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War Profiteering in the North

Published as a textbook well before America’s cultural revolution of the 1960’s, John Hicks “The Federal Union” can be trusted as a fairly accurate source of United States history and free of cultural Marxist revisionism. Below, he touches on the North’s generous government supply contracts, child labor and general wartime prosperity while its bounty-enriched blue-clad soldiers devastated Americans in the South to preserve a territorial Union.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

War Profiteering in the North

“When the Civil War broke out the North had not fully recovered from the depression that had followed the panic of 1857, and for a time business interests were more frightened than stimulated by the clash of arms. By the summer of 1862, however, a surge of prosperity had put in its appearance that was to outlast the war.

With millions of men under arms the [Northern] government was a dependable and generous purchaser of every kind of foodstuff, and its equally great need of woolen goods and leather strengthened the market also for raw wool and hides. Probably the sales of the farmers made directly or indirectly to the government more than offset the losses sustained by wartime interference with sales to the South.

[And] with the South out of the Union, a homestead law, so long the goal of believers in free land, was speedily enacted (1862). Thereafter any person who was head of a family, or had arrived at the age of twenty-one years, whether a citizen of the united States or an alien who had declared his intention of becoming a citizen, might take up a quarter section of public land, and, after having lived upon it for five years and improved it, might receive full title to it virtually free of charge.

What came in later years to be called “heavy industries” profited enormously from the war. Purchases of munitions abroad practically ceased after the first year because of the rapidity with which American factories supplied the government’s needs . . . the government itself went deeply into the business of manufacturing war materials as public opinion would permit.

High tariffs ensured the northern manufacturers against the dangers of foreign competition. A protectionist policy had been demanded by the Republican national platform of 1860, and a higher schedule of tariffs . . . was placed upon the statute books two days before [President James] Buchanan left office. This speedy answer to the prayers of the protectionists was made possible by the withdrawal from Congress of the delegations from the seven seceding States of the lower South, and by the fact that President Buchanan was no longer unmindful of the wishes of the manufacturers of his home State [of Pennsylvania].

The original Morrill Tariff Act was repeatedly revised upward during the war, until by 1864 the average of duties levied on imports had reached forty-seven per cent, the highest thus far in the history of the nation. The significance of this development can scarcely be overemphasized. A policy which the South had persistently blocked in the years preceding the war became an actuality during it, and as subsequent events were to prove, remained as a permanent fixture in American political and economic life.

The profits of war bred a spirit of extravagance and frivolity among the non-combatants of the north that contrasted oddly with the long casualty lists displayed as a regular part of the daily news. Social life reached a dizzying whirl, with more parties and dances, theaters and circuses, minstrel shows and musicales than ever had been known before.

According to a statement published by the Springfield Republican in 1864, many of the factories whose profits during the war had been “augmented beyond the wildest dreams of their owners” paid their laborers only from twelve to twenty per cent more than before the war. “There is absolute want in many families, while thousands of young children who should be in school are shut up at work that they may earn something to eke out the scant supplies at home.”

(The Federal Union, A History of the United States to 1865, John D. Hicks, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948, pp. 660-665)

The War to Create Many Large Fortunes

After the departure of conservative Southern congressmen in 1861, the old Whigs in the Republican party went unrestrained in their merger of government and corporations. Historian Charles Beard would later write of the War that it was not easy to tell “where slavery as an ethical question left off and economics – the struggle over the distribution of wealth – began.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

The War to Create Many Large Fortunes

“As the election of 1872 approached, the tax and tariff issues were potent enough for [President Ulysses] Grant to take at least some action. Trying to shore up support among farmers and others, Congress approved a 10 percent reduction in tariffs on most items including cotton and wool textiles, iron, steel, paper, glass and other items. But these were baby steps with marginal impact, designed to preserve the whole protectionist system.

