Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Abolitionists and Emancipationists - Common End, Different Means.

One thing that I have noticed while studying the history of slavery in America is that many people get confused in trying to differentiate between emancipationists and abolitionists, which as you will see, is quite easy to do. While individuals from both camps wanted their destination to be the eventual end of slavery, they had different ideas of how to get there.

First, abolitionists were those people who wanted the immediate and uncompensated end of slavery; and yesterday was not soon enough. Men and women such as William Lloyd Garrison (above left), Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Wendell Phillips, Angelina Grimke, Julia War Howe, and Lydia Maria Child were all of this belief. Many abolitionists saw the Constitution as sanctioning slavery and thus a "pact with the devil." God's law was to be upheld, not man's law. These people were seen as radical in their time by the majority of Americans, and made up only a small percentage of the population, but they were visible and vocal. Through speeches, newspapers, handbills, and congressional petitions they kept the slavery issue on the front burner and in America's face.

Emancipationists too wanted to see the end of slavery, but they did not think that the immediate release of almost 4 million slaves was a good idea. They instead thought that a gradual plan such as freeing slaves when they reached a certain age, or colonizing the freed slaves to another country, say Liberia, or a Caribbean, or South or Central American country would be best. The colonizationists did not see how blacks and whites could practically live integrated in the same country, so the freed slaves would be deported. Emancipationists were usually conservative minded individuals who saw the Constitution as being an obstacle, and that slave owners should be compensated for their "property" losses. People such as Abraham Lincoln (for the majority of his career), Henry Clay, and Cassius Clay were all what I would term emancipationists. These men were often progressive thinking individuals who had lived or were raised where slavery was practiced and thus to some degree were influence by its mere presence.

To make things even more muddy, there were gradations and different levels of commitment to both abolitionists and emancipationists. For example, there were militant unequivocal abolitionists who accepted the use of violence as being necessary to end slavery. John Brown was probably the foremost militant abolitionist. The opposite was the pacifist abolitionist such as William Lloyd Garrison, who preferred education and persuasion instead of violent action. There were also those in the middle that gravitated from side to side when they felt it necessary. Gerrit Smith for instance worked hard funding Underground Railroad operations, but he also helped fund John Brown's Kansas activities and the famous Harper's Ferry Raid. On the emancipationist side, there were those who owned slaves, but wanted to see the practice ended. And, there were those that wanted slavery ended, but again, have blacks removed. And there were those that were once pro-slavery, then turned emancipationist, then became abolitionist over their lifetimes.

So, on a sliding scale to measure those wanting an end to slavery, there were those that wanted it yesterday and those that saw it ending in the future but were in no hurry to get there, and those that filled just about any position in between.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Just finished reading - Southern Sons: Becoming Men In The New Nation by Lorri Glover

In Southern Sons, Lorri Glover, a history professor at the University of Tennessee, explores the world of adolescents as they matured toward manhood in the early national period (roughly 1790 to 1820).

By doing a significant amount of research in primary sources from South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland, Glover paints a picture of the expectations and realizations of young elite men in these regions. Many of the men coming to manhood during this era would be the political movers and shakers of the rapid expansion period in American history and would help shape a South that would find itself at war with the North just a few years later.

The topics Glover covers are numerous, but her coverage of the college experiences of Southern young men is especially interesting. Of course in order to become a proper Southern gentleman one had to have an occupation that was worthy of the title. And, to obtain that occupation it was likewise often necessary to have the proper education. Glover explains that many Southern parents sent their children to Northern schools at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. It was believed, and was probably true that the best schools were in the North. After all, there weren't all that many Southern schools besides William and Mary at this time. Southern young men went to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to learn to be lawyers, and most often, the University of Pennsylvania to be doctors. Learning law was important because it often led to a career in politics; the perceived arena of "public service" in this era. As antislavery sentiment grew in Europe, and then to the northeastern United States, Southern states started founding their own colleges to instill what was viewed as "proper" education; i.e. slavery defensive. The universities, or what became the universities of Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia were all founded in the first three decades of the 19th century.

In this section of the book it is especially fascinating to read the hi-jinks that college students perpetrated during this era. It is comforting to know that the college students of the 21st century are not breaking any new ground in extracurricular activities (drinking, gambling, fighting).

Glover also pays a significant amount of attention to the courtship and marriage rites of young Southern men. Although most families allowed young women to choose their own mate, particular pressure was placed on them to select a young man that would protect and provide for them, and one that never bring shame on the family name. Likewise young Southern men were expected to choose mates that would bring honor to their own family name.

The subtitle necessarily limits the scope of this book to the early national period, but being only 185 pages, it appears that there could have been a continuation of the topic on into the antebellum era. I am certain there would be enough primary source material. Maybe that is the author's future intention. I think that particular study would make a fascinating companion piece to this book.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Choosing Sides

The Civil War is not called the war of "brother vs. brother" for no reason. The war divided the nation as well as many families, particularly in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware.

Throughout the North and South men, and women, often faced tough decisions in claiming allegiance. Those decisions were probably easier depending on where you lived. For example, not many people in Vermont were going to display a Confederate flag and make their way to the South to join the army. Likewise, citizens of say, Montgomery, Alabama were probably not going to cheer for Honest Abe and sing Yankee Doodle. But, things were more complicated the where the geography of the two sections met. For instance, there was an element of Southern sympathy in parts of southern Indiana and Illinois, and as most people know, West Virginia joined the Union in 1863, and East Tennessee was a hotbed of Union sentiment.

The border states found even more conflict. Many of Lincoln's Kentucky kin served in the Confederate armies, or were married to Confederate soldiers. In Maryland, some scholars think Lincoln exceeded his presidential powers by imprisoning state officials to prevent possible secession. And, in Missouri, Unionist and Confederate guerrillas waged a terrible war against one another.

In these border states, all of which remained in the Union, but all of which also legally allowed the institution of slavery, the decision to join one side or the other sometimes came down to logic or practical thinking. One Kentucky Confederate, Philip Lightfood Lee, who eventually became Colonel of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry explained how he chose the South as follows:

"I am for the Union. But if the Union is divided, I am for Kentucky. Should Kentucky be divided, I am for Bullitt County. Should Bullitt County be divided, I am for Shepherdsville. And should Shepherdsville be divided, I am for my side of the street."

It is difficult to put yourself in the shoes of those so long ago and imagine which side you have fought for. Depending on your location or sentiment it might have been less difficult, but if you were from one of the border states, you might find yourself thinking along the same lines as Lee did.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Just finished reading - Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America by Fergus M. Bordewich

If you have ever looked for a fast paced narrative of the Underground Railroad that factually relates all of the legendary stories associated with that era in history, you will want to pick up a copy of Bound for Canaan. And, although the book is 440 pages, it is so well written, and the stories blend into one another so seamlessly, you won't mind spending the time to finish it. The author, Fergus Bordewich has written for several historical publications, including the Smithsonian, and American Heritage.

