Professor David Blight: The first formally recognized or
organized black regiment in the Civil War was known as the First
South Carolina Volunteers. It was organized entirely and
exclusively among freed slaves, along the Sea Islands of South
Carolina. It had an amazing
non-commissioned officer whose name was Prince Rivers,
a man who'd been a slave yesterday but a free man by
1862, and whose white commanding
officer, Thomas Wentworth Higginson said,
"in another land, in another time,
he could command any army in the world."
Thomas Wentworth Higginson was an abolitionist from Worcester,
Massachusetts who ended up the colonel and the commander of
that regiment. Nearly 1,000 freed slaves were
recruited among the roughly 35 to 40,000 former slaves along
the Georgian/South Carolina Sea Islands.
Higginson went on to write a great book about it called
Army Life in a Black Regiment,
and among the remarkable descriptions he left in that
classic is this description from Thanksgiving Day 1862;
so it's November '62. The preliminary Emancipation
Proclamation is in place but the final Emancipation Proclamation
hasn't quite happened yet. It was actually the first
formally, legally, federally recognized
Thanksgiving Day; so decreed by Abraham Lincoln.
And Higginson had his headquarters in an old
plantation house. He looked out of broken
windows, at this abandoned plantation in the Sea Islands,
through what he described as "the great avenues of great live
oaks," and he observed that quote,
"All this is a universal southern panorama,
but five minutes walk beyond the hovels and the live oaks
will bring one to something so unsouthern that the whole
southern coast at this moment trembles at the suggestion of
such a thing, a camp of a regiment of freed
Almost two years later one of those freed slaves named George
Hatton wrote a couple of letters from the front.
George Hatton was a former slave.
He had lived part of his life in Washington,
DC, part of his life in Virginia, North Carolina;
he'd been around. He was at this point,
by April of 1864, a non-commissioned sergeant in
Company C, First Regiment, United States Colored Troops.
They were in camp New Bern, North Carolina,
and he sat down to write a letter to reflect upon the
circumstance that he found himself in.
Hatton, his fellow soldiers, and their families had lived
generations as slaves. And this is what he wrote.
He says, "Though the government openly declared that it did not
want the Negroes in this conflict,
I look around me and see hundreds of colored men armed
and ready to defend the government at any moment.
And such are my feelings that I can only say the fetters have
fallen, our bondage is over." A month later Hatton's regiment
was in camp near Jamestown, Virginia--and he didn't miss
the irony of being at Jamestown, the founding site of Virginia.
And into his lines came several black freed women who all
declared they had recently been severely whipped by a master.
Members of Hatton's company managed to capture that slave
owner, a Mr. Clayton, the man who had
allegedly administered the beatings on these women.
The white Virginian was stripped to the waist.
He was tied to a tree and he was given 20 lashes by one of
his own former slaves, a man named William Harris,
who was now a member of the Union Army.
In turn, each of the women that Clayton had beaten were given
the whip and their chance to lay the lash on this slaveholder's
back. "The women were given leave,"
said Sergeant Hatton--his words--"to remind him that they
were not longer his but safely housed in Abraham's bosom and
under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner and guarded by
their own patriotic, though once downtrodden race."
In Hatton's letter he once again felt lost for words to
describe the transformation he was witnessing.
"Oh that I had the tongue to express my feelings," he wrote,
"while standing on the banks of the James River on the soil of
Old Virginia, the mother-state of slavery,
as a witness of such a sudden reverse.
The day is clear, the fields of grain are
beautiful and the birds are singing sweet melodious songs
while poor Mr. Clayton is crying to his
servants for mercy." That's a revolution,
described in the words of a former slave,
words that were trying to capture the transformations of
history at the same time his actions were trying to transform
Words. Now, we will forever debate in
this society the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Over and over and over again we debate: did it really free
anybody? Why did it only free the slaves
in the states in rebellion? Why was Lincoln so bloody
legalistic in this document? Was Richard Hofstadter right
when he said it had all the eloquence of a bill of lading
(which means a grocery list)? Why was it written like it was
a legal brief in court, here and there laced with some
remarkable phrases? Why was he so careful not to
free the slaves in the Border States that hadn't left the
union? And on and on.
But I think we should make no mistake, the Emancipation
Proclamation is a terribly important American document.
