Browsing "Antebellum Realities"

An 1830 View of Slavery in the South

The former slave-trading and slave-holding North forgot it was theirs and British ships which brought the African to America, a Massachusetts inventor who perpetuated slavery with his gin, and Massachusetts mills which sought large supplies of slave-produced cotton. Had New Englanders wished to end slavery, they had only to end their demand for slave-produced cotton. The extract below is from Mr. Hayne’s 1830 debate with Daniel Webster on the nature of the federal union, and Hayne clearly delineates the origin of African slavery in the Southern States, who profited from the nefarious trade, and who did their Christian best with what they had inherited.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

An 1830 View of Slavery in the South

“Sir, when arraigned before the bar of public opinion on this charge of slavery, we can stand up with conscious rectitude, plead not guilty, and put ourselves upon God and our country. We deal in no abstractions. We will not look back to inquire whether our fathers were guiltless in introducing slaves to this country. If an inquiry should ever be instituted in these matters, however, it will be found that the profits of the slave trade were not confined to the South.

Southern ships and Southern sailors were not the instruments of bringing slaves to the shores of America, nor did our merchants reap the profits of that “accursed traffic.” But, sir, we will pass over all this.

If slavery, as it now exists in this country be an evil, we of the present found it ready made to our hands. Finding our lot cast among a people, whom God had manifestly committed to our care, we did not sit down to speculate on abstract questions of theoretical liberty. We met it as a practical question of obligation and duty.

We resolved to make the best of the situation in which Providence had placed us, and to fulfill the high trust which had developed upon us as the owners of slaves, in the only way in which such a trust could be fulfilled without spreading misery and ruin throughout the land.

We could not send them back to the shores from whence their fathers had been taken; their numbers forbade the thought, even as we did not know that their condition here is infinitely preferable to what it possibly could be among the barren sands and savage tribes of Africa . . .

[With the false philanthropy of Northern abolitionists and the] shedding of tears over sufferings which had existence only in their own sickly imaginations, these “friends of humanity” set themselves systematically to work to seduce the slaves of the South from their masters. By means of missionaries and political tracts, the scheme was in great measure successful. Thousands of these deluded victims of fanaticism were seduced into the enjoyment of freedom in our Northern cities. And what has been the consequence?

Go to these cities now, and ask the question. Visit the dark and narrow lanes, and obscure recesses, which have been assigned by common consent as the abodes of those outcasts of the world — free people of color. Sir, there does not exist, on the face of the whole earth, a population so poor, so wretched, so vile, so loathsome, so utterly destitute of all the comforts, conveniences and comforts of life as the unfortunate blacks of Philadelphia, and New York and Boston.

Sir, I have had some opportunities of making comparisons between the condition of the free Negroes of the North and the slaves of the South . . . Sir, I have seen in the neighborhood of one of the most moral, religious and refined cities of the North, a family of free blacks, driven to the caves of the rock, and there obtaining a precarious subsistence from charity and plunder.”

(The Webster-Hayne Debate on the Nature of the Union, Herman Belz, Editor, Liberty Fund, 2000, pp. 44-46. Speech of Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina, January 25, 1830)

 

Vindication for the South

Though the American republic begun by compromise showed signs of stress and splinter by 1832, the statesmen of the conservative South exercised leadership and accommodation toward the North and maintained peace. Only four years after the sectional Republican Party fielded a radical presidential candidate in 1856, several States had left the Union rather than submit to hostile Northern rule and despotism.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Vindication for the South

“At some future day, when the actors have passed away, a true and impartial history of the great Civil War and its causes will be written, for it was too notable an event to remain as a mere item in the course of God’s providence. Then the truth, and the whole truth, will appear, and the world will be surprised to learn how much the South has been misrepresented, the motives and doctrines of her public men distorted, and even the private life and social habits of her people caricatured for political purposes.

Those who were inimical to the South, or were, at least, instigated by motives of political necessity to misstate the facts or to suppress a part of the truth, have had the opportunity to publish their statements and to impress them upon the public mind of the present generation, with hardly an effort of retort or correction on behalf of the Southern people.

But the history of the past cannot be wholly forgotten. It must be and is known that in the pure days of the Republic, before the tyrannous “caucus” and the iniquitous “machine” had usurped the control and direction of the public will – when men were judged upon their merits, and political parties were separated by honest diversity of opinion, and not by sectional – the South, though greatly inferior in voting power, furnished four out of five consecutive Presidents. She has given such men as Clay, Calhoun, Crittenden, Crawford, and Forsyth to the public service since the great struggle for independence, and the greatest of the chief justices was a Southerner.

She has contributed many gallant and able men to the army and navy. The “Father of the Country” was a Virginia planter, and even Farragut, who made his reputation in helping to defeat the South . . . was by birth, by early training, by marriage, by all the domestic and social associations of life, a Southern man . . . ”

I have mentioned but a small number of the Southerners who helped elevate the national fame before dissention and distrust had alienated the two sections, and I feel sure the day will come when justice will be done to the Southern leaders of 1861-65, and that an impartial posterity will by its verdict free their names from the calumnies which have been spoken against them, and will pronounce a retributive censure upon their traducers.”

