Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Just what sort of 'liberation' is this?

One hundred and fifty years ago today, on April 7, 1865, Tennessee became the 20th state to ratify the 13th amendment, which would outlaw slavery under the U.S. Constitution. Lincoln had endorsed it on Feb. 1, and three-quarters of the states (27 of 36) had to ratify it before it became the law of the land. The amendment process stalled after Lincoln was assassinated, and it turns out that Reconstruction governments in Stoneman's path were the final four who made it official: South Carolina Nov. 13, Alabama Dec. 2, North Carolina Dec. 4, and Georgia Dec. 6, 1865. States of the old Confederacy were required to approve the 13th and 14th Amendments before they could be restored to the Union. 

     If there were abolitionists in Stoneman's cavalry, they mostly kept quiet.
     The only one who was outspoken when it came to slavery was Col. William Palmer, a Philadelphia Quaker who commanded Stoneman's 1st Brigade. Palmer had organized abolitionist lectures in the two years before the war and afterwards became a strong supporter of Hampton Institute in its efforts to educate freed blacks. (Palmer Hall, the administration building at Hampton University, is named for him.)
    When the war broke out, Palmer had to make a choice. Quakers disapproved of war as well as slavery. "White I believe war to be inconsistent with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, and therefore wrong, yet I know that it would have been wrong for me to have refrained from become a soldier under the circumstances as they presented themselves to this country in 1861," he said. He recruited a regiment of Quakers who more or less agreed with him that emancipation was a higher calling than pacificism.
     On the other hand, there were too many shameful episodes like the one in Morganton, N.C, on April 18, 1865—the day after Gen. Alvan Gillem replaced Gen. George Stoneman in charge of the raid—as described by William Trotter in his book, Bushwhackers!
Dozens of local slaves, eager to get a look at their liberators, crowded the fence alongside the stagecoach road. But Gillem’s men were themselves mountaineers, and few, if any, were motivated by any deep abolitionist principles. As they rode past, returning the Negroes’ cheers and waves with contemptuous sneers, one cruel Yankee sang out: “Hail Columbia, Happy Land! If I don’t shoot a nigger, I’ll be damned!” Then he raised his carbine and blew one of the waving onlookers off the fence. The rest of the crowd fled in terror—wondering, no doubt, just what sort of “liberation” this was going to be. 
     I haven't seen anything to suggest that Gen. Stoneman saw himself as a liberator. He certainly didn't care about slaves the way he did about prisoners of war. He was a conservative Democrat at a time that abolitionists were radical Republicans. Union Gen. Joseph Hooker questioned Stoneman's devotion to the cause, pointing out that he had married "a Rebel wife." Nor was there anything noble in the way that Stoneman treated more than a thousand freed blacks who tagged along behind the cavalry. The New Yorker occasionally referred to them as "contraband," and his official report does not mention them at all. 
     Stoneman's second in command, Gen. Alvan Gillem, was a "home Yankee" raised near Nashville. In his one of his reports, he saw the freed slaves becoming a security risk: "The number of negroes who were following the column had increased to such an extent as to endanger the safety of the command in case it should become closely engaged with the enemy. Several hundred were sent from this point (Germantown, N.C. on April 10) to East Tennessee under a sufficient guard for their protection. They all reached their destination in safety, and most of those fit for military service, I have since learned, are now in Col. [Charles G.] Bartlett's 119th U.S. Colored Troops."
     Three days later, following the raid on Salisbury, there were another thousand "contrabands" tagging along, most of them riding horses that had been liberated from their owners. 
     Despite the unratified status of the 13th amendment, there seems to have been a general understanding among the slaves (as well as the slaveowners) that the arrival of Yankees soldiers set them free. "A considerable number of negro men left for Tennessee," J.C. Norwood wrote in his letter to Walter Lenoir following the March 29 raid on the Patterson Cotton Mill. "I have not heard of too many went with the cavalry. Some of the officers cursed the negroes and wished them all in Hell."
     Both sides took advantage of the blacks and their newfound freedom of speech. Union soldiers knew slaves would tell where their white masters had had hidden horses or other valuables. Confederates knew this too and used blacks as a last-gasp effort to to double-cross the Yankees. One soldier involved in the pursuit of Jefferson Davis wrote, "Colored men would visit our camp at night and tell us they heard an officer tell their master that Mr. Davis was in camp a few miles off, at a certain place, but when a detachment of our men was sent there, nothing was found. This and similar incidents were of daily occurence. The white people seemed to be doing all they could to throw us off Davis' trail and import false information to their slaves, knowing the latter would lose no time in bringing it to us."

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