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Archive for November, 2011

I first encountered the following letter from William D. Fitzgerald to President Lincoln on Brooks Simpson’s Crossroads post, “Black Confederates and White Southern Unionists,” and then again on the Southern Unionists page of Facebook. William Davidson Fitzgerald was born and raised in Nelson County, Virginia. By 1860, he and his family lived in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, where he taught school. I have found no evidence that he owned slaves. Fitzgerald’s letter to the President, written during his imprisonment at Castle Thunder, the Confederate prison in Richmond, was sent only weeks before his death on 27 July 1863.

Several parts of the letter stand out: first, Fitzgerald’s unequivocal belief that the destruction of slavery should be a prime object of the war, and, second, his advice to Lincoln to financially compensate slaveholders who supported the Union as a strategy for maintaining their support. Finally, Fitzgerald speaks forcefully to the question of why a Southern white man might support the U.S. government over the Confederacy. I have bolded the section of the letter I find most fascinating: that in which Fitzgerald offers a class analysis of white men’s loyalty to the Union and his reasoning for why so many non-slaveholders nonetheless joined the Confederate army. 

Vikki Bynum

From William Fitzgerald to Abraham Lincoln, July 4, 1863

Castle Thunder

Richmond July 4 1863

As a Citizen of the United States I take the liberty of addressing you a short letter.

I am now, and for a considerable time have been incarcerated by the Enemies of our Country, in Castle Thunder, Richmond– Here I shall soon die; but before being consigned to my obscure grave, I desire as a Southern man to applaud and commend your efforts in the holy cause in-which you are engaged; not only of restoring the Union, but in rending the shackles of Slavery from millions of our fellow beings– Let me assure you that the prayers of thousands in the South ascend to heaven daily for your ultimate success, in the great work–

The heads of the wicked rebellion, and the public journals of the Country, would have the people of the North and of Europe believe, that the Southern people are unanimously in favor of a new government; but, Sir, a pretension more false was never promulgated– If the sense and will of the people, including the rank and file of the army, could be taken to-day, they would, by an overwhelming majority, declare in favor of the Union– Of the white population of the South more than two thirds of the adult males are non-slaveholders or poor– It is impossible for them to fraternize with such men as Jeff Davis, Yancey, Benjamin (Note 1), and their coadjutors– It would be unnatural for them to sympathize with this fratricidal rebellion, or revere an oligarchy founded on slavery, which the rebels leaders are seeking to establish– Slavery has been a curse of the poor white man of the south and he would be mad indeed to desire to perpetuate it– The wealthy planter has ever been the poor mans enemy and oppressor, and the latter would be too generous by half if he desired to increase his foes power over him– You may depend upon it that in general the rich of the South despise the poor, and the poor in return hate the rich–

True it is that the army of the Confederacy is composed principally of men non-Slaveholders but they are not in arms by their own volition.

True it is that at the beginning of the war war many volunteers from this class were raised; but they did not realize the fact that they were to fight against the United States, against the Union– We are a sensation people; and they were carried away by the excitement of the moment– The leaders induced them to believe they were merely going to repel another John-Brown raid– The deception then successfully practiced by the heartless traitors, enabled them afterwards to enforce the conscription, and now the people are powerless– But let the war for the Union be prosecuted, let your armies advance, and wherever they can promise security to the people you will find the masses loyal–

In conclusion I will venture a single suggestion on another point– It would be arrogance and folly in an humble individual like myself to presume to council the chief Magistrate of a great nation but having closely watched the progress of this war, and the policy of your administration, I may be pardoned for expressing the result of my observations, and a single suggestion–

Your Emancipation proclamation opened the grandest issue involved in this sanguinary struggle, and may prove the heaviest blow dealt the rebellion– But as I understand it, and as it is unwisely interpreted in the South, it frees all the Slaves within the territory to which it applies without offering any indemnity to loyal citizens– In this respect it is wanting– There are many loyal slaveholders in the South, and your proclamation has driven some, and will drive others over to the rebels– I know within my circle of acquaintances several with whom it has had this effect– In my own town two gentlemen, who before the proclamation were regarded as union men, and furnished substitutes to the rebels with great reluctance, immediately after the promulgation of the document, entered the Confederate service, one as a Colonel, and another as captain– Not only were these two men added to the rebel army, but the influence of their example was by no means insignificant–

