History as a Mirror

Yesterday in Culpeper County, the Freedom Foundation dedicated a new monument and several interpretive markers at Maddensville. The monument recalls the entry of the USCT into the war in Virginia and the execution of three of them by Confederates on May 8, 1864. Below are my remarks at the dedication, posted here not because they include much new about the history of the USCT, but rather because they speak to the importance of such efforts to remember. This is a post about the importance of public history rather than history itself.

Photo courtesy of Bud Hall

It’s easy to think of this simply as the dedication of a new collection of markers and memorials. It is that, of course, and proudly so. But today, I ask you to think about this effort in a different way.

It is part of an inexorable, inevitable, and indispensable process of change. It’s a change in how we see and understand our past by seeing not less of it—as has been our societal inclination—but more of it. 

In terms of public history—and especially in terms of the Civil War—what we have witnessed in our lifetime is the equivalent of taking a pair of binoculars and turning them around. Instead of magnifying the view, we have expanded it. We of course still see sites like this through the lens of the individual, vivid and human. But ever more, we see sites and stories like these through the lens of our national experience. And, when we do, we see how more of us fit into and have been affected by that experience.

The work of public history is like the work of a mirror. 

Sometimes, when we look in a mirror in the morning, we really like what we see; we go off to the day inspired and energetic. History is the same way. When we hold the nation’s mirror up to the public, they see or learn much that is beautiful, uplifting, thrilling, humbling. We can see in our past triumphant struggle, astonishing progress, places of quiet and beauty and grandeur and, like this one, courage. For those of us working in this business of history and preservation, it is a great joy to send people away inspired and excited.  We do it every day, and that’s good–essential. 

But how many times have we looked in the morning mirror, and maybe our hair is amiss, or we look tired, worried, a little worn from the previous night’s activities? And what do we do?  Well, most of us usually try to tidy up, get more sleep, relax, maybe go easy on the Tequila next time. We comb our hair, at least.

We try to fix what seems amiss in the mirror. 

History’s mirror can likewise be unflattering.  We see a past rife with injustice and inequity and pointless violence; we see a present often framed by willful ignorance about our past. We see history appropriated and misrepresented. These are difficult things. 

It’s beyond the ability of public historians to fix these things. But it is the job of public historians and the communities they work within to hold the mirror up and help people see the past clearly.  Some, inevitably, will turn away and choose not to see.  But my experience is that most people, like presumably most of you, consider carefully what they see and do their part to help fix what’s amiss—to understand how our past has shaped our present and to act. 

A look in the mirror doesn’t always make us feel better, but it invariably makes us better.  

The dedication of this monument and these exhibits expands our view of not just this community’s past, but our nation’s past, and it does it in essential ways.  

It is impossible to overstate how profound the sight must have been as men of the United States Colored Troops marched into Culpeper County on May 5, 1864. It was certainly profound to those men in uniform:  some of them had been enslaved here; probably two-thirds of them had been enslaved somewhere.  Now they fought for freedom, sensing that the freedom of others—of all—would transform the nation.  

Their presence here reflected a momentous change in this nation’s relationship with the institution of slavery. In many ways, enslaved people fleeing bondage helped forced that change. In 1862, months before the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands fled farms and plantations in Culpeper, Orange, Spotsylvania, and a half-dozen other counties, emancipating themselves, flooding into the camps of any part of the US army they could find:  By presenting themselves, they challenged the nation:  What are you going to do with us now?

War, and these people, forced the United States to choose between slavery and freedom. And for the first time in its four-score and five years of history, the United States chose freedom.

Here, on these roads and on this ground, some of those former bondmen returned in blue uniforms, and here they undertook the work of an army.

That they did represents by itself a deed of immense courage. Understanding that or any achievement also requires understanding the obstacles. The obstacles and dangers for these men were immense.  

They faced racism and discrimination within the Federal government, within the US Army. They received less pay than white soldiers; they sometimes received second-rate equipment; only white officers were permitted to command them.  And white soldiers often viewed them not as warriors, but as laborers, and the army often used them thus.

They also faced threats from their enemies unlike any white soldiers had to consider. In early 1863, President Jefferson Davis declared the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure in the history of guilty man” and he threatened that USCTs would be executed or sent back into slavery if captured.  Months later the Confederate Congress passed a resolution stating that white officers of black regiments would be “put to death or otherwise punished for inciting servile insurrection.” (Indeed, the USCT’s were the embodiment of one of the largest servile insurrections in history.) 

Despite the threats, more than 180,000 men of color enlisted in the United States Army—about 10% of all soldiers.  More than 40,000 of them would die.

