This past Sunday was the annual Dick Dowling Statue Ceremony in Houston. It’s one of the central events for the Irish community in the area, and very well attended. The weather this year was just about perfect.
Sunday’s keynote speaker was Brady Lee Hutchison, a member of the History Department at San Jacinto College. Reproduced here with permission.
“How the Irish Became American”
by Brady Lee Hutchison
First of all, let me say that you for inviting me here to speak to you today. It is quite an honor for this Irish-American. It is fitting that we are gathered here, with Houston’s own Irish hero, to mark what promises to be a fun week for those of us who’s families hail from the Emerald Isle. Historical remembrance is important. If ever we stop passing that legacy down to the next generation, then the deeds of the brave men and women who have come before us will disappear from our collective conscious and that is something that we must strive to avoid.
Ireland and America have long shared a bond of friendship brought on by shared blood. Today, three times more people claim Irish ancestry than live in Ireland, so it is understandable that the two countries would have so much in common. On March 17th, the day set aside for our Patron Saint, Patrick, it is easy to get lost in the revelry and forget the difficult and dangerous road that our ancestors traveled down so that we could live in the kind of country that now celebrates the very heritage that it once scorned. But how did that happen? How did we get to where we are today? Like the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty that says “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”, Ireland did just that, helped along by the English. Indeed, the Irish would transition from huddled masses to heroes. For every Dick Dowling, who we honor here today, there were hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands more who also came over from the Old Country who fought and died for their adopted home, be it North or South. They shed their blood and often sacrificed their lives so that future generations of Americans of Irish descent could find the acceptance that their ancestors so desperately wanted. The Civil War, friends, was more than just a battle for the soul of a nation. For the Irish, it was a battle for acceptance. And that is what I will say a few brief remarks on today.
If you will permit me a brief interlude first, I would like to explain how I came to know Dick Dowling. I grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, just a few miles from Sabine Pass where Dowling and his intrepid band of Irishmen performed a feat, rarely paralleled in the annals of military history. We first learned about him in third grade when I was a young student at Robert E. Lee Elementary. We also had a Dick Dowling Elementary, but alas, I lived in Lee’s attendance zone. That same year my parents took me to the annual Dowling festival and reenactment at Sabine Pass. That gave me my first glimpse at Civil War reenacting. Eleven years later, as a 19 year old college student, I would participate in my first reenactment at that same spot. I have long been aware of my Irish heritage. With Fitzgerald blood in my veins, it is hard not to be. As a child, it gave me quite a thrill to know that merely a few miles and one hundred and twenty years (at that time) separated me from men with blood the same as mine who so bravely stood their ground and defended the very spot where I lived. From that moment on, I think that it was almost inescapable that I would gravitate towards the study of history and though I took a circuitous route, end up teaching it. So long as we are aware of where we came from, I think the bonds of time do not seem so significant. Which is why we should know not only the glorious triumphs, but also the toils and struggles that our ancestors faced.
The reasons why so many Irish men, women, and children immigrated to the United States in the 1840s and 50s is well known to all here. During the years of the Great Hunger, though specific numbers are hard to pin down, roughly a million people died and an equal number crossed the Atlantic on the coffin ships. In a ten year period, the overall population of Ireland dropped significantly. In Connaught, for example, the population loss from 1841-1851 was close to 30%. What I find interesting is that the destination of the ship leaving Ireland would later determine which side of the Civil War the men fought on. My ancestors boarded a vessel bound for New Orleans, as did Dowling’s family. Indeed, New Orleans received the third largest number of Irish immigrants during these years, trailing only New York and Boston. This transformed the Crescent City to one that in the late 19th Century would be identified as being thoroughly Irish. If Dowling’s family had boarded a different boat, he might very well have been commanding troops in the Northern Army during the War. Such is the fickle nature of history. However, when the Irish arrived in the United States, they found a nation that shared the same deeply rooted prejudices against Catholicism that also existed in England and thus rather than welcoming them with open arms, the Irish faced a struggle for survival which would also transform into a struggle for the soul of a nation. But I have yet to meet and Irishman yet who is not up for a challenged.
