Embattled Freedom

White Abolitionists, Black Fighters of Waverly, Pa.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Back in Action! After a long hiatus, I’m back with two nuggets of pleasant news. One is that the Waverly Community House is scheduled to open its new history room on Thursday, Oct. 7. The space is officially called the Destination Freedom Special Exhibitions Gallery.  Waverly, Pa., was my boyhood hometown and is the focus of my last book, Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave Haven in the Wary North.  The town has embraced its Underground Railroad history, and the wonderful Waverly Community House has been offering regular “Destination Freedom” walking tours that highlight the story. Its new gallery will be a permanent fixture marking Waverly’s complex Underground Railroad story. I’ve been honored to help E.J. Murphy, the project coordinator, as he gathers information and items for display there. More information is at www.waverlywalkingtours.com

My New Book Is Out! That’s my other nugget of good tidings. I’ve spent the past three or so years researching and writing the history of a little-known Union Army post that existed during the Civil War in my current home township of Lower Merion, outside Philadelphia. And you can read all about it in my newly released nonfiction history book titled Back From Battle: The Forgotten Story of Pennsylvania’s Camp Discharge and the Weary Civil War Soldiers It Served.  Camp Discharge sat on bluff overlooking the Schuylkill River. Its barracks housed hundreds of combat vets and recently released POWs who had been held in Andersonville and other wretched prison camps in the South.  My co-author, Brad Upp, and I are lining up author talks, which is a tricky business in this age of Covid. The book is loaded with photographs and has a full roster of the soldiers who were at the camp. It sells for only $19.95 and is available here through our publisher, Sunbury Press.

He Was Never the Same. Back From Battle profiles a number of the enlisted men who spent time recuperating at Camp Discharge, often in the camp’s hospital. As an example, I’ll leave you with a profiled excerpted right from the book. The subject is Jeremiah Fleegle, a married farmer from Somerset County, Pa. His was a hard-luck case. As we write, “Fleegle returned home to his family in 1865 and persevered for years as a farmer, but he was not the same man. Neighbors noticed how he labored and walked with a stoop. He’d done two tours of duty during the war and been battered by both. During the first, a nine-month enlistment with the 133rd Pa. Infantry, he contracted typhoid fever while on the march from Antietam to Fredericksburg in late 1862. According to his pension paperwork, he was hospitalized for that and recovered. Fleegle went on to join the 187th Pa. Infantry and returned to the field. A comrade in his Company H, John Wolford, testified that at the outset of the Battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864, Fleegle was injured when a cannonball struck a tree, causing a large limb to fall on him and break his right shoulder blade. Fleegle refused to leave the action and had to be ordered to a hospital. Then, at Camp Discharge in December 1864, Fleegle was hospitalized for a cold and contracted variola (smallpox). Wolford, who was with him at the camp, said the smallpox permanently damaged Fleegle’s eyes and spine. In 1895, Fleegle applied for disability from manual labor but lost, the pension examiner not convinced the injuries were contracted in the service. He won on appeal and was given $12 per month for shoulder injury, lumbago, and heart disease.  Fleegle would die in 1918, a widower for decades.”


Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

John Summerfield Staples, Step Forward. April 15 is the 154th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death from an assassin’s bullet. This brought to mind an action Lincoln had taken six months earlier that involved my old stomping ground of Northeastern Pennsylvania.  At that time the President’s military draft was letting individuals pay for substitutes to serve in their stead. Lincoln, though overage, decided to set a personal example by paying for a “representative recruit” for himself. Young Staples,  of Stroudsburg in the Poconos, was the rather random pick. Already a discharged veteran, Staples had gone to Washington in 1864 to work with his father as a carpenter. There, the story goes, an emissary for Lincoln happened to approach and lure in the young man. Staples was taken to the White House to meet the great man, who paid him $500 to re-up.  Staples would serve uneventfully behind the lines and return uneventfully to Stroudsburg, where he died at age 43 in 1888. A state historical marker about Staples was erected in 1999 on Main Street in Stroudsburg. I’ll be giving a talk next month in Dingman’s Ferry, near there, and will have to quiz folks on their awareness of this unlikely local story.

