The “Contraband”—A Precarious Freedom


As the Civil War unfolded, slavery began ending.  It didn’t end through a single act or pronouncement, any more than it had gotten started that way.  Instead, as battle followed battle, humans began chipping away at slavery on an extemporaneous basis, as opportunities arose.  White officials in the North, agents of the Union cause, did something to facilitate this process of emancipation, which yet required Southern slaves’ own determination and action to become a real thing.  To become free was momentous, but it was also a curiously precarious and fearfully abstract condition.  It was “nothing but freedom,” as historian Eric Foner aptly put it.

This photograph captures the momentousness and curious sameness of emancipation.  In 1862, as Union and Confederate troops battled in Virginia, slaves seized the moment, leaving their putative masters and seeking refuge from bondage by crossing over into Union camps.  The slaves pictured here were newly free, but their freedom was tenuous and geographic, dependent on the Northern forces’ advance onto enemy ground.  Before the war, such fugitives could never rest easy, for a federal law passed in 1850 required Northerners to respect slaveholders’ rights and allow them to recapture their “property,” even if their property had fled into the North and resided on “free ground.”

All that went by the boards when the sections warred.  Union strategists recognized that hastening slavery’s end was key to defeating the rebel states.  Hoping to deprive the Confederates of a captive labor force and to disrupt slave-master relationships, Northerners began encouraging and harboring the freedmen, as former slaves were called.  Besides, many of those leading the Union effort were abolitionists who recoiled at the inhumanity of the “peculiar institution.”  To many Northerners, though by no means all, liberating and “uplifting the slave” was a principled, intrinsic part of what the war was for.

Others saw the refugee slaves as more problematic.  Laws had yet to be written or passed establishing that former slaves should enjoy the status of free citizens and the attendant rights.  Years would pass before the legal and civil status of former slaves was settled.  In the meantime, some folk regarded the freedmen as more akin to “lost property”–chattel who fell short of being truly human and free.  White ambivalence toward the freedmen was reflected in the word they used initially to define them: “contraband,” a word for forbidden or illicitly held property.

The Union army, willing to facilitate the former slaves in their passage to freedom, hastily staked out and ran provisional “contraband camps.”  The refugees pictured above had been assigned an outbuilding on a farm in Cumberland Landing, Virginia, where Union officers were also headquartered.  Eventually, the Union army would shelter a population of contraband estimated at as many as one million souls.  In 1862, though, when this picture was taken, fleeing slaves were a novelty: they were the emissaries of a race of people white northerners were unfamiliar with, whom they would previously have had little chance to see or know.

The strangeness of this historic moment lives on in the photograph, in the stances and facial expressions of the newly free, whose difference from the photographer and the army around them is registered in expressions of watchful gravity.  Only one woman in the center is smiling, and no wonder.  Despite having survived their first flight to “freedom,” these intrepid souls were right to doubt whether they had truly arrived.  They needed to keep the army between themselves and the Southern rebels, or else face the awful risk of being re-enslaved.

Image: from this source

Day 56: Dial, text, write

If you’re looking for a convenient way to help get out the vote, this Indivisible portal may be for you. There you can sign up to phonebank, textbank, or write postcards to never voters or semi-frequent voters, urging them to Vote Blue.

“Wake up on November 4th knowing you did everything in your power to make Donald Trump a one-term president.” Amen.

Image: from this source.

The First Fourth of July

The colonies had been warring against the English crown for more than a year. Their taking up arms on the periphery of the great British empire had at first been defensive and spontaneous, when, in April 1775, they exchanged fire with the redcoats in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord. Behind Americans’ resort to arms was a conviction that, if they did not make a stand, the monarchy would strip them of their political autonomy, the ways of being and governing that the colonies had built up over the years. Some began associating loyalty to King George with political servitude.

So they backed up into a nasty situation: with their dander up and their more moderate tactics exhausted, thirteen weakly affiliated colonies had plunged willy-nilly into a war against a mighty power. No one of them could last against the British: they could only prevail by acting as one, by organizing. So the quest to organize the future states into something like a nation began.

It wasn’t the simplest proposition, because at that time the American colonies, though contiguous along the eastern seaboard, were largely strangers to one another. Each colony had its own character and peculiarities, its own governing traditions. They were as distinct and alien to one another, claimed John Adams in 1775, as Indian tribes.

What is most remarkable about the Revolution, yet often taken for granted, is that private citizens in the various colonies voluntarily took on these outlandishly weighty and amorphous duties. As the pace of political instability quickened, leading merchants, journalists, lawyers, intellectuals, printers, and farmers found a way to communicate, to protest, to proselytize, and to bring an entire (formerly tranquil) society together around ambitious and previously unthinkable propositions.

As the colonies became more radicalized, their leadership became shrewder, more obsessive and voluble, spewing forth oratory and addresses and declarations of such variety and power as to unite an entire population around a set of mortally dangerous yet self-respecting demands.

For more than a year, the Continental Army under George Washington had managed to hold together and to keep the British forces busy. But a rebellion that was merely negative–that merely pushed back against the British status quo–scarcely afforded the miserable and fractious colonials with a compelling reason to stay in the field. The moment they grew tired of rebelling against, the British would win.

The passage of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, marks the moment when the various grievances and injuries the colonies suffered under King George were transmuted into one simple positive, practical, political goal. The colonies (now states) declared they were and would be INDEPENDENT. But they also declared themselves to be “the United States of America.” Their first stride toward becoming a true nation came when their leadership, meeting as a “Grand Council of America,” unanimously approved of and proclaimed this as a fait accompli.

