On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died of gun violence. The previous evening, the president had attended the theater, where a Southern-born actor with rebel sympathies slipped into the private box where Lincoln was sitting and fired a bullet into the back of his head. Stunned witnesses carried the badly injured president out of Ford’s Theater and across the street to a room at Peterson’s boarding house, where he died at 7:22 a.m. the next day.
It was a politically motivated crime, a vengeful coda to the Civil War, which had ended with the South’s surrender at Appomattox just one week before. Even now, 156 years after Lincoln’s death, the despicable act that deprived this nation of one of its brightest lights casts doubt on whether our republican form of government, which depends on civility and a respect for the popular will, can prevail in the face of a vulgar resort to violence.
This drawing from 1863 encapsulates the dangerous anti-federal anti-black sentiment that bubbled up in the Civil War north once the slaves were freed. Dominating the drawing is a figure resembling Lincoln, mowing the field with a scythe and in the process exposing some snakes in the grass. The verse below identifies the snakes as venomous “copperheads.”
Copperheads were a faction of northern “peace Democrats” sympathetic to slaveholding who opposed the war to preserve the Union. Their opposition to race equality and perverse sympathy for Southern rebels clouded the prospects of black Americans and threatened the realization of the Republicans’ plans. (Since the South had seceded and taken up arms, the US government was left mainly in Republican hands.)
The Copperhead faction, whose adherents were mainly from Ohio, Indiana, and other Midwestern states, were vigorous dissenters during the worst crisis Constitutional government had faced to date.
Beyond the Mower, episodes of a national saga unfold. The scenes depict the massive social and economic transformation that “Black Republicans” had hoped would follow from abolition. They anticipated that former slaves, once freed from Southern bondage, would become equal participants in a prosperous “free labor” economy on the same terms as whites.
The two halves of the drawing envision this heartening progression, as chattel slaves, depicted on the right under a stormy sky, begin living into the promise of personal freedom and autonomy. Formerly, blacks enslaved in the South lived in demeaning conditions, their well-being dependent on the will of their owners and overseers. At center, a fugitive slave carrying a child is pursued by dogs.
On the left, emancipated slaves labor on the land with dignity. Like other Americans, they are part of a prosperous “free soil” economy, more than sufficient to meet their needs. In the distance, a substantial-looking farmstead telegraphs a “dream home,” come true.
Unfortunately, emancipation ignited virulent opposition in some segments of white America. The Copperheads couldn’t relate to a real shift in American sentiment that had led a majority of the electorate to reject slavery and the South’s “states-rights” defense of its “peculiar institution.” Copperheads viewed the Union war effort as an abuse of federal authority. They pleaded for a peaceful negotiated settlement with the South.
Copperheads were agrarians who feared that the modernization championed by eastern Republicans (which included industrialization) would jeopardize and eclipse their way of life. Copperhead leader Clement Vallandigham was so vehement in opposing the federal government that he was tried for treason and exiled to live in the Confederacy. Copperheads were understood to be active in the Knights of the Golden Circle, a fraternity whose goal was Southern expansion around the Gulf of Mexico to preserve the South’s distinctive way of life. In the words of historian David C. Keehn, “The Knights were a militant oath-bound secret society dedicated to promoting Southern rights (including slavery) and extending Southern hegemony over the Golden Circle region,” encompassing the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and Central America.
The Copperheads’ impolitic opposition to progressive forces at work in US society echoes across the ages, finding voice in the militant anti-federalism fueling Trumpism and other reactionary causes today. Just as baleful was the underlying racism that led Copperheads to embrace the cause of slavery and white supremacy, a world view that justified the exclusion and prejudicial treatment of black Americans.
This drawing from 1868 remains powerful. It captures the virulent hatred of southern whites toward blacks (their former “property”) just after the South was defeated in the Civil War. Because the South had given its all in defense of slaveholding, Southern defeat, coupled with the federal government’s freeing of the slaves, triggered a rage and resentment that still boils in some segments of the white population.
During the Civil War, the free part of the nation defeated the rebel states. Beyond that, though, the free part of the nation rejected and discredited the ideas that the South’s slave-holding society had embraced. The Northern states, which controlled the federal government, warred against these ideas, defeating and ostracizing them, while protecting liberated slaves and taking numerous steps to outlaw slavery and rectify its wrongs. The world the slaveholders made, which justified black enslavement by asserting whites’ natural superiority, was lost.
A value system at odds with the principle of natural equality: this is what the rebels lost in the 1860s, and what their descendants and admirers nostalgically pine for to the extent that they identify with the Lost Cause.
Of course, some Southerners were capable of shrugging their shoulders and moving on. For most white Southerners, though, the loss was mortifying. The consequences of losing were deeply humiliating and dire. People who owned slaves had believed in their slaves’ native inferiority. This supposed inferiority was the intellectual defense relied on to make slavery conscionable.
Furthermore, the belief that whites were naturally superior boosted the egos of all white southerners, most of whom were not wealthy and did not own slaves. If all whites were superior, all were part of the master class. The Civil War shattered this preposterous notion. The federal government intervened militarily, breaking up the South’s “peculiar institution,” and declaring that blacks were equal to whites.
