he was young, and he graduated from the University of Louisiana (later Tulane Univ.) in 1849. Hunley practiced law in Louisiana and also became involved in sugar plantations in both Texas and Louisiana. Hunley joined two associates in 1861 to devise an underwater boat called the Pioneer. The Pioneer was tried out in Lake Pontchartrain, but had to be scuttled when Union forces captured New Orleans in April of 1862.

Hunley and his associates moved their operation to safer Mobile, Alabama and tried the Pioneer II in Mobile Bay, but it also proved unsuccessful. A third submarine, called the Fish Boat was built. This sub proved to be of better design and successfully blew up an experimental target coal boat in Mobile Bay. The Fish Boat had a crew of seven sailors and a captain. The vessel was hand-crank powered and could both dive and rise.

The sub was quickly moved from Mobile to Charleston in effort to help break the blockade that had gripped the city since early in the war. It was moved by train in seven days, and arrived in Charleston on August 12, 1863. In an experimental run, with an inexperienced crew, it sank on August 29. The crew had to dismembered in order to remove them from the hull. In September Hunley brought the original crew from Mobile and officially named the boat the H.L. Hunley. On October 15, the sub sunk again, this time with Hunley on board. The Hunley was raised yet again and command was given to George E. Dixon, who had worked on the Hunley in Mobile, but with the instructions that the sub was to operate as a surface vessel, and not to dive.

On February 17, 1864, the Hunley claimed its first and only victim; the U.S.S Housatonic. It is not sure what happened to cause the Hunley to not return to port, but Mr. Hatcher offered his opinion. He feels that the sub dove to the bottom after the blast in order for the surface situation to calm, and that the men were then were too exhausted to raise the sub back to the surface and died of lack of oxygen. We may never know what really happened, but this suggestion is as good as any I have heard.

After searching for the Hunley, fiction writer Clive Cussler and his team located it in 1995. After careful study and work it was raised on August 8, 2000. In March of 2001 the first human remains were found, and in April of 2004 the crew was buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston. The crew consisted of four American born and four European born sailors. Inside the Hunley also were a number of artifacts including a gold coin that belonged to Captain Dixon and that had been deformed when it was hit by a bullet at the Battle of Shiloh when he was in the infantry. Dixon had had the coin inscribed, "My life preserver G.E.D."

More work continues on the Hunley, and with it more is learned about the vessel each year. I was fortunate enough to see it for myself in 2002. It is truly an engineering marvel for the 1860s. If you want to learn more about the Hunley Mr. Hatcher recommend the book, The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy, by Tom Chaffin.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

White Southerners and Reconstruction: Perspective

Studying post-Civil War Reconstruction can sometimes be painful. This era was filled with so much contention, strife, and violence that, like watching an exciting movie, I often feel emotionally drained after reading about some of the events in this period. But, just like other time periods, it is important to view Reconstruction with different perspectives in mind.

Historiographically, Reconstruction has experienced some tremendous changes over the 140 years since it happened. Early historians of Reconstruction, probably still infected with a degree of racism and the ideas of Social Darwinism, interpreted this era as tragic, not for the freedmen; but for the white Southerners who experienced it. Other than W.E.B. Dubois and a handful of other African American writers, it wasn't until the 1950s and 1960s that a revisionist history of Reconstruction emerged. These stories provided us students with a clearer and more truthful picture of the "tragic era." Still, many of these revisionist works left out the perspective of the white Southerner in the attempt to tell others' (i.e. African Americans') stories. I suppose it is difficult to balance both and not show some level of bias, however small it may be.

So, what motivated white Southerners to try to protect their white supremacist world? Why did they try to hold on to the "old ways" so tightly? I think it largely has to do with one simple word; fear. Many white Southerners were uncertain of what life would be like after the war when slaves, previously held in bondage, were now loosed upon the landscape. Would the freedmen work to make a living? Would they steal and kill to survive? Would these former slaves become the whites' political masters in areas with black majority populations? Fear is a strong motivating factor and one that often leads to backlash violence. When pushed beyond what is thought normal and necessary, to a point of perceived extremity, desperation and unfamiliarity, terrible things can occur. Due to largely to fear, the antebellum South was not a "freedom of speech" environment. Any talk or printing of abolitionist or anti-slavery talk was suppressed by violence and intimidation. This was done mainly because their was dread concern that the South would turn into Haitian Revolution north without slavery as the social controlling factor for almost 4 million African American slaves.

