Storm Bear

Black History: Sing your way to a Contraband Camp

Filed By Storm Bear | April 29, 2008 2:39 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: civil war, gay cartoons and comics, negro spirituals, slavery, webcomics


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At the beginning of the war some Union commanders thought they were supposed to return escaped slaves to their masters. By 1862, when it became clear that this would be a long war, the question of what to do about slavery became more general. The Southern economy and military effort depended on slave labor. It began to seem unreasonable to protect slavery while blockading Southern commerce and destroying Southern production. As one Congressman put it, the slaves "...cannot be neutral. As laborers, if not as soldiers, they will be allies of the rebels, or of the Union." The same Congressman--and his fellow Radical Republicans--put pressure on Lincoln to rapidly emancipate the slaves, whereas moderate Republicans came to accept gradual, compensated emancipation and colonization. Copperheads, the border states and War Democrats opposed emancipation, although the border states and War Democrats eventually accepted it as part of total war needed to save the Union.

In 1861, Lincoln expressed the fear that premature attempts at emancipation would mean the loss of the border states, and that "to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game." At first, Lincoln reversed attempts at emancipation by Secretary of War Simon Cameron and Generals John C. Fremont (in Missouri) and David Hunter (in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida) in order to keep the loyalty of the border states and the War Democrats.

Lincoln mentioned his Emancipation Proclamation to members of his cabinet on July 21, 1862. Secretary of State William H. Seward told Lincoln to wait for a victory before issuing the proclamation, as to do otherwise would seem like "our last shriek on the retreat". In September 1862 the Battle of Antietam provided this opportunity, and the subsequent War Governors' Conference added support for the proclamation. Lincoln had already published a letter encouraging the border states especially to accept emancipation as necessary to save the Union. Lincoln later said that slavery was "somehow the cause of the war". Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, and said that a final proclamation would be issued if his gradual plan based on compensated emancipation and voluntary colonization was rejected. Only the District of Columbia accepted Lincoln's gradual plan, and Lincoln issued his final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. In his letter to Hodges, Lincoln explained his belief that "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong ... And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling ... I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

Since the Emancipation Proclamation was based on the President's war powers, it only included territory held by Confederates at the time. However, the Proclamation became a symbol of the Union's growing commitment to add emancipation to the Union's definition of liberty. Lincoln also played a leading role in getting Congress to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment, which made emancipation universal and permanent.

Confederates enslaved captured black Union soldiers, and black soldiers especially were shot when trying to surrender at the Fort Pillow Massacre. This led to a breakdown of the prisoner exchange program, and the growth of prison camps such as Andersonville prison in Georgia where almost 13,000 Union prisoners of war died of starvation and disease.

In spite of the South's shortage of manpower, until 1865, most Southern leaders opposed arming slaves as soldiers. They used them as laborers to support the war effort. As Howell Cobb said, "If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Confederate generals Patrick Cleburne and Robert E. Lee argued in favor of arming blacks late in the war, and Jefferson Davis was eventually persuaded to support plans for arming slaves to avoid military defeat. The Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox before this plan could be implemented.

A few Confederates discussed arming slaves since the early stages of the war, and some free blacks had even offered to fight for the South. In 1862 Georgian Congressman Warren Akin supported the enrolling of slaves with the promise of emancipation, as did the Alabama legislature. Support for doing so also grew in other Southern states. A few all black Confederate militia units, most notably the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, were formed in Louisiana at the start of the war, but were disbanded in 1862. In early March, 1865, Virginia endorsed a bill to enlist black soldiers, and on March 13 the Confederate Congress did the same.

The Emancipation Proclamation greatly reduced the Confederacy's hope of getting aid from Britain or France. Lincoln's moderate approach succeeded in getting border states, War Democrats and emancipated slaves fighting on the same side for the Union. The Union-controlled border states (Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia) were not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation. All abolished slavery on their own, except Kentucky and Delaware. The great majority of the 4 million slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, as Union armies moved South. The 13th amendment, ratified December 6, 1865, finally freed the remaining slaves in Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey, that numbered 225,000 for Kentucky, 1,800 in Delaware, and 18 in New Jersey as of 1860.

At Fort Monroe in southeastern Virginia, Brigadier General Benjamin Butler, commander, came into the custody of three slaves who had made their way across Hampton Roads from Confederate-occupied Norfolk County, Virginia and presented themselves at Union-held Fort Monroe. General Butler refused to return escaped slaves to masters supporting the Confederacy, which amounted to classifying them as "contraband," although credit for first use of that terminology occurred elsewhere.

Three slaves, Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory had been contracted by their owners to the Confederate Army to help construct defense batteries at Sewell's Point across the mouth of Hampton Roads from Union-held Fort Monroe. They escaped at night and rowed a skiff to Old Point Comfort, where they sought asylum at the adjacent Fort Monroe.

