Embattled Freedom

White Abolitionists, Black Fighters of Waverly, Pa.

Tag: American history

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.

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.

© 2020 Jim Remsen

Up ↑