The Confederate threats against these uniformed men of color mobilized the federal government—and even some white soldiers and the Northern populace—to the defense of the USCTs.

Lincoln’s General Order 252, July 31, 1863.  Lincoln:

“For every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed,” Lincoln wrote. “For every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works, and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.”

In mid 1863, Lincoln suspended prisoner exchange because the CS refused to exchange USCTs. 

It was because of this that prison camps North and South started filling up to deadly levels.  Not until 1865 did the Confederates agree to the exchange of USCTs.

The Northern response deterred the Confederates from systematically fulfilling their deadly threats. But still, the soldiers who crossed the Rappahannock at Kelly’s Ford and came down these roads in May 1864, knew dangers remained.  They knew that at Fort Pillow, Milliken’s Bend, and Port Hudson, Confederate soldiers massacred hundreds of USCTs rather than take them prisoner.

Still, the men of color in their blue uniforms came.

They followed the Army of the Potomac to the Rapidan. As the Union forces moved toward the river, Confederate cavalry crossed upstream and swept into Culpeper County. Those were warm days, and some of the USCTs, on their first campaign, straggled and fell into Confederate hands. 

Probably not far from here—we don’t know exactly where–on May 8, 1864, the 9th Virginia Cavalry came upon three of the USCT’s.  We know not their names or their units. We know of them only from a stunningly laconic diary entry by one of the Confederate cavalrymen, Byrd Willis:

“We captured three negro soldiers the first we had seen.  They were taken out on the side of the road and shot, & their bodies left there.”

These types of dangers were ever-present for the USCT. That fact magnifies their achievement.  In the coming months, the USCT would see battle. They would suffer indignities at the hands of their brother soldiers and atrocities at the hands of their enemies.

But, slowly, by service and accomplishment, they started turning minds.  

One Union officer reflected on the trend. 

” I have a more elevated opinion of their abilities than I ever had before. I know that many of them are vastly the superiors of those…who would condemn them to a life of brutal degradation.”

A Sixth Corps soldier, marching toward Spotsylvania via Chancellorsville, passed Black troops:

There is a great change of feeling in this army towards them, and I heard nothing but kind and cheering words to them.”

The ultimate success of the USCT was no antidote to deeply rooted racism, but it certainly marked a major step forward.  The service of the USCT was essential to establishing African Americans as countrymen in the eyes of many who had long refused to see them as fellow Americans. 

The church that rose here across the road after the war, Ebenezer; the success of the Madden family in this neighborhood, now lending their name to the site–these and thousands of other institutions and achievements grew out of the Civil War and the service of the USCT. The efforts of the USCT and those who followed uplifted America in absolutely essential ways. 

And so today we celebrate this small expansion of the mirror that reflects our history back upon on us. We see in that mirror a story of courage and perseverance and accomplishment that can’t help but inspire us. We see also dark contempt that serves as a cautionary tale—that clearly reflects the nexus between ignorance and injustice. 

The USCTs were essential agents of that change. And by gathering here today and shining light on this story, so too are all of you.  

Emancipation, Freedom, Life

From John Hennessy:

Washington, John.2493As we ponder and recognize the profound statement that was the Emancipation Proclamation–changing irretrievably the government’s relationship with slavery–it might be helpful to look at emancipation from the ground up.  And so, John Washington, a Fredericksburg slave.  We have written of John Washington before.

Washington wrote of the arrival of the Union army in April 1862. At the time he was working as a barkeeper in a busy hotel on Caroline Street.

April 18th 1862. Was “Good-Friday,” the Day was a mild pleasant one with the Sun Shining brightly, and every thing unusally quite, the Hotel was crowed with boarders who was Seated at breakfast A rumor had been circulated amoung them that the yankees was advancing. but nobody Seemed to beleive it, until every body Was Startled by Several reports of cannon. Then in an instant all Was Wild confusion as a calvaryman dashed into the Dining Room and said “the yankees is in Falmouth.” Every body Was on their feet at once, No-body finished but Some ran to their rooms to get a few things officers and soilders hurried to their Quarters every where was hurried words and hasty foot Steps.

 Mr Mazene Who had hurried to his room now came running back called me out in the Hall and thrust a roll of Bank notes in My hand and hurriedly told me to pay off all the Servants, and Shut up the house and take charge of every thing. (p.76) “If the yankees catch me they will kill me So I can’t Stay here,” “said he,” and was off at full spead like the wind. In less time than it takes me to write these lines, every White man was out the house. Every Man Servant was out on the house top looking over the River at the yankees for their glistening bayonats could eaziely be Seen I could not begin to express my new born hopes for I felt already like I Was certain of My freedom now.