I am not sure why this topic fascinates me so much, but it does. I have the deepest passion to learn more about these different perspectives of the past. I guess I have convinced myself that that is the only way to get at a complete picture of what was really going on. I will leave you with a song that came out just after the Civil War and written by a ex-Confederate. They lyrics go a long way toward expressing the feeling many white Southerners felt during Reconstruction.

I'm A Good Old Rebel

Oh, I'm a good old rebel, now that's just what I am,
And for this Yankee nation I do not care a damn.
I'm glad I fought against it, I only wish we'd won,
I ain't asked no pardon for anything I've done.

I hates the Yankee nation and everything they do,
I hates the Declaration of Independence too.
I hates the glorious Union 'tis dripping with our blood,
I hates the striped banner, I fought it all I could.

I hates the Constitution, this great Republic too,
I hates the Freedmen's Bureau, in uniforms of blue.
I hates the nasty eagle with all his brag and fuss,
The lyin', thievin' Yankees, I hates' em worse and worse.

I rode with old Marse Robert for three long years about,
Got wounded in four places and I starved at Point Lookout.
I caught the rheumatism a campin' in the snow
I killed a chance of Yankees and I'd like to kill some more.

Three hundred thousand Yankees is stiff in Southern dust.
We got three hundred thousand before they conquered us.
They died of Southern fever and Southern steel and shot,
I wish they was three million instead of what we got.

I can't take up my musket and fight 'em now no more,
But I ain't a-gonna to love 'em now that is certain sure.
And I don't want no pardon for what I was and am
I won't be reconstructed and I don't give a damn.

Oh, I'm a good old rebel, now that's just what I am
And for this Yankee nation I do not care a damn.
I'm glad I fought against 'er I only wish we'd won
I ain't asked no pardon for anything I've done.
No, I ain't asked no pardon for anything I've done...

Friday, May 8, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Whitney Young

"Every man is our brother, and every man’s burden is our own. Where poverty exists, all are poorer. Where hate flourishes, all are corrupted. Where injustice reins, all are unequal." Whitney M. Young

I did not realize until yesterday, that one of the primary personalities of the Civil Rights Movement was from right here in Kentucky. Whitney M. Young was born in Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky (near Shelbyville) in 1921. Young's father was the President at Lincoln Institute, and his mother was the first African American postmaster in Kentucky. Young was educated at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, and later earned his master's degree from the University of Minnesota in social work. Young worked on a road crew for the military during World War II where he proved his leadership skills early and was promoted to first sergeant.

After the war and after earning his master's degree, Young started working for the National Urban Leauge (NUL). He became the president of the Omaha, Nebraska chapter in 1950. In 1961 Young became the Executive Director of the NUL, a position he held until his death in 1971. Young developed numerous strategies that changed the NUL from a relatively benign organization to one that became dynamic and outspoken during the Civil Rights Movement. Young partnered with the others of the "Big Four:" Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and James Farmer of the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE) to make drastic changes to the social and political environment of the United States. What they help accomplish by pushing for voting rights, racial equality, and equal opportunity for all Americans (black and white) is beyond comparison.

Young was an important adviser to Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Nixon even tried to convince Young to take a cabinet position, but Young refused feeling that he would be of more service with the NUL. Young was presented with the highest civilian award given; the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Johnson in 1969.

Tragically Young drowned while swimming with some friends in Lagos, Nigeria while attending a conference. President Nixon had his body flown back to the United States and delivered the eulogy at Young's funeral. In the eulogy Nixon praised Young's work, "What monument do we build to him? He leaves his own monument, not one, but thousands, thousands of men and women in his own race who have a chance, an equal chance, that they otherwise might never have had except for what he did; and thousands of others not of his own race who have an understanding in their hearts which they would not have had except for what he taught."

