Nat Turner Lived 40 Miles From the Crater

Nat_Turner_woodcut

I‘ve been thinking quite a bit about the images of slave rebellions and miscegenation that shaped the world view of white Southerners throughout the antebellum period.  In the case of Nat Turner’s Rebellion newspapers throughout Virginia and beyond offered extensive coverage and attempted to offer an explanation that would assuage the concerns of what white Southerners believed to be docile and loyal slaves.  However, even before the bloody events that transpired in Southampton County, Virginia in August 1831 there had already been close coverage of slave insurrections in the broader “Atlantic World” that stretched back to the rebellion in Saint Domingue.  In fact, by 1831 explanations purporting to explain why their slaves might rebel had already been strongly embedded by subsequent rebellions in Demerera, Barbados, and elsewhere.  The explanation that abolitionists (Missionaries) were responsible for the violence on their plantations provided a ready-made answer for Southern slaveowners who pointed the finger at the small abolitionist community in Boston.  Such an explanation, however, makes little sense without a broader appreciation of how events throughout the Atlantic World shaped their outlook.  Indeed, as historian Edward Rugemer asserts in his excellent study, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the Civil War, explanations of Turner’s Rebellion take on a hysterical quality.  He notes that by the time of the insurrection William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator had only recently begun publication, though its circulation was quite limited, The American Anti-Slavery Society had not yet been formed, the “Declaration of Sentiments” had not been written, and the New England Anti-Slavery Society had not even published its second Annual Report.  Finally, many northern newspapers condemned the violence in Virginia.

A few months after Turner’s Rebellion a much larger insurrection in Jamaica (“Baptist War”) involving 60,000 slaves broke out.  This was followed by England’s decision to abolish slavery in the West Indies.  My point is that to understand the fears of white Southerners (slaveowner and nonslaveowners alike) we have to consider the few rebellions that took place throughout the colonial and antebellum periods in a much broader context.  Information flowed back and forth freely first through word of mouth in port cities and later via the printed word.  White Southerners did not have to have seen the above woodcut, which was published in Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County to understand the dangers of insurrection or their role in preventing such a nightmare.  By 1831 many white Southerners had come to view their world from a defensive posture which acknowledged the threat to slavery as stemming from ruthless abolitionists and a distant government.

William L. Garrison → Nat Turner → Jamaica → England abolishes slavery in West Indies → John Brown → Election of Republican Party → Emancipation Proclamation → Crater → ?

The men who joined the regiments that constituted the Virginia brigade of Mahone’s division at the Crater did not have to have seen the above woodcut because they lived it.  All of the regiments were raised in the Richmond-Petersburg-Norfolk area and William Mahone was born and raised in Southampton County.  The woodcut beautifully frames how we as historians should unpack/analyze how Confederates at the Crater viewed the presence of USCTs as well as how they responded.

17 comments

Gilder Lehrman Videos on the Civil War Era

Check out these short videos at Gilder Lehrman’s YouTube site, which include interviews with Gary Gallagher, Ed Ayers, Allen Guelzo, Thomas Bender, and Ira Berlin.  Search the full list of videos and you can view interviews with James and Louis Horton and David Blight.  They can be used in the classroom, though they range in usefulness.

2 comments

Well Done, John Schmutz

I am putting the finishing touches on my review of John Schmutz’s new book on the Crater for H-Net. Given my recent post on understanding the Crater as a slave rebellion you can imagine my surprise when I came across the following passage:

Weisiger’s Virginians were even more sensitive on this issue of confronting black foes than was the average Confederate soldier. A great many of these men had relatives who were slain or had aided in the suppression of Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831, only forty miles down the Jerusalem Plank Road in Southampton County. Most had gone to war viewing Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers as a much larger version of John Brown’s forlorn raid at Harpers Ferry (consequently, also an insurrection of slaves). Almost half of the brigade’s men were from the immediate Petersburg area and saw themselves as standing between their relatives and friends in Petersburg and utter havoc of the same sort that Nat Turner had loosed on their kin years before.

Schmutz captures all of the main points that I made in that earlier post.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t expand on this brief analytical point in any substantive way.  I agree that Virginians would have been sensitive given the local history, but white Southerners were reared on visions of chaos and miscegenation in the event of a successful slave insurrection.  Again, I think we need to understand this in terms of the role and responsibilities that whites (slaveowning and nonslaveowing) assumed as members of a hierarchical society based on white supremacy.  You didn’t have to be from Virginia to identify with these apocalyptic visions.  Schmutz could have done a much better job of understanding the execution of USCTs following the battle as well as the parade of white and black Union prisoners that took place the following day.

Note: I’ve been invited to expand on these ideas for a feature article in one of the Civil War magazines.  I will post my review of this book once it is up on H-Net.

5 comments

Women as Objects in Civil War Art

Richmond Bread RiotIt’s difficult to deny that the image of women in the work of contemporary Civil War artists tells us much more about the individual artist than the reality of women’s lives or the way those lives were transformed during the Civil War.  I pick on Mort Kunstler quite a bit, but his characters beg for analysis and often ridicule.  Such is the case with his most recent offering, “Autograph Seekers of Bel Air.”  One could even go so far as to suggest that in a great deal of the Civil War print culture women don’t even exist outside of the gaze of men or, in this case, fawning over men – usually Confederates.  Historians of the Lost Cause have noted the role that women played in support of the Confederate cause and their admiration for Confederate chieftains such as Jackson, Stuart, and most importantly, Lee.  Of course, while there is a great deal of evidence to support such claims, it also offers a very narrow view of women that obscures class distinctions and the hardships that they faced throughout the conflict.