Throughout the assault on the [Civil War] income tax, opponents had considered the step of going to court to challenge the tax’s constitutionality. Some suits were filed, and parts of the tax were upheld by various courts, including the Supreme Court. But as the expiration of the tax approached, there did not seem to appear much sentiment in Congress to continue it anyway. Senator [John] Sherman [brother of General Sherman] fought once again to keep the tax alive. He asserted that one of the most solemn obligations of the federal government was to protect the property of Americans. It was therefore only proper “to require property to contribute to their payment.”

Sherman’s appeal was to no avail. Congress was more sensitive to the demands of the growing number of wealthy entrepreneurs, investors, and tycoons, who were at their moment of maximum influence. The power of the new wealthy rested on the newly consolidated railroads and the many large fortunes create by the Civil War.

The landscape of wealth had changed. Whereas New York City had had a handful of millionaires before the conflict, there were hundreds of millionaires afterward. Their fortunes were in the tens of millions of dollars. A.T. Stewart, the dry goods magnate, was worth $50 million, and other millionaires, such as William B. Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the banker Moses Taylor, were not far behind.

Before Congress abolished the publication of income tax returns, it was reported that Astor had paid more than $1 million in income tax, while Vanderbilt and Taylor had paid more than $500,000. After the war, many millionaires routinely engaged in tax evasion or tricks to hide their income. What they did not bother to hide was their vast influence.

In 1869, Grant’s friend Jim Fisk worked with [Northern financier] Jay Gould to monopolize the market in gold, driving up its price so they could make a killing. Instead, on “Black Friday,” September 24, 1869, a collapse in gold prices engulfed a vast number of speculators and investors.

Fisk and Gould managed to bribe enough officials to avoid prosecution, and Fisk remained close to his trusting friends in the White House. Years later the Credit Mobilier scandal revealed that the construction company owned by stockholders of the Union Pacific Railroad had ensnared many prominent members of the Grant administration and Congress.

As tax the historian Sidney Ratner notes, the Civil War debt “became one of the most powerful instruments in America for the enrichment of the rentier class, the leading capitalists. For the next forty years, farmers, workers, small merchants and other working-class Americans carried this debt burden, to the benefit of the rich.”

(The Great Tax Wars, Lincoln to Wilson, Steven R. Weisman, Simon & Schuster, 2002, pp. 99-101)

Threats of Federal Interference in Elections

The Republican Party used freedmen votes to win elections from Grant onward, though the election of Democrat Grover Cleveland demonstrated that more federal election interference in the South was needed to ensure GOP victories. Amid Republican claims that free elections were not being held in the South, Senator Zebulon Vance spoke against the Republican’s 1890 Force Bill and their assertion of electoral purity:

“[t]he supporters of this bill . . . is the same party, which inaugurated Reconstruction. By Reconstruction, it will be remembered one-fifth of the votes in eleven States was suppressed by law. The punishment of disfranchisement was freely inflicted [on Southerners] as a punishment for crime without trial and conviction. Thousands upon top of thousands of other votes were suppressed by fraud . . . [and] there were received and counted the ballots of those who were not entitled to suffrage under any law known to American history or tradition.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Threats of Federal Interference in Elections

“At the end of Reconstruction period the South, which had lost so much in other ways, gained in its representation in Congress through counting all the Negroes in the apportionment. In 1860 it had 108 representatives, in 1880 it had 135. In the same period the three Middle Atlantic States rose from 66 to 73, and the six New England States declined from 41 to 40.

The Southern gain worked for the advantage of the Democrats and the disadvantage of the Republicans. The Republicans, now controlling both houses of Congress, were indignant at a situation which . . . deprived them of votes in the House. This feeling led them to bring in the Federal Election Bill of 1890 . . . On its face the law applied to all parts of the country, but it was aimed mainly at the South and the city of New York.

Candid Southerners did not deny suppressing the Negro vote, but they justified it by saying a great wrong had been done when Negro suffrage was imposed on the South by military force; and they insisted it was necessary to eliminate that vote in order to have good government. Southerners gave clear warning that it would be impossible to enforce a law to put the South in the hands of the Negroes.

