HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 16 - Days of Jubilee: The Meanings of Emancipation and Total War
Chapter 1. Introduction: Freed Slaves on the Battlefield [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: The first formally recognized or organized black regiment in the Civil War was known as the First South Carolina Volunteers. It was organized entirely and exclusively among freed slaves, along the Sea Islands of South Carolina. It had an amazing non-commissioned officer whose name was Prince Rivers, a man who’d been a slave yesterday but a free man by 1862, and whose white commanding officer, Thomas Wentworth Higginson said, “in another land, in another time, he could command any army in the world.” Thomas Wentworth Higginson was an abolitionist from Worcester, Massachusetts who ended up the colonel and the commander of that regiment. Nearly 1,000 freed slaves were recruited among the roughly 35 to 40,000 former slaves along the Georgian/South Carolina Sea Islands. Higginson went on to write a great book about it called Army Life in a Black Regiment, and among the remarkable descriptions he left in that classic is this description from Thanksgiving Day 1862; so it’s November ‘62. The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is in place but the final Emancipation Proclamation hasn’t quite happened yet. It was actually the first formally, legally, federally recognized Thanksgiving Day; so decreed by Abraham Lincoln. And Higginson had his headquarters in an old plantation house. He looked out of broken windows, at this abandoned plantation in the Sea Islands, through what he described as “the great avenues of great live oaks,” and he observed that quote, “All this is a universal southern panorama, but five minutes walk beyond the hovels and the live oaks will bring one to something so unsouthern that the whole southern coast at this moment trembles at the suggestion of such a thing, a camp of a regiment of freed slaves.”
Almost two years later one of those freed slaves named George Hatton wrote a couple of letters from the front. George Hatton was a former slave. He had lived part of his life in Washington, DC, part of his life in Virginia, North Carolina; he’d been around. He was at this point, by April of 1864, a non-commissioned sergeant in Company C, First Regiment, United States Colored Troops. They were in camp New Bern, North Carolina, and he sat down to write a letter to reflect upon the circumstance that he found himself in. Hatton, his fellow soldiers, and their families had lived generations as slaves. And this is what he wrote. He says, “Though the government openly declared that it did not want the Negroes in this conflict, I look around me and see hundreds of colored men armed and ready to defend the government at any moment. And such are my feelings that I can only say the fetters have fallen, our bondage is over.” A month later Hatton’s regiment was in camp near Jamestown, Virginia — and he didn’t miss the irony of being at Jamestown, the founding site of Virginia. And into his lines came several black freed women who all declared they had recently been severely whipped by a master. Members of Hatton’s company managed to capture that slave owner, a Mr. Clayton, the man who had allegedly administered the beatings on these women. The white Virginian was stripped to the waist. He was tied to a tree and he was given 20 lashes by one of his own former slaves, a man named William Harris, who was now a member of the Union Army. In turn, each of the women that Clayton had beaten were given the whip and their chance to lay the lash on this slaveholder’s back. “The women were given leave,” said Sergeant Hatton — his words — “to remind him that they were not longer his but safely housed in Abraham’s bosom and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner and guarded by their own patriotic, though once downtrodden race.” In Hatton’s letter he once again felt lost for words to describe the transformation he was witnessing. “Oh that I had the tongue to express my feelings,” he wrote, “while standing on the banks of the James River on the soil of Old Virginia, the mother-state of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse. The day is clear, the fields of grain are beautiful and the birds are singing sweet melodious songs while poor Mr. Clayton is crying to his servants for mercy.” That’s a revolution, described in the words of a former slave, words that were trying to capture the transformations of history at the same time his actions were trying to transform history. Words.
Chapter 2. The Immediate Effects of the Emancipation Proclamation and Ensuing Domestic Criticisms [00:06:58]
Now, we will forever debate in this society the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation. Over and over and over again we debate: did it really free anybody? Why did it only free the slaves in the states in rebellion? Why was Lincoln so bloody legalistic in this document? Was Richard Hofstadter right when he said it had all the eloquence of a bill of lading (which means a grocery list)? Why was it written like it was a legal brief in court, here and there laced with some remarkable phrases? Why was he so careful not to free the slaves in the Border States that hadn’t left the union? And on and on. But I think we should make no mistake, the Emancipation Proclamation is a terribly important American document. Emancipation is not just the story of great documents, as I’m trying to argue, but this one’s important.