Since then you can not desire the innocent to suffer for the misdeeds of the guilty, that the loyal should recieve — the wages of treason, let another proclamation be issued, promising loyal citizens of the South reasonable compensation for the slaves liberated, out of the confiscated property of the disloyal, and the two proclamations together will quickly prove, with assistance of the army now in the field, the heaviest blows, and the death blows of the rebellion–

Such is the belief of your dying, and,

Obedient Servant–

Wm Fitzgerald

Castle Thunder Prison, Cary St., Richmond, VA, 1865. Wikipedia file

For historians such as myself, finding the actual words of a white Southern Unionist is always exciting.  Fitzgerald’s contention that non-slaveholding whites “are not in arms by their own volition,” and that they were fooled by secessionists into fighting against their own government by exaggerated stories of impending raids by the likes of John Brown is an opinion that many disputed, then and now.

Yet Fitzgerald was not alone in that view. During the same year in which he wrote to Lincoln, John A. Beaman of North Carolina wrote his governor that “farmers and mechanics” were ready to “revolutionize” rather than fight a slaveholders’ war. Guerrilla leader Newt Knight echoed Beaman in 1892 when he expressed regret that Southern nonslaveholders did not launch a successful uprising against the slaveholders who had “tricked” them into fighting their war. (note 2).  In 1912, Madison Bush (who would be mayor of Laurel, Mississippi, by 1920) agreed with Newt, telling the Jones County D.A.R. that ordinary white men and boys had initially joined the Confederacy only because “they thought it was big to get the big guns on.” (note 3).

These are but a few of the pro-Union and anti-Confederate words uttered by Southern men and women, whites and blacks, that are buried in documents, memoirs, and letters throughout archives and attics of the South.  Many Southerners viewed support for the United States government as the true sign of patriotism and loyalty; many (including a good number of slaveholders) viewed secession as utter madness. 

Footnotes:

1. Here, Fitzgerald refers to William L. Yancey, prominent leader of the Southern secession movement and member of the Confederate Senate in 1862, and Judah P. Benjamin, former U. S. Senator from Louisiana who served as Confederate Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State.

2. Bynum, Long Shadow of the Civil War, pp. 15, 96

3. Bynum. Free State of Jones, p. 95

The original copy of William D. Fitzgerald’s letter is in the Lincoln Papers at the National Archives (Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833-1916). For more on Fitzgerald, see Carman Cumming, Devil’s Game, The Civil War Intrigues of Charles A. Dunham; also Scribd.com, “New Details Emerge on the Life and Death of William D. Fitzgerald in the infamous Castle Thunder.”

My thanks to Marilyn Fitzgerald Marme, Fitzgerald’s ggg- granddaughter, for posting his letter online and allowing me to post it on Renegade South.

Vikki Bynum

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Back in 1977, when I was a junior in college, history became a personal venture for me when an African American friend told me that his ancestors were from Virginia, but that he had always heard that they were not slaves. African Americans from Old Virginia who had never been slaves? That got my attention!

 A brand new history major, I decided on the spot to research my friend’s family history. Soon I was delving into microfilmed and published records from colonial Middlesex and Gloucester Counties of Virginia, where I did indeed find the ancestors of my friend—and many more—living as “free people of color” in colonial and antebellum Virginia. The following is their story.  

