Embattled Freedom

White Abolitionists, Black Fighters of Waverly, Pa.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“Anti-Black White Mobs.” Reading Soldiering for Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops left me wondering whether one of the black soldiers I researched underwent the gantlet of Northern hostility the book describes.  Soldiering for Freedom tells how, in 1863, an interracial group of abolitionists known as the Black Committee fanned out to homes, churches, social clubs and businesses North and South to drum up black recruits.  The first goal was to muster up the 54th Massachusetts, the pioneering black regiment whose numbers included Samuel Thomas of Waverly, Pa., one of the men I profile in Embattled Freedom.  The recruits’ journey to the Massachusetts training camp “passed through pockets of strong anti-African American sentiment in Ohio and New York,” according to Soldiering for Freedom. “Aware that violence might be directed at the black recruits, [chief recruiter George Stearns] avoided gatherings of unruly crowds on departure day. He arranged for white recruiters to purchase railroad tickets for the men so that their departure would not be known until the last minute. Stearns made sure that all recruits traveled to Boston on the Erie Railroad. Its conductors supported his work, and the new soldiers would have to make but one transfer, thereby limiting their possible exposure to anti-black white mobs.” In the midst of it, Stearns took a sardonic view. “This work is popular among all the classes,” he wrote to the Massachusetts governor. “The Republicans want them to go to the war and the rest of the people because they want to get rid of them. If the President would conscript them, men, women and children, and take them south he would be so popular that it would insure his election for the coming term.”

“Eyes Focused Straight Ahead.” A welcome counterpoint to the white harassment of the 54th Massachusetts was the experience two years later of the 22nd U.S. Colored Troops, whose ranks included six other black men from Waverly. Soldiering for Freedom co-authors Bob Luke and John David Smith describe how the regiment’s “prominent role” and fine comportment in Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession won the admiration of the mostly white crowd of mourners lining Pennsylvania Avenue.  The battle-tested 22nd had been selected to represent all black regiments and was placed at the very head of the procession bearing Lincoln’s body to the Capitol. “A band struck up a dirge, and the soldiers marched to the front in dress uniforms with white gloves and fixed bayonets,” the co-authors write. “They marched with muskets reversed, following funerary regulations, their eyes focused straight ahead, looking neither left nor right.” According to a Chicago Tribune dispatch, “Their admirable marching and soldierly bearing was remarked by all, and formed one of the most prominent features of the occasion.” How satisfying to think that at least for that shining moment,  a white public was able to look with respect upon black faces held high.

“Women’s Rights … Overlooked.” Black rights was not the only culture war that reactionaries of the 19th century were fighting. An acerbic item in the Scranton Register of Aug. 10, 1865, reveals as much. Women’s suffrage advocates had been starting to push for inclusion of women in the citizenship language of the pending 14th Amendment, but the Register wasn’t having it.  This Page 1 polemic resulted: “It is a woman’s right to have her home in order whenever her husband returns from business. It is a woman’s right to be kind and forbearing whenever her husband is annoyed. It is a woman’s right to examine her husband’s linen, and see that it wants neither mending nor buttons. It is a woman’s right to be satisfied with her old dresses until her husband can afford to get her new ones. It is a woman’s right to be content when her husband declares he is unable to take her to the country. It is a woman’s right to nurse her children instead of leaving [it] to a maid. It is a woman’s right  to git her daughter married happily, to feel pleasant though her husband bring a friend unexpectedly to dinner. It is a woman’s right to be contented with her own garments, without encroaching on those of her husband. And, finally, it is a woman’s right to remain a woman without endeavoring to be a man.” Sounds like someone needed marriage counseling, no?

Books News. I’m exciting to be making five more author appearances over the next month. Come by if you can, and spread the word if you will.

  • Roxborough, Manayunk, Wissahickon Historical Society. Talk on Wednesday, April 18, at 7 p.m., at Journey’s Way Center,  403 Rector St., Philadelphia.
  • Pennsylvania School Library Association annual conference. Book signing on Thursday, May 3, 4-6 p.m., and Friday, May 4, 1-4:30 p.m., at Hershey Lodge, Hershey, Pa.
  • Covenant Presbyterian Church. Talk on Wednesday, May 9, 6 p.m., at 550 Madison Ave., Scranton.
  • Wyoming Valley Civil War Round Table. Talk on Thursday, May 10, 7 p.m., at American Legion hall, Route 415, Dallas, Pa.
  • Bradford County Historical Society. Talk on Friday, May 18, 6 p.m., at 109 Pine St., Towanda, Pa.

Lastly, you can check out my publisher’s interview with me on the new Sunbury Press blog talk radio.

