Embattled Freedom

White Abolitionists, Black Fighters of Waverly, Pa.

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Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“THE BUSH NEGRESS.” On a recent speaking trip to lovely Honesdale, Pa., I stopped at the historical society to browse old newspapers  from Northeastern Pennsylvania. And there in the Pittston Gazette of Oct. 11, 1850, was that bizarre phrase, in all caps. It was the headline on a large display ad that was just as strange. A so-called “Wild Woman of the Woods” had been captured in Sumatra and would be on public display for two days under a pavilion  in Pittston. Admission was 25 cents, children half-price. “This creature is a newly discovered link between Brute and Human species, and it is difficult to determine to which it belongs,” the ad asserted.  “Its gait is erect, having the negro features with protruding mouth, bald head, with hair five inches long on its arms. The specimen grows to the height of five and a half to six feet.” Don’t miss it, the hucksters said, because “there is no humbug about the young lady, she is a genuine specimen of the lowest order of beings, and well worthy of a visit.” Egads, just what had I stumbled upon? Some online research showed that the poor creature had been drawing crowds in New York City and Buffalo, and would go on to  tour Wilkes-Barre, Bloomsburg, Lewistown and Baltimore. I was unable to find any illustrations or independent research, but based on a 1850 Buffalo newspaper account, I suspect the crowds were beholding an orangutan.  This was a time of discovery and scientific pursuit–and of rank racism. Curiosity-seekers were treated to traveling freak shows and “human zoos” that featured the likes of the Siamese Twins and the Hottentot Venus. Enlightenment thinkers were already searching for a “missing link” between anthropoids and humans in what was termed the Great Chain of Being. But to openly claim that the furry specimen resembled a Negress and was “of the lowest order of being” revealed where black people ranked among humans in the white imagination. The touring primate would meet its end that November in chilly Baltimore, the death attributed to tuberculosis. People had been encouraged to stroke the “docile” creature during the tour, and that exposure may have been the fatal touch. I can only hope the curiosity-seekers didn’t also feel emboldened to stroke and poke any black people they encountered afterward, or toss dehumanizing taunts their way. For the tour certainly reinforced views of black inferiority that persist to this day.

“Great Excitement.” Another bizarre aspect of the Bush Negress visit is that it occurred just as Pittston and environs were girding for the effects of the controversial new Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  The same month as the primate visit, the Gazette  reported on a confrontation in nearby Wilkes-Barre. Someone calling himself “the marshall” had shown up there to arrest some fugitive slaves but was resisted by a group of 100 black people–which would have been the entire black population of the city.  The man began gathering a posse to help him, knowing the law required that citizens assist in apprehending runaways.  Meanwhile,  the alleged fugitives disappeared, no doubt spirited to safety by the other black people. As I write in Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave Haven in the Wary North, black communities across the North organized self-help “vigilance committees”  to resist slave-catchers. The Negress tour must have been just one more indication to local blacks that they were objects of scorn and were best advised to depend on themselves when push came to shove.

Book News. I’m still enjoying summer break. Then come three appearances in October, on the 7th at the Ryerss Museum & Library in Philadelphia, the 13th at a Civil War weekend in Allentown, N.J., and the 14th at Waverly Methodist Church in Waverly, Pa.–my boyhood church. More details next month.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“WHITE HUSBANDS OR NONE.” You can imagine how that capitalized proclamation jumped out at me as I paged recently through copies of the defunct Scranton Republican newspaper archived at the Lackawanna Historical Society. There on page 2 of the Oct. 9, 1856, edition was a sarcastic political item titled simply “Spirited.” That year of 1856 the nation was in the thick of a presidential campaign pitting John Fremont of the new Republican Party against old-line Democrat James Buchanan. The item was scoffing at “the spirit evinced by some ladies who joined in a Buchanan procession in Ohio lately, and who carried a banner containing the motto: ‘WHITE HUSBANDS OR NONE.’ Those ladies must be getting desperate. They have actually nerved themselves up to the point of resolving to die old maids rather than marry negroes! What a bold, lion-hearted class the Buchanan ladies of Ohio must be.”  Mocking Buchanan’s own unmarried status, the item concluded, “Old Buck himself seems to have adopted the motto A WHITE WIFE OR NONE; and has been compelled in consequence to take–none. Let the ladies beware!”

