Monday, February 16, 2015

How a Black Correspondent Exercised His Rights in the Confederate Capitol Building

I'm staying off the roads on a snowy Kentucky Monday, so I thought I would share an interesting eye-witness account of how quickly images of race could be turned upside down for some as the Civil War wrapped up.

I remember coming across this story while reading Thomas Morris Chester: Black Civil War Correspondent, His Dispatches from the Virginia Front, which was edited by R.J.M. Blackett. Chester was born a freeman in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1834. During the Civil War he was employed as a correspondent for the Philadelphia Press and worked as an embedded reporter with several United States Colored Troops regiments. Chester saw some amazing things during his time as a correspondent and occasionally risked his life to let the Union homefront better understand the sacrifices and bravery of its African American troops.

One of the most fascinating things that Chester witnessed was the capture of Richmond and subsequent entrance of the capital city of the Confederacy by the Army of the Potomac's black XXV Corps. Soon after joining the troops in Richmond, Chester made the Virginia state capitol building (which also served as the Confederacy's capitol) his temporary office and utilized the Speaker of the Senate's desk for writing his reports.

As one might imagine, Chester's commandeering of the Speaker's desk was viewed as a great affront to some of Richmond's whites. Charles Carelton Coffin, a correspondent for the Boston Journal, told of one man's attempt to unseat Chester in his book Four Years of Fighting.

"Among the correspondents accompanying the army was a gentleman connected with the Philadelphia Press, a Mr. Chester, tall, stout, and muscular. God had given him a colored skin, but beneath it lay a courageous heart. Visiting the Capitol, he entered the Senate chamber and sat down in the Speaker's chair to write a letter. A paroled Rebel officer entered the room.

'Come out of there you black cuss!' shouted the officer with a clinching his fist.

Mr. Chester raised his eyes, calmly surveyed the intruder, and went on with his writing.

'Get out of there, or I'll knock your brains out!' the officer bellowed, pouring out a torrent of oaths; and rushing up the steps to execute his threat, found himself tumbling over chairs and benches, knocked down by one well-planted blow between his eyes.

Mr. Chester sat down as if nothing had happened. The Rebel sprang to his feet and called upon Captain Hutchins of General Devens's staff for a sword.

'I'll cut the fellow's heart out,' said he.

'O no, I guess not. I can't let you have my sword for any such purpose. If you want to fight, I will clear a space here and see that you have fair play, but let me tell you that you will get a tremendous thrashing,' said Captain Hutchins.

The [Rebel] officer left the hall in disgust. 'I thought I'd exercise my rights as a belligerent,' said Mr. Chester."

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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