Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Decoration Day at Arlington, 1871

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on May 25, 2014

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As many readers will know, the practice of setting aside a specific day to honor fallen soldiers sprung up spontaneously across the country, North and South, in the years following the Civil War. Over the years, “Decoration Day” events gradually coalesced around late May,  particularly after 1868, when General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, called for a day of remembrance on May 30 of that year. It was a date chosen specifically not to coincide with the anniversary of any major action of the war, to be an occasion in its own right. While Memorial Day is now observed nationwide, parallel observances throughout the South honor the Confederate dead, and still hold official or semi-official recognition by the former states of the Confederacy.

Recently while researching the life of a particular Union soldier, I came across a story from a black newspaper, the New Orleans Semi-Weekly Louisianan dated June 15, 1871. It describes an event that occurred at the then-newly-established Arlington National Cemetery. Like the U.S. Colored Troops who’d been denied a place in the grand victory parade in Washington in May 1865, the black veterans discovered that segregation and exclusion within the military continued even after death:

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DECORATION DAY AND HYPOCRISY.
 
The custom of decorating the graves of soldiers who fell in the late war, seems to be doing more harm to the living than it does to honor the dead. In every Southern State there are not only separate localities where the respective defendants of Unionism and Secession lie buried, but there are different days of observance, a rivalry in the ostentatious parade for floral wealth and variety, and a competition in extravagant eulogy, more calculated to inflame the passions than to soften and purify the affections, which ought to be the result of all funeral rights.
 
Besides this bad effect among the whites there comes a still more evil influence from the dastardly discriminations made by the professedly union [sic.] people themselves.
 
Read this extract from the Washington Chronicle:
 
AT THE COLORED CEMETERY
 
While services were in progress at the tomb of the “Unknown” Comrade Charles Guthridge, John S. Brent, and Beverly Tucker, of Thomas R. Hawkins Post, No. 14 G.A.R., followed by Greene’s Brass Band, Colonel Perry Carson’s Pioneer Corps of the 17th District, Butler Zouaves, under the command of Charles B. Fisher, and a large number of colored persons proceeded to the cemetery on the colored soldiers to the north of the mansion, and on arriving there they found no stand erected, no orator or speaker selected, not a single flag placed on high, not even a paper flag at the head boards of these loyal but ignored dead, not even a drop of water to quench the thirst of the humble patriots after their toilsome march from the beautifully decorated grand stand above to this barren neglected spot below. At 2 ½ o’clock P.M., no flowers or other articles coming for decorative purposes, messengers were dispatched to the officers of the day for them; they in time returned with a half dozen (perhaps more) rosettes, and a basket of flower leaves. Deep was the indignation and disappointment of the people. A volley of musketry was fired over the graves by Col. Fisher’s company. An indignation meeting was improvised, Col. Fisher acting president. A short but eloquent address was made by George Hatton, who was followed by F. G. Barbadoes, who concluded his remarks by offering the followign resolutions, which were unanimously adopted:
 
Resolved, that the colored citizens of the District of Columbia hereby respectfully request the proper authorities to remove the remains of all loyal soldiers now interred at the north end of the Arlington cemetery, among paupers and rebels, to the main body of the grounds at the earliest possible moment.
 
Resolved, that the following named gentlemen are hereby created a committee to proffer our request and to take such further action in the matter as may be deemed necessary to a successful accomplishment of our wishes: Frederick Douglass, John M. Langston, Rev. Dr. Anderson, William J. Wilson, Col. Charles B. Fisher, William Wormley, Perry Carson, Dr. A. T. Augusta, F. G. Barbadoes.
 
If any event in the whole history of our connection with the late war embodied more features of disgraceful neglect, or exhibited more clearly the necessity of protecting ourselves from insult, than this behavior at Arlington heights, we at least acknowledge ignorance of it.
 
We say again that no good, but only harm can result from keeping up the recollection of the bitter strife and bloodshed between North and South, and worse still, in furnishing occasion to white Unionists of proving their hypocrisy towards the negro in the very presence of our dead.

 

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The black soldiers’ graves were never moved; rather, the boundaries of Arlington were gradually expanded to encompass them, in what is now known as Section 27.  Most of the graves, originally marked with simple wooden boards, were subsequently marked with proper headstones, though many are listed as “unknown.” In addition to the black Union soldiers interred there, roughly 3,800 civilians, mostly freedmen, lie there as well, many under stones with the simple, but profoundly important, designation of “citizen.” The remains of Confederate prisoners buried there were removed in the early 1900s to a new plot on the western edge of the cemetery complex, where the Confederate Monument would be dedicated in 1914.

Unfortunately, the more things change, the more. . . well, you know. In part because that segment of the cemetery began as a burial ground for blacks, prisoners and others of lesser status, the records for Section 27 are fragmentary. Further, Section 27 has — whether by design or happenstance — suffered an alarming amount of negligence and lack of attention over the years. The Army has promised, and continues to promise, that these problems will be corrected.

As Americans, North and South, we should all expect nothing less.

