Tag Archives: Emancipation

A Need To Remember a War To End Slavery

The other day I mentioned that a professor at Rice University used a few of my old posts on black Confederates as a way to focus his students on how Americans remember the war.  I thoroughly enjoyed the thoughtful comments of the students, many of which suggest that proponents of this particular narrative have a broader goal of embracing Confederate history – heritage without having to deal with the tough problems of race and slavery.  I think there is some truth to this, but I wouldn’t propose it as anything approaching a generalization or even as a sufficient condition.

In response to these comments, Professor McDaniel offered the following question and I have to say that I am struggling with it:

Second, many of you suggested that remembering the Civil War in a particular way fills certain needs people have–to absolve themselves or their ancestors of guilt, for example, or distance themselves from racism. This made me wonder (and some of you alluded to this): if remembering the Civil War as a conflict that was not meets certain psychological or cultural needs for the people doing the remembering, how does depicting the Civil War as a conflict that was about slavery, or even a war to end slavery, influence the identities or satisfy the needs of people who remember it that way?

It seems like an appropriate question given the slave auction reenactment that took place this morning on the steps of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis.  Here is a very interesting interview with Angela desilva, who took part in the reenactment.  [Click here for some powerful photographs from the event.] She offers a very personal response to Professor McDaniel’s question, but one that must acknowledge from a distance given my lack of any ancestral connection with slavery.

So, what needs does remembering a war to end slavery satisfy?  That’s a tough question and one that I don’t think I can answer right now.  I am tempted to suggest that it satisfies my need to know what happened and why, but that sounds shallow and could easily be suggested by those who minimize or reject the importance of slavery.  I’m sure others will opine that my radical liberal beliefs have left me feeling guilty or that such an interpretation fits into my view of the United States as fundamentally flawed.  Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not it.

Perhaps it relates to my Jewish upbringing.  Although I am no longer a practicing Jew I do believe that my strong belief that we have an obligation to remember flows from my experience in Hebrew School during my formative years.  It goes without saying that the Holocaust looms large in the lives of most Jews.  But this doesn’t fully satisfy either.  After all, I can remember the harsh reality of slavery without focusing on the Civil War.  In other words, I still don’t know what needs of mine are satisfied by remembering a war to end slavery.

What about you?

Are Slave Rebellions Part of the Story of American Freedom?

The Georgia Historical Society is in the process of installing new historical markers that expand our understanding of how the war impacted society beyond the battlefield.  One of the markers focuses on a failed slave revolt in the town of Quitman, Georgia, near the Florida border.  In 1864 three slaves and their white ringleader named John Vickery were hanged in Brooks County.  The reporter notes that, “The story highlights how three and a half years into war, many Georgians – especially poor, non-slaveholders — were hungry for food, war-weary and disillusioned with the Confederate cause.” And according to Todd Groce, the President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society, the story “has a great relevance because it tells the African American people that they too are a part of the Civil War.”

Here is the text for the marker:

Civil War Slave Conspiracy

In August 1864, during the American Civil War, four men were executed in Brooks County, Georgia, for conspiring to plot a slave insurrection. The conspirators–led by a local white man, John Vickery, and three slaves named Nelson, George, and Sam–planned to seize weapons and take control of the town of Quitman, securing it for the U.S. Army in nearby Florida. Local authorities discovered the plot before it could be carried out. All four conspirators were convicted of insurrection and executed on August 22, 1864.  Anti-Confederate activity such as this, along with food riots, draft evasion, and labor unrest, increased during the final year of the war.

The choice of words is interesting.  Like most historical markers the basic outline of the event is presented, but there is little attempt to frame around a broader theme and that’s probably a good thing.  I assume that the “anti-Confederate” activity implied here is the slave insurrection itself, though it isn’t so clear.

I’ve asked this question before, but it is worth returning to given the placement of this marker: Is this event simply an example of anti-Confederate activity or is it part of a broader story of American freedom that we can all identify with?

[Note: I took the photo from one of the two article cited here because of the text that accompanied it: "A new plaque commemorates a failed slave revolt in Quitman. This image depicts a successful uprising by Nat Turner in Virginia."  It goes without saying that Turner's rebellion was not successful.]

“Yours For Liberty”

[Thanks to Vicki Betts]

Vicki found this document during her research into the Confederate Citizens and Business File in Footnote.com.  This particular letter struck her as important and decided to pass it on to me, which I greatly appreciate.  The letter was written by John D. Berry, Schuyler County, New York and sent to the governor of South Carolina, probably late 1860 or early 1861.  Berry is listed as a (col) barber in Schuyler County.

Watkins, Schuyler Co. NY

To the Governor of South Carolina.  Sir I hope you will excuse me for ben so forward in droping you a few lines.   Sir I am no a Scoler.  My dear parents Sent me to School & paid $3 per [     ]  And There It would bee imposseble for me to Say more than one leson a day & Some times not that for Pregdise was So Strong in this Country Against the Colored rase that it was imposable for me to Get justice done me in School.  Sir this was on the Acount of Slavery & the arguments that you Southern men are obliged to youse to kepe us back & to Corupt the whites of the norther States & this Sir you have done perty efeculy for Clay to Lead of with Compromise After Compromise & then all you have to do is to buy Dou fases & that you Did be guining with Webster[.] but Sir I respect Mr. Colhoun for we new where to find him & his corse wodent of Dun us as much harm as has ben dun us by Henry Clays Corse for if the South had declared Slavery to be the Eakual of Liberty then as now the blood which is to brake on you now wold of brok then in sted of now & the Crash would have been So great that it wold have cosed you and every other Slave holder to Shake with fear[.]  your proclamation wodent Save you nor all the Governers in the Slave States.  For we Abolitiones have got the North rite & Justice is to be Dun to all men kind north & South & like bfore quiet will come to this Government[.]  this is so & you may as well begin one time as Another for the [        ] is rapidly at werk & your Proclomation is [       ] here at the north your bst [?] laff at it with the exception of Benet of the herald & we have Got him tite for he hasent Got eny Enfleuence[.]  he is used up Sir & this is so[.]  the Crises is upon you & you must Do my People Justice with the rest of mankind & this Sir will save you and your State will flourish & wax with wealth.  I Dow respect  Southern Gentlemen ten times ye one hundred times more than northern doufase for They Deceive Both north & South & you cant Depend on them[.]  all they want is Ofise[.]  Sir the South Dun rong when they Sanctioned the Outrage on Sumner it was Bad for you & it was bad for you when you Sanction the execution of J. Brown and his follower & Sustained Walker as the South and Administration did for you have made thousands of votes & people raise their voises & hart & hand Against you I mean your instituatain.  But Sir the Day has come for the Deliverance of my people & now humane Agency Can prevent it[.]  I thank God I am down on Slavery & in the words of Oconel when he first herd the idea of property in man it Sounded to him as if Some one was Stamping upon the Grave of his mother and so it Seams to me[.]  I am for Liberty Every time & care not how it comes either with or with out blud shed[.] Yours for liberty

John D. Berry Schuyler Co.

“The Geography of Emancipation”

I was unable to attend the most recent biennial meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians back in June so I missed the keynote address by Gary Gallagher and Ed Ayers.  Luckily, C-SPAN was there and recorded the entire session.  I am particularly interested in Gallagher’s talk since it encompasses much of what will be included in his forthcoming book, The Union War.  Gallagher argues that the role of Union forces must be acknowledged in any attempt to understand the progress of emancipation during the war.  In doing so he challenges the self-emancipation thesis as well as the more popular image of Lincoln as the “great emancipator.”  Here is a short clip of Gallagher’s talk while you can find the entire session here.