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.