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Images of Section 27, Arlington National Cemetery, © Scott Holter, all rights reserved. Used with permission. Thanks to Coatesian commenter KewHall (no relation) for the research tip. This post originally appeared here in December 2010.

Spielberg Lays Bare the Ugly Politics of Emancipation

Posted in African Americans, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on October 29, 2012

Smithsonian.com has a long feature by Roy Blount, Jr. on the making of Spielberg’s Lincoln, in particular the way it challenges common tropes about the 16th president. The film focuses on Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment in early 1865. Blount’s entire piece is worth reading, but I’m especially impressed that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner seemingly pull no punches when it comes to the pervasive, casual bigotry of 19th century Americans and the hard-nosed, carefully-crafted political maneuvering necessary to pass such a measure in 1865:

[The film] provides no golden interracial glow. The n-word crops up often enough to help establish the crudeness, acceptedness and breadth of anti-black sentiment in those days. A couple of incidental pop-ups aside, there are three African-American characters, all of them based reliably on history. One is a White House servant and another one, in a nice twist involving Stevens, comes in almost at the end. The third is Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidante. Before the amendment comes to a vote, after much lobbying and palm-greasing, there’s an astringent little scene in which she asks Lincoln whether he will accept her people as equals. He doesn’t know her, or her people, he replies. But since they are presumably “bare, forked animals” like everyone else, he says, he will get used to them.
 
Lincoln was certainly acquainted with Keckley (and presumably with King Lear, whence “bare, forked animals” comes), but in the context of the times, he may have thought of black people as unknowable. At any rate the climate of opinion in 1865, even among progressive people in the North, was not such as to make racial equality an easy sell.
 
In fact, if the public got the notion the 13th Amendment was a step toward establishing black people as social equals, or even toward giving them the vote, the measure would have been doomed. That’s where Lincoln’s scene with Thaddeus Stevens [Tommy Lee Jones, above] comes in.
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Stevens is the only white character in the movie who expressly holds it self-evident that every man is created equal. In debate, he vituperates with relish—You fatuous nincompoop, you unnatural noise!—at foes of the amendment. But one of those, Rep. Fernando Wood of New York, thinks he has outslicked Stevens. He has pressed him to state whether he believes the amendment’s true purpose is to establish black people as just as good as whites in all respects.
 
You can see Stevens itching to say, “Why yes, of course,” and then to snicker at the anti-amendment forces’ unrighteous outrage. But that would be playing into their hands; borderline yea-votes would be scared off. Instead he says, well, the purpose of the amendment—
 
And looks up into the gallery, where Mrs. Lincoln sits with Mrs. Keckley. The first lady has become a fan of the amendment, but not of literal equality, nor certainly of Stevens, whom she sees as a demented radical.
 
The purpose of the amendment, he says again, is — equality before the law. And nowhere else.
 
Mary is delighted; Keckley stiffens and goes outside. (She may be Mary’s confidante, but that doesn’t mean Mary is hers.) Stevens looks up and sees Mary alone. Mary smiles down at him. He smiles back, thinly. No “joyous, universal evergreen” in that exchange, but it will have to do.
 
Stevens has evidently taken Lincoln’s point about avoiding swamps. His radical allies are appalled. One asks whether he’s lost his soul; Stevens replies, mildly, that he just wants the amendment to pass. And to the accusation that there’s nothing he won’t say toward that end, he says: Seems not.

If Blount’s recounting of the film is accurate, then this movie may end up doing a tremendous service to the public’s understanding of that pivotal moment in American history. It may well do for the public’s understanding of Lincoln what Glory did, a generation ago, for recognition of the role African American soldiers played in that conflict. The popular image of Lincoln pure and unblemished saint-on-earth has always been a false and ultimately damaging one, as much as the “Marble Man” has been for Lee. Lincoln’s contemporaries didn’t see him that way. For all that Lincoln was branded as a radical abolitionist in the South, real abolitionists knew he was not one of them. According to Blount, Stevens called Lincoln “the capitulating compromiser, the dawdler,” and even Frederick Douglass, who overcame a deep mistrust of Lincoln and the Republicans in the winter of 1860-61 to become one of the president’s strongest allies and supporters, understood that Lincoln was a man who retained his own biases, yet constantly challenged himself to move beyond those. Lincoln was also a man who, regardless of his personal beliefs, had to work (like all presidents before and since) within the constraints of the political realities of the day. It was Lincoln’s willingness to work the political angle — to cajole, to flatter, to intimidate, to compromise when he had to — that allowed him to accomplish things that a firebrand like Stevens never could have, no matter how righteous his cause. As Blount says, “Stevens was a man of unmitigated principle. Lincoln got some great things done.”

There’s a saying that’s been thrown around quite a bit in the last few years, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In other words, don’t pass up an opportunity to get most of what you want, for the sake of not being able to get everything you want. That’s good advice now, and it was undoubtedly a notion Lincoln — smart lawyer and brilliant politician that he was — would have agreed with.

