Have A Safe And Happy New Year!

0 comments

George L. Wood On Slaves and Slaveowners

A friend of mine who is a regular reader and currently studying Union regimental histories published right after the war sent me the passage below.  It is from George L. Wood’s “The Seventh Regiment [Ohio Infantry]: A Record” that was published in 1865.  The regiment was raised in northern Ohio, principally from Cleveland and surrounding counties.  One of the most important developments in the historiography of slavery and the Civil War since the 1960’s is the focus on the slaves themselves as full historical actors.  Up until recently the tendency was to downplay their role in understanding emancipation, and the Lost Cause assumptions that interpret slaveholders as paternalistic figures left us with little understanding or appreciation of how slaves viewed their situation.

While professional historians have moved beyond the naivety and implicit racism of this interpretation there are plenty of people who continue to interpret the institution of slavery as benign and in some cases as beneficial along some vaguely formulated “spiritual” view.  The danger is that the goal of trying to prop up the slaveholder as a paradigm of religious/moral virtue necessarily negates taking seriously the perspective of those who are being held in bondage.  Of course Southern slaveowners believed that what they were doing was for the good of their slaves.  Acts of kindness such as offering Bible lessons or starting a Sunday School were just the tip of the iceberg.  Their paternalistic assumptions were probably formulated in part as a reaction to the humanity of the people they owned.  In other words it was perhaps a way of coping with their acknowledgment on some level that slavery was a cruel and barbaric institution.  The passage below offers some interesting observations about how the slaves viewed their masters and their captivity.  The complexity of their outlook anticipates some of the observations made by Eugene Genovese in the early 1970’s. [Note: I don’t know anything about the author or his racial/political outlook apart from what can be reasonably surmised based on this passage.]

[77]  While at Charleston, we were deeply impressed with the profound interest the slaves were taking in passing events.  That down-trodden race, who had for years suffered every injustice at the hands of their white oppressors, were now the first to assist the Federal commanders. Through darkness and storm, they carried information, and acted as scouts and guides on occasions when it would try the heart and nerve of their white companions

From my own observation, I am confident that the slaves of the South, were just as well informed with regard to their relation to their masters, as we were.  They were, from the very first, impressed with the idea that this rebellion was to work some great change in their condition.  They were watching, with great interest, every movement of the troops, and were continually asking questions, as to the disposition to be made of them; thus evincing an interest in military affairs, of which their masters little dreamed. It is well enough to talk of the [78] deep devotion of slaves to their masters; but the latter have found ere this, I trust, that this devotion on which they have relied, has not prevented them from cutting their throats, when it was in the line of their duty, and by means of which they could gain their freedom.  An instance of this great devotion on the part of a slave for his master, was related to me while at Charleston.

A Mr. R—– owned a colored servant by the name of John; he enjoyed the unlimited confidence of his master, who was in the habit of trusting him as he would one of his children.  This confidence was reciprocated by a like devotion on the part of the slave for his master.  One day a neighbor told Mr. R—– that his John was about to run away, as he had repeated conversations with his servants on the subject.  Mr. R—– flew into a passion, feeling very much grieved that his neighbor should think, for a moment, that his John, whom he had raised from infancy, should prove so ungrateful as to leave him.  The only attention he paid to this timely warning was, to put still greater trust in his servant.  One day, shortly after this, John was missing; not only this, he had been so ungrateful as to take his wife and three children. The last heard from faithful John was, that he was safe in Ohio  Now Mr. R—– is a very good man and a Christian, and treat his servants very kindly; but that [79] God-given principle, a desire for personal liberty, actuated him in connection with other men of fairer complexion.  John, undoubtedly, left his old home and master with regret, but home and friendship, when compared with freedom, were nothing.

I was once told by a colored man, in whom the utmost confidence could be placed, that there has been for years an association among the negroes, which extends throughout the South, the purpose of which was one day to liberate themselves from slavery.  He said that hundreds of slaves who, apparently, were as innocent as ignorant, were tolerably well educated, and were secretly bending every energy to bring about an insurrection, which should end in their being released from bondage.  When asked if the field-hands were members of this association, he said they were; and although possessing less information than those living in the cities and villages, yet they were aware of what was going on; and after their work was done at night, they often met in their cabins, and talked over the prospect before them.  He also said, that in the larger cities of the South this association had regular meetings and officers; that they awaited only the proper time, when a tragedy would be enacted all over the South, that would astonish the world.