After crossing into Union lines, he reflected on his new-found freedom.

A Most MEMORABLE night that was to me the Soilders assured me that I was now a free man ….They told me I could Soon get a Situation Waiting on Some of the officers. I had alread been offered one or two, and had determined to take one or the other as Soon as I could go over and get my cloths and Some $30.00 of My own. Before Morning I had began to fee(1) like I had truly escaped from the hands of the Slaves Master and with the help of God, I never would be a Slave no more. I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim every cent that I Should work for  as My own. I began now to feel that life had a new Joy awaiting me. I might now go and come when I pleased So I wood remain With the army Until I got Enough Money to travel farther North. This was the FIRST NIGHT of My FREEDOM. It was good Friday indeed the Best Friday I had ever seen. Thank God — 

Enough said.

Fighting for Freedom

From John Hennessy:

I found this letter years ago at the New York State Library, and came across it again today–an incredibly eloquent statement about war, written on January 1, 1863–the day of Emancipation. It is from a letter by Horace T. Hanks of the 30th New York infantry, written from his unit’s camp in Stafford County.

Let us be thankful, on this the first day of 1863, that we have been permitted to live and act in this age, and in our limited sphere do our part towards hastining [sic] the coming of this boon to mankind which restor[e]s to every soul, Gods sacred birthright–freedom. I have to day more than ever before thought over the object and purpose of our being far away from the loved ones of home, and among strangers in a strange land….Why are we here? I believe if we are true to ourselves and the light we have, history will answer, ‘to restore the nation a unit, and in doing this God says we must distroy [sic] the cause of all our trouble, and purge the nation of its great sin. And though at times all seems dark and gloomy, and we find ourselves obliged to put up without even the necessaries of life, and with scanty fair [sic] besides still when I can look the whole thing calmly in the face, and realize the cause and the wished for results of the war, and when I remember that we should not live and die alone for this generation but must look to the good of future ages…I can but feel glad that I am here….”

“Is not the Negro a man?” A letter from Stafford, 1862

From John Hennessy (for a relevant earlier post, click here):

This image was first published in 1835, its refrain picked up by a Union soldier in 1862.

I continue to work through source material related to the 1862 exodus of slaves through Fredericksburg. One of the more interesting aspects of all this is gauging the response of Union soldiers to the appearance of slave in Union lines. While many are racist, few can muster themselves to oppose freedom when confronted by it in human form. More importantly, the presence of slaves prompted a good deal of reflection by soldiers on slaves and slavery, some of it eloquent, some of it colloquial, but all of it revealing. Here is a letter written by a soldier of the 20th New York State Militia just a few days after the Union army’s arrival on the banks of the Rappahannock. It is one of the most eloquent we have of a soldier–clearly predisposed to favoring emancipation–grappling with (and taking advantage of) this new an unexpected phenomenon. Written on April 29, 1862, it was published in the Kingston Argus on May 7. We don’t know the man’s full name. He merely signed the letter, “C.”

“Contrabands” still come pouring in upon our camps, very many of them seeking and finding employment, and profession uniformly the utmost anxiety to escape from their impatiently-borne thraldom.  That strong attachment to “Massa” and “Misses”, which, I often heard it said at the North, would lead them to cling to their Southern homes and refuse freedom even if it were offered, I havn’t yet happened to see,–  With one voice they breathe longings for a Northern home, eager to turn their backs upon their masters forever, if they can only carry their families with them.  It is impossible to look upon these poor people, an abject, meek…as they seem, so anxious to emerge from their condition of involuntary servitude, into an atmosphere where they can breathe as freely as the white man does, without feeling one’s sympathies strongly enlisted.  One finds the question rising involuntarily, Is not the negro a man? Warmed with the same sun, hurt with the same weapons, having the same feelings, affections, aspirations that the white man has?  Why then should he be a slave to his fellow man?

But I have no room for speculations here, and will only add, that your correspondent, in common with many others in the regiment and surrounding ones has secured the services of a man Friday, who was coachman and man of all work, to a prominent secessionist farmer down the Rappahannock.  I find him a capital “help”–skilled and prepared to render almost any service required [line missing] and his “Massa” is a violent rebel, with two sons in the rebel army, I shall have no compunctions whatever in using the services of the “contraband” in promoting the interest of the Union cause, by promoting for the present those of one of its humblest supporters–and of giving him besides such “aid and comfort” in the matter of reaching the freedom that he craves, as shall not come in conflict with the sacred Constitution.

