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Posts Tagged ‘american civil war’

“Virtually all New Englanders” were anti-slavery by the 1820’s-1830’s, the speaker said, providing background information on John Quincy Adams’s anti-slavery petitions on the House of Representatives floor, eventually culminating in his stand against the Gag Rule. Widespread access to video and sound via the internet has allowed much more access to events than had been possible previously, and I had the talk on in the background on Thursday as I worked in my home office. This assertion made me stop in surprise. I think often of how successful the North was in its campaign to present itself as the all-abolitionist, always-slavery-free region during and after the Civil War, and to me this claim is a good example. Not only is it inaccurate, but it recasts actions like John Quincy Adams’s, and those of many much less famous Northerners, as being ho-hum: Of course John Quincy Adams presented anti-slavery petitions because everybody where he was from was anti-slavery; of course other individuals took stands against slavery because everyone was doing it. I thought, for example, of the mob that attacked and could have killed William Lloyd Garrison in Boston and the mob that burned down Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia after it had been open for just three days because anti-slavery speeches were being given at it by Angelina Grimké Weld and others. (Here is Angelina’s speech, given as a mob gathered outside, heckling her through the walls.) I thought, also, of the petitions from small groups of women to the Massachusetts legislature asking to secede in the lead-up to the Civil War, hoping that by removing their anti-slavery selves from the United States they could help stave off the war.

The night before I listened to that talk, I had attended Harvard Law School’s historian Daniel Coquillette’s talk on the first hundred years of the Law School at Royall House. The administration of Harvard Law School had actively recruited from the South, and because of this, they had a much higher percentage of Southerners than other Northern law schools before the Civil War, leading to many of their alumni being officers in the Confederacy, with West Point being the only other Northern school that graduated about the same amount of future Confederate leaders. Coquillette estimated in his talk that in the 1840’s 35% of the students at the school were from the Deep South. He explained that there were three main groups at the school:

  • Deep Southerners who were “very pro-slavery”
  • Cotton Whig Northerners, who were sympathetic to the Deep Southerners
  • Conscience Whig Northerners, who weren’t really pro-slavery but saw the best strategy as trying to contain slavery to its current locations (leading to such events as Bloody Kansas)

To put it mildly, this paints a different picture of Northerners than an assertion that all of them were anti-slavery. And while of course people at a law school are a tiny portion of the overall populace, many of them went on to become leaders who had regional or national influence. According to Coquillette, Charles Sumner had originally been considered the top person at the school to replace its head, but was told that his abolition wasn’t welcome there, and rerouted himself into politics instead.

In 1859 a newspaper editor, Charles B. Flood, and a US Marshal, Matthew Johnson, were using the Cleveland newspaper Daily National Democrat as their own bully pulpit to level political accusations outside of courtrooms. When John Brown was captured after the raid on Harper’s Ferry, a letter addressed to Cleveland resident Mrs. Isaac Sturtevant was found on him, and the Daily National Democrat published the claim that she had known about and helped to fund the raid. Mrs. Sturtevant wrote a lengthy letter to the Democrat‘s competitor the Plain Dealer in response, which I reproduce partially below (my own transcription of a printed letter, including a few quirks of printing):

… In reply to the charge against me of having incendiary letters sent to my care, I would say if the editor of the Democrat knows any such letters to be incendiary, he knows more about their contents than I do. … As to the charge of being a working woman I acknowledge myself such, especially in the cause of human-freedom, and while my strength remains I shall aid it by such means as I may command. …

While I have thus deigned to notice these charges against me, and this shameful and unjust attempt on the part of a public officer and a hireling editor, to bring reproach upon myself and husband, I wish to utter my protest against any and every effort of the kind. I deny the right of Marshal Johnson or editor Flood to pry into and bring before the public, the private doings of any of our citizens. If we have violated the laws of the land, the Government has pointed out a way and established tribunals whose especial business it is to investigate such violation. No honorable man would seek to prejudice the public against the accused. And it has guaranteed to every citizen, even to negroes and women, the privilege of a fair trial. But pray what chance has any one for an impartial investigation when the public mind is filled with false rumors and statements, as it has been of late by those two most unworthy officials, who have thus departed from their legitimate functions and have arrogated to themselves duties which in no manner belong to them. …