Emancipation is not just the story of great documents,
as I'm trying to argue, but this one's important.
The second paragraph reads--and this is, by the way,
Lincoln's own handwriting; this is a facsimile of the
original; he wrote some three or four
originals--"that on the First Day of January in this year of
Our Lord, One Thousand Eight Hundred and
Sixty-Three, all persons held as slaves within any state or
designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then
be in rebellion against the United States"--God,
is this legalistic--"shall be then"--this is not
legalistic--"then, thenceforward and forever free.
And the Executive governments of this United States,
including the military and naval authority thereof"--the
Army and Navy are now bound to do this it says--"will recognize
and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or
acts to repress such persons, or any of them,
in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom."
Now, yes, it was a limited document.
It didn't free as many slaves as the Second Confiscation Act
had legally already set in motion.
That's true. But this is the most important
thing to remember about the Emancipation Proclamation.
Most black folks didn't care about the details of it.
What they cared about is that the United States Government had
acted and said they were going to be free.
There were at least four immediate and visible effects of
the Proclamation, once it went into effect on
January^( )1. Every forward step of the Union
armies now would be, whether some of those officers
liked it or not, a liberating step.
Secondly, news of this Proclamation,
whatever the details and the fine print,
would spread like wildfire across the South,
and it would bring about--there's no question--it
will bring about increased activity,
increased flight, increased movement toward Union
lines by freed people, where they can do it.
And there's all over the record we have testimony of Confederate
soldiers themselves, of Southerners,
white Southerners themselves saying they first heard about
the Emancipation Proclamation from their slaves.
Third, it committed the United States Government in the eyes of
the world--and that's terribly important when we remember that
Great Britain was on the verge of recognition of the
Confederacy--more on that a bit later in the course,
of how that foreign relationship and the problem of
Civil War diplomacy is being managed by the two governments,
Union and Confederate. And fourth, on the second page
of the Emancipation Proclamation--or is it the
third--in another very legalistic paragraph Lincoln
formally authorizes once and for all,
although it's already begun to happen, the recruitment of black
men into the Union Armies and Navy,
and it authorizes a formal process now to recruit black men
to the Union uniform. And before the war will end
about ten percent of all Union forces will be
African-American-- approximately 180,000--eighty percent of whom
were former slaves, from the slave states.
Now, in that fall of 1862, Frederick Douglass put down his
cudgel that he'd been beating Lincoln with for a year in his
editorials--and he beat him bitterly at times.
At one point in late '61 he called Abraham Lincoln the most
powerful slave catcher in the world.
That was Douglass's opinion of that denial of asylum policy
which said fugitive slaves escaping Union lines had to be
returned if their owners were loyal.
Douglass, like many others, saw the nonsense in that policy
early on. Douglass finally put down the
cudgel and he said, with lovely irony,
"It is really wonderful," said Frederick Douglass,
"how all efforts to evade, postpone and prevent its coming
have been mocked and defied by the stupendous sweep of events";
its coming meaning black freedom.
And I'll just say lastly, add a fifth to that,
emancipation transformed the purpose of the war.
Emancipation more than anything else will make the Civil War a
war of conquest, a war of near totality,
on both sides, and it meant now,
now that this was going to be a war of conquest on the South's
social and economic institutions,
it meant it would probably only end in unconditional surrender.
Now, it's a complicated story as to how this'll be enforced,
of course. And I strongly urge you to read
certain of those Lincoln documents in the Johnson reader,
and more importantly, to read at least that greatest
hits selection I provided in the reading packet of the documents
on emancipation; which, by the way,
come out of a book called Free at Last,
which is itself a 500 page collection of the greatest hits
of the documents of the American emancipation,
which are now published in five volumes, all of which are in the
National Archives. But one of those Lincoln
documents I don't want you to miss, I said the other day,
was the James Conkling letter. It comes in August of '63.
One of the reasons that letter is interesting is that it shows
us that though Lincoln could be one crafty politician;
and whether emancipation will ever truly succeed in this war,
of course, depends on the Union winning on the battlefield.
It really depended on all those deaths at Gettysburg and at
Vicksburg and so many other horrible places.
And yes, it's true that large, large numbers of those Union
soldiers who died didn't necessarily believe they were
fighting to free slaves, nor did they even want to.
