Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“They constitute a privileged class in the community”

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on June 26, 2013

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In January 1865 the debate over whether to arm slaves in a last-ditch defense against the Union army was coming to a head in Richmond. The measure would eventually pass a few weeks later, in mid-March. Nonetheless, the Atlanta Southern Confederacy, publishing in Macon, continued to reject the notion that African American should, or even could, be put under arms.

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We perceive the public journals continue to urge the measure of putting negroes [sic.] into the army, and we hear people talking on the street corners in favor of the measure. Put arms in the hands of the slaves, and make them fight for us, they say. We have heretofore expressed our opinion in opposition to this measure, and shall not now repeat what we then said. In continuation of our formerly expressed views, we may add a few additional suggestions now.
 
One speedy practical result of putting negroes in the army would be the peopling of all the swamps of the South with runaway negro deserters. Trained to the use of fire arms, they would depredate everywhere on cattle, hogs, etc., and would soon be forced to resort to robbery and plunder to gain subsistence. Attempts to arrest them would be resisted, and the horrors of a servile war would be realized. Very large numbers would desert and pursue this sort of life. If they did not do this, they would desert to the enemy. With the enemy they know they would get freedom at once. With us, they would get freedom after the war, taking our promises as true. There would exist an immediate certainty of freedom on one side; an uncertainty on the other.  A well disposed, faithful, and intelligent slave in this region was recently asked by his master some questions on this very point. The view I have taken of the subject in the above remarks, are simply the views of the slave referred to, and constitutes the substance of his reply to his master. Put, said the negro, the slave into any other position in the service you choose-let him dig, drive teams, build roads, do any other duty, but do not call on him to fight. . . .
 
The negro is willing to work for us, but not to fight for us. We were passing into the car-shed of this city two days since. Some idle and vicious looking boys were directing some saucy conversation to a negro man of stalwart frame who stood near them. One of the boys said to the negro, “Uncle, why don’t you go and fight?” “What I fight for?’ asked the Ebon. “For your country,” replied the boy. The negro scowled and said instantly, “I have no country to fight for.”
 
Now we think the negro was mistaken. We think his lot an enviable one, and that they constitute a privileged class in the community. As the toil of brain and muscle is daily renewed, amid uncertainties, for the procurement of bread for our wife and little ones, we often feel how happy we should be were we the slave of some good and provident owner. Then simple daily toil would fill the measure of duty, and comfortable food and clothing would be the assured reward. While, therefore, we think the negro was mistaken — that the South is emphatically his country while slavery exists — yet we have no idea he can be convinced of the fact sufficiently to take up arms and fight bravely for our cause as his cause, for our country as his country.
 
But waiving all this, and supposing them to fight, and to so greatly aid us that we win our independence, what then? The fighting negroes are to be freed. What are we to do with them 1 Let them remain among us? If so, those who remain slaves may be so in name, but they will not be so in reality. Shall the free slaves then be sent out of the country1 out of the country whose independence they fought to obtain? Certainly no such reward as perpetual exile would-be either honorable to us, or just to them. Such an act on our part, would be a stigma on the imperishable pages of history, of which all future generations of Southrons would be ashamed. These are some of the additional considerations which have suggested themselves to us. Let us put the negro to work, but not to fight. [1]

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Keep in mind that on the date this was published, January 20, 1865, Uncle Billy’s troops were marching north from Savannah into South Carolina, Fort Fisher had just been captured, closing the last Confederate port on the Atlantic, and U.S. Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax was lobbying hard for votes to pass the 13th Amendment in Congress. Yet down in Macon, the local editor was devoting column inches to explaining how slaves were a “privileged class,” happy and contented folks, unburdened by anxiety or want: “how happy we should be were we the slave of some good and provident owner.”

You may bang your head on the desk now.

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[1] Atlanta Southern Confederacy, January 20, 1865. Quoted in Robert F. Durden, The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1972), 156-58. Image: “Market Scene in Macon, Georgia,” by A. R. Waud. From here.

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26 Responses

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  1. Sam said, on June 27, 2013 at 12:55 am

    Andy I do not always comment, but I love your work. Keep up the great research and work that you are doing.

  2. Neil Hamilton said, on June 27, 2013 at 2:12 am

    Andy,

    Ouch.

    My head hurts. :)

    Sincerely,
    Neil

  3. H. E. Parmer said, on June 27, 2013 at 2:18 am

    Denial ain’t just a river.