The Irish have been in the Americas for quite some time, but it wasn’t until large numbers of them arrived in a short time period that any problems really existed. In the 1850s, a new political party emerged which we today call the Know Nothing Party, though active for only a short time, the party reflected the views of many in American society who saw the poverty and Catholicism of the Irish immigrants as a threat to the establishment. A series of riots occurred across the country in the 1840s and1850s. 22 people were killed in a Know Nothing riot in Louisville, Kentucky in 1855 when Irish voters going to the polls to elect a mayor were attacked by Nativist mobs. In Maine, a Catholic priest was tarred and feathered. Mobs attacked Catholic Churches in places like Philadelphia and Baltimore in the mid 1840s. After learning of a church being burned in Philadelphia and the deaths of twelve people, the Bishop of New York, “Dagger” John Hughes placed armed guards around the Catholic Churches in the city and said “if a single Catholic Church is burned, this city will become a second Moscow” (in reference to the Russians burning Moscow in advance of Napoleon’s Army). A single church was not burned in that city, at least. I mention all this not to dredge up the past or to reopen old wounds, but it is important for those of us of Irish descent to understand that things were not always the way they are now. This is what makes that struggle for acceptance all the more important. Here in the States, the Irish were routinely portrayed as monkeys in newspaper cartoons, just as they were in England. Though some stereotypes still do persist in the media, by and large we don’t get compared to monkeys these days and so I think we have moved in the right direction. But how does the Civil War factor into this?
When war came to the United States, the Irish eagerly volunteered to fight. An estimated 150,000 Irishmen served in the Union armies, including seven who reached the rank of general. Who can forget the heroic charge of the Irish Brigade up Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg where they suffered 40 percent casualties in the space of a few minutes. Their gallantry was cheered by their Confederate foes, who included a number of Irish among them as well. Consider the words of General Pickett “Your soldiers heart almost stood still as we watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their death. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of the Irish Brigade was beyond description. Why, we forgot they were fighting us and cheer after cheer went up along our lines.” The states which would make up the Confederacy, with the exception of Louisiana, did not receive near the same number of Irish immigrants, but that did not stop those who did live in the South from embracing the war just as their northern countrymen did. New Orleans sent several regiments to the Confederate cause which were made up of large numbers of Irish Immigrants. Groups like the Louisiana Tigers, who would later give their name to LSU as a mascot, and the 6th Louisiana Infantry. Had our friend Dowling not made his way to Houston, he no doubt would have been serving in one of those regiments. Historians like to look back in time and ascribe grand motives to the reasons why people did the things they did. I am not one of those historians. Each Irishman who enlisted in either army did so for his own reasons that, absent written evidence to the contrary, we will never know. North and South, Irish troops were well known for the gallantry. General Lee’s Chief of Artillery, Edward Porter Alexander said “They problem with the Yankees is that their cavalry can’t ride and their infantry, except the Irish, can’t fight.” And when we discuss the brave Confederate Irish who stood against overwhelming odds at Sabine Pass, so too should we mention that there were Irishmen in those Union vessels as well. How tragic it is that men who fled oppression in their own country ended up shooting at each other in this country, but history is full of such tales.
Though Irish support for the war in the North waned as it dragged on, the men who followed the green flags into battle did not waver from the course. After the war, they returned home, some broken in body, others in mind, but all changed by the experience that they had lived through. Did all anti-Irish feeling disappear as soon as the war was over? Certainly not. You can still see anti-Irish cartoons well into the 1880s, but public perception had softened somewhat, particularly in the North where the once scorned immigrant group had proven themselves every bit as American as the next by their courage under fire. In the post war United States, Irishmen built the Transcontinental Railroad headed west as Chinese immigrant labor built it headed east. Irishmen policed the streets of New York, Boston, Chicago, and New Orleans. They fought the fires. They and their descendants continued to fight for the country that took them in and still do to this day. Though as years passed, they may have dropped the “O” or the “Mc” prefix from their last name, they remained Irish. Perhaps it is because of the forced separation from their home which led Irish Americans to hold so strongly onto those connections. But over time, Irish immigrants came to find something in America that they so desperately wanted back home. Liberty. Freedom. The right to be judged based on your character rather than your ethnicity or your religion. All of these things were, and perhaps are still, dear to the Irish people whether here or in Ireland. The Civil War provided the perfect avenue for them to strive to achieve it. Over time, the rest of American came to understand this as well. Those sacrifices on oft forgotten fields one hundred and fifty years ago still resonate with Irish-Americans today as that is the reason why we are able to gather and celebrate our heritage as we are doing now. Our ancestors paid for that right of acceptance with their blood. Though St. Patrick’s Day is, and should be, a cause for celebration, we must also remember that we are but a few generations removed from a time in which to be Irish was to be scorned. So if you are hoisting a pint on Tuesday, please drink a toast to the spirits of those who came before us. If Guinness is scarce in heaven, which I don’t think it is, I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.