When the movie hits theaters in a couple of weeks, I’m sure it will be lazily denounced in some quarters as just so much Lincoln mythologizing. A few more industrious folks will likely cite scraps of dialogue from the film to “prove” that ZOMG those Yankees were racists!. They already seem to be priming themselves to denounce it as a failure if it fails to smash every box-office record, ever. In truth, though, I think they may have a lot more to worry about with this film than the prospect of it being a big-screen affirmation of the caricatured, saintly Lincoln. If the movie is anything like Blount claims it is, it will depict Lincoln and those around him as gifted, resolute but often flawed and complex mortals who struggled and bickered and fought, and eventually accomplished great things — things like the 13th Amendment that seem so obviously right now, but were anything but assured then. If the audience takes away that understanding of the events surrounding the close of the war, it will do far more good than any exercise in hagiography might.

I can’t hardly wait.

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UPDATE, October 29: Over at Civil War Talk, a member asks why Frederick Douglass is not depicted in the film.

It’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. But there’s no point in having a blog if one can’t speculate a little, so here goes:

It may be in part because Douglass was not physically present during the events depicted in the main part of the film, which focuses on passage of the 13th Amendment and the Hampton Roads Conference, which took place in January and early February 1865. I believe Douglass resided in Rochester, New York during the entire period of the war, and as nearly as I can tell, Douglass and Lincoln only met face-to-face on three occasions: in August 1863, when Douglass met with the president to urge him to equalize the pay between white and black Union soldiers; at the White House a year later, when Lincoln summoned Douglass to reaffirm his (Lincoln’s) commitment to ending slavery and to ask Douglass to use his connections to get as many enslaved persons within Union lines in the event he lost the election that fall and a new administration would end the war before decisively defeating the Confederacy; and in early March 1865, when Douglass was ushered into the president’s presence briefly at an inaugural reception to congratulate him on his reelection. This last event, though close to the time frame of the Spielberg film, was not really a substantive meeting that would have particular bearing on the story of the film.

So if my understanding of the structure of the movie is correct, there’s an easy (if not especially satisfying) explanation for his absence from the screen. What will be most interesting to see is whether Douglass’ presence is nonetheless felt in the film — if his words, his writings, his agitating — show up in the script, in allusions by other characters, in the dialogue, or elsewhere. (Elizabeth Keckley’s character [right] would be the obvious opportunity to do this, film-wise, as she admired Douglass and wrote of his being brought to meet the president in March 1865.) The real Frederick Douglass didn’t attend cabinet meetings or negotiations with representatives of the Confederate government  aboard River Queen, but he nonetheless exerted a profound influence behind the scenes in both the decision to enlist black troops for the Union and in the struggle to make emancipation permanent in the closing months of the war. If Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner can pull that off — making Douglass and his influence a character in the film without his actually being in the film — that will be remarkable.

I can’t hardly wait.

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Frederick Douglass and the “Negro Regiment” at First Manassas

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on July 30, 2011

From the Douglass Monthly, September 1861:

It is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels. There were such soldiers at Manassas, and they are probably there still. There is a Negro in the army as well as in the fence, and our Government is likely to find it out before the war comes to an end. That the Negroes are numerous in the rebel army, and do for that army its heaviest work, is beyond question. They have been the chief laborers upon those temporary defences in which the rebels have been able to mow down our men. Negroes helped to build the batteries at Charleston. They relieve their gentlemanly and military masters from the stiffening drudgery of the camp, and devote them to the nimble and dexterous use of arms. Rising above vulgar prejudice, the slaveholding rebel accepts the aid of the black man as readily as that of any other. If a bad cause can do this, why should a good cause be less wisely conducted? We insist upon it, that one black regiment in such a war as this is, without being any more brave and orderly, would be worth to the Government more than two of any other; and that, while the Government continues to refuse the aid of colored men, thus alienating them from the national cause, and giving the rebels the advantage of them, it will not deserve better fortunes than it has thus far experienced.–Men in earnest don’t fight with one hand, when they might fight with two, and a man drowning would not refuse to be saved even by a colored hand.

This quote, and most specifically the first part of it in bold above, is often waved triumphantly as an incontrovertible bit of evidence that the Confederacy did enlist African Americans as bona fide soldiers, “having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets.” Those who advocate for the existence of large numbers of BCS seem to view Douglass’ quote as a sort of rhetorical trump card, as though the assertion of someone so genuinely revered could not possibly be questioned. If Frederick Douglass said so, the thinking seems to be, then even the most biased, politically-correct historian has to accept that.

The truth, of course, is that Frederick Douglass’ claims are subject to same scrutiny as anyone else’s. It’s worth remembering that Douglass was neither a reporter nor an historian; he was, by his own happy admission, an agitator, and is his September 1861 essay excerpted above he was again making the case for the enlistment of African American soldiers in the Union army. If there were reports that the Confederate army had used black troops at First Manassas — a battle that by September was well understood as an embarrassing setback for Union forces — then that made all the more compelling case for the Lincoln administration to respond in kind.

But why did Douglass believe that there were, or at least plausibly might be, such units in the Confederate army? He lived in upstate New York, in Rochester; he was nowhere near the battle and saw nothing of it at first hand. He might have spoken to someone who claimed first-hand knowledge of the event, but there’s no evidence that that’s the source of the claim. Indeed, the opening clause of the passage — “it is now pretty well established” — acknowledges that Douglass was not writing about something he knew to a certainty, but rather a conclusion based on what were likely numerous reports, rumors and press items.

