Thursday, September 22, 2011

Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order passed on January 1, 1863, freeing all slaves in Confederate states that had seceded from the Union and allowing them to join the Union army.
Copy of the Emancipation Proclamation

The proclamation was a military measure designed to weaken the Confederate army and raise morale in the Union. Abraham Lincoln hoped these freed slaves would abandon the plantations they worked on, which would further weaken the southern economy, and join the Union army.

Only about 50,000 slaves were immediately freed after passing the proclamation because it only applied to Union-occupied areas of the 10 states named in the document. These states included Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. As the Union army advanced and conquered more territory in these states, more slaves were freed.

Lincoln's secretary of state, William Seward, declared that by passing the proclamation "We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free."

Lincoln was aware the freeing the slaves in some states while keeping slaves in other states in chains went against this general idea of freedom but he feared freeing slaves in Confederate states still loyal to the Union would anger these states and prompt them to secede as well.

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation
Feeling that he needed a major military victory to win support for the proclamation, Lincoln waited to announce the proclamation until after the Union army won the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862. When Colonel Robert E. Lee and the Confederate army retreated from Antietam, Maryland after a devastating defeat, Lincoln decided it was time and announced the forthcoming proclamation a few days later.

The Emancipation Proclamation changed the reasoning behind the war. Although slavery was one of many causes of the Civil War, ending slavery was not the original objective of the war. Preserving the Union and preventing Confederate states from seceding was the main goal of the Civil War. When lawmakers passed the proclamation, it changed everything. Suddenly, the war became a fight for justice and winning it meant freedom for thousands of slaves. This not only raised morale in the Union and strengthened the army, but it also prevented England and France (two anti-slavery countries) from giving military aid to the south.

Ultimately, the Emancipation Proclamation paved the way for the 13th amendment which freed all slaves in the United States and abolished slavery forever.


Our Documents: Emancipation Proclamation

PBS: Emancipation Proclamation

National Archives: Emancipation Proclamation

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass before 1845
Frederick Douglass is one of the most well-known abolitionists and orators of the Civil War era. Born a slave, under the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, in February 1818 on a plantation in Maryland, Douglass was the son of a slave woman and an unknown white man. Separated from his mother when he was only a few weeks old, Douglass never met his father and instead lived with his grandparents on the plantation. When he was 8 years old, his owner sent him to work as a house servant in Baltimore.

Despite a federal law prohibiting it, his owner's wife taught Douglass how to read. When Douglass' owner forbade his wife to continue teaching him, Douglass continued his reading and writing lessons by giving his food to neighborhood boys in exchange for lessons.

Frederick Douglass' wife Anna Murray
When Douglass was 15 years old, his owner died and he was sent to a plantation run by a notorious slave breaker known as Edward Covey. After being whipped and starved, Douglass vowed to escape slavery. He got caught on his first escape attempt at the age of 18, but finally escaped two years later and fled to New York City with his girlfriend, a free black woman named Anna Murray, where they married. The newlyweds then fled to New Bedford, Mass where they changed their last name to Douglass to escape slave hunters.

Eager to continue his education, Douglass joined many organizations in New Bedford, attended a black church and attended abolitionist meetings. He also subscribed to William Loyd Garrison's newspaper The Liberator and saw Garrison speak at the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society. The two quickly became friends and Garrison even mentioned Douglass in his newspaper. Shortly after, Douglass began his long speaking career when Garrison asked him to be a lecturer for the Society for three years.

After earning a reputation as a talented public speaker, Douglass published his autobiography titled “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written By Himself” in 1845. Publishing the book put his freedom in jeopardy and forced him to leave the U.S. on a two year tour of England, Scotland and Ireland to avoid recapture.

Frederick Douglass in 1866
The long speaking tour finally earned Douglass enough money to return to the U.S. and purchase his freedom. The Douglass family relocated to Rochester, NY, where Douglass started his own four-page weekly newspaper called The North Star.