When we reflect that revolts have been common in the South, and they have been attend[80]ed by partial success, it does not require a great stretch of the imagination to believe that this association did really exist.  The fact of the intense feeling of hatred cherished by the people of the South against Northern fanatics, as they were termed, who came amongst them, is strong evidence in favor of the existence of some organized course of policy among the negroes.  The outward appearance of the slave is usually gentle in the extreme, although his inward feelings may be agitated to
such a degree, that in a white man they would burst forth in the wildest passion.  Therefore, this hatred of the South to the opponents of slavery must be traced to a fear of some secret organization, the object of which lay deeply buried in the reticent minds of the slaves.  The Southern mind was more
deeply agitated, from the fact of the want of this outward emotion on the part of their slaves; for had this strong desire for liberty, which was awakened in them, burst out in wild enthusiasm, it would have been readily checked by the severe punishment of individuals; but it was this secret working of this deep-laid desire for freedom that troubled them. The most guilty were, to all outward appearance, the most innocent.

While the Federal army occupied the country, the slaves were much less guarded in what they said.  One of these slaves, an old man, was passing [81] a tent one day, when a soldier said to him that he belonged to Jeff. Davis.  With a knowing look, he replied: ‘I did; but now, massa, I belong to Uncle Sam.  A colored woman, who had been a slave for years (as she is very old), came into our room one day, and taking up a paper, asked if we wanted it.  Some one said to her, as she was about leaving the room, that she had better not be seen with that paper, as it was not the sort her mistress admired.  Said she, ‘I know what missus likes; I can take care of it;’ and slipping it under her apron she left the room.  That slave could read and write, and yet her master knew nothing of it.  So it is with many others.  It may be asked how they acquire this knowledge.  They gain it in a great many ways.  Many of them learn of their masters’ children, with whom house-servants spend a great deal of time.  Having acquired a slight knowledge, it
stimulates them to greater exertion.  They obtain scraps of newspapers and parts of books, and thus gain a great deal of information entirely unobserved.  Few persons, at the commencement of the rebellion, had the least conception of the vast resources and power of the slave population of the South.  And it was not until they had fed and clothed the Southern armies for two years, and by [82] this means kept them in the field, that it was acknowledged.  Had it not been for its slaves, the South, long ere this, would have been compelled to yield obedience to the Government.  The rebels appreciated and used this element of strength from the beginning.  The Federal Government, through the influence of weak-minded politicians, rejected it; thus throwing an element of its own strength into the hands of its enemies.

Notwithstanding this harsh treatment, the slaves proved true to the Government; and finally, through the medium of this faithfulness, their vast services were acknowledged, and they have not only been taken into the private service of the country, but they have been admitted into the army, to swell its numbers, until the strength of their mighty arms, and the nerve of their fearless hearts, are felt by the enemies of the country on every
battle-field.  What a glorious thought! thousands of the oppressed fighting for the redemption from slavery of a race which has ever worn the chain.  When it is remembered that by this strife questions are to be settled which have ever disturbed the harmony of this country, and not that only, but questions which, when settled, will release millions of our fellow-men and women from the power of the oppressor, ought we not to be thankful that we are permitted to make great sacrifices in so good a cause?”

2 comments

Year In Review: 2006

It’s time for my second annual best-of list for 2006.  These are always tough calls so take them with a grain of salt.  Obviously I could go on and on but this list hits on a few of the books that kept me out of trouble in 2006.    [Note: these books were not necessarily published in the past year.]

Best Blog: This is one of the easiest choices and it goes to Tim Greenman’s Walking the Berkshires.  Tim describes his site as an “eclectic weaving of human narrative, natural history, and conservation science with the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills as both its backdrop and point of departure. I am interested in how land and people, past and present manifest in the broader landscape and social fabric of our communities.”  The site is entertaining and educational.  Thanks Tim!