“The Rebel Raid.” My research into a Civil War camp near my home took me recently into the pages of the West Philadelphia Hospital Register, a weekly printed at the time by the wartime Satterlee military hospital. Along with the paper’s lists of fresh patients and discharges and deaths were poems, homilies, commentary, and ads. A particular poem, “The Rebel Raid,” caught my eye. It ran on June 27, 1863, days before the Battle of Gettysburg, as the North was stunned by Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. The writer, who went by the name “the Bard of Tower Hall,” had penned these lines:

People of the Keystone State,

Hostile footsteps press your soil;

Pause not now for cold debate

While your foemen seize the spoil.

See, they come, on plunder bent!

Haste the mischief to prevent;

Save the produce of your tillage,

Save your fields and barns from pillage;

Save your stores and dwelling houses,

Comfort your affrighted spouses;

Plainly show those hungry sinners

You’ll not furnish them with dinners.

“Hospitable graves,” indeed,

May they from our kindness claim,

When they hither come to feed,

Uninvited, void of shame.

Pennsylvanians can’t afford

These voracious gangs to board,

Or to furnish them with coats

Paid for with secession notes.

Customers of such a kind

BENNETT wishes not to find;

But to good and true men he

Bargains sells most willingly.

The largest stock and most complete assortmentof Ready-made Clothing in Philadelphia on hand, and selling much below present market prices. TOWER HALL, No. 518 Market Street; BENNETT & CO.

Yes, you just read an ad jingle! Bennett & Co. operated a “clothing bazaar” known as Tower Hall–and had a copywriter whose clever words could put today’s big ad agencies to shame.

Book News. I’ll be heading up to the beautiful upper Delaware River to give an Embattled Freedom author talk on Thursday, May 16, at 7 p.m. The presentation is hosted by the Delaware Township Historical Society and takes place in the township municipal building, 116 Wilson Hill Rd., Dingmans Ferry, Pa. 18328. After that, I’m off the road until September and will gladly be nose-down on my current research project.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Hello, all. If you’re among my new sign-ups in the past month, welcome! You’ll find a fresh batch of Nuggets in your email inbox every mid-month, and prior ones are archived on the Blog page of embattledfreedom.com. Here’s my latest:

The Pennsylvania “Cottager.” That curious term jumped out at me from a Black History Month article that the Philadelphia Inquirer published about Pennsylvania’s 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. By gradual, the law meant that individuals already stuck in slavery could be kept in bondage for life, while their children could be held in wage-free indenture until age 28. Upon release from indenture, many African Americans entered into sketchy year-to-year contracts as “cottagers.” They got tiny abodes in return for working the fields for landowners, a system of perpetual indigence “that has drawn comparisons to sharecropping in the American South,” wrote reporter Cassie Owens. The cottager and his family would move onto the farm and rent a cottage 12 feet by 16 feet. They might get a small garden plot for food “but not an inch of ground is otherwise allowed for cultivation of any sort, which might tend to draw the cottager from the farmer’s business to attend to an enlarged employment of his own,” according to a 1801 tutorial for farmers. The website slavenorth.com says the cottage system “was promoted in some quarters as the best successor to slavery.” I was raised in Pennsylvania and had never heard of this system. How about you?

“All We Ask for Is Justis.” My history focus lately has been a Civil War mustering-out camp that my local Lower Merion Historical Society has enlisted me to research. A prime goal has been to flesh out the stories of the nearly one thousand war vets who passed through the place, known as Camp Discharge, on their way out of the army. Let me share a bit about one of the men, a corporal in the 36th Pennsylvania Infantry named Haze Swisher.  He was one of 273 survivors of the notorious Andersonville prison who spent time at Camp Discharge.  On a recent trip to the National Archives in Washington, I was able to access Cpl. Swisher’s disability pension file. What a wrenching tale it tells. Shot in the hand in in 1862, then shot in the leg and refusing to leave the battle line. Captured with his company in 1864 and sent to  Andersonville, “where the very regions of darkness opened up to receive me.” During his year there, Swisher contracted two diseases that would bedevil him for the rest of his life, rheumatism and scurvy. The pension paperwork tells of headaches, skin inflammation and more: “blind in one eye and short of breath,” “enlarged and tender joints,” “awfully hard of hearing, nervous and excitable.” A wartime photo shows a handsome fellow, but he was hard to look at by 1890, when a medical exam reported “disease of mouth with loss of teeth result of scurvy…has no teeth at all in upper jaw and front teeth loose in lower jaw…excessive flow of saliva, gums ulcerated at times.”  Swisher’s pension file includes a letter of support from one of his 36th Infantry comrades, Pvt. Joseph Egolf, who also got scurvy at Andersonville and passed through Camp Discharge with him. “I think it very strange we prisoners mus have so much trouble to get what is justly doo to us,” Egolf wrote. “All we ask for is justis befor we all quit this hard fight for life.” Swisher was receiving a meager disability pension of $8 a month at the time. When he died in 1904, it was $12.