Finding the Lost “Sinks.” Brad Upp is on a mission. For years he’s been digging for artifacts at the site of a Civil War camp near where we live in Lower Merion, outside Philadelphia. Brad is a natural at it, being a Civil War re-enactor and longtime artifact-hunter. His dogged efforts at the site have unearthed scores of bullets, buttons, buckles, coins, clay pipes, even wedding rings. But what he really wants to locate are the big “sinks.” That’s the military term for outhouses (probably a reference to “sinkhole”),  and Brad figures the camp had at least four of them. Basically, they were  trenches 12 feet long and 8-10 feet deep. As the sinks filled up with human waste, Brad tells me, dirt, rubbish and other stray items were layered on in stages. He’s tracking down blueprints that may indicate where the sinks were–and he’s sure they contain a gold mine of artifacts. (The nasty sewage has long since disintegrated, he assures me.) The camp was erected toward the end of the Civil War to process soldiers whose terms of service were ending.  Brad figures about a thousand men were discharged there. It also had a medical wing to handle ill or wounded soldiers, including a number of emaciated prisoners from Confederate POW camps including the infamous Andersonville. The Lower Merion Historical Society has asked me to collaborate with Brad on researching and writing up the story of this temporary camp and the men who passed though. It’s my honor to work with Brad on the project.

Book News.  The Wayne County Historical Society in Honesdale, Pa., is bringing me in next Tuesday, July 17, to give a talk about Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave Haven in the Wary North. The program is at 2 p.m. in the historic venue known as the Cooperage, 1030 Main St. in Honesdale. I’ll be signing and selling books, too. Come if you can, and please let folks know.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Hello, history mates old and new. Here are two new nuggets for you:

“Soldier’s Heart.” Today it might be known as PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But doctors in the 19th century classified the anxiety and palpitations that many Civil War veterans suffered as Soldier’s Heart. I just learned the evocative old term in The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic, a 2011 book by military historian Barbara Gannon.  According to Gannon, more than 34,000 Civil War vets received disability pensions for Soldier’s Heart maladies, with an untold number of others going undiagnosed. Not only soldiers were affected. Gannon profiles a war nurse named Lucy Nichols who developed ongoing “palpitations of heart and fainting spells.”  As Gannon writes, “In all American wars, nurses like Nichols may have suffered from Soldier’s Heart, an accurate description of the mental agony inherent in giving your heart to sick and wounded soldiers.” I was touched by Gannon’s story of a second nurse, Elizabeth Fairfax. She and Lucy Nichols had been slaves in the South and managed to link up with  Northern regiments during the war. Both moved North afterward and joined integrated G.A.R. posts for comradeship. Gannon quotes from a local profile of Elizabeth Fairfax: “When Memorial Day came she always marched beside the boys, trudging along on bare feet, wearing a rusty black dress and an equally decrepit bonnet, her expression of mourning. She carried a bunch of flowers in one hand, and an American flag in the other, and was never an object of derision.–rather [inspired] reverence.”

“Bleak and Embarrassing.” My newly launched research into the history of housing discrimination in my current town of Lower Merion, Pa., is pushing forward. I’ve found that the developer of one nearby subdivision restricted all of his 173 parcels to members of “the Caucasian Race.” This was set out in a deed covenant in 1925, during the rise of the so-called Second Ku Klux Klan. A search for a possible direct link turned up the sorry fact that Lower Merion did have an active Klan membership. And that their incitement led to an ugly case of homicide back then. On the evening of July 3, 1924 — the eve of July 4, mind you — 200 Klansmen rallied on a hill overlooking a black and Italian neighborhood and set a large cross ablaze. According to newspaper accounts, a frightened black lady called the police. Two officers arrived at the hillside, which is on the campus of Haverford College. When they tried to stop two figures in the darkness, gunfire was exchanged and both cops were hit, one of them with a wound that would kill him two months later.  The Klansmen scattered and  no one was apprehended.  The police chief publicly “declared war” on the Klan and issued a shoot-to-kill order. Klansmen soon began talking —  and claimed that as many as 30 Klans members were on the police forces in Lower Merion, Radnor and Haverford!  A final shocker was that the person who confessed to the killing was a local black man. In a 1928 confession, he said he had grabbed his World War I revolver and rushed to the hillside that night to put out the flames as the rally was breaking up. In the darkness, the fellow mistook the police officers for angry Klansmen and exchanged gunshots. He was later convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served a minimum sentence of three years. In 2012, local officials honored the slain officer, Francis X. Roy, with a plaque and remarks that “at a time that was bleak and embarrassing in our history, he went forward and did his job and he paid the ultimate price.”