 

 

 

 

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“Howling Bedlamites.” On a  recent trip to the Lackawanna Historical Society in Scranton, I was privileged to page through a volume of fragile Scranton Republican newspapers from 1856. There on Page 2 of the Sept. 25 issue was a particularly striking bit of commentary. Here it is, in full: “The South Side Democrat of Petersburg, Va. , is one of the consistent papers of the South that goes against Freedom in all its shapes, except the freedom to deal in human live stock. There is no other freedom that it will tolerate. It says in a recent number: ‘We have got to hating everything with the prefix free, from free negroes down and up through the whole catalogue–free farms, free labor, free society, free will, free thinking, free children, and free schools–all belonging to the same brood of damnable isms. But the worst of all these abominations is the modern system of free schools. The New-England system of free schools has been the cause and prolific source of the infidelities and  treasons that have turned her cities into Sodoms and Gomorrahs, and her land into the common nestling-place of howling Bedlamites.–We abominate the system, because the SCHOOLS ARE FREE.'”

If I understand it right, the system of county-funded, tuition-free primary schools that had spread across much of the North continued to draw harrumphs from the moneyed elite and other critics South and North. Their complaints seemed to be that education shouldn’t be a giveaway to the undeserving lower classes, that common schools failed to inculcate religion and morality, and that government was trying to usurp the role of parents. As the product of a fine public school education, I must say I’m glad the Bedlamites prevailed.

“I Will Not Hurt You.” At the same time the South Side Democrat was abominating about schools, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was also roiling the public North and South.  Consider the attitudes among whites in Northeastern Pennsylvania, scene of my book Embattled Freedom. Rev. Nathan G. Parke, a Presbyerian pastor in Pittston, Pa., would give a lecture in 1902 in which he recounted that “comparatively few persons” were involved in the area’s Underground Railroad. That faction represented one pole, the opposite pole being the local “pro-slavery men who were entirely willing to do what they could to catch and return to their masters fugitive slaves.”  In between were individuals like the following unnamed man whose vacillations Rev. Parke talked about in his lecture.

According to a Pittston Gazette article about the lecture, the unnamed man once told Rev. Parke that one day prior to the Civil War, he was approached by William Gildersleeve, Wilkes-Barre’s leading abolitionist. Gildersleeve said that “there is a large family of fugitive slaves in town. They reached here last night on their way to Abington. They will pass through Pittston about midnight in my wagon and if you are awake at that time you will hear them. I replied, you know, Gildersleeve, that I do not take much stock in your ‘niggers’ and certainly will not lie awake to hear them passing. It so happened that I could not sleep that night very well and about midnight I heard a wagon coming up the road and it stopped opposite my house near the Ravine shaft.  The thought occurred to me that it was the wagon with the fugitive slaves, and that was the fact. As the wagon continued to stand, I concluded to rise and look out. It was very dark. I took my lantern and went out to the road. As I approached the wagon the inmates headed out and ran. I called to them, ‘I will not hurt you.’ The wagon was broken down and one wheel was in the canal. I could not but feel sorry for them, so I loaned them my wagon, loaded them in and started them off, saying to the driver, ‘stop tomorrow on your way back and get your wagon. I am a blacksmith and I will mend it,’ and so he did.” The encounter, the anonymous man told Rev. Parke, “made me think that possibly I was mistaken and that God did care for the ‘darkies.’”

Other white people of the day had similar recollections–of how it took a direct encounter with imperiled runaways to finally grip their consciences. The unnamed man perhaps even felt that he had been kept  awake that night as a divine agent.

Book News. I’m delighted that the Luzerne Intermediate Unit 18, a consortium of a dozen public school districts in Luzerne and Wyoming Counties, brought me in on March 14 to address a meeting of high school curriculum directors about the Embattled Freedom educational materials. I encouraged any of all of them to make use of resources on the free website embattledfreedom.org.

Meanwhile, I’ll be back on the road over the next month giving the following public talks (weather permitting):

  • Sunday, March 18, 3 p.m. – Wyoming County Cultural Center lecture series, at Dietrich Theater, 60 E. Tioga St., Tunkhannock, Pa.
  • Wednesday, March 21, 1 p.m. – Wallenpaupack Historical Society, meeting at the Wallenpaupack Environmental Learning Center 126 PPL Drive, Hawley, Pa.
  • Thursday, March 22, noon – The Gathering Place for  Community, Arts & Education, 304 S. State St., Clarks Summit, Pa. (Visions of Teaoga presentation)
  • Tuesday, March 27, 7 p.m. – Ludington Library, 5 S. Bryn Mawr Ave., Bryn Mawr, Pa.
  • Wednesday, April 18, 7 p.m. – Roxborough-Manayunk-Wissahickon Historical Society, meeting at the Journey’s Way center, 403 Rector St., Philadelphia.

All are welcome, so come if you can, and tell your friends.