The second paragraph reads — and this is, by the way, Lincoln’s own handwriting; this is a facsimile of the original; he wrote some three or four originals — “that on the First Day of January in this year of Our Lord, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Sixty-Three, all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States” — God, is this legalistic — “shall be then” — this is not legalistic — “then, thenceforward and forever free. And the Executive governments of this United States, including the military and naval authority thereof” — the Army and Navy are now bound to do this it says — “will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” Actual freedom. Now, yes, it was a limited document. It didn’t free as many slaves as the Second Confiscation Act had legally already set in motion. That’s true. But this is the most important thing to remember about the Emancipation Proclamation. Most black folks didn’t care about the details of it. What they cared about is that the United States Government had acted and said they were going to be free.
There were at least four immediate and visible effects of the Proclamation, once it went into effect on January 1. Every forward step of the Union armies now would be, whether some of those officers liked it or not, a liberating step. Secondly, news of this Proclamation, whatever the details and the fine print, would spread like wildfire across the South, and it would bring about — there’s no question — it will bring about increased activity, increased flight, increased movement toward Union lines by freed people, where they can do it. And there’s all over the record we have testimony of Confederate soldiers themselves, of Southerners, white Southerners themselves saying they first heard about the Emancipation Proclamation from their slaves. Third, it committed the United States Government in the eyes of the world — and that’s terribly important when we remember that Great Britain was on the verge of recognition of the Confederacy — more on that a bit later in the course, of how that foreign relationship and the problem of Civil War diplomacy is being managed by the two governments, Union and Confederate. And fourth, on the second page of the Emancipation Proclamation — or is it the third — in another very legalistic paragraph Lincoln formally authorizes once and for all, although it’s already begun to happen, the recruitment of black men into the Union Armies and Navy, and it authorizes a formal process now to recruit black men to the Union uniform. And before the war will end about ten percent of all Union forces will be African-American — approximately 180,000 — eighty percent of whom were former slaves, from the slave states.
Now, in that fall of 1862, Frederick Douglass put down his cudgel that he’d been beating Lincoln with for a year in his editorials — and he beat him bitterly at times. At one point in late ‘61 he called Abraham Lincoln the most powerful slave catcher in the world. That was Douglass’s opinion of that denial of asylum policy which said fugitive slaves escaping Union lines had to be returned if their owners were loyal. Douglass, like many others, saw the nonsense in that policy early on. Douglass finally put down the cudgel and he said, with lovely irony, “It is really wonderful,” said Frederick Douglass, “how all efforts to evade, postpone and prevent its coming have been mocked and defied by the stupendous sweep of events”; its coming meaning black freedom. And I’ll just say lastly, add a fifth to that, emancipation transformed the purpose of the war. Emancipation more than anything else will make the Civil War a war of conquest, a war of near totality, on both sides, and it meant now, now that this was going to be a war of conquest on the South’s social and economic institutions, it meant it would probably only end in unconditional surrender.
Now, it’s a complicated story as to how this’ll be enforced, of course. And I strongly urge you to read certain of those Lincoln documents in the Johnson reader, and more importantly, to read at least that greatest hits selection I provided in the reading packet of the documents on emancipation; which, by the way, come out of a book called Free at Last, which is itself a 500 page collection of the greatest hits of the documents of the American emancipation, which are now published in five volumes, all of which are in the National Archives. But one of those Lincoln documents I don’t want you to miss, I said the other day, was the James Conkling letter. It comes in August of ‘63. One of the reasons that letter is interesting is that it shows us that though Lincoln could be one crafty politician; and whether emancipation will ever truly succeed in this war, of course, depends on the Union winning on the battlefield. It really depended on all those deaths at Gettysburg and at Vicksburg and so many other horrible places. And yes, it’s true that large, large numbers of those Union soldiers who died didn’t necessarily believe they were fighting to free slaves, nor did they even want to. But sometimes history is ahead of anyone’s basic human, individual motives, isn’t it?