I’ve never met an Irishman, myself included, who did not have the gift of gab, so I will now bring this to a close. The moral of my story today, dear friends, is that the history of the Irish in America is a triumphant one because we had to overcome great hardships to be where we are today, not in spite of it. The United States did not simply decide on a whim that Irishness was something to be celebrated. The Irish had to fight for it and they paid a very high price. To be frank, this is the same struggle that immigrant groups have faced ever since the Irish arrived be they Italian, Russian, Vietnamese, or Mexican. Though many of our families have been in this country for a long, long time, we must always remember that they too came here seeking a better life. Each successive wave of immigrants has had to fight its own battle for acceptance and its own battle to become American. Today you’d be hard pressed to find a group more proud of their heritage than the Irish-Americans but you’d also be hard pressed to find one more patriotic as well. A scan of the list of fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines over the past ten years yields quite a few Irish surnames, proof that the spirit of Dowling, Meagher, and Cleburne lives on today. Thank you for having me speak to you today. May God Bless America and May God Save Ireland.
Over at Defending the Heritage, Robert Mestas offers us a damning indictment of the Gettysburg Address:
The statement purportedly carries special weight because (Mestas tells us) it’s an assessment made by an esteemed American psychologist, Lewis R. Goldberg, backed by his academic credentials and decades of psychological research. The only problem is that Lewis R. Goldberg wasn’t the person who wrote this — it was Lewis J. Goldberg, editor of now-defunct PlanetGoldberg website, in August 2000. Lewis J. Goldberg’s quote has been circulating ever since, mostly on SCV and southern nationalist websites. As far as I can tell, Professor Goldberg has never written or said anything about the Gettysburg Address.
It’s unfortunate that Mestas sees the need to attribute this quote falsely to a respected academic to give it some additional heft. Seriously — if your heritage requires this sort of outright falsehood to support it, is it really worth defending?
I honestly don’t know how these people could have made themselves look worse.
A hundred fifty years ago this weekend, the British blockade runner Denbigh was here in Galveston, loading cotton and waiting for a dark night to slip again out of the harbor. Her destination, as usual, was Havana. I’ve never been to Cuba, but I’d sure like to go.
- In other recent news, the “Five Flags” display is going up again at the Pensacola Bay Center, but without the Confederate Battle Flag. The CBF should never have been included in a display of national flags in the first place. (h/t Kevin Levin)
- On the other hand, the City Council in Charlottesville eliminated Lee-Jackson Day as an official city holiday. Remarkably, Karen Cooper’s rant about black people on welfare buying sneakers and Susan Hathaway accusing the council of “backwater tyranny” were not persuasive.
- On Friday night in Charleston, 150 people who had bought tickets waited anxiously to discover the contents of a 151-year-old wine bottle recovered from the wreck of the blockade runner Mary Celestia in Bermuda (above).”The panel said the cloudy yellow-gray liquid smelled and tasted like a mixture of crab water, gasoline, salt water and vinegar, with hints of citrus and alcohol.” They also said it was 37% alcohol, so if you can get the first couple of glasses down, you might not care so much after that.
- The first artifacts from the recovery of C.S.S. Georgia at Savannah have been presented to the public. (h/t Barry Colbaugh)
- I see that Pat Godwin and her “Friends of Forrest” group in Selma have decided to give the finger to the folks commemorating the events of Bloody Sunday. Thanks for confirming that you are who we thought you were, Pat.