(The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe, James D. Bulloch, Sagamore Press, 1959, pp. 349-351)

Virginians Choose Self-Determination

Virginians in 1861 deliberated on continuing their voluntary relationship with the federal government created by the States, remembering Jefferson’s words his Kentucky Resolutions of 1798:

” . . . reserving, each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force: that to this compact each State acceded as a State, and is an integral party, its co-States forming, as to itself, the other party: that the government created by this compact was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; but that, as in all other cases of compact among powers having no common judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Virginian’s Choose Self-Determination

“James W. Sheffey, speaking five days before President Lincoln’s inauguration said:

“We love the Union, but we cannot se it maintained by force. They say the Union must be preserved — she can only be preserved through fraternal affection. We must take our place — we cannot remain neutral. If it comes to this and they put the question of trying force on the States which have seceded, we must go out . . . We are waiting to see what will be defined coercion. We wait to see what action the new President will take.”

Thomas Branch, speaking the day after President Lincoln’s inaugural address said:

“My heart had been saddened and every patriotic heart should be saddened, and every Christian voice raised to Heaven in this time of our trial. After the reception of Mr. Lincoln’s inaugural, I saw gentlemen rejoicing in the hotels. Rejoicing for what sir? For plunging ourselves and our families, our wives and children in civil war? I pray that I may never rejoice at such a state of things. But I came here to defend the rights of Virginia and I mean to do it at all hazards; and if we must go to meet our enemies, I wish to go with the same deliberation, and with the same solemnity that I would bend the knee in prayer before God Almighty.”

George W. Brent, speaking on the 8th of March said:

“Abolitionism in the North, trained in the school of Garrison and Phillips, and affecting to regard the Constitution as “a league with Hell and a covenant with death,” has with a steady and untiring hate sought a disruption of this Union . . . Recognizing as I have always done, the right of a State to secede, to judge of the violation of its rights and to appeal to its own mode for redress, I could not uphold the Federal Government in any attempt to coerce the seceded States to bring them back in the Union.”

(Virginia’s Attitude Toward Slavery and Secession, Beverley Munford, L.H. Jenkins Printer, 1909, pp. 265-267)

Mr. Critcher Replies to Mr. Hoar

In this remarkable statement by Mr. Hoar of Massachusetts, he forgets his own State’s heavy involvement in the notorious transatlantic slave trade as he arraigns the South for a supposed absence of morals.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Mr. Critcher Replies to Mr. Hoar

“In the debate on Education in the House of Representatives, Mr. Hoar, of Massachusetts remarked that slavery in the South was not so observable in the degradation of the slave as in the depravity of the master.

Mr. Critcher, of Virginia replied:

“Reminding the gentleman from Massachusetts that every signer of the Declaration of Independence, except those from his State, and perhaps one or two others, were slave-owners, he would venture to make a bold assertion; he would venture to say that he could name more eminent men from the parish of his residence, than the gentleman could name from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He would proceed to name them, and yield the floor to the gentleman to match them if he could.

On one side of his estate is Wakefield, the birthplace of Washington. On the other side is Stratford, the residence of Light Horse Harry Lee, of glorious Revolutionary memory. Adjoining Stratford is Chantilly, the residence of Richard Henry Lee, the mover of the Declaration of Independence, and the Cicero of the American Revolution.

There lived Francis Lightfoot Lee, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Charles Lee, at one time Washington’s Attorney General; and Arthur Lee, the accomplished negotiator of the treaty of commerce and alliance between the Colonies and France in 1777.

Returning, as said before, you come first to the birthplace of Washington; another hour’s drive will bring you to the birthplace of Monroe; another hour’s drive to the birthplace of Madison, and if the gentleman supposes that the present generation is unworthy of their illustrious ancestors, he has but to stand on the same estate to see the massive chimneys of the baronial mansion that witnessed the birth of Robert E. Lee.

These are some of the eminent men from the parish of his residence, and he yielded the floor that the gentleman might match them, if he could, from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

(Southern Historical Society Papers, “Degrading Influence of Slavery,” Volume 12, Barefoot Publishing, page 59)

 

Wading Through Blood of Men, Women and Children

Major Henry W. Conner (1793-1866) of Lincoln County, North Carolina was a democrat of the Nathaniel Macon type, and observed the growth of fanatic abolitionism in the North with great trepidation. His son, Lt. Charles T. Conner, was killed by Northern soldiers in 1865.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Wading Through Blood of Men, Women and Children

“The following excerpts from the address made by Major [Henry W.] Conner in his campaign for reelection to Congress in 1839 show how the smoldering fires of anti-slavery sentiment were beginning to blaze in the North. Referring to it he said:

“Abolitionism, when I last addressed you seemed to be confined to a few fanatics only, and so absurd seemed their views and pretensions that serious apprehension could not reasonably be entertained, but such has been their rapid growth in a short time, that in several of the States they hold the balance of power in politics, and abolitionism has, therefore, become a political question with the avowed object of striking at the rights and property of the South, and there is reason to believe they will not be particular in the mode of carrying out their plans, whether peacefully, or by wading through blood of men, women and children.