Book News. Thanks to the Lancaster History Center for bringing me in for an Embattled Freedom author talk March 7. I’m off the speaking trail until Sept. 9. Meanwhile, I’ll be plowing ahead with the Camp Discharge project.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“The Strawberry Movement.” Once the Civil War ended in 1865, Union soldiers poured northward out of the military. I’m currently researching an Army camp near my home that helped handle the vast flow of manpower, and this has led me to read Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. Author Brian Matthew Jordon chronicles how northerners turned out to shower their returning boys in blue with gratitude.  In one memorable example, a freelance humanitarian in New York named Vincent Colyer parlayed the gratitude into fresh food. Using funds from benefactors, Colyer gathered up “strawberries, cherries, radishes beets, cabbage, and lettuce that he had purchased from local street vendors,” Jordan writes in Marching Home. When military transport ships sailed into the harbor, Colyer and his helpers were there at the wharf to welcome the returning troops with fresh bounty–hundreds of baskets of it.  What a treat this was for soldiers who had just endured years of unappetizing hardtack and salt pork. The fresh fruit proved a particular hit and Colyer’s lovely campaign was dubbed the Strawberry Movement.

“The Empty Sleeve.” Once the postwar pomp and gratitude died down, the boys in blue returned to civilian life, sometimes easily but often not. Men who had lost limbs faced special challenges. This is where another friend of the war veterans, a publisher named William Bourne, is featured in Marching Home. In late 1865, Bourne sponsored a penmanship competition for the thousands of vets who had lost their right arms in combat and were learning to write left-handed. Skilled penmanship, Bourne said, could be their avenue to “lucrative and honorable positions.” Bourne offered cash prizes and publication in a  special gilded book. The response was an overwhelming 300 entries, causing Bourne to sponsor a second round the next year. And although the submissions were to be judged not on content but aesthetic appearance, many entrants wrote from the heart.  “Union amputees keenly understood that they had been afforded an opportunity to speak to the public–and to posterity,” according to Marching Home.  Many proudly referred to themselves as “empty sleeves” whose losses bore witness to the cost of what one called an “ungodly conflict.” Historian Jordan quotes one as writing “There is a strange history connected with each of these empty sleeves. A history of hardships such as only the soldier knows of long marches now through the rain and cold…of fearful conflicts amid roaring shells and hissing bullets, rattling of musketry and thunder of cannons, shouts and yells of excited men and groans of the dying and wounded.”

Book News. Two Embattled Freedom author talks are on tap in the next month. First up is to the Delaware Valley Civil War Round Table, next Tuesday, Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m., at the Radisson Hotel, 2400 Old Lincoln Highway, Trevose, Pa. 19053 . Then the Lancaster History Center is bringing me in as a Regional History Colloquium speaker on Thursday, March 7, at 4:30 p.m. The center is at 230 N. President Ave., Lancaster, Pa. 17603.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

My latest research project has me and a history partner looking into a nearly-forgotten Union army camp that existed near Philadelphia in 1864-65. We’ve unearthed some memorable tidbits. Let me share several.

Out of Andersonville. It turns out that almost a third of the Pennsylvania soldiers who went through the camp were fresh survivors of Andersonville, the hellacious Confederate prisoner of war stockade. As I’ve boned up generally on Andersonville, I’ve also been alert for indications of the black experience there.  Writing Embattled Freedom has left me “woke” in that way.  And the evidence is there. For instance, one soldier-survivor we’ll be profiling recalled that when he arrived at the prison in Georgia, one of the first things he saw was a collection of slaveholders’ torture devices at the ready. His prison diary, published later in life, described “thumb-screws, barbed iron collars, shackles, ball and chain” and three kinds of body-breaking stocks.  “These instruments of torture were brought from where they had evidently been used to hold slaves in obedience,” he wrote. “Our prison keepers seemed to handle them with familiarity.” Slave gangs had already been forced to clear the pine woods for the Andersonville grounds. Then they’d constructed the stockade walls around it. And as northern prisoners died of starvation and pestilence there day by day, by the thousands, slaves were made to haul the infected corpses away and bury them.

