Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Someone Is Wrong in the Newspaper!

Posted in African Americans, Media, Memory by Andy Hall on October 15, 2011

A friend recently pointed me to a guest column in the local paper that I’d missed, challenging the idea of a sesquicentennial celebration of Juneteenth here in 2015. The writer, Robert Hart, peppers his column with “facts” that “Juneteenth proponents should know,” which are mostly wrong. You can read it here. While Hart suggests time would be better spent interviewing African Americans about segregation, which pretty much everyone agrees was a Bad Thing, I suspect he’s mainly interested in deflecting attention off onto something other than the central role of slavery in the Confederacy. His column has almost nothing to do with Juneteenth, offering instead a list of standard Southron Heritage™ talking points about various bad acts perpetrated by the Yankees.

Anyway, the Galveston County Daily News was kind enough to run a guest column of mine today, countering Hart. It’s not great writing on my part, as I found it harder that in oughter be to keep it under 500 words:

Robert Hart recently published a guest column in the GCDN (“Juneteenth proponents should know facts,” Oct. 5), on celebrating the sesquicentennial of Juneteenth in 2015. Mr. Hart’s column, unfortunately, includes a great deal of information that serves only to deflect attention from the subject. Whether or not Ulysses Grant personally owned slaves has nothing to do with the legitimacy of Juneteenth as a day of celebration.

Worse, many of the “facts” Hart includes in his column are demonstrably false. Hart says that Grant “owned slaves in Missouri and freed them only when he had to.” In fact, Grant is known to have owned a single slave during his lifetime, a man named William Jones, possibly received from his father-in-law, probably in 1858. Grant formally manumitted (freed) Jones in March 1859.[1]

Hart claims that Robert E. Lee “freed his slaves 10 years before the war.” Not true. As biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor discovered in going through the general’s papers, Lee personally owned slaves at least as late as 1852, considered buying more shortly before the war began, and used slaves as personal servants throughout the war itself. More important, from late 1857 onward he was acting as executor of his father-in-law’s estate at Arlington House, where he ruled with a far stricter hand than the Custises ever had. There’s credible evidence that he personally supervised the whipping of runaway Arlington slaves in 1859.[2] Lee did not formally manumit these slaves until the end of 1862.[3]

Hart continues, saying that “the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free a single slave when it was issued.” Again, not true. As Eric Foner points out in his recent, Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Lincoln and emancipation, the order freed tens of thousands of slaves immediately in Union-occupied areas, and firmly established permanent emancipation as official war policy.[4] The Emancipation Proclamation made the Union Army a rolling, blue tide of emancipation. More than any battlefield victory, the Emancipation Proclamation doomed the Confederacy.

Hart argues that slavery in the United States ended with the passage of the 13thAmendment, but meaningful emancipation occurred over decades, and slaves themselves often made it happen. Some “stole themselves” from their masters. Tens of thousands of former slaves took up arms to free their kindred as part of the Union Army’s famed U.S. Colored Troops. Many more were emancipated (like those in Texas) when the Federal army arrived to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.

Emancipation and the end of slavery are worth celebrating – not just for African Americans, but for all Americans who value liberty and freedom. Every date on the calendar is the anniversary of some small piece of that story, but some dates carry more significance than others. For both practical and symbolic reasons, June 19 is the best choice for Galveston, for Texas, and for the nation.


[1] Brooks D. Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822‐1865 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 71-72.

[2] Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (London: Penguin, 2007), 270-73.

[3] Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), 273.

[4] Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), 243.

Of course, h/t to Bob Pollock, who continues to do the bloggy knowledge on Grant.
___________

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25 Responses

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  1. Matt McKeon said, on October 15, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Well written, Andy. Any reaction?

    • Andy Hall said, on October 15, 2011 at 12:06 pm

      Thanks very much. Little (but positive) reaction so far. I warned the editor that it might provoke some readers, and he replied, “yeah, this will kick the hornet’s nest.”

      Who, moi? 😉

      • marcferguson said, on October 15, 2011 at 12:12 pm

        Nice piece, Andy. I heard Eric Foner speak last night, and he reminded us that the EP immediately gave 3.2 million slaves their freedom. Not bad for a day’s work!

        Marc

        • Andy Hall said, on October 16, 2011 at 5:20 pm

          Did he really say 3.2 million?

