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Reconstruction, the Most Shameful Period of Our History

The following is an excerpt from an 1892 address by Lt. Col. Alfred Moore Waddell to the Alumni Association of the University of North Carolina. He served as a United States Congress 1871-1879.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Reconstruction, the Most Shameful Period of Our History

“[Reconstruction] constitutes the one indelible and appalling disgrace of the American people — the one chapter of their history which contains no redeeming feature to relieve it from the endless execration of the civilized world.

A distinguished orator from a Northern State declared in Congress in 1872 that one-third of the boundaries of this Republic had been filled “with all the curses and calamities ever recorded in the annals of the worst governments known on the pages of history,” and attacking the [radical Republican] authors of these calamities, he exclaimed,

“From turret to foundation you tore down the governments of eleven States. You left not one stone upon another. You rent all their local laws and machinery into fragments, and trampled upon their ruins. Not a vestige of their former construction remained.”

And again he said:

“A more sweeping and universal exclusion from all the benefits, rights, trusts, honors, enjoyments, liberties, and control of government was never enacted against a whole people, without respect to age or sex, in the annals of the human race. The disgraceful disabilities imposed against the Jews for nearly eighteen hundred years by the blind and bigoted nations of the earth were never more complete or appalling.”

Those old enough to remember that most shameful period of our history will readily recall the degradation, the crimes against civilization, and the terrorism which then prevailed, and how, amidst the general dismay, the faint-hearted stood helpless and silent before the arbitrary and reckless power exercised over them.”

(The Life and Character of William L. Saunders, address to the Alumni Association of the University of North Carolina, Tuesday, May 31, 1892, Col. Alfred Moore Waddell of Wilmington)

Publish the Truth in a Thousand Forms

Wilmington Mayor Alfred Moore Waddell welcomed the United Daughters of the Confederacy annual convention to his city in 1901 and lauded that organization for its efforts to preserve an accurate record of the war. A prewar Whig opposed to secession, he honorably served as a lieutenant-colonel of the Third North Carolina cavalry.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Publish the Truth in a Thousand Forms

“In November, 1901 the annual convention of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was held in Wilmington, North Carolina and Mayor Alfred Moore Waddell, welcomed them to this historic city. In his address, he said that “As one who bore a humble part in the service of the Confederacy I reverently salute you the wives, sisters, and daughters of my comrades, the noblest army of heroines and patriots that ever trod the earth.” He went on to say that:

“Your organization is unique in human annals, as was the struggle whose memories you seek to preserve. The dreamer and sentimentalist may fold his hands, and with a sigh exclaim that history will do justice between the parties to that struggle; but experience has shown that history, like Providence, helps those only who help themselves, and will honor only those who help her to record the truth.

You will readily admit that if the Southern people had remained silent, and had used no printer’s ink after the war, they would have been pilloried in history as Rebels and traitors who had, causelessly and without a shadow of excuse, drenched the land with the blood of unoffending patriots.

But the Southern people did not remain silent; they published in a thousand forms the truth, both as to the causes which impelled them to assert their rights and as to the battles in which they maintained them, and have thus made a partial, unjust and one-sided history impossible.

In this work the Memorial Association first, and after them the United Daughters of the Confederacy, have been the most heroic and devoted, and they may justly claim a large share of the credit for successfully vindicating before the world the causes which their Southern countrymen engaged, and in which thousands of them sacrificed their lives.”

(Confederate Veteran Magazine, November 1901, page 485-486)

 

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)

 

 

 

 

War — Even if Slavery Were Removed as an Issue

Abolitionist Moncure Conway saw deeper into the question of immediate emancipation than most of his contemporaries. He rightly sensed that the more fierce the North’s desire to subjugate the South became, the more the black man would be used as a weapon to achieve their goal of political supremacy. The postwar Union League which incited Southern blacks against their white neighbors followed this stratagem, against which the Ku Klux Klan became the predictable antidote.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

War – Even if Slavery Were Removed as an Issue

“Conway’s disenchantment with the Northern cause began in 1862 when his deep-seated hatred of war came again to the fore, overcoming his bellicosity of the previous year. In April, he wrote to Charles Sumner on his recent lecture tour “a growing misgiving that a true peace cannot be won by the sword in an issue of this nature.” His second book, The Golden Hour, which was published that same year, displayed an increasing concern with the evils of war.

“The moralization of the soldier,” Conway now wrote, “is the demoralization of the man. War is the apotheosis of brutality . . . Should we continue this war long enough, we shall become the Vandals and Hessians the South says we are.”