For more than a decade after the Civil War, the federal government engaged in an extraordinary effort to protect liberated slaves and ensure their freedom and equality. The central figure in the drawing above represents the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency that ran refugee camps for slaves during the war. The Bureau existed to protect newly freed slaves, to promote their well-being by providing shelter, food, and education.
For the times, Freedmen’s Bureau was an extraordinary welfare effort, but Southerners regarded it as an unwarranted federal intrusion into their affairs. The bureau’s work went forward amid whites’ open resentment and vituperation. The freedmen were freed, but now inhabited a fearsome milieu where the threat of violence, victimization, and re-enslavement was pervasive and real. A segment of the white population became intent on denying black equality, because to accept black equality was to equate whites’ worth with that of slaves.
Change the clothes and the architecture, and the drawing could pass for an expression of the race hatred, fear, and resentment still roiling the US today. The tragedy of slavery in the States far surpassed the terrible trauma it inflicted on the enslaved population. Nor did the tragedy end when the Confederates surrendered. It was not over when every slave was free nor when slavery was formally abolished. Even when black Americans were granted equal rights on paper, it still did not end. In the 1960s, when civil rights activists ended racial segregation and battled Jim Crow, when the federal government passed the Voting Rights Act and instated other protections, mighty progress was made. And yet the tragedy of racism and racial prejudice endures.
On April 16, 1862, an Act of Congress freed every slave in the District of Columbia. The law, coming a year after the outbreak of the Civil War, was the first direct blow to slaveholding, preceding the Emancipation Proclamation by several months. At last, the federal government had moved to end the shameful practice of slavery, which until this date had been legal in the nation’s capital.
The DC measure laid out a model of emancipation differing from what transpired in the theater of war. Emancipation in the District was a legal process, whereby slaveholders explicitly renounced their claims to the lifetime labor of slaves whom they had purchased. The owners received a compensation of $300 per slave, while the former slaves received documentation establishing their free state. Did the explicit nature of this process mitigate the anger and resentment that welled up in slaveholders when their “property” became free? The legal process acknowledged the slaveholders’ monetary loss, even as it ended the practice of slaveholding, recasting it as the immoral, exploitive, and disgraceful thing that it was.
The legislation gave slaveholders an incentive to record the stories of every slave they owned. The law required them to present petitions, which detailed the appearance, history, and occupations of each slave and the transactions that brought them to Washington DC. Such documents supply unusually vivid pen-portraits of the some 3,100 blacks who obtained their freedom in Washington City.
For example, the claim papers of one DC resident, dry-goods merchant Emanuel Dorsey Etchison, sought compensation for two teenage slaves who were now legally free. Etchison describes having purchased a claim to the labor and services of the two for life, when he acquired “Joseph Mason” from R. H. Harrison of Baltimore for $825 on April 6, 1861. Etchison likewise acquired “Frank” [no last name] from J. Hill of Baltimore for $750 on 30 March 1861.
Frank was 17 and Joseph, 15, when they were freed. Etchison averred that since their purchase, the value of the two young laborers had appreciated. He put the value of the labor of Frank at one thousand dollars, Frank being “a valued and experienced hotel servant without any defect or infirmity.” Joseph Mason’s value had also increased to the same amount, “he being a trusty and faithful office servant, without any infirmity or defect.”
The 17-year-old Frank was described as being of “dark copper color, five feet high, with a high forehead, snow white teeth, . . . free and polite in conversation, and perfectly healthy.” Joseph Mason, at 15 years old, was “four feet five inches high and strongly built for his age” but “with a rather grum countenance when spoken to” and a small scar running lengthwise “barely perceptible” above his left brow. The tone of Etchison’s claim is not unlike what I imagine an effective slave trader’s would be. The boys are presented as healthy, good workers and therefore valuable, but Etchison’s banal way of describing them points up their unnatural condition and the inevitably traumatic transactions that led to each boy’s separation from family and home.
What happened to these two youths, ripped from their roots, then suddenly freed on the verge of adulthood? The poignance of Etchison’s pen-portrait comes from its limited scope. It’s a snapshot of Joseph and Frank with scarcely a clue to their pasts and nothing of what became of them afterwards. This fragment conveys the awful transience, isolation, and insecurity intrinsic to chattel slavery.
Whereas Frank and Joseph’s former master got paid when they were liberated, they received no compensation for the value of the labor that they had been obliged to give to Etchison and others. The irreparable harm every slave suffered by virtue of being enslaved was never counted as a loss. The Congress viewed slaves as benefiting from the gift of liberty, but never were slaves frankly compensated for what the condition of lifelong bondage had taken from them.
The meager terms of emancipation were, in that sense, a perverse confirmation of slaves’ worthlessness, a fresh instance of white America’s incapacity to see freedmen as anything but a pitiable and inferior class. When it is said that the slaves received “nothing but freedom,” every hearer must admit that freedom makes a light dinner, a hard bed, and scant shelter from a storm.
Image: screenshot from this source,
Washington DC, US Slave Owner Petitions, 1862-63
available through subscription on Ancestry.com.
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 →