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.

Was Abraham Lincoln an Actor or Reactor?

I give fairly regular quizzes in my classes.  In my Civil War course I tend to give students a question that integrates their reading for the week.  I am interested in both whether they’ve retained the relevant content and the extent to which they can evaluate it.  Last week we concentrated on the events that led to Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in July 1862.  We discussed the First and Second Confiscation Acts, the actions of Generals Butler and Hunter, pressure from Radical Republicans, the movements of fugitive slaves, the end of slavery in Washington D.C. and the territories and, of course, the flow of events on the battlefield by mid-summer 1862.  It is very important to me that my students get beyond the “Great Emancipator” view of Lincoln.  Students should understand the complexity of events that led to emancipation and they should be asked to evaluate Lincoln’s place in this overall process.  I agree that the “Who Freed the Slaves Debate” has been played out, but that should not prevent us from continuing to reevaluate Lincoln’s importance in this important process.  With that in mind I decided to ask my students to respond to the following question:

To what extent was Abraham Lincoln and an actor or a reactor in the chain of events that led to his issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1862?  Your answer should include references to relevant individuals, events, and concepts.

Want to take the quiz?  Go ahead and I will even give you a grade. :)