- Not to be outdone, Confederate Heritage activist/performance artist/beard H. K. Edgerton explains how MLK and George Wallace should have just talked things over back in the day. A mint-julep summit, you might say.
- Mort Künstler has retired after a long career of painting historical subjects, particularly relating to the Civil War. Everyone has a favorite painting of his; mine is his cover art for “Yank Commandant of Nude Women Plantation-Compound.“
- Tom Crestodina is a commercial fisherman in Bellingham, Washington. When his son Franio was a toddler, Tom wanted to tell him all about what he was doing on the boats during the weeks he spent away from home. But Franio was too little to read, so Tom began drawing pictures showing what life on the boats was like. Wonderful, wonderful pictures.
- And finally, my C-SPAN interview that I mentioned a while back aired this weekend, and can be seen online here, with lots of other good stuff.
Got any more? Put ’em in the comments.
Over at the Freedmen’s Patrol blog, there’s a discussion of a new plantation museum in Louisiana, and how it contrasts explicitly with the way such sites are traditionally presented to the public:
We marvel at the luxury. Docents tell us about the paint on the walls. [At Monticello] they point out where Jefferson knocked a hole in the floor of his foyer so the weights for his clock could go down as far as they needed to. You spend a few dollars to get in and a few more at the gift shop, making your offering at the patriotic shrine. . . . I think that the [subject of] slaves came up in passing at Monticello, with the docent waving off vaguely toward their quarters, but one goes to such a place to learn about the white dead president rather than the black dead slaves that gave them the wealth to fund their careers. Less famous plantations run to much the same experience. You can rent them out for weddings or parties. . . .
We take it for granted that the Holocaust Museum in Washington looks like a murder factory on the inside. We do just the opposite for plantations.
Powerful stuff that’s well worth your time.
A friend passed along this gem, a guide to “sporting” houses in Louisville for attendees of the 1895 Grand Army of the Republic Encampment. A typical entry:
Strangers Cordially Invited.
732 Green Street.
To the people that pay this city periodical visits Miss Mary needs no introduction, as those that visit her beautiful palace are so highly entertained that they are sure to pay her a return visit as often as they come to the city. She has a host of beautiful ladies who are excellent entertainers to assist her in making life well worth living to visitors to the Encampment and Races.
Finest brands of Wine and Beer.
I honestly can’t improve upon this.
This should be interesting:
Purging the Seas: Government Reaction to Piracy, 1600-2015
Governments have had a conflicting and complicated relationship with piracy through the centuries. When pirates attacked a rival nation’s merchant or naval fleets, governments turned a blind eye. Diminution of an enemy state’s commerce or navy could only be a positive affair – increased trade opportunities, markets for stolen goods, and a militarily weakened adversary. Yet, when pirates gazed away from enemy states and directed their attentions to the commerce or navy of their own nation, governments cast pirates as “enemies of all mankind” and engaged in naval and legal anti-piracy campaigns. Join Dr. Kim Todt and Dr. Elizabeth Nyman, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, as they explore government responses to piracy from the Golden Age through today’s arresting headlines.
Kim Todt is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette whose work focuses on the history of Early America. She is currently working on a book on the trading networks of Early America.
Elizabeth Nyman is the Anthony Moroux/BoRSF Endowed Professor of Political Science I at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She is currently working on a book on international maritime conflict.
It’s always been interesting to me, the idea that modern pirates (e.g., off the Horn of Africa) are considered among the worst sort of criminals, but their counterparts from 300 years ago were suitable subjects for Disney. I’m as afflicted by that particular cognitive dissonance as anyone, I’m afraid.
It’s several months off yet, but I’m tentatively scheduled to speak on steamboats at the Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas on Saturday, September 12. This will be in conjunction with the traveling exhibition, Kings of the River: Steamboat Transportation in the American South from the Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin. The exhibit centers on images of historic riverboats taken by Henry Norman, a photographer who worked in Natchez, Mississippi from 1870 until his death in 1913. Although they’re not from Texas, the Norman photographs are among the best available documenting steamboat technology, business and culture. This same collection of images, organized by Joan W. Gandy and Thomas W. Gandy, was featured in a really superb book published by Dover years ago. (I’ve just about worn out my second copy of the thing.)
