Sunday, March 27, 2011

Thursday, March 24, 2011

...And That's What's the Matter!

When Stephen Collins Foster wrote "That's What's The Matter" in 1862 the country was being torn apart by civil war. Foster, a Democrat from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and related to previous President James Buchanan by marriage, had earned much of his living writing songs with slavery themes and often in blackface dialect. But, Foster's choice to side with the Union was probably not a difficult one for him and he doesn't appear to have harbored Copperhead sympathies. His lyrics in "That's What's The Matter" bear this fact out as he pokes fun at the Confederacy and strongly supports the Union war effort.

Author Ken Emerson in Doo-dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture explains that, "The song scolds the 'rebel crew' as if they were naughty boys, delights in their comeuppance at Shiloh, and praises the iron-clad Monitor and its true-blue captain, John Ericsson." At this particular time Foster was living in New York City and and according to Emerson "Since it has been built and launched in Brooklyn, the Monitor was a source of special pride to New Yorkers (and perhaps of additional pride to Foster because its guns had been manufactured in Pittsburgh."
The song's lively opening lines are, to me, some of Foster's most catchy.

"We live in hard and stirring times,
Too sad for mirth, too rough for rhymes;
For songs of peace have lost their chimes,
And that's what's the matter.

The men we held as brothers true,
Have turn'd into a Rebel crew;
So, now we have to put them thro',
And that's what's the matter."

The song also apparently carried some significant cultural weight as well, as it's title appeared on the Civil War era envelopes pictured above and below.

If you are interested in seeing a short performance of this song give this link a look and listen:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kentucky in Minstrelsy

I have been developing a real interest in antebellum minstrelsy lately and one observation that I have made is that Kentucky comes in for its fair share of mention in these songs. Not that that is rare, as almost all Southern states make an appearance in these tunes, but the Bluegrass State seems to have had a special appeal to the composers. Historian William J. Mahar, in Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture, explains that Virginia far out paced the other slave states mentioned in minstrel songs, but was followed by Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Sometimes the Bluegrass State appears in titles such as the above pictured "Julius From Kentucky," or Stephen Foster's famous "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night." But, in many more Kentucky is mentioned in the lyrics.

In "Ring, Ring the Banjo," Foster again references Kentucky, but this time instead of reminiscing of Kentucky, one gets the impression that the slave did not have such a good experience:
"Once I was so lucky, my massa set me free,
I went to old Kentucky to see what I could see;
I could not go no farder , I turn to massa's door,
I lub hum all de harder, I'll go away no more."

In "Darling Nelly Gray," written by Benjamin R. Hanby, in 1856, Kentucky is again a happy place for the slave who loses his Nelly to slave traders that take her to Georgia to "toil in the cotton and the cane."
"There's a low green valley on the old Kentucky shore,
There I've wiled many happy hours away,
A-sitting and a-singing by the little cottage door,
Where lived my darling Nelly Gray."

In Clare [Clear] de Kitchen,which dates back to minstrelsy of the early 1830s, Kentucky is mentioned as "old," not so much as old chronologically as old in being familiar and favored. Kentucky's mother state, Virginia, is also referenced :
"In old Kentuck in de afternoon,
we sweep de floor with a brand new broom,
an dis de song dat we do sing,
Oh! Clare de kitchen old folks, young folks,
Clare de kitchen old folks, young folks,
Old Virginny never tire."

Christy's Minstrels turned out "Happy Uncle Tom," in 1853, which refuted Harriet Beecher Stowe's interpretation:
"Oh, white folks we'll have you know,
Dis am not de version of Mrs. Stowe,
Wid her all de darks are unlucky,
But we am the boys from old Kentucky,
Den han de banjo down to play,
We'll make it ring both night and day,
And we care not what de white folks say,
Dey can't get us to run away."

It could be that Kentucky is mentioned so often due to its nearness to many of the composers of these songs. Foster was from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and spent some time working in Cincinnati, and he had relatives in Kentucky. Minstrelsy, especially early on, seems to have followed the flow of steamboat travel, and Kentucky being prominent on both the Ohio and Mississippi River routes, could be another explanation. Uncle Tom's Cabin influenced much of the antebellum era's popular culture, and with much of the book being set in Kentucky, that probably also had something to do with Kentucky often being mentioned.

