This November will see the midterm elections, it will also be the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election and the Southern secession crisis. The sesquicentennial of the Civil War, far and away the most important period in the life of this country, is upon us. Expect many memorials, living history exhibitions, celebrations, symposiums and events of all kinds to mark the anniversary (I have a long standing commitment to take my young nephew to the 2013 Gettysburg reenactment). How we view that period in our history, which we’ll say begins with the crisis in Kansas of 1854 and ends with the Compromise of 1877 and the collapse and reversal of Reconstruction, has changed dramatically over the years. Each fifty years a new generation looks at those days of conflict, of liberation and, finally, of defeat from their own perspective. This is quite natural of course, but it also provides a telling glimpse into the view the nation has of itself, the official nation and the critical nation, the competing nations.
The last big anniversary was in the 1960s during the struggle against Jim Crow and the very real consequences of Reconstrcution’s failure. That period saw a flowering of Civil War scholarship and welcome revisionism. Expect much, unwelcome revisionism, to be made of Obama’s Presidency this time around; though the social conflict in this country may belie the Progress We, As A Nation, Have Made business. I am a radical Civil War nerd as readers of this blog will have picked up with a knowing chuckle. Since I was ten and asked for a subscription of Civil War Times magazine until now, my interest only grows as I learn more. In France comrades get to wax on, along with so much else, about the san culotte stalking the aristocrats in the streets of Paris and singing La Marseillaise, here we get to talk about armed former slaves marching into Charleston singing John Brown’s Body. A comrade has to have something to hang their hat on when they swim, half digested, in the belly of the beast.
This is our Revolution; imperfect, glorious, incomplete, explosive, half-hearted, contradictory and confused and, most importantly for our purposes, even now unfinished business. It is simply impossible to understand what this nation is and how it became without understanding its greatest conflict and I am convinced that all future conflicts, dare I say revolutions, will make reference to it and, in some ways, unfold beneath its shadow. So expect an abnormal, and admittedly irregular, amount of inexpert Civil War posts over the next period – a sort of Civil War survey for radicals and reds. I welcome and invite any guest contributions and will undoubtedly be posting some uncovered esoterica of interest limited to real heads. This being a US Marxist blog, I figure that just comes with the territory.
We’ll say we started the project with the previous post, but begin officially today and mark early October. The time of year in 1855 when John Brown, our failed, but every bit as potent Spartacus, first arrived in Kansas to join his sons in the struggle to win the state from slavery. Brown whose legacy evoked Eugene Debs to ask/demand, “And who will be the John Brown of wage slavery?” From a certain perspective that remains the question today. But we wont begin with Brown, we’ll start at the end of the war in the summer of 1865, before the promise of emancipation was replaced by a re-invigorated white supremacy, before Reconstruction and before its fall. Much must have seemed possible, because it was.
Written in response to his former owner’s request that he rejoin him in Tennessee from which he fled during the war, this brilliant response dictated by a man only recently chattel, Jourdan Anderson then living in Ohio, says as much as any document of the true nature of the revolutionary upheaval that was the American Civil War. It should be required reading in our public schools. The destruction of the chattel system in the South was only one of the consequences of that period; its most glorious, but not its only. For a moment, a brief moment, the ‘bottom rail on top now, massa.’
Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865
To my old master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee.
I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than any body else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in a better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particulary what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy. The folks here call her Mrs. Anderson, and the children Milly, Jane, and Grundy go to school and are learning well. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves down in Tennesssee.” The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost Marshall-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for 32 years, and Mandy 20 years. At 25 dollars a month for me, and 2 dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,608. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to.
Please send the money by Adam’s Express, in care of V. Winters Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the Good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Surely, there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve and die, if it comes to that, than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits. Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when your were shooting at me.
From you old servant,