Am I amenable for such acts to the government at Washington and its petty officials stationed here? Or to the laws of Virginia, or its crazy executive, or its blood thirsty judiciary? who in their zeal to convict a person, as in the case of Mr. Brown make him guilty of twice murdering the same man ! Or to either of the political parties who in their strife for power ignore all the rights of individuals and seem to forget and wholly repudiate the plainest and dearest immunities which belong to us as private citizens, the right of private judgment and the liberty to act in harmony therewith. There is a system of espionage being established here which exceeds in servility the worst days of Democratic France. Slavery and the darkest features of the infamous system have obtained such a foothold here, that it would seem that we are not standing erect in the dignity of free men and women of Ohio but are cowering at the feet of the insolent slave power.

Men seem to forget to inquire what are the laws of Ohio–what does her Constitution guarantee to her citizens; but, what says the slave power? What does the Fugitive Bill demand? What of liberty is left us by the Dred Scott decision?

Now, for one, I utterly repudiate and abhor the requisitions of those laws. I would add, if indeed they are laws, I would disregard them. Any law, enactment, or custom which forbids me to aid suffering humanity wherever found, I utterly reject and despise. And I would thus publicly give notice to all the friends of oppression in every form, that I shall treat all such laws as a nullity, and if a grand jury can be found who will indict me for such disobedience, they are perfectly welcome so to do. I shall neither “flee to Canada” nor cease to do all that lies in my power to break down this unrighteous system of oppression, which is even here at the North, stifling every noble feeling or impulse of the human heart. …

[Plain Dealer issue of Saturday, 5 November 1859, page 2]

I can’t imagine anyone reading the above letter and still thinking that all Northerners were unified on the subject. But to say that there was unity is to erase the bravery of acts such as the publication of this letter.

I understand that generalizations are to some degree necessary when discussing wider history. However, I plead for people to be careful that generalizations do not wipe out the complexity of history nor the individual stories of individual people leading individual lives, be it in this era or any other.

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Thus far I have used my “52 Ancestors” posts to highlight people about whom I already know a lot. This week I want to take a look at someone whose origins remain a mystery. Elizabeth Fletcher lived in Chemung County, New York, which was carved from Tioga County, New York. Her town of residence was similarly carved: Horseheads was originally considered a part of Elmira, then carved out from Elmira into its own town, and the small village (in New York it’s technically a “hamlet”) where they lived, Breesport, has always been a subset of Horseheads. So Elizabeth lived in a subset of a second subset of a town. The earliest event I have for Elizabeth is her marriage to Charles Pierson Brees/Breese on 28 Feb 1829 in Veteran, Tioga County, New York, performed by Justice of the Peace Nathaniel Smith. Like Elmira, Veteran was in the part of Tioga County that would subsequently become Chemung County; Veteran was on the northern edge of the area that would become Chemung County, and the town from which it had been formed in 1823, Catharine, would become part of Schuyler County when the new counties were formed from Tioga County. All of this shows how important it is to know precisely where someone lived – always in my opinion but most especially in any area where boundaries changed over time.

Elizabeth and Charles had six sons. I know her maiden name because of an enumerator who included more information than he was required to do, and I know their marriage date and location because their youngest son, Sylvester Fletcher Brees/Breese (usually known as Fletcher), enlisted in the 50th New York Engineers of the Union Army during the Civil War and died of disease at the hospital in City Point, Virginia, less than three months after enlisting. Fletcher was only 19 years old when he died. Elizabeth applied for a parent’s pension, for which parents who were financially dependent on a child who died serving in the Union Army during the war were eligible. As you may already know, most parents’ pensions were proved by the parent sending letters from their child in with the pension, where the child said, for example, that they were sending part of their Union Army pay back to the parent with the letter; the letters were never returned, even though it may have been the last letter the parent ever received from their dead child, and they remain in the pension files today, now held at NARA in Washington, D. C.