One reason I especially enjoyed the book is that there were so many references, stories, and personalities that came out of Kentucky. I was quite aware of this from previous reading and study, but Bordewich makes these events and people come to life. He makes the reader feel that they are in a wagon or on a dark and lonely road searching for the next "station," and "conductor."

One figure that I came to learn more about through the book was George DeBaptiste. I first heard about DeBaptiste when I visited the Elutherian College historic site in Lancaster, Indiana a few months back (see April 13, 2009 post). DeBaptiste was born a free man in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1814 or 1815, and had moved to the Ohio River town of Madison in the late 1830s. He was well known in town and earned a respectable living as a barber; the chosen occupation of many free blacks. Somehow he became known to William Henry Harrison, who was elected President in 1840, and went with Harrison to the White House to serve as the president's steward. His stay in Washington was a short one however as Harrison died shortly after his inauguration. DeBaptiste returned to Madison and became active in helping Kentucky runaways make their way to freedom. DeBaptiste was forced to move to Detroit, Michigan when his antislavery activities came to light. In Detroit, DeBaptiste continued helping runaways, often funneling them to nearby Canada. When the Civil War broke out he joined a United States Colored Troop, the 102nd USCT. He lived in Detroit until his death from cancer in 1875.

A large number of other personalities appear throughout Bound for Canaan; some famous, some not so famous. He recounts the tales of Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, Margaret Garner, Josiah Henson (a great Kentucky story), Henry Bibb, Henry Box Brown, William Wells Brown, Levi Coffin, Jermain Loguen, Isaac Hopper, William Still, Thomas Garrett, and John Rankin; just to name a few.

The thing that struck me as obvious was the power that the Underground Railroad's common goal had over a diverse population. The people involved in helping runaways were both black and white, they were rich and poor, they were well educated and barely educated. But they all desired the same thing...they wanted everyone, regardless of color, to be able to experience those American rights that Jefferson so clearly made in the Declaration of Independence; LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Butler's Mug in a Chamber Pot?

Most people like to see their picture prominently displayed. But, few people would like to have their picture show up where General Benjamin Franklin Butler's countenance appeared; on a chamber pot.

How did Butler's visage come to be displayed in such a manner? In order to understand, it is necessary to go back to 1861 when Ben Butler first earned an infamous name with Southerners.

While Butler was in command of Fortress Monroe at the tip of the Virginia peninsula between the York and James Rivers, the former lawyer found unexpected use for his legally trained mind. In May of 1861 three slaves, Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory had been contracted by their owners to the Confederate Army to help construct defensive batteries at Sewell's Point across the mouth of Hampton Roads from Union held Fort Monroe. They escaped at night and rowed a skiff to Old Point Comfort, where they sought asylum at the adjacent Fort Monroe. It was not difficult to figure out that the slaves had made their way to the fort, and when their Confederate officer owner arrived the following day under a flag of truce to collect the fugitives, Butler flatly denied him. The owner argued that under the Fugitive Slave Law the slaves had to be legally returned to him. Butler, in turn, insisted that since Virginia had seceded and joined the Confederacy, the Fugitive Slave Law was no longer binding. The owner left miffed and the former slaves were put to work for the Union army. This case would lead Congress to later pass acts of confiscation for Confederate property and coined the term "contraband" for slaves that escaped to Union lines. Certainly, Butler was off to a rough start with Southerners.

It wouldn't get any better when Butler was later transferred to New Orleans, which had fallen to Union forces in April 1862. While in New Orleans, the ladies of the city took particular pleasure in heaping insults...and worse on their occupiers. Naval commander David G. Farragut even had the contents of a chamber pot emptied on his head from a Confederate woman in an upstairs window as he walked down a street.

In effort to curb these disrespectful gestures Butler issued General Orders Number 28 on May 15, 1862. It stated, "As the Officers and Soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women calling themselves ladies of New Orleans, in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any Female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation."

For this order, that in essence said that the women of New Orleans would be treated as common prostitutes if they made disrespectful comments or gestures toward Union soldiers, Butler earned the nickname, "Beast Butler," and achieved notoriety as a target at the bottom of a chamber pot. Butler was also bestowed the alias "Spoons," for his alleged theft of silverware from the New Orleans residences he occupied.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Flashback Moment: The John Price Rescue

In 1854 a Richmond, Virginia slave named Anthony Burns escaped to Boston. He was captured, and after a rescue attempt for him failed, Burns was returned to Virginia. Burns was later purchased by abolitionists and then given his freedom. A similar, but less well known rescue involved a Kentucky slave two years later.

In January of 1856, John Price, a slave who had run away from a Kentucky plantation and his master John Bacon, made his way across the Ohio River. With the help of Underground Railroad Quaker connections, he made his way to Oberlin, Ohio instead of continuing on to Canada and assured freedom. Oberlin, Ohio was the home of Oberlin College, a rare academic institution for this era. Oberlin College not only had a co-educational student body, but also had a number of African American students.

John Price had struggled during his two years in Oberlin, often taking odd jobs to pay his rent. On September 13, 1858, while working as a hired hand for a local farmer, Price and the farmer's son were on their way to the fields when their wagon was quickly approached by a carriage from the rear. The fast moving carriage contained two Kentucky slave catchers and the Oberlin deputy marshal. The slave catchers quickly apprehended Price. Their plan was to take Price to nearby Wellington, Ohio, board a train to Columbus, Ohio, and then finally south to Kentucky. On the way to Wellington, Price and his captors passed two Oberlin College students and Price called out for help, but the students did not seem to notice his plea.

Price and the slave catchers arrived in Wellington and boarded at a hotel to await the next train. Little did the captors know that the students had in fact heard Price's call for help and had gone on to Oberlin for assistance from their fellow townsmen.

A mob from Oberlin, including a number of students and faculty from the college, arrived shortly in Wellington, and along with a number of citizens of that town, surrounded the hotel. After a series of negotiations between the captors and the interracial mob went nowhere, the throng broke into the hotel room, freed Price, and assisted him eventually to Canada and freedom.

A number of the identified rescuers were later arrested and tried for violating the fugitive Slave Act of 1850. While awaiting their individual trials they were even secretly visited by Kansas fugitive John Brown, who provided encouragement. The defendants' attorneys turned tables during the trials and filed suit against the slave catchers for kidnapping. On May 30, 1859 the Ohio Supreme Court ruled against the rescuers. But, the federal government had wearied with the trials and the increased national discontent caused by partisan reporting in the newspapers. With an agreement from the slave catchers, charges were dropped against the rescuers in exchange for dropped state charges against the captors. All went free.