The bill passed the House but came to a halt in the Senate. The more it was considered the greater was the unwillingness to enter upon the stormy course its passage would produce. The proposal was finally killed by an agreement between eight free-silver Senators and a group of Southern senators.

The threat to pass the election bill alarmed Southerners greatly, and the defeat of the bill did not altogether remove their fears; for federal interference might be renewed at any time.

Another source of anxiety to the Southern Democrats was the appearance of the People’s [Populist] Party in their midst with a fair prospect of dividing the white vote. These two things led Southerners to pass certain amendments to several State constitutions, in order to exclude the Negro from voting without incurring penalties for violating the Fifteenth Amendment.

To do this it was necessary to word the alterations so that the Negro was not disenfranchised upon the specified grounds of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the only grounds on which at that time the rights of suffrage might not be denied.

It was natural that these amendments should go to the Supreme Court for interpretation. But that tribunal showed a strong unwillingness to pas upon them in fact. To overthrow them would produce a critical situation in the South, where the whites were more determined that the Negroes should not rule either all or any part of the section. The Court showed a desire to avoid precipitating a sectional conflict.

Nevertheless the Fifteenth Amendment is still a part of the federal Constitution; and when the Negro race comes to have the weight of trained intelligence and the substantial possession of property, it will probably find a way to qualify and vote under the present State amendments.”

(Expansion and Reform, 1889-1926, John Spencer Bassett, Kennikat Press, 1971 (original 1926), pp. 22-24)

A Warning of Things to Come

Reverend H. Melville Jackson warned his Richmond audience in 1882 that there will come a day when the victor’s literature and monuments shall crowd out remembrances of the Southern patriots who fought and perished in the cause of independence.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

A Warning of Things To Come

“It is been said of General Robert E. Lee that he often expressed the fear lest posterity should not know the odds against which he fought. [The] daily witness of incredible heroism, daily spectator of the dauntless courage with which a decimated army faced undismayed an overwhelming foe, the chieftain of your armies, gentlemen, feared lest the examples of knightly valor and splendid fortitude, which you have exhibited to the ages, might, through the incapacity or incredulity, or venal mendacity of the historian, be finally lost to the human race.

And there is, I will venture to say, scarcely a soldier of the Confederacy who does not share this apprehension that posterity may not do justice to the cause for which he fought. Soldiers, you cannot bear to think that your children’s children shall have forgotten the fields on which you have shed your blood. You cannot think with equanimity that a day will come when Virginia shall have suffered the fame of her heroes to be lost in obscurity, and the valorous achievements of her sons to fade from memory.

And if you thought, to-night, that the muse of history would turn traitor to your cause, misrepresent the principles for which you fought, and deny to you the attributes of valour, fortitude and heroic devotion you have grandly won, your souls would rise up within you in immediate and bitter and protesting indignation.

This apprehension is thought by some to be not altogether groundless. The North, it is said, is making the literature of these times, has secured the ear of the age and will not fail to make the impression, unfavorable to you, which time will deepen rather than obliterate.

Diligent fingers are carving the statues of the heroes of the Northern armies, writing partizan and distorted versions of their achievements, altering, even in this generation, the perspective of history, until, at no distant day, they shall have succeeded in crowding out every other aspirant of fame and beguiled posterity into believing that the laurels of honor should rest, alone and undisturbed, upon the brows of your adversaries.”

(Our Cause in History, Address of Reverend H. Melville Jackson of Richmond. Given at the Richmond Howitzer’s Banquet, December 13, 1882. From the Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume XI, pp. 26-30)

Washington College Was Not Spared

Liberty Hall Academy in Lexington, Virginia, was the recipient in 1796 of James River canal stock gift from General George Washington – and the grateful school trustees changed the name to Washington College in 1813. Almost immediately after Robert E. Lee’s death in 1870, the school became known as “Washington and Lee College.” Northern soldiers desecrated the college named for Washington in 1864, smashing windows and scribbling obscenities on the walls.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Washington College Was Not Spared

“But no one could hide the scars of the recent struggle. “The whole country from the Blue Ridge to the North Mountain has been made untenable for a rebel army,” Sheridan had informed Washington. If a crow wanted to fly across the area, he would have to carry rations. Trees were down. Fields were gutted. Fences, mills, barns, bridges, crops and stock had been destroyed. Instead of wheat, corn, and barley, the fields were overrun with briars, nettles and weeds.