Earlier this week Donald R. Shaffer looked at the evidence of black Confederate soldiers taking part in First Manassas, and argued that Douglass may have been basing his claim on an exchange in the Congressional Globe that took place soon after the battle, in which the involvement of African Americans in the Confederate army in a variety of capacities is discussed. Shaffer concludes, “it is apparent from the debate above that some servants and other African Americans attached to both armies were armed. This did not make them soldiers officially, but it does make murkier the line dividing soldiers and civilians attached to the armies in the Civil War.”

Dr. Shaffer, author of After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans and Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files, makes a solid argument. Douglass closely followed the political debates of the day, and may well have followed the discussion in the Congressional Globe. But I would respectfully submit that it’s even more likely that he believed there were black Confederate troops at Manassas because he read it in the newspaper. From the New York Tribune, July 22, 1861, p. 5 col. 4:

A Mississippi soldier was taken prisoner by Hasbrouck of the Wisconsin Regiment. He turned out to be Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor, cousin to Roger A. Pryor. He was captured on his horse, as he by accident rode into our lines. He discovered himself by remarking to Hasbrouck, “we are getting badly cut to pieces.” What regiment do you belong to?” asked Hasbrouck. “The 19th Mississippi,” was the answer. “Then you are my prisoner,” said Hasbrouck.

From the statement of this prisoner it appears that our artillery had created great havoc among the rebels, of whom there are 30,000 to 40,000 in the field under command of Gen. Beauregard, while they have a reserve of 75,000 at the Junction.

He describes an officer most prominent in the fight, and distinguished from the rest by his white horse, as Jeff. Davis. He confirms previous reports of a regiment of negro [sic.] troops in the rebel forces, but says it is difficult to get them in proper discipline in battle array.

This account, with minor changes to the wording, appeared in newspapers all across the North, and even in Canada, in the days immediately following the battle. It was published in Batltimore, New York, Massachusetts, Albany and — yes — Rochester. A quick search of digitized newspapers suggests how far, and how often, the report of a back Confederate regiment in the field, seemingly confirmed by a captured Confederate officer, made it into print:

  • St. John, New Brunswick Morning Freeman, July 25, 1861, p. 4, col. 3 (Google News)
  • Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser, July 22, 1861, p. 1 (Google News)
  • Baltimore Sun, July 22, 1861, p. 2 (Google News)
  • Lewiston, Maine Daily Evening Journal, p. 2, col. 2 (Google News)
  • Springfield, Massachusetts Daily Republican, July 22, 1861, p. 4, col. 3 (GenealogyBank)
  • Lowell Massachusetts Daily Citizen and News, July 22, 1861, p. 2 (GenealogyBank)
  • Albany Evening Journal, July 22, 1861, p. 1. col. 6 (GenealogyBank)
  • Jamestown, New York Journal, July 26, 1861, p. 2, col. 4 (GenealogyBank)
  • Mineral Point, Wisconsin Tribune, July 26, 1861, p. 1, col 4 (NewspaperArchive)
  • New York Daily Tribune, July 22, 1861, p. 5, col. 4 (Library of Congress)
  • Moore’s Rural New Yorker, July 27, 1861, p. 6, col. 3 (Rochester Area Historic Newspapers)

As noted, these eleven citations are not an exhaustive list of papers that published this account in 1861; these are only examples that, 150 years later, survive in digitized, searchable form. The actual number of papers, large and small, across the country that repeated these short paragraphs may have counted in the dozens. Summaries based on Pryor’s account went even farther, with the British papers picking up and embellishing the claim. The Guardian was almost certainly rehashing Pryor’s account when it reported on August 7 that “Jefferson Davis was conspicuous on the field, on a white horse, in command of the centre of the army. A negro regiment fought on the same side.” The Illustrated London News went farther, claiming not only that such a unit went into action, but that “Northern troops found themselves opposed to a regiment of coloured men who fought with no want of zeal against them.”

I have no idea who “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor” was; the 19th Mississippi had two Pryors, neither of which appear to be the man mentioned in the story. But who he was is less important here than assessing the reliability of his claims. I asked Harry Smeltzer of Bull Runnings for a quick assessment of Pryor’s report, as printed in the papers. Harry agreed, so long as I would indemnify him against getting dragged into the black Confederate discussion. (Done.) The Confederate numbers quoted are way off, he said, but then “numbers were wildly overstated by both sides, each being convinced they were outnumbered.” He continued:

OK – lots of [redacted barnyard term] in there, of course. The Federals did not move again on Manassas.

No 19th Mississippi at the battle: 2nd, 11th 13th, 17th, 18th. Last two were with Jones at McLean’s Ford. 2nd & 11th were with Bee and 13th with Early, so those three could have been where the 2nd Wisc was at some point. Pryor would have to have been very lost to wander from Jones to 2nd Wisc. Best bet to me is the 2nd or 11th. . . .