A slave reacts to Union defeat at Fredericksburg–strategizing for freedom

From John Hennessy:

This past week I came across a 1913 interview with a Fredericksburg-area slave. Her name was Fanny, and she was owned by Samuel Gordon and his wife Patsy Fitzhugh Gordon of Santee, just across the Spotsylvania line in Caroline County, about ten miles south of Fredericksburg. Gordon, the former owner of Kenmore, was a scion of Fredericksburg’s wealthiest families (he was worth nearly $200,000 in 1860). Fanny was one of at least 35 slaves he owned.  Despite a number of clues in her narrative–including her postwar residence in Fredericksburg–at this point I have been unable to follow Fanny into freedom. I will continue to work on identifying her.

[Update:  See the comments section for MUCH more on Fanny Lee.]

Santee in the 1930s. The house still stands.

Fanny’s passage on the nexus between the war, Union army, and freedom is interesting on several levels. Hers is the only explanation we have from an individual slave of why she chose not to run away when the Union army came–out of concern for her children and, more importantly, because of her ultimate confidence in Union victory and the end of slavery. It’s clear evidence of a clearly thought strategy, one based on optimism and some careful calculation. Her statement belies the image of the passive, unthinking, loyal slave, and it is an important addition to a small-but-growing chorus of slaves’ voices available to us. Continue reading

A monument to freedom in Fredericksburg?

From John Hennessy:

John Washington preparing to cross--a scene from the film Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free.

I have always been struck that the only memorial to emancipation and freedom in the Fredericksburg area is to a white man.  It is a small plaque at the home of Moncure Conway, the Southern abolitionist who riled Falmouth, Fredericksburg, and Virginia.  This is not to say Conway doesn’t merit such notice. But I do wonder if we have accorded proper credit and notice to the 10,000 or so slaves who acted with their feet months before the Emancipation Proclamation, crossing the Rappahannock to freedom at the rate of as many as 200 a day.

On Saturday, my colleague Steward Henderson and I conducted a tour for about 70 members of Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site), Shiloh (New Site), and Mount Zion Baptist Church–all of those congregations descendant from the original African Baptist Church on Sophia Street.  Much of the day focused on sites associated with John Washington, concluding at the site of his crossing to freedom in what is today Old Mill Park. It’s a powerful site and a powerful story.

During our conversation, the idea of a memorial to The Crossing at large (symbolized by John Washington) came up.  Should we as a community, black and white, pursue such a project?  Is a memorial an appropriate way to commemorate the event?  If so, where and how?

Emancipation and Freedom–the difference

From John Hennessy

At a scholarly distance the terms seem synonymous. But close up there was a significant difference.

Former slaves in Union lines, probably in Stafford County, early 1863.

This past week I have been working through source material related to the 1862 exodus of slaves through Fredericksburg into Stafford County–otherwise known in our household now as “the book.” The exodus is interesting and important on a number of levels, not the least of which is the reaction of Union soldiers to both slavery and freedom.  In April 1862, when the Union army pulled into Fredericksburg for the first time, the curiosity of soldiers toward slaves was matched only by the excitement of slaves at seeing soldiers. We may debate the causes and purposes of the Civil War in an abstract way, but there is no questioning that for the enslaved people in the Fredericksburg region (about half the population), the war was all about freedom–their freedom.

Of course Union soldiers brought the full range of political and social perspectives to their first collision with slaves and slavery.  Virtually all by modern standards were racist in their views. Even the most liberal voices in the army convey a paternalism that smacks of white supremacy. Many others held and conveyed attitudes that would today seem nothing short of vile.

Some modern commentators assert that since Northerners were racist, it therefore follows that they could not be willing emancipators (we hear this a good deal at the park).  That is simply not so. No matter their political views, it became very clear very quickly to soldiers that they were indeed emancipators, though generally they saw that role as outside their job description.

It is a certainty of history that early in the war many soldiers opposed emancipation as a political and war policy. The soldiers’ objection to emancipation as policy was rooted partly in racist ideaology, but also in theory and speculation: emancipation would alienate Southerners, rendering the war harder and eventual reconciliation more difficult.

But the experience and writings of soldiers here shows vividly that soldiers could not and did not oppose the reality of human freedom when confronted by it.  While there are certainly examples elsewhere of slaves being dispatched back to owners, the sheer size of the exodus in Fredericksburg rendered that a virtual impossibility (slaves were coming in from up to 60 miles away). Beyond that, among these men who witnessed this exodus, I have not found a single account asserting the wrongness of freedom. Here is a quote from Oliver McAllaster of the 35th New York, whose letters include some of the most objectionable racist diatribes I have seen–a man who clearly opposed emancipation as a policy (the original of this letter is held by the Library of Virginia and is now on display in the Fredericksburg Area Museum’s Letters and Diaries exhibit). But he could not object to freedom in reality, when confronted by it. In fact, he conveys a tone of admiration for the slaves’ tenacity.