Although not as historically well remembered as the celebrated Anthony Burns episode, the John Price incident further polarized the North and South on the slavery issue. This event also revitalized the abolitionist movement, which had suffered a significant setback the year before with the Dred Scott decision, and added to the growing list of sectional disputes that would eventually lead to war.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The First Reparation Claim?

Reparations to descendants of slaves has become a controversial topic over the last ten to fifteen years. The question appears more and more in congressional debates and in court cases.

Should payment be made for years and years of unpaid labor? If so, what type of payment should be made? Who should receive payment? How can those claims be legitimized? Should taxpayers have to pay for wrongs that weren't theirs? Aren't reparations already being paid by affirmative action and quota programs in everything from careers to college admissions? Are their other ways to right the wrongs of slavery other than monetary means? All of these questions and many more are being asked and pondered.

It might be interesting to note that the call for reparations for time in bondage is not a new one. In the year when the Civil War ended, Tennessee plantation owner P.H. Anderson made an appeal to his former slave Jourdan Anderson to return to the old home place and work for him now as a wage laborer. Jourdan Anderson had runaway during the war and had settled in Dayton, Ohio. Apparently, Jourdan's time with P.H. Anderson was not ideal as you will see from the response. Jourdan had either received an education in his slavery years, had learned to read and write rather well, and quickly as a freedman, or had someone write the letter for him. Whichever way, his response is well thought out, and although quite polite, it also has a little sting to it. The following is Jourdan Anderson's reply:

"...As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free-papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy [his wife] says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you are sincerely disposed to treat us fairly and justly - and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time of our wages had been kept and deduct what you paid for our clothing and three doctors visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to....If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night, but in Tennessee there was never any pay day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire. P.S.-Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Laurence M. Keitt

Brawls in the halls of Congress were not uncommon in the late 1850s, and the spark that in variably ignited each of these fires was the discussion of slavery. In a post a few days ago I recalled Massachusetts Senator Sumner's caning by South Carolinian Representative Preston Brooks. During that altercation a colleague of Brooks assisted in keeping bystanders from assisting the struck Sumner. He was Laurence Massillon Keitt. The Sumner/Brooks affair would not be the only time Keitt would appear in the Congressional Record for his hot temper.

Laurence Keitt was born near St. Matthews in Orangburg District, South Carolina, in 1824. His early education was at Asbury Academy before entering Mt. Zion College in Winnsboro. He then graduated from South Carolina College in 1843, third in his class. After passing the bar exam in 1845, he practiced law in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He was only twenty four when was elected to the state legislature in 1848.

Keitt was a fire-eater (emphatic secessionist) of the first order. His ultimate goal in politics was the creation of an independent Southern nation. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1852, and then reelected in 1854. He resigned his seat after he was formally censured for his role in the Sumner caning in 1856. Strangely, or not so strangely with South Carolina politics in this era, he was re-elected to fill the vacancy caused by his own resignation and he was back in Congress three weeks after his resignation.

To all observers Keitt outwardly was the essential antebellum Southern politician; touchy in regard to his honor, quick to act, and a marvelous orator, but privately he loved poetry and was in a conflicted romance that tore at his hidden heartstrings.

Susanna Sparks was her name. And by most every account she was a classic Southern beauty. In 1855 Keitt proposed, but Sparks put him off. Sparks had formally studied music and art and dreamed of relocating to Europe to pursue these passions. Keitt would not be put off though and started into a determined courtship of long love letters. After several months Keitt received word that Susanna would accept, but, then she postponed the wedding and didn't write back for long periods of time.

Finally, Sparks said that she would wed Keitt if he would give up politics and move with her to Europe for as long as she wanted. Keitt had finally met his match in stubbornness, and in passion. He could only give in, and accepted forgoing politics -although he loved it- as a small sacrifice to call her his forever. Keitt the stalwart "hotspur" of congress was no match for the love of his life. She had him wrapped around her little finger, and he didn't care that she did. Then, in the summer of 1856, Sparks said that she wanted to discontinue the relationship, this time indefinitely. Keitt answered back that if they should meet again, "...it must be as strangers."

In winter of 1858, Keitt once again found himself involved in a tangle, but this time, not as a lover. This time he was battling the enemy Republicans in Congress. As the House debated the acceptance of Kansas under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, congressional nerves wore thin. During a late night/early morning session on February 5-6, 1858, Galusa Grow, a representative from Pennsylvania, who was described as "saucy in bravado toward his opponents," and Keitt, who was said to be "addicted to swaggering bravado," came to fisticuffs. As discussions were dragging, Grow, a Republican, crossed over to the Democrat side to confer with a opposition member. A frustrated Keitt said, "if you are going to object, go back to your side of the House." Grow testily answered that, "this is a free hall." The relaxed Keitt, who had previously kicked his shoes off, then responded, "wait until I put my shoe on you black Republican puppy." Calling a man a puppy was of course the height of insult. Grow retorted that he "won't allow any nigger driver to crack a whip about my ears." At this comment Keitt jumped up and grabbed Grow by the throat, but was restrained by Reuben Davis of Mississippi. Keitt broke loose and grabbed Grow again. Grow supporters said that Grow then hit Keitt in the face with a right....Keitt supporters said the Grow missed and Keitt tripped.

Whatever the truth, now more members became involved. John Fox Potter of Wisconsin hit William Barksdale of Mississippi in the face. Barksdale thinking it was Elihu Washburn of Illinois then hit Washburn. Washburn tried to grab Barksdale by the hair, but Barksdale wore a toupee, so Washburn came up only with a hand full of hair. This naturally closed the tension as disputants broke out in laughter. The next day Keitt apologized and accepted blame for starting the melee.

Keitt eventually did marry Susanna Sparks, it is believed in 1859. True to his word they went to Europe and made plans for Susanna to follow her dreams, but as disunion appeared on the horizon back in American, Keitt could not stay away. In December of 1860 he was elected as a delegate to the South Carolina secession convention, and then he participated in a low-key role in the Montgomery convention that established the Confederate government. Then joined in the fight.

Keitt helped raise the 20th South Carolina Infantry, and on January 11, 1862 was elected it's colonel. He wrote his Susanna regularly during the war. The letters reflect his patriotic feelings and his eloquent abilities as a writer. One is struck in reading the letters today, especially the last ones, with the love for his wife and children.

After prolonged duty around Charleston, South Carolina, Keitt requested that the 2oth South Carolina be transferred to Virginia for a more active role in the war. His wishes were granted. On June 1, 1864, Keitt, while riding along the lines at the Battle of Cold Harbor, was hit in the chest with a bullet. When initially attended to he replied, "Such is the fate of war." Keitt was taken to a residence behind the lines, and there he died the next day. Loving Susanna to the end, his last words were, "Oh wife, wife."