[Jeff Davis] arrived shortly after the fighting had stopped, during the retreat. . . .

Whoever “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor” may have been, his claims about the battle and the Confederate army are a mess. Even allowing for the fog of war and the reality that no one, even the generals themselves, has a full and accurate picture of the fight in real time, Pryor’s claims are dubious and unreliable. It’s impossible to know, at this remove, what Pryor said on the battlefield, but what he’s quoted as saying in the newspaper is pretty worthless.

We’ll likely never know what caused Douglass to make his claim that the Confederacy had put African American soldiers on the field at Manassas. He may have heard about the battle from someone present, though Douglass’ passage doesn’t suggest that. He may well have followed the debate in the Congressional Globe, but at the same time he almost certainly was aware of the claims of “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor,” printed in at least two papers likely to have crossed his cluttered desk in Rochester, Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune and one of the local sheets, Moore’s Rural New Yorker. The presence of black men in Confederate uniform was an oft-repeated rumor that the time, and Douglass very likely saw “Brigadier Quartermaster Pryor’s” dubious account as further confirmation. Even an esteemed author like Frederick Douglass can only be a reliable as the material he has to work with.

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Image: Issue of Douglass’ Monthly newspaper, via Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University.

The Other Speech on Decoration Day

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Media by Andy Hall on March 6, 2011

In my last post on George Hatton, I included a newspaper account of his participation in a Decoration Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. The story noted that Hatton made “a short but eloquent address” that has, apparently, been lost. Sharp-eyed readers may have also noticed that, buried in the text of the article, was a passing reference to the presence there of one Frederick Douglass. You may have heard of him.

Oddly, the newspaper makes no reference to the speech Douglass gave that day, at the memorial to the Unknown Union Dead (above), which must surely rank as one of the most compelling of its type ever offered there. It’s a short address, worth reproducing in full.

The Unknown Loyal Dead

Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1871

Friends and Fellow Citizens:

Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence.

Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.

Those unknown heroes whose whitened bones have been piously gathered here, and whose green graves we now strew with sweet and beautiful flowers, choice emblems alike of pure hearts and brave spirits, reached, in their glorious career that last highest point of nobleness beyond which human power cannot go. They died for their country.

No loftier tribute can be paid to the most illustrious of all the benefactors of mankind than we pay to these unrecognized soldiers when we write above their graves this shining epitaph.

When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.

If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones — I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?

The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier.

But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

The remarkable thing about this text is how well it resonates, how well it presages the ongoing arguments about how we remember the war even today, almost a century and a half after the guns fell silent. Douglass’ admonition — “we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic” — must necessarily ring as true today as it did then. This is what Confederate apologists do not, can not, accept: that regardless of their ancestors’ courage and sacrifice, and regardless of their individual beliefs and motivations, at the end of the day they fought for a nation founded on a terrible premise. To honor our ancestors demands that first we see them as they were, not as we’d wish they’d been.

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Text of Douglass speech from Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. Image: Monument to the Unknown Dead f the Civil War,  Arlington National Cemetery. Library of Congress.


Hatton Enters Politics

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on March 4, 2011

(This material originally appeared in January as a guest post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic. It originated with Coates posting a wartime letter of Hatton’s, and quickly became an exercise among followers of the blog in crowd-sourcing historical/genealogical research about Hatton himself. Special thanks goes to regular Golden Horde commenter KewHall, who found and shared critical mentions of Hatton that opened up the research on the latter parts of Hatton’s life. First installment here.)

After the war, George W. Hatton appears to have returned to Washington, D.C., where his father Henry was living. In the years after the war he married a woman named Frances. The two of them were living in Washington’s 4th Ward at the time of the 1870 U.S. Census, he employed at the Globe newspaper, and Frances (age 25) “keeping house.” As early as 1867 he was approached to serve on the D.C. council, but declined. In 1869, Hatton did serve on the “Common Council” for the District of Columbia. At the time, D.C. had three levels of governance: (1) the mayor and city department heads, (2) aldermen, and (3) the common council. This one term seems to be to only period he held public office, but he remained very active in Republican politics and was a speaker at veterans’ reunions. On Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) in 1871, he was part of a delegation of men and women who made the trek across the Potomac to the grounds of Arlington House, to hold a commemoration ceremony for the African American troops who had died during the war and were buried there on the grounds. What they found was recounted in the New Orleans Semi-Weekly Louisianan, June 15, 1871:

AT THE COLORED CEMETERY

While services were in progress at the tomb of the “Unknown” Comrade Charles Guthridge, John S. Brent, and Beverly Tucker, of Thomas R. Hawkins Post, No. 14 G.A.R., followed by Greene’s Brass Band, Colonel Perry Carson’s Pioneer Corps of the 17th District, Butler Zouaves, under the command of Charles B. Fisher, and a large number of colored persons proceeded to the cemetery on the colored soldiers to the north of the mansion, and on arriving there they found no stand erected, no orator or speaker selected, not a single flag placed on high, not even a paper flag at the head boards of these loyal but ignored dead, not even a drop of water to quench the thirst of the humble patriots after their toilsome march from the beautifully decorated grand stand above to this barren neglected spot below. At 2 ½ o’clock P.M., no flowers or other articles coming for decorative purposes, messengers were dispatched to the officers of the day for them; they in time returned with a half dozen (perhaps more) rosettes, and a basket of flower leaves. Deep was the indignation and disappointment of the people. A volley of musketry was fired over the graves by Col. Fisher’s company. An indignation meeting was improvised, Col. Fisher acting president. A short but eloquent address was made by George Hatton, who was followed by F. G. Barbadoes, who concluded his remarks by offering the following resolutions, which were unanimously adopted:

Resolved, that the colored citizens of the District of Columbia hereby respectfully request the proper authorities to remove the remains of all loyal soldiers now interred at the north end of the Arlington cemetery, among paupers and rebels, to the main body of the grounds at the earliest possible moment.

Resolved, that the following named gentlemen are hereby created a committee to proffer our request and to take such further action in the matter as may be deemed necessary to a successful accomplishment of our wishes: Frederick Douglass, John M. Langston, Rev. Dr. Anderson, William J. Wilson, Col. Charles B. Fisher, William Wormley, Perry Carson, Dr. A. T. Augusta, F. G. Barbadoes.

If any event in the whole history of our connection with the late war embodied more features of disgraceful neglect, or exhibited more clearly the necessity of protecting ourselves from insult, than this behavior at Arlington heights, we at least acknowledge ignorance of it.

We say again that no good, but only harm can result from keeping up the recollection of the bitter strife and bloodshed between North and South, and worse still, in furnishing occasion to white Unionists of proving their hypocrisy towards the negro in the very presence of our dead.

Note that William Wormley would be the same Billy Wormley who, with George Hatton, defied the Washinton police to shoot outside the USCT recruiting office eight years previously. The black soldiers’ graves were never moved; rather, the boundaries of Arlington were gradually expanded to encompass them, in what is now known as Section 27. Most of the graves, originally marked with simple wooden boards, were subsequently marked with proper headstones, though many are listed as “unknown.” In addition to the black Union soldiers interred there, roughly 3,800 civilians, mostly freedmen, lie there as well, many under stones with the simple, but profoundly important, designation of “citizen.” The remains of Confederate prisoners buried there were removed in the early 1900s to a new plot on the western edge of the cemetery complex, where the Confederate Monument would be dedicated in 1914.


An early view of the National Cemetery at Arlington, 1867. The area north of the Arlington House where slaves, freedmen, USCTs and Confederate prisoners were buried was not maintained at the time as part of the soldiers’ cemetery, and looked far different than the neat, ordered rows shown here. Although the USCT burial ground was eventually incorporated into the National Cemetery as Section 27, it continues to be a source of dispute and controversy. Library of Congress.

Hatton got heavily involved in the 1872 presidential campaign, where he traveled in the South, primarily in North Carolina, as a “colored canvasser” on behalf of Horace Greely, the Liberal Republican candidate and publisher of the New York Tribune, a longtime supporter of the Republican Party and one of the leading anti-slavery journalists of previous years. Greeley’s “reform” platform called for an end to Reconstruction and a return of all local governance functions to the Southern states. Greeley’s campaign was supported by many Southern whites, as well, anxious to be relieved of Federal occupation. The campaign was a disaster. Greeley captured just under 44% of the popular vote against the incumbent, Grant. Greeley was in failing health both physically and mentally, however, and slipped into a rapid decline. He died just a few weeks after the election, before the electoral votes were counted.


In a brutal Thomas Nast cartoon published just before the 1872 presidential election, former abolitionist editor Horace Greeley (right) steps over the bodies of murdered African Americans to shake hands with the South, represented here as a former Confederate, who is himself standing on a trampled U.S. flag and hiding a pistol behind his back. In the background, a white mob attacks freedmen who try vainly to defend themselves. HarpWeek.com.

Hatton’s work as a canvasser was both arduous and dangerous, and he became one of Greeley’s most visible campaigners. The Boston Journal, which supported Grant, noted Hatton as “one of the few colored men who support Mr. Greeley. . . [who] is described as a noisy Washington ward politician of no very high order.” But that same month, August 1872, the Times Picayune published an account by Hatton and his fellow Liberal Republican canvassers, W. M. Saunders and Walter Sorrell, of campaigning in North Carolina for Greeley that spoke to the very real dangers of campaigning:

We found on our arrival in North Carolina that the more ignorant of the colored men were massed under the control of the office-holders and the emissaries of Gen. Grant, and were laboring under the delusion that their salvation depended entirely on the re-election of Gen. Grant. There is, however, a very respectable minority of the colored people, heads of families and intelligent men of the race, who are anxious to know the past records of the respective candidates for the Presidency. Upon this class we had no difficulty making an impression. They listened to our speeches with interest, accepted our campaign documents. . . . Among the common mass of negroes [sic.], we found absolute ignorance of the past record of Mr. Greeley, Senator Sumner, or any of the lifelong friends of the race. Where there was knowledge exhibited, it was held in abeyance by the Radial leaders by means of intimidation, terrorism and assurances that Mr. Greeley’s election would effect their own re-enslavement.

