“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:
How I gwine to know ’bout de rights or wrongs ob slavery? Fur ez I is concerned I wuz bettah treated ez a slave den I is now. Folks says hit wuz wicked but fur all I kin see de colored folks aint made much use ob day freedom. Day is all in debt en chained down to somethin same ez us slaves wuz….Day aint no sich thing ez freedom. Us is all tied down to somethin.
Today it is highly unfashionable to discuss the effects of paternalism in either the antebellum or post-Reconstruction periods. Jordan, who is primarily interested in Davenport’s brief account of the planned slave uprising, does not really consider how the prevailing southern white ideology, to which Charlie Davenport had been subjected during his long life as a “free Negro,” might have shaped his recollections and his assessment of slavery. One way of dealing with the question of submission and its effects can be found in the speeches and writings of black abolitionists. A militant fugitive slave named J. Sella Martin assured audiences in Britain that American slaves were anything but “content.” But let us suppose, Martin said in a speech at the Bristol Athenaeum,
it were the fact that the black man was contented in bondage, suppose he was contented to see his wife sold on the auction-block or his daughter violated or his children separated from him, or having his own manhood crushed out of him, I say that is the heaviest condemnation of the institution, that slavery should blot out a man’s manhood so as to make him contented to accept this degradation, and such an institution ought to be swept from the face of the earth.
Of course a slave’s seeming contentment could be a way of making the best of a grisly situation in which ill humor or any sign of “surliness” became an excuse for whipping. Jordan has discovered that at Aventine Plantation, where Charlie Davenport was born and reared, the overseer called the roll of hands three times every Sunday and male and female slaves who had in some way offended the master were put in the “stock” by the head or by the legs and then given lashes. In fact, in 1859 a slave named Davenport, probably Charlie’s father, was put in the stock and given thirty-nine lashes for “being saucy and clinching his hands against the over-seer.” Many of the rebels who took part in the Adams County conspiracy lived on plantations noted for lax or erratic discipline. Jordan has good reason for suggesting “that the slaves on Aventine rejected joining [the rebels’] Plan because they were kept under unusually rigid and efficient discipline.”
Davenport recalled that one night when he was “a little boy” “a strange nigger come en he harangued de ole folks but dey wouldn’t budge.” This “powerful big black feller named Jupiter” reported that “De slaves had hit all worked out how dey wuz goin to march on Natchez aftah slayin all dare own white folks.” In one of the two versions of Charlie’s report, the rebels were determined to take the land after killing “dey white folks.” But Davenport said nothing (that we know of) about rape or sexual relations with white women, a subject that figures prominently in Conner’s transcript of the slave interrogations. He did not condemn the rebels’ plan or express any judgment concerning the capture and hanging of Jupiter, except to say “Dey didn’t need no trial kaise he was kotch rilin [caught riling up] de folks to murder.” He had a simple explanation for the passivity at Aventine: “Us folks wouldn’t jine ’em kaise what we want to kill Ole Marse fur?” Whatever its other shortcomings, this testimony from an allegedly loyal slave, combined with other evidence that Jordan has turned up in one of the most remarkable feats of detective work achieved by a modern historian, makes it virtually certain that scores of slaves in Adams County, Mississippi, were prepared for a major uprising in the first months of the Civil War.
Historians celebrating slave resistance have pointed with undisguised delight to the great conspiracy led by a slave named Gabriel, which traumatized Virginia’s leaders in 1800;6 to a more enigmatic revolt in Louisiana in 1811, when some two hundred slaves marched toward New Orleans before being met by a military force and defeated; to Denmark Vesey’s success in 1822 in enlisting some of the most trusted servants in Charleston in a plot to seize the city and kill its white inhabitants; and to Nat Turner’s seventy-odd rebels, who in 1831 killed some sixty white men, women, and children as they stormed through Southampton County, Virginia. The rarity of such plots and uprisings by no means proves that slaves were happy or content: during the millennia for which we have records of human bondage revolts have been extremely uncommon. Nevertheless, the alleged passivity of southern slaves during the Civil War, when Union troops invaded the Confederacy from many directions and when hundreds of thousands of southern white males departed for the front, has been used to bolster traditional racist ideology and to challenge the thesis advanced by Douglass about the ultimate meaning of the war.