What would have happened to the colonists if they had failed to unite? They would probably have been treated as traitors and hung, their fate not too different from what is happening to political dissidents today in Hong Kong.

Today we look back on the leaders of the Revolution and marvel at their sins. We blame them for the political sins of generations of American leaders who came after them. How could they be so narrow-minded, so selfish and blind? Yet without their flawed vision, without their imperfect realization of a universal dream, without their amazing skills as political strategists and activists, where would you and I be today? What language would we be speaking? What narrow confines would shape our political dreams?

Image: “The Battle at Bunker’s Hill,”
from this source.

Paris the First Armistice Day

Black and white photograph of a crowd celebrating the end of WWI in Paris.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in the year 1918, World War One, which had ravaged Europe for four years, officially stopped.  The Germans and their allies and the French and their allies finally opted for peace, though, out on the front, soldiers continued firing at one another with a peculiar intensity, as though ignorant of or indifferent to the momentous armistice that had taken effect that morning.  They were too numb, too habituated to fear and violence, to stop; and the thought that they would survive where so many had fallen was one they resisted with fury, with imperative force.  The prospect of living beyond their lost comrades filled them with dread and agony.  Only at night did the firing cease.  The exhausted warriors still unscathed sat around log fires (an unprecedented luxury), trying to absorb the fact of silence, to meditate on the implications of peace.

In Paris, crowds paused to stare up at photographers, their faces expressing many shades of emotion: jubilation, relief, fatigue, insouciance, confidence, diffidence, stoicism, distraction, perdurance, and the kind of camaraderie that victory spawns.  American troops, certain that their efforts had made all the difference, peppered the crowd with their innocent swagger.

A somber crowd in Paris on November 11, 1918, the end of WWI

On the margins of the celebration, grief and a kind of dazed stupor showed on many faces.  A woman veiled in mourning glided past a knot of blithely carefree young ladies. Four years’ combat had culled France’s population of 900 soldiers each day.  Most French citizens in this picture were likely to have lost one or several loved ones, for, of all the French forces that were mobilized, 18 percent of soldiers and 22 percent of all officers died.  At the Armistice, myriad French families remained filled with grief, pain, fear, and uncertainty.  Were their sons, brothers, lovers, husbands, and friends, who had been called to the front, still alive?  Whether the men still absent were dead, injured, missing, or alive might remain undetermined for an unbearably long time.  The unprecedented violence of this gruesome war inflicted grave wounds on European civilization.  Its poisonous consequences blighted the globe for decades, sowing grievances that outlived even World War Two.

The Dust Bowl and Human Agency

The foggy, rainy, cold, water-logged conditions here in the Midwest bring to mind other summers where the normal growing season hasn’t gone as planned.  Summer should be hot, with average rainfall, so that farmers can once again bring forth a startlingly great harvest from the American land.

Yet history furnishes instances when nature has refused to cooperate, as in the summer without a summer (1816), when a volcanic eruption half a world away filled the atmosphere with so much ash that the sun’s rays couldn’t warm the Earth and crops throughout the United States, northern Europe, and Russia froze.

Other than that, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s furnishes most dramatic instance of agricultural disaster with its attendant suffering.  Readers of The Grapes of Wrath may recall its harrowing beginning, as Steinbeck describes the drought and terrifying and relentless dust storms that drove masses of subsistence farmers in Oklahoma from their land.

That human action caused this “natural” catastrophe is perhaps less known.  The editors of History.com make the case that reckless settlement on the naturally arid prairies of the Lower Plains states created the conditions for the disaster that followed.

In the decades following the Civil War, millions of settlers moved to what would then have been “virgin land” in the region where Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico adjoin.  Many were inexperienced farmers, responding to the lure of free acreage offered under the 1862 Homestead Act.  This federal policy encouraged rapid settlement in the West by allowing any American with a family to acquire up to 160 acres from the Land Office for a small fee.  Even though the West’s tough dry prairies were much less promising than those in the Mississippi River valley, where the soils were highly fertile and received much more rainfall, settlers snapped up the barren acres, impelled by the superstition that “rain follows the plow.”  According to this “now-discredited theory of climatology,” only human cultivation was wanting to turn desert land into “a garden” and increase its rainfall and humidity.

The First World War caused grain shortages, increasing incentives for American farmers to grow more wheat.  Homesteaders zealously tore up millions of square miles of the deep rooted prairie, grasslands that had kept the dry soils of the region in place.  After the end of World War One, grain prices slumped dramatically as peacetime production of wheat resumed around the globe.  Paradoxically, even as wheat prices plummeted, American farmers produced record wheat crops in 1928 and 1931.  By then, the US economy was in the grip of the Great Depression and much of the wheat crop went unsold.  Such were the conditions when a terrible drought came, forcing countless Americans to abandon their homes.

It was the most consequential weather disaster in American history.  For several years, winds swept the dry plains, picking up millions of tons of soil and balling them into fearsome looking “black blizzards,” dark billowing clouds that traveled as far east as the Atlantic Coast.  At the epicenter of the Dust Bowl region, fine particles of brown dust drifted from the sky, settling in heaping dunes, asphyxiating cattle, clogging human lungs, coating leaves.  Only belatedly did the government begin to encourage farmers to plant windbreaks and take other measures to mitigate erosion.  Devastation on such a scale was only partly “natural”; human folly contributed to human suffering in the Dust Bowl era.

 

Images: from this source, and this.