As part of my recent weekend with the Civil War Trust I took part in a tour of downtown Charleston. The organization made arrangements with a number of guides, most of which were at least somewhat knowledgeable. Unfortunately, my guide was an absolute disgrace and at times reckless with his interpretation of one of the most important historic sites in the city.
I guess it was an attempt to be charming, but at the beginning of the tour our guide asked us where we were from. In my case, he called me an abolitionist scoundrel, but thanked me for his job. I guess he was acknowledging the importance of tourism to the local economy. This was followed by a request to the group to hiss whenever William T. Sherman’s name was mentioned. I obliged by responding with, “Saved the Union” instead of the required hiss. Finally, our guide insisted on asking us if discussing slavery was permitted since it is such a “sensitive topic.” Apparently, he was unaware that his group was made up of history teachers.
So, you can imagine my concern as we walked toward the slave market. Any guide needs to think carefully about how to present the history of the slave market based on the profile of the group in question. The subject is sensitive and interpreters must tread carefully, but the history is crucial to understanding a huge chunk of Charleston’s history. Instead of introducing the subject our guide asked us to imagine that we were slaveholders coming to market to purchase property. We were to think about what kind of slaves we were interested in purchasing. No introduction to the site. No discussion of anything having to do with the history of slavery and race relations in Charleston. What I couldn’t believe was that the teachers in the group actually responded to this inane question. Finally, our guide came to me. I responded simply: “I am not interested in buying a slave.” Once we had finished this little imaginative exercise I asked the guide if he could talk a bit about how this may have looked from a slave’s point-of-view. He clearly knew very little. It was a surreal experience.
At the end of the tour our guide asked if I was offended back at the slave market. I think he was asking specifically if I was offended by the mere discussion of the subject. Rather than share my thoughts I simply thanked him for the tour and walked away. If you are going to Charleston make sure your tour of the city is led by a competent interpreter. Perhaps some of you who are more familiar with the city can offer some suggestions.
This was just one guide on one tour, but I suspect that this is a case of where there is smoke there is fire.
We’ve heard quite a bit in recent years about the need to step back from our tendency to draw a sharp divide between the war years and Reconstruction. Historians such as Mark Grimsley and James Hogue have reminded us that the violence did not stop after 1865. Just as importantly, many of the crucial political questions surrounding civil rights for African Americans had yet to be nailed down. A good case can be made that the war did not end in 1865.
There is a practical question of how historians can help us to imagine a more seamless shift in 1865. Perhaps without intending to do so, David Cecelski does just that in his forthcoming book, The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War. First of all, Galloway is absolutely fascinating. Based on limited archival sources, Cecelski does an admirable job of tracing his life from slave to Union spy to North Carolina legislator.
In the span of two paragraphs Cecelski has both Lee and Johnston surrendered and the president assassinated. It comes right in the middle of a chapter, which means no colorful reflections on what the war meant or unanswered questions about the future. Rather, the author leaves us on the ground in North Carolina where Galloway and other African American leaders continued their work:
Galloway could not dwell long on the president’s death or on what possibilities for black America might have passed with him. In North Carolina, as throughout most of the old Confederacy, African American life quickly resumed the urgency of a guerilla war, and neither he nor other local activists could afford to hesitate in their labors….
In the aftermath of the Confederacy’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, Galloway and his compatriots continued to focus on expanding the Equal Rights League into new parts of the state and on advocating for voting rights and political equality. Neither came easy. With the fall of the Confederacy, new multitudes of African Americans gained freedom, left the places of their servitude, and headed into towns such as New Bern and Beaufort. (p. 174)
It’s very subtle, but quite effective. For millions of Americans, including Galloway, the surrender of armies and assassination of a president did not signal the end of the struggle.
Today I completed a rough draft of an essay on John Christopher Winsmith and his servant Spencer for the NYTs Disunion column. Winsmith’s letters are incredibly rich and help to sketch a constantly evolving master – slave dynamic during the first sixteen months of the war. As a teaser consider the following reference to Spencer accompanying Winsmith on picket duty in northern Virginia in September 1861:
I took Spencer along to carry my knapsack [etc], and Ralph and I with him stopped at a house on the road, and drying ourselves thoroughly had a most delightful rest. Sunday just after daylight we left and joined to Regt. Then we proceeded to Upton’s Hill in sight of Munsin’s to do picket duty. The enemys lines are not so near the former as the latter place, and therefore our men got no shots at the Yankees. The view was fine, and just such as I have described in a former letter as having enjoyed from Munsin’s. Occasionally in the distance we could see the Yankees moving about, but no fight occurred during our stay.
This is the only time that Winsmith acknowledges this role in his letters, though I suspect it was quite common among officers at least during the early stages of the war. One wonders how many of these Yankee sightings of black men in Confederate ranks were of this nature.
Head on over to Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates site for an excellent post on the pensions that were handed out to former servants/slaves at the turn of the twentieth century. This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of this subject. It looks like the recent decision in Union County North Carolina to recognize former slaves as if they occupied a position akin to a soldier was premised on their having been granted pensions. Do yourself a favor and read Andy’s post.
Finally, today I got a call from Ken Wyatt, who is the director of Colored Confederates: Myth or Matter of Fact? I was interviewed as a talking head back in 2009. It’s been shown at a number of film festivals, but other than a preview I have yet to see it. Fortunately, it is being shown this weekend as part of the Roxbury International Film Festival here in Boston on Sunday at noon. I am looking forward to commentary by H.K. Edgerton that goes way off the deep end.
I am not surprised that public officials in Union County, North Carolina have finally authorized the inclusion of a marker/monument on courthouse grounds to honor its local slave population. [I've followed this story for quite some time.] Given everything I know about the folks involved in this project I am not optimistic that the final wording of the marker will do justice to what we know about the history of free and enslaved blacks and the Confederacy. The history will be distorted.
This is unfortunate since slaves like Aaron Perry and Weary Clyburn deserve to be remembered. The final wording of the marker will likely reference their service in the Confederate army and their having been awarded pensions late in life. This interpretation will satisfy the self-serving agenda of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who are committed to remembering the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights. It will also satisfy the descendants of these men, who wish to see their ancestors remembered.
These men deserve to be remembered, but not for living a life that falls outside of the historical record. They deserve to be remembered because they survived slavery. We can only imagine what hardships and humiliations these men suffered as chattel. How many experienced the lash or the pain of separation from loved ones? How many suffered from the intense desire to be free?
On top of all of this these men were forced to endure the hardships of a war that, if concluded in favor of their owners, would have ensured their continued enslavement. Tens of thousands of slaves were impressed by the Confederate government as laborers, while thousands more accompanied their owners to serve their individual needs. The presence of slaves in the army did not mark a change in their legal status. They were not brought to war to place them any closer to freedom. Quite the opposite. Now, in addition to the hardships experienced at home these men were forced to negotiate a new set of challenges and dangers. Violence was anything but foreign to the nation’s slave population by 1861. Separation from families was anything but new for these men.
And yet these men survived. They even went on and managed to eke out an existence during very difficult times that perhaps filled them with pride in knowing that their lives were finally their own.
Yes, we should honor these men. Honor them not for serving the Confederacy, but surviving it.
I am delighted to hear that residents of Fredericksburg, Virginia have resurrected a civic ceremony that was lost as a result of reunion between white Northern and former Confederates. For a number of years after the war the black residents of the city took part in annual marches on Decoration Day to the cemetery to commemorate the bravery of United States soldiers and the cause for which they fought. Those early commemorations constituted a living reminder that the war had profound results for millions of slaves and that its memory would be incomplete without the acknowledgment of emancipation and freedom.