February 23, 2023

Crispus Attucks’s Civil War Service

On March 5, 1863, a contingent of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry gathered with prominent abolitionists at Tremont Temple in Boston to celebrate Black heroism. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had opened the door to the enlistment of African Americans just two months prior, but the festivities did not center on Black Union soldiers. Celebrants instead praised the nation’s first martyr—Crispus Attucks—because they thought that recollections of Black valor on the nation’s altar were integral to the same battles being waged by Black soldiers around the war-torn Confederacy.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, many Americans understood that Attucks was the first to perish during the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. As the war over the Union raged, those at Tremont Temple feted the martyr of the American Revolution with speeches and patriotic pomp. Black celebrants had used other holidays, including Emancipation Day and July Fourth, to make political statements regarding abolition and civic inclusion. In a similar vein, they turned Crispus Attucks Day into a chance to make the country understand that African Americans were as American as any other group and that they deserved rights. Described in The Liberator on March 20, the celebration was adorned by historical documents, such as a 1750 advertisement calling for the return of Attucks to his enslaver, the Boston Gazette’s 1770 account of the massacre, and a certificate of honorable discharge of a Black soldier by George Washington. The meaning of the documents was plain: the celebrants nurtured a civic memory of African Americans’ patriotism and drive for liberation….

Read more on the blog for the Nau Center for Civil War History (University of Virginia)

Image: “Crispus Attucks, the First Martyr of the American Revolution, King (now State) Street, Boston, March 5th, 1770,” from William Cooper Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (Boston, MA: Robert F. Wallcut, 1855).

February 14, 2023

Richard Wright’s Civil War Cipher

Grandpa “darkly boasted of having killed ‘mo’n mah fair share of them damn rebels’ while en route to enlist in the Union Army,” Richard Wright recalled.  “Granny’s conversations…[about]Grandpa’s life,” gave the novelist further details of the difficulties his maternal ancestor Richard Wilson endured during the Civil War. “Militantly resentful of slavery,” Wright penned in 1923, Grandpa “joined the Union Army to kill southern whites; he waded in icy streams; slept in mud; suffered, fought.” Such stories served as more than fireside entertainment. They supplied an antidote to prevailing theories of emancipation.

Stories of Black southerners’ wartime gumption reflected an important strain of African American memory, a strain juxtaposed against Dunningite histories. Black southerners celebrated their ancestors’ grit to counter these derisive accounts, which asserted that enslaved men and women did little to claim liberty. The heroic strain of remembrance became increasingly prominent in scholarship amid the civil rights movement. And rightfully so. Over 130,000 Black southerners braved enormous peril in the U.S. Army. Their families also contributed, furnishing labor for the Union despite struggling in their men’s absences. As a fan of the film Glory during boyhood, I knew the cinematic expression of this tale. As a student of the past, I also appreciated the rich scholarship since the 1950s. So, when I first encountered a Black deserter about a decade ago, I was flummoxed.Screen Shot 2019-05-12 at 9.04.46 PM

“Why would an enslaved man desert the army?” I wondered. “Service gave him the chance to fight for freedom and to punish slavers.” The stakes seemed too high. “Hadn’t Frederick Douglass declared, ‘Who would be free themselves must strike the blow’”? I wrestled with how to interpret these men and understand accounts of their desertion.

Read the full post on the Organization of American Historians’ blog, Process, here

Image: Support for Black suffrage following the Civil War in Harper’s Weekly.  (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

June 29, 2020

Feelings of a Slave on the Fourth of July

With July Fourth on the horizon, I have offered John Westall’s moving poem titled: “Feelings of a Slave on the Fourth of July.” Frederick Douglass published it in The North Star on July 7, 1848.

“The bells ring merrily today,

The birthday of the free,
And yet their chiming does not bring
One gleam of hope to me.
The cannon’s brazen lips proclaim
The joy the white man feels,
And yet its thunder-mocking voice,
My sad condition seals.
Sweet music fills the sunny air,
With gladness that I cannot share.

Within my veins the proudest blood
Of proud Virginia rolls,
And oft my pulses throb and leap,
While fear my tongue controls.
And when the glorious day returns,
I fear my heart will break,
For here, ‘mid Freedom’s flames I stand,
A victim at the stake;
A poor, degraded, worm-like thing,
Of whom the poets only sing.

And I am not a man, though God
My skin hath darkly dyed?
Ah no! I am a chattel, thing,
Though yonder walks my bride;
Though yonder plays my little babe –
Not mine? Oh, say not so!
A word, a look, and I am sent
Where Sabine’s waters flow;
And they are sold, and dragged away,
To pluck the rice from day to day.

Oh, blessed breeze that fans my brow;
No chain can fasten thee;
Nor thee, old ocean, whose wild waves
E’er sing of liberty.
Nor ye, whose lamps illume the night,
The night, the slave’s best friend,
Whose mantle shields him from the eye,
Which tyrants o’er him bend.
Oh, nature! why are thou so free,
If freedom were not made for me?

