Sunday, May 10, 2020

Henry McNeal Turner Comments on Changes in Union Soldiers' Attitudes toward African Americans

I am currently reading Freedom's Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner, edited by Jean Lee Cole. Turner is not that well known to students of the conflict today, but he was quite a powerful presence in the African American community in Washington D.C. during the Civil War era.

Born free in 1834 in South Carolina, Turner eventually became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church by age 19. In the late 1850s, Turner and his wife moved to Baltimore to gain further education in the ministry. Moving on to Washington D.C. to lead a church just before the Civil War, Turner also provided insight into happenings in the capital city as the nation divided. Writing for the Christian Recorder, the newspaper for the AME church, Turner provides historians with an important African American voice we do not often hear.

After Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, it produced a degree of immediate backlash. Many Union soldiers, particularly those from the border states, and southern parts of free states, commented on their motivations being to maintain the Union and not to fight to free the enslaved. A number of border state officers resigned their positions over the issue. However, we rarely hear how the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation affected the black community in some of these areas.

Although Turner credits the observable change in Union soldiers' attitude toward people of color being with early enlistees versus those called later, writing and commenting on this on September 27, I think that the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation's release contributed the lion's share of the attitude change.

"And strange to say too; but there is the greatest difference in the world between the last soldiers called for by the President and the first. The first or former soldiers who came to the defence of their country, seemed to have had nothing at heart by their great and glorious mission, and every other consideration appeared to be a matter of contempt, or regarded as undeserving attention; they passed to and fro among the people and treated everyone respectfully; such were the manners and becoming courtesy of every northern soldier that the colored people delighted to render every assistance in their power; they would take them to their houses and give them the best to eat the market could afford, and divide the last penny they had to make them comfortable, and it was almost unnatural to hear a harsh word spoken by any of them to a colored person. But these last recruits which are coming into the field, are all the time cursing and abusing the infernal negro, as some say, nigger. In many instances you may see a regiment of soldiers passing along the street, and knowing them to be fresh troops, you may (as it is natural) stop to take a look at them, and instead of them thinking about the orders of their commanders, or Jeff. Davis and his army, with whom they must soon contend, they are gazing about to see if they can find a nigger to spit their venom at. And I believe it is to kill off just such rebels as these that this war is being waged for, one in rebellion to their country [Confederate], and the other in rebellion to humanity [Union], for that man who refuses to respect an individual because his skin is black, when God himself made him black, is as big a rebel as ever the devil or any of his subalterns were . . . ."

Tuner, an early proponent for black Union soldiers, went on to recruit for the United States Colored Troops and served as chaplain for the 1st United States Colored Infantry.

I am interested to see later on if Turner observes and comments about a change in the other direction after white Union soldiers see black men in combat.

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