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"Roundheads and Ramblings"


The Trouble with Abolitionists

Here's the last half of yesterday's talk at the Hilton Head Library.  Headed back to Tennessee soon, so postings will be scarce until next week. If you want to hear more about Frogmore, take a look at the dedicated website at http://theroadtofrogmore.co   It has lots of pictures of the real characters and places.

 Just who were the first abolitionists in South Carolina?

Mansfield French was the leader of the first arrivals.  An evangelical Methodist preacher, noted for founding a school for well-to-do free blacks in Ohio,  he was a charismatic speaker but a total airhead when it came to money matters. Pierce entrusted him with all the funds to pay teachers and purchase supplies.  Eventually he was tried for embezzlement, but all they ever proved was gross mismanagement. Money simply melted in his hands.
Austa French, his wife, was an opera singer and the mother of 7 children, all of whom she sent off to boarding school so that she could get on with her life.  She came to South Carolina to write a book about the evils of slavery, and spend all of her time interviewing slaves about the atrocities they had suffered.  As soon as she had gathered enough ammunition for a book, she went back to New York.
Susan Walker was a brilliant mathematician, a wealthy socialite, and the friend of senators congressmen and Lincoln’s cabinet officers.  She begged to go along with the abolitionists so she could report back to Chase.  Unfortunately, she hated dirt and manual labor.  When she discovered the very primitive conditions under which she was expected to live, she decided she had made a mistake.  She refused to set foot in a slave cabin until it was cleaned, would eat food only if she had not seen how it was cooked, and could not figure out what to do when she was assigned to do the laundry.  She left after only a couple of months.
Several young Quakers volunteered for abolitionist duty because their religion would not let them enlist in the army.  But much like Susan Walker, they had no idea how do do the tasks that were given to them.  One, Richard Soule, accidentally fed expensive cotton seed to the livestock on the plantation to which he was assigned.  Another, Charles Ware, followed his slaves to the fields every morning just to write down the songs they sang while they hoed. None of them knew anything about raising cotton.
Nelly Winsor and Harriet Ware were schoolteachers, but they refused to hold classes if the students arrived dirty.  They would send them home to take baths and put on clean clothes.  Of course, the children had only one set of clothes and no access to  water except for the mucky swamps, so they were at a standoff, and little teaching went on.
Edward Pierce was a wealthy economist who came along to prove that a plantation run by its owner and worked by paid labor would be more profitable than the traditional pattern of slaves and slave driver.  But to prove his point, he had to buy up land and pay his workers before he had made any profit at all.  Eventually he took on several investors and recouped his losses, only to be accused of exploiting the slaves who should have been allowed to purchase the land.
Charlotte Forten was a mulatto, a free Philadelphia black, who came to teach her people.  But “her people” refused to recognize her.  They called her that “brown gal” and rejected her because she lived with the other white teachers instead of with them. She violated their understanding of class.
Only one out of the whole group of abolitionists managed to find a way to work with the slaves and give them the kind of help they needed.  Laura Towne was a 38-year–old spinster who had never fit in with the society in which she had been raised.  She didn’t want to be a wife and mother; she preferred to live with another woman with whom she had formed a close relationship.  She studied medicine in the years before women could become doctors. She was a Unitarian, looked down upon by Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians alike because though religion should be private and free from doctrine. And of course she was an outspoken abolitionist when women were expected to hold no political views, or at least not expected to speak out about them. She was a misfit, but because of that, she understood the problems the slaves faced.
Laura and her freed slaves needed each other.  When the other abolitionists went home and moved on to the next great issue,  Laura Towne stayed on St. Helena Island for 40 years, teaching and caring for the people she had come to see as her own.

The Port Royal Experiment

Here's the first half of the lecture I delivered today at the Hilton Head Library.  We had another great audience, full of questions and eager to read the book.  Thanks, everyone.