Elizabeth & Charles's household on the 1865 NY state census

Elizabeth and Charles’s household on the 1865 New York state census, followed by the household of their married son John. The enumerator for this part of Chemung County, New York, took the unusual step of listing the maiden names of married women. Also note that Fletcher is enumerated here though he was dead by this time; this was so that his Civil War service could be enumerated (see the other image in this post). From ED 01, p. 17, of the Chemung County, New York, state census; in the FamilySearch images, it is image 9 of 24. (Image courtesy of FamilySearch.)

Elizabeth presumably didn’t have letters from Fletcher – I’m not even sure if Fletcher knew how to write – as she took the more unusual tack of soliciting testimony from neighbors and others, which were given as affidavits and are in her file. The testimony paints a dire picture of Elizabeth and Charles’s life on the margins of society. Charles had trained as a blacksmith, like his father before him, and Elizabeth and Charles lived on a very small farm. According to testimony, Charles’s physical and mental health problems had made it increasingly difficult for him to practice his smithing trade, and the tiny farm was on marginal land that barely produced enough to minimally feed the couple. Elizabeth’s testimony says she “has also been obligated to provide for the support of the father (i.e. her husband) ever since the enlistment of said Sylvester…” Unfortunately her testimony does not provide specifics on how she did this. Elizabeth’s and her neighbors’ testimony says that Fletcher had started working as a farm hand on other farms when he was about twelve years old and had used the money to support his parents before enlisting. Whether we as historians can believe testimony is always a question; even in modern courts some people believe testimony they hear “live” and others don’t. What I can say for sure is that the Pension Bureau believed the testimony, because Elizabeth was awarded a parents’ pension.

Civil War service of men living in ED01 of Chemung County, New York

Like many state censuses taken in Union states during the Civil War, enumerators in New York were asked to collect information on the service of people in their district for the 1865 New York state census. This is one of two blanks for reports of service of those in this part of the enumeration, and as instructed, the enumerator included information on which people were taken prisoner and/or had died. Sylvester and Corydon are the second and third people listed here. The listing for Sylvester says he died of Malaria Fever, which is different than what his Compiled Military Service Record says. The listing for Corydon reports his experience as a prisoner of war; Corydon was still serving at the time of the enumeration. (Image courtesy of FamilySearch.)

The pension file story doesn’t end there, though. Elizabeth died in 1876 and Charles, widowed and living alone, applied for a parent’s pension of his own. For his application to be approved, he had to prove his relationships – that he was married to Elizabeth and the father of the child through which Elizabeth had drawn a pension. That’s where Elizabeth’s marriage details show up in the pension file – not in her own application, but in her widower Charles’s. His testimony also includes that he had a “family Record” which was “in the hand writing of Elizabeth Brees wife of deponent and mother of said soldier who died,” and the Notary Public copied information about Sylvester from this record to send to the Pension Bureau. The current whereabouts of this family record, if it exists at all, are unknown.

Charles’s application also provides the detail that they had been married by Justice of the Peace Nathaniel Smith and that as far as they knew, there was no written record of the marriage. Nathaniel Smith had moved away long ago, and Charles had attempted to locate his whereabouts. The pension file includes an affidavit from someone who knew Elizabeth, Charles, and Nathaniel and who reported that Nathaniel had “removed from the said town of Veteran according to deponent best recollection about the year 1840 to one of the Western States (Illinois),” and that Nathaniel had died many years prior to Charles’s application. So Charles got someone else to give testimony that she had attended Elizabeth and Charles’s wedding. I always like when an application for something like a pension hits a snafu, as it generates additional records which provide additional details.

Most records list Elizabeth’s birth location as “Vermont” if they list it at all; at least one adult child lists her birth place as Montpelier, Vermont, on a record. However, so far I have not found Elizabeth in Montpelier or elsewhere in Vermont, and her birth family remains a mystery.