The desks of abolition members (especially John Quincy Adams and Slade) are loaded with thousands of antislavery petitions which have be presented within the last two years, asking Congress to interfere with your rights and property. This heartless and unjustifiable policy must and will be met by the South at the proper time with manly determination to protect and defend our rights and privileges at all hazards.”

(The Annals of Lincoln County, North Carolina, William L. Sherrill, Regional Publishing, 1972, pp. 188-189)

 

 

 

 

“The Argument is Exhausted . . .”

Those in South Carolina with Unionist views in late 1860 realized that the revolutionary Republicans of the North would agree to no compromise, and a secession convention received wide support among them. This encouragement for South Carolina’s independent action was exemplified by Charlestonian Richard Yeadon stating on November 15 that he had been “amongst those rather noted for their devotion to the Union,” but that “he worshipped at that shrine no longer.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

“The Argument is Exhausted . . .”

“In the December 6 election of delegates to the secession convention voting in most places was light, a fact that has sometimes been interpreted as indicating a strong reaction from the secession enthusiasm so manifest at the time of the passage of the convention bill. Actually the light vote must be explained by the absence, in most places, of a contest.

When the secession convention met December 17, South Carolina was confident that her action would soon be followed by other States. Governor Gist, in his message to the legislature at the end of November, had stated that there was not the least doubt that Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Texas and Arkansas would immediately follow, and eventually all the South. Several days before the convention assembled, John A. Elmore and Charles E. Hooker, commissioners from Alabama and Mississippi respectively, arrived in Columbia. They interviewed practically every member of the legislature and the assembling convention, and positively guaranteed secession in their States.

Early in December a caucus of twenty-six Southern congressmen from eight States met and unanimously decided that immediate action by South Carolina was desirable. Soon thereafter the very encouraging address of the Southern congressmen to their constituents appeared:

“The argument is exhausted. All hope of relief in the Union through the agency of committees, Congressional legislation, or constitutional amendment, is extinguished, and we trust the South will not be deceived by appearances or the pretense of new guarantees. In our judgment the Republicans are resolute in the purpose to grant nothing that will or ought to satisfy the South. We are satisfied the honor, safety, and independence of the Southern People require the organization of a Southern Confederacy – a result to be obtained only by separate State secession.”

Assembling at the Baptist church in Columbia December 17, the convention called D.F. Jamison, delegate from Barnwell. If elections meant anything, he said, the State should secede as quickly as possible. The greatest honor of his life, he said, would be to sign as chairman of the convention an ordinance of secession.”

(South Carolina Goes to War, 1860-1865, Charles Edward Cauthen, UNC Press, 1950, pp. 63-68)

Virginia Seeks Peace, Radicals Seek War

No initiatives for peaceful compromise, nor peaceful and practical solution to African slavery were forthcoming from either Abraham Lincoln or the Republican party. Their policy since Lincoln’s election was steadfast resistance to any measures that would resolve the sectional differences. Congress was by February 1861 dominated by Northern politicians after the departure of several Southern States and had free reign over legislation which would have averted war between Americans.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Virginia Seeks Peace, Radicals Seek War

“[T]he Old Dominion, true to her traditional policy of taking the initiative in times of crisis, assumed the role of peacemaker. The legislature passed joint resolutions on January 19 calling for a peace convention to be held in Washington. An invitation was extended to the other States to appoint commissioners to meet in Washington on February 4 “to consider and, if practical, agree upon some suitable adjustment.” The opinion was expressed that the Crittenden Compromise, then pending in the Senate, would with some modification serve as a basis for adjustment.

These resolutions provided for the appointment of [former President] John Tyler as commissioner to the President of the United States and Judge John Robertson commissioner to the seceded States. They were instructed respectively to request the President . . . and the authorities of the seceded States to abstain, pending the action of the proposed peace convention, from “all acts calculated to produce a collision of arms between the States and the Government of the United States.”

Congress, however, paid no attention to the Virginia resolutions. In neither House were they printed or referred to a committee. They were soon allowed to lie on a table unnoticed.

Tyler left Washington on January 29 with the expectation of returning for the Peace Convention . . . On the day before leaving, he sent another letter to President Buchanan [which] expressed appreciation for the courtesies that had been shown him and pleasure of hearing the President’s message read in the Senate. He spoke of a rumor to the effect that at Fortress Monroe the cannon had been put on the land side and pointed inland.

His comment on this report was “that when Virginia is making every possible effort to redeem and save the Union, it is seemingly ungenerous to have cannon leveled at her bosom.” To this letter Buchanan sent a very courteous reply, stating that he would inquire into the rumors with reference to Fortress Monroe.”