But sometimes history is ahead of anyone's basic human,
individual motives, isn't it?
But in this Conkling letter, so called, it's a public letter
that--Lincoln mastered this presidential art of the public
letter more than any previous president and it was his version
of the news conference, which didn't happen in those
days. It was his version of an
exclusive interview with Anderson Cooper,
or whatever the hell it would be today.
He wrote letters aimed at certain newspapers which would
then be reprinted across the country.
This was a letter to James Conkling, Congressman from
Illinois, of his own party, who was opposing emancipation,
who was at least wary of it and worried about it.
The great worry about the emancipation policy,
of course, was that white Northerners would not accept it,
that white northern soldiers would thrown down their arms and
say, "I ain't fighting to free the slaves.
I'm fighting to preserve the Union, thank you very much."
Lincoln had that great fear himself.
But God, read that letter. It's one of Lincoln's--it's
Lincoln the ironist; it's also Lincoln the
persuasive lawyer. On the second page of it he
says to Conkling--he's really saying this to white northerners
now, because this letter got
published everywhere--"You dislike the Emancipation
Proclamation," he says, "and perhaps would
have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional.
I think differently. I think the Constitution
invests its commander-in-chief with the law of war,
in time of war. The most that can be said,
if so much, is that the slaves are property.
Is there, has there ever been any question that by law of war
property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when
needed?" So there's that argument.
Whatever you think of the morality of this,
folks, slaves are property of the enemy;
I'm taking their assets. It's a legal argument.
Then you go to the next page--he's also beginning to
make there an argument, if you read that part of the
letter carefully, it's an argument for total war,
to unconditional surrender, and he's trying to condition
public opinion for this. Then you go to the next page.
"You say you will not fight to free Negroes.
Some of them seem wiling to fight for you.
But no matter, fight you then,
exclusively to save the Union. I issued the Proclamation on
purpose to aid you in saving the Union.
Whenever you shall have conquered all resistance to the
Union, if I shall urge you to continue fighting,
it will be an apt time then for you to declare you will not
fight to free Negroes."
All right, crawl into your cul-de-sac and say you're only
fighting to save the Union, but here's another way to save
the Union. And then he goes on.
"I thought that in your struggle for the Union,
to whatever extent the Negroes should cease helping the enemy,
to that extent it weakened the enemy in his resistance to you.
Do you think differently? I thought that whatever Negroes
can be got to do as soldiers leaves just so much less for
white soldiers to do in saving the Union."
It's almost as if he's appealing to Conkling's racial
self-interest; does it appear otherwise to you?
And then Lincoln says, "But Negroes,
like other people, act upon motives.
Why should they do anything for us if we will do nothing for
them? If they stake their lives for
us, they must be prompted by the strongest motive,
even the promise of freedom. And the promise being made must
Okay, blah, blah, blah, lots of words,
right? Words, words, words, words.
Yes, but meanings are almost always somewhere,
somehow embedded in words. Now, as I said,
now every forward step of the Union armies is going to be a
liberating step. And I want to show just a quick
map here to illustrate something.
And I can zoom in on that. I hope you can see the colors
here to some extent. The simple point of this map is
this. It's a map that shows the
conquest of the South by Union forces, it's the movement,
generally speaking, of Union lines into the South
in what becomes now, by '62,
'63 and '64, a war of conquest,
West and East. But I want to especially stress
that the most important factor in when and where a slave might
attain his or her freedom; the first factor had everything
to do with where the armies went.
It was proximity to the war that made emancipation possible
in northern Virginia in 1862; Sea Islands of Georgia,
South Carolina, '62;
around the whole New Orleans region in '62;
but not possible at all in southern Georgia until after the
war was over; not possible really at all in
the southern half of Alabama until the whole war was over;
not possible at all in parts of Mississippi until the whole war
was over. Hence, that's why the large
majority of American slaves were not actually within Union lines
or technically free, in any way, until the war
ended. I'll make one other point about
this. There's a nice book by a
historian named Stephen Ash. It's called When the Yankees
Came, and it's all about the process of Union occupation of
parts of the South. He goes in and studies towns in
Tennessee and towns in northern Georgia and towns in northern
Virginia, and tries to understand,
so what happened when an area of the South,
an area of the Confederacy, came under Union control?