Out of Gettysburg. Because many of the soldiers we’re researching had been in the thick of the fighting at Gettysburg, we’ve delved into that battle, too. Along the way I stumbled on references to a fellow named Dr. Rufus B. Weaver. He was a youngster living in Gettysburg when the battle happened. Soon after the war Weaver’s father was contracted to exhume the bodies of slain South Carolina soldiers for reburial in the South.  When his father died suddenly, Weaver took on the task himself since he knew the location of the mass graves.  By then he was a young medical professor in Philadelphia, but he managed to juggle the tasks — and in the end identified and repatriated the remains of over three thousand individual soldiers!  That’s not all. Later in his career, Dr. Weaver gained renown  as the first person to completely dissect and expose a human “cerebrospinal” nervous system. The good person who donated her body to science to allow the dissection was one Harriet Cole — a black scrubwoman who had cleaned Dr. Weaver’s lab before dying from  TB in 1888. Harriet’s nervous system went on display at the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893, and still can be seen at the Drexel medical school in Philadelphia. Want a look? Click here.

From Slavery to Waverly. For those of you who live in the Scranton area, there are two notable events to put on your calendars. One is a special performance of Sandra Burgette Miller’s “Tell ‘Em: One Man’s Struggle from Slavery to Waverly, Pa.,”  on Feb. 8 and 9, 7:30 p.m., at the Scranton Cultural Center, 420 N. Washington Ave. Miller describes the show as a “performance poem” about her great-great-grandfather, Thomas Burgette, who fled north on the Underground Railroad and began a new life in Waverly.  Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.  Also, the Black Scranton Project, a new archival and activist undertaking, is showcasing the city’s African American heritage with a Black History Month exhibit at the Marketplace at Steamtown, 300 Lackawanna Ave. Glynis M. Johns, the project’s founder, aims to “give recognition and reinstate two centuries of discounted contributions put forth by black residents” of the region.  Information is at blackscranton.com. I plan to attend both shows. Hope to see you there.

Book Talks. Two events are coming up for me in the next month. First is an author panel on Jan. 30, at 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Beth Am Israel, 1301 Hagys Ford Rd., Penn Valley, Pa. Then I’ll be presenting to the large Delaware Valley Civil War Round Table, on Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m.,  at the Radisson Hotel, 2400 Old Lincoln Highway, Trevose, Pa.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Lynched — in Pennsylvania. The other day I went to nearby Haverford College to check out a temporary exhibit titled “The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America.” It was created by the Equal Justice Initiative, whose new center in Montgomery, Ala., memorializes the 4,000-plus black people killed by vigilante lynchings in the U.S. The exhibit includes a video map of these horrors, shown in red, state by state.  The old Confederacy appears as a huge crimson spatter on the map, but there are some red spots in the North and West as well. Even Pennsylvania has two. One spot is in Chester County and one in Monroe, not far from the locale of my Underground Railroad history book, Embattled Freedom. The Chester lynching occurred in 1911. A black steelworker accused of a shooting was rounded up by a white mob there and burned alive before a crowd of 3,000, including women and children. The Monroe killing occurred in 1894 in the lovely Poconos. An African American foreman for the Wilkes-Barre and Eastern Railroad was accused of fatally shooting a white merchant and robbing his family. A mob of 500 shouting “Lynch the n–!” stormed the lockup and got their hands on the suspect. He was taken to a tree and hanged — the preferred method in most racist lynchings.  Many thanks to the EJI for bringing these outrages to modern awareness and tying them to other current issues. I’ll never forget the exhibit’s video account of a California woman who returns to the old family home in Louisiana to look into her great-granddaddy’s lynching a century ago. She keeps her composure until she and her kin walk to the spot. She looks up at the tree and cries like a baby.   “The Legacy of Lynching” closes this Sunday, Dec. 16, at Haverford’s Whitehead Campus Center.