The fields could be improved in a season; the people’s tempers and bitterness not for generations. Sectional antagonism went back far before the war. “We do not set any claims to public spirit in the matter of internal improvement,” a Rockbridge County historian admitted as early as 1852, “and are shamefully content to let all the glory that appertains there go to the go-ahead Yankees.” When the Yankees laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley, Virginians turned from sarcasm to denunciation.

People did not quickly forget the fate of towns like Scottsville, where every shop, mill and store was burned. Canal locks were dismantled. Records and books were wantonly scattered. The little town lay in its blackened pall, a returning soldier wrote “like a mourner hopelessly weeping.” If the small towns were bad, the cities were worse.

The closest major city to Lexington was Lynchburg, a transportation and manufacturing center fifty-four miles to the southeast. In 1865, life there was paralyzed. Stores were vacant. The tobacco business was ruined. Property everywhere declined in value. The occupying soldiers were a rowdy, rough and drunken set. Robberies occurred nightly.

Sixteen months before General Lee came to Lexington alone, [Northern] General David Hunter had come – with an army. His orders were to . . . destroy all supplies and burn all houses within five miles of the spot where resistance occurred . . . on June 6, 1864, Hunter took Staunton and headed for Lexington . . . crossed the bridge and burned the Virginia Military Institute, and looted the area.

Annie Broun echoed the native’s reaction in the helpless undefended town: “Can I say “God forgive him?” Were it possible for human lips to raise his name heavenward, angels would thrust the foul thing down again. The curses of thousands will follow him through all time, and brand upon the name Hunter infamy, infamy.”

Atop the bluff near the river stood the charred and blackened ruins of the “West Point of the South” – Virginia Military Institute. Along the streets were piles of rubble and brick. At the edge of town stood Washington College, desecrated and silent. Planks were nailed over smashed windows. Obscenities were scribbled on the walls.”

(Lee After the War, Marshall W. Fishwick, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963, pp. 67-77)

Watching Richmond with a Cold Profiteering Eye

“Diamond Jim” Fisk, was a Vermonter who by 1864 had made a fortune through shrewd dealing with army contracts and smuggling cotton northward through Union lines. Allied with the notorious New York political boss Boss Tweed, his buying of judges and bribery of legislatures was the stuff of legend.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Watching Richmond With a Cold, Profiteering Eye

[Losing a large sum in stocks, Fisk] saw an opportunity to recoup his losses by capitalizing in a similar way on victory. Confederate bonds had fallen on the London exchange with Southern losses but were still selling at some eighty cents on the dollar. Grant now had Richmond in a vise. Victory seemed certain, and when the Confederacy met defeat her bonds would plummet in value.

Not yet was there an Atlantic cable, so it would take more than a week for news of the war’s end to reach England by fast steamship.  If anyone could get to London before the news, he could sell Confederate bonds short like mad at eighty cents on the dollar and reap a harvest when they sank. Fisk resolved to get there first.

Forming a pool with three capitalists, he furnished the scheme while they supplied the money. Chartering a fast steamer, he sent it to Halifax, the nearest North American port to England with orders to keep up steam for instant departure. Aboard the ship was his agent, a knowing New York broker named Hargreaves, who had instructions to speed to England when given the signal.

One obstacle was the telegraph, which then fell fifty miles short of reaching Halifax. Fisk had the last fifty miles strung at his colleagues’ expense, then watched Richmond with a cold, profiteering eye.

On the historic day when Lee surrendered, the word sped over the wires to Hargreaves: “Go!”  Hargreaves went.

He reached Liverpool in six days and a half — two days ahead of the arrival of the first ship from New York with the news. Speeding to London, he kept mum about defeat and dutifully sold Confederate bonds short to all buyers.

