Friday, September 29, 2017

The Black Barber Who Received the Medal of Honor

On this date 153 years ago, Col. Charles Paine's United States Colored Troops division of the XVIII Corps attacked a fortified position at New Market Heights just southeast of Richmond. Coldly greeting the USCT attack was the famous Texas Brigade, under the command of Gen. John Gregg.

In the vicious fighting that evolved in the early morning hours attacking regiment after attacking regiment went forward only to get shot to pieces. Displays of courage by the black troops were common this day. Eventually fourteen men of color earned the Medal of Honor for their bravery at New Market Heights.

One of the recipients, James H. Bronson, the 1st Sergeant of Company D, 5th United States Colored Infantry was a barber before the war. Bronson's citation states that he "Took command of his company, all the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it."

Bronson was 25 years old when he enlisted on Independence Day, 1863, at Trumbull County, Ohio. His service records state he was born in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. He was five feet, nine inches tall, with grey eyes and "dark" hair. His complexion is listed as "mulatto." He was promoted to 1st Sergeant on August 23, 1863. However, two months after the fight at New Market Heights he requested to be reduced to the ranks "in order to become a member of brass band of 5th U.S.C.T." Bronson was mustered out of the service on September 20, 1865, at Carolina City, North Carolina.

I was not able to locate Bronson in the 1860 census, but did find him in the 1870 census. In that listing, Bronson still held the occupation of barber. He was 29 and living with his 20 year old wife Ellen, who was born in West Canada. Both are listed as mulatto. They resided at that time Columbiana County, Ohio in the Perry township. No values were listed for the Bronson's real estate or personal property, but no values were for any of the individuals on their page. Interestingly, another mulatto barber, named Thomas Caldwell, lived only a few doors away from Bronson.

United States Colored Troops soldiers came from all walks of life. It did not much matter what they did before the war when it came to combat. On the field of battle men were only judged by what they did or did not do. Bronson and his comrades stood like men on September 29, 1864.

The painting "Three Medals of Honor" by Don Troiani actually depicts men in the 6th USCT who were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Monday, September 25, 2017

"Coloured Barbers" Excluded From Apprentice Prohibition

I've been reading through Drift Toward Dissolution: The Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831-1832, by Alison Goodyear Freehling. This book focuses on the legislative discussions that occurred among the Virginia delegates in the wake of Nat Turner's rebellion. Proposals were issued for different ideas and arguments on gradually phasing out slavery, compensating owners, and colonizing (some for voluntary and some for non-voluntary) free people of color out of the state and nation. A rather strong divide between those in western Virginia and those in the tidewater was clear on the issue of potential gradual emancipation. The westerners were mainly for, and the easterners largely against developing a plan for ending slavery in the Old Dominion.  

One result of all the debate was Bill 18, which was "a bill to amend 'an act reducing into one, several acts concerning slaves, free negroes, and mulattoes,' and for other purposes." In Bill 18 are a number of itemized regulations which sought to further limit African Americans' already highly controlled lives. Just a few examples are:

"No slave, free negro, or mulatto, whether he shall have been ordained, or licensed, or otherwise, shall hereafter undertake to preach, exhort, or conduct, or hold any assembly, or meeting for religious purposes, either in the day time, or at night . . . ."


"No free negro or mulatto, shall hereafter be capable of purchasing, or otherwise acquiring title to any real estate of any description, in fee, for life, or for a term longer than _______ year."


"No free negro or mulatto, shall be suffered to keep or carry any firelock [firearm] of any time, any military weapon, or any powder or lead; and any free negro or mulatto, who shall so offend, shall, on conviction before a justice of peace, forfeit all such arms and ammunition, to the use of the informer, and shall, moreover, be punished with stripes, at the discretion of the justice, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes."

But, the one that caught my eye was, "no such free negro, or mulatto tradesman, or mechanic, shall, under any circumstances, be hereafter allowed to take apprentices, or to teach their trade, or art, to any other person, except that coloured barbers may take apprentices."  

It is interesting that out of all the occupations that free people of color held, barbers were the only ones excepted from an apprentice ban. This work was of the type that required teaching it to someone before that person gained proficiency, but so did blacksmithing or brick masonry. However, barbering was viewed at that time, and particularly in the slave states, as unsuitable for whites. Although skilled work, it was a servant-type job. Blacksmithing or brick masonry were acceptable for white workers, but not barbering. Thus, it was excluded from apprentice prohibition.

As has been discussed here on many occasion, many black barbers made the most of their slim situation. They turned shaving faces and cutting hair into personal property and real estate assets, and often respected social positions within the black community, before, during, and after the Civil War.      

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Alexander Stephens Gets Grilled, Then Gets Real, Again

In March 1861, Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the newly formed Confederate States of America gave an unplanned speech in Savannah, Georgia. In the speech, the Georgian exclaimed that:

"The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution [slavery] while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the equality of the races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the 'storm came and the wind blew.'

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundation is laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery - subordination to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth." 