On the Map. You might want to know about a worthy new effort called the Pennsylvania African American Documentation Project. It was covered this week by reporter Kristin Graham, a former colleague of mine at The Philadelphia Inquirer. The project, she writes, is developing a digital database of every black cemetery in the state, “from single plots to the resting places of hundreds, with GPS coordinates, tax parcel numbers, and photos.”  I’ve reached out to the project leader, Shippensburg University historian Steven Burg, to be sure he knows about the graves of the thirteen black soldiers I profile in Embattled Freedom. Seven of them are among the fugitive slaves who lie buried in an integrated cemetery in Waverly, Pa., It’s also good to know that the Waverly Community House is asking the National Park Service to be listed as a site on its Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, based on Waverly’s “Destination Freedom” educational map. I was pleased to write a letter of support to the application and proud to be part of the effort.

Book News. It was my honor to speak in the past month to Civil War Round Table groups in Philadelphia and Woodbridge, N.J. The Philadelphia chapter is based at the Union League and meets in the club’s august Lincoln Memorial Room — where my podium was placed right in front of a towering statue of the Great Emancipator himself. Next up is a talk to another large chapter, the Delaware Valley Civil War Round Table. It’s scheduled for Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m., at the Radisson in Trevose, Pa.


Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Sowing “Seeds of Discord.” It was July 1865, three short months after the surrender of the racist Confederacy, but white racists in the North were hardly in rhetorical retreat. Instead, they found a new target. Their bitter anti-abolitionism was replaced by rants against the emerging prospect of black voting rights.  The Lackawanna Register, a race-baiting Democratic weekly in Scranton, made its opposition loud and clear that July 27.  It is a plain fact, the Register declared, that the black man is “by the unchangeable antagonism of race, and by his inferiority of intellect, debarred from that full citizenship which would give him a share in the government of the country. … Those who are now working so zealously to insult the reason and intelligence of the people by lifting a negro to a level with the white race care as little for the welfare of the Africans as they have in times gone by for peace and amity between North and South.” The black suffrage campaign, it warned, will “sow seeds of discord, from which will spring new disputes and fratricidal conflicts.” What a self-fulfilling prediction. As I write in Embattled Freedom, Jacksonian Democrats had managed to disenfranchise Pennsylvania’s black populace back in 1838. They opposed the 15th Amendment which granted voting rights to black men in 1870. And they would stand by as Reconstruction was undermined in the South, the Klan rose, Black Codes were enacted, and lynchings spread. These “new disputes” were not fratricidal, however. They were one-sided crimes, born of undying white hostility and enabled by  forces North and South.

“Mr. Kilgore’s Funeral.” My latest history project involves helping  to research and write the story of a little-known Civil War army camp that existed a few miles from my home outside Philadelphia in 1864 and 1865.  We’ve been looking into the officers who led the so-called Camp Discharge, and one in particular has caught my fancy. Capt. Damon Y. Kilgore was the assistant quartermaster, a rather colorless supply role. It was the rest of his life that was colorful. Kilgore was quite the nonconformist for his day.  After the war he became a well-known Philadelphia lawyer who petitioned to keep the Bible out of public schools and advocated for women’s rights. His wife was Carrie Kilgore, a suffragist who became the first woman admitted to the bar in Pennsylvania. And Kilgore himself was the first person to be formally cremated in Philadelphia. He was a devotee of Spiritualism, a movement whose adherents including many war widows gathered for seances to communicate with the dead.  Kilgore believed his spirit would live on after death.  His will specified that his remains — or “mortal garment” — be cremated and that his wife and two young daughters not wear black for him. When death came in May 1888, his funeral drew a throng.  The eulogy was given by a Spiritualist medium “who spoke for over an hour with his eyes tightly closed,” according to a reporter for The Philadelphia Times. The mourners proceeded to the newly opened Philadelphia Crematorium in Germantown for the final rites. At the end, family and friends “took their last look at his burning body through a little glass peep-hole in the door and the funeral was over.”  Kilgore believed he would return to “the scenes of his life” after death, and his spirit was said to haunt the crematorium. (Or should I say is said? The crematorium is still in operation in the city’s Chelten Hills Cemetery. Check out this fascinating site for more.)