It was—I am a man, as they
Who crush me to the earth;
Like them, both love and thought are mine,
Life, thought, and human death.
And God my Father is. But why
I linger here, who knows?
I must achieve my rights, as they
Who now are Freedom’s foes.
Where Freedom lives, there must I fly,
I will not here grow weak and die.

Oh, good North Star! thy light shall guide
My feet amidst the shade;
For underneath thy steadfast ray,
Her home has Freedom made,
And where she dwells, my cot shall rise,
And there my babes shall play,
And I will labor hard for them,
Though poor and mean the pay:
The toil is sweet that is man’s own—
A bliss that I have never known.

December 11, 2019

The Loving Black Mercenaries of the Civil War

On February 22, 1865, Private William Joseph Nelson wrote a petition for leniency from prison. The black Ohioan was being held as a deserter and explained why he had to leave the army. He said that recruiters cheated him out of his much-needed bounty, forcing him to abandon his post and see to his family. He insinuated that he alone contributed to the family’s finances. “I had [sic] marryed a Widdow With eight children,” he wrote. They “are depending on me for support and I am a poor color[e]d man [and] havent enything for them to live on except by my labor and I am in the g[u]ard house and cant do enything for them.” Nelson said that the only way his family could survive was with the bounty money and his salary. When he could not give them his money, he tried to return home to help them. Although he did not refer directly to army wages, he indicated the importance of the bounty in his decision to join (and desert), a reality of black military service during the Civil War often overlooked.

Read more of post on the New-York Historical Society’s Blog, From the Stacks, here

April 27, 2018

Confederate Monuments…What To Do?: Historians’ Town-Hall Meeting on Memorialization–and Racial Injustice

On Friday evening at the recent meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) in Sacramento, OAH President and Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities Edward Ayers led a town-hall meeting titled, “Confederate Monuments: What To Do?” to analyze the problem of memorialization, especially of the Confederacy, and what historians can do to help the nation move forward…

…Perhaps unsurprisingly yet nevertheless important to note, the session revealed that Americans continue to wrestle with the issue of Confederate monuments because of the ongoing problems of racism. As the conversation closed, it was clear that until Americans redress racial injustices and rebuild civic trust to support a productive dialogue the problem of Confederate monuments will continue to embroil communities throughout the country

This does not mean historians should stop looking for solutions to this particular instance of racial violence, though. In fact, it means the opposite.

The problem of Confederate monuments is exactly where historians have the expertise to eradicate this vestige of racism. Indeed, beyond the session, historians have offered a range of solutions in opinion pieces and in public conversations. Some historians suggest the monuments be left as heaps of rubble or empty pedestals, recalling oppressive regimes while not celebrating them. Others advocate relocating monuments to National Parks, where rangers can contextualize, or they call for the total removal of Confederate symbols….As the public conversations and OAH session demonstrate, historians can provide their ideas on these ciphers of racial injustice.

Historians’ contributions remain critical to the debate, and historians should continue to raise their voices. As John Hope Franklin observed, historians have excited racial and nationalistic hatred, yet he noted that historians could also promote humanity, pointing out the unfulfilled promises of democracy. Ideally, historians will strive for Franklin’s notion of the scholar as humanitarian, and the public debate over monuments creates the space for historians to endeavor toward the humanitarian-historian ideal. So, even if the solutions elude us, we should linger on the vexing question of what to do with Confederate statues, and other racist markers scarring the landscape, as long as it is necessary….

Read the full post on the Society of Civil War Historian’s blog, Muster, here

Cited in Jess R. Phelps and Jessica Owley, “Etched in Stone: Historic Preservation Law and Confederate Monuments” (Florida Law Review, 2019)

May 9, 2016

Freedom, Race, and Desertion in America’s Civil War

Nearly 200,000 free and formerly enslaved black men served in the Union army during the Civil War. For many, service offered liberation and citizenship. As Frederick Douglass put it, writing in the Douglass’ Monthly in April 1863, waging war on Confederates was the chance “to fight for nationality and for a place with all other classes of our fellow citizens.” Like over 130,000 freedmen, John Mitchell enlisted, joining in the 53rd U.S. Colored Infantry in early 1863. He bravely pledged his life to the crusade to end slavery and to preserve the Union, but then on November 22, 1863, he deserted. Why, if the stakes were so high as Douglass remarked, did Mitchell abandon his post, and how did the army respond?

The politics of desertion recently reemerged into the news cycle. In 2009, Bowe Bergdahl, a white Private First Class in the U.S. Army, left his post in Afghanistan. He was captured by the Taliban and held for five years. After returning home, Bergdahl’s desertion was drawn into the national spotlight. In the current season of NPR’s podcast series, Serial, host Sara Koenig delves into the meaning of Bergdahl’s desertion, asking whether he deserted out of a higher cause to his country and comrades or merely out of self-interest. The same question might be asked about the desertion of John Mitchell in 1863, though in that instance, the matter is even more fraught because of the issues of slavery and race….

Read more of post on the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog, Black Perspectives, here