But in this Conkling letter, so called, it’s a public letter that — Lincoln mastered this presidential art of the public letter more than any previous president and it was his version of the news conference, which didn’t happen in those days. It was his version of an exclusive interview with Anderson Cooper, or whatever the hell it would be today. He wrote letters aimed at certain newspapers which would then be reprinted across the country. This was a letter to James Conkling, Congressman from Illinois, of his own party, who was opposing emancipation, who was at least wary of it and worried about it. The great worry about the emancipation policy, of course, was that white Northerners would not accept it, that white northern soldiers would thrown down their arms and say, “I ain’t fighting to free the slaves. I’m fighting to preserve the Union, thank you very much.” Lincoln had that great fear himself. But God, read that letter. It’s one of Lincoln’s — it’s Lincoln the ironist; it’s also Lincoln the persuasive lawyer. On the second page of it he says to Conkling — he’s really saying this to white northerners now, because this letter got published everywhere — “You dislike the Emancipation Proclamation,” he says, “and perhaps would have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional. I think differently. I think the Constitution invests its commander-in-chief with the law of war, in time of war. The most that can be said, if so much, is that the slaves are property. Is there, has there ever been any question that by law of war property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed?” So there’s that argument. Whatever you think of the morality of this, folks, slaves are property of the enemy; I’m taking their assets. It’s a legal argument.
Then you go to the next page — he’s also beginning to make there an argument, if you read that part of the letter carefully, it’s an argument for total war, to unconditional surrender, and he’s trying to condition public opinion for this. Then you go to the next page. “You say you will not fight to free Negroes. Some of them seem wiling to fight for you. But no matter, fight you then, exclusively to save the Union. I issued the Proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union. Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting, it will be an apt time then for you to declare you will not fight to free Negroes.” All right, crawl into your cul-de-sac and say you’re only fighting to save the Union, but here’s another way to save the Union. And then he goes on. “I thought that in your struggle for the Union, to whatever extent the Negroes should cease helping the enemy, to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you. Do you think differently? I thought that whatever Negroes can be got to do as soldiers leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do in saving the Union.” It’s almost as if he’s appealing to Conkling’s racial self-interest; does it appear otherwise to you? And then Lincoln says, “But Negroes, like other people, act upon motives. Why should they do anything for us if we will do nothing for them? If they stake their lives for us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive, even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made must be kept.”
Okay, blah, blah, blah, lots of words, right? Words, words, words, words. Yes, but meanings are almost always somewhere, somehow embedded in words. Now, as I said, now every forward step of the Union armies is going to be a liberating step. And I want to show just a quick map here to illustrate something. And I can zoom in on that. I hope you can see the colors here to some extent. The simple point of this map is this. It’s a map that shows the conquest of the South by Union forces, it’s the movement, generally speaking, of Union lines into the South in what becomes now, by ‘62, ‘63 and ‘64, a war of conquest, West and East. But I want to especially stress that the most important factor in when and where a slave might attain his or her freedom; the first factor had everything to do with where the armies went. It was proximity to the war that made emancipation possible in northern Virginia in 1862; Sea Islands of Georgia, South Carolina, ‘62; around the whole New Orleans region in ‘62; but not possible at all in southern Georgia until after the war was over; not possible really at all in the southern half of Alabama until the whole war was over; not possible at all in parts of Mississippi until the whole war was over. Hence, that’s why the large majority of American slaves were not actually within Union lines or technically free, in any way, until the war ended.