To find out more about Laurence M. Keitt, check out All That Make A Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South, by Stephen W. Berry.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

When Cotton Was King: The Cotton Press

In a speech on the United States Senate floor on March 4, 1858, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond, on debating the admission of Kansas as a state under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, made a bold and somewhat threatening statement. Hammond defiantly asked, "...What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? I will not stop to depict what everyone can imagine, but this is certain: England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her, save the South. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is King...."

Obviously, in order to obtain the financial benefits from cotton it first has to be processed and then taken to market for sale. The process of processing cotton, like many other agricultural duties, was simple in theory, but much more difficult in practice and in the effort expended. Slave labor was believed necessary for the arduous processing.

First, the cotton had to be planted, then constantly cultivated to ensure the best possible yield. Cotton was picked in the fall when the bolls matured. Then it was ginned to remove the seeds and "trash," such as stems, husks, and leaves that might have been picked up as well. Once ginned, the cotton was pressed into uniform bales, and then usually bound and tied with hemp bagging and rope.

In order to get the bales uniform, most large plantations had a cotton press. Planters who didn't own a cotton press usually paid a neighboring planter to use theirs; same when for the gins. Cotton presses came in a variety of sizes and forms, as they were often designed by the individual planters who owned them, and built by skilled artisan slaves. The most common cotton presses were those in a vertical form, as shown below.

Cotton presses usually had two long arms to which horses, mules, or oxen were attached, that rotated around the main structure. The most important component of the press was the screw mechanism. As the arms rotated the screw forced a flat mobile platform downward. The platform came down into a "closet." The closet consisted of four stationary walls and a solid platform floor. The loose cotton would be tossed into the closet and then compacted. When it was tightly packed, the press would be released, and the "bricked" bale would be rolled out and then tightly bagged and roped to keep it together for transporting to market.
Some cotton presses were in covered shelters, and some were out in the open. Some presses worked on a jack system that ratcheted rather than screwed the mobile platform down on the cotton. As inventions progressed, presses were later outfitted with steam and electric engines.
Cotton presses such as the ones shown here, as with many agricultural tools of the past, have become relics of a by-gone era. A few of these historic cotton presses remain throughout the South; some are even on the National Register of Historic Places. They represent a time and way of life long past, but hopefully we better understood those days of long ago due to their remaining existence.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Don't Let the Pattyrollers Catch You!

In order to keep growing slave populations in check during the Colonial era, a system developed where whites in the community took turns patrolling the streets, roadways, and farm lanes (depending on the area covered) to make sure that the slaves were not off the plantation or out and about the town after curfew and without passes. Previously, white individuals had the authority to stop any black person and demand to know who owned them or ask to see their pass. But as the slave populations grew to such large numbers - even to the point of out numbering whites in some areas such as low country South Carolina - it was felt that a more regulated system was needed to make sure that slaves stayed in desired areas, and did not have opportunities to meet together and possibly plan insurrections. Masters also feared that without proper controls slaves would steal and trade or sell items to other slaves.

These groups of men were known by various names. Often in urban areas they were known as "night watchmen," as the period notice above indicates. They were also called patrollers, plantation police, home guards, or vigilance committees, but to the slaves they were simply the "pattyrollers." This semi-military organization, was often raised and supported by the local planters, but was recognized by the local and state authorities, and had permission to deal out punishments if necessary. They were often mounted for speed and exude and air of authority and were always armed. Duties of the slave patrols included arresting or discouraging runaways, monitoring the strict pass requirements for blacks traveling from plantation to plantation, breaking up large gatherings and assemblies of blacks, visiting and searching slave quarters at random, inflicting impromptu punishments, and if an occasion arose, suppressing insurrections.

The Civil War, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and the Union occupation of much of the South, rendered these patrols doubly rigorous. Obviously, many blacks submitted to this rigorous searching reluctantly. The man in the picture below is none too pleased at being stopped and examined. He seems to unwillingly yield to the patroller out of no respect, but only by the potential threat his position and rifle afforded the patroller. The other slaves seem to show more of the stereotypical sycophantic attitude that was most often attributed to blacks in the mid 19th century.

Many slaves viewed the pattyrollers as merely an inconvenience that had to obliged. Some of the more bold slaves played tricks, or devised diversions for unsuspecting patrollers. Some booby trapped roads and trails to help discourage overly excessive vigilance on the part of the riders. One slave in an interview many years later commented that they would stretch strong grapevines across the road, and while one slave led the patrol down the road, the others would pull the grapevine taut and trip the horses, sending the riders flying.

After the Civil War the patrollers didn't go away in many areas. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups developed and attempted to keep freedmen from organizing politically, meeting for schooling, or voting at the polls.

For more information on slave patrols check out Sally E. Hadden's excellent book, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas from Harvard University Press, 2001.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Just finished reading - Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson's Civil War by Thomas D. Mays

My dad's side of the family is from Clinton County, Kentucky. Talbotts have been there since the early 1800s, if not a little sooner. When I got interested in the Civil War as a boy, my grandfather told me a family story that had been passed down from generation to generation. It seems that the infamous guerrilla Champ Ferguson once paid a call to the Talbott farm to raid the corn crib, apparently for some forage for his men's horses. One of my ancestors who was a teenager at the time, snuck out of the house and took aim at one of Ferguson's men, if not Ferguson himself, and was ready to pull the trigger when his father stopped him. If the deed had been performed there is no doubt that Ferguson and or his men would have reaped vengeance against the family. Now, I don't know if this story is true or not. I don't have any reason to believe its not. And from what I have learned from reading this and other accounts about Ferguson, he and his men were frequently in and around Albany and Clinton County during the war and this episode fits the mode of operation.

Cumberland Blood vividly tells the story of man who has been viewed as both murderer and protector...depending upon who was doing the labeling. Champ Ferguson lived a colorful life even before the Civil War, but his exploits during the war brought his name and the Cumberland region into the national spotlight.

Ferguson was born on November 29, 1821 about four miles from Albany, Kentucky. Champ was the oldest of ten children born to William and Zilpha Ferguson. Like many youth during this time and in this region, Ferguson received little education. He once said that he probably only had three months of schooling. He could read and write, but not very well. Ferguson married in 1843 and had a son, but both mother and child died from and unknown cause within three years of the birth. Ferguson married Martha Owens in 1848 and they had one daughter named Ann Elizabeth. She would be a teenager during the Civil War.

Ferguson was a rising middle class farmer who owned a couple of slaves, and in 1860, his property was valued at $2000. Only 13% of the families in Clinton County could say the same. Ferguson was a large man for the time. He was over six feet tall and weighted about 180 pounds. He was known to be a gambler, a drinker, and a brawler. In the late 1850s he got into an altercation where he killed a man and went to trial, but the trial was still not settled when the Civil War began.