(John Tyler, Champion of the Old South, Oliver Perry Chitwood, American Historical Association, 1939, pp. 436-438)

The South was the Conservative Party

To many the abolition crusade recalls brave Northerners standing tall for the liberty of African slaves and the Rights of Man. Upon closer inspection the North was a region unfriendly to both the black man and abolitionists – the latter evident with the mob-murder of Elijah Lovejoy in antebellum Illinois. Daniel Webster saw these sectionalists for what they were, and what evil they might accomplish.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

The South Was the Conservative Party

“The story of Daniel Webster and his great speech in 1850 has been told at some length because it is instructive. The historians who have set themselves to the task of upholding the idea that it was the aggressiveness of the South, during the controversy over slavery, and not that of the North, that brought on secession and war, could not make good their contention while Daniel Webster and his speech for “the Constitution and Union” stood in their way. They, therefore, wrote the great statesman “down and out” as they conceived.

But Webster and that speech still stand as beacon lights in the history of that crusade. The attack came from the North. The South, standing for its constitutional rights in the Union, was the conservative party. Southern leaders, it is true, were, during the controversy over slavery, often aggressive, but they were on the defensive—aggressive, just as Lee was when he made his campaign into Pennsylvania for the purpose of stopping the invasion of his own land.

Mr. Webster in his great speech for “the Constitution and the Union,” as became a great statesman, pleading for conciliation, measured the terms in which he condemned “personal liberty” laws and Abolitionism. But afterward, irritated by the attacks made upon him, he naturally spoke out more emphatically.

McMaster quotes several expressions from his speeches and letters replying to these assaults, and says: “His hatred of Abolitionists and Free-Soilers grew stronger and stronger. To him these men were a “band of sectionalists, narrow of mind, wanting in patriotism, without a spark of national feeling, and quite ready to see the Union go to pieces if heir own selfish ends were gained.” Such, if this was a fair summing up of his views, was Webster’s final opinion of those who were carrying on the great anti-slavery crusade.”

(The Abolition Crusade and its Consequences, Hilary A. Herbert, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912, pp. 125-126)

 

 

Searching for Harriet Tubman

Searching for Harriet Tubman

The recent decision to replace Andrew Jackson’s likeness on the US twenty-dollar bill with that of Harriet Tubman has generated much discussion regarding her background and true place in American history. Hard evidence of her life and contributions to American history has been elusive and the question has been posed: is this paying homage to a deserving historic figure, or, it this an act of pure political correctness – or what is called cultural Marxism? Only a small amount of open-minded reading and research is required to determine who she was, what she did, and what impact her life and actions had on American history.

There seems to be little to recommend her for a place on US currency amid several who adorn our bills and somehow linked to the financial history of the country. Washington was of course the first president; Hamilton, a proponent of a national banking; Jackson, an opponent of a national bank; Lincoln created national fiat money, the greenback; and Grant was embroiled in schemes of government and corporate financial scandals.

Leader of an  “Underground Railroad”

To begin, a recent news article referred to Tubman as “the leader of the underground railroad” and “Moses of her people,” the title emanating from an 1886 biography by children’s book author Sara Hopkins Bradford  (1818-1912), of New York.  Bradford married prominent New York attorney, and later judge, John M. Hopkins. Their two eldest sons were killed in the War.

In 1869, Bradford penned “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman” after several interviews with the illiterate Tubman and transcribing her recollections. Both the 1869 and 1886 books have been criticized for lack of documentation and thoroughness in historical methods, and both relied heavily on Tubman’s oral history and the reminiscences of anti-slavery leaders rather than traditional and objective sources. No bibliography, footnotes or index are provided.

The “underground railroad” of that era was not a physical entity but a term of exclamation made by a Southern planter of the luring away of slaves from their plantations as well as the aid given to them. It was a useful tool of the imagination by Northern abolitionists which created scenes of liberty and freedom for slaves if they simply left their homes in the South. In reality, the antebellum North offered little in the way of improved conditions for black people and was a far more regimented and segregated society than existed in the South. Bradford’s book does not address this important side of the story.

Importantly, Frederick Douglass was a contemporary of Tubman, born three years before she and in the very same part of eastern Maryland, though he seems not to know of her exploits, nor is she mentioned in his 1892 autobiography, the “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.”

Another book pertaining to Tubman and considered to be a primary source is Wilbur H. Siebert’s “The Underground Railroad, From Slavery to Freedom,” published in 1898. This book is also extensively criticized for lack of documentation and credible sources, and in it the author describes Tubman as “Moses” and most likely drawn from Bradford’s 1886 book.

Siebert’s version of prewar events and people depends on recollections and reminiscences of elderly abolitionists, was published in 1898 and 50-plus years after the events it recalls. Neither book can be considered thoughtful, well-researched or scholarly treatises on Tubman or the underground railroad. Many dramatic descriptions of Mrs. Tubman’s heroic exploits fill the pages and appear copied from Bradford’s earlier book.

Appendix D, Bibliography of Siebert’s book states: “The materials upon which in large measure this book is based are reminiscences gathered by correspondence and conversation with more than a thousand persons many of whom were old-time abolitionists, while the remainder included the families and intimate friends of abolitionists, and a number of fugitive slaves.”