In 1940 a leading historian of the South, Clement Eaton, could write without qualification that “the slaves were remarkably peaceful and tractable during the Civil War despite the provocation to rebel:”7 Yet Eaton had examined the central document of Jordan’s book: Lemuel Conner’s transcript, then in the possession of a Conner descendant in Natchez. Jordan discovered the record of the plot in 1971 when an archivist at Louisiana State University Library, who now happens to be Jordan’s editor and publisher, brought it to his attention. “This discovery,” according to the dust jacket of his book, “led him on a twenty-year search for additional information about the aborted rebellion.” Eaton had even read two other key documents used by Jordan, both of them letters written by slave owners in mid-May 1861 to the governor of Mississippi, reporting that many slaves, having “been induced to believe Lincons troops would be here for the purpos of freeing them all,” had plotted to kill their masters and either rape or take “as Wives” “such of the females as suited their fancy.” Both letters said that white men had been involved in the conspiracy and that slaves had been hanged.
Eaton adapted this material to the racial assumptions of his time and to the purpose of his book, which was to show how slavery and the sectional conflict led to an erosion of Jeffersonian ideals and to the suppression of free thought and speech in the Old South. Though not an apologist for slavery, Eaton viewed the institution as relatively benign and its victims as totally incapable of a large scale and vengeful insurrection. The details of the Adams County plot, somewhat garbled, appear within a long chapter on the southern fear of “servile revolt”—“a pathological fear of their slaves, not at all justified by actual danger.” As Eaton moves from one alarm to another, he speaks of “the black terror,” “dark rumors and imagined plots,” “contagious fear,” “hallucinations,” “phobia,” “melodramatic reports,” and “imagined insurrectionists.”
No doubt there is much justification for Eaton’s emphasis on southern excitability and virtual hysteria over the specter of infiltration by abolitionist agents. Before assessing Jordan’s claims, it is also salutary to consider Eaton’s description of how evidence was “extorted from the negroes by unmerciful whippings.” In 1856, according to a Memphis newspaper, no fewer than forty victims of such torture were hanged for plotting insurrection. If southern whites wanted to believe that abolitionists were inciting the slaves to revolt, they could presumably force some slaves to confirm their fears.
Eaton tends, however, to associate these procedures with the frenzied mob; intelligent Southerners, he assures us, discounted rumors of plots and rebellion. Here he was quite wrong. One must turn to Jordan to find that the Adams County “Examination Committee” or “Vigilance Committee,” which was organized to deal with the plot, was made up of the region’s leading citizens and planters. Moreover, any decision by this extralegal body to privately execute slaves meant a substantial loss of property. If the slaves had been condemned after a legal trial at the Adams County Circuit Court, which would have brought unwanted publicity, the owners would have been entitled to compensation equal to half the value of each slave. In view of these circumstances and the careful attentiveness suggested by Lemuel Conner’s transcript, there are grounds for believing that the committee was intent on obtaining the truth regardless of the methods used. It is significant that two former slaves later testified that the committee had tried them while other slaves were being hanged at the racetrack just east of Natchez, and had then released them after friendly witnesses affirmed their innocence. One of these slaves had been gang whipped until he repeatedly fainted and, before his reprieve, had even been taken to the gallows to be hanged.
Jordan skillfully reconstructs details of the slaves’ conspiracy as well as the social world of the great cotton plantations surrounding the boisterous town of Natchez, which was said to contain more millionaires than any city in America. Many plantation owners lived in the town itself, while slaves far outnumbered whites in the countryside. Slaves in the Natchez region began plotting in May 1861, soon after news flashed over various grapevines that war had begun and that northern troops, sometimes associated with “abolitionists,” could be expected to capture New Orleans and march toward Natchez. That expectation is one of the few things that seem clear about the plot: for the most part, the precise details of how the slaves planned to fight and take power remain vague. It would be interesting to know whether any slaves suspected that some abolitionists were black. At that very moment black abolitionists in the North were invoking the memories of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and John Brown, while calling, in effect, for a black revolution. There seems no doubt that the war made it possible for the plotters to believe they would have the support of the Union army when it arrived in Mississippi.
Ironically, while slaves in Mississippi and other states knew that a man named Lincoln was the “enemy” of their owners and expressed their confidence that Lincoln intended to free all slaves, black abolitionists reacted with anger and dismay when black volunteer units were barred from serving in the Union armed forces. They were equally bitter when Lincoln countermanded General Frémont’s proclamation freeing the slaves of all Confederate activists in Missouri, and when both Lincoln and Congress excluded slavery from their definition of the war’s objectives. Many white abolitionists appreciated Lincoln’s desperate need to maintain support in the slaveholding border states and build as much unity as possible within the racist North. By withholding criticism of Lincoln and supporting what William Lloyd Garrison called the “death-grapple with the Southern slave oligarchy,” white reformers believed that black bondage would eventually be destroyed.8 But in May 1861, when self-styled white Minute Men just north of Natchez were hanging slave carriage drivers who were suspected of organizing opposition and investigating white foreigners suspected of collaborating with blacks, the leading newspaper of the black abolitionists advised black military units in the North to drill and stand ready “as Minute Men, to respond when the slave calls.”