And he divides the South usefully here;
and it's very useful in understanding how emancipation
actually happened on the ground as a human, sometimes brutal,
ugly, chaotic, painful process.
He divides the South into what he calls three regions:
one, the "Confederate frontier";
the second he calls "no-man's land";
and the third he calls "garrisoned towns."
Now that's pretty easy to understand.
If you think of--just take Tennessee, up there in the
middle. By 1862 Nashville became a--it
was the capital of Tennessee--it became a garrisoned Union town;
that is, it's occupied, its resources,
its railroad, its everything,
were taken over by the Union forces.
And then there's the so called no-man's land,
the region say between a Nashville and where the
Confederate forces were, the land between the armies,
which of course fluctuated a great deal back and forth.
And then lastly he calls it the Confederate frontier,
or at times he'll call it the Confederate hinterland,
that is the land behind the lines that was never taken by
Union forces, the land behind the lines where
Confederate resources, relatively speaking,
remained intact. They're still producing cotton
crops, in the summer of '64 and the fall of '64,
and they're still planting in the whole southern half of
Georgia and the whole southern half of Alabama,
by and large, right on into 1865.
But where you happen to be geographically was the first
important factor of where and how emancipation might occur,
in proximity particularly to the armies.
Now, a second factor that would determine when and if slaves
would be free was the character of the slave society in any
given region. Were they in a densely
populated slave region like the Sea Islands, parts of the cotton
belt? Or were they in sparsely
populated areas? And again, it had to do with
geography. Were you in the Lower
Mississippi Valley, huge concentrations of slaves?
When Grant's forces move down the Mississippi and eventually
take Vicksburg by July 1863, this entire region--in fact it
is in the Lower Mississippi Valley;
this is why some people argue that the war,
the Civil War was really won and lost in the West.
And I'll engage that argument after the break when we talk
about Union victory and Confederate defeat and the
various debates among historians trying to explain this.
A lot of people have argued that the war is won and lost in
the West because of the great significance of the Mississippi
Valley, which had become the great
cotton kingdom of the world. And when Union forces truly
conquer the Mississippi River by the summer of 1863,
there are thousands of slaves coming into Union lines.
The reason that Grant and Sherman and other officers in
the West began to create these things called contraband camps,
for freed slaves, is because they didn't know
what to do with them. And there are these amazing
dispatches written by Grant, to the War Department,
saying what am I going to do with all these people,
how do I feed them, where do I put them?
What is their status, what are they legally?
And eventually that's why you get the largest contraband camps
anywhere. The largest ones were not in
Virginia--although there was a huge one around Washington,
DC--the largest of them were in northern Mississippi at a place
called Corinth. You can see it on the map right
here. There was a huge contraband
camp at Memphis. There was eventually one in
Cairo, Illinois. All up and down this region,
this is where conquest really happened first and the true
disruption of southern society and the beginnings of the
destruction of plantations. It will lead even to the
beginnings--it's going to take another year for it to happen
along the East Coast, but it begins in '63;
even in '62 but especially '63--where many plantation
owners in Louisiana and Mississippi started refugeeing
their slaves. They would flee their
plantations in the face of the Yankee armies,
often going west toward Texas, sometimes just further inland,
or wherever they could go, and they would try to take
their slaves with them; it was called refugeeing them.
And often what that meant--I'll cite some examples of that after
the break. There's a famous diary memoir
by a southern woman, Kate Stone, who kept a diary of
her plantation called Brokenburn.
At any rate, she left with some
hundred-and-some slaves to try to get out of Louisiana over
into Texas. By the time she got there half
of them were gone, and she kept wondering why.
Gee, why would they leave, what happened to their loyalty?
Then thirdly, the third factor that would
determine when and how and if a slave became free was,
indeed, what policy was actually being enforced,
at any given time, by those Union troops,
or for that matter by the Confederate troops in terms of
freeing the slaves or not freeing the slaves,
taking them into their lines or not taking them into their
lines, and establishing some kind of legal status.
And then the fourth factor, of course--and this one you
can't measure; you can know it when you read
it and you see it and you hear it, and there's so many
wonderful documents that demonstrate it--the fourth
factor in when and how American slaves became free was their own
ingenuity, their own initiative,
their own cunning, their own bravery,
their own willingness to risk everything,
to try to get to something called freedom.