Book News. One talk is scheduled this summer — on Tuesday, July 17, at 2 p.m., at the Wayne County Historical Society, 810 Main St. in Honesdale, Pa. That will be my 42nd appearance in support of Embattled Freedom. Following the summer slowdown, I’ve got five more talks on the schedule and several others in the works.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“The White Man’s Interests.” In my author talks I stress that, troubling as it may be to hear, the principle of “the white republic” was central to Pennsylvania’s ruling establishment throughout the 1800s. More evidence of that racist principle emerged to me recently in The Scranton Register, a house organ of the powerful old Jacksonian Democratic party.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, black activists and many white Republicans were arguing that the vote should be extended to black men. In its issue of July 27, 1865, The Register shouted a rebuttal. The American government was “got up by white men, for the benefit of white men,” it declared. The Democratic party “at no time in the history of the country ever considered the darkey, in its appeals for ‘universal suffrage,’ but labored, appealed, and fought solely for the advancement of the white man’s interests in the white man’s government.” Despite “the slander that Democratic opposition to negro suffrage is of recent origin,” The Register noted that Democratic state legislators, governors and judges had actually been holding firm against black rights for decades. (One of the early instances The Register trumpeted, the 1838 repeal of black voting rights in Pennsylvania, is the subject of a chapter in my book Embattled Freedom because that legal case originated in the region I chronicle. It’s tough stuff to read, but true.)

“Contemptuous of Others.” Soon I’ll be launching into my next project: exploring the disturbing history of so-called restrictive covenants (“no blacks, no Jews”) in my current town’s housing stock. To prepare, I just read The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein. It’s an eminent work — a New York Times Notable Book — and it left me shaken.  As Rothstein writes, “until the last quarter of the twentieth century, racially explicit policies of federal, state, and local governments defined where whites and African Americans should live. Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.”  Inequities in public housing, mortgage guarantees, zoning codes, tax law and more led to profound racial disparities in wealth and opportunity and, Rothstein argues, violated the 14th Amendment’s prohibition on unequal treatment of citizens.  Let me give you another taste: “For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, America’s national leadership was almost exclusively white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and male, and most were contemptuous of others. … The bigotry of this elite was not based merely on social class but also on race. After all, it was the integration of middle-class, not lower-class, African Americans, that most aroused FHA [Federal Housing Administration] officials. In 1939, the National Association of Real Estate Boards, whose members furnished appraisers to the FHA, prepared a handbook for use in preparing brokers to take exams for licensure by state governments. This handbook warned brokers to be on guard against “a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites.” If  you want to get a new look at the world around you and how it developed, read The Color of Law.

Book News.  I’ll have four more author talks during the next month. Come by if you can, and spread the word if you will.

  • Wyoming Valley Civil War Round Table. Thursday, May 10, 7 p.m., at the American Legion Building on Rt. 415 in Dallas, Pa.
  • Covenant Presbyterian Church. Thursday, May 17, 6 p.m., at 550 Madison Ave, Scranton.
  • Bradford County Historical Society. Friday, May 18, 6 p.m., at 109 Pine St., Towanda, Pa.
  • G.A.R. Museum and Library. Sunday, June 3, 1:30 p.m., at 4278 Griscom St., Philadelphia.

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:




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:



   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!

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