The black “Minute Men” who were eventually accepted into the Union army in large numbers could not have heard the calls from Mississippi even if they had been able to invade the state. Perhaps the most significant thing about the “tumult” at Second Creek is the silence that enveloped it. In contrast to widespread discussion of the Gabriel, Vesey, and Turner affairs, the newspapers were entirely mute; there were no speeches, pamphlets, or official messages about the conspiracy. Even Jordan, who has drawn on census data, diaries, plantation records, “road duty books,” and inscriptions on gravestones, has no idea why Lemuel Conner wrote down some of the answers he heard nineteen or twenty slaves give to the markedly unrecorded questions of their examiners. Since knowledge of a major slave conspiracy was nearly erased in Mississippi, it seems likely that memories of other tumults were also effaced and that we have a very imperfect picture of slave resistance in general.
In both the Caribbean and North America black informers frequently divulged to white authorities news of an impending slave revolt. That did not happen at Second Creek. Instead, several ringleaders made the fatal mistake of talking in front of “Mas Benny,” the eight- or nine-year-old son of the overseer of a large plantation. Jordan can only speculate on how young Benny Austen might have caught the horrified ears of adults when he reported that “the whipping business would stop.” The committee interrogated slaves in September and October 1861. According to the testimony, the slaves of nine Second Creek planters were directly involved in what Jordan calls “the Plan,” and three other planters and a gunsmith were also specified as victims.
With one exception, the slaves seem to have had no strong religious faith, in marked contrast to Nat Turner and various other African American rebels. The group included no skilled artisans. All were illiterate except for three men owned by the permissive Dunbar widows, who like other planters were, according to Conner’s record, slated for death. One of the Dunbar slaves had a gun, but most of the insurgents intended to use hoes and axes to kill white people in the countryside before marching on Natchez and then, so they hoped, joining forces with Union troops.
In 1864, after Union soldiers had occupied Natchez, a captain from Wisconsin visited a local widow and teacher after attending church. As talk turned to the 1861 plot, Mrs. Henry gave Captain Bennett an account of the way the slaves had been tortured in the interrogations. Bennett wrote in his diary that “the outrages…surpass any thing I ever heard or read of….The cruelty of the chivalrous gentry of Natchez would put to blush the warmest advocates of the Spanish Inquisition as practiced in the dark ages of Popery.” This information, coupled with other evidence Jordan presents, raises difficult questions about the meaning of the Conner transcript and other reports of what the slaves supposedly said. Jordan is acutely aware of these difficulties, but in the end he is too willing to accept the recorded testimony at face value, particularly regarding the slaves’ intent to rape.
There were clearly limits on what white questioners could force the slaves to say. Billy and Obey refused to talk at all. Surely no interrogator pressured Dennis to report that two other slaves, Simon and George Dunbar, had predicted “Northerners make the South shit behind their asses.” Simon was also quoted as saying “he hoped to see the day when he would blow down a white man who called him a damn rascal”—the latter term, as Jordan explains, implying at that time “inferiority of class.” Jordan makes an excellent case for the authenticity of many such statements. Many of the blacks were filled with rage and resentment, and the examinations gave them a chance for self-assertion, for shocking some of the whites they had planned to murder. Knowing that they would soon be hauled to the gallows, they had little to lose.
This is the perspective from which Jordan interprets the frequent report that specific slaves intended to “take,” “ravish,” and “ride” specific white women, often the wives or daughters of their owners. For them, apparently, nothing could exemplify the meaning of freedom better than inverting the slave/master relationship: kill the master, possess and ravish the white mistress or daughter, and seize the land. Since Jordan completed his manuscript, the reports of systematic raping of a great many Bosnian women has added new meaning to the view of rape as a means of revenge, a weapon of war and dishonor. Some of the Second Creek slaves even spoke of taking the white women as “wives,” implying that white women would actually desire their embraces once they had become victors and free men. This thought moves Jordan to make the following analysis:
While today we recognize the powerful and indeed central element of violence in the act of rape, we greatly oversimplify a complicated mixture if we call it only an act of vicious violence and nothing more, for surely it includes hatred and attraction, aggressive humiliation and sexual assertiveness, brutality, vengeance, lust, eros and thanatos, perverse devotion and devotion to perversity. We know that the “act of love,” even in a loving context, can involve a great deal of aggressiveness and that such feelings and behavior are embedded in our mammalian natures.