This country’s first experiment with the  abolition of slavery began right here on Hilton Head Island in 1861.  The federal government put together an expedition to capture a safe harbor to be used by their blockading ships.  At the end of October, 1861, 88 ships, carrying 12 regiments (12,000 soldiers), sailed for the coastline of South Carolina. In a terribly one-sided battle, they destroyed two confederate forts, manned by a total of 200 men equipped with 7 guns.  From Charleston, General Robert E. Lee sent word that the Low Country of South Carolina could not be defended.  Those left out of the original 200 men took flight and headed for the safety of Charleston.  Right behind them were the white plantation owners who now had no one to defend their lives and property.
 Left behind were some 10,000 slaves who had never been off their respective plantations. They had no one to direct their labor, no one to supply their usual food allowances and clothing allotments, no one to treat their illnesses or help them survive on islands now in the hands of Yankees. 
The soldiers who had occupied the islands knew nothing about actual slavery or its conditions.  In letters from those soldiers, we find complaint after complaint that went something like this.  They had come to free the slaves.  They had done so.  Now why didn’t the slaves go on and leave?  And of course, the slaves did not understand the question.  Where were they supposed to go? And how would they get there?  Their little cabins weren’t much but they were home.  Their families had lived there for generations.  They didn’t want to leave.  But they did want someone to take care of them,  because someone always had provided for their simple needs .
What was worse, no one in the Union army had expected to find freed slaves there, and there were no plans for dealing with them.  Frantic letters flew back and forth to Washington DC.  “We have 10,000 blacks, ill, hungry, and helpless, unable to care for themselves? What are we to do?”  Lincoln had a quick answer.  He turned to his Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, and said, “Handle it.”
Chase responded by hiring two gentlemen – William Reynolds to take charge of gathering the cotton crops and administering the plantations and Edward Pierce to provide humanitarian aid for the slaves.  The cotton agents and their adventures would make a story on their own, but I want to concentrate on the Abolitionists hired by Pierce to do “something” about the slaves themselves. 
To this day, when you try to find out what the abolitionists wanted, there’s only a single answer – to do away with all slavery.  But nowhere will you find a clear explanation of what they thought would happen to the slaves.  There were no plans. They were an odd bunch from the beginning, some 75-80 volunteers who for one reason or another were free to uproot their lives and travel into a war zone to  provide for the needs of 10,000 slaves.  Looking at some of their personalities will demonstrate the flaws in the abolitionist goals. We'll do that tomorrow.

The First Emancipation Proclamation

150 years ago today, people were talking about Abraham Lincoln's bold new declaration on Emancipation.  That anniversary deserves more notice than it has received. So I am pleased to pass along this New York Times column on the event.

Lincoln’s Great Gamble

Countless school children have been taught that Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator. Others have been taught - and many have concluded - that the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln announced on Sept. 22, 1862, has been overemphasized, that it was inefficacious, a sham, that Lincoln's motivations were somehow unworthy, that slavery was ended by other ways and means, and that slavery was on the way out in any case.

The truth is that Lincoln's proclamation was an exercise in risk, a huge gamble by a leader who sought to be - and who became - America's great liberator.

Since before his election in 1860, Lincoln and his fellow Republicans had vowed to keep slavery from spreading. The leaders of the slave states refused to go along. When Lincoln was elected and his party took control of Congress, the leaders of most of the slave states turned to secession rather than allow the existing bloc of slave states to be outnumbered.

The Union, divided from the Confederacy, was also divided itself. Many Democrats who fought to stop secession blamed Republicans for pushing the slave states over the brink; some were open supporters of slavery. And if the Democrats were to capture control of Congress in the mid-term elections of November 1862, there was no telling what the consequences might be for the Republicans' anti-slavery policies.

The Emancipation Proclamation wasn't always part of the plan. Republicans, Lincoln included, tried push their anti-slavery program by measured degrees, since they feared a white supremacist backlash. That was what made Lincoln's decision to issue an emancipation edict, and to do it before the mid-term congressional elections of 1862, so extraordinarily risky.