Champ did not choose sides immediately when the war started. In fact he was partial to the Union, and went to a number of Union rallies in Clinton County in the opening months of the war. But, when he heard about the stunning Confederate victory at Manassas he chose to go with the Confederates. This was not a popular choice in Clinton County because the county was largely Unionist. Kentucky war governor Thomas Bramlette was a native Clinton Countian and a company of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry was raised in Albany. Over in Frentress and Overton County, Tennessee, however, the sentiment was more mixed; even to the point of leaning more toward the Confederacy.

The Ferguson family, like so many other Kentucky families, was split by the war. Champ decided to go with the South, but his brother James joined the Union army. When the Union soldiers left Albany it quickly became a lawless town, and Champ Ferguson seemed to flourish. Finally, a Home Guard group captured Ferguson near the Tennessee/Kentucky state line and tried to transport him to Union Camp Dick Robinson, but Ferguson escaped. This episode appears to be what triggered the next four years of terror that Ferguson wrought to the Cumberland region...and beyond.

One after another, Ferguson began killing men that he knew favored the Union; many of which had earlier been his close friends. Ferguson's excuse for the killings was that these men would have killed him if they had the chance. Missouri's guerrilla war has been written about more than that of the Cumberland region, but William Quantrill and Bill Anderson had nothing on Champ Ferguson. He delighted in catching his enemies when they least expected it. He killed at least two men in their sick beds. He used pistols and, when possible, was especially keen with the bowie knife. He once told one of his victims "don't you beg and don't you dodge," before killing the man.

Ferguson was also involved in killing a number of wounded soldiers, both black and white, after the Battle of Saltville, Virginia in October 1864. He was even arrested by the Confederate command for these heinous acts, but was shortly released. The stories of his actions after Saltville are particularly gruesome and cold blooded.

Ferguson was finally caught after the war ended. He had been offered the chance to surrender, but refused and continued his rampages in the Cumberland in April and May of 1865. He was caught at his White County, Tennessee farm, where he had moved his family shortly after the war started. He was taken to Nashville and charged, tried, and found guilty of killing at least 53 men, although the number is probably higher. To the end Ferguson claimed innocence, and that the men he killed were killed in self defense, as those men would have surely killed him if given the chance. Ferguson only claiming that he killed proactively (in today's terminology).

His life came to an end when he was hanged on October 20, 1865, at the state penitentiary in Nashville. Ferguson's one wish was granted. He had asked, "When I am dead I want my body placed in this box, delivered to my wife and carried to Sparta in White County and buried in pure, Rebel soil. I don't want to be buried in soil such as this."

If you are interested in reading about the war that doesn't get discussed much, but that effected so many people's lives on the Kentucky/Tennessee border, then Cumberland Blood is the book for you. I certainly recommend it for a fuller understanding of the divisive nature of the war and how some men waged the war in their own personal way.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Rattle Those Bones!

The Bones Player by William Sydney Mount, 1856.
I am certainly not musically gifted, but I think I might have found an instrument that I can learn to play...the bones.

The bones are a folk instrument that has quite a varied history. Some accounts of musical bones date back to ancient Greece, Egypt, and China. The style of bones that were used in 19th century America came mainly by way of the Irish, and have been incorporated into a number of different musical styles.

These percussion instruments are called bones because that is often what they are made from; rib bones, but bones can also be made from a variety of materials. They can be from a number of different woods, with hardwoods being preferred due to their good tones, or even metal. For example, playing the "spoons" is merely a derivative of the bones. The bones usually measure from five to eight inches in length and are most often a curved shape to "clack" against one another and make their distinct sound.

Bones are played by holding them between one's fingers, convex surfaces facing one another, and moving one's wrist in such a way that they knock against each other. The customary method involves placing the bones to either side of the middle finger such that approximately two-thirds of their length extends along the palm while the remainder protrudes above the fingers on the backside of the hand. The hand is held in a loose fist with the bones and the curled fingers roughly parallel to the palm. Usually, the bone closest to the ring finger is gently held against the palm by the tip of the ring finger placed on its edge, while the other bone is left free to move in the "hinge" formed by the index and middle fingers as they gently hold it. A player may use a pair of bones in each hand, or just a single pair in one hand.

The bones were one of the five main instruments in minstrel shows; the others being the tambourine, fiddle, banjo, and guitar. Minstrels chose these particular instruments because they were most popular with the slaves who inspired most of the minstrel song tunes and lyrics. Unlike fiddles and banjos, slaves could easily procure a set of bones and learn to play without much instruction.

You can see and hear bones being played in the following video:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Just finished reading - Evil Necessity: Slavery and Political Culture in Antebellum Kentucky by Harold D. Tallant

Unlike many of the Deep South states who viewed slavery as a "positive good" in the antebellum years, Kentucky and other Upper South states saw slavery more as a "necessary evil." Most Kentuckians thought that slavery was necessary as an institution to continue its economic prosperity, and right of property, especially in western Kentucky and the in the Bluegrass region where slavery flourished most. But, it was also a necessary evil because it was thought that slavery was the best means of social control for the 22% of the population (1850) that was black. Just as many, and some of the same people that saw it as necessary, also saw it is evil. Evil in that it led to idleness, a lack of innovation, a sense of tyranny (even if only locally), and an undeserved air of entitlement.

Thus, slavery, being viewed as an "evil necessity," brought a wide spectrum of opinions on how to deal with it. These diverse viewpoints are illustrated in a number of Kentucky's notable personalities during this era.

There were those that supported the idea of colonizing slaves to another country; mainly Liberia. There were those that saw colonization as impractical in expense in effort. There were those that believed that slaveholders should be compensated for their property if they were freed. There were those that proposed emancipating slaves when they reached a certain age. This plan known as "post nati," then usually stipulated that the blacks be required to leave the state after a certain period after being freed. And, there were those very few who wanted an immediate, uncompensated freedom for the slaves, and then have them integrated into society as social and political equals. Kentuckians such as Robert J. Breckinridge (uncle to future Vice President John C. Breckinridge), William G. Birney, John G. Fee, Cassuis M. Clay, and Robert Wickliffe, all expressed varying degrees of pro-slavery or anti-slavery thoughts along these lines. Some of these men changed their ideas over time, and some remained firmly committed to their goals. Most white Kentuckians, due to racism, believed that however slavery was ended - if in fact that was what was best - blacks would have to be removed from the state. Tallent argues this is what in fact caused Kentucky to hold on to the institution to the bitter end - the 13th Amendment; which by the way, Kentucky did not ratify until 1976 (by then a symbolic gesture).