If you know of other references to Kentucky in minstrelsy I would be interested to hear about them.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Kentucky Union Officer Marcellus Mundy to Abraham Lincoln on Colonization

Louisville Hotel. Louisville Ky

July 28. 1864

Mr. President.

Will the Government undertake to Colonize the negroes of Kentucky out of the state, if the people of Kentucky will emancipate them? I do not ask this question idly: but with the determination to take the stump as an advocate for emancipation if it be answered in the affirmative. Kentucky is the only loyal state in which the institution holds a tenure that can not be disturbed without manifest wrong and injustice and therefore the more necessity the people should of their own accord dig the root from our soil. If Kentucky emancipates, then will slavery in the United States become eradicated; and she certainly will not be asking too much to ask to have them colonized out of her border when emancipated. We need not discuss the causes which may lead the Kentuckians to adopt emancipation as it is sufficient to know that they are ripe for that policy if the government will render a little judicious aid of the kind I suggest. I will give you in brief the suggestions I have made to some of the leading slave owners of the state: "Our labouring negro men being taken for the army to support the women and children will be a burthen and no profit to us as we will in the future have no market south for our slaves. Negroes can never be valuable to us in Ky when the institution has been destroyed in the south and enmity to the institution lines our northern and eastern borders." And to those to whom I have conversed upon the subject adopt my views and I can safely say that the only drawback to successful emancipation, is a disinclination to have the negro population freed and kept among us, and certainly the government will, to advance a great scheme like this, frought with good, forget whatever prejudice may have been engendered against our state by the impolicy of our representative men and to accomplish the great work in a lawful and constitutional way, hold out her helping hand. As soon as I receive your affirmative reply I will devote my time and energies to this course


M Mundy

[Note 1 Mundy was colonel of the 23rd Kentucky Infantry.]

Courtesy Library of Congress-American Memory

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Drew Gilpin Faust on Washington's "Burial of Latane"

I often walked around Lexington, Virginia when I was completing a graduate fellowship at the Stonewall Jackson House a few years ago. My walks took me by the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery on a number of occasions. At the entrance of the cemetery there is an information board explaining the location of famous people buried there. The cemetery is filled with important Confederates military and civilian personalities such as Jackson, Virgina war governor John Letcher, and poetess Margaret Junkin Preston. Also buried there is William Nelson Pendleton, artillery commander for the Army of Northern Virginia, as well as his son and Jackson aide Alexander "Sandie" Pendleton, who was a wartime casualty. The information panel also explains that there is another individual resting in peace at the cemetery, William D. Washington. Washington produced what may be the most popular Confederate painting to come out of the war, The Burial of Latane.

I recently finished reading renowned historian Drew Gilpin Faust's Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace in War. This great collection of essays included an article titled "William D. Washington's Burial of Latane" that contained an interpretation of the work which I found particularly interesting.

As stated above, The Burial of Latane was created during the Civil War (1864) by Virginian William D. Washington. The image first hung in the Washington's Richmond studio, but interest quickly grew in the painting and it was moved to the Confederate Capitol, where a bucket was placed under it to solicit donations to the Confederate war effort.

The image depicts the interment of Lt. William Latane, a cavalryman in J.E.B. Stuart's command, and the sole casualty in Stuart's daring ride around the Union's Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1862. Latane's body was left among strangers when he fell but was carefully laid to rest by loyal lady adherents to the Southern cause and their slaves.

Faust explained the slaves' role in the painting. "Slaves leaning on their shovels here bury no the family silver [to keep it from the Yankees], but a nation's spiritual treasure. And the Confederacy's mission of converting the African is advanced by this graphic enactment before slave onlookers of the drama of Christian sacrifice and redemption, with a white southern man [Latane] in the inspirational role. Washington's work thus forcefully emphasizes this central aspect of southern national purpose. Whites and blacks together affirm their commitment to God and nation in a ritual of community worship."