I’ll make one other point about this. There’s a nice book by a historian named Stephen Ash. It’s called When the Yankees Came, and it’s all about the process of Union occupation of parts of the South. He goes in and studies towns in Tennessee and towns in northern Georgia and towns in northern Virginia, and tries to understand, so what happened when an area of the South, an area of the Confederacy, came under Union control? And he divides the South usefully here; and it’s very useful in understanding how emancipation actually happened on the ground as a human, sometimes brutal, ugly, chaotic, painful process. He divides the South into what he calls three regions: one, the “Confederate frontier”; the second he calls “no-man’s land”; and the third he calls “garrisoned towns.” Now that’s pretty easy to understand. If you think of — just take Tennessee, up there in the middle. By 1862 Nashville became a — it was the capital of Tennessee — it became a garrisoned Union town; that is, it’s occupied, its resources, its railroad, its everything, were taken over by the Union forces. And then there’s the so called no-man’s land, the region say between a Nashville and where the Confederate forces were, the land between the armies, which of course fluctuated a great deal back and forth. And then lastly he calls it the Confederate frontier, or at times he’ll call it the Confederate hinterland, that is the land behind the lines that was never taken by Union forces, the land behind the lines where Confederate resources, relatively speaking, remained intact. They’re still producing cotton crops, in the summer of ‘64 and the fall of ‘64, and they’re still planting in the whole southern half of Georgia and the whole southern half of Alabama, by and large, right on into 1865. But where you happen to be geographically was the first important factor of where and how emancipation might occur, in proximity particularly to the armies.
Chapter 3. Which Slaves Are Free? Which Slaves Can Fight? [00:24:47]
Now, a second factor that would determine when and if slaves would be free was the character of the slave society in any given region. Were they in a densely populated slave region like the Sea Islands, parts of the cotton belt? Or were they in sparsely populated areas? And again, it had to do with geography. Were you in the Lower Mississippi Valley, huge concentrations of slaves? When Grant’s forces move down the Mississippi and eventually take Vicksburg by July 1863, this entire region — in fact it is in the Lower Mississippi Valley; this is why some people argue that the war, the Civil War was really won and lost in the West. And I’ll engage that argument after the break when we talk about Union victory and Confederate defeat and the various debates among historians trying to explain this. A lot of people have argued that the war is won and lost in the West because of the great significance of the Mississippi Valley, which had become the great cotton kingdom of the world.
And when Union forces truly conquer the Mississippi River by the summer of 1863, there are thousands of slaves coming into Union lines. The reason that Grant and Sherman and other officers in the West began to create these things called contraband camps, for freed slaves, is because they didn’t know what to do with them. And there are these amazing dispatches written by Grant, to the War Department, saying what am I going to do with all these people, how do I feed them, where do I put them? What is their status, what are they legally? And eventually that’s why you get the largest contraband camps anywhere. The largest ones were not in Virginia — although there was a huge one around Washington, DC — the largest of them were in northern Mississippi at a place called Corinth. You can see it on the map right here. There was a huge contraband camp at Memphis. There was eventually one in Cairo, Illinois. All up and down this region, this is where conquest really happened first and the true disruption of southern society and the beginnings of the destruction of plantations. It will lead even to the beginnings — it’s going to take another year for it to happen along the East Coast, but it begins in ‘63; even in ‘62 but especially ‘63 — where many plantation owners in Louisiana and Mississippi started refugeeing their slaves. They would flee their plantations in the face of the Yankee armies, often going west toward Texas, sometimes just further inland, or wherever they could go, and they would try to take their slaves with them; it was called refugeeing them. And often what that meant — I’ll cite some examples of that after the break. There’s a famous diary memoir by a southern woman, Kate Stone, who kept a diary of her plantation called Brokenburn. At any rate, she left with some hundred-and-some slaves to try to get out of Louisiana over into Texas. By the time she got there half of them were gone, and she kept wondering why. Gee, why would they leave, what happened to their loyalty?
Then thirdly, the third factor that would determine when and how and if a slave became free was, indeed, what policy was actually being enforced, at any given time, by those Union troops, or for that matter by the Confederate troops in terms of freeing the slaves or not freeing the slaves, taking them into their lines or not taking them into their lines, and establishing some kind of legal status. And then the fourth factor, of course — and this one you can’t measure; you can know it when you read it and you see it and you hear it, and there’s so many wonderful documents that demonstrate it — the fourth factor in when and how American slaves became free was their own ingenuity, their own initiative, their own cunning, their own bravery, their own willingness to risk everything, to try to get to something called freedom. And not knowing what that freedom would be when they got there — would they be employed? Would they have shelter? Were they going to be able to feed their children? Could they get their wives and husbands out with them? What about women with three children, where would they go, what would their status be? Would they actually have any rights?