I recently finished reading Stephanie McCurry’s lead essay in the newly-published collection, Wars Within a War: Controversy and Conflict Over the Civil War (UNC Press, 2009).  McCurry focuses on poor soldiers’ wives who took steps to organize in response to an increasingly encroaching Confederate government which left them with serious food shortages and unprotected from the Federal army and slaves.  In her analysis, McCurry uncovers interstate communication and organization that led to food riots in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, Salisbury, North Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia and Mobile, Alabama.  According to McCurry, the extent that the war politicized women involved a renegotiation of their relationship with the state.

McCurry’s essay (part of a larger and much anticipated book project) represents a small piece of a much larger story about women during the Civil War that historians have uncovered over the past few decades.  Much of this literature has redefined what we know about women, their roles, and the consequences of the war on the place of women in the polity.  It would be silly of me to inquire into the absence of these women in contemporary Civil War art.  Most of these images tell us very little about the lives of Southern white women during the war, though they tell us a great deal about how white men today choose to depict them or what they hope their customers (white men) will want to purchase.  And that is their purpose.  They reaffirm an image of women as apolitical and submissive in the presence of men and a world where gender roles have been solidified.  Northern women may have pushed for the suffrage, equal pay, and other anti-discrimination laws, but not white Southern women.  They have always been content to worship and serve at the altar of men.

28 comments

Lieutenant Freeman S. Bowley’s Crater

wilson-honor_in_commandOne of the most interesting Union accounts of the Crater is Lieutenant Freeman Bowley’s memoir, which was published in the National Tribune between April 1899 and September 1899.  [In 2006 Keith Wilson published these articles as Honor in Command.]  Bowley served in the 30th USCT from May 1864 till his capture at the Crater on July 30, 1864.  Bowley’s memoir is valuable for a number of reasons.  His memory is clearly intact and offers vivid descriptions of battle and life as a prisoner in Columbia, South Carolina.  In reference to the Crater it provides a detailed account of his capture and the threats he faced as an officer in a “colored regiment” both in Petersburg and while a prisoner.  Unlike some of his fellow officers who worried about the repercussions from leading blacks into battle, Bowley refused to hide his rank and unit.  There are a number of passages that are worth referencing, but I am going to confine myself to a few that bear on my previous post.

Some of the most interesting passages illustrate his interactions with civilians, particularly women.  One woman, who sold Bowley some dumplings following his capture at the Crater said the following: “‘Yo’ Yanks is all a miserable lyin’ set of thieves, come down yere to steal we’uns niggers.  If I was a man I’d git a gun and shoot ye dead; I’d git a sword and chop yer to pieces.’”  Once out of Petersburg the prisoners were shipped by rail to Danville where they stayed for a short period.  A group of citizens met the train and were outraged at the site of black soldiers and their “abolitionist allies”:

A crowd of citizens gathered around the depot.  The sight of negroes among the prisoners excited them greatly.  Cries of “Kill them! Hang the nigger!” resounded on all sides.  Two officers were pointed out as being officers of colored regiments.  The mob howled with fury and some one brought a rope.  The two officers, Lieut. Shell [Shull], 28th USCT, and Lieut. Dowling [Downing], 31st USCT were dragged from the car, and it seemed as though they were to be hanged then and there.

Luckily the men were not executed, but the rage expressed that day must be understood as the desire to see the leaders of a slave rebellion executed rather than simply as retribution against a hated enemy.  A few weeks later while being imprisoned in Columbia, South Carolina Bowley had another experience with a white Southern woman:

Visitors “to see the Yankees” were an almost everyday occurrence, and the guards never failed to designate me as “That thar little Yankee cuss is an officer in a nigger regiment.”  I had never made any retort, until one day a woman made the remark, “He ‘un had orter be hung for makin’ the niggers fight we ‘uns,” when I turned and said, “Yes, madam; I am an officer of a nigger regiment and I am proud of it.  The time will come when the blackest nigger who wears blue will be a better man than any rebel who ever wore gray!”  The woman flushed, furious with anger.  “If I had my way, I’d kill all you Yankees who came down here to fight we ‘uns and steal we ‘uns niggers–niggers we brung up jes’ like our own children–an teach ‘em to fight we ‘uns,” she said.

I think we should not lose sight of the fact that Bowley’s recollection of this woman’s response comes roughly thirty years after the war; however, we should note that it fits perfectly within the paternal mindset of white Southerners who viewed their slaves as family and who believed that discontent and outright rebellion must be understood as external.  Bowley and other USCT officers continued to worry about their status and safety throughout this period.  They wondered specifically as to whether Confederate authorities would enforce an act that stipulated that any white officers captured on the field of battle leading black soldiers would be treated “as inciting servile insurrection.”  Within the framework of a slave rebellion this act of the Confederate Congress does not seem like such a radical turn.  In fact, it fits neatly into long-standing assumptions surrounding what to do with those who would incite complacent slaves against their caring masters.  Bowley witnessed it first hand.

5 comments