The black slaves are kept in the shadows to the left while the white women, especially the one center with the Common Book of Prayer are shown as enlightened and blessed. Faust claims that "Working together, the races are at the same time kept carefully apart... Physically linking them is a blond child, a representation of southern innocence and purity, who evokes, in a kind of play on symbols, the many popular prewar illustrations of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Little Eva. Although in Uncle Tom's Cabin Eva dies to redeem the South from the sin of slavery, here she lives to affirm the moral legitimacy of the southern nation's peculiar institution. It is the northern army, not slavery, that bears responsibility for the death this painting illustrates."

Faust explained, "The Burial of Latane embodies the larger Confederate discourse about gender by illustrating its exemplary ritual. Women here enact their roles in Christian sacrifice and celebration; the burial is at once a holy and political communion. Even the clothes of the white ladies emphasize the conjoint religious and political significance of the narrative - two dressed in the black of Christian mourning, the others in the colors of the Confederate flag. And as strangers to the dead Latane, they generalize the particularity of the event to embrace a broader affirmation of Christian and national unity. Latane, like Christ, died for us all."

Faust summarizes the work: "The divergence between the realities of southern civilian life in 1864 and the ideal portrayed by William Washington is both dramatic and significant. In the years after Appomattox, adherents of the Lost Cause came to view the popular engravings of the Latane scene as a touching rendition of the virtues of loyalty and sacrifice the war had called forth. William Washington knew better. His painting was designed as nationalist rhetoric, as a persuasive rationale for continued struggle in the face of erosion of Confederate loyalty all around him. Instead of a paean, it was a plea. Curiously, however, it ultimately became a promise. The postwar engraving of Latane achieved its enormous popularity because it assured a defeated people that the South, like the dead lieutenant, could rise again."

Two years before the painting, the burial scene was captured in verse soon after the event in 1862, and published in the Southern Literary Messenger:

The Burial of Latane

By John R. Thompson

The combat raged not long, but ours the day;
And through the hosts that compassed us around
Our little band rode proudly on its way,
Leaving one gallant comrade, glory-crowned,
Unburied on the field he died to gain,
Single of all men amid the hostile slain.

One moment on the battle's edge he stood,
Hope's halo like a helmet round his hair;
The next beheld him dabbled in his blood,
Prostrate in death, and yet in death how fair!
E'en thus he passed through the red gate of strife
From earthly crowns and palms to an immortal life.

A brother bore his body from the field
And gave it unto strangers' hands, that closed
The calm blue eyes, on earth forever sealed,
And tenderly the slender limbe composed:
Strangers, yet sisters, who, with Mary's love,
Say by the open tomb, and, weeping, looked above.

A little child strewed roses on his bier,
Pale roses, not more stainless than his soul,
Nor yet more fragrant than his life sincere
That blossomed with good actions, brief, but whole.
The aged matron and the faithful slave
Approached with reverent feet the hero's lowly grave.

No man of God might read the burial rite
Above the Rebel--thus declared the foe
That blanched before him in the deadly fight;
But woman's voice, in accents soft and low,
Trembling with pity, touched with pathos, read
Over this hallowed dust the ritual for the dead:

" 'Tis sown in weakness, it is raised in power;"
Softly the promise floated on the air,
And the sweet breathings of the sunset hour
Came back responsive to the mourner's prayer;
Gently they laid him underneath the sod
And left him with his fame, his country, and his God.

Let us not weep for him, whose deeds endure;
So young, so brave, so beautiful, he died
As he had wished to die--the past is sure
Whatever yet of sorrow may betide
Those who still linger by the stormy shore.
Change cannot touch him now, nor fortune harm him more.

And when Virginia, leaning on her spear--
"Victrix et vidua," the conflict done--
Shall raise her mailed hand to wipe the tear
That starts as she recalls each martyred son,
No prouder memory her breast shall sway
Than shine, our early lost, lamented Latane.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Ephemeral Newspaper Notices

One of the fun parts of researching is getting distracted by reading the numerous notices that appear in mid-nineteenth century newspapers. Some are intended to be humorous, while others are just short pieces of information that are clearly intended to do nothing more than take up some extra white-space. Some express various tragedies, which have always helped sell news; others are just town gossip recycled from other papers. Some notices are separated by break lines, while others are marked by the popular pointing finger.