 

 

 

 

I’m delighted that WBRE-TV has brought the unsung black soldiers of Embattled Freedom to public attention for its Northeastern Penna.  viewership. This is a special report broadcast during Black History Month. Check it out:

http://www.pahomepage.com/hidden-history/hidden-history-embattled-freedom/972596191

 

 

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Happy wintry February, history mates new and old.

Here are two fresh nuggets and a bit of book news.

“De Massa Run Ha Ha!”  Scouring the papers of Union Army surgeon William H. Engle in the State Archives in Harrisburg, I came upon a victory song that Engle said he heard black infantrymen belting out as they marched through Petersburg and Richmond in the Civil War’s final days. Those men may well have included some of the individual soldiers I chronicle in Embattled Freedom. The song, which Engle called a ditty, is jubilant and clever. As he put it, “Though not at all classic in its diction, it is quite expressive.” He transcribed the opening lines as “Say, darkies, hab you see de massa / wid de muffstash on his face.”  For modern ears I give you the two verses in more standard English:

 

“THE MARCHING SONG OF UNCLE SAM’S BLACK BOYS”

   Say, darkies, have you see the massa / With the mustache on his face

  Goin’ along the road sometime this morning / Like he’s goin’ to leave the place?

  He saw the smoke way up the river / Where the Lincoln gunboats lay.

  He took his hat and left real sudden / And I suppose he ran away.

  The massa run ha ha! / The darkey stay ho ho!

  It must be now the kingdom comin’ / And the year of Jubilo!

 

  He’s six foot one way, four foot the other / And he weighs six hundred pounds.

  His coat’s so big he couldn’t pay the tailor / And it won’t reach halfway ’round.

  He drills so much they call him captain / And he gets so mighty tanned

  I expect he’ll try to fool those Yankees / For to think he’s contraband!

  The massa run ha ha! / The darkey stay ho ho!

  It must be now the kingdom comin’ / And the year of Jubilo!

 

“At What Battle Did Fourteen African American Soldiers Earn the Medal of Honor?” That puzzler was imbedded in a link that Anthony Waskie sent me recently.  It’s part of the Civil War Trust’s Black History Month offerings online: some learning segments, news about preservation efforts — and a cool quiz about the U.S. Colored Troops. The Medal of Honor question is one of 11 in the quiz. I jumped in and — rats! — got all but the final question correct. What are you waiting for? Here’s the link.

Book News.  I also thank Professor Waskie, who teaches at Temple University, for kindly inviting me to address Temple’s annual Underground Railroad & Black History Conference. That takes place this Wednesday, Feb. 14, 3 p.m., in Walk Auditorium on campus.

The next day, Feb. 15, at 6 p.m., the Luzerne County Historical Society is bringing me in for an author talk at 6:30 p.m. in the society’s history museum, 49 South Franklin St. in Wilkes-Barre. Then, on Friday, Feb. 16, I’ll be speaking at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 232 Wyoming Ave. in Scranton, about the role of religion in the slavery debate. All three events are free and open to the public, so come on down if you can.

