Northern Slavery, Public History, and Memory

A few of my readers have requested that I comment on ongoing and recent exhibits in my new neck of the woods that concentrate on the history of slavery and the slave trade.  I assume they are planning family vacations north of the Mason-Dixon Line so I am more than happy to comply.  Their requests, however, seem to be couched in the assumption that historical institutions in New England and elsewhere are actively ignoring this dark and complex subject in American history.  Nothing could be further from the truth so I hope this short post will alleviate their concerns and perhaps even serve as a catalyst for an exciting and educational trip north.

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“Those Who Fight For Freedom Are Entitled To Freedom”

If “those who fight for freedom” are entitled to it then they are “entitled” to it equally.  If the negro is made to fight our battles of “freedom” then he must be governed by the same laws of war, and he must stand upon the same footing of the white man after the war.  What will be the consequences?  Why, if 250,000 negro men are entitled to their freedom because the fight for it, then their wives, children and families are also entitled to the same boon, just as their wives, children and families of the white man who fight the same battle.  In other words, the South is to be converted by this war into an abolitionized colony of free negroes, instead of a land of white freemen, knowing their rights and daring to maintain them.  If the negroes are to be free, they must be equally free with the master.  If they are to be armed like the master, then they are in fact equal of the master.  What is the result?  Why, they never can be slaves again, and must be treated as the master, politically, civilly and socially.  “Those who fight for freedom are entitled to freedom,” says the Enquirer, and we say so too. [The Lynchburg Republican, November 2, 1864]

Can it be possible that a Southern man–editor of a Southern journal–recognizing the right of property in slaves, admitting their inferiority in the scale of being and also their social inferiority, would recommend the passage of a law which at one blow levels all distinctions, deprives the master of a right to his property, and elevates the negro to an equality with the white man?–for, disguise it as you may, those who fight together in a common cause, and by success win the same freedom, enjoy equal rights and equal position, and in this case, are distinguished by color.  Are we prepared for this?  Is it for this we are contending?  Is it for this we would seek the aid of our slaves?  To win their freedom with our own independence, to establish in our midst a half or quarter of a million of black freemen, familiar with arts and discipline of war, and with large military experience!  Has the bitter experience of Virginia with regard to free negroes already been forgotten?  [Nat Turner’s Rebellion] [Richmond Enquirer, November 4, 1864]

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“Confederate Slaves” at Bull Run

Kate Masur has an excellent post up at the NYTs Disunion blog on slaves, who were present with the Confederate army at Bull Run.

On the morning of Sunday, July 21, 1861, John Parker and three other men opened fire on Union forces. In the chaos of the Civil War’s first major battle, the group, which was operating a cannon, “couldn’t see the Yankees at all and only fired at random.”

Like so many men on both sides who experienced war for the first time that day, Parker was terrified. “The balls from the Yankee guns fell thick all around,” he later told a reporter. “In one battery a shell burst and killed 20, the rest ran. Thank the Lord! none were killed in our battery. I felt bad all the time, and thought every minute my time would come; I felt so excited that I hardly knew what I was about, and felt worse than dead.”

Read the rest of the NYTs essay here.  It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the comments section to turn into another forum for the standard emotional attacks and personal pleas that have nothing to do with actual history.

“Thank God the North Won”


There is an interesting moment in this talk by Peter Carmichael where he fields a question by a woman, who is apparently concerned that he is being overly critical of the South and the Confederacy.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to hear the question.  I know a little something about being accused of holding the Confederacy and all things Southern in contempt.  It’s a strange accusation that I will never truly understand.

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