I’ve given lots of talks based on my research for the steamboat book, but those have mostly been to local audiences who have some familiarity with Galveston and Houston, the 19th century rivalry between the cities, and their ties to maritime commerce. Temple, by contrast, is a railroad town, founded by the arrival of the by the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad in 1881. It’s upward of a hundred miles from the normal head of navigation on the Brazos River, at Hidalgo Falls. The trick may be to show how, even in the decades after the war, river navigation in Texas was tied to the expanding network of railroads, and how much of the material used in building the railroads came up Buffalo Bayou by steamboat. To cite just one statistic, in 1880, the year before the railroad came to Temple, the boats of the Houston Direct Navigation Company hauled sixty thousand tons of rails from Galveston to Houston, destined for railheads inland — over 600 miles’ worth of 56-pound rail, by my estimate. The mass of railroad iron going upstream that year was nearly double the amount of cotton coming down.
Anyway, those are my initial thoughts. Good thing I’ve got six months to get ready.
Image: Passenger on the boiler deck of the big packet J. M. White, Natchez, c. 1880.
A few weeks ago Harvard historian John Stauffer published an essay in The Root entitled, “Yes, There Were Black Confederates. Here’s Why.” Stauffer’s essay was largely an expansion of a talk he gave in 2011, which itself reflected little more research than Googling around the web for well-worn anecdotes. Stauffer’s Root piece was mostly panned by historians who have closely studied the “black Confederate” theme, particularly by my blogging colleagues Kevin Levin and Brooks Simpson. Both continued that discussion through follow-up posts. I wrote about it as well, pointing out that Stauffer identified one of Frederick Douglass’ sources in 1861 as an African American man who claimed to have seen “one regiment [at Manassas] of 700 black men from Georgia, 1000 [men] from South Carolina, and about 1000 [men with him from] Virginia, destined for Manassas when he ran away.” Unfortunately Stauffer appears not to have followed up on the source of that quote, which actually appeared in the Boston Daily Journal and Evening Transcript newspapers in February 1862, roughly six months after Douglass wrote about them in his newsletter.
Douglass was making the rounds as a speaker that winter, and the man Stauffer cited as Douglass’ source had appeared with him at an Emancipation League at the Tremont Temple on February 5, 1862. That address must have given Douglass great satisfaction, as just fourteen months previously Douglass and other abolitionists had been forcibly ejected from that same venue on orders of Boston’s mayor.
But, as so often happens with historical research, nailing down the answer to one question raises several others. In this case, who was the “fugitive black man from a rebel corps” who gave the account of thousands of African American troops, organized into whole regiments, at Manassas? My colleague Dan Weinfeld, author of The Jackson County War: Reconstruction and Resistance in Post-Civil War Florida, decided to take on that question. He began by tracking down other accounts of Douglass’ speeches from this period as reproduced in Douglass’ Monthly newsletter. Sure enough, the March 1862 issue included not only the text of Douglass’ addresses, but also summaries of the remainder of the program. On February 12, one week after his speech in Boston, Douglass presented his program at Cooper Union (emphasis added):
At 8 o’clock, the [body] of the hall was nearly filled with an intelligent and respectable looking audience – The exercises commenced with a patriotic song by the Hutchinsons, which was received with great applause. The Rev. H. H. Garnett opened the meeting stating that the black man, a fugitive from Virginia, who was announced to speak would not appear, as a communication had been received yesterday from the South intimating that, for prudential reasons, it would not be proper for that person to appear, as his presence might affect the interests and safety of others in the South, both white persons and colored. He also stated that another fugitive slave, who was at the battle of Bull Run, proposed when the meeting was announced to be present, but for a similar reason he was absent; he had unwillingly fought on the side of Rebellion, but now he was, fortunately where he could raise his voice on the side of Union and universal liberty. The question which now seemed to be prominent in the nation was simply whether the services of black men shall be received in this war, and a speedy victory be accomplished. If the day should ever come when the flag of our country shall be the symbol of universal liberty, the black man should be able to look up to that glorious flag, and say that it was his flag, and his country’s flag; and if the services of the black men were wanted it would be found that they would rush into the ranks, and in a very short time sweep all the rebel party from the face of the country.