Tallent sums up this book and his thesis quite well in the last paragraph of the book, as follows:
"In the end, Kentucky's moderation - its theory that slavery was a necessary evil - had the effect of preserving slavery and white domination of the state. Kentuckians demonstrated that their moderation on the issue of slavery was little different, in its effects, from immoderation. Expected to be the first to give up slavery because of its moderation, Kentucky actually became the one of the last two states to give up slavery - because of that same moderation. Kentucky's highest ideals became not the antebellum period's vision of the African American's innate humanity and abstract right to freedom, but the postbellum period's support for the Lost Cause and white supremacy. Throughout the years of controversy, Kentucky tried to serve two masters: God and Mammon - their highest ideals and their love of the things and ways of this world. Caught between their potential for antislavery idealism and their loyalty to racism, property, and reputation, Kentuckians found they could not successfully serve two masters. For in loving one, they came to hate the other."

Tallent, a history professor at Georgetown College, Kentucky has produced a book that gives the student of Kentucky history a better understanding of the wide scope of though on slavery and emancipation that existed in the state up to the time of the Civil War. I eagerly recommend this book to anyone wanting a fuller understanding of the unmonolithic stance on slavery that was common to the Border and Upper South states in the antebellum years.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Don't Bet Your Money on the Shanghai!"

Last weekend my girlfriend Michele and I went to see The Stephen Foster Story at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown. During the musical, they played and sang a catchy Foster tune that I hadn't heard before called, "Don't Bet Your Money on the Shanghai." Like most of Foster's songs, this one was meant for the minstrel crowd, and also like many of his songs, it was written in slave dialect. The lyrics to the song are:

De Shanghai chicken, when you put him in de pit,
He'll eat a loaf of bread up, but he can't fight a bit.
De Shanghai fiddle is a funny little thing,
And ebry time you tune him up he goes ching ching.

Oh! de Shanghai!Don't bet your money on de Shanghai,
Take de little chicken in de middle ob de ring
But don't bet your money on de Shanghai.

I go to de fair for to see de funny fowls,
De double headed pigeon an de one eyed owls.
De old lame goose wid no web between his toes,
He kills himself a laughing when de Shanghai crows.

Oh! de Shanghai!Don't bet your money on de Shanghai,
Take de little chicken in de middle ob de ring,
But don't bet your money on de Shanghai.

De Shanghai's tall but his appetite is small,

He'll only swallow ebry thing that he can overhaul.
Four bags of wheat just as certain as your born,
A bushel of potatoes and a tub full of corn.

Oh! de Shanghai!Don't bet your money on de Shanghai,
Take de little chicken in de middle ob de ring,
But don't bet your money on de Shanghai. (1861)

Of course, the topic of the song is cockfighting. Pitting fighting roosters against one another has an ancient history, and is still very popular in countries such as Mexico, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Cockfighting is now outlawed in every state in America; Louisiana, in 2007, was the last to abolish the sport. But, in the 19th century it was a very popular form of sporting entertainment. Like horse racing, another favorite sport of the South, cockfighting offered the opportunity to gamble. Small fortunes were won and lost on the ability of one rooster to spur and peck to death another. In the fictional book Roots, Chicken George was an expert fighting trainer who lost his opportunity for freedom when his master lost a cockfight and had to sell George.

These birds are trained and conditioned to increase their stamina and killing ability. Roosters are innately aggressive toward other males of their species, and it doesn't take much to make them fight to the death.

Travelers to the South in the 19th century often commented on cockfighting, which must say something to is commonness. One traveler moving through eastern North Carolina in 1857, observed that, "a crowd of shabby-looking white men and negroes collected behind an open space behind the stable, placing wagers of ten to twenty-five cents on the outcome of the match."

Although outlawed, cockfights, just like dogfights (see Michael Vick), still happen illegally in our present times. In barns and sheds, not only in the South, but throughout the United States, stakes are still wagered on the fighting merits of birds. I think this says something to the nature of traditions in United States. History dies hard sometimes.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Personality Spotlight: Edmund Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin is known to most Civil War enthusiasts as the man who allegedly pulled the lanyard that fired the first shot at Fort Sumter that early morning on April 12, 1861. What many people don't know is that Ruffin lived a long and full life before that fateful day.

Edmund Ruffin was born in 1794 in Prince George County, Virginia. Ruffin received a varied education that included private instruction and even some time at William and Mary College. He used his education, practical experience, and good common sense to help develop innovative means for agricultural reform when he took over his father's tobacco plantation. In fact, Ruffin is often recognized as the "Father of Agricultural Chemistry."

Ruffin's main means of restoring fertility to exhausted soil was the use of "calcareous manures." What were calcareous manures you ask? In a word, marl. Marl is a layer of earth that is clay-like but consists largely of dead shell-life. Marl helped to greatly reduce the acidity of the exhausted soil in eastern Virginia. Ruffin found that marling, along with fertilization, a proper system of crop rotation, field drainage, and creative plowing, produced significantly larger crop yields. Ruffin quickly gained a noted reputation for innovative farming and was hired as a consultant to a number of Southern planters. Ruffin used his new found fame to start an agricultural journal called the Farmer's Register that he edited for a number of years.

Whereas most Virginians were late coming to the idea of secession. Ruffin had long proclaimed, both publicly and privately, his desire for an independent Southern nation. Ruffin was also a staunch defender of slavery and its necessity for not only continued economic prosperity, but also for social control of the large black population in Virginia, going so far as to publish a book on the subject; The Political Economy of Slavery.

As noted above Ruffin wanted to be at the forefront in forming the Confederacy, and traveled to Charleston, where he was made an honorary member of the South Carolina Palmetto Guards. He received his opportunity to strike a blow for Southern independence when General P.G. T. Beauregard ordered Fort Sumter to be fired upon.

Ruffin suffered dearly for his Southern allegiance during the Civil War. At least one of his plantations were burned during the war, and he also lost a son to the cause. When at last the South was defeated, it was more than Ruffin could take. On June 18, 1865 at his Amelia County, Virginia home he penned his last lines in a life-long diary and then committed suicide. He was venomous to the end. His last words were...
"here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule -- to all political, social and business connection with the Yankees and to the Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living Southerner and bequeath them to every one yet to be born! May such sentiments be held universally in the outraged and down-trodden South, though in silence and stillness, until the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for Yankee usurpation, oppression and atrocious outrages, and for deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States!
...And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will be near my latest breath, I here repeat and would willingly proclaim my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule--to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, and the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dueling: An Affair of Honor? How 'bout, I'm sorry?

Fortunately, dueling has gone the way of the dinosaur. No longer do men select seconds, choose weapons, pace, turn, and let loose at one another to settle perceived slights and disagreements. But, in the 18th century, and for much of the 19th century, this old practice that dates back to the medieval times, was the ultimate way to redeem your name when it was thrown in the mud.