The information in this post illustrates very well how researching American women in the past generally primarily involves researching records regarding the men in their lives – such as their fathers and brothers, and their husband(s) and/or son(s) if they were married and/or had children. Most of what I know about Elizabeth comes from records generated by the actions of her youngest son and her husband/widower. This is not to suggest that Elizabeth was a passive participant in circumstance, simply that, for example, she applied for a pension because Fletcher made the ultimate sacrifice of his life; without his actions, she would not have been able to apply and there would be no pension file. However, it was Elizabeth’s choice to apply, and given that it was more difficult for an application to be successful without written letters from the financially supportive son, the fact that her pension was approved says something about Elizabeth’s application and the perceived credibility of Elizabeth and of the witnesses she chose to speak on her behalf.

The children of Elizabeth and Charles Brees/Breese:

  1. Erasmus Darwin (1831-1914) [went by Darwin], m. Amanda ___
  2. John P. (1833-1907), m. Harriet [Dean?]
  3. Charles F. (1836-1887), m. Sarah ___
  4. William Henry (1839-1855)
  5. Corydon (1841-1938), m. 1st Ann Tanner, m. 2nd Elizabeth (___) Daugherty
  6. Sylvester Fletcher (1845-1864)

Elizabeth and Charles are buried at Breesport Baptist Church Cemetery in Breesport, Chemung County, New York, but some of their family is buried at Hilltop Cemetery, also in Breesport, New York.

Further Research

  • A document compiled by Pension Bureau staff says that Elizabeth had recently purchased a small lot with money left to her by a deceased brother. Unfortunately it does not list the brother’s name nor where he had lived. So far the probate in question has not been located, but the search continues.
  • Evidence garnered to date suggests that Elizabeth’s husband Charles’s family moved from New Jersey directly to the Horseheads area. Thus, their marriage in Veteran could have been due to Elizabeth’s ties to the town rather than Charles’s, since as far as I have been able to determine so far, Charles does not appear to have had any connections to Veteran at the time. There were three Fletcher households enumerated in Tioga County on the 1820 U. S. federal census, though none were enumerated in Catharine. Since Elizabeth did not marry until 1829 in Veteran, it is quite possible that she and/or one or more relatives moved to the area after the 1820 census. So far nothing conclusive has been found, but research is continuing. However, Nathaniel Smith, who married them, lived in Veteran according to the pension file, so that could have been the reason they married there.
  • Regardless of the above, Elizabeth must have moved to Chemung County for some reason, and investigations into possible family connections to the area continue.
  • Presuming Elizabeth correctly self-reported a birth place of Vermont, investigation into what would have made someone go from Vermont to southern New York – whether she did so as a child with her family or a young woman on her own – may provide clues to her family and/or exactly where in Vermont she would have been most likely to have originated.
  • Hope remains that someday the family record mentioned in the testimony will surface intact.

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NOTES

My 2011 post “Civil War court martials” is about Elizabeth and Charles’s son Corydon, though I didn’t mention him by name in the post.

Another researcher has listed at various sites online that Fletcher died at Gettysburg. Not only did he die over a year after the Battle of Gettysburg, but he hadn’t even enlisted yet when the 50th NY Engineers were at the Battle of Gettysburg, completely refuting any possible argument that he belatedly died of injuries sustained at Gettysburg. Please check original sources yourself whenever they are extant – don’t take anyone’s word for anything!

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I’m one of those historical researchers who reads the entire page of the newspaper when I find an article of interest, who reads the surrounding pages of a census enumeration, the entire county’s tax rolls, the whole parish register book. I find everything interesting! This week I was researching a particular historical story in newspapers and accidentally discovered this article:

Headline: BURNED AT THE STAKE

Section 1 of an article from p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

Like most Americans (I hope), I know about how widespread lynchings of African-Americans were in America. This headline startled me, though. As if lynchings weren’t bad enough, people were being burned at the stake by mobs, too – and then the events were being reported in what read to me as a rather chipper way (That scoundrel got what he deserved! Everyone helped! We had a grand time burning someone alive!) in newspapers around the country.