Although the man who “had unwillingly fought on the side of Rebellion” is not identified, evidence strongly suggests it was John Parker, the escaped slave who had served a Confederate artillery battery at Manassas. Just a few pages after the passage above, the Douglass Monthly reprints Parker’s “A Contraband’s Story” that had appeared earlier in the Reading [Pennsylvania] Journal. As Kate Masur noted in a New York Times Disunion essay in 2011, Parker had arrived in New York at the end of January 1862, where he was interviewed again about the Battle of Bull Run and Confederate losses there.
Notice in the Rochester, New York Union & Advertiser, February 12, 1862, announcing Douglass’ speech that night at Cooper Union, promising an appearance by “a rebel negro, in his regimentals, a deserter from Dixie.”
Additional material published at the time strongly indicates that the man announced to appear with Douglass was, in fact, John Parker. He was speaking in the same area at the same time as Douglass. For example, on February 19, one week after the Cooper Union event, Parker was the featured speaker at a Presbyterian church across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey. “Parker was hired by his master to the rebels at the breaking out of the rebellion,” according to the Newark Daily Advertiser, and “has worked at Winchester, Richmond, and Manassas, and is in possession of facts and incidents which the public are invited to listen to.”
Parker told his story to many people, including giving an extended interview to the New York Evening Post. Parker’s account of Manassas is vivid but badly muddled; when asked how many black persons there were “in the [Confederate] army there, he asserts that there were “one whole regiment of free colored persons, and two regiments slaves among the white regiments, one company to each.” A few paragraphs later, though, he claims that the number of black Confederate regiments at Manassas had since increased to “twelve regiments of negroes in the vicinity of Bull Run and Manassas Junction” (emphasis original). These twelve regiments, Parker again states, “are distributed one company in a regiment,” a claim that makes no sense at all. A normal infantry regiment of the time consisted of ten companies of about a thousand men in aggregate; Parker’s description is profoundly unclear in terms of organization and numbers of men.
The rest of Parker’s account of First Manassas equally questionable. In his New York Evening Post interview he claimed to be “sartin” (certain) that there were 3,600 Confederate dead, and 4,000 Federals. His estimates were off by an order of magnitude; the actual numbers were around 387 and 460, respectively. He gave the number of Confederate wounded as about 5,400, which is several times the actual number.
Of course, Parker was not a trained soldier, and none of the press accounts during his speaking engagement explicitly characterize him as such. Throughout his interview with the Evening Post, Parker made it clear that while he served a Confederate gun in action, neither his sympathies nor those of his fellows lay with the Confederate cause. In his earlier interview with the Reading Journal, reproduced in the Douglass Monthly in March, Parker asserted that “we would have run over to their side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.” He claimed that “our masters tried all they could to make us fight. They promised to give us our freedom and money besides, but none of us believed them, we only fought because we had to.” To the New York Evening Post, he claimed that a slave from Alabama had been assigned by his master to serve as a sharpshooter, and in that capacity killed three Federal pickets. When he himself was killed soon after, it “was a source of general congratulation among the negroes [sic.], as they do not intend to shoot the white soldiers.”
An illustration from Harper’s Weekly, May 10, 1862, showing Confederate slaves being forced to serve a cannon at gunpoint. John Parker claimed he and other slaves were put in a similar position at the Battle of First Manassas, saying that “we would have run over to [the Federals’] side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.”
Parker said that he and the other slaves manning the guns adjusted the elevating screws to fire over the heads of Union troops during the battle at Manassas. Recounting a prayer of thanksgiving given after the Confederate victory, one full of “southern braggadocio and bombast,” Parker said that “the colored people did not believe him, nor that the Lord was on that side.” Parker predicted that many slaves would continue to serve the Confederate cause, for fear that “the Lord was on the side of the South, and that they had got to be slaves always.” As for himself, Parker said, he would turn his artillery piece on Confederate forces and “could do it with pleasure,” though he dreaded the prospect of ever being in another battle again.
