• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Terror in Mississippi

Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Conspiracy

by Winthrop D. Jordan
Louisiana State University Press, 391 pp., $24.95

Witness for Freedom: African American Voices on Race, Slavery, and Emancipation

edited by C. Peter Ripley, edited by Roy E. Finkenbine, edited by Michael F. Hembree, edited by Donald Yacovone
University of North Carolina Press, 306 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War

edited by Ira Berlin, edited by Barbara J. Fields, edited by Steven F. Miller, edited by Joseph P. Reidy, edited by Leslie S. Rowland
The New Press, 571 pp., $15.95 (paper)

1.

The Negro,” Frederick Douglass proclaimed at the beginning of the Civil War, “is the key of the situation—the pivot upon which the whole rebellion turns.” Investing his hope in the “desperate insurrectionary movements of slaves,” Douglass saw that his belief in the centrality of racial justice was hotly contested in the North, and knew that justice depended far more on the mysterious workings of providence than on the intentions of white Americans. Late in 1860, at a meeting in Boston honoring the martyrdom of John Brown, Douglass had been heckled and then attacked by hired thugs before he and his followers were thrown out of the hall by the police. African Americans who sought to aid the Union cause frequently encountered a response similar to the insults hurled by some Cincinnati policemen: “We want you d——d niggers to keep out of this; this is a white man’s war.”1

Since Abraham Lincoln disavowed any intention of interfering with slavery in the existing states and since Confederate officials insisted that virtually all slaves were content and grateful servants, loyal to their masters’ cause, how could the Negro be a “key” or “pivot” in the nation’s decisive crisis? The claim Douglass made would have seemed absurd even to several generations of historians in our own century. In the 1930s, for example, a popular biography of General Grant affirmed that

the American negroes are the only people in the history of the world…that ever became free without any effort of their own….[The Civil War] was not their business….They twanged banjos around the railroad stations, sang melodious spirituals, and believed that some Yankee would soon come along and give each of them forty acres of land and a mule.2

This dominant view was challenged by a few black historians, best typified perhaps by Benjamin Quarles; and by the pioneering Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker, who wrote about blacks in the Union army and navy as well as about slave plots and insurrections. But only in the civil rights era, beginning in the mid-1960s, did historians such as James McPherson, Willie Lee Rose, George P. Rawick, and Leon Litwack bring the struggle for racial equality into the mainstream of historical writing and suggest exactly how the Negro became “the pivot upon which the whole rebellion turn[ed].”

By 1976 the ideological climate encouraged the funding of two long-term projects of extraordinary value that reinforce and give meaning to Douglass’s thesis. The editors of the Black Abolitionist Papers project, led by C. Peter Ripley of Florida State University, examined thousands of manuscript collections and newspapers in Great Britain and Canada as well as in the United States. They then produced on seventeen reels of microfilm, now available in many research libraries, a huge collection of letters, essays, speeches, pamphlets, and editorials documenting the African American movement to abolish slavery and combat racial discrimination.

Between 1985 and 1992 Ripley and his associates published five volumes of selected documents, superbly edited and annotated, which represent less than ten percent of the primary sources on microfilm. Two of these volumes dramatize the international aspects of America’s racial conflicts, presenting documents about the thousands of blacks who emigrated to Canada and the scores of black abolitionists, including many fugitive slaves, who toured Great Britain where enthusiastic audiences attended their lectures, read their publications, and donated funds to their cause. Witness for Freedom is a one-volume distillation of the black abolitionist material intended for the general reader and for classroom use. Since so much of the subject matter is unfamiliar even to nonspecialist historians, the introduction, chronology, and glossary are extremely valuable.3

The Freedmen and Southern Society Project, conducted by a group of scholars led by Ira Berlin, has now published four volumes of primary sources (selected from the National Archives) under the general title Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867. These immensely valuable works document the enlistment and military service of almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors, most of them former slaves; the gradual disintegration of the slave system; and the emergence during the Civil War of free labor in the upper and the lower South. The volumes include the testimony of blacks and whites, soldiers and civilians, slave-holders and slaves. Like Peter Ripley’s Black Abolitionist volumes, Berlin’s Freedom series enriches and transforms our understanding of America’s greatest dilemma in the most crucial years of decision. Historians will mine these collections for generations to come. Fortunately, Free at Last, the new one-volume abridged version of Freedom, gives the general reader a powerful sense of “how a people with little power and few weapons secured its freedom against the will of those with great power and many weapons.”

Historical documents can be a liberating antidote to silence. Winthrop D. Jordan implies as much in the title of his new book, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek, and in the twenty key documents that conclude this fascinating narrative. Like the works edited by Ripley and Berlin, Jordan’s account of a conspiracy by plantation slaves to organize a large-scale revolt in the Second Creek neighborhood of Adams County, Mississippi, at the beginning of the Civil War is a venture in historical therapy; it is an attempt to overcome generations of denial and repression concerning the relations between blacks and whites in America and the ultimate meaning of the Civil War.

This effort to lift the curtain of silence that fell over the discovery of the Mississippi plot, and the execution of some forty slaves who were accused of taking part in it, should not be confused with a “multicultural” policy of alloting a certain quota of historical space to every ethnic group.4 That kind of history is wholly consistent with the traditional cinematic and historiographical depictions of the Civil War in which each battle, each regiment, each contestant gets its due. Instead, Jordan, Ripley, and Berlin try to lead us out of a Plato’s cave of Civil War legend. As we hear the aspirations, the pain, the rage of African Americans—as opposed to “the happy-go-lucky, lovable ol’ darkies of magnolia-blossom historic legend”—we come to realize that tyranny is a central theme of American history, that racial exploitation and racial conflict have been central to American culture.