    One thing it seems is seldom talked about (at least in certain quarters) is just how deeply slavery warped the Southern psyche. The author of that editorial sounds quite reasonable, so long as he’s talking about the potential drawbacks of arming the slaves. You can see he’s on some level aware that a slave would have no reason to feel any loyalty to his masters’ country, then, clang! the defensive habits of thought kick in: “They just don’t understand how good they really have it!”

    Definitely splinters-in-the-forehead time.

    And, what Sam said. Along with these fascinating insights into the history of that time, I really appreciate the pushback against these ongoing attempts to sanitize an ugly reality.

  4. Edwin Thompson said, on June 27, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Thanks Andy – Good history.

    Sadly, we see the same attitude today. Listen to Paula Deen talk about her great great grandaddy who killed himself because he lost his 30 slaves. She said they were like family. As if American slavery was a wonderful thing.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 27, 2013 at 10:00 am

      What utter nonsense. Deen’s ancestor didn’t lose any “family” relationships because of emancipation; those relationships exist outside of property law. (And conversely, a personal relationship that only exists because one person is property of another, and is bound to them by force of law, is a fraud.)

      No, that dude shot himself because emancipation ruined him financially. It’s sad, and certainly a terrible thing for his family — i.e., those who knew and loved and depended on him — but against the larger backdrop of death and pain and suffering in that period, I’m not going get too sad for Deen. After all, freed from the shackles of political correctness imposed on her by the Food Network and various sponsors, Deen’s now free to organize as many “plantation-style” weddings as her (dangerously enlarged) heart desires.

      • Edwin Thompson said, on June 27, 2013 at 11:40 am

        Agreed – I think we all realize that. For me, it was just painful to watch her to make up a story like that. On one of these blogs, “American Slavery As It Is” by Welds was referenced. A painful read if you want to understand slavery and our history.

        • Andy Hall said, on June 27, 2013 at 11:42 am

          I’m quite certain she believes exactly what she said.

  5. Foxessa said, on June 27, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    I have been reading fairly deeply in the pro-slavery ‘philosophers’ of the 1830’s, 40’s and 50’s. The preposterousities they wrote throughout the south, though none so preposterous as the South Carolinians, are what put down the platform from which this debate arrived.

    The only writings more preposterious than these antebellum and Civil War secessionist ones, were the nostalgia dripping faux, selective memories of the southern writers after the war, such as Bagby’s “Old Virginia Gentleman” essay, for one example. Another example is the writers assurance that blacks were servants, never slaves at all, except in legal documents ….

    • Andy Hall said, on June 27, 2013 at 12:21 pm

      The preposterousities they wrote throughout the south, though none so preposterous as the South Carolinians, are what put down the platform from which this debate arrived.

      Too small for a republic, etc.

      I like “preposterousities,” though. I may steal that.

  6. Faye M Poccia said, on June 27, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Great Article very informative. Learn some aspects of Civil War times I never heard about

  7. Clarissa said, on June 27, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    The article may overstate the case, but there is a simple truth to it nevertheless. It seems pretty evident that, materially speaking, Southern slaves fared pretty well in comparison with the mass of unskilled black northern laborers. Especially since many were often unemployed. My guess is that the black slave population in the South was healthier and lived longer than their northern counterparts.

    • DBrown said, on June 27, 2013 at 5:38 pm

      You say this based on what? A desire to claim slavery is better for blacks than freedom in the North during the war? You are pulling this twisted logic from where? So, by your logic, people of color then were better off as slaves working for some scraps/slop, rags to wear and having their wives/children sold away and working six days a week in terrible heat/weather from dawn to dusk (under threat of a whip) than being free without a job in the North? Your logic is very strange. Why do you even post such utter nonsense? To show how little you ever have learned of history in school/books or just to prove some nonsense you read somewhere and wish to ‘throw it out here’ acting as if you have some great insight?

      • Andy Hall said, on June 27, 2013 at 9:29 pm

        Clarissa can post her evidence.