Lastly, if you’re among my new subscribers, know that these History Nuggets e-newsletters will arrive in your inbox only once a month, usually in mid-month, and that my past posts are archived in the Blog section of the website embattledfreedom.org.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Hello, history mate. Let me greet the new year with a new monthly installment:
“An Idle and Slouthful People.” A chapter of my book Embattled Freedom tells the story of William Fogg, a freeborn black settler in Northeastern Pennsylvania who brought suit in 1835 when he was denied the right to vote because of his race. The case made it up to the state supreme court–where the chief justice slammed the door on voting for all people of color. He held that even free blacks don’t deserve equal rights. Why? Because they are “an idle and slouthful people.” The ruling cited a 1725 law passed by the Quaker-led Pennsylvania colonial legislature that said “free negroes are an idle, slothful people and often prove burdensome to the neighborhood.” That ugly turn of phrase stayed with me. I was struck to see it  again recently in historian Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi says a 1712 slave revolt in New York led to not only a brutal new slave code but also the stripping of rights for free blacks. Why, again? Because the New York legislators considered free blacks “an idle, slothful people” who burdened the white public. Similarly, a 1713 New Jersey law said any master who freed a slave must subsidize the freedman to keep him off the public dole. And why? Because “it is found by experience that free negroes are an idle, slothful people.” You’ll find no sympathy among whites, nor interest in how their institutions were stacked against wayward freedmen. From the beginning our puritanical founders had denounced individual slothfulness as the crudest of sins. But to regard an entire  class of people as a priori slothful is the crudest form of racism. Speaking of Ibram Kendi, check out his essay, “The Heartbeat of Racism Is Denial,” that appeared in the Jan. 14 New York Times; it bears a most timely message.
“Safe on This Gentle Breast.” Not long ago I visited the Clarks Summit library to look for any stray tidbits  on the history shelves. In the minute books of the regional Abington Baptist Association, I happened upon a cache of remarkable obituaries from 1878. The Abington church recorded the loss of Sybil Dean, an original settler, at age 91: “As a shock of corn cometh in his season, so she ascended into the saints’ rest.”  And Cordelia Armstrong: “Through wasting consumption, she gradually approached life’s verge, but she feared no evil. Jesus was the precious name that sweetened the bitterness of separation. ‘Safe on this gentle breast’ she passed out of sight.” Nearby Factoryville lost Ruth Sisson, 78, the widow (“relict”) of Rodman Sisson, one of the white heroes of  Embattled Freedom: “She enjoyed the comforting assurance of a blessed immortality all through her life; was trusting and waiting, ready to depart and be with her Lord. Without a struggle she fell asleep in Jesus.” Those sentiments reminded me of the powerful newspaper obituary that Rev. William Johnson, a pastor of Waverly’s old black church, wrote for his 16-year-old son in 1865.  Young Asbury Johnson had joined the U.S. Colored Troops, was shot in battle, and went home to die. “His sufferings were great. When a strong man Death was about to take him, he bade us all good-by, laid his head in his mother’s arms, and stepped into the chariot which bore him to the skies. He sleeps in Jesus, beloved and mourned by many friends.” Ah, may our passings inspire such touching words.
Book News. I’m excited to report that the umbrella organization for 13 school districts in Luzerne and Wyoming Counties is bringing me in to address high school curriculum directors on Jan. 30. They’ll learn about the classroom applications of Embattled Freedom and the companion website embattledfreedom.org. This follows a similar presentation I made to school districts in Lackawanna, Wayne and Susquehanna Counties.
Meanwhile, I’ll be on the road giving six public talks in the next month:
– Feb. 6, Civil War Round Table of Eastern Pennsylvania (6:30 p.m. at Holiday Inn Conference Center, Breinigsville, Pa.)
– Feb. 7, Wallenpaupack Historical Society (1 p.m. at Environmental Learning Center, Hawley, Pa.)
– Feb. 8, Old Baldy Civil War Round Table (7:15 p.m. at Camden County College, Connector Building, Blackwood, N.J.)
– Feb. 14, Temple University Black History Symposium (3 p.m. at Walk Auditorium, 13th and Montgomery, Philadelphia)
– Feb. 15, Luzerne County Historical Society (6 p.m. in the society museum, 49 S. Franklin St., Wilkes-Barre)
– Feb. 16, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (6 p.m. at the church, 232 Wyoming Ave., Scranton)
Lastly, if you live in Northeastern Pennsylvania, keep an eye out for the Black History Month segment that WBRE-TV will be airing. In it, I and two descendants of one of Waverly’s black Civil War soldiers, Richard Lee, tour historical sites in Waverly and reflect on the soldiers’ deeds and legacy.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“No More of War.” On a recent speaking trip about Embattled Freedom, I carved out some time to visit the old newspapers at the Scranton public library. Always on the hunt for new nuggets and undiscovered information, I came upon a microfilm roll of the weekly Scranton Register from spring of 1865. Two minutes in and its pages were yielding memorable items. The issue of April 27–two weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox–featured a moving poem titled “No More of War.” Written by a “Stella of Lackawanna,” its seven stanzas ache with melancholy:

Sing not for me those mournful songs

    That tell a nation bowed in tears;

My soul is wearied with the wrongs

    Of these last restless years.

 

The winds that in the woods make moan–

    The waves that murmur to the sun–

Speak all too well, with burdened tone,

    Of victories, lost or won.

 

And down the vale where fallen men,

    Throb out a brave life’s parting breath,

A flash of gleaming steel–and then,

    The fearful wail of death.

 

Rachels are weeping everywhere,

    All the dull night their sobbings fall;

One dirge of mourning floods the air–

    I’m weary of it all.

 

Let me forget that enemies fling

    Black shadows o’er my country’s light,

But rather listen while you sing,

    Of something else to night.

 

Trill those old familiar lays,

    That, in the twilight, you and I

Once loved so well, in other days–

    Sweet other days gone by.

 

When only on historic page

    The victor and the vanquished met,

And freedom’s holy heritage

    All pure and stainless yet.

This woman’s pen channeled the anguish of thousands on the home front. I’d never heard of Stella of Lackawanna, but if I’d lived in the Scranton area back then, I would have. She was Harriet Gertrude Watres, mother of a Lackawanna Valley bigwig who was the namesake of Scranton’s cavernous old Watres Armory. I was stunned to see that she also was the sister of Horace Hollister, who is featured in my book for his late-life regrets about racism (as told on Page 188).  From 1850 until her death in 1886, Harriet Watres penned dozens of poems that ran in the local press. She was a Lincoln loyalist so I found it surprising that her “No More of War” elegy appeared in the Lincoln-hating Register. Turns out she had submitted it to a Republican paper and  the Register reprinted it–apparently finding that its sentiments transcended politics.