Prior to the War, the owners of the slaves would have been legally entitled to request their return (as property) and this would have in all likelihood have occurred. However, Virginia had just declared (by secession) that it no longer considered itself part of the United States. General Butler, who was educated as an attorney, took the position that, if Virginia considered itself a foreign power to the U.S., then he was under no obligation to return the 3 men; he would instead hold them as "contraband of war." Thus, when Confederate Major John B. Cary made the request for their return as Butler had anticipated, it was denied on the above basis. While not truly free men (yet), the three men undoubtedly were much satisfied to have their new status as "contraband" rather than slaves.

Gen. Butler paid the escaped slaves nothing, and kept them as slaves, as he so termed them. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells issued a directive, September 25, 1861 which gave "persons of color, commonly known as contrabands," in the employment of the Union Navy pay at the rate of $10 and a full day's ration. It was not until three weeks later the Union Army followed suit, paying male 'contrabands' $8 a month and females $4, at Fort Monroe, and only specific to that command.

The Confiscation Act of 1861 declared that August that any property used by the Confederate military, including slaves, could be confiscated by Union forces. The next March, the Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves forbade the restoring of such human seizures.

The word spread quickly among southeastern Virginia's slave communities. While becoming a "contraband" did not mean full freedom, it was apparently seen by many slaves as at least a step in that direction. The day after Butler's decision, many more escaped slaves also found their way to Fort Monroe appealing to become contraband. As the number of former slaves grew too large to be housed inside the Fort, from the burned ruins of the City of Hampton the Confederates had left behind, the contrabands erected housing outside the crowded base. They called their new settlement Grand Contraband Camp (which they nicknamed "Slabtown"). By the end of the war in April 1865, less than 4 years later, an estimated 10,000 had applied to gain "contraband" status, many living nearby.

Near Fort Monroe, but outside its protective walls in Elizabeth City County, in an area which later became part of the campus of Hampton University, both adult and child contrabands were taught to read and write by pioneering teacher Mrs. Mary S. Peake and others. Defying a Virginia law against educating slaves, classes were held outdoors under a certain large oak tree. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was read to the contrabands and free blacks there, giving the tree its name and claim to fame as the Emancipation Oak. However, due to some political considerations when drafting the Proclamation, for most of the contrabands, true emancipation did not come until the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery was ratified in late 1865.

In modern times, the Contraband Historical Society was organized by their descendants, to honor and perpetuate their story. Authors such as Phyllis Haislip have written about the plight of contraband slaves as well.

Enslaved African Americans did not wait for Lincoln's action before escaping and seeking freedom behind Union lines. From early years of the war, hundreds of thousands of African Americans escaped to Union lines, especially in occupied areas like Norfolk and the Hampton Roads region in 1862, Tennessee from 1862 on, the line of Sherman's march, etc. So many African Americans fled to Union lines that commanders created camps (called contraband camps) and schools for them, where both adults and children learned to read and write. The American Missionary Association entered the war effort by sending teachers south to such contraband camps, for instance establishing schools in Norfolk and on nearby plantations. In addition, nearly 200,000 African-American men served with distinction as soldiers and sailors with Union troops. Most of those were escaped slaves.

Once the slaves felt free, they began to sing spirituals as the walked the long distances up the Underground Railroad or to the Union controlled contraband camps. The term spiritual is derived from spiritual song. The King James Bible's translation of Ephesians V.19 is: "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." Negro spiritual first appears in print in the 1860's, where slaves are described as using the noun "spiritual"for religious songs sung sitting or standing in place, and spiritual shouts for more dance-like music.

Although numerous rhythmically and sonic elements of spirituals can be traced to African sources, nonetheless it is a fact that spirituals are a musical form that is indigenous and specific to the religious experience in the United States of Africans transported from Africa. They are a result of the interaction of African religious elements with music and religion derived from Europe. Further, this interaction occurred only in the United States. Africans converted to Christianity in other parts of the world, even in the Caribbean and Latin American, did not evolve this form.

Negro spirituals were primarily expressions of religious faith. They may also have served as socio-political protests veiled as assimilation to white American culture. They were originated by enslaved African-Americans in the United States. Slavery was introduced to the British colonies in the early seventeenth century, and enslaved people largely replaced indentured servants as an economic labor force during the 17th century. These people would remain in bondage for the entire 18th century and much of the 19th century. Most were not fully emancipated until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

During slavery in the United States, there were systematic efforts to de-Africanize the captive Black workforce. Enslaved people were forbidden from speaking their native languages.

Restrictions were placed on the religious expression of slaves. Rows of benches in places of worship discouraged congregants from spontaneously jumping to their feet and dancing. The use of musical instruments of any kind often was forbidden, and slaves were ordered to desist from the "paganism" of the practice of spiritual possession. Nonetheless, the Christian principles that teach those who suffer on earth hold a special place with God in heaven undoubtedly spoke to the enslaved who saw this as hope and could certainly relate to the suffering of Jesus. For this reason many slaves genuinely embraced Christianity.

Because they were unable to express themselves freely in ways that were spiritually meaningful to them, enslaved Africans often held secret religious services. During these "bush meetings," worshippers were free to engage in African religious rituals such as spiritual possession, speaking in tongues and shuffling in counterclockwise ring shouts to communal shouts and chants. It was there also that enslaved Africans further crafted the impromptu musical expression of field songs into the so-called "line singing" and intricate, multi-part harmonies of struggle and overcoming, faith, forbearance and hope that have come to be known as "Black Spirituals."