        • Clarissa said, on June 27, 2013 at 11:23 pm

          Well, Leon Litwak, for example, detailed the intense bigotry and deplorable living conditions free northern blacks endured in his work “North of Slavery”. The chapter entitled “The Economics of Repression” provides particulars. Additionally, Nobel Laureate economist Robert Fogel (with Stanley Engerman) offered keen insight into the management and operations plantation life, observing that business and profits were the main focus, and it really doesn’t make good business sense to abuse and mistreat (as if it isn’t obvious) business assets. Remembering, of course, that unlike northern free laborers, who could be discarded in a moment’s notice and easily replaced, slaves were very expensive investments and often highly skilled laborers upon whom the master depended for his living. Then of course, there are the slaves themselves, who often offered commentary on the very decent living and working conditions they experienced. Many slaves described generous and benevolent, masters, plentiful food, warm clothes, comfortable cabins, vacation days, holiday celebrations, fine medical care, and a pleasant family life. In fact, many, many slaves were deeply devoted to their masters and openly said so. So all this exaggerated and distorted nonsense about ceaseless beatings and endless abuses are myth (this is not to say, of course, that some unfortunate abuses did not occur). . Mostly, the slaves were simple agricultural laborers who enjoyed a very decent standard of living. Better, as I originally said, than their northern counterparts.

          • Andy Hall said, on June 27, 2013 at 11:42 pm

            “Leon Litwak, for example, detailed the intense bigotry and deplorable living conditions free northern blacks endured. . . .”

            No one’s denying that things were often very bad in the North, too. But I don’t recall ever saying otherwise, or makng claims of “exaggerated and distorted nonsense about ceaseless beatings and endless abuses.” And you’re making exactly the same sort of sweeping generalities about the benificence of slavery that you complain about in others, just in the other direction. One can find anecdotal evidence for virtually anything.

            Earlier, you said that you “guessed” that “the black slave population in the South was healthier and lived longer than their northern counterparts.” That’s a fairly specific claim; got any data to support that?

  8. Clarissa said, on June 28, 2013 at 7:32 am

    Just to be clear, I deliberately used the word “guess”, and it is unfair for you to assert that a “guess” is a “specific claim”. A guess is quite the opposite of a ” specific claim”. However, the reason for the observation is sound, that being, again, that the Southern slaves had steady employment, a healthy diet, decent housing, adequate clothing, access to medical care, and even a basic retirement plan (slaves were cared for in old age by their owners). By contrast, black laborers in the north lived a very precarious existence and had few, if any, of these advantages. Accordngly, It makes perfect sense that the slaves would have lived longer, happier, and generally healthier lives. Nevertheless, I am unaware of any studies which rely on quantitative data which supports or refutes this common sense supposition. Nor do I claim there is any such data.

    • DBrown said, on June 30, 2013 at 9:01 am

      I see you just say the same things attempting to prove your pre-conceived beliefs not based on history or facts. No doubt blacks were mistreated in the North since many whites – both southern and northern – hated blacks (and many whites in the North did not, however.)
      But to claim that a black slave was better off as a slave than as free in the North is just twisted – as a slave, any master could and often did sell the children of the slaves; also, wives or husbands were seperated at will and sold off, too. Such events were not possible in the North at all.
      Now lets get to the real heart of slavery and what slavery was also about. Slave owners were fully empowered by the State to beat to death any slave (children!) to death with no issues at all if they in any way failed to do what the ‘master’ demanded.
      Better still for masters in the south, these slave owners often raped slave woman with the full weight of the law backing the rapist! This was what living a slave in the south was all about.
      Lets not forget that this was also done to young girls since age of consent even for white’s was rather low for most states and blacks really didn’t get protected at all.) And the husband couldn’t do anything or they’d be killed/sold off!
      Please explain how raping any child, woman at your will is a better life in your wonderful southern world of slavery compared to free in the North – please, go ahead and explain how that is better than living in the North as a free black.

  9. Clarissa said, on June 30, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Actually, it is you who keep hysterically repeating the same tired,worn-out falsehoods regarding slavery. And it is you who has the historical facts completely and utterly wrong. To begin with, slave-owners were absolutely NOT permitted to kill their slaves. That is pure rot. And beatings and abuse were not common, although long hours and hard work were. The sale of children rarely occurred, but the care of old-aged slaves was routine. Nevertheless, to the extent these unpleasant episodes did occur, the slaves still enjoyed a higher standard of living and better quality of life than free blacks in the north. This is because free northern blacks lived in the most appalling and grotesque poverty, squalor, and filth imaginable.
    So you think it is tragic to have a child or spouse sold away? Agreed. Now, do you think it is equally tragic to have a mother watch her child slowly starve to death in filth and rags because her husband cannot find work? Do you think it is tragic to have a mother watch her children freeze to death in the biting winds of an unheated shanty in the slums of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago? Do you think it is tragic to have a husband watch his wife and child die in agony in childbirth because the husband could not afford a doctor’s care? Let’s take a closer look at the conditions for “free” blacks in the north.