And not knowing what that freedom would be when they got
there -- would they be employed? Would they have shelter?
Were they going to be able to feed their children?
Could they get their wives and husbands out with them?
What about women with three children, where would they go,
what would their status be? Would they actually have any
We learn so much about this--and please in the reading
packet have a close look. I included some of those
documents from the contraband camps where these
superintendents of the contraband camps were all asked
a series of questions. They were asked things about
the motives of the slaves that escaped into their camps.
They were asked to describe why had these people come.
They were asked to describe their physical conditions.
They were asked to describe what they thought,
what they felt, what they said.
And all these superintendents of all these contraband camps
are just stunned at the way that black folk keep coming,
in spite of the hardships, half clothed,
half fed--if that. And they're stunned at the
religiosity of escaped slaves. These superintendents write
back and they say, "These people sing and they
worship all night long--strange."
But almost to a man, these superintendents of
contraband camps when asked what were the motives,
they simply fall back on the most basic of things.
They say things like, "They wanted their freedom."
Now, emancipation also would depend, here and there,
on a whole lot of other factors,
but again they come under these categories I've already given
you--the close proximity to the war.
Now, for example, when the war moved into Georgia
in '63 and '64, when Sherman invaded northern
Georgia and the war really went to the deep hinterland,
the heart of the southeast, Confederates were all
ready--and they were already doing this in Virginia,
they were beginning to do it out in the West,
they surely did it in the city of Mobile and other Confederate
held cities--Confederates had begun to employ or impress their
slaves into service, thousands of them.
About 3000 slaves were put to work in Mobile,
Alabama, building its fortifications.
Slaves, hundreds upon hundreds of slaves, were put to work
building fortifications of Richmond.
An estimated 5,000 slaves were put to work building the
fortifications all around Atlanta, by late '63,
to try to stop Sherman's advance.
Very often they were hired out; that is, they were supposed to
be paid--or their owners were supposed to be paid--for their
service. They were used as teamsters and
nurses and cooks and boatmen and blacksmiths and laundresses and
so on and so forth. If you saw a Confederate Army
from 1862 to '64, you'd see hundreds of black
Well, and as those armies moved, sometimes those slaves
had opportunities to flee. In the wake of battles,
on any scale, some slaves would always flee.
They were often used as the burial crews,
on both sides. They were also hired out--and
this was really significant in Virginia--to the ironworks in
Richmond. The Tredagar Ironworks at one
point employed almost 4,000 slaves who tended to be hired
out from the western parts of Massachusetts and the northern
parts of North Carolina. That movement of people,
movement of slaves, on this scale had never
happened in the South, and in the midst of that
movement. Linda Morgan wrote a fine book
on emancipation in Virginia and she showed this for the first
time, that all this movement of hired
out slaves to Richmond--and other small ironworks,
by the way, over in the Shenandoah Valley--meant a
certain percentage of them began to flee,
and escape, further north. They worked on railroad crews.
It was estimated that in northern Georgia,
during Sherman's campaign against Atlanta,
that about forty percent of all the women working as nurses in
Confederate hospitals all over the state were slave women.
That means they'd been taken off their plantations,
their farms, or out of their domestic
situations, wherever they were,
and put to work in the hospitals.
So the point is, movement of the armies meant
movement of slaves as well, and that moment of freedom,
that moment of escape, that opportunity might come
when you would least expect it. And that American slave had to
make a choice, every time--do I go and risk
everything or do I not? Let me tell one little story
amidst that. It's the other half of this
book I just did. This young slave named Wallace
Turnage. He was born on a little tobacco
farm in North Carolina in 1846, Green County,
North Carolina, sold by his indebted owner to a
Richmond, Virginia slave-trader named Hector Davis,
who was one of the largest slave-traders in the United
States and kept enormous records.
He spent about six months in 1860 working in the three-story
slave jail/auction house in Richmond.
His job every day was preparing the slaves in what was called
the dressing room, to take them out to the auction
floor. And one day he's simply told,
"Boy, you're in the auction." And he was sold to an Alabama
cotton planter named James Chalmers.