As Jordan makes clear, however, the “lovable ol’ darkies” were not merely a legend (the shadows in Plato’s cave were only partly illusory). He quotes from a remarkable letter sent by the daughter of a Mississippi planter-politician to her husband, a Confederate officer at the front in Virginia:

[The servants] have all behaved extremely well, indeed I cannot utter the least complaint of them, they are deeply interested and very sympathizing with us all. They often speak to me about the war and there was great rejoicing in the kitchen at the news of our recent glorious victory in Virginia. What would those miserable abolitionists say to such manifestations of devotion and affection on the part of the poor maltreated slave, whose heart, according to them, is only the abode of hatred and revenge against their master—They know nothing of the bond that unites the master and servant[,] of its tenderness and care on the one side, and its pride fidelity and attachment on the other.

These words of Louisa Quitman Lovell were written in late July 1861, three months after rebellion had begun to simmer among slaves in the vicinity of Natchez, where she lived, and two and a half months after some hitherto trusted carriage drivers had been hanged for suspected plotting. As Jordan notes, “Mrs. Lovell was not writing for any public but herself and her husband. She believed what she wrote.” One might add that she was also engaged in a private debate with the abolitionists and was eager to shape her experience in ways that would refute them. The “legend” of paternalism, in other words, could guide and order southern behavior. Lemuel Parker Conner, the wealthy planter who left a transcript of the rebellious slaves’ words when they were later interrogated near Natchez, had always remembered to add, in letters to his wife when he was away from home, “Howdy to the servants.”

As early as the 1820s many Southerners were eager to become “popular” with their slaves. African Americans were by no means invulnerable to such expressions of care. In 1937, when the WPA Federal Writers’ Project sponsored the interviewing of large numbers of elderly former slaves throughout the South, a local historian in Natchez recorded the reminiscences of Charlie Davenport, a Negro who had once been owned by Gabriel B. Shields on a large plantation across Second Creek, just south and east of Natchez, and whose enslaved father William had somehow escaped, joined the Union army, and fought in the Vicksburg campaign.

Charlie Davenport was the only veteran of slavery whose recorded interview referred to the planned uprising along Second Creek, and Jordan warns that the document must be treated with great caution. Mrs. Edith Wyatt Moore, who interviewed Davenport, was white and thus represented the voice of authority in a rigidly segregated caste society based ultimately on terror. Jordan even sees certain parallels and continuities between this complacent WPA interview and Lemuel Conner’s transcript of the Second Creek examinations of slaves, who spoke after being whipped and tortured. Certainly the elderly Davenport was aware that he was telling a white audience, in the midst of a long economic depression, about his memories of slavery. Still, Jordan’s exhaustive research shows that many of Davenport’s factual statements are confirmed by other sources.5

Insisting that “us didn’t ‘blong to no white trash,” Davenport expressed great pride in his master, “one ob de richest en highest quality gentlemen in de whole country,” and took special delight in the character of the Surgets, the wealthy family of his mistress: “Dey wuz de out fightenist, out cussinest, fastest ridin, hardest drinkin, out spendinest folks I ebber seed. But Lawd, Lawd, dey wuz gentlemen eben in dey cups.” Davenport clearly hated the overseer, “a big, hard fisted Dutchman” named Charles Sauter, who beat Charlie when he was a child until “I thought I’d die,” proclaiming that “from now on you works in de field.” But Davenport claimed that “our houses wuz clean en snug. We wuz bettah fed den I is now en warmer too, kaize us had blankets en quilts filled wid home raised wool. I jist loved layin in de big fat feather bed a hearin de rain patter on de roof.”

Like many of the former slaves interviewed in the 1930s, Davenport contrasted his own relatively benevolent plantation with others that were far less generous. After recalling the slaves’ garden patches, the hunting and fishing, and his own support for Jefferson Davis, Davenport mused that “Marse Randolph Shields”—the descendant of his owner—“is a doctor way off in China. I ‘bleeves day would look aftah me now if day knowed I wuz on charity.” Davenport then concluded with thoughts that confirmed the white racial mood in 1937 and that presumably brought a glow to the heart of Mrs. Moore:

  1. 1

    Quoted in James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War: How American Negroes Felt and Acted during the War for the Union (Pantheon, 1965), p. 22.

  2. 2

    Quoted in McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War, p. viii. W.E. Woodward’s Meet General Grant was published in 1928, but I remember my parents and their friends reading it with admiration some ten years later.

  3. 3

    Seven of the eighty-nine selections are taken from works not included in the Black Abolitionist Papers volumes, which for various reasons exclude Frederick Douglass and such earlier figures as David Walker.

  4. 4

    Jordan stresses that we can never know the exact number of slaves that were executed. At one point he cautiously states that “at least twenty-seven slaves and very probably more were hanged.” But in July 1862 the Confederate provost marshal of Natchez informed the state’s governor that “within the last twelve months we have had to hang some forty for ploting and insurrection and there have been about that number put in irons.”

  5. 5

    There are two versions of the Davenport interview, which Jordan prints as Documents Y and Z at the end of his book. The differences need not concern us here.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print