Favorite History Book of 2006: Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Best Overall Civil War Military History: Steven E. Woodworth, Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865 (Knopf, 2005). 

Best Biography:  Joan Cashin, First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2006).   

Best Confederate Study: Armstead L. Robinson, Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865 (University of Virginia Press, 2005) 

Best Union Study: Jennifer Weber, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Best Slavery Study: David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford University Press, 2006). 

Best Memory Study: James and Lois Horton eds, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (The New Press, 2006). 

Best Edited Collection: Gary W. Gallagher, The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 (University of North Carolina Press, 2006). 

Best Social History: Jonathan Dean Sarris, A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South (University of Virginia Press, 2006). 

Best Myth Buster: Roger L. Ransom, The Confederate States of America: What Might Have Been (Norton, 2005). 

Best Gettysburg Book: Kent M. Brown, Retreat From Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics, and the Pennsylvania Campaign (University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

Some good things to look forward to in the new year are studies by William Freehling, Chandra Manning, and Nelson Lankford.  Congratulations to the winners.  Awards are in the mail.
 

4 comments

Crater Manuscript Finished!

After four years of research and writing I am pleased to report that my manuscript on memory and the battle of the Crater is finished.  There are a few things to touch up before I send it off to the publisher next week, but the bulk of the work is done.  It’s been quite a journey and a learning experience.  I am under no illusions about the process between the submission of the manuscript and its eventual publication.  First, the editors at the press must decide if they really want it and then it will be sent out for peer review.  This will no doubt take some time and I expect that I will have to make changes in response to their comments and concerns. 

Still, it does feel good to be finished with such a big project.  I  feel just a bit lighter today.

10 comments

A Sanitized Past

Many of my comments over the past few weeks have been directed at our continued tendency to sanitize our past or to make it more palatable for our own purposes.  We desire heroes and unfortunately we are all too willing to sacrifice good analytical history for stories that reflect a deep need to identify with a past that confirms our own ethical and moral sensibilities.  Such is the case with our Civil War.  I don’t read Civil War novels; in fact I’ve only read two, including The Killer Angels and Cold Mountain.  Most of them are poorly written and play much too much on the emotions.  The Washington Post just reviewed a new novel titled The Better Angels Of Our Nature by S.C. Gylanders.  I haven’t read it nor do I plan to read it.  The review, however, neatly sums up my own views of how I believe most Americans prefer to remember their Civil War:

But Gylanders is no Stephen Crane. The very title of the novel — taken from
Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural address — suggests that the world depicted here is one
of angels and demons. The author’s acknowledgments, which refer to her "humble
portrait of this great American patriot [Sherman] and the story of his war,"
should warn us not to expect ethical challenges or significant moral
ambivalence. Despite the author’s loving (and somewhat long-winded) attention to
weaponry and medical matters, she glosses over such discomforting subjects as
slavery, desertion, corruption, conscription and disease. And the dialogue and
interaction between these rough soldiers is strangely — and implausibly —
sanitized
.

But the novel’s essential weakness lies in the characters, who tend to stand
out like monuments
, especially the gruff, cigar-chewing Sherman and the
swashbuckling brigade commander Thomas Ransom. They are beyond criticism,
remaining largely unchallenged and unknown, alienated from the reader by their
own legendary status
. It is as if the author’s personal enthusiasm for these
historical figures has blinded her to the emotional needs of the reader.

If I’ve never made known my views of Gods and Generals clearly enough try this.  Ethan Rafuse recently posted on the difficulties involved in challenging some of the most deeply ingrained assumptions about specific figures such as Grant, McClellan, and Lincoln.  I assume that the reviewer of this book probably has at least a cursory understanding of the Civil War, which makes the ideas cited above that much more relevant.  They stand out like a sore thumb. 

Perhaps I’ve become sanitized by my own work on Civil War memory.  From my vantage point Americans have never really been interested in confronting the tough questions from the war, including race and emancipation.  In that sense it is much easier for us to let go when thinking about the "civil war" in Iraq.  We can imagine the worst case scenarios as part of what it means to be engaged in civil war.  In short, we can accept the darkest aspects of human nature.  To what extent are we able to acknowledge these same themes in our own past? 

0 comments