Seventy-two hours later by train he found himself on a huge
cotton operation near Pickensville,
Alabama, which is right about there, right on the Mississippi
border, a plantation with about eighty-five slaves.
And the narrative he left us, which was discovered and lopped
into my lap a few years ago, the extraordinary narrative he
left, is the story largely of his five attempts to escape in
the midst of the war, from the age of fourteen to
seventeen. He was one
passionate--half-crazy, one might say--no doubt
traumatized--teenage slave who just couldn't be controlled.
He ran away four times into Mississippi, the second two of
which, certainly at least, he was always trying to get up
to northern Mississippi to get to the Union armies,
which he knew had controlled the whole northern tier of
Mississippi by late spring 1862; in fact three of his escapes
over there were really--. He would always go up the
Mobile and Ohio Railway Line. And one time he was at large
for four and a half months, hiding in other slave cabins
and hiding in woods and forests and gullies wherever he could
hide, and he was always captured.
He was trying to actually get to Corinth, and the big
contraband camp in Corinth, and he almost made it on his
fourth try. He kept being captured by slave
patrols, Confederate patrols and so on.
His master would always come after him because he was so
valuable. He'd been sold,
by the way, for $950 the first time, out of North Carolina.
He was sold for $1000 to old Chalmers in Richmond.
And Chalmers now got fed up in early '63 of constantly trying
to retrieve this kid, and he took him down to Mobile,
Alabama and sold him at the slave jail in Mobile in the
spring of 1863 for $2000. That's about the price today of
a good Mercedes-Benz; well as opposed to a bad
Mercedes-Benz, I'm not sure what that would
And Wallace's fifth and final escape attempt,
the one that succeeded, came after a vicious beating.
He'd been beaten many more times than he could count and
he'd been put in neck braces and leg chains and ankle chains and
wrist chains and every kind of--he'd experienced about every
kind of brutality slavery could wreak upon a teenage kid.
One day, he crashed his master's carriage and the master
got so angry that he took him to the slave jail,
hired the jailer to give him thirty lashes with the ugliest
whip they had, this contraption they had that
would make you bleed on every lash.
At the end of it he's standing there naked, bleeding,
and his master says, "Go home."
And instead of going home he put his clothes back on and he
walked right through the Confederate Army,
a garrison of 10,000 troops, where he was no doubt simply
mistaken for yet another black camp hand,
and at dusk he just crossed through the Confederate camp and
he walked out of Mobile. And his final escape is a
three-week trek, which he narrates in remarkable
ways, a three-week trek down the
western shore of Mobile Bay for twenty-five miles through a
snake and alligator invested swamp,
now known as the Fowl River Estuary.
I've been there, I've seen the alligators and
the snakes, from a large ferry boat.
And he describes one day praying especially hard when he
got out to the tip of Mobile Bay,
and the tide brought in an old rickety rowboat,
and he tipped over the rowboat, took a plank of wood and he
just started rowing out into the ocean.
And in quite dramatic form he--which is no doubt a little
embellished--he describes how a wave is about to swamp his
little boat, and he hears oars,
and the oars were a Union gunboat with eight sailors.
They said, "Jump in." He jumped in.
And he said as he sat down in their boat, he said the Yankee
sailors were struck with silence as they looked at him.
And I don't know if that's true or not, but I don't doubt it,
they probably were struck with silence, wondering who he was
and how he got there. They took him to a Sand Island
fort and clothed him and fed him, the first kind acts by a
white person that seventeen year-old Turnage had ever
experienced. And the next day they took him
to Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island, which is the big,
beautiful sandbar island out at the mouth of Mobile Bay,
and he was brought before the Union commander of all forces in
the area, Gordon Granger,
who interrogated him, probably because they wanted
intelligence about Mobile, and Granger gave him two
choices. He could either join a black
regiment that they were forming at that very time in the Gulf
region, or he could become a servant to a white officer.
And Wallace chose the latter; didn't tell us why but probably
because he'd had enough suffering.
He'd seen enough of his own war with the Confederates.
And he served out the war for another year as the mess cook
for a captain from a Maryland regiment whose name was Junius
Turner. And Wallace was with that
regiment in Baltimore, Maryland in August of 1865 when
it was mustered out. He lived three years in
Baltimore and then moved to New York City where he lived the
rest of his life, until 1916.