On attempt at humor...and one has to wonder if they really found it funny back then, was in the Frankfort Daily Commonwealth in the winter of 1859-60. It stated: "A couple of wild girls have been arrested in C---- for indulging in the amusement of breaking their neighbor's windows. They no doubt thought with Pope---" 'Tis woman's part to ease man of his panes." Another, in the October 22, 1859 issue of the Daily Louisville Democrat stated: "A lady correspondent in the Paducah Herald says that the ladies of that city use more tobacco than the gentlemen. They chew the snuff. It is supposed to be retaliatory - a sort of quid pro quo." Other humorous notices were only a line or two. "PARADOX.-When is a man most down in the world? When he is hard up." Or, "WAR TO THE KNIFE.-A tough goose." I suppose our humor has evolved somewhat in the last 150 years.

An example of gossip is found in the October 21, 1859 edition of the Louisville Daily Democrat. It referenced the Uniontown News and stated: "GAMBLING-Public rumor states that there is a good deal of poker-playing in our town, and that good-sized piles of money pass from one person to another, on games of hazard nearly every night."

A tragedy notice in the November 11, 1859 edition of the Paris Kentucky Western Citizen stated that, "A drunken man was run over by the passenger train near Midway on Saturday last, and one of his arms taken off. He was lying drunk on the track, and it was impossible to stop the train after his discovery by the engineer. His name was not given." Another, in the same town paper but printed a couple of weeks before stated: "FIRE-The stable on the property of John R. Williams, near town, was burned down early on Sunday morning last. Mr. Hagan who has the property leased lost about $100 worth of provender. We do not know the value of the stable. The fire was, undoubtedly, the work of an incendiary [arsonist]."

Not surprisingly, a number of these notices that I have recently ran across deal with some aspect of slavery or African Americans. For example, in the December 17, 1859 issue of the Covington [Kentucky] Journal there were two short notices. The first listing stated: "A slave of Mrs. E.B. Coleman, was missed by the family in Lexington, Ky., four weeks ago; a few days since her body was found in a pond near the house. The affair is involved in mystery, as no one knows of any cause that could have prompted the suicide." This notice stands out to me for a couple of reasons, and like much research, it bring up more questions than it answers. The first reason it stands out is that it was apparently assumed that the slave committed suicide. It appears that all speculation of foul play has been dismissed. Is it possible that it was an accident and not a suicide? It seems that the editor would not even consider the possibility that merely being a slave; without the control over one's own life decisions, would make one contemplate ending their life.

Another notice in the same paper and on the same page stated: "Two negroes were frozen to death on Tuesday night last, near the city of Louisville. They were both under the influence of liquor at the time." Interestingly, the notice directly above it stated: "On Wednesday the citizens of Greencastle, Indiana, demolished every liquor establishment in the place. The outbreak was occasioned by some poor fellow who froze to death the night previous, while in a state of intoxication."

These two notices were right beside each other, but contained what, at least to me, seem to be very different messages. Race, of course, figures into the accounts. The blacks in Louisville appear to have received what they deserved for being intoxicated, while the "poor fellow" in Greencastle received the power of the community to effect change by destroying the chance for his misfortune to happen again.

Some notices came from far distances. One in the Frankfort Daily Commonwealth on December 30, 1859 stated: "They have had a fugitive slave excitement in Dakota City [Iowa?]. An Alabamian caught one of his runaway negroes there. He had him arrested, but while being taken before a U.S. Commissioner, the officer was beset by a crowd of Abolitionists, and the negro succeeded in making good his escape."