    “…In New York city, tuberculosis proved fatal to twice as many blacks as whites, a reflection of adverse living conditions. Philadelphia’s coroner attributed the high mortality in negro districts to intemperance, exposure, and malnutrition. After conducting an inspection in 1848, he reported that many negros had been found dead in cold and exposed rooms and garrets, board shanties five and six feet high…mostly without any comforts, with the cold penetrating between the boards and through the holes and crevices…some bodies had been recovered in cold, wet, damp cellars, while still others had been found lying in alleys…most of these negros had sold rags and bones for a living…”

    There is the living condition for your free black in the North. The level of sadistic inhumanity in unconscionable, and no such conditions were possible on a Southern plantation. Once again I repeat, South slaves had, without a doubt, a superior quality of life to “free” blacks in the North.

  10. Foxessa said, on June 30, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    Clarissa — please take the guided tour of Slavery on Monticello, at Monticello. It is a course in remedial slavery for those who know nothing about it.

    Then, read Frederick Bancroft’s Slave Trading in the Old South. It is filled with interviews with the range of southerners, slave and free white, who witnessed all of it, experienced all of it, personally, from being a slave on a plantation to being a slave trader and a slave owner.

    Then read Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. As well, read Frederick Douglass’s account of growing up a slave in Maryland, and many of the first hand accounts of slaves, that important segment of U.S. literary history we speak of collectively as Slave Narratives.

    You will learn that your ideas of what it was like to be a slave in the south are not correct.

  11. Clarissa said, on June 30, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    Foxessa- Please take a guided tour of the New York Tenement Museum. It is a remedial course in 19th century slum conditions for those who are ignorant about the subject.

    Then, read Leon Litwack’s “North of Slavery”. It describes, with great specificity, the hateful discrimination 19th century northern blacks were subject to, and it also describes, with equal specificity, the degrading squalor and poverty in which they lived.

    Then read Thomas Kettel’s “Southern Wealth, Northern Profits”; here you will find detailed quantitative data on the cruel and sadistic mistreatment of the northern black population. It was written by a New Yorker.

    You will learn that your notions of what is was like to be “free” African-American in the North are incorrect.

    As far as the “Slave Narratives” are concerned, here is one of my favorite accounts. Harriet Payne, a former slave, describes the slave quarters on her plantation:

    “…I used to love to walk down by that row of houses. It looked like a town, and late of an evening as you’d go by the doors, you could smell meat a-fryin, coffee making, and good things cooking. We were fed good and had plenty of clothes to keep us dry and warm…”

    P.S. I have been to Monticello, Mt. Vernon, and Gunston Hall, and toured the slave quarters at each location. I was impressed, of course, with the sturdy construction of the slave quarters, and noted and how clean and comfortable they were when compared to the filthy, grimy tenement slums of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

  12. Foxessa said, on July 1, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    I’ve read those books, I’ve taken the tour — and many others. Not only in NYC, but throughout the country and in Europe and in the Caribbean, South America and Africa — for conditions of class and slavery.

    That there was/is white supremacy and bigotry in the north does not change a thing about the bloody cruelty that was southern slavery and the slave trade legislated into perpetuity — unlike any other country in the world. No matter how often you repeat what we all know — that white supremacy remained alive and well in the north — none of that changes the fact that slavery and they slave trade were cruel, evil, parasitical institutions, and they were the economy of the slave power.

    Like petroleum is today, it was so entwined with every aspect of the slave power’s economy, that only a war would put an end to the legal system of slavery and the trade in human beings. We all know the war did not put an end to bigotry or to cruelty either, for that matter. But no longer were children sold away from their mothers. No longer could a southerner live upon the wages of a slave s/he hired out, or by selling the slave because s/he was in debt. Or, just because s/he felt like it. Or, when old sold to experimental ‘doctors,’ or even if allowed to remain on the plantation, taken out of that one-room shack which housed 8 – 10 people, and have your already meager food rations reduced by half, and no longer receive even a meager change of clothes once a year — as happened on Monticello. You could now at least stay with your family — if you had been able to find each other again after years of being sold out of sight out of mind except in the grieving memories of wife, parent, child. No longer could you be legally raped anytime any white person felt like it.