Siebert attests that “There are few volumes that supply us with numerous illustrations of the Underground Railroad in operation.” And all, like Siebert’s book itself, are postwar creations with the earliest being Eber M. Pettit’s 1879 “Sketches in the History of the Underground Railroad.” The others were published in the 1880s and 1890s, and none written in the late antebellum period to describe what was later claimed to be a widespread antislavery effort by the North between 1850 and 1860.

To support Tubman’s oral history, Bradford cites statements from prominent abolitionists like Gerrit Smith who wrote in 1868: “Of the remarkable events of her life I have no personal knowledge, but of the truth of them as she describes them I have no doubt.”

Another, Franklin B. Sanborn of Massachusetts averred that “I never had reason to doubt the truth of what Harriet said in regard to her own career, for I found her singularly truthful.”

Siebert also tells us that Tubman’s travels were mostly in the Border States rather than the Deep South, and her only experiences in the latter were a short time with the Northern army at Hilton Head, South Carolina and briefly at Jacksonville, Florida. More on this later.

Tubman’s Early Life

The current St. Catherine’s, Ontario website notes that the town was “the final terminus of the underground railroad for hundreds of slaves in the 1820s.” If this is true then it may have been others who carried slaves northward rather than Tubman who was born in 1820 or 1821, and we are not made aware of how those slaves arrived there. The city also claims that Tubman resided there for seven years, though in which particular house is not known.

Her birth name was Araminta Ross, and Bradford writes that she was the daughter of Benjamin Ross and Harriet Greene, both slaves, and born in Dorchester County, Maryland; she took her mother’s name sometime later. Araminta was one of ten children.

Put to learning the art of weaving as a child to provide clothing for the family and slaves, she resisted learning and developed a hatred for her mistress. Araminta was then hired out in her early teens as a field hand with duties described as “in the rudest labors – driving oxen, carted, plowed, and did all the work of a man – sometimes earning money enough in a year, beyond what she paid her master [for her keep], “to buy a pair of steers” worth forty dollars. She also “worked frequently for her father,” a timber inspector.

She was married about 1844 to John Tubman, a free colored man. In 1849 and after the death of her master, she walked away from her Baltimore home and husband to Philadelphia where a white lady took her in. With a little money earned she returned to Maryland in 1850 and found her husband “married to another woman, and no longer caring to live with her.”

The Anti-Slavery Career Begins

Siebert tells us that in December 1850 Tubman “went to Baltimore and abducted her sister and two children.” A few months later she brought away another company of three persons, one of who was her brother. From this time on till the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion her excursions were frequent. She is said to have accomplished nineteen such trips during the 1850s “and emancipated over three hundred slaves.”

To put this number in perspective and compare it to the ongoing voluntary emancipation by Southern slaveholders before the war, Virginians John Randolph and Washington Custis alone freed 400 and 200 slaves in 1833 and 1857, respectively, and this was not uncommon in the South. In the latter instance, Custis’ son-in-law Robert E. Lee, saw to it that those slaves received their freedom.  The question looms: Why are these men and others like them not accorded recognition for their contributions toward emancipation?

Though certainly unfamiliar with places beyond her native Maryland, Tubman is described as having an innate ability to understand astronomy while escaping slave patrols. It is said she was aware of the North Star and others to guide her path north and south.

This is very impressive for an illiterate black woman, a fugitive herself, travelling alone into slave holding country hostile to her mission and unfamiliar to her. Then to return each time with what seems to be 15-20 persons, through the same country. Further, Frederick Douglass states in his autobiography that no white person in the former slave States of the North could be trusted not to turn fugitives in for reward money.

Also, the Bradford book often mentions Tubman’s deep religious belief and faith in God, a devout Christianity certainly taught by her master and family. Her friend Thomas Garret stated that “she [always] ventured where God sent her, and her faith in the Supreme Power was truly great.” This Christianity was tempered by her mysticism and “tales of ghostly visitation, or spiritual manifestation, at a dimly lit séance.”

Friend of John Brown

Tubman left for Boston in the winter of 1858-59 apparently to raise money for her excursions southward, and “she left New England with a handsome sum of money toward the payment of her debt to Mr. [William] Seward.” While there, “she had several interviews with Captain [John] Brown, then in Boston.

He is supposed to have communicated his plans [for the Harper’s Ferry raid] to her, and to have been aided by her in obtaining recruits and money among her people.” Mrs. Tubman is said to have venerated Brown in a religious fashion since “his murder,” as Bradford called his execution for treason against the State of Virginia.

The War

At this point is worth asking a pertinent question: Even if we accept that Tubman did have an important part in taking three hundred slaves northward to what they believed to be freedom, this in no way compares with the voluntary manumission, i.e., emancipation, by Southern slaveholders by will, deed and reward for faithful service. By 1850, the South had a free black population of nearly 435,000, and over 484,000 by 1860 according to the Federal Census — far more than the twenty-five or thirty thousand blacks in Canada by the time of the War. The latter is claimed to be the result of the underground railroad. The figure 75,000 blacks in Canada is often cited, though the rough estimate of abolitionist Dr. Samuel Howe.