We learn so much about this — and please in the reading packet have a close look. I included some of those documents from the contraband camps where these superintendents of the contraband camps were all asked a series of questions. They were asked things about the motives of the slaves that escaped into their camps. They were asked to describe why had these people come. They were asked to describe their physical conditions. They were asked to describe what they thought, what they felt, what they said. And all these superintendents of all these contraband camps are just stunned at the way that black folk keep coming, in spite of the hardships, half clothed, half fed — if that. And they’re stunned at the religiosity of escaped slaves. These superintendents write back and they say, “These people sing and they worship all night long — strange.” But almost to a man, these superintendents of contraband camps when asked what were the motives, they simply fall back on the most basic of things. They say things like, “They wanted their freedom.”
Chapter 4. Recognizing and Mobilizing Emancipation: The Story of Wallace Turnage [00:31:01]
Now, emancipation also would depend, here and there, on a whole lot of other factors, but again they come under these categories I’ve already given you — the close proximity to the war. Now, for example, when the war moved into Georgia in ‘63 and ‘64, when Sherman invaded northern Georgia and the war really went to the deep hinterland, the heart of the southeast, Confederates were all ready — and they were already doing this in Virginia, they were beginning to do it out in the West, they surely did it in the city of Mobile and other Confederate held cities — Confederates had begun to employ or impress their slaves into service, thousands of them. About 3000 slaves were put to work in Mobile, Alabama, building its fortifications. Slaves, hundreds upon hundreds of slaves, were put to work building fortifications of Richmond. An estimated 5,000 slaves were put to work building the fortifications all around Atlanta, by late ‘63, to try to stop Sherman’s advance. Very often they were hired out; that is, they were supposed to be paid — or their owners were supposed to be paid — for their service. They were used as teamsters and nurses and cooks and boatmen and blacksmiths and laundresses and so on and so forth. If you saw a Confederate Army from 1862 to ‘64, you’d see hundreds of black people. Well, and as those armies moved, sometimes those slaves had opportunities to flee. In the wake of battles, on any scale, some slaves would always flee. They were often used as the burial crews, on both sides. They were also hired out — and this was really significant in Virginia — to the ironworks in Richmond. The Tredagar Ironworks at one point employed almost 4,000 slaves who tended to be hired out from the western parts of Massachusetts and the northern parts of North Carolina.
That movement of people, movement of slaves, on this scale had never happened in the South, and in the midst of that movement. Linda Morgan wrote a fine book on emancipation in Virginia and she showed this for the first time, that all this movement of hired out slaves to Richmond — and other small ironworks, by the way, over in the Shenandoah Valley — meant a certain percentage of them began to flee, and escape, further north. They worked on railroad crews. It was estimated that in northern Georgia, during Sherman’s campaign against Atlanta, that about forty percent of all the women working as nurses in Confederate hospitals all over the state were slave women. That means they’d been taken off their plantations, their farms, or out of their domestic situations, wherever they were, and put to work in the hospitals. So the point is, movement of the armies meant movement of slaves as well, and that moment of freedom, that moment of escape, that opportunity might come when you would least expect it. And that American slave had to make a choice, every time — do I go and risk everything or do I not?
Let me tell one little story amidst that. It’s the other half of this book I just did. This young slave named Wallace Turnage. He was born on a little tobacco farm in North Carolina in 1846, Green County, North Carolina, sold by his indebted owner to a Richmond, Virginia slave-trader named Hector Davis, who was one of the largest slave-traders in the United States and kept enormous records. He spent about six months in 1860 working in the three-story slave jail/auction house in Richmond. His job every day was preparing the slaves in what was called the dressing room, to take them out to the auction floor. And one day he’s simply told, “Boy, you’re in the auction.” And he was sold to an Alabama cotton planter named James Chalmers. Seventy-two hours later by train he found himself on a huge cotton operation near Pickensville, Alabama, which is right about there, right on the Mississippi border, a plantation with about eighty-five slaves. And the narrative he left us, which was discovered and lopped into my lap a few years ago, the extraordinary narrative he left, is the story largely of his five attempts to escape in the midst of the war, from the age of fourteen to seventeen. He was one passionate — half-crazy, one might say — no doubt traumatized — teenage slave who just couldn’t be controlled.
