A Military Bridge Over the Chickahominy

While for Southern slaves the Civil War represented an escape from bondage, for northern free blacks, the war was an opportunity to assert their full equality with whites while joining in a valorous undertaking.  Although initially blacks were excluded from the organization of the Union military, in time black companies were formed, and blacks from northern states became eligible to enlist as soldiers in the Union cause. Continue reading

The Arrival of a Slave Family After the Proclamation

Union sketch artist A. R. Waud went to considerable pains to work up this engraving of a family arriving at a contraband camp soon after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day in 1863.  As I related in my previous posts, thousands of slaves had already sought refuge in the so-called contraband camps, beginning in June 1861, when the war was just a few months old.  Yet the arrival of this family in camp marked a significant difference in the ongoing migration of Southern slaves to freedom. Continue reading

Stampede of Slaves from Hampton to Fort Monroe

Southern slaves emancipated by the movement of the Union troops fled into a war zone laced with hazards and potential catastrophes. Suddenly freed from their owners, many ran off without a chance to think, forsaking what shelter and sustenance they had had. They ran from places that were familiar, taking nothing, since for the most part, slaves were legally prohibited from owning property. They had their clothes on their backs. They ran from former masters toward the safety, the more certain freedom, that they understood Continue reading

Freedmen Leaving the Plough

During the Civil War, the movement of Union troops through the slave states brought emancipation to the enslaved.  This drawing by Union sketch artist A. R. Waud captures one such moment, as field slaves on horseback jubilantly greet advancing Union troops and leave  the plough they are hauling, knowing they are free.

Waud accompanied the Union army during virtually the whole of the Civil War, capturing the truths of the war with his drawing as no other medium could.  Thanks to his efforts and those of other documentarians, later Americans can catch glimpses of a wildly tumultuous period in black history, when millions who had endured the tragedy of bondage enjoyed self-possession for the first time.

Image: Waud’s “Negroes Leaving The Plough,”
published with descriptive text in
Harper’s Weekly, March 26, 1864,
from this source.

1870: Black Voting Rights Secured–Right?

On this day in 1870, the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified.  Its text is brief.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The passage of the Amendment was a staggeringly large step toward race equality in America.  Yet even before three-quarters of the states ratified it, racists began to deter blacks from exercising their new political power: the power of the ballot.  The campaign against them, consisting of intimidation, violence, and legal obstacles, was particularly brazen in the former slave states.  Shockingly, it would be another 100 years before the promise of the 15th Amendment became something like a reality.  With the new assault on voting rights we see today, the fragility of this Constitutional guarantee is obvious.

Image: from this source.