All of the formalities of the duel were spelled out in the Code Duello, a book of 26 rules, that both parties were bound to respect to resolve their difference. In most duels, each antagonist acted through a friend, called a second. The seconds' role, was ultimately to try to reconcile the parties without a resort to violence. An offended party sent a challenge through his second. If the recipient apologized, the matter usually ended. If he elected to fight, the recipient chose the weapons and the time and place of the encounter. Up until combat began, apologies could be given and the duel stopped. After combat began, it could be stopped at any point after honor had been satisfied. Often the men went to the length of pacing the distance and then firing harmlessly in the air just to show that they had the honor to go through the with the duel.

Most duelists chose pistols as their weapons. The large caliber, smoothbore flintlock pistols Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr used in their duel typified the early American dueling weapons. Many American men owned a pair of such pistols, and, from about 1750 to 1850, many were called to use them. Andrew Jackson fought a number of duels, one proved to be fatal, when he killed Charles Dickenson in 1806. Abraham Lincoln can close to a duel when he ridiculed a political rival in a newspaper article. Luckily, this sword duel was called off when Lincoln apologized. Politicians, attorneys, and newspaper editors were the most common participants in duels, largely due to the polemical and partisan nature of their work.

For every man who gloried in the duel, there were many others who feared it. A word or two passed in private company on a Friday night could well mean a challenge on Saturday morning and the possibility of death on Sunday. Avoiding a challenge wasn't easy. Particularly in the South, where men who refused to duel would be "posted." A statement accusing them of cowardice would be hung in public areas or published in a newspaper or pamphlet. It was either go through with the duel, or be shamed in your community.

When Congressman John Randolph of Virginia refused to meet General James Wilkinson in a duel, a furious Wilkinson posted him. The post declared "In justice to my character I denounce to the world John Randolph, a member of Congress, as a prevaricating, base, calumniating scoundrel, poltroon, and coward." Wilkinson, a co-conspirator in Aaron Burr's treason plot, had little character to damage. Randolph lost little by his posting.

By the time of the Civil War, dueling had started on an irreversible decline, even in the South. Not surprisingly, public opinion, not legislation, caused the change. What once had been a formal process designed to avoid violence and amend offences had deteriorated into cold-blooded murder. People at last were shocked by it, and they showed their displeasure.

Those who did duel did so out of respect for their opponent. One had to respect their antagonist enough to demand satisfaction. For example, in an earlier post I discussed the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks. Brooks did not offer Sumner the opportunity to duel as Brooks didn't view Sumner to be a equal. Those that are considered to be beneath you are subject to beating, not a chance at manly settlement.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Just finished reading - Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History by Richard D. Sears

Author Richard D. Sears is an English and Theatre professor at Berea College, and has previously written, A Utopian Experiment in Kentucky: Integration and Social Equality at Berea, 1866-1904, so he is very familiar with many of the personalities that had a significant impact on Camp Nelson.

Since I recently posted about Camp Nelson (see May 28, 2009), I will reserve my comments here to this specific book rather than another review of the history of the place.

When I found this book I was sincerely eager to get started reading it. I have always been interested in the African American Civil War experience and thought this would be a great look into that world, and specifically from a Kentucky viewpoint. Upon perusing the book I was somewhat disappointed to find that, while the first part of the book contained an approximately 50 page narrative history about Camp Nelson, the rest of the book contained what appeared to be upon first glance, an eclectic collection of letters and memos from the period the camp existed. Nevertheless, I was determined to learn more about Camp Nelson, and with this being the only recent book on the subject, I promised myself I would wade through it. I was certainly happy I did.

It turns out that Sears organized the book quite well indeed. His narrative introduction laid the foundation for the plethora of primary sources that filled the remaining majority of the book. I found that without the narrative section many of the primary sources would been obscure, and not very beneficial, and that without the primary sources in their original context, the narrative would not have been so strongly supported.

The collection of primary sources is impressive. There are memos from General Burnside establishing Camp Nelson in the spring of 1863; letters from John G. Fee soliciting personnel and monetary help from the American Missionary Association; letters from white Union soldiers stationed at Camp Nelson; letters from the numerous commandants on rules and regulations of the camp; excerpts from slave narratives of slaves that became soldiers there; affidavits from slaves that ran away to come to Camp Nelson to enlist and or seek protection...and many, many more. Sears went to great lengths to collect as many of these pertinent documents that deal with Camp Nelson as possible. He then carefully edited them to take out insignificant or redundant information to make them more relevant and readable. His numerous footnotes do not detract from the flow of the document, but instead help the reader become better informed by filling in historical holes.

I highly recommend Camp Nelson, Kentucky: A Civil War History to anyone that wants to learn more about the Civil War in Kentucky and the African American experience in a slave state. It is a highly informative, well researched, and organized work.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Not What You Want to See at A Battlefield

I assume that most people go to Civil War battlefields to do one of the following: commemorate, learn, understand, reflect, memorialize, study, observe, and interact with nature, but that is becoming more difficult to do at Cedar Creek Battlefield in Virginia.

As I type this a limestone quarry is damaging the landscape around this important piece of American ground. Visitors to Cedar Creek can't help but vividly see the intrusive industrial equipment and dust rising from the quarry, and hear the cacophonous sounds of the digging disturbing the otherwise peaceful Valley countryside. The Civil War Preservation Trust has started a campaign to hopefully limit further encroachment, and preserve a few precious acres, but only time will tell if further damage is to be done.

The Battle of Cedar Creek was the desperate final act in Confederate General Jubal Early's 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign; an effort to try to draw part of the Union army away from General Lee's besieged lines at Petersburg and Richmond.

At dawn, October 19, 1864, the Confederate Army of the Valley under Gen. Early surprised the Federal army at Cedar Creek and temporarily routed the VIII and XIX Army Corps. Union Commander Gen. Philip Sheridan arrived from Winchester just in time to rally his troops, and, in the afternoon, led a crushing counterattack, which recovered the battlefield for the Federals. Sheridan’s victory at Cedar Creek broke the back of the Confederate army in the Shenandoah Valley and brought little real relief to Lee at Petersburg. President Lincoln rode the momentum of Sheridan’s victories in the Valley and Sherman’s successes in Georgia to re-election in the November 1864 election. If Gen. Early had somehow been able to hang on to victory at Cedar Creek instead of being forced to retreat, the election may have been much closer or gone to the Democratic candidate George B. McClellan.

Right now 49 acres are targeted for preservation. The current campaign offers a match of $30 to $1. For every $1 donated, it is matched by $30. If you can help in this effort, see the CWPT website at www.civilwar.org to make a donation to this worthy cause.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Can Artists be Historians?