Complaints about the low morale of the troops meant to him simply that the Northern soldier was still civilized and under the influence of Christian morality. The inescapable conclusion was that the longer the war continued, the more savage and brutalized the North would become. Here he generalized the insight at the end of The Rejected Stone that if emancipation did not come before it became a “fierce” necessity, it would reflect war passions rather than benevolence.

After the President did take up his pen and sign the [proclamation], Conway felt that it was too little and too late. In part this may have reflected his disappointment that the war continued as fiercely as ever; for he had refused as an optimistic humanitarian to believe that the eradication of one evil might require acceptance of another. A case can be made for the theory that Lincoln framed and enforced his edict in such a way that the fewest possible slaves would be freed – while at the same time taking the bite out of antislavery criticism of the administration.

By April 1863, when he sailed for England as an unofficial envoy of the American abolitionists, Conway was completely fed up with the bloody conflict which e saw as inflicting terrible damage on the South without adequate justification . . . and in any case, war was a worse evil than slavery.

Soon after arriving in England, Conway stirred up a hornet’s nest by making a peace offer to James M. Mason, the Confederate envoy, which he innocently misrepresented as coming from the American abolitionists. Conway proposed to Mason that if the South would abolish slavery on its own, the antislavery men of the North would “immediately oppose the further prosecution of the war . . . ”

The storm that broke over the head of poor Conway was something from which he never fully recovered. Almost to a man the abolitionists condemned and repudiated his offer. Conway now understood, apparently for the first time, that many of the abolitionists were devoted to a war which would crush the South even if slavery were removed as an issue.”

(The Inner Civil War, Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union, George M. Frederickson, Harper & Row, 1965, pp. 123-125)

Carpetbaggers in the Philippines

The entrance of the United States into the game of imperialism came after an unnecessary war with Spain and the seizure of the latter’s former imperial possessions of Cuba and the Philippines. The promise of independence for the natives was soon realized to be empty, and the standard procedure of installing US-friendly regimes in conquered regions began — and continues today.

As articulated below, it is worth pondering if exploitation by the dominant Tagalogs after the US military departed was worse than exploitation by American carpetbaggers. The latter believed, and still seem to believe, that all people of the world are really hard-working New England Puritans in native clothing and if taught to master the art of democratic town hall meetings they could be left alone.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Carpetbaggers in the Philippines

“The problem of giving self-government to the Filipinos was made difficult by the existence of several distinct tribes speaking different languages and cherishing race enmities among themselves. The most important tribe was the Tagalogs, numbering 1,466,000 out of a population of nearly 8,000,000. They exceeded the others in culture and in the will to dominate the islands. If left to themselves it was believed that they would establish supremacy over the islands both political and economic. This policy has weighed down our policy in the islands.

Whatever the reasons why the United States should withdraw from the conduct of government there, it would be against the spirit of our promises to all the people if by so doing the large majority of the natives were left to the exploitation of the Tagalogs.

[In 1900], a governmental commission was appointed, with William H. Taft at the head, with instructions to introduce civil government as far and as rapidly as possible. The commission itself was at the top of the system with wide executive and law-making powers. It was directed to establish schools and create courts of justice.

Provision was made that the language of the United States should be taught in the schools, and that the officials should be taken from the natives as far as possible. These instructions were written by Secretary of War [Elihu] Root after a careful study of conditions in the Philippines.

The next step in developing government for the Philippines was McKinley appointing Taft Governor] and made him with the other members of his commission a Council to assist him in governing. At the same time three of the ablest natives were added to the membership of the Council, in which they were a minority.

Taft’s first care was to establish local self-government in the provinces . . . The suffrage for this process was awarded to persons who had held office in the islands, or owned a specified amount of property, or who spoke, read, and wrote Spanish or English. Elections were held in 1907, and the Assembly fell at once into the hands of a nationalist party.

The natives, that is, the Tagalog ruling class, were disappointed that no larger share of the government of their own country was given them, and they likened themselves to the [American] South when it was ruled by carpetbag officials from the North.

When President [Warren] Harding came into authority he sent General [Leonard] Wood and Lieutenant-Governor General Forbes to investigate and give advice on the withdrawal of the United States from the islands. They reported, in 1921, that the natives were not ready for self-government and advocated the continuance of the existing system. The natives were disappointed at the decision of the commissioners and continued to protest against the continuance of United States authority over them.”

(Expansion and Reform, 1889-1926, John Spencer Bassett, Kennikat Press, 1971 (original 1926), pp. 103-107)

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)

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 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