Solomon Northup on “Humane Masters”

Solomon NorthupAt the end of chapter 4 in 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup offers a compelling explanation of how the institution of slavery shaped what he saw clearly as a culture of violence in the Bayou Boeuf region of Louisiana. Northup recalled an incident involving a “gentleman” from Natchez who while inquiring into the purchase of a neighboring plantation was murdered by the owner.

Such occurrences, which would bring upon the parties concerned in them merited and condign punishment in the Northern States, are frequent on the bayou, and pass without notice, and almost without comment. Every man carries his bowie knife, and when two fall out, they set to work hacking and thrusting at each other, more like savages than civilized and enlightened beings.

The existence of Slavery in its most cruel form among them, has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life. It is true there are many kind-hearted and good men in the parish of Avoyelles—such men as William Ford—who can look with pity upon the sufferings of a slave, just as there are, over all the world, sensitive and sympathetic spirits, who cannot look with indifference upon the sufferings of any creature which the Almighty has endowed with life. It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him. Taught from earliest childhood, by all that he sees and hears, that the rod is for the slave’s back, he will not be apt to change his opinions in maturer years.

There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones—there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved and miserable; nevertheless, the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one. Men may write fictions portraying lowly life as it is, or as it is not—may expatiate with owlish gravity upon the bliss of ignorance—discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life; but let them toil with him in the field—sleep with him in the cabin—feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted, trampled on, and they will come back with another story in their mouths. Let them know the heart of the poor slave—learn his secret thoughts—thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the white man; let them sit by him in the silent watches of the night—converse with him in trustful confidence, of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and they will find that ninety-nine out of every hundred are intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to cherish in their bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as themselves. (pp. 134-36)

It is striking that after everything Northup went through that he was able to convey a certain amount of emotion for one of his former masters. William Ford may have attempted to alleviate some of the worst aspects of slavery, but in the end, he contributed as much to the violent nature of the “peculiar institution” as did Epps. This is an incredible passage that will likely make it into a collection of primary sources on antebellum slavery for an upcoming unit.

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Best of 2013

Ian BurumaI decided to post my “Best of” list a little earlier this year. As you might imagine a return to full-time teaching limited what I was able to read over the past few months, but I still managed to make my way through a good number of books in 2013. I thought it was a pretty good year for Civil War books. As for my own research, this past year was a bit of a disappointment. Responsibilities at school also hampered my progress on the black Confederates book, but I am hoping to return to it over the summer. As I reported a few weeks ago, I am also researching the Crater once again for an essay that will appear in an edited volume in 2015. [Should be able to provide more details on it in the near future]. Finally, keep an eye out in January or February for a special issue of Common-place on the Civil War sesquicentennial that I co-edited with Megan Kate Nelson. The essays cover a wide range of topics and should appeal to both scholars and Civil War enthusiasts alike.

Best General History: Ian Buruma, Year Zero: A History of 1945 (The Penguin Press, 2013).

Best Overall Civil War History: Brenda Wineapple, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 (Harper, 2013).

Best Campaign/Battle Study: Allen Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Knopf, 2013).

Best Social History: Bruce Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South (Random House, 2013).

Best Slavery History: Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard University Press, 2013).

Best Edited Collection: Andrew L. Slap and Michael T. Smith, This Distracted and Anarchical People: New Answers for Old Questions about the Civil War-Era North (Fordham University Press, 2013).

Best Memory Study: Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek (Harvard University Press, 2013) and Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

Best Confederate Study: Jaime A. Martinez, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

Best Union Study: John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Congratulations to the winners and happy reading!

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Ed Ayers Tells the Story of Richmond at TEDxRVA

This is a recent TED talk that took place in Richmond. I assume that the maps utilized in Professor Ayers’s presentation come from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, which is an incredible resource.

Uploaded to Vimeo on December 10, 2013.

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Selling Black Confederates

staunton vindicator, black confederateFirst, I want to thank Robert Moore for passing along this little gem, which he found in the Staunton Vindicator (12/11/1863). After searching for additional information about the source I realized that another reader had passed it along back in 2011.

Fellow blogger and historian Andy Hall followed up with additional information uncovered at Footnote:

There are several pages of compiled records for Dick Slate with the 18th Virginia Infantry at Footnote, designating him simply as “drummer,” no rank given. He’s listed on “Field and Staff” rolls, with no specifics on formal enlistment or discharge. Men like like Dick Slate really seem to be betwixt-and-between in terms of their military status. Bill Yopp, for example, is now remembered (as designated on his headstone) as a drummer, although Bell Irvin Wiley, who actually met him, is very explicit that he was a body servant. Presumably he actually served both roles.

There was special measure during the war where the CS Congress authorized pay for slaves employed as musicians. This was, I suspect, a belated recognition that men were bringing their slaves along with them and employing them as musicians (e.g., Captain Thomas Yopp and Bill Yopp). Not clear to me that this pay went directly to the slave; as in other cases it may have gone to the master, who may or may not have passed it along.

Without clear documentation of formal enlistment or discharge, I wonder what official status Dick Slate actually had within his regiment, or if he was only carried on the rolls as a drummer at his master’s pleasure — which would be an entirely different sort of status than a soldier who was enlisted for a specific term — one year, three years, for the duration, which could not be broken without a formal process and review.

Quite a few of the men now identified as BCS were musicians — Bill Yopp, Henry Brown, Dick Slate — so the actual, official status of these men within the army is relevant to the discussion. Generally speaking, the laws passed by the CS Congress differentiate between non-commissioned officers, privates and musicians — implicitly identifying the latter as distinct and separate from the first two — but (for me at least) it remains a very confusing story that bears further digging.

Andy is likely spot on with his analysis of the available evidence. The Confederate Heritage crowd loves pointing to musicians as examples of loyal service among black Southerners. One wonders, however, how the sale of Dick Slate fits into this comforting picture.

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Before Challenging Fellow Historians…

Look, you gotta get your own ducks in order before you challenge fellow historians in the body of your text. More importantly, your publisher has a responsibility to put in place a process that ensures that those ducks are not decoys. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to have happened in the case of a new book about Ulysses S. Grant and historians who have written about Grant published by Ted Savas.

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