Alas! — one of Fisk’s partners, a conservative man, had privately telegraphed Hargreaves not to sell more than five millions in bonds, so he limited his sales to that amount. When the news of the surrender reached London, the bonds tumbled to $22.  Hargreaves therefore collected the difference between $22 and $80, making a handsome profit for his employers but missing the downright killing that would have been possible.”

(Jim Fisk The Career of an Improbable Rascal, W.A. Swanberg, Scribner’s Sons, 1959, pp. 20-21)

 

 

“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)

Lee’s Loyalty and Interest

The New England philosopher Josiah Royce wrote in his “Philosophy of Loyalty” that it “seems clear that the correctness of one’s judgment is not the test of loyalty,” and that “one who makes a decision, after due care and investigation, and remains steadfast, therefore constitutes loyalty. Thus did he select Robert E. “Lee as an example of the loyal man.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Lee’s Loyalty and Interest

“[Royce] maintains that Lee fairly considered and honestly decided the question at issue between Virginia and the United States and was steadfast therein. Charles Francis Adams came to the same conclusion. “As to Robert E. Lee individually,” says Adams, “I can only repeat . . . [that] I hope I should have been filial and unselfish enough to have done as Lee did.”

Now it must be conceded that every man in the seceding States, whether he would or no, had to decide whether he would adhere to his State or to the Nation, and if he decided honestly and put self-interest behind him, he decided right.

With Lee it was not a question of the constitutional right of Virginia to withdraw from the Union; a more trying ordeal confronted him: What should be his action after Virginia actually withdrew? In this situation Lee had no misgivings; his allegiance was to Virginia.

But, in arriving at this decision, he was not dogmatic, for he realized that there might be two sides to the question. In a letter of April 20 to his cousin, Roger Jones, of the United States Army, he stated that he entirely agreed with him in his notions of allegiance, but he could not advise him. “I merely tell you what I have done that you may do better.”

This sentence has been subjected to criticism, yet it is characteristic of the style of Lee and of Southern conservatives generally. Though it is not self-deprecating it is not an admission of error. It does not affirm that there is something better, but that if there is the young man should do it. The sentence is susceptible of another construction: Lee was quietly boasting and implied that there was nothing better! But the context leads to the opposite conclusion. Such under-statements mark the cultured Southerner of the period.

Lee did not complain of Southern officers who felt it their duty to remain in the Union – other might choose this course but he could not. No more could have laid violent hands on Virginia than on his own father. If to fight against the Union caused him to shed tears of blood, to have fought against Virginia would have caused him to lose self-respect.

[George H.] Thomas, a Virginian, remained true to the Union; so did [Montgomery] Meigs of Georgia, and [Winfield Scott . . . That these men were loyal Lee did not doubt. When Thomas was asked how he could fight against Virginia, he replied, “I have educated myself not to feel.”

As to Scott, he was an old man and had no local ties; he was as much at home in London as in Richmond. [Lee’s cousin] Admiral Samuel P.] Lee was once asked the question propounded to Thomas and answered, “When I find the word Virginia in my commission I will join the Confederacy.” This reply seems technical.

If Washington had so concluded, when he read the King’s Commission, he would not have led the Continentals against the Crown. And what Washington did, Lee did. “For,” as Lee declared, “Washington found no inconsistency in fighting, at one time, with the English against the French and, at another, with the French against the English.”

Lee, indeed, saw an analogy between the Revolution of 1776 and the Revolution of 1861. Colonists threw off the yoke of Great Britain, in ’61 eleven Southern States threw off the yoke of the North. In each the act was one of revolution. Lee maintained that a government held together by coercion – such as Lincoln’s call for troops would create – was but the semblance of a government. He remembered that Washington himself had declared, “There is nothing that binds one country or one State to another but interest.”

(Robert E. Lee, a Biography, Robert W. Winston, William Morrow & Company, 1934, pp 94-96)

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 1869 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

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