In short, Harriet Tubman and perhaps others like her were minor players in an advancing emancipation process, which might have continued had Northern abolitionists left the South to solve the dilemma of slavery on their own as the North did. It is worth noting that the Southern States were ending voluntary manumission after Nat Turner’s bloody 1831 rampage in Southampton, Virginia. A thoughtful observe today might consider what could have been, and how many lives would have been saved between the years 1861-1865 had abolitionists found a peaceful and practical solution to their often well-intended efforts.

Tubman Sent to War

Sarah Bradford credits Tubman with serving as a scout and spy for General David Hunter in occupied coastal areas of South Carolina in 1862, though Tubman would have had little if any knowledge of South Carolina and its people. Tubman readily admitted that she was travelling “through unknown regions” and the South Carolina slave dialect was far different from her own Maryland dialect. This certainly raises questions.

Gov. John Andrew of Massachusetts directed Tubman sent to Hilton Head, according to Bradford, and most likely the intent was to recruit black men for his State’s regiments. His purpose was most likely to add freedmen to Massachusetts regiments and avoid conscripting his own citizens. These new recruits from the South counted against his State’s quota of troops, and Andrew wanted to get the black men before other States did.

As an example of this, Andrew formed the Second Massachusetts Cavalry with one hundred men from California in late 1862, and four hundred more by early 1863. All were paid generous enlistment bounties raised by the State of Massachusetts, as well as towns and cities.

Bradford goes on to state that “This fearless woman was often sent into the rebel lines as a spy, and brought back valuable information as to the position of armies and batteries; she has been in battle when the shot was falling like hail, and the bodies of dead and wounded men were dropping around her like the leaves of autumn . . .”

This is an astonishing claim if Tubman was only employed as a nurse at Hilton Head. It is very likely that this refers to the Olustee raid into Florida in February 1864, with Tubman accompanying the expedition. The primary purpose of that raid was to disrupt Southern food production in Florida by destroying crops and luring slaves away from their homes. Without farm labor, the farms could no longer produce and Southern troops at a loss for food.

Gen. Hunter provided Tubman with papers on February 19, 1863 to “give her free passage at all times, on all government transports. Harriet was sent to me by Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, and is a valuable woman. She has permission, as a servant of the Government, to purchase such provisions from the Commissary as she may need.” Certainly, with this food she could attract the slaves after Northern troops destroyed their fields and farms.

Tubman’s New York Home

Interestingly, the mortgage for her Auburn, New York home was held by William Seward in the mid-1850s who at that time was a senator from New York. Bradford writes that “to the credit of [Seward] it should be said, that he sold her the property on very favorable terms, and gave her some time for payment.”

In early 1868 Seward as Secretary of State presented a petition to Congress for a government pension for Tubman, and General Rufus Saxon wrote in support of this, “for services rendered in the Union Army during the late war.” Saxon stated that he “can bear witness to the value of her services in South Carolina and Florida. She was employed in the hospitals and as a spy. She made raids inside the enemy lines, displaying remarkable courage, zeal and fidelity.”

The government declined Seward’s request and did not see Mrs. Tubman’s actions as worthy of a soldier’s pension.

A Professor Hopkins of the Auburn Theological Seminary in 1886 is quoted in Bradford’s book: “Harriet lives on a farm which the twelve hundred dollars given her by Mrs. Bradford from the proceeds of this little book, enabled her to redeem from a mortgage held by Secretary Seward.”

Seward seems to have threatened foreclosure and was perhaps trying to obtain a government pension for Tubman to pay her mortgage off. Of note, no mention of Tubman or underground railroad occurs in the comprehensive 1991 biography of Seward by John M. Taylor.

In Bradford’s preface, she states that as she was about to embark on a voyage to Europe, “there was pressing need for this book, to save the poor woman’s little home from being sold under a mortgage, and letters and facts [from Tubman’s recollections] were penned down rapidly, as they came in.” She adds: “I will here state that so far as it has been possible, I have received corroboration for every incident related to me by my heroic friend.”

Fact or Fiction?

The National Park Service (NPS) has for some time embarked on a national underground railroad network of locations thought to be “stations.” The boon for towns and cities wanting to join the NPS network for more tourism dollars is that little if any hard evidence is necessary, and old homes claiming to have held fugitive slaves on their trek northward come under scant scrutiny to substantiate their claims.

Author Larry Gara, who in 1961 wrote “The Liberty Line, the Legend of the Underground Railroad,” pointed out that after examining the traditional sources, he concluded that “the legend was a mixture of fact and fiction and mostly based on the memoirs and reminiscences of descendants and friends of abolitionists.” This seems quite evident in both Bradford’s and Siebert’s books. In his 1985 “Partisan Imperative,” Joel H. Silbey stated that “[Larry] Gara demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that a well-organized and widespread underground railroad existed in the North.”

Certainly, that slaves and other laborers were leaving their plantations in the prewar period and assisted by sympathetic people along the way, such as Quakers, cannot be denied, but the existence of a formal network of “stations and conductors” cannot be proven.

