As the so-called Enlightenment swept through Europe and the American Colonies in the late 18th century, the concepts of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, eloquently written by the French lawyer and philosopher Robespierre, took hold of the consciences of American leaders, too. Well, at least with respect to the rights of white men.
But as the American colonies rebelled from British tyranny, blacks were a part of the fighting, too, hoping beyond hope that they would be able to break free of the colonial tyranny that kept them in bondage.
But we know that such would not be the case…
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the most vexing problem of the day was what to do with the millions of blacks living in slavery in the southern colonies. Indeed, Liberty, Fraternity and Equality did not extend to either the slave or free blacks. Slaves, for census purposes, were designated as 3/5 of a human being.
Yes, those were dark times but even at the darkest moments, there was still light in the form of men and women, both black and white, committed to the cause of eradicating slavery through the law–or through armed conflict.
Many of you may recall from your American history classes that William Lloyd Garrison founded The Liberator and Frederick Douglass, an escaped enslaved Black man who rose to great prominence in the abolition movement, founded The North Star. Both newspapers were designed for the singular purpose of exposing the wickedness of slavery.
You may also recall that during the early 19th Century, abolitionists like Martin Delaney and David Walker were among the earliest lobbyists for Black freedom as both men advocated in the halls of Congress for ending what was known in Europe as America’s “Peculiar Institution.” The hard work of abolitionists led to Congressional measures that limited the extension of slavery into territories that were annexed during the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican War in the 1840’s.
While abolitionists worked through peaceful means, as noted in previous lessons this month, there were violent uprisings including Gabriel Prosser’s rebellion in 1800, Denmark Vesey’s rebellion in 1822 and Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831. These rebellions proved that enslaved Blacks yearned to be free, even if it meant facing death. Truth be told, the very fact that over 60,000 slaves escaped to the North on the Underground Railroad, risking certain death if caught–proves that the primordial nature of the human soul is a yearning for freedom.
Despite these best efforts for a peaceful resolution, the issue of slavery would not be solved in the halls of Congress or by the courts. This latter point became crystal clear in 1857 in the Dred Scott decision where Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that “the Negro had no rights that a white man was bound to respect.”
No, it would take four years of bloody civil war to finally resolve the issue of slavery. When war broke out in 1861, Frederick Douglass immediately petitioned President Abraham Lincoln to allow black free men to serve in the Union Army, but he was rebuffed repeatedly. The popular slander of the period was that black men lacked the intellectual ability and the “courage” to bear arms. Other whites feared that arming black men could compel the same to fire upon “any” whites, not just those wearing Confederate gray.
After the bloody Battle of Antietam in 1862, President Lincoln decided to issue an Emancipation Proclamation that would free enslaved blacks in states currently in rebellion. This executive order had zero impact on enslaved blacks in border states like Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri or even in the District of Columbia. But the Proclamation was designed to create chaos by perhaps inspiring enslaved Blacks to flee from their plantations, thus stymying the southern economy.
Not long after the Proclamation took effect, in March of 1863, Massachusetts, Governor John Andrew commissioned the 54th Massachusetts Regiment as the first Union Black fighting force. The unit, under the leadership of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, would later be honored for gallantry at the Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina and their journey is well chronicled in the Oscar-winning film “Glory.”
In time, over 160,000 black soldiers would fight for the Union Army throughout the south, each understanding that by doing so, they faced the possibility of being hanged if captured or being sold into slavery.
The reality of summary execution was made manifest during the latter stages of the war, after the Union Army erected Fort Pillow near Memphis, Tennessee as an earthen fortification to overlook the Mississippi River. The Fort was inhabited by approximately 277 white soldiers of the Tennessee Cavalry, which was mostly composed of former rebel soldiers who upon capture, switched sides and swore allegiance to the United States. Fort Pillow also was manned by 270 blacks from the U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery and the Second U.S. Colored Light Artillery. The unit, entrenched in a state still very much in Confederate hands, provided particular dangers for the black soldiers as the Confederate government in 1862 issued orders that blacks caught in service to the Union Army were either to be sold into slavery or summarily executed on the spot.
On the morning of April 12, 1864, nearly 2,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked Fort Pillow and due to their overwhelming numbers, quickly took capture of the stronghold. General Forrest refused to send the captured soldiers to either Libby Prison in Virginia or Andersonville Prison in Georgia, deeming such an unnecessary expense.
Instead, Forrest ordered the shootings of the Union soldiers and had most of their bodies thrown into the Mississippi River–an act that one witness later exclaimed turned the river “blood-red.” A Congressional inquiry into the matter, led by abolitionist Senator Benjamin Franklin Wade of Ohio, concluded that the Confederate actions were not an act of war but one of murder. According to House Report Number 65, Jacob Thompson, one of the black civilians at the Fort who survived the massacre, recounted that the Confederates “just called them out like dogs and shot them down…I reckon they shot about fifty, white and black.” Added Ransom Anderson, a soldier with the Sixth Heavy Artillery, “all the men on our side were killed after the fight was over…they (Confederates) called them out and shot them down, then they put some in houses and shut them up and burned the houses.”
The Fort Pillow massacre garnered national headlines and strengthened the resolve of Radical Republicans who broke with Republican Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Congressional Democrats with respect to a swift and easy reconciliation with the South after the war. (As for Confederate General Forrest, he is remembered in history not just for the Fort Pillow Massacre, but also for having helped found the Ku Klux Klan, Greek for “Circle of Brothers,” near Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865. The Klan was originally founded as a charitable organization to assist Confederate widows and children but under the malevolent leadership of Forrest, the Klan soon became a terrorist organization bent on killing black men, women and children and their white sympathizers.