          • marcferguson said, on October 17, 2011 at 12:29 pm

            Yes, he was referring to all the slaves still residing in areas not yet occupied by the Union army. I just looked it up in his recent book _The Fiery Trial_ where he gives the number 3.1 million. We can do our own math. If there were a total of 3.9 million slaves, how many at that point lived in areas not as yet penetrated by Union forces? I think I recall the number 7 hundred thousand. Also, recall that some in areas not yet occupied, along the S. Carolina coast for example were not exempted. He followed this up by discussing Lincoln’s meeting with Frederick Douglass not long before the election, which he feared he might lose, and discussed with Douglass ways to encourage blacks still in bondage to find their way into Union lines so they wouldn’t lose their chance at freedom before the election.

            • Andy Hall said, on October 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm

              My issue is with the word “immediately.” I don’t have the book in front of me, but Foner includes a map showing where the EP was immediately effective, and says it applied to “tens of thousands” — mainly in the Sea Islands, in Louisiana and a stretch along the Mississippi. For others, practical emancipation came gradually, as they either ran off to Union-occupied territory, or were enveloped by the Federal advance into the South.

              • marcferguson said, on October 17, 2011 at 12:55 pm

                Andy,
                you are right, of course, that the EP didn’t have the practical effect of immediately freeing all those slaves, but as Alan Guelzo argues, it was still the law and they were legally free, even if they could not yet enjoy the benefits of that freedom, (though some chose to enjoy those benefits as many documents such as letters and diaries demonstrate, anyway), but, of course, I agree with your hesitation to credit the word “immediately.”

                Marc

  2. Nora Carrington said, on October 15, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    “Every date on the calendar is the anniversary of some small piece of that story…”

    Well put, and cannot be stressed strongly or often enough. Again, thanks for all you do.

  3. Neil Hamilton said, on October 16, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Good job, Andy, and not bad for under 500 words. 🙂

    Sincerely,
    Neil

  4. corkingiron said, on October 16, 2011 at 9:49 am

    “History is too important to be left to historians”?!! Gah!

    Ya done good, Andy. Maybe a completely irrelevant quote from Dickens might have improved it. 🙂

    • Andy Hall said, on October 16, 2011 at 10:18 am

      One wonders what these folks, who have such disdain for academic accomplishment and advanced education, do when they get sick. Leeches and bone saws, I guess.

  5. Jim Schmidt said, on October 17, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Andy – terrific post and great reply in the paper…intererestingly, I have also seen criticism of Juneteenth celebrations in editorials from the African-American community…I’ll try and find a link for you but if I recall, the point was that Juneteenth celebrations tend to stress the “benevolence” of the whites as emancipators rather than celebrating enslaved African-Americans taking “owenership” of their own emancipation vis a vis colored troops fighting in the war…kind of a passive vs. active contrast, I guess…personally, I don’t think it was any more convincing than the argument to which you were replying, but I did find it curious. Keep up the great work.

    • Andy Hall said, on October 17, 2011 at 8:58 am

      Jim, thanks. As you know, the prevailing narrative of emancipation has dramatically shifted (and rightly so, IMO) in recent decades. This sort of monument would (one hopes) not be put up today. Even at the time, Frederick Douglass disliked the design of the monument, saying it “showed the Negro on his knees when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”

      Hari Jones, Curator of the African American Civil War Museum, made a similar argument.

      I have my own concerns about the historicity of how Juneteenth is remembered here locally, which I’ve addressed previously, but that’s minor stuff in the larger scheme of things.

  6. BorderRuffian said, on October 17, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    “There’s credible evidence that he personally supervised the whipping of runaway Arlington slaves in 1859.[2]”

    [2] Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (London: Penguin, 2007), 270-73.

    *******

    …except for several little white lies she tells to get you to believe it.

    “Reading the Man” is a hatchet job on Lee.

    • Andy Hall said, on October 17, 2011 at 2:44 pm

      We’ve been down this road before, BR. Didn’t we beat it to death then?

      Yeah, pun totally intended.

      More seriously, even Freeman’s (highly uncritical) biography mentions this event, although Freeman concludes it’s a false accusation, in part because — well, because he just believes Lee would never do such a thing. Freeman cited (IIRC) two anonymous letters published in newspapers describing the event, but Pryor found additional sources, including an account by a man, Wesley Norris, who claimed to be one of those beaten. I said in my editorial that the evidence for this event is “credible,” and I chose that word intentionally.