To underscore the difficulty in finding evidence, Gara’s book related the experience of an Akron archeology graduate student, guided by his professors, who conducted an archeological search of 17 historic Ohio houses said to have been connected with the underground railroad. The student’s conclusion was that none of the homes he examined had tunnels or secret places of concealment. “If such constructions existed at all,” he wrote, “they must be extremely rare.” Gara’s book is highly recommend for anyone seeking a wider view of this question.

Perhaps envious of nearby St. Catherine’s, Ontario for its high visibility as an underground railroad tourist attraction, a Niagara Falls, New York, city official was under fierce criticism in July 2015 for promoting Tubman’s frequent visits to the city and spending a quarter-million dollars “to dedicate a park and erect a statue to a minor historical figure who by all accounts never set foot in Niagara Falls, Harriet Tubman.” Apparently Tubman did travel with a relative by rail across the Niagara gorge in the 1850s, but did not stop.

One city councilman supportive of the measure stated that “the park and statue . . . would draw even more tourists to a city . . . and offers unlimited opportunities for year-round tourism-related enterprises in attracting millions of visitors to Niagara Falls each year.” To further cloud the historical waters is the study by the city’s Underground Railroad Commission in conjunction with Niagara University, was unable to identify a single site anywhere in the city with any indisputable connection to the Underground Railroad . . .”

This criticism of the city’s actions concluded with “Harriet Tubman’s connection to what is now the city of Niagara Falls is tenuous at best . . . There is no corroborating evidence to support her recollection [of being here], which was related to her ghostwriter, children’s book author Sarah Hopkins Bradford [in 1886] (Niagara Falls Reporter, July 21-29, 2015).

In a similar search for more tourism dollars, city officials and local historical organizations in Wilmington, North Carolina, erected a plaque on its Riverwalk in May 2005 commemorating an “underground railroad site” – which was in reality a wartime defection of 22 black men to an enemy ship offshore.

A cursory look into this reveals that white men avoiding conscription as well as deserters were regularly defecting to enemy ships off the North Carolina coast from late 1861 through 1865. This is easily found in the reports of Union naval officer reports of deserters and slaves reaching their blockading ships offshore. This is desertion, defection and aiding the enemy – perhaps expecting compensation for intelligence information — but not an “underground railroad.”

Sadly, this was promoted by local tourism officials eager to be on the NPS UGRR network despite a lack of research and evidence. Today, the plaque stands today as a monument to historical inaccuracy and what is best termed intellectual fraud.

The Freedmen in Canada West

A topic little mentioned when discussing the existence of, or accomplishments of, an underground railroad, is the terminus in Canada and the life they led there. Most went to what was then known as Canada West, or roughly today’s Ontario, and found a difficult life in a strange climate and segregated society – not unlike the northern United States of that time.

Though the abolitionists of Bradford’s book describe a Canada welcoming black folks intent on enjoying liberty, the New York Herald printed an eight column article in its January 5, 1860 issue which described the freedmen settlements in Canada. It stated that “the fugitives go to Canada as beggars and the mass of them commit larceny and lay in jail until they become lowered and debased, and ready for worse crimes.”

That Canadians were not eager to allow unlimited numbers of ex-slaves in their country was underscored by an 1851 Toronto newspaper editorial which called for “restrictive immigration measures to check the influx of Negroes.” Though life for the free black in Canada was little different than the free black in the North or South, freedmen Nelson Moss said that he had suffered more from prejudice during three years in Pennsylvania than a free-black in Virginia.

Somehow black refugees thought Canada held more promise for them – perhaps instilled by Northerners who did not want them tarrying in their towns. Black New York minister Samuel E. Cornish viewed New York City as tainted with “an ever-present, ever-crushing Negro hate.”

Frederick Douglas saw Philadelphia in much the same way. The alternative was to stay in the South and await emancipation or purchase his freedom, and seek a better life in familiar surroundings. As an example of free-blacks persons prospering in the South, those in 1850 New Orleans held $2,354,640 in property while at the same time in Buffalo free-blacks held only $57,610.

Lastly, Canadian “Jim Crow”

Fred Landon wrote in the January 1925 Journal of Negro History about the town of Amherstburg in Canada West, a popular destination of the so-called underground railroad. He stated that “Canadian law drew no distinction between black and white in matters of citizenship,” but he found that white Canadians preferred Negroes having schools of their own – which could be said to be precisely the stance of the American South after the war.

Landon wrote that in 1854 the Negroes had a separate school “having neither blackboard nor chairs. The whole interior was comfortless and repulsive. The teacher was a colored woman, apparently doing the best she could under the discouragement of poor surroundings and frequent absences of her pupils.”

He wrote that the arrival of so many people “of another race and color into southwestern Ontario” was something white Canadians found displeasing: “Deep prejudice manifested itself at times and an occasional outburst in some newspaper reflected the feelings of an element of the population.”