But by 1870 I found him in a census manuscript living in the
300-block of Thompson Street in what you and I call Greenwich
Village. He got his mother,
his four siblings, somehow, out of North Carolina,
and they were all living in a tenement house,
surviving, as part of the first generation of a black working
class, former slaves, in a northern city.
He lived till 1916. He's buried in Cyprus Hill
Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.
The point of all of that is that these slaves escaping were
real people, with real names, real family,
real hopes and desires. And those who--some of those
who survived told us what it meant.
Now, the war, of course, raged on,
and at the end of the day--this is a photograph,
by the way, taken in 1862, I believe, in Virginia.
The photographer simply called it "A Group of Contrabands."
The war raged on. And of course in the spring of
1863 the Union armies will invade Virginia again.
I'll come back to lots of this after the break when we get back
to the military history and try to explain how the Union side
won this war. They'll fight a horrible battle
at a place called Chancellorsville,
near Fredericksburg in May of 1863,
which will be another smashing victory by Robert E.
Lee and Stonewall Jackson, over a Union Army commanded by
Joseph Hooker. It will give Lee his occasion
for his second invasion of the North, the riskiest of all,
which will lead him up through northern Virginia,
across into Maryland, and eventually all the way in
to Pennsylvania, and will lead to the fateful
battle at Gettysburg, the first three days of July,
1863; arguably the most important
military turning point of the war.
But it is in those same first six and seven months of 1863
that this war has now been transformed into a war of
unconditional surrender, a war of all out attempt,
at least, all out mobilization at home, and conquest in the
South. It is during this period that
black soldiers are being recruited.
The 54^(th) Massachusetts, the famous regiment from
Massachusetts about which the movie Glory was made,
was recruited that winter, and spring, of course,
and marched off to South Carolina to its fate in May of
1863. They will reach their fate at
Fort Wagner within a week of the Battle of Gettysburg back up
north. But just as a way to take this
out today, go back with me to January 1^(st),
1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation actually went into
place. I said at the outset that for
most black folk they didn't really care about what actually
the details or the words of the document were.
The point was that now somehow the United States government was
And go back with me to Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
This is Higginson's description of Emancipation Day.
On Hilton Head Island, in South Carolina,
near Beaufort, South Carolina,
he was given orders to read the Emancipation Proclamation to the
people, to the freedmen.
And this, by the way, became a policy throughout the
Union Army. Thousands of copies of the
Emancipation Proclamation were given to Union officers who were
ordered to spread it around the South.
Higginson not only spread it, he held a ceremony.
They build a little stage. And this is his description of
what happened. He's describing the scene:
"All this was according to the program," writes Higginson.
"Then followed an incident so simple and so touching,
so utterly unexpected and startling that I can scarcely
believe it on recalling it, though it gave the key note to
the whole day. The very moment the speaker had
ceased, and just as I took and waved the flag,
which now for the first time meant anything to these poor
people, there suddenly arose close beside the platform a
strong male voice, but a little cracked and
elderly, into which two women's voices instantly blended,
singing, as if by an impulse that could no more be repressed
than the morning note of a song sparrow.
'My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,
of thee I sing.' People looked at each other,
and then at us on the platform to see whence came this
interruption, not put down in the program.
Firmly and irrepressibly the quavering voices sang on,
verse after verse, 'my country 'tis of thee,
sweet land of liberty.' Others of the colored people
joined in. Some whites on the platform
began, but I motioned to them to be silent.
I never saw anything so electric.
It made all words cheap. It seemed the choked voice of a
race at last unloosed. Nothing could be more
wonderfully unconscious. Art could not have dreamed of a
tribute to the day of jubilee; it should be so affecting.
History will not believe it. And when I came to speak of it,
after it was ended, tears were everywhere.
If you could've heard how quaint and innocent it all was.
Just think of it, the first day they'd ever had a
country, the first flag they'd ever seen which promised
anything to their people. And here, while mere spectators
stood in silence, waiting for my stupid words,
these simple souls burst out in their way, as if they were by
their own hearths, at home.
When they stopped there was nothing to do but to try to
speak. And I went on.
But the life of that whole day was in those unknown people's
simple song." Have a good spring break.