Not only an abolitionist, Douglass also believed in women's rights. This led him to participate in the women's rights convention at Seneca falls in 1848. Douglass also developed a close friendship with suffragist Susan B. Anthony that lasted until the day he died.

In the late 1840s and 1850s, Douglass and Garrison began to develop different views towards abolitionism that caused tension in their friendship. Garrison developed a more radical point of view, declaring that the U.S. Constitution was a pro slavery document and the Union should be dissolved. Douglass completely disagreed and felt dissolving the Union would isolate slaves in the South. Despite mutual friends, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, trying to patch up the friendship, the two drifted apart.

Frederick Douglass in his later years
While living in Rochester, Douglass opened his home to runaway slaves on the underground railroad and worked with fellow abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman and John Brown. Douglass also helped recruit blacks for the Union army and became an adviser to Abraham Lincoln.

After the war ended, Douglass held many federal offices such assistant secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission, Marshal of the District of Columbia, Recorder of deeds and eventually U.S. minister and consul general to Haiti in the late 1880s.

In 1882, Douglass' wife died of a stroke after 44 years of marriage. He remarried in 1884, this time to a white woman named Helen Pitts. This inter racial marriage caused discontent among his African-American friends but Douglass was devoted to his new wife and ignored the criticism.

Douglass died of a heart attack or stroke on February 20, 1895 at the age of 77 years old. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York.

Frederick Douglass & Helen Pitts with their niece
Frederick Douglass' grave in Mount Hope Cemetery

"The Frederick Douglass Encyclopedia"; Julius Eric Thompson; James L. Conyers; 2010

New York Times: Death of Frederick Douglass; February 21, 1895 Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass: A Short Biography of Frederick Douglass

PBS: Frederick Douglass

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Did Harriet Tubman Dream of John Brown's Death Before She Met Him?

During a trip to Canada in 1858 Harriet Tubman, one of the most famous conductors on the underground railroad, met fellow abolitionist John Brown. Brown was in the middle of planning his famous raid on a federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry and was in Canada trying to raise funds for the project.

When Tubman first laid eyes on Brown's face, she realized she had seen it before. During the previous winter, Tubman told her friend Franklin Sanborn, editor of the Boston Commonwealth, of a reoccurring dream she was having. Sanborn later wrote about this discussion in an 1863 article in the Boston Commonwealth:

“She thought she was in a 'wilderness sort of place, all full of rocks and bushes,' when she saw a serpent raise its head among the rocks, and as it did so, it became the head of an old man with a long white beard, gazing at her 'wishful like, just as if he were going to speak to me,' and then two other heads rose up beside him, younger than he, - and as she stood looking at them, and wondering what they could want with her, a crowd of great men rushed in and struck down the younger heads, and then the head of the old man, still looking at her so 'wishful'

Depiction of John Brown with his dying sons in Harper's Ferry
Although Tubman did recognize Brown from the dream, she still didn't know what it meant until a few years later when Brown finally acted on his plans to raid the federal arsenal. During the raid, Brown brought two of his sons with him. After rounding up the citizens of Harper's Ferry and capturing the arsenal, militia groups and soldiers surrounded Brown and his men. During a long stand off, Brown's two sons were killed and Brown was wounded when the soldiers rushed in on them with guns and knives. Brown was later executed. Tubman believed the snakes represented Brown and his two sons and the crowd of men were the soldiers surrounding them.

According to Sanborn, this was not Tubman's first psychic experience. Tubman had told Sanborn that ever since receiving a head injury as a teenager, she began having not only fainting spells but psychic dreams and premonitions.
Harriet Tubman in 1885

Before Tubman escaped from slavery, she said she had a dream where she flew over towns, fields and mountains “like a bird.” During the dream she saw “a great fence or sometimes a river,” as well as women dressed in white reaching out for her. She said she thought nothing of the dream until her escape to the north when she saw the very same places from her dream and met women along the underground railroad that resembled the women in her dream.