The direction of the campaign by the leaders of the Grant Republicans was exceedingly unscrupulous. We were astounded and mortified to find that a number of intelligent colored men were misleading the masses. These men are actuated solely by mercenary motives, all of them being in the employment of the Administration party. . . . few of the degraded blacks, under the instigation of emissaries from Washington and the Customs-House at Baltimore, used every means to prevent the colored men from giving us a hearings, as well as to excite the people to riot. Mr. Hatton, who attended the ratification meeting at the Metropolitan Hall, Raleigh, on the evening of July 10, was immediately pointed out by the speaker as one of the “three black Ku-Klux” who had come down to mislead the people. The speaker advised the crowd after the adjournment of the meeting to wait upon them, and quietly advised them to go to their homes if they had any, and if not to attach them to the nearest tree with a rope or chain around their necks. Mr. Hatton was obliged to leave the place under the escort of the sheriff.


Metropolitan Hall, Raleigh, North Carolina, in the early 20th century. It was here on the evening of July 10, 1872 that Hatton, canvassing for the Liberal Republican presidential candidate Horace Greeley, was called out by one of the speakers as a “black Ku-Klux” and forced to leave town with a sheriff’s escort. North Carolina State Archives.

Hatton’s commitment to a presidential platform that would end Reconstruction (and the federal protections of African Americans that went with it) and return Southern states to local control is curious. But it may be hinted at in the observation that he and his fellow Greeley canvassers “found absolute ignorance of the past record of Mr. Greeley, Senator Sumner, or any of the lifelong friends of the race.” As a free man of color in a border state, one who (though young) was not only literate but eloquent in his own written prose, Hatton was likely familiar with the reputation and positions of prominent supporters of abolition like Greeley, Sumner and Douglass, and may have read their written works, as well. Hatton’s own Civil War letters (previous post) fairly rumble with the rhetoric of abolitionist oratory, and it may be that Hatton’s commitment to the 1872 campaign had less to do with Greeley’s dubious policy positions than with a longstanding admiration of Greeley himself.

To be continued. . . .

__________________


A New President, and an Ambivalent Abolitionist

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on December 29, 2010

The fire-eaters across the South saw the election of Abraham Lincoln as the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States. Although the Republicans were careful not to challenge the institution where it already existed, for many in the South, the new administration was seen as a harbinger all the slaveholding class’ worst fears — economic turmoil, political upheaval and collapse of a carefully-crafted legal and social structure centered on race. The fire-eaters worked themselves up into a fury, convincing themselves and many of their contemporaries that Lincoln himself was a radical abolitionist, bent on nothing less than the complete and utter eradication of slavery and establishing full social and racial equality between blacks and whites.

Actual abolitionists knew better, and were largely ambivalent about Lincoln’s candidacy in 1860. Some supported it, reluctantly, as the best practical alternative, while others held a convention that summer to nominate their own presidential candidate as a show of protest. Frederick Douglass eventually came to embrace Lincoln as an ally, but even after the election, Douglass still considered the Republicans a sort of least-bad option, and expressed concern that the Republicans’ tolerance of slavery where it already existed would undermine, and possibly destroy, the movement to eliminate slavery everywhere in the country:

Nevertheless, this very victory threatens and may be the death of the modern Abolition movement, and finally bring back the country to the same, or a worse state, than Benj. Lundy and Wm. Lloyd Garrison found it thirty years ago. The Republican party does not propose to abolish slavery anywhere, and is decidedly opposed to Abolition agitation. It is not even, by the confession of its President elect, in favor of the repeal of that thrice-accursed and flagrantly unconstitutional Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850. It is plain to see, that once in power, the policy of the party will be only to seem a little less yielding to the demands of slavery than the Democratic or Fusion party, and thus render ineffective and pointless the whole Abolition movement of the North. The safety of our movement will be found only by a return to all the agencies and appliances, such as writing, publishing, organizing, lecturing, holding meetings, with the earnest aim not to prevent the extension of slavery, but to abolish the system altogether.

It was as true one hundred fifty years ago as it is today; we have an unfortunate tendency to reduce those movements and political figures we oppose to simplistic caricatures, and to assume that all those actors share similar motivations and goals. They don’t, and sometimes they don’t even fully trust each other.

___________

Update: Though Douglass worried about the victory of Lincoln and the Republicans, he welcomed South Carolina’s secession, bringing with it as it did a constitutional crisis that, in his view, must ultimately decide the matter of slavery. As historian David Blight points out in a new editorial in the New York Times, “Cup of Wrath and Fire,” Douglass “heaped scorn on the Palmetto State’s rash act, but he also relished it as an opportunity. He all but thanked the secessionists for ‘preferring to be a large piece of nothing, to being any longer a small piece of something.'”

