Today is the last day before the winter break and I definitely need it. We start up again on January 8, which should give me enough time to get a few things done. I have to write a short talk for the roundtable discussion at the AHA as well as complete the Crater manuscript. In addition, I am preparing a chapter from the manuscript for possible inclusion in a very popular edited collection on Civil War campaigns. The most important thing on my list is to spend time with my wife and family.
Yesterday my AP classes examined Carl Schurz’s report on Savannah, Georgia that was originally written for Andrew Johnson and eventually published in the Boston Advertiser. Schurz served in the Union army and was connected with the radical wing of the Republican Party. In the months following the end of the war Schurz was asked by Johnson to report on conditions in the South. While it can be argued that Schurz was predisposed to see the worst in the South, Johnson was also not ready to acknowledge conditions that would challenge his lenient stance on Reconstruction.
Before reading the document the class talks about Schurz’s personal background, including immigration to America and his political stance both during and following the war. The document is ideal for the classroom as it is clearly written and raises some of the important questions that the Federal government wrestled with as they debated how best to protect and advance civil rights for the newly freed slaves. The most interesting section of the document is a short reference to the "veil question":
It is remarkable upon what trifling material this female wrath is feeding and growing fat. In a certain district in South Carolina, the ladies were some time ago, and perhaps are now, dreadfully exercised about the veil question. You may ask me what the veil question is. Formerly, under the old order of things, Negro women were not permitted to wear veils. Now, under the new order of things, a great many are wearing veils. This is an outrage which cannot be submitted to; the white ladies of the neighborhood agree in being indignant beyond measure. Some of them declare whenever they meet a colored woman wearing a veil they will tear the veil from her face. Others, mindful of the consequences which such an act of violence might draw after it, under this same new order of things, declare their resolve never to wear veils themselves as long as colored women wear veils. This is the veil question, and this is the way it stands at present. [my emphasis]
This is an excellent example of gender intersecting with race. As the class was reading through this section one of my male students asked if wearing a veil was a "sign of wealth and beauty." I smiled and urged him to read on. It was nice to see one of my male student pick up on this so quickly. What did the Thirteenth Amendment mean to slaves and how did they express "this new order of things" during the postwar years? Schurz also references a July 4 parade in the streets of Savannah that was organized by the city’s black population. What I like about the veil issue is that it is subtle and yet so very important to the women who were able to express themselves through clothing. This is something that my students take for granted. Next time you teach Reconstruction give Carl Schurz a shot.