“Information Wanted.” That was the simple heading on a notice published in the Scranton Register two weeks later, on May 11, 1865. And it captured the quiet anguish of the day in a different, non-poetic way. It read: “Owen Phillips of Clifford, Susquehanna County, Pa., Color Sgt. of Co. B, 143d Pa. Regiment, was wounded and missing in the Battle of the Wilderness. Any one knowing his present whereabouts will confer a great favor by giving information to his father, Nelson Phillips, at Clifford, Susquehanna County, Pa.” I’d read about newspapers running notices from freed or emancipated black people seeking loved ones lost or sold away–but not about ones from the worried families of soldiers missing in action. Turns out there was no system to notify next of kin back then, and families might learn only from letters from other soldiers or casualty lists posted at a local train station. The Phillips family had been in the dark for an entire year. How long would it be until they learned? Their Owen, 29, a laborer and husband, had died the previous May 9, 1864, mortally wounded by a sharpshooter during the Battle of the Wilderness. He would be remembered as a hero who enlisted early and, at Gettysburg, had rescued the 143rd’s battle flag while under fierce fire. For that act he was promoted to color sergeant. Back in Clifford, his parents could take pride when the town’s veterans named their war veterans post after him.

Book News. After making 25 appearances in support of Embattled Freedom, I’m on a hiatus until late January, at which point I’lI launch into a string of 13 more author talks. Meanwhile, let me make two requests. If you know of any groups that might be interested in a presentation–civic groups, churches, clubs, schools, historical societies–please reach out to them, or let me know and I’ll make the contact. Also, if you’ve read Embattled Freedom and are willing to dash off a reader review on amazon.com, please consider taking a minute to do that. In this age of algorithms, your feedback helps to lift a book’s visibility.

And to all, happy holidays!

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“The Heroes of America.” That was the name taken by a group of Unionists — Southerners who rejected secession — early in the Civil War. According to historian Eric Foner, some 10,000 Unionist men in western and central North Carolina formed the Heroes of America and leapt into action. They actually set up an “underground railroad” to help spirit fellow Unionist yeomen to Federal lines. This is one of the many memorable facts I’ve been reading about in Foner’s magisterial Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.  Foner says the Heroes exemplified the worsening class resentment in southern society. He cites a North Carolina newspaper editor’s words to that effect: “This great national strife originated with men and measures that were … opposed to a democratic form of government … The fact is, these bombastic, highfalutin aristocratic fools have been in the habit of driving negroes and poor helpless white people until they think … that they themselves are superior; [and] hate, deride and suspicion the poor.” As Foner notes, white yeomen ended up comprising the bulk of Confederate troops — as well as most of its deserters and draft resisters.

“None can escape its stroke.” President Trump’s apparently brusque words to a soldier’s widow — “he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it hurts anyway” — reminded me of a more tender and effective public condolence delivered centuries ago. The solemn duty that day fell to Timothy Pickering, President Washington’s emissary at a peace council with Native American leaders in 1790 in northern Pennsylvania. Several Seneca trappers had been murdered earlier that year by drunken whites, and Pickering’s assignment was to properly honor the grieving families and thus keep the Seneca warriors from taking up arms. Here is what Pickering declared at the tense treaty ground: “Mothers, brothers and sisters, let me endeavor to assuage your grief. You enjoy the satisfaction of remembering the good qualities of your sons and brothers, of reflecting that they were worthy men, and of hearing their names mentioned with honor. Let these considerations afford you some comfort. Death, you know, is the common lot of all mankind, and none can escape its stroke. Some, indeed, live many years, till, like well-ripened corn, they wither and bend down their heads. But multitudes fall in infancy and childhood, like the tender shooting corn nipped by untimely frosts.  Others again grown up to manhood are then cut off, while full of sap, and flourishing in all the vigor of life. The latter, it seems, was the state of our two deceased brothers. But my friends, they are gone, and we cannot bring them back. When the Great Spirit shall order it, we must follow them: but they cannot return to us. This is the unalterable course of things, and it is our duty patiently to bear our misfortunes.” Pickering recorded his poetic (and successful) words in his journal. I was pleased to include them as a highlight of my 2014 historical novel Visions of Teaoga.

Say What?! My wife and I have been listening to the new Slate Academy podcast series about the Reconstructionist era, and we both rose up in amazement a few minutes into the opening episode. The featured guest was University of Kentucky historian Amy Murrell Taylor, who was a fount of insights. Then the hosts mentioned her forthcoming book — titled Embattled Freedom. Ack! Her subtitle is Journeys through the U.S. Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps, whereas mine is Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave Haven in the Wary North. I emailed Dr. Taylor to say she and I are the parents of virtual twins and to warn of possible confusion ahead. She said the reading public can probably handle it, and I suppose she’s right.