  7. Woodrowfan said, on October 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    good essay. They just can’t resist the ole’ “Grant owned slaves” bit, can they?

  8. Tom Forehand, Jr. said, on June 23, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    It is one thing to claim that Lee supervised a whipping. It is another thing to prove it! The author only referred to a book but did not supply nonbias evidence for such an event (nor do I believe that book proves this point). It is easily corroborated that Wesley Norris and two other runaway slaves were captured, were returned to Arlington, and were sent away to work elsewhere. And even though Wesley Norris claimed that Lee supervised their whipping at Arlington, this does not make it true. The publishing of this story by abolitionist friends did not make it true either.
    For this reason, “credible” evidence to one person is not credible testimony for another. If the author will supply credible corroboration that the Norris story is true, I’d like to evaluate it myself.
    Thanks,
    Tom Forehand, Jr.
    taftj@juno.com

    • Andy Hall said, on June 23, 2012 at 5:35 pm

      Pryor’s corroborative evidence is substantial, although no amount of documentation will be sufficient to “prove” the claim to someone who is unwilling to accept it. After all, Freeman dismissed this story as a “libel” based entirely on his assumption that Lee would not have done such a thing. (Note that our prisons are full of people who “would never have done” the things they’ve been convicted of, according to their friends and family.) Freeman was an admirable biographer in many ways, but his willful blindness to the Norris case really has no place in historiography.

      There are a great many events or incidents in history that are generally accepted as being true, based on less corroborative evidence than this. It’s the historian’s job to look at the evidence available, assess the sources carefully, and make interpretive decisions based on that analysis. That’s what historians do.

      You’re welcome to evaluate Pryor’s sources, of course. That’s what the endnotes are there for. 😉

      • Tom Forehand, Jr. said, on July 4, 2012 at 5:38 pm

        Andy,

        I have explored the notes as far as possible for someone who cannot check out every single source.

        You have said: The “corroborative evidence” in that book “is substantial.”

        Well, what has been corrobrated is this:
        the slaves ran;
        they were captured;
        they were rerturned; and,
        Lee shipped them South.

        Yet, what substantiates any whipping?

        The only substantiation that I have read in that book seems to come directly or indirectly from the mouths of the slaves; surely you cannot say this is unbias testimony (whether or not you believe all the details of the slave version)?

        If saw nothing in the book which substantiated the whipping incident besides slave testimony of which I am skeptical.

        Although Lee paid more for this escape, than he did for the other escapes, does not necessarily mean that Lee paid anyone to whip anyone; in my opinion, there are other explanations for this higher price. If the higher fee is your substantiation, then I am afraid that you are basing this on pure conjecture — not on any adequate substantiation.

        So, what substantiates the Norris testimony about the whipping? No one doubts that he was present and should have been aware of all the other details.

        Apparently, you saw some other “substantiation” for the whipping that I missed among the massive notes; or, you were able to check another sources the author mentioned that I was unable to check; so, please share that specific substantiation for me and for the others who will read these words.

        Or, just admit: your substantian is that you depend on the testimony of the slave involved — Mr. Norris.

        If that is the case, just say you are depending on what he said. We don’t want the reader of this blog to imagine that some new evidence has been uncovered, since the days of Freeman, which proves that the Norris story is correct in all of its details.
        .

        Thanks,
        Tom Forehand, Jr.

        • Andy Hall said, on July 5, 2012 at 1:09 pm

          Sure I’m relying on Norris’ statement. It’s a credible account that fits with others, including those given in Freeman’s biography of Lee. You write:

          The only substantiation that I have read in that book seems to come directly or indirectly from the mouths of the slaves; surely you cannot say this is unbiased testimony (whether or not you believe all the details of the slave version)?

          You’re skating very, very close to the notion that the (in this case historical) testimony of a slave cannot be relied upon when used against a white man. Or is it just not to be used against Lee?

          Against Norris’ published, public accusation, the only direct refutation is the report that Lee privately denied the act, but did not say anything about it publicly. And do you seriously believe that Lee would have less bias, or motivation to deny the accusation, than Norris did?