He ran away four times into Mississippi, the second two of which, certainly at least, he was always trying to get up to northern Mississippi to get to the Union armies, which he knew had controlled the whole northern tier of Mississippi by late spring 1862; in fact three of his escapes over there were really — . He would always go up the Mobile and Ohio Railway Line. And one time he was at large for four and a half months, hiding in other slave cabins and hiding in woods and forests and gullies wherever he could hide, and he was always captured. He was trying to actually get to Corinth, and the big contraband camp in Corinth, and he almost made it on his fourth try. He kept being captured by slave patrols, Confederate patrols and so on. His master would always come after him because he was so valuable. He’d been sold, by the way, for $950 the first time, out of North Carolina. He was sold for $1000 to old Chalmers in Richmond. And Chalmers now got fed up in early ‘63 of constantly trying to retrieve this kid, and he took him down to Mobile, Alabama and sold him at the slave jail in Mobile in the spring of 1863 for $2000. That’s about the price today of a good Mercedes-Benz; well as opposed to a bad Mercedes-Benz, I’m not sure what that would be.
And Wallace’s fifth and final escape attempt, the one that succeeded, came after a vicious beating. He’d been beaten many more times than he could count and he’d been put in neck braces and leg chains and ankle chains and wrist chains and every kind of — he’d experienced about every kind of brutality slavery could wreak upon a teenage kid. One day, he crashed his master’s carriage and the master got so angry that he took him to the slave jail, hired the jailer to give him thirty lashes with the ugliest whip they had, this contraption they had that would make you bleed on every lash. At the end of it he’s standing there naked, bleeding, and his master says, “Go home.” And instead of going home he put his clothes back on and he walked right through the Confederate Army, a garrison of 10,000 troops, where he was no doubt simply mistaken for yet another black camp hand, and at dusk he just crossed through the Confederate camp and he walked out of Mobile. And his final escape is a three-week trek, which he narrates in remarkable ways, a three-week trek down the western shore of Mobile Bay for twenty-five miles through a snake and alligator invested swamp, now known as the Fowl River Estuary. I’ve been there, I’ve seen the alligators and the snakes, from a large ferry boat.
And he describes one day praying especially hard when he got out to the tip of Mobile Bay, and the tide brought in an old rickety rowboat, and he tipped over the rowboat, took a plank of wood and he just started rowing out into the ocean. And in quite dramatic form he — which is no doubt a little embellished — he describes how a wave is about to swamp his little boat, and he hears oars, and the oars were a Union gunboat with eight sailors. They said, “Jump in.” He jumped in. And he said as he sat down in their boat, he said the Yankee sailors were struck with silence as they looked at him. And I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I don’t doubt it, they probably were struck with silence, wondering who he was and how he got there. They took him to a Sand Island fort and clothed him and fed him, the first kind acts by a white person that seventeen year-old Turnage had ever experienced. And the next day they took him to Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, which is the big, beautiful sandbar island out at the mouth of Mobile Bay, and he was brought before the Union commander of all forces in the area, Gordon Granger, who interrogated him, probably because they wanted intelligence about Mobile, and Granger gave him two choices. He could either join a black regiment that they were forming at that very time in the Gulf region, or he could become a servant to a white officer. And Wallace chose the latter; didn’t tell us why but probably because he’d had enough suffering. He’d seen enough of his own war with the Confederates. And he served out the war for another year as the mess cook for a captain from a Maryland regiment whose name was Junius Turner. And Wallace was with that regiment in Baltimore, Maryland in August of 1865 when it was mustered out.