In the first half of 1862, he had tried to institute a program of gradual and compensated emancipation in Delaware, Kentucky and Maryland, the slave states that had not fallen under the control of secessionists. But the border-state leaders refused to listen. So Lincoln decided in July that he would turn his attention to rebellious slave states, and there, in the name of preserving the Union, he would institute immediate and uncompensated emancipation.

In the months that followed, he worked to soften public opinion in the North - to get the public ready for the fact that he intended to free some slaves. In August, he wrote a letter to Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune. This letter would soon become famous. Lincoln claimed that his "paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

This was a clever deception in light of the fact that no breach in the Union would have happened in the first place had Lincoln and his fellow Republicans not refused to admit more slave states to the Union. Lincoln's letter to Greeley was misleading; he wrote it in an effort to appeal to patriotic Unionists and get them used to the idea that he might start freeing slaves. What he hoped was that people would view the proclamation as a patriotic necessity.

Some observers got the point; Sydney Howard Gay, a leading abolitionist, wrote to Lincoln:
Your letter to Mr. Greeley has infused new hope among us at the North who are anxiously awaiting that movement on your part that they believe will end the rebellion by removing its cause. I think the general impression is that as you are determined to save the Union tho' slavery perish, you mean presently to announce that the destruction of Slavery is the price of our salvation.

Lincoln himself confided to Representative Isaac N. Arnold that, as Arnold recounted, "the meaning of his letter to Mr. Greeley was this: he was ready to declare emancipation when he was convinced that it could be made effective, and that the people were with him."
Others, however, concluded from the letter that Lincoln was hopelessly obtuse in regard to the moral issues of the war. Wendell Phillips, another abolitionist leader, called the letter a "disgraceful document" and asserted that Lincoln "can only be frightened or bullied into the right policy . . . . He's a Spaniel by nature - nothing broad, generous, or highhearted about him."

In early September the deceptions thickened as Lincoln pretended he had not yet decided on the matter; he even played devil's advocate and told a group of visiting abolitionists that he was plagued with doubts about emancipation: "how can we feed and care for such a multitude," he asked a group of Chicago anti-slavery petitioners who visited him on Sept. 13. Once again, he was being deceptive; not only was he positive that he would take this step - the proclamation had been written already - but he was ready to act in advance of the November elections. He was waiting for a battlefield victory that would permit him to issue the proclamation from a position of strength. At one point he made this very clear to his listeners: "There is a question of expediency as to time, should such a proclamation be issued. Matters look dark just now. I fear that a proclamation on the heels of a defeat would be interpreted as a cry of despair. It would come better, if at all, immediately after a victory."

After Lee's invasion of Maryland was stopped in the battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, Lincoln made up his mind to go ahead. He later told a Massachusetts congressman that "when Lee came over the river, I made a resolution that if McClellan drove him back I would send the Proclamation after him." On Sept. 22, he read the proclamation to his cabinet.

The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is called "preliminary" because it was framed as a warning to rebels, a threat to take action by a certain date if they refused to lay down their arms. Lincoln warned that if the rebellion continued past Jan. 1, 1863,
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 shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, 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."

The warning was clear: the rebels were risking the permanent loss of their slaves if they refused to lay down their arms by New Year's Day. Lincoln's armies would not only "recognize" the freedom of slaves, they would work to "maintain" that freedom.

When the proclamation was released to the press later that day, reactions spanned a very broad range. The black abolitionist Frederick Douglass complained that it "touched neither justice nor mercy. Had there been one expression of sound moral feeling against Slavery, one word of regret and shame that this accursed system had remained so long the disgrace and scandal of the Republic, one word of satisfaction in the hope of burying slavery and the rebellion in one common grave, a thrill of joy would have run round the world." The abolitionist Lydia Maria Child wrote that "it was done reluctantly and stintedly . . . . It was merely a war measure, to which we were forced by our own perils and necessities." "How cold the president's proclamation is," remarked abolitionist Sallie Holley.