Book News. Many thanks to the fine folks at Lackawanna State Park and the Wallenpaupack Historical Society for hosting author presentations this past week. My talks in support of Embattled Freedom are winding down, with one scheduled in the next month and two others in future months. The next talk — my 48th for the book — is set for Monday, Dec. 3, at 7 p.m., at the Woodbridge Public Library in Woodbridge, N.J. The sponsoring group is the Robert E. Lee Civil War Round Table.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Clarification. The notice I sent to you the other day misstated the sponsor of the Embattled Freedom talk I’ll be giving on Tuesday, Nov. 13,  at Lackawanna State Park. The sponsor is the park itself. The presentation begins at 7 p.m. in the park’s Environmental Education Center, on Route 407 in lovely North Abington Township, Pa. It’s a free PowerPoint talk, and all are invited.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Hello again, History Mates old and new. Here are two new items to chew on:

Assassin on the Loose! While browsing through microfilmed newspapers for some Civil War research recently, I stumbled upon an alert to readers headlined “HIGHLY IMPORTANT: Booth, the Assassin, in Pennsylvania.”  The item ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 20, 1865 — six  days after the notorious John Wilkes Booth had killed President Lincoln in Washington. A manhunt was afoot that would actually track Booth’s flight south into Virginia, where he was killed.  But the Inquirer item, datelined April 19 in Reading, Pa., somehow reported that the killer had been spotted “on the passenger train that left here at 6 o’clock for Pottsville. A gentleman noticed him on the train before it reached here, spoke to him and shook hands with him. During their conversation, Booth colored up several times and appeared annoyed and desirous of avoiding observation. The gentleman is positive it is Booth, he having known him for several years. Why did he not give the alarm at once or before the train left here, I do not know, but just as the train left he notified several of the officers of the road. An extra train was immediately sent in pursuit of the train. Telegrams were sent to all points upon the line of the road. The result is unknown as yet.”  The Inquirer stayed with the story — and on April 22 acknowledged that it had been a false alarm. Fake news. “The man who was said to have recognized the individual arrested as Booth denies having any knowledge of him. The individual said to be Booth and arrested at Tamaqua has been discharged from custody.” Nowadays lawsuits would ensue, but the two unnamed gents appear to have just walked away from the mess. Not Booth. He was shot dead in a barn four days later.

And Compared to Today? When I give talks about the abolition and Civil War history in Embattled Freedom, listeners frequently ask me to compare the tensions of that era to today’s polarized politics. I try to go light on the comparisons since I’m there to talk history, but I understand that folks are looking for insights. I got the question again last week. So here’s how I think about it. There is a striking similarity in the weaponizing of the media. Most 19th century newspapers were political house organs that were strident in their rhetoric and trafficked in untruths.  Today we’re fortunate to have mainstream media that tries to report the news in a careful and balanced way, but out on the wings are major and minor media that spin mightily. Many of us turn primarily to those lesser media, and they stoke the kind of resentment that does remind me of Civil War era invective. Another point of similarity is the immigrant-sanctuary city issue of today. The fugitive-slave haven my book chronicles can be seen as a sanctuary city of its day because its black refugees were not citizens and the whites who safeguarded them were defying the law.  We laud Underground Railroad work  today. How different, really, were its refugees from today’s immigrant refugees from violence? Still, on balance, I believe then-and-now comparisons only go so far. We haven’t matched the animosity and violent threats of the 19th century, nor are we fighting over as giant and evil an issue as institutionalized human slavery.  People are polarized and angry today, norms are being eroded,  and fringe actors are feeling emboldened. I feel as irritated about that as anyone else. But I really don’t see us coming to blows as a society.  How about you? Do you agree?