As someone who grew up in a Northern area where the Klu Klux Klan was still very active when I was a child, I have spent a fair amount of time as an adult researching white supremacy movements and violence in America in the antebellum, Civil War, and post-Civil-War periods, counterpoints to my interest in North American & British abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. Reading historical summaries of the violence is horrific enough; here is a particularly chilling excerpt from David Grimsted’s excellent book American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998):

In the morning [in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1855], the election went fairly quietly, though there was a knife fight between an Irishman and an American, both of whom eventually died, the Irishman in jail. In midafternoon things grew worse when Germans fired into some American election carriages, killing two men, and Know-Nothings [an anti-immigrant American political party] attacked and burned five or six German homes and a coffeehouse from which the shots apparently came. The Know-Nothing mayor dissuaded them from attacking the Catholic church. In the next few hours, random Germans were attacked, at least three fatally, and other homes and a brewery burned down. Irish in Ward Eight attacked three Americans, killing at least one, and Know-Nothings followed their retreat to a house, burned them out, and killed three. Another American death led to an attack on Quinn’s Row, a block of Irish homes, and some others, twenty in all, which were burnt. Patrick Quinn was shot and his body partly burned, and rioters beat victims fleeing the fire and, rumor declared, drove some Irish trying to escape back to a fiery death. The Know-Nothing police, inactive and maybe helpless in the shootings and burning of private property, protected the hated Louisville Times when a mob later threatened it. (pp. 233-34)

This came to be known as “Bloody Monday.” I’ve read some other accounts that claim that when the mob set buildings on fire, some of the people waited outside to shoot the people who tried to escape the fire; perhaps that is what Grimsted is referencing when he says “burned them out, and killed three.” Another Louisville mob would kill three slaves two years later.

In this climate of mob violence, it’s no wonder that people and events such as the Border Ruffians, the Bushwhackers & Jayhawkers, and the New York Draft Riots followed shortly before and during the American Civil War. And when the federal troops pulled out of the South when US President Rutherford B. Hayes (born 190 years ago yesterday) ended Reconstruction as part of a compromise to resolve the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876, it’s no wonder that mob violence quickly escalated again.

Article, part 2

Section 2 of an article from p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

But reading about the violence as recounted in a book like American Mobbing is completely different than reading about it first-hand in contemporary accounts. The subheadings in the second section (above), “HUNTING THE NEGRO” and “CAPTURED,” remind me starkly of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which turned every American into an accomplice to slavery, and which spurred many bounty hunters of escaped slaves to hunt in free states and some to enter Canada to hunt those that had escaped to full freedom there.

One of the most famous cases was centered on Oberlin, Ohio, the town of my alma mater, Oberlin College, which had attracted a lot of abolitionist teachers and staff who had left Ohio State University because they were unhappy with its slavery stance. Most commonly known today as “the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue,” there is now a lengthy digitized article about it, “When the Slave-Catcher Came to Town,” featuring much background information on tensions at the time. It is well worth a read for anyone even lightly interested in white American/African-American relations and/or the lead-up to the Civil War.

This specific article is noteworthy in part for what it does not say. The reporter writes, “Confronted with this evidence of his guilt, and charged with the crime, the scoundrel admitted that he had attempted . . .” As Grimsted notes in American Mobbing (p. 15), “Southern mobs always offered ‘proof’ of guilt which no one could doubt: victims were ‘whipped until they confessed’ . . .”

article on being burned at the stake, section 3

Section 3 (of 3) from an article on p. 3 of the 29 December 1885 New York Herald. (Scan courtesy of FultonHistory.com.)

No trial, not even a day’s wait: “Reed’s confession sealed his fate. It was decided that he should die at once. The majority insisted that he should be burned at the stake.” Even if Dick Reed was guilty (and I have no idea whether he was or not, and never will due to the way this proceeded), this is not the way justice should be carried out in an even marginally civilized society.

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