Category Archives: Southern History

Slavery Was Money

OK, so I decided to take the plunge and read the first chapter of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. It’s incredibly dense and I will likely have to read it again to more fully grasp the argument. What I do understand is quite fascinating. In the process of showing how future slaveholders gradually supplanted Jefferson’s idea of a west that would guarantee a republican vision of small and independent landowners, Johnson emphasizes the connectedness of the new slave economy to international market forces. For Johnson, slavery must be understood as helping to forge a vibrant capitalist economy.

What held these regional, national, and international economies together over space and time and across time was money. The abstract scale of dollar values allowed business to take place in a space not strictly delimited by the physical properties of the thing being traded. The value of a barrel of salt pork, which would go bad if it sat on the levee waiting for the crop to come in, could be noted and paid off in sugar when it finally did; the value of a young woman in Virginia in May might be compared to that of an old man in Louisiana in September, although their bodies were distant in time and space, and distinct in physical proportion and capacity; the value of either might be compared to a bale of cotton in Liverpool in January, a barrel of sugar in New York in June, or a plot of land that was for sale down the road two days hence. Yet money sometimes moved while things stood still: the ownership of a bale of cotton in a warehouse in New Orleans or a descendant’s claim to a particular slave in a share of an estate on the Red River, for example, might be transferred several times, although the actual bale of cotton or the actual slave was never carried away. Nothing in this economy moved without money. The real problem, it sometimes turned out, was moving the money. (pp. 42-43)

There is quite a bit to unpack in this short passage and the rest of the chapter, which I am not going to do. I suspect that Johnson is not the first historian to emphasize the international economic context in which American slavery existed and thrived. The passage beautifully captures the interconnectedness of it all over time and space. It also leaves you appreciating the extent to which the value of even the most mundane material items was somehow connected to the value of cotton and slaves. More importantly, Johnson is forcing me to reconsider my tendency to think of slavery as somehow backwards or pre-modern. Far from it. Johnson paints a picture of slaveholders engaged in creative speculation in numerous domestic and overseas markets. Yep, sounds pretty modern to me.

Perhaps in a nation that fully embraces capitalism as a moral system we resist the idea that it was responsible for generating an exorbitant amount of wealth and suffering. In other words, there was nothing incompatible between capitalism and slavery.

Honoring Black Virginians Who Served During Reconstruction

Black Virginians Honored in Richmond

Update: Click here for additional information from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission’s website.

The plaques include the names names of 24 African-Americans who took part in Virginia’s constitutional convention of 1867-68 and the names of 14 black people who served terms in the state Senate between 1869 and 1890. Two additional plaques list the names of 85 African-Americans who served in the House of Delegates between 1869 and 1890. Just the kind of heritage you want to see commemorated in the Richmond area. Read the story here.

Potential Black Confederates

Thanks to Dr. Michael R. Bradley who reached out to me yesterday to share some information he has collected about the 25th Tennessee Infantry which enlisted in Tullahoma, TN, in June 1861. The unit was raised in the Upper Cumberland area. Included in the list of original enlistees are twenty names, spread over seven companies , with each name followed by the note “Free Negro.”  According to Dr. Bradley, each of these men was assigned rank and complete enlistment papers noting rank and pay drawn for three months are in the archives.

These names are also listed in “Tennesseans in the Civil War,” published in 1964 by the Tennessee Historical Commission, although no race is noted in that source. The 1860 census however lists each of the men as a free person of color. Here are the names:

  • Co. A
    Hale, John; Harris, James; Harris, William Alban; Rickman, Abner; Scott, Micajah
  • Co. B
    Alexander, Grunton B; Harris, Rufus
  • Co. C
    Burgess, William; Rickman, Joseph; Rickman Joseph A.; Scott, Alex; Worley, Rufus
  • Co. D
    Anderson, German
  • Co. E
    Farley, James
  • Co. G
    Cummings, John
  • Co. H
    Alley, Sampson
  • Co. I
    Fields, James; Gibson, William; Oxendine, Levi–died and buried at camp ground; Walker, L.

This is fascinating regardless of what further inquiry reveals. I am curious as to whether these men remained in their units beyond the first three months. Dr. Bradley admittedly has not followed up on that question nor does he state anything explicit about these individuals or what their presence might mean more broadly. I look forward to reviewing copies of their enlistment papers that are now being forwarded to me. Continue reading

A Black Confederate We Can All Live With

black ConfederateEarlier this month Schuyler Kropf shared the story of Polly Sheppard, who was surprised to find the grave of a black Confederate soldier in the cemetery of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston. The individual in question is Louis B. Middleton, whose grave is marked with a soldiers’ headstone. This has all the earmarks of another in a long line of distorted stories about blacks who somehow managed to evade Confederate law and a society committed to keeping weapons out of their hands. Continue reading

Medgar Evers Visits Vicksburg National Military Park

Medgar Evers, VicksburgThis morning I was perusing through the September 1963 issue of Ebony Magazine and came across this remarkable photograph of Medgar Evers and his family on the Vicksburg battlefield. Apparently, they spent a great deal of time on the battlefield. This particular issue centered on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which included a story about Evers on why he chose to live in Mississippi.

Outside Vicksburg, in the national military park, which entombs hundreds of Civil War dead–from Mississippi, Illinois, both sides of the struggle–Evers strolls with sightseers over the bones of the dead, is drawn to “our spot” where he and his wife courted, politely answers the questions of a white man, whose ten gallon hat and deep drawl identify him as one of the “enemy.” (pp. 146-47)