Meanwhile, allow me to bask for a moment. Mark Bowden, New York Times bestselling author of Black Hawk Down, Killing Pablo and his latest, Hue 1968, just reached out to say this: “I finished your book, Jim. It’s a fine example of serious local history, which fleshes out in particulars the larger social issues over a century. I was very impressed with the work that went into it, and the straightforward narrative, from abolitionists to Civil War battles to the lasting shame of Jim Crow. Congratulations on it. Sad but important. I am as impressed that you decided to do it as I am by the quality of what you’ve done.

More Book News. I’ll be giving five author talks and signings this month in support of my Embattled Freedom. Four of them are to membership groups and not open to the public. But the fifth one, an endowed lecture at the University of Scranton, is open to all. I’m honored to be part of the university’s Schemel Forum lecture series, and will give my talk Wednesday, Nov. 29, in collaboration with the Lackawanna Historical Society. The program is at 5:30 p.m. in the Weinberg Memorial Library on campus, followed by a reception at the historical society. The event is free, but RSVPs are required.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Hello, history mate.

This month I welcome about forty new folks to  the readership. If you’re a newcomer, know that my installments arrive in your inbox each mid-month and will usually feature a pair of History Nuggets. To wit:

“Worthless, and Half-Savage.” The Underground Railroad drew wide support in the North — not! That is  among the stubborn falsehoods historians and educators have worked hard to debunk. For instance, here is Scholastic Press’s warning in its Myths of the Underground Railroad teacher guide: “Myth: Most people in the North supported the Underground Railroad and welcomed runaway slaves into their states. Truth: Only a small minority of people in the North worked on – and even supported – the Underground Railroad. In fact, many did not welcome fugitives into their states. In 1804, Ohio passed a law prohibiting runaway slaves from entering the state.” Such animosity also prevailed in Northeastern Pennsylvania, venue of my history book Embattled Freedom. Though a few towns like Waverly had brave UGRR activists, the region was awash in hostility to black people and abolitionism.  A weekly in nearby Kingston captured the sentiment in 1838, scorning black people as “a degraded, worthless, and half-savage race.” As I write in the book and say in my author talks, we may like to believe the best about our forebears, but the counter-evidence is loud on this score.

“The Solicitude of Certain Gentlemen.”  Waverly’s little black church hosted outdoor revivals that drew interracial crowds from near and far for decades into the early 1900s. While these were spiritual affairs, there also seemed to be a bit of sly spiritousness occurring on the side, according to a 1905 item from The Defender, Scranton’s black newspaper of the era.  The Defender’s witty correspondent “took notice last Sabbath at the Waverly camp meeting of the solicitude of certain gentlemen toward their horses. The gentlemen in question, which we are pleased to note were from our own dear Scranton, were comfortably supplied with all the elements necessary to make a man feel a peculiar tinge of pride. Eatables in abundance, the association of charming women, etc. But they were not content with these luxurious privileges. They had the welfare and comfort of their beasts at heart, and at frequent intervals would jump up and exclaim, ‘I must go to the barn and look after the horses, they may need water or feed.’ And out they would go, sometimes singly and sometimes in couples, to care for their poor, dear, neglected horses. Strange to say, however, the animals did not seem to profit by their frequent feedings, as their exterior condition gave no evidence of the tender care and solicitude of these charitable gentlemen. The constant exercise seemed to tell on these gentlemen’s joints and countenances as they oftentimes appeared shaky upon emerging from the barn where their dear hungry horses were stalled.” What, pray tell, were those fellows ever up to?

Book News. I was honored to be among the presenters at the Northeastern Pennsylvania History Conference on Oct. 6. The event was recorded by the Pennsylvania Cable Network, and you can watch the proceedings on Thursday, Oct. 12, beginning 7 p.m., on PCN-TV.  Go to pcntv.com for details. Also, I’ll be at the big York Book Expo, which takes place Saturday, Oct. 21, 11 to 4, at the Wisehaven Event Center in York, Pa. Come on down if you can, and bring a friend.

 

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Hailing “the Anglo-Saxon Race.” Philadelphia’s eminent Union League was an early, ardent backer of “black soldiery” during the Civil War. Regrettably, over the years the league also showed a strain of white cultural hubris. Consider a passage I came upon in a history of the club titled Gentlemen in Crisis. In the annual report of 1898, written soon after the nation’s Spanish-American War conquests, the Union League secretary wrote this: “The footsteps of the Anglo-Saxon race reveal the march of a conquering people. It has been its province by means of commerce, of religion, and of the sword, to distribute the ideas of liberty, of justice, of equality. It is the leader of mankind in the diffusion of moral principles and of those conceptions of government which tend to advance the individual, secure his rights, and form a refined and domestic social life. It seems impossible for this race to escape from its obligations to humanize and improve the semi-barbaric nations of the East.  The instinct of colonization is ever active in its blood…” So there you have it: Western values and philanthropic racism imported at the point of a bayonet.