But other anti-slavery leaders were ecstatic. Theodore Tilton wrote that he was "half crazy with enthusiasm." Samuel J. May Jr. wrote that "joy, gratitude, thanksgiving, renewed hope and courage fill my soul." The Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner wrote that "the skies are brighter and the air is purer now that Slavery is handed over to judgment." Horace Greeley editorialized thus: "Let the President know that everywhere throughout the land he is hailed as Wisest and Best . . . . He re-creates a nation." The editor of The Pittsburgh Gazette called the proclamation "the most important document in world history." Even Frederick Douglass, despite his doubts, spoke words of praise for public consumption: "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree."

On Sept. 24, some administration revelers met at the home of Salmon P. Chase, the Treasury secretary, an ardent pre-war Free Soiler and a rival of Lincoln's for the 1860 nomination. "They all seemed to feel a sort of new and exhilarated life; they breathed freer," one of Lincoln's secretaries, John Hay, recorded. "They gleefully and merrily called each other and themselves abolitionists."

Some regarded the proclamation as an act of great political shrewdness. The editor of The Boston Commonwealth wrote that while "we complained bitterly that the President was slow," it was obvious that "his slowness has been the means of committing the whole flock of you to a rule of loyalty, which you cannot abandon . . . . Those who do not stand by the Proclamation will be branded as those who would rather see the United States Government overthrown than the end of Human Bondage on this continent."

But others worried that Lincoln's proclamation might prove a political mistake. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair warned that it would "endanger our power in Congress, and put the next House of Representatives in the hands of those opposed to the war, or to our mode of carrying it on."

White supremacist Democrats vilified the proclamation. The Louisville Democrat editorialized that "the President has as much right to abolish the institution of marriage, or the laws of a State regulating the relation of parent and child, as to nullify the right of a State to regulate the relations of the white and black races." The New York Express excoriated the proclamation; no president had ever before "conceived a policy so well fitted, utterly to degrade and destroy white labor, and to reduce the white man to the level of the negro."
Lincoln's gamble was dangerous indeed. But he did what he believed he had to do. It was not, in the end, a political calculation.
According to the diary of Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Lincoln told his cabinet on Sept. 22 he had made a promise to God. "He had made a vow, a covenant," Welles recounted, "that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would . . . move forward in the cause of emancipation."

And so the stakes of the war would be raised to a level commensurate with all of the carnage and all of the sacrifice. The meaning of the war would be changed - forever changed - by Lincoln's proclamation.

Follow Disunion at twitter.com/NYTcivilwar or join us on Facebook.
Richard Striner, a history professor at Washington College, is the author of "Lincoln and Race."

The Gideonites and the Port Royal Experiment

April 1862 was also the month in which a group of teachers and missionaries moved into the sea islands to work with the slaves who had been abandoned when the Union Army arrived in South Carolina. the members of this group are the subjects of my upcoming book, The Road to Frogmore. Although  the missionaries were staunch abolitionists, they had little idea of the challenges they would face. A Scratch with the Rebels mentioned a few of them.

 As the young Gideonites moved onto the abandoned plantations of the Sea Islands, they confronted a myriad of situations for which their college educations had not prepared them. They had arrived with high expectations of cooperation from the local authorities in their efforts to prepare the slaves for freedom.  They were dismayed to discover that those seemingly in command could not even cooperate with each other. One new plantation superintendent, Edward S. Phibrick, reported that he had trouble getting the crops handled, because of interference from two sources. Gen. Hunter was trying to call up recruits for his new volunteer troop, and the cotton agents were hiring the men away for fifty cents a day. Philbrick complained that the blacks would wonder off and then return several days later, expecting to see their families and then go back to work: "They are nearly all active young men and are pleased with this roving sort of life, but you may imagine how fatal such a state of thing is to my efforts at organization"

Susan Walker also commented on the clashes over conflicting authorities: "I fear the cotton agent, Salisbury, stationed here is not a good man. The Negroes complain of him, and they all look so neglected it is quite evident he has done no good upon the plantation. He drives the finest horses I have seen in Port Royal or St. Helena, gives good dinners, entertains largely, has appropriated all the furniture and nearly all the teams about the place and refuses to give anything to the superintendents placed there by Mr. Pierce."