          I appreciate your desire for Lee not to have this particular stain on his reputation. Nonetheless, the Norris account is also part of the historical record, and has to be weighed against other evidence.

          Freeman dismissed accounts of this incident as “libel”, saying that “there is no evidence, direct or indirect, that Lee ever had them or any other Negroes flogged.” But he apparently never saw Norris’ firsthand, published account, nor is there indication that he saw the other materials Pryor used. As I’ve said previously, Freeman’s exoneration of Lee is based mainly on his (Freeman’s) certainty that “usage at Arlington and elsewhere in Virginia among people of Lee’s station forbade such a thing” (Vol. I, 390). In short, Lee couldn’t have done it because we know he wouldn’t have. That’s a weak rationalization that doesn’t very well on Freeman’s willingness to take a hard look at his subject. Here he uses the anonymity of the letters to give Lee the benefit of the doubt.

          Norris’ firsthand account, published in 1866 when Lee was in good health and active as president of Washington College, really does fundamentally change the equation. It matches, in general outline, the anonymous accounts published previously that Freeman dismisses. It’s one thing to say (as Freeman essentially did), “this anonymous letter to a newspaper can be disregarded”; it’s a whole different thing to (figuratively) look Norris in the eye and say, “this is a lie.”

          I really do see the practice of history as being something like a civil trial, in which the historian is acting as judge, and has to make a ruling based not on absolute certainty, but on the preponderance of the evidence at hand — with new evidence periodically coming to light that might change previous findings. That Freeman dismissed those anonymous letters is the call he made, eighty years ago, with the material he had. Wesley Norris’ firsthand account of the incident, in my view, dramatically tips the scales in the other direction.

          Thanks for stopping by.

          • Tom Forehand, Jr. said, on July 5, 2012 at 7:44 pm

            Andy,

            Let me remind you of what you claimed previously:

            “Pryor’s corroborative evidence is substantial, although no amount of documentation will be sufficient to “prove” the claim to someone who is unwilling to accept it.”

            All I asked you to do was to present this corroborative evidence! (After all, you made this claim. I just said that I was skeptical of some of the details of the Norris account. And I also inserted that just because Lee paid a higher price for the return of these slaves is not proof, at all, that he had them whipped.)

            Your backing up your claim is not for my sake, but for the sake of the surface readers who will drop into your Web side, read your claim, and think that the whipping part of the Norris account has been finally corroborated as factual. These people, however, who come to your blog, won’t take the time to read the material and to study more into the situation (and to read the notes as you and I have).

            Instead of supporting your claim, you turned to me and Mr. Freeman. What do he and I have o do with corroborI).ating the truthfulness of the Norris that Lee had these slaves whipped?

            Actually, Andy, the present issue is not about Freeman, not about yours truly, not about the other author, nor even about the Norris account. Each of us could be wrong in our research, writing, or have bad motives and unsubstantiated opinions. The issue at hand is that you made a claim, which I am afraid, could be misleading to others who will not look deeper into the situation.

            So, will you back up your claim (by listing all this substantially “corroborative evidence” or just admit that you simply “believe” the details of the whipping in the Norris account; I’ll admit that I am still skeptical about these details. That should suffice for you and me and your future readers. You have the right to your opinion (but so do I).

            Thanks,
            Tom Forehand, Jr.

            .

          • Tom Forehand, Jr said, on March 14, 2015 at 6:49 pm

            Andy, unfortunately, I did not find what I am going to state here in print. This is about the Norris allegation that Lee had Norris whipped.

            I can now be shown that at the very time, Wesley Norris put his name to the article alleging that Lee had had Norris whipped, something interesting was going on across the river from Arlington.

            Mr. Norris’ father (and several other ex-slave families from Arlington) were trying to get Congress to give each of those families 10 acres of land.

            The timing of the Norris allegation, along with the attempt of his family and others to get land from Arlington, seems to show that the Norris family had a strong reason for exaggerating the absconding story and thus blaming Lee for the alleged whipping. [By the way, if “a” whipping did take place in connection with the Norris escape, there a other possible explanations which have nothing whatsoever to do with Lee.] Now that it appears the Norris family had something to gain by libeling Lee, it is more than fair to question the Norris allegation. If you have questions, or need documentation for what I have stated here, feel free to contact me. The editor has my e-mail address.Thanks, Tom Forehand, Jr.


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