Was Parker exaggerating his experiences for an audience that was eager to believe the worst about the Confederates? It’s certainly possible. Did Douglass, who appeared with Parker on stage and published his story in the Douglass Monthly, have doubts about the man’s account? We cannot know. But whether he was telling exaggerated stories about First Manassas or not, the best evidence of Parker’s feeling toward the Confederacy lay in the fact that he began his speaking tour soon after learning that his wife and two youngest children – a son, eight, and a daughter, six — had successfully escaped to Union lines and were now on free soil, where they were safe from any retaliation that might occur as a result of his speaking. Two older sons, seventeen and fourteen, remained in the South, the elder as an officer’s servant and the younger, sold off to another owner six months before the war. (Parker gives his owner’s name as “Colonel Thomas Griggs,” who was likely William T. Griggs [1828-83], who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Virginia Militia but served during the war as an enlisted soldier in the Fifteenth Virginia Cavalry.) At the time of his interview Parker had been informed that his wife and two younger children had arrived in New York but had not been able to link up with them; when they were reunited, he said, he hoped they would all continue on to Canada because he was still “not quite sure of his safety here.”
As Glenn Brasher points out in his 2012 volume, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, Parker’s speaking tour and that of another former slave, William Davis, gave a boost to both the cause of emancipation and for the enlistment of black soldiers in the U.S. military. (Davis also spoke at Cooper Union, on January 15, 1862, four weeks before Douglass. But Davis had come from Fortress Monroe, and did not claim to have present at First Manassas, or to have served the Confederates in any military capacity.) Thousands of people had heard Parker, Davis, or Douglass speak on the subject, and many thousands more read about it in the New York and Boston area papers. “Allegations that Southerners were coercing African Americans into combat continued to be a regular feature in the speeches and editorials of emancipationsists,” Brasher writes. “In pushing for both emancipation and the recruitment of black troops, the abolitionist newspaper Principia maintained that the Confederates ‘have been fighting in close companionship with negroes, from the beginning!’ Southern blacks, the paper claimed, ‘are regularly drilled for the service. And the proportion of negro soldiers in increasing.’”
Douglass himself went on to promote Parker’s story in print, in the March 1862 issue of his newsletter, a few weeks after having made the lecture circuit in New York and Boston. Parker’s arrival in New York was fortuitous for Douglass and other abolitionists, and who pointed to Parker’s account as evidence of claims they had been making for months. Parker’s claims of vast numbers of black troops in Confederate ranks isn’t corroborated by contemporary sources, but whether they reflected a misunderstanding on his part, or an intentional exaggeration for an appreciative northern audience, matters little. The widespread belief in their existence in the first months of 1862 helped drive the national narrative that began with the appearance of the first “contrabands” at Fortress Monroe in 1861, the First Confiscation Act in August of that same year, and through the preliminary announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, that opened the door to enlistment of African American men in the Union army the following year. By August of 1863, Douglass would be making his case for equal pay for black soldiers to Secretary of War Stanton and to President Lincoln in person, within the walls of the White House itself.
Many thanks to Dan Weinfeld, who did the hard work of tracking down the source material for this post.
 Boston Evening Transcript, February 6, 1862, 1.
 Douglass Monthly, March 1862, 623.
 Kate Masur, “Slavery and Freedom at Bull Run,” New York Times Disunion blog, July 27, 2011.
 Rochester, New York Union & Advertiser, February 12, 1862, 1.
 Newark Daily Advertiser, February 19, 1862, 2.
 New York Evening Post, January 24, 1862, 2.
 Douglass Monthly, March 1862, 625; New York Evening Post, January 24, 1862, 2.
 Glenn David Brasher, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2012), 78.; New York Times, January 16, 1862; Brasher, 78.
The folks at the Civil War Monitor will be releasing soon a special issue, The Civil War: A to Z. It’s a quick guide to some of the prominent names and topics related to the conflict. It would make a great reference for someone just starting out on their CW journey. This special issue does not come through regular subscription, and will be available on newsstands beginning around March 3. The Monitor will have online ordering available then on their website as well, at CivilWarMonitor.com.
More page samples after the jump: