Thursday, August 15, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Broke by the War

One of the things that intrigues me so much about history is the important aspect of change over time. Trying to understand the perspective of others who held such different ideas from us today, and how we as a society have evolved since are simply fascinating for me to ponder. I guess that is what largely drives my reading. I've found that to gain a firmer grasp on the people of the past, reading their own thoughts are key. But in doing so one must take into consideration a number of factors. When the document was written, who wrote it, and to whom it was written are all significant questions to ask. Broke by the War: Letters of a Slave Trader, edited by Edmund L. Drago is an excellent example.

This collection of letters, written by middle-man slave trader A. J. McElveen to his employer, Ziba B. Oakes, one of Charleston's leading slave traders, is an eye-opening examination of the inner-workings of the the domestic slave trade. The story of how the letters came to be saved for posterity is almost as fascinating as their contents. When a group of journalists and abolitionists came to Charleston after its capture in the spring of 1865, some took advantage of the opportunity to visit the former offices of major slave traders like Oakes. They took documents and artifacts back north with them as evidence of one of the most the unsettling aspects of the "peculiar institution." The Oakes letters eventually ended up at the Boston Public Library.

In the book's introduction, editor Drago ably does the historian's duty of adding necessary context to the letters that follow. Here we learn important background information, not only about the letter's origins, but also helpful facts about McElveen, Oakes, and the region in which they operated. What struck me about the letters as a group was McElveen's matter-of-fact attitude toward slavery. I suppose one should not be surprised, as he was writing to his boss, but still, the almost total lack of recognition in the humanity of his commodities is startling. However, in one entry, on January 19, 1854, McElveen wrote to Oakes: I have bought the boy Isaac for $1100 I think him very prime his Equals cannot be found in capacity he is a General house servant a Splendid carrage driver. he is also a fine painter varnisher and the Boy says he can make a fine pannel door he is Genious [a genius], and its Strange to Say I think he is Smarter than I am. also he performs well on the violin and other musical instruments." Still, McElveen only sees Isaac as dollars, hoping Oakes can get $1500.00 for him. Separating families seemed to cause no concern in McElveen either. On February 7, 1854 he writes about Susanna and her daughter Tener, "the woman will complain but She is unwilling to leave I think she will need correcting. I could not buy her husband do try and Get $1300 for the woman & her daughter."

McElveen kept primarily to Sumter District and operated especially out of Sumterville. He would make his rounds to area plantations trying to buy slaves that he would then forward by railroad to Oakes in Charleston. McElveen constantly seeks market information from Oakes to ensure that they make a profit. The middle-man sometimes comments on news from the Richmond, Virginia markets and dealers, as well as information he gets from contacts in Alabama. McElveen even made a trip to Alabama in 1856 to try to sell a few slaves at greater profit.

On occasion McElveen comments on the escape attempts of slaves. For example, on August 30, 1856, he wrote Oakes about Joe; "I have bin busy Engaged hunting the Boy Joe for ten days. I cannot find him. I have the Blood hounds. we have lot one & Run them hours he had free pass. I am fearful I will have hard time to Get him or Considerable trouble to find him I think he is in Santee Swamp. I have good many looking out for him." The letters end in April 1857, after working out a credit crisis that he thought would ruin him. Although the letters do not go into the war years, McElveen served local militia duty during the conflict, partly as prison guard at Florence, South Carolina.

Never prosperous as a middle-man slave trader, McElveen struggled after emancipation in farming as well. He died in 1874, his condition just before his death described by R. G. Dun & Company as, "Broke by the war - old man." I highly recommend this book as part of a foundation study in understanding slavery, its place in antebellum Southern society, and it consequences on race relations since.

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