He lived three years in Baltimore and then moved to New York City where he lived the rest of his life, until 1916. But by 1870 I found him in a census manuscript living in the 300-block of Thompson Street in what you and I call Greenwich Village. He got his mother, his four siblings, somehow, out of North Carolina, and they were all living in a tenement house, surviving, as part of the first generation of a black working class, former slaves, in a northern city. He lived till 1916. He’s buried in Cyprus Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. The point of all of that is that these slaves escaping were real people, with real names, real family, real hopes and desires. And those who — some of those who survived told us what it meant. Now —
Chapter 5. Higginson’s Account of the Proclamation and Conclusion [00:42:22]
The war, of course, raged on, and at the end of the day — this is a photograph, by the way, taken in 1862, I believe, in Virginia. The photographer simply called it “A Group of Contrabands.” The war raged on. And of course in the spring of 1863 the Union armies will invade Virginia again. I’ll come back to lots of this after the break when we get back to the military history and try to explain how the Union side won this war. They’ll fight a horrible battle at a place called Chancellorsville, near Fredericksburg in May of 1863, which will be another smashing victory by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, over a Union Army commanded by Joseph Hooker. It will give Lee his occasion for his second invasion of the North, the riskiest of all, which will lead him up through northern Virginia, across into Maryland, and eventually all the way in to Pennsylvania, and will lead to the fateful battle at Gettysburg, the first three days of July, 1863; arguably the most important military turning point of the war.
But it is in those same first six and seven months of 1863 that this war has now been transformed into a war of unconditional surrender, a war of all out attempt, at least, all out mobilization at home, and conquest in the South. It is during this period that black soldiers are being recruited. The 54th Massachusetts, the famous regiment from Massachusetts about which the movie Glory was made, was recruited that winter, and spring, of course, and marched off to South Carolina to its fate in May of 1863. They will reach their fate at Fort Wagner within a week of the Battle of Gettysburg back up north.
But just as a way to take this out today, go back with me to January 1st, 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation actually went into place. I said at the outset that for most black folk they didn’t really care about what actually the details or the words of the document were. The point was that now somehow the United States government was sanctioning emancipation. And go back with me to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. This is Higginson’s description of Emancipation Day. On Hilton Head Island, in South Carolina, near Beaufort, South Carolina, he was given orders to read the Emancipation Proclamation to the people, to the freedmen. And this, by the way, became a policy throughout the Union Army. Thousands of copies of the Emancipation Proclamation were given to Union officers who were ordered to spread it around the South.
Higginson not only spread it, he held a ceremony. They build a little stage. And this is his description of what happened. He’s describing the scene: “All this was according to the program,” writes Higginson. “Then followed an incident so simple and so touching, so utterly unexpected and startling that I can scarcely believe it on recalling it, though it gave the key note to the whole day. The very moment the speaker had ceased, and just as I took and waved the flag, which now for the first time meant anything to these poor people, there suddenly arose close beside the platform a strong male voice, but a little cracked and elderly, into which two women’s voices instantly blended, singing, as if by an impulse that could no more be repressed than the morning note of a song sparrow. ‘My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.’ People looked at each other, and then at us on the platform to see whence came this interruption, not put down in the program. Firmly and irrepressibly the quavering voices sang on, verse after verse, ‘my country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.’ Others of the colored people joined in. Some whites on the platform began, but I motioned to them to be silent. I never saw anything so electric. It made all words cheap. It seemed the choked voice of a race at last unloosed. Nothing could be more wonderfully unconscious. Art could not have dreamed of a tribute to the day of jubilee; it should be so affecting. History will not believe it. And when I came to speak of it, after it was ended, tears were everywhere. If you could’ve heard how quaint and innocent it all was. Just think of it, the first day they’d ever had a country, the first flag they’d ever seen which promised anything to their people. And here, while mere spectators stood in silence, waiting for my stupid words, these simple souls burst out in their way, as if they were by their own hearths, at home. When they stopped there was nothing to do but to try to speak. And I went on. But the life of that whole day was in those unknown people’s simple song.” Have a good spring break.
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