Yet it is worth recalling that in fact none of the Mississippi blacks is known to have attacked a white woman; and Jordan himself, in his monumental book White Over Black,9 has led all other historians in exposing the long traditions of white fantasy concerning black sexuality. In a footnote citing that book and defending its thesis, he refers to his argument “for treating assertions about the sexual aggressiveness of black men as a function of white insecurities and domination.” In Tumult and Silence he even summarizes the long tradition in America, going back to the seventeenth century, of imagining that black slaves were planning to kill their white masters and rape the best-looking white women.
For their part, as Jordan notes, white women never seemed to share this sexual phobia, at least in the pre–Civil War period, and they seldom if ever made allusion to black rapists in their letters and diaries. Even more to the point, there is not a shred of evidence that black insurrectionists in America ever had sexual contact with a single white woman, though Nat Turner’s band of killers had total power over numerous white women and girls. I can add that in my own reading I have seen no evidence of rape in the great slave uprisings in Barbados in 1816, in Demerara (Guiana) in 1823, or in Jamaica in 1831. The silence of sources does not prove that occasional rapes never occurred, but if Jordan’s interpretation is correct, the Second Creek rebels were unique in their lust for specific white women.
At one point Jordan toys with imagining “the snide hostility of the question” asked by the interrogators: “Which one of the ladies was you going to take, boy?10 But he fails to pursue the question whether the conspirators were forced to testify falsely to such a question. If they were, this could undercut his new thesis regarding black sexual power and even imperil his other readings of the Conner transcript. In view of traditional white male preconceptions, why should we not expect the examiners to have asked, “What did you intend to do with the ladies?” “Who was Simon [or Albert or Peter] going to ravish?” “After you killed Master and Mrs. Mosby, did you plan to ride Miss Anna?” And if the slaves were being savagely whipped or tortured in other ways, why wouldn’t they have told the inquisitors what the inquisitors wanted to hear? Testimony taken under such circumstances is of course legally worthless and is especially suspect regarding a volcanic issue like rape, which evoked in the minds of the inquisitors a dark mythology seething with “brutality, vengeance, lust, eros and thanatos.”
While we will never know the true intentions of the Second Creek conspirators, Jordan presents a convincing case that they did conspire to mount a revolt and that the issue of freedom dominated the minds of Mississippi whites and blacks from the moment they knew there was a Civil War. This basic point, which made the Negro “the pivot” of the war, is eloquently confirmed by the documents collected by the two great projects I have described above.
By July 31, 1863, a black woman named Hannah Johnson gave advice to President Lincoln on two critical matters. The daughter of a slave who had escaped north from Louisiana, Hannah had a son who had fought at “Fort Wagoner” with the famous Massachusetts Fifty-fourth regiment, and “was not taken prisoner, as many were.” Unaware that Lincoln had just promised to retaliate against Confederate prisoners if captured black soldiers were killed or enslaved, Ms. Johnson urged Lincoln to take this step without delay: “They have lived in idleness all their lives on stolen labor and made savages of the colored people, but they now are so furious because they are proving themselves to be men….You must put the rebels to work in State prisons to making shoes and things, if they sell our colored soldiers, till they let them all go.”
Hannah Johnson was also shocked by reports that Lincoln would “take back” the Emancipation Proclamation:
don’t do it. When you are dead and in Heaven, in a thousand years that action of yours will make the Angels sing your praises I know it. Ought one man to own another, law for or not, who made the law, surely the poor slave did not. so it is wicked, and a horrible Outrage, there is no sense in it, because a man has lived by robbing all his life and his father before him, should he complain because the stolen things found on him are taken. Robbing the colored people of their labor is but a small part of the robbery their souls are almost taken, they are made bruits of often. You know all about this….We poor oppressed ones, appeal to you, and ask fair play. Yours for Christs sake.
November 4, 1993
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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.” ↩
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. ↩
Douglas R. Egerton has just published a comprehensive study, Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 (University of North Carolina Press, 1993), which reinforces my point about erroneous white expectations of black rebels raping white women. ↩
Freedom of Thought in the Old South (Duke University Press, 1940; Peter Smith reprint, 1951), p. 105. Eaton received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1929 and indicates in his preface of 1939 that the book was a revised version of a doctoral dissertation directed by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. ↩
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 312. Most white abolitionists later changed their minds and became harshly critical of the Lincoln administration until the President finally gave notice of an impending emancipation proclamation. ↩
White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (University of North Carolina Press, 1968). ↩
While at times Jordan seems to hesitate on this issue, he also states unequivocally, without any reasoned defense of the position, “If we take the rebels seriously, then, we have to accept what they said when they talked of ‘taking’ and ‘ravishing’ certain white women. They had their own reasons that seemed to them entirely sufficient.” ↩