Tubman told Sanborn she believed her psychic powers were inherited from her father, Benjamin Ross. She said her sister had also inherited the ability and foretold the weather often and also predicted the Mexican War.

Sarah Bradford, a New York teacher who helped Tubman write and publish her autobiography, wrote about Tubman's psychic experiences in her own book “Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman”: “When these turns of somnolency come upon Harriet, she imagines that her 'pirit' leaves her body, and visits other scenes and places, not only in this world, but in the world of spirits.”

Whether or not Tubman's dreams were actual psychic visions, Tubman remains an inspiring and iconic figure of the Civil War era.


"Harriet Tubman: the Life and the Life Stories"; Jean McMahon Humez; 2003

"Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History"; Milton C. Sernett; 2007

"HarrietTubman: Antislavery Activist"; Marian Taylor; Heather Lehr Wagner; 2005

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

John Brown

Portrait of John Brown - 1856
John Brown was an abolitionist most known for his failed raid on Harper's Ferry in Virginia. Born in May of 1800 into a family with strong abolitionist beliefs, Brown learned to hate slavery from a young age.

Born in Torrington, Connecticut, Brown moved with his family to Ohio when he was five years old. After Brown grew up he moved around the country a lot with his wife and twenty children, looking for work. He worked as a tanner, farmer, wool merchant and land speculator but still struggled to provide for his family. Despite his financial difficulties, Brown still found ways to help the abolitionist cause by participating in the underground railroad, financing abolitionist publications, giving land to fugitive slaves and forming the League of Gileadites, an organization dedicated to protecting escaped slaves from slave hunters.

Brown met fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1847, who declared that Brown "though a white gentleman, is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery."

Portrait of John Brown
Brown moved his family to a black community in North Elba, New York in 1849, to act as a “kind of father” to the local black citizens struggling to run their farms in the area.

Then in 1855, Brown followed five of his sons to the Kansas territory where he became a leader of anti-slavery guerrillas and defended local towns from pro-slavery attacks. In retribution for one attack, Brown went to a nearby pro-slavery town, dragged five men out of their cabins and brutally killed them.

For years, Brown had an idea to start a war against slavery but never put his ideas into action. After moving back east, Brown began planning a raid on the federal arsenal in Harper's ferry, Virginia. The plan was to raid the arsenal for weapons and distribute them to slaves in an attempt to start a slave uprising. He raised money for his “army” and moved into a nearby farmhouse in Maryland across the river from the arsenal to plan out the attack.

The raid took place on the night of October 16, 1859, when Brown and 21 of his men marched towards the town in the rain and captured the armory and arsenal. Brown and his men then rounded about 60 citizens as hostages and waited in the firehouse for nearby slaves to rise up and join the fight. The slaves never came but local militia groups, marines and soldiers surrounded them. During the standoff, 10 of Brown's men were killed, including two of his sons, five men escaped and Brown was wounded. The soldiers eventually moved in and Brown surrendered.
1859 Harper's Weekly Illustration of John Brown's Raid
Brown was taken to Charlestown, Virginia and charged with murder, treason and inciting a riot. Brown spoke out against injustice during his trial and inspired other abolitionists to help end slavery: “I believe to have interfered as I have done, . . . in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it be deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done."

Brown was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. Rumors swirled that his supporters would rise up and attempt to free Brown at the gallows. To prevent this, the gallows were heavily protected by soldiers and militia groups, including Stonewall Jackson, who was then a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, as well as the volunteer militia group the Richmond Grays with its newest volunteer John Wilkes Booth, on the day of the hanging on December 2, 1859.

On his way to the gallows, Brown passed a note to one of his supporters that read,"Charlestown, Va. 2nd December, 1859. I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done."

Brown's words came true just a few years later with the start of the Civil War.

Brown and his hostages inside the firehouse
Illustration of John Brown walking to the gallows - 1870
Illustration of John Brown's Hanging

"John Brown, Abolitionist"; David Reynolds; 2006 John Brown's Biography

PBS: The Raid on Harper's Ferry

PBS: John Brown