The October 27, 1849 Amherstburg Courier printed “a resolution of the district council passed on October 8 of that year, protesting vigorously against the proposed Elgin settlement which was planned by Reverend William King as a home for fugitives from slavery.” This was about the time of Mrs. Tubman’s final visits to Canada with her abducted brethren.

One resident named Larwill, said “there is but one feeling, and that is of disgust and hatred, that they [the Negroes] should not be allowed to settle in any township where there is a white settlement.” This resolution asked that Negroes not be allowed to buy land, suggested a poll tax on Negroes, “a law against amalgamation and a requirement that Negroes shall furnish good security that they will not become a burden.” An additional question advanced was whether Negroes should be allowed to vote.

When abolitionist and Tubman friend, Dr. Samuel G. Howe, visited Amherstburg in 1863 to investigate conditions of freedmen there, he was told by a Mr. Park of the town that some of the Negroes were “indolent and part industrious. They tended to neglect their own poor and begged more than the whites.” Dr. Howe interviewed a Captain Averill who saw the Negroes as good sailors, “but they were never made mates and none owned ships of their own.” A sad reality rather than a welcoming Canadian population.

To conclude, it is worth rethinking Joel Silbey’s view that author Larry Gara “demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that a well-organized and widespread underground railroad existed in the North,” demand more accurate and thoughtful accounting of history from those practicing as historians, and rethink the notion that Tubman was a person worthy of such high recognition.

Upon wider research and deep reflection, and despite what Bradford and Siebert have written, it appears that the well-intentioned Tubman did perhaps bring her relatives and some others away from their condition of slavery – how many others is only a matter of conjecture as there is no hard evidence.

It is also likely that Tubman was selected by abolitionists after the war — with her actions amplified — as suitable moral figures were desperately sought to salve the costly reality of 600,000 war dead and what would become an $8 billion expenditure. That eventual cost of the war would be sufficient to have purchased the freedom of every slave, with the 40 acres, several times over. Certainly something to ponder.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Sources:

Harriet Tubman, the Moses of Her People, Sarah Bradford, 1886

The Underground Railroad, From Slavery to Freedom, W. H. Siebert, 1898

The Partisan Imperative, Joel H. Silbey, Oxford University Press, 1985

Amherstburg, Fred Landon, Journal of Negro History, Vol. X., No. 1, January 1925, pp. 5-8

Harriet Tubman to Get a Park, Statue, Niagara Falls Reporter, July 12-29, 2015

Wendell Phillips Hands Drenched in Blood

Author Howard R. Floan noted the “tendency, stubbornly persistent even in our own time, to mistake the planter aristocracy for the entire South, to envision the Southerner simply as the slaveholder.” His study of the New England abolitionist aristocracy shows a radical, idealistic clique of utopians divorced from reality who had little, if any understanding of the slavery inherited from the English colonists. Their hands would be stained by the blood of a million Americans who perished in the war they did much to ignite.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Wendell Phillips Hands Drenched in Blood

“In the job of molding public opinion, [William Lloyd] Garrison needed help. The need of a platform personality to carry the cause directly to the people was answered, unsolicited, by Wendell Phillips. At a meeting in 1837, young Phillips rose from the audience, denounced the murderers of Elijah Lovejoy, the antislavery editor, of Alton, Illinois . . . A Bostonian once reported that during a Phillips speech he had heard a man in the audience applauding, stamping his feet, and exclaiming enthusiastically, “The damned old liar! The damned old liar!

Phillips strove to foster a public opinion hostile to slaveholding . . . Phillips battleground was the Northern mind. His eye was on the North, though his shots appeared to be aimed at the South. To arouse Northern awareness of danger, Phillips emphasized the political threat of the South by pointing to its wealth and its continued success in Washington.

For all practical purposes, Phillips said, the slave power was the South; there could be no other South until the North created one. The image of the South which Phillips labored to evoke in the Northern mind embodied deformities that were designed to call up repugnance, anger and fear. It violated the cherished ideals of the North. He conjured up a land of whipping posts and auction blocks, a feudal society in which newspapermen, politicians, and clergymen were vassals. “The South is the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.”

Phillips . . . often spoke of the possibility of armed rebellion in the South. “I can imagine the scenes of blood through which a rebellious slave-population must march to their rights.”

The agitator must continually intensify his attack if he is to maintain the appearance of vitality. With the years, Phillips grew more vitriolic. In 1853, surveying the achievements of the abolition movement, he said: “To startle the South to madness, so that every step she takes in her blindness, is one more step toward ruin, is much. This we have done.”

Nothing shows more clearly that Phillips had become a victim of his own program. BY this time he could summarize his view of the South in one image: the South was “one great brothel where half a million women are flogged to prostitution, or, worse still, are degraded to believe it honorable.”

By the time of the [John Brown] Harpers Ferry incident, Phillips was able to say that Brown had more right to hang [Virginia] Governor Wise than the Governor had to hang Brown. As Phillips grew more outspoken, some of his listeners became indignant, and the abolitionists were forced to form bodyguards.”

(The South in Northern Eyes, 1831 to 1861, Howard R. Floan, McGraw-Hill, 1958, pp. 11-14)