While slaveowners used Christianity to teach enslaved Africans to be long-suffering, forgiving and obedient to their masters, as practiced by the enslaved, it became something of a liberation theology. The story of Moses and The Exodus of the "children of Israel" and the idea of an Old Testament God who struck down the enemies of His "chosen people" resonated deeply with the enslaved ("He's a battleaxe in time of war and a shelter in a time of storm"). In Black hands and hearts, Christian theology became an instrument of liberation.

So, too, in many instances did the spirituals themselves. Spirituals sometimes provided comfort and eased the boredom of daily tasks, but above all, they were an expression of spiritual devotion and a yearning for freedom from bondage. Songs like "Steal Away (to Jesus)", or "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" raised unexpectedly in a dusty field, or sung softly in the dark of night, signaled that the coast was clear and the time to escape had come. The River Jordan became the Ohio River, or the Mississippi, or another body of water that had to be crossed on the journey to freedom. "Wade in the Water" contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture and the route to take to successfully make their way to freedom. Leaving dry land and taking to the water was a common strategy to throw pursuing bloodhounds off one's trail. "The Gospel Train", and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" all contained veiled references to the Underground Railroad, and Follow the Drinking Gourd contained a coded map to the Underground Railroad. The title itself was an Africanized reference to the Big Dipper, which pointed the way to the North Star and freedom in Canada.

In the 1850s, Reverend Alexander Reid, superintendent of the Spencer Academy in the old Choctaw Nation, hired some enslaved Africans from the Indians for some work around the school. He heard two of them, "Uncle Wallace" and "Aunt Minerva" Willis, singing religious songs they had composed. Among these songs were Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Steal Away to Jesus, The Angels are Coming, I'm a Rolling, and Roll Jordan Roll. Later, Reid, who left Indian Territory at the beginning of the Civil War, attended a musical program put on by a group of Negro singers from Fisk University. Although they were singing mostly popular music of the day, Reid thought the songs he remembered from his time in the Choctaw Nation would be appropriate. He and his wife transcribed the songs of the Willises as they remembered them and sent them to Fisk University. The Jubilee Singers put on their first performance singing the old captives' songs at a religious conference in 1871. The songs were first published in 1872 in a book titled Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, by Thomas F. Steward. Later these religious songs became known as "Black spirituals" to distinguish this music from the spiritual music of other peoples. Wallace Willis died in 1883 or 84.

Over time the pieces the Jubilee Singers performed came to be arranged and performed by trained musicians. In 1873, Mark Twain, whose father had owned slaves, found Fisk singing to be "in the genuine old way" he remembered from childhood, but an 1881 performance review said that "they have lost the wild rhythms, the barbarity, the passion." Fifty years on, Zora Neale Hurston in her 1938 book The Sanctified Church criticized Fisk singers, and similar groups at Tuskegee and Hampton, as using a "Glee Club style" that was "full of musicians' tricks" not to be found in the original spirituals, urging readers to visit an "unfashionable Negro church" to experience real spirituals.

A second important early collection of lyrics is Slave Songs of the United States by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison (1867).

A group of lyrics to "Negro spirituals" was published by Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who served as the commander of a regiment of former slaves in the Civil War, in an article in The Atlantic Monthly and subsequently included in his 1869 memoir Army Life in a Black Regiment (1869).

Musicologist George Pullen Jackson extended the term to a wider range of folk hymnody, as in his 1938 book White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands, but this does not appear to have been widespread usage previously. "Spiritual song" was often used in the white Christian community through the 19th century (and indeed much earlier), but not "spiritual."

But those slaves who didn't escape to a contraband camp or via the Underground Railroad, were still considered as property by the Confederate States. The spirituals offered them no solace.

Birth Of A Notion Disclaimer

SPECIAL REQUEST FOR TCD FANS: The San Francisco Chronicle is pondering the addition of new cartoons for their paper - a process that seems to be initiated by Darren Bell, creator of Candorville (one of my daily reads - highly recommended). You can read the Chronicle article here and please add your thoughts to the comments if you wish. If anything, put in a good word for Darren and Candorville.

I am submitting Town Called Dobson to the paper for their consideration. They seem to have given great weight to receiving 200 messages considering Candorville. I am asking TCD fans to try to surpass that amount. (I get more than that many hate mails a day, surely fans can do better?)

This is not a race between Darren and I, it is a hope that more progressive strips can be represented in the printed press of America.

So if you read the San Francisco Chronicle or live in the Bay Area (Google Analytics tell me there are a lot of you), please send your kind comments (or naked, straining outrage) to David Wiegand at his published addresses below. If you are a subscriber, cut out your mailing label and staple it to a TCD strip and include it in your letter.

candorcomment@sfchronicle.com

or

David Wiegand
Executive Datebook Editor
The San Francisco Chronicle
901 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94103


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