Worshipping “the Lost Cause.” At about the same time, whites in the South were caught up in their own  chauvinistic swooning. Theirs was the Civil War mythology that became known as the Lost Cause. According to Charles Reagan Wilson, director emeritus of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, the Lost Cause had a strange religious message. “A pantheon of Southern heroes emerged from the farms and plantations of the Old South in the legend, to battle the forces of evil–the Yankees. The Yankee monster symbolized a chaotic, unrestrained Nothern society that had threatened the orderly, godly Southern civilization. The myth illustrated the spiritual underpinnings of the Lost Cause, as it replicated the Christian story of Christ’s suffering and death, with the Confederacy as the sacred center. ” Southern ministers extolled Rebel leaders “as religious saints and martyrs” and churches memorialized the men in stained glass.  At the time, black spokesman Frederick Douglass denounced the Lost Cause ideology as “nauseating” and dysfunctional because it allowed the South to avoid facing its legacy of “trading in blood and in the souls of men.” The mythology lived on, returned with a vengeance during the Civil Rights era, and is manifest today in the scores of Southern monuments whose fates have captured our collective attention.

Speaking of Monuments. As some of those problematic statues fall in the South, another one–to a black hero–will be erected this month in Philadelphia. It memorializes Octavius V. Catto, a slain civil rights leader of the mid 19th century.  Two of my old colleagues from The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin, authored the outstanding 2010 book Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America, and they’ll be honored, too, for bringing Catto back into the public eye. The 12-foot-high bronze statue of Catto will be unveiled in a ceremony at City Hall on Tuesday, Sept 26, at 11 a.m. Maybe I’ll see you there. All are welcome.

“Band of Brothers,” Briefly. One of my history feeds is touting a new book with some remarkably familiar findings. It’s called Standing in Their Own Light: African American Patriots in the American Revolution. The book notes that over time black Revolutionary veterans had a significantly harder time than whites getting military pensions (just like the black Civil War vets I track in Embattled Freedom).  Also, a review of the new book observes that “a ‘band of brothers’ relationship between black and white soldiers was sometimes present including mutual trust and support for each other. However, after the war ended, black soldiers encountered brutal and systematic racism as they returned to late 18th Century civilian life.” ‘Twas ever thus, it seems. Consider adding this important scholarly work, published by University of Oklahoma Press, to your reading list.

More Book News.  I’ll be out and about giving more author talks over the next four weeks, and hope some of you can come say hi. Here are the particulars:

  • Saturday, Sept. 23, 10:30 a.m., Wyoming County Cultural Center lecture series, at Dietrich Theater, 60 E. Tioga St., Tunkhannock, Pa. 18657
  • Tuesday, Sept. 26, 7 p.m., First United Presbyterian Church of Lackawanna County, 1557 Main St., Peckville, Pa. 18452
  • Wednesday, Sept. 27, noon, the Gathering Place for Community, Arts & Education, 304 S. State St., Clarks Summit, Pa. 18411
  • Thursday, Sept. 28, 12:10 pm, Rotary Club of the Abingtons, Ramada Inn, 820 Northern Blvd., Clarks Summit, Pa.  18411
  • Thursday, Oct. 5, 7 p.m., Abington Community Library, 1200 W. Grove St., Clarks Summit, Pa. 18411
  • Friday, Oct. 6, 1:30 p.m., Annual Northeast Pennsylvania History Conference, at Luzerne County Community College Conference Center,  1333 S. Prospect St., Nanticoke, Pa. 18634
  • Saturday, Oct. 7, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Collingswood Book Festival, downtown Collingswood, N.J. 08108

 

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“Persecution Makes Converts.”  Despite how we embrace them today, abolitionists were fringe actors in their day, resisted even by neighbors as “fanatics” and “monomaniacs.” My book Embattled Freedom gives some examples of the hostility. Recently I came upon a fresh example during an author trip up to Northeastern Pennsylvania. This account was written up by the Bradford County (Pa.) Historical Society, in a 2004 journal devoted to the county’s black history. The article described an ugly incident that occurred in 1839 in the county seat of Towanda. It seems that some fifty members of “the rowdy class” crashed a meeting that the newborn Bradford County Anti-Slavery Society was holding right inside the county courthouse. An old-timer, who’d attended as a boy, gave an account of it in 1913. He said the rowdies stood in the back heckling and producing grating noise with a crooked stick that they rolled back and forth with their feet. Soon a basket of rotten apples was produced from the rear. The rowdies took dead aim at the abolitionists and then at the candles lighting the room. He said one victim who was hit in the face with an apple felt the attackers “were helping our cause along” because “persecution makes converts. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

The meeting devolved—and the courthouse locked its doors to future abolitionist meetings. Local churches also turned down the society’s requests to use their sanctuaries. “The friends of liberty” would resort to meeting in a member’s barn, sitting on planks and in the hayloft. They persisted, and history would see them through.