    The power dynamics of the one-drop slavery of the southern U.S. perverted the psychology of this country in ways we are suffering unto this day.

  13. Foxessa said, on July 1, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    By the way, there are no slave cabins at Monticello …. And you haven’t taken that walk down Mulberry Row or you wouldn’t have spoken of ‘sturdy cabins’ at Monticello. The docent made sure you knew how cold it was in those drafty shacks in the winter time, with a single — ONE — blanket given to an entire family, ONCE every three years.

    Read Master of the Mountain by Henry Wiencek — he covers all that ground.

    As for Mount Vernon there is no surviving slave quarter there either. What there is is this:

    Slave cabins on outlying farms had wooden chimneys chinked with clay, wooden shutters instead of window glass, and were made of logs daubed with mud. Most cabins housed two families, but smaller cabins housed only one. None of the slave cabins survive today. However, there is an existing photograph from the early 20th century that is believed to be a picture of a Mount Vernon slave quarter. This photograph was used as the basis for the reconstruction of the Slave Cabin on Mount Vernon’s present-day Pioneer Farmer site. The cabins were very crude by modern standards, with very little furniture, dirt floors, no privacy, and lots of smoke from the drafty chimneys. Much of what we know about the living conditions of Mount Vernon’s slaves is due to Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish visitor to the estate in 1798, who wrote a vivid account of the quarters in his diary. Mount Vernon interprets the slave cabin as home to Scilla, who lived on Dogue Run Farm with her six children. Her husband, Slammin’ Joe, lived and worked at the Mansion House farm and usually would have only seen his family on Saturday evenings and Sundays.

    The slaves living at the Mansion House farm were housed in communal quarters. A structure known as the House for Families was used until 1792, when it was replaced by communal quarters in the Greenhouse complex. Archaeologists excavating the site 200 years later uncovered many objects, which helped Mount Vernon determine how slaves in the House for Families lived. Some slaves lived above their place of work, such as the kitchen or carpentry shop. Although we know a great deal about many of the slaves living on the estate, the records tell us very little about how the living spaces were assigned or who inhabited them.

    However, Washington was the only one who did free his slaves ….

  14. Foxessa said, on July 1, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    In the meantime, however, can we presume that you have an understanding of how slavery — i.e. no pay for labor — (or ‘coolie’ and other semi, quasi and other outright slave labor in the British colonies) so depressed the global wage platform in the industrial parts of England and other nations with industry? Very much like the function of Haiti in today’s global economy is to keep the wage platform so low — that we are seeing here in the U.S. ever falling wages for everyone who isn’t part of the top percentiles?

  15. Clarissa said, on July 1, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Actually, the slave cabins at Mt. Vernon are the most impressive of the three locations I mentioned. What is even more impressive about the working and living conditions at Mt. Vernon, is the breathtakingly beauty and spectacular view of the estate and the Potomac. Any slave working at Mt. Vernon was honestly employed, well-fed, well-housed, had access to medical care, and most certainly enjoyed an exceptionally high standard of living compared to the plethora of wandering, unemployed, homeless, miserable, vagabond “free” blacks who froze in the ugly streets of New York and shivered against the cruel winter winds of Boston. If slavery was cruel, “freedom” in the north was crueler. By far.

    Here’s another slave another former slave (Adeline Hall Johnson)) commenting on her experience:

    “…In slavery, us have all de clothes us need, all de food us want, and work all de harder ’cause us love de white folks dat cared for us. No sirree, none of our slaves ever run ‘way. Us have a week off, Christmas… I wants to be in hebben wid all my white folks, just to wait on them, and love them and serve them, sorta lak I did in slavery time. Dat will be ‘nough hebben for Adeline.”

    Now I grant you, the level of devotion this particular former slave demonstrates is probably unusual, and a full weeks’ vacation at Christmas is also probably unusual (I would think most slaves got only a day or two vacation at Christmas). Nevertheless, I believe you would be hard pressed to find a “free” 19th century African-American laborer who devoutly wishes to be reunited with his former employer in the afterlife. Can you find me such an example?

    • Andy Hall said, on July 1, 2013 at 6:32 pm

      Bad actions on the part of one party are not erased or mitigated by the (allegedly) worse actions of another.

  16. Clarissa said, on July 1, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    I agree. Both Northerners and Southerners perpetrated severe racial injustices against African-Americans, and both should be held equally accountable. Not just the Southerners.


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