Although artists work with materials and tools that are usually unfamiliar to the traditional historian - canvas and paints, or clay and chisel, instead of the word processor or pens and paper - they too can have their works interpret people, places, and events of the past. And, I believe there are times when the artist's medium can more effectively tell a story than the words of the best writing historian.

Walt Whitman once said something to the effect that "the real war would never end up in the history books." I would say to some extent this is true. Reading about war, no matter how gruesome the details, cannot capture the true destruction that it is capable of producing. Civil War photographs give us a better visual clue of the aftermath of war, but since there were no moving pictures or pictures of active combat, the student of the Civil War is often left to guess what a battle would have looked like. Artists help fill that void. Period artists risked life and limb to bring accurate portrayals of the war to the public. And today, a number of modern artists spare no expense to research and illustrate in color and on canvas what Civil War battles must have looked like.

Probably the most recognized and well respected modern Civil War artist is Don Troiani. I believe part of the reason he is so well recognized and respected is the level of research he puts into his works. Troiani not only researches the people and events he portrays by reading, he has an impressive personal collection of uniforms, and soldiers' equipment that would make many museums jealous. He uses these material culture items to document the last little detail in his paintings.

On the flip-side, there are those artists that produce prints only with the seeming intent to sell, and forgo the careful research and historical correctness of what they create. They often depict images that probably never happened or throw in so much romanticism and hero worship that one loses the sense of the personality or event being illustrated. Other than being aesthetically pleasing and many times dreamy, these artists are not what I would call historian artists.

Just as in written history, the historian artist should be aware of bias and anachronisms that lessen the creditability of their work, and seek to avoid them. Americans take much of what they know about history from popular culture. And, although they are probably more influenced by, say movies than historical prints, what they see in a painting could certainly impact their view of an event or person of history. Paintings that are inaccurate do not bring a greater understanding of the period in my opinion.

The next time you are in a print store look at the various images and styles and try to make some judgements on whether you think the images being portrayed are shown accurately and honestly; those that do deserve to be considered artistic historians, those that don't...well they are just artists.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Flashback Moment: Sumner's Caning

Political rhetoric is as American as apple pie and baseball. Hopefully our legislators today have learned lessons from the past, but with all of the partisan bickering in the halls of Congress these days it is not inconceivable that the events of May 22, 1856 could occur again.

In the 1850s, as the nation unknowingly approached civil war, members of the halls of our national congress often arrived to work armed with knives and pocket pistols instead of pens and ink. On May 22, 1856 tension and bad blood came to a boil in the United States senate chamber.

Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had made a name for himself by stepping on toes, irrespective of party or section allegiance. Sumner saved his best rhetoric to fight slavery, especially the threat of slavery's spread to the western territories. In the past he has made passionate speeches against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and its encompassing omnibus bill "The Compromise of 1850." Just a few years later Sumner's bombastic nature would come back to bite him. In speeches on May 19 and 20, 1856, Sumner called the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which established the rule of popularly sovereignty, a "crime against Kansas" and verbally whipped Senators Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Douglas, a short heavyset man, Sumner said, was a "noisome, squat and nameless animal," and he accused Butler, who was a slaveholder and had speech impediment, of taking "a mistress...polluted in the sight of the world...I mean, the harlot, slavery," and ridiculed Butler's stammering speeches. These were powerful insults, even in the late 1850s. Sumner had damaged Douglas's and Butler's honor; something not to be taken lightly.

On May 22, Butler's nephew, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, along with fellow South Carolina Congressman Lawrence Keitt, approached Sumner at his senate desk and berated Sumner for dishonoring Brooks's kinsman Butler. Brooks did not allow Sumner to reply, instead he beat Sumner with his walking cane. Sumner attempted to take refuge under his desk but Brooks continued to swing the cane until he had broken through the desk and beat Sumner unmercifully. After several moments and blinded by his own blood, Sumner lay slumped on the floor. Brooks finally stopped swinging when his cane snapped. Then when other Senators moved in to help the unconscious Sumner, Keitt drew a pistol and kept them at bay.

In the North the attack was decried. In the South it was celebrated. In fact, Brooks received a number of canes as gifts to replace the one he had broken on Sumner. Sumner, in deed, was badly injured in the assault, and did not return to his Senate post for three years, although many believed he could have returned much earlier. In the fall of 1856, the Massachusetts legislature reelected Sumner, now a Republican, and he served until his death in 1874. During Reconstruction he was considered one of the top three "Radical Republicans," along with Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Benjamin Wade of Ohio.

This incident was just one more log on the fire of sectional discord. It further polarized the North and the South over the ever increasing burden of slavery. Other later incidents such as the Dred Scott Decision the following year, and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry three years later, would push America to the edge.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Thank You Packrats!

Other than books, I do not consider myself a collector of much anything. I don't seem to get much satisfaction by hoarding material goods. But, there are people who have a very strong desire to keep almost even the most obscure of items for future use, or just for the purpose of reminiscing.

To these "packrats" that do though, I say, thanks! Because of these avid collectors, we have much of the material culture now found in museums, paper items housed in archives, and yes, even books stacked in libraries.

A good example of how the "packrat" assists historians in their work is illustrated by a friend of a friend of mine from East Tennessee. This man, who has lived in his town for many years, was known to be a respectable and honest fellow to many people in his area. Due to being a pillar of the community, he was often called upon to serve as executor in estate settlements, especially those of the elderly who didn't have immediate families. When family papers had no where else to go he rounded them up, attempted to determine their historical significance, and then donated them to historical societies and libraries. Many of these papers dated back to the early 1800s and included such diverse items as personal letters, tax records, store ledgers, and even receipts for slave transfer sales and manumissions. Without the pack rats who held onto these seemingly worthless pieces of paper, much of what is known about the local history of this man's town would have been lost. Once these items end up in an archive or library they are the "stuff" historians use to write history. They are the primary sources that confirm or deny the historian's theories and inferences, and serve as the foundation to their historical works.

Much along the same lines of paper documents, material culture items that are found in museums come from mainly two different sources. First, people who collect items of a specific genre over their lifetime, and then who wish to see them shared and preserved for others to learn from; and second those that inherit or by some other means come to own items they have no interest in possessing or taking care of; either way, if it ends up in a museum, the public are the ones who benefit. It would certainly be a shame for something that is unique or antique and in good condition to find its way to the landfill when instead it could serve to teach children "what we used in the old days," but unfortunately often that is just the case.

I am not a believer in keeping junk, just for the sake of keeping junk, but if you have something that you think might be of interest to a museum or archives, please make the attempt to offer it before throwing it away. If you have papers, letters, or an old diary that you think may be useful to researchers, organize them, take care of them, and make plans to donate them to your local or state historical society or university archives...like me, future historians will thank you.