As previously mentioned, these short ephemeral notices often leave us with more questions than answers, but they do give us some insight into the social and cultural atmosphere of the mid-nineteenth century that can often not be found elsewhere. Plus, they provide pleasant diversions when one gets bogged down and saturated with their research topic.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

James Redpath's Dedication to John Brown

I am currently reading a reprint and edited version of James Redpath's, The Roving Editor, or Talks with Slaves in the Southern States. It is a fascinating read to say the least, and while decidedly biased due Redpath's vehement abolitionist beliefs, it still provides a good source of information on how slaves felt about their condition. To gather the material for his book Redpath, who emigrated from England in 1849, took three trips to the South in the 1850s. On one of his trips he even worked for a few months at a Savannah, Georgia newspaper. Later, in 1855, Redpath moved to Kansas and joined in the fight to make it a free state. While in Kansas Redpath met John Brown and became an avid admirer.

When The Roving Editor was published in 1859 John Brown had not raided Harpers Ferry, but from the comments that Redpath makes in the book, that act would only have cemented Brown more firmly as hero to the writer. In fact Redpath published a biography on Brown, The Public Life of Capt. John Brown, in 1860.

In the Roving Editor Redpath calls for slave insurrections as the only sure way to end the institution. And, to be done properly, he believed they should be led by white men. He wrote, "But is insurrection possible? I believe that it is. The only thing that has hitherto prevented a universal revolt, is the impossibility of forming extended combinations. This the slave code effectually prevents. To attain this end, therefore, the agency of white men is needed. Are there [white] men ready for this holy work? I thank God that there are. There are men who are tired of praising the French patriots - who are ready to be Lafayettes and Koscuiskos to to the slaves."

It is not surprising then to see that Redpath dedicated The Roving Editor to John Brown; even before Harpers Ferry. The dedication is not too lengthy so I will reproduce it here in full:


To Captain John Brown, Senior, of Kansas:
To you, Old Hero, I dedicate this record of my Talks with the Slaves in the Southern States.
To you is due our homage for first showing how, and how alone, the gigantic crime of our age and nation can be effectually blotted out from our soil forever. You have proven that the slaver has a soul as cowardly as his own "domestic institution ;" you have shown how contemptible he is as a foe before the rifle of the earnest freeman. With your sword of the Lord and of Gideon you met him face to face; with a few ill-clad and ill-armed footmen, you routed his well-mounted and well-armed hosts.
I admire you for your dauntless bravery on the field; but more for your religious integrity of character and resolute energy of anti-slavery zeal. Rifle in hand, you put the brave young men of Kansas to shame; truth in heart, you rendered insignificant the puerile programmes of anti-slavery politicians.
You have no confidence in any man, plan or party that ignores moral principle as the soul of its action. You well know that an Organized Iniquity can never be destroyed by any programme of action which overlooks the fact that it is a crime, and is therefore to be eradicated without compromise, commiseration or delay. This, also, is my belief. Hence do I doubt the ultimate efficacy of any political anti-slavery action which is founded on Expediency— the morals of the counting-room—and hence, also, I do not hesitate to urge the friends of the slave to incite insurrections, and encourage, in the North, a spirit which shall ultimate in civil and servile wars. I think it unfair that the American bondman should have no generous Lafayette. What France was to us in our hour of trial, let the North be to the slave to-day. The oppressions of which the men of '76 complained through the muzzles of their guns and with the points of their bayonets, were trifling—unworthy of a moment's discussion—as compared with the cruel and innumerable wrongs which the negroes of the South now endure. If the fathers were justified in their rebellion, how much more will the slaves be justifiable in their insurrection? You, Old Hero! believe that the slave should be aided and urged to insurrection, and hence do I lay this tribute at your feet.

You are unwilling to ignore the rights of the slave for any reason—any "constitutional guarantees "—any plea of vested rights—any argument of inferiority of race—any sophistry of Providential overrulings, or pitiable appeals for party success. You are willing to recognize the negro as a brother, however inferior in intellectual endowments; as having rights, which, to take away, or withhold, is a crime that should be punished without mercy—surely—promptly —by law, if we can do it; over it, if more speedily by such action; peacefully if we can, but forcibly and by bloodshed if we must! So am I.
You went to Kansas, when the troubles broke out there —not to "settle" or "speculate"—or from idle curiosity: but for one stern, solitary purpose—to have a shot at the South. So did I.
To you, therefore, my senior in years as in services to the slave, I dedicate this work.
James Redpath
Malden, Massachusetts.

Image courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.