Whitney M. Young...a Kentuckian, and a great American.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Knowing Facts Does Not Always = Understanding

One of my favorite phrases a few years back was, "pump the brakes!" I usually reserved this phrase for friends or colleagues who would get carried away on a slippery slope of any topic and carry it further than its intended point. What I meant by this was, slow down, think about what you are saying...don't get carried away by your emotions. But, to be honest, to those of us who are passionate about history, that is sometimes easier said than done.

Historical knowledge can be tricky. It is one thing to say something and be able to correct it, but it's another when it's in print for the world to read. By then it is usually too late to hit the "delete," or old "back space" key. That is why I think it is all that much more important to understand history contextually instead of just factually.

For example, sure, its good to know that the battle of Antietam happened on September 17, 1862. But, more importantly is why that battle is so important to our nation's history. It is important because there were some 23,000 causalities in that one day of fighting; it is important because it provided the opportunity for President Lincoln to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (a very important document even if you disagree what it actually accomplished); it is important because it probably helped prevent European recognition of the Confederacy. If you only know that the battle happened on that day at Sharpsburg, Maryland then you're missing the "big picture," and left without a true understanding

Putting together the puzzle pieces of history is what makes it so fascinating to me. Rarely are events independent. Usually there is some earlier precipitating factor that causes action. Seeing the themes and major shifts over time is what makes history relevant. People and events of the past do in fact shape our current existence. Our lives are built on the foundations that were put down long ago. Now, that doesn't mean that we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. By knowing the whole story (not just the facts) and understanding the context of events of where past people went wrong helps us make better decisions today in the least I hope so.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Richard Mentor Johnson

Now that I am in the Bluegrass state I am going to try to learn more about some of the interesting personalities of Kentucky history, and hopefully share some of them via this blog.

One individual that I have always found unique for his era and accomplishments is Richard M. Johnson. I first read about Johnson in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s The Age of Jackson. At the time I was a new student to serious history, but I knew enough to be surprised by what I learned about this man.

Richard M. Johnson was born in 1780 at Beargrass (near present-day Louisville) Kentucky to Robert and Jemima Johnson. The Johnson family eventually landed in Scott County, Kentucky and at 15 young Richard attended Transylvania College in Lexington. He later studied law and was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1802. Johnson's political career began when he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1804. In 1806 he was elected to the U.S. House and served several consecutive terms. Johnson's political career was sidetracked when he participated in the War of 1812 as a colonel of Kentucky militia. He is credited as having personally killed the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, where Johnson received five wounds. Johnson later served as a U.S. Senator and was elected Vice President in President Martin Van Buren's administration. He returned to Kentucky when his vice presidency ended, and later was again elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1850. He died of a stroke just two weeks into his term.

Johnson's story is not so unique if that is all you know, but here is where the story gets interesting for 19th century values. Family tradition says that Johnson broke off an engagement to a woman because she was deemed unworthy of the family name by Johnson's mother. When Johnson's father died, Richard began a long-term openly visible relationship with a family slave, Julia Chinn, that his father had willed to him. Relationships between male masters and female slaves were not all that uncommon in the 19th century South, but almost all remained secreted. Chinn was apparently only 1/8 African American, but was considered a "Negro" in the period's terminology and understanding, and therefore Johnson was unable to legally marry her. Johnson lived with Chinn as his common law wife until she died of cholera in 1833. This relationship produced two daughters; Adeline and Imogene. Johnson provided an education to each daughter, and after each married white men, Johnson gave both a large title of land. Adeline died in 1836 without children, and Imogene did not receive Johnson's estate when he passed away, instead the estate was deeded to Johnson's two brothers.

Another interesting aspect of Johnson's life and legacy was his donation of part of his land to start the Choctaw Indian Academy in Scott County, Kentucky in 1825. The school educated only Choctaw chiefs' sons at first, but as other Indian tribes learned of its success Cherokees, Chickasaws, Pottawatomies, and other tribes sent young men to be educated there as well. By 1830 there were over 100 Indian scholars at the school. Increasingly missionaries started numbers of schools closer to the Indian's own homes, and numbers fell rapidly at the Choctaw Academy; finally closing in 1845.

I have been able to nail down two biographies on Johnson, one from the 1840s and one from the 1930s. Hopefully, now that I am in Kentucky, I will be able to find one of these and learn even more about this unconventional man.