Decoration Day at Arlington, 1871

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on December 14, 2010

As many readers will know, the practice of setting aside a specific day to honor fallen soldiers sprung up spontaneously across the country, North and South, in the years following the Civil War. One of the earliest — perhaps the earliest — of these events was the ceremony held on May 1, 1865 in newly-occupied Charleston, South Carolina, by that community’s African American population, honoring the Union prisoners buried at the site of the city’s old fairgrounds and racecourse, as described in David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

Over the years, “Decoration Day” events gradually coalesced around late May,  particularly after 1868, when General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, called for a day of remembrance on May 30 of that year. It was a date chosen specifically not to coincide with the anniversary of any major action of the war, to be an occasion in its own right. While Memorial Day is now observed nationwide, parallel observances throughout the South honor the Confederate dead, and still hold official or semi-official recognition by the former states of the Confederacy.

Recently while researching the life of a particular Union soldier, I came across a story from a black newspaper, the New Orleans Semi-Weekly Louisianan dated June 15, 1871. It describes an event that occurred at the then-newly-established Arlington National Cemetery. Like the U.S. Colored Troops who’d been denied a place in the grand victory parade in Washington in May 1865, the black veterans discovered that segregation and exclusion within the military continued even after death:

DECORATION DAY AND HYPOCRISY.

The custom of decorating the graves of soldiers who fell in the late war, seems to be doing more harm to the living than it does to honor the dead. In every Southern State there are not only separate localities where the respective defendants of Unionism and Secession lie buried, but there are different days of observance, a rivalry in the ostentatious parade for floral wealth and variety, and a competition in extravagant eulogy, more calculated to inflame the passions than to soften and purify the affections, which ought to be the result of all funeral rights.

Besides this bad effect among the whites there comes a still more evil influence from the dastardly discriminations made by the professedly union [sic.] people themselves.

Read this extract from the Washington Chronicle:

AT THE COLORED CEMETERY

While services were in progress at the tomb of the “Unknown” Comrade Charles Guthridge, John S. Brent, and Beverly Tucker, of Thomas R. Hawkins Post, No. 14 G.A.R., followed by Greene’s Brass Band, Colonel Perry Carson’s Pioneer Corps of the 17th District, Butler Zouaves, under the command of Charles B. Fisher, and a large number of colored persons proceeded to the cemetery on the colored soldiers to the north of the mansion, and on arriving there they found no stand erected, no orator or speaker selected, not a single flag placed on high, not even a paper flag at the head boards of these loyal but ignored dead, not even a drop of water to quench the thirst of the humble patriots after their toilsome march from the beautifully decorated grand stand above to this barren neglected spot below. At 2 ½ o’clock P.M., no flowers or other articles coming for decorative purposes, messengers were dispatched to the officers of the day for them; they in time returned with a half dozen (perhaps more) rosettes, and a basket of flower leaves. Deep was the indignation and disappointment of the people. A volley of musketry was fired over the graves by Col. Fisher’s company. An indignation meeting was improvised, Col. Fisher acting president. A short but eloquent address was made by George Hatton, who was followed by F. G. Barbadoes, who concluded his remarks by offering the followign resolutions, which were unanimously adopted:

Resolved, that the colored citizens of the District of Columbia hereby respectfully request the proper authorities to remove the remains of all loyal soldiers now interred at the north end of the Arlington cemetery, among paupers and rebels, to the main body of the grounds at the earliest possible moment.

Resolved, that the following named gentlemen are hereby created a committee to proffer our request and to take such further action in the matter as may be deemed necessary to a successful accomplishment of our wishes: Frederick Douglass, John M. Langston, Rev. Dr. Anderson, William J. Wilson, Col. Charles B. Fisher, William Wormley, Perry Carson, Dr. A. T. Augusta, F. G. Barbadoes.

If any event in the whole history of our connection with the late war embodied more features of disgraceful neglect, or exhibited more clearly the necessity of protecting ourselves from insult, than this behavior at Arlington heights, we at least acknowledge ignorance of it.

We say again that no good, but only harm can result from keeping up the recollection of the bitter strife and bloodshed between North and South, and worse still, in furnishing occasion to white Unionists of proving their hypocrisy towards the negro in the very presence of our dead.

The black soldiers’ graves were never moved; rather, the boundaries of Arlington were gradually expanded to encompass them, in what is now known as Section 27.  Most of the graves, originally marked with simple wooden boards, were subsequently marked with proper headstones, though many are listed as “unknown.” In addition to the black Union soldiers interred there, roughly 3,800 civilians, mostly freedmen, lie there as well, many under stones with the simple, but profoundly important, designation of “citizen.” The remains of Confederate prisoners buried there were removed in the early 1900s to a new plot on the western edge of the cemetery complex, where the Confederate Monument would be dedicated in 1914.

Unfortunately, the more things change, the more. . . well, you know. In part because that segment of the cemetery began as a burial ground for blacks, prisoners and others of lesser status, the records for Section 27 are fragmentary. Further, Section 27 has — whether by design or happenstance — suffered an alarming amount of negligence and lack of attention over the years. The Army has promised, and continues to promise, that these problems will be corrected.

As Americans, North and South, we should all expect nothing less.

____________________________________

Images of Section 27, Arlington National Cemetery, © Scott Holter, all rights reserved. Used with permission. Thanks to Coatesian commenter KewHall (no relation) for the research tip.

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