It would astonish you if you should see the number of Negroes a running around our and all the other camps in this vacinity.  I would hardly believe there could be the number in Slavery in the whole of Virginia.  They come across the river nights in Boats to get away from their masters.  I saw a couple to day who came some fourteen miles from here last night in the rain.  They took a couple of their Masters Horses and rode in and then sold them for five Dollars a piece.  And nice Horses they were too.  The slave holders will not have one twentieth part of their Slaves left if this army should stay here for weeks and every appearance is now that we shall stay here that length of time.

It emerges clearly from these many letters that to the soldiers among the occupying force in Fredericksburg, there were subtle differences in the meanings of the words emancipation, abolition, and freedom. Soldiers invariably refer to emancipation as a policy–one with which they often disagreed. Abolition was almost always used pejoratively in reference to perceived Northern extremists who espoused emancipation. But freedom was reality, and even the harshest anti-emancipators in the Union army had a hard time not embracing it when in its presence. Moreover they came quickly and clearly to see their own role in making freedom happen.

A remarkable document…additions to The List…and a program alert

By John Hennessy:

The program:  Thursday, February 10, at 7 p.m., at the England Run Branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.  I’ll present The Crossing: Slaves, Stafford, and the Great 1862 Exodus to Freedom. 

One of the unexpected benefits of doing Fredericksburg Remembered and Mysteries and Conundrums is that they have occasionally prompted readers to pass along interesting and important material. Last week I received an email from Patrick Sullivan of South Carolina, who is a descendant of Absolom and Nancy Row of Greenfield Plantation in Spotsylvania (the site is now consumed by the lake and subdivision at Fawn Lake, off Route 621–you can read a nice article on Greenfield here). Pat has spent years accumulating material on his family–some from archives, some from other family members, some from his own collection–and has generously passed along some intensely interesting items.

Nancy Row, wartime mistress of Greenfield Plantation. She authored the affidavit, below. Courtesy Patrick Sullivan.

His collection constitutes a vivid look into one family’s relationship with slavery. He has the proceedings of an inquest into a murder of one slave by another; he has documents relating to Absolom Row’s (died 1855) involvement with slave patrols in Spotsylvania County; he has ads for runaway slaves, newspaper advertisements and articles, ledger books, postwar labor contracts with former slaves, and a variety of other material. He has graciously permitted me to use them as I work on the book, and to share some of the material here. In 1860, Nancy Row owned 24 slaves. 

Given our recent posts about the 1862 slave exodus, perhaps the most immediately interesting piece Pat sent along was this, a statement of slaves lost by Nancy Row in the summer of 1862. It includes the names of 20 slaves: Continue reading

Choices: Fredericksburg and the American Colonization Society

From John Hennessy:

To assist in the regeneration of one continent and the amelioration of another, are the noble ends before us.

– Report of the Fredericksburg Auxiliary, American Colonization Society, 1834

We like our history in contrasting bundles–Democrats and Republicans, secessionists or unionists, white and black, pro-slavery and anti-slavery, and so on.  But rarely are things so simple.

Virginian Joseph Jenkins Roberts, the first president of Liberia, 1847

Fredericksburg was a slave town. In 1860, one-third of its population was enslaved. The domestic slave trade here was a significant industry–local newspapers routinely carried ads for the sale of slaves (we have written extensively about this here, here, here and elsewhere). Slave jails dotted the landscape, and slave coffles were a common sight in town. Town council passed laws in support of slavery and slaveowners. Slavery was a constant in the landscape, clearly part of Fredericksburg’s fabric.

But it does not follow that Fredericksburg was monolithic when it came to the issue of slavery. White residents did not always abide what we presume was conventional wisdom–the bland acceptance of slavery.  They did not always conform to our traditional understanding of Fredericksburg as a “slave society.” Rather Fredericksburgers were acutely aware of the intellectual and moral dilemma slavery presented, and each was well aware of the choices available to them in pre-war Virginia. Most chose to embrace slavery. Others acted on their instincts to ameliorate or mitigate the impact of slavery, both on slaves and on Fredericksburg society. (I have, incidentally, found little evidence of Fredericksburgers standing up to actively oppose slavery. Abolitionists were a rare, perhaps extinct presence.)

The major vehicle for those whose moral compasses compelled them to take action to improve the condition of slaves (without ending slavery) in Fredericksburg was the American Colonization Society. Continue reading