Book news. I’ll be back on the road a few times in the coming months, weather permitting. Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking at my boyhood church, as reported in this article. On Nov. 13 at 7 p.m.,  the Lackawanna State Park is bringing me in for a talk at the visitor center in North Abington Township, Pa. The next day at 1 p.m. I’ll be addressing the Wallenpaupack Historical Society, at the Environmental Learning Center in Hawley, Pa. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“A Deep and Dark Blot.” During the Civil War, nothing outraged the Northern public more than the maltreatment of Union prisoners in the Confederate hellhole known as Andersonville. As its emaciated prisoners headed back North at the end of the war, scores of them passed through a processing facility outside Philadelphia that I’m currently researching. By 1905, as I’ve learned, more than 400 Pennsylvania vets who survived Andersonville were alive and fit enough to return to the site in southern Georgia for the dedication of a monument to the 1,849 Pennsylvanians who had died in misery there. Reports from 1905 say the hosts turned on the Southern charm, giving the arriving Yankees carriage rides and tours of the cotton warehouses and exchanging niceties. The unpleasant realities of Jim Crow and Southern lynchings (57 that year alone) were no doubt glossed over. The turn of the century was a time of superficial reconcilation, with many whites in the North willing to abide the  South’s mythology that the Confederate cause had been honorable, even inspiring. During the big dedication ceremony, a Southern chaplain set the tone with an opening prayer of thanks “that the animosities of the past have been obliterated, that the blue and the gray now mingle in fraternal sympathy.” A few other speakers gave similarly benign remarks.  But then came Col. James D. Walker of Pittsburgh, a leader of the monument commission, who stripped away the gloss. His message for the audience of 5,000 was, in sum: “That the Confederate authorities were guilty of perpetrating a most iniquitous method of exterminating a mass of helpless and powerless prisoners cannot be gainsaid or successfully controverted, and their action will ever remain a foul, deep and dark blot upon the humanity and civilization of an enlightened government.” Gen. Harry White of Indiana, Pa., who had survived a series of Confederate prisons, kept it up. His speech denounced the new crop of Southern history textbooks that depicted Northerners as aggressors and Southerners as noble victims. Don’t be fooled, he said. The rebel  doctrines of nullification and secession had been unconstitutional and traitorous.  “Let the youth of the land be instructed that while all, North and South, who fought in this war were brave men, there was a difference between the cause for which the men in blue fought and that for which the men in gray fought. One was eternally wrong and the other eternally right.” Their remarks are printed in full in the 1909 book Pennsylvania at Andersonville. They show that, there in the heart of Dixie, manners be damned, some Yankee vets felt dutybound to call out another outrage — this one rhetorical and political — being perpetrated by the South.

“They Tasted Death at Every Breath.” That’s the line that most sticks with me most from the Andersonville poem below. It reinforces a remark that a Gen. E.A. Carmen made at the 1905 ceremony. As he noted, the soldier in battle “faced death upon few occasions, but the battle here [in the prison pen] was constant, a daily and hourly struggle for life.” The poem was penned by John E. Barrett, publisher of the now-defunct newspaper The Scranton Truth. It is enscribed in bronze on the Pennsylvania monument at Andersonville.

Here sleep the loyal and the brave,

   By kindly death from prison freed,

Who gave their precious lives to save,

   The nation in its time of need.


This monument cannot disclose,

   Nor can the skill of mortal make,

A record of the countless woes,

   They suffered for their country’s sake.


To Him alone who knoweth all,

   Is known the anguish they endured,

Awaiting the last bugle call,

   With breaking hearts, while here immured.


Denied a soldier’s splendid death,

   Where glory rolls her martial drum,

They tasted death at every breath,

   And bravely met their martyrdom.


Enshrined in Pennsylvania’s heart,

   To flag and freedom ever dear,

Are they who bore the patriot’s part,

   And nobly served their country here.


And while the stars their vigil keep,

   Across the silence of the sky,

The nation’s love for those who sleep,

   At Andersonville shall not die.


Books News. I’ll be back on the author trail soon, making five appearances in support of Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave in the Wary North. Come if you can, and please spread the word:

  •  Sunday, Oct. 7, 1 p.m., Ryerss Museum,7370 Central Ave., Northeast Philadelphia
  • Wednesday, Oct. 10, 7 p.m., Dennis Forum panelist, Brooks Theater at Keystone College, LaPlume, Pa.
  • Thursday, Oct. 11, 10 a.m., Dennis Symposium, Brooks Theater at Keystone College, LaPlume, Pa.
  • Saturday, Oct. 13, 10 a.m., Living History Festival, Allentown N.J.
  • Sunday, Oct. 14, 3 p.m., Waverly Methodist Church, Waverly, Pa.
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