Here, early on, Stephens put it our there. He made it clear, at least in his view, what the new Confederacy was based upon. In modern terminology he "kept it real." And, at this point, why not? There had not been a defeat. Shoot, at this point there was barely a Southern army. Military victories and ultimate defeat were in the unforeseen future.

Some five years later, in 1866, Stephens was called before the U.S. Reconstruction Committee, where he was grilled with a series of questions and provided sworn testimony. He was asked at one point what the people of his region thought concerning the justice of the rebellion. Stephens answered that "the exercise of the right of secession was resorted to by them from a desire to render their liberties and institutions more secure, and a belief on their part that this was absolutely necessary for that object." What Stephens was saying here in other words is that Georgians left the union to protect their right to property in slaves. 

Stephens was asked if the people of Georgia have had a change of opinion on the right to secede since the end of the war. The former Confederate vice-president sort of beat around the bush, saying in effect that they had learned their lesson. When asked to clarify if they still believed if they had a right to secede. Stephens said that, "I cannot answer to that." 

When asked about how well secession was supported in 1861. Stephens answered that after Lincoln's call for Northern volunteers the idea was widely supported with "very few exceptions." He claimed that before that particular event the state was very much divided on the practicality of secession. The questioner asked if the ordinance of secession was not passed before Lincoln's call for troops. Stephens answered yes, and that he had previously said the peoples' sentiment was much divided.  

Stephens was also asked if the decision to secede was put to popular vote. He answered that only in that delegates were elected to the secession convention. When asked if it would have made a difference if it had been put to popular referendum rather than delegates, Stephens claimed as things then went with South Carolina, Mississippi, and Florida going out, the people would have voted to secede, too.

The questioner soon got down to brass tacks. He asked "In what particular did the people believe their constitutional liberties were assailed or endangered from the Union." Stephens answered "It was the serious apprehension that if the republican organization, as then constituted, would succeed to power, it would lead ultimately to a virtual subversion of the constitution of the United States, and all essential guarantees of public liberty."  As a followup question the quizzer asked "To what feature of their internal social polity did they apprehend danger?" Stephens, like in 1861, "kept it real" and cut to the chase. He answered, "Principally the subordination of the African race as it existed under their laws and institutions." 

There it is. Secessionists, according to their former vice-president, feared that the then newly elected Republican Party would free enslaved African Americans. They reasoned that if slaves were freed, they would have to be citizens, and if citizens, then they would be political equals in that they could vote and hold office. This was unfathomable to those whites in the slaves states, whether they were a slave owner or not. Secession was ultimately their solution to the problem. They formed their own government where their constitution would be upheld and not subverted by a perceived rouge political party. So they dissolved the Union. And war came.

If you would like to read the full transcript of the questioning session you can access it here.

Image of Alexander Stephens courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

With my keen interest in free antebellum African American barbers, America's Forgotten Caste, which focuses on free people of color in Virginia and North Carolina, will hopefully introduce me to some of those men I have not previously located. I am looking forward to reading and seeing if the author's interpretation of these states' free black communities are similar to studies I've read about other locations in the South.

When I read it a couple of years ago, I was very impressed with Brian Matthew Jordan's most recent book, Marching Home, which examines Union veterans' post-war struggles. Therefore, I am quite hopeful that his earlier book on the Battle of South Mountain, Unholy Sabbath, will be just as intriguing, informative, and well written.

I've been fortunate to recently receive three books to read for book reviews. The first was Steven Sodergren's recently published study, The Army of the Potomac in the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns, for the Civil War News. I must have turned an acceptable review, because I was soon after asked to read Our Good and Faithful Servant, by Joel McMahon, which looks at the life of the long-termed Georgian U.S. Supreme Court justice James Moore Wayne. Wayne was appointed by Andrew Jackson and served until his death in 1867. Unlike many other Georgians who decided to join the secession camp in 1861, Wayne did not. Southern Unionism is getting to be a rather hot topic in Civil War scholarship and I'm sure some fascinating aspects of Wayne's career will be brought to light in this work.

The most recent book I've been asked to review is Gordon Rhea's much anticipated fifth (and apparently final) volume in his classic Overland Campaign series. Titled On to Petersburg, it covers from the June 4th aftermath of the Battle of Cold Harbor to the first day of the Petersburg Campaign, June 15, 1864. I've thoroughly enjoyed Rhea's previous books on the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, North Anna River, and Cold Harbor, and I am confident that this one will follow in that fine tradition. 

If you've been reading my "Random Thoughts" for a while, you've probably noticed I have a fascination with the so-called Fire-Eaters, especially those of South Carolinia. What made the planter politicians of the Palmetto State tick? It almost seems that something was in the water that contributed to their secession fever. Madness Rules the Hour promises to give a new perspective on the state's obsession with secession in the cradle of disunionism, Charleston in 1860.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Happy Labor Day

Today, if possible, take a cue from Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler. Grab your favorite carpet slippers, find a comfy chair, all while breathing in some fresh air, and relax. There will be plenty of work to do tomorrow. Happy Labor Day.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.