“The Instincts of Nature Rebel.” It was good to hear the widespread condemnation of white supremacy in the wake of the Charlottesville horrors, but I found some of it to be historically naïve. “You are anything but a patriot,” Virginia’s governor said of the alt-righters.  AG Jeff Sessions said the violent racists “betray our core values.”

Actually, fellows, for much of U.S. history white supremacy ruled the land, politically and socially, north and south. Even where slavery was in disfavor, even in “polite society” where the supremacists weren’t militant, white superiority was a core value. In the decades before the Civil War, belief in an American “white republic” gained political force. That was certainly the case in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the epicenter of Embattled Freedom. In 1838, for instance, the region’s delegates pressed to repeal black voting rights in the state constitution by declaring “the Government was made by white men, and it must be preserved by white men.” Black people “are a caste, and to confer suffrage on them would be political amalgamation.  Against amalgamation in all its monstrous and hideous aspects the instincts of nature rebel.” In the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1863—in the middle of the Civil War—the region’s powerful Democratic organ said the party stood for “continuing this government as framed by their fathers—a government of whites for the benefit of themselves and their posterity forever.” It’s taken dogged reformers, federal laws, and occasional martyrs to bend us toward justice. But across much of our nation’s history, white supremacy was considered mainstream and patriotic.

Book News.  As summer winds down, speaking season gears up again. Below is my upcoming author schedule through next February—sixteen events and counting. Hope to see you at one of them! Also, please share with friends who might be interested. And if your school, congregation, civic group or even book club is interested in a booking, let me know.

-SEPT. 6 (Wednesday), 7:30 p.m. – Rydal Park Senior Center, 1515 The Fairway, Jenkintown, Pa. 19046

-SEPT. 10 (Sunday), 3:30 p.m. – Forty Fort Meeting House lecture series, River Street and Wyoming Avenue, Forty Fort, Pa. 18704

-SEPT. 23 (Saturday), 10:30 a.m. – Wyoming County Cultural Center lecture series, Dietrich Theater, 60 E. Tioga St., Tunkhannock, Pa. 18657

-SEPT. 26 (Tuesday), 7 p.m. – First United Presbyterian Church of Lackawanna County, 1557 Main St., Peckville, Pa. 18452

-SEPT. 27 (Wednesday), noon – The Gathering Place for Community, Arts and Education, 304 S. State St., Clarks Summit, Pa. 18411

-SEPT. 28 (Thursday), 12:10 p.m. – Rotary Club of the Abingtons, at Ramada Inn, 820 Northern Blvd., Clarks Summit, Pa.  18411

-OCT. 5 (Thursday), 7 p.m. – Abington Community Library, 1200 W. Grove St., Clarks Summit, Pa. 18411

-OCT. 6 (Friday), 1:30 p.m. – Annual Northeast Pennsylvania History Conference, at Luzerne County Community College, Educational Conference Center, 1333 S. Prospect St., Nanticoke, Pa. 18634

-OCT. 7 (Saturday), 10 a.m.-4 p.m. – Collingswood Book Festival, downtown Collingswood, N.J. 08108

-NOV. 21 (Tuesday), 2:30 p.m. – Presby’s Inspired Life Senior Community, 404 Cheswick Place, Rosemont, Pa. 19010

-NOV. 29 (Wednesday), 5:30 p.m. – University of Scranton Schemel Forum lecture series, Weinberg Memorial Library, 815 Linden St, Scranton, Pa. 18510

-FEB. 4 (Sunday), 1:30 p.m. – Black History Month talk, G.A.R. Museum and Library, 4278 Griscom St., Philadelphia 19124

-FEB. 6 (Tuesday), 6:30 p.m. – Civil War Round Table of Eastern Pennsylvania, at Holiday Inn Conference Center, 7736 Adrienne Drive, Breinigsville, Pa. 18031

-FEB. 7 (Wednesday), 1 p.m. – Wallenpaupack Historical Society, at Wallenpaupack Environmental Learning Center, 126 PPL Drive, Hawley, Pa. 18428

-FEB. 8 (Thursday), 7:15 p.m. – Old Baldy Civil War Roundtable, at Camden County College, Connector Bldg., 200 College Drive, Blackwood, N.J. 08012

-FEB. 15 (Thursday), 6 p.m. — Luzerne County Historical Society, 49 S. Franklin St., Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 18701

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