            Such complaints and others reflected the various misapprehensions under which the missionaries and other Northern authorities labored in their early efforts to handle the problems of the abandoned slaves. Susan Walker found her duties frustrating. Her first impression of her pupils was that they were "ragged and dirty" but polite, welcoming, more eager for books than for clothes. She was a teacher by training and an abolitionist by conscience, and the abolitionist in her believed that to hand out charity to the blacks would be to deny them their inherent equality. At the same time, she could not ignore the lack of "social graces" that set them apart from other students she had known. She was encouraged on the one hand by their receptiveness but repelled by their lack of basic hygiene. Soon she was sending at least half of them home from her makeshift classroom each morning to wash their hands and faces before she would teach them. Not long after her arrival, she visited the Jenkins' plantation, about eight miles away, where she met a very pregnant slave woman whose problems overwhelmed her. "Katy has 7 ragged, dirty children—what shall be done? No husband and nothing. Some clothes are given for her children—one naked, and must have it at once. Is Katy lazy? Very likely. Does she tell the truth? Perhaps not. I must have faith, and she must at least cover her children."

            Philbrick's reaction was somewhat more admiring, although he recognized that his wife might have reservations about working with the former slaves. He warned her that she could not bring a servant with her if she chose to join him: "There are plenty of servants here, which you are supposed to teach not only to read but—what is more immediately important—to be cleanand industrious.  If you feel any hesitation about coming in contact with them you shouldn't come, for they are sharp enough to detect apathy or lurking repugnance, which would render any amount of theoretical sympathy about worthless."

Perhaps because he looked for signs that a slave was fully capable of full citizenship, he found much to commend: "Think of their having reorganized and gone deliberately to work here some weeks ago, without a white man near them, preparing hundreds of acres for the new crop! The Irish wouldn't have done as much in the same position."

An Irish Puzzlement

On this St. Patrick's Day, everyone wants to be thought of as at least part-Irish.  It provides a wonderful excuse to go out for a pint of Guinness or some corned beef and cabbage. Irish brogues and Irish blessings seem to be on everyone's tongue. Green clothes have emerged from the backs of closets, and a couple of comments on Facebook have reminded everyone that if you don't wear green today, you can expect to be pinched by one of those celebrants who may have imbibed a bit too heavily of green beer.
I am reminded, however, how frequently various nationalities have suffered from discrimination because they seemed strange or different, and the Irish were no exception.  One hundred and fifty years ago, it was the Irish who were regarded by many Americans as somehow inferior forms of humanity.  That form of prejudice leaps out at me as I  have been reading about the abolitionist attempts to prove that the children of southern slaves were as capable as white children of getting an education.
Here's just one example, taken from  letter written by Edward Philbrick, an Abolitionist  missionary in South Carolina.  He had been telling his wife why he believed newly-freed slaves were fully capable of becoming useful citizens.  He says, "Think of their having reorganized and gone deliberately to work here some weeks ago, without a  white man near them, preparing hundreds of acres for the new crop. The Irish wouldn't have done as much in the same position." Another of the missionaries commented that to one who was used to seeing the stupidity of Irish faces, the slaves did not appear to "suggest a new idea of low humanity."
There seems to be an underlying assumption in the thinking of the Civil War period, that some peoples are just naturally inferior to others.  Others among the missionaries speak of the Irish as one of the "degraded races" of people who had fallen from their original state of natural equality to a lesser status. I've been shocked to see that the same people who argue for the inherent ability of the former slaves have no qualms about sneering at the inferiority of the Irish. As a counterbalance, it is also easy to find the Bostonian Irish making the same disparaging remarks about Negroes in general, perhaps because they saw them as competition in the labor force.
I'm not quite sure what to make of all of this. Are you surprised to learn that the Irish were attacked in this way? More important, what does it say about our ability — or inability — to judge the worth of people who are different from us?