Vikki Bynum

During the transformative years of 1680-1730, as slavery overtook servitude as the favored system of labor among planters in the English colonies of America, a small but significant population of free people of color emerged in Virginia’s Gloucester and Middlesex Counties. We know very little about their individual lives beyond their names, racial designations, and ages as recorded in church and court records. We know, for example, that Elizabeth Morris, a servant of Middlesex County, was of mixed ancestry because the vestry book of Christ Church Parish described her in 1706 as “A Mulatto Woman.” (Note 1)

That same vestry book identified Elizabeth’s white master and mistress as “gentleman” Francis Weeks and his wife, Elizabeth. The Weeks family owned a number of slaves, raising questions about why Elizabeth was not also enslaved. Perhaps her mother was also a servant, or perhaps Elizabeth was the child of an enslaved woman and a white slave master who subsequently freed her.

Long before the rise of the cotton South in the post-Revolutionary United States, people of European, African, and Native American ancestry struggled against systems of bondage in the American colonies. In the first half of the seventeenth century, as tobacco profits flourished, settlers in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay region took advantage of England’s head-right system to build vast plantations. For every person that they brought to America–including those held in bondage–fifty acres of land was granted. Although servants were entitled to collect their fifty acres of “freedom dues” after fulfilling labor contracts, high death rates allowed many planters to add those acres to their own burgeoning estates.

The same high death rates made the purchase of slaves a risky venture; transporting servants was the safer investment. Thus, although not enslaved, many seventeenth-century whites entered the New World in bondage. By 1681, there were some 15,000 mostly-white indentured servants in Colonial Virginia, compared to some 3,000 African slaves. That would soon change, however. In 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion graphically revealed the potential for revolution among the servant class. As more and more servants lived long enough to press their claims for land, Virginia planters turned to slavery as a more controllable and profitable system of labor.

Map of Virginia highlighting Gloucester County

As slaves increased in number, so also did Virginia lawmakers’ efforts to construct a bi-racial society that clearly differentiated among people on the basis of their race as well as status. An Act of Assembly, enforced in 1715, directed that individuals of African ancestry be labeled as such. A clerk of the Abingdon Parish of Gloucester noted in that church’s records that “A list of negros [sic] born in the Parish” was now required by law. Before 1715, he explained, “negros” had been listed “promiscuously among the whites.”  (Note 2)

Abingdon Episcopal Church, White Marsh, Gloucester County, Donated by Frances Benjamin Johnston.

But even in this deliberately bi-racial society, a third category of race and status intruded: that of free person of color, with “color” often meaning light brown. Elizabeth Morris’s designation as a “Mulatto,” which technically meant half African, half European, should not be taken literally. Virginia officials used the term rather loosely; it might mean that an individual was born to a mixed-race couple, or simply that one or both parents were of mixed ancestry. Mainly, it meant that a person’s skin was lighter in tone than that of enslaved Africans being forced into the colony in ever greater numbers.

Elizabeth may have had connections to the white Morris family that was among the earliest to settle this region of Virginia. Thomas Morris was clerk of Gloucester County in 1657 and 1661, while Richard Morris was minister of Christ Church Parish upon its establishment in 1666. Another Morris, George, surveyed lands for building the parish.

The birth years of Elizabeth’s children make it likely that she herself was born between 1670 and 1690. During those years, Thomas Morris’s two sons, James and Thomas Jr., owned 670 acres of land that they inherited from their father. Any of the above men might have fathered Elizabeth, or once held her as a slave. Or, perhaps there was a daughter or sister who engaged in an interracial affair that resulted in her birth. (Note 3)

One thing is certain: Elizabeth is the earliest identified ancestor of the free Morrises of color from whom my friend descended. Whether or not she was ever enslaved, it’s also certain that this “Mulatto Woman” lived during a volatile period of early Virginia history. As English settlers struggled to dominate the New World, they discovered that white indentured servants, slaves, and Indians could be a dangerous mix. In 1663, more than a decade before Bacon’s Rebellion rocked the colony, an uprising known as the “Servants Plot” was narrowly averted in Gloucester County.

Servants Plot Marker

Betrayed from within by an indentured servant, the Servants’ Plot was brutally quashed. Literally, heads rolled, their bloody stumps posted atop chimneys in gruesome displays reminiscent of the Old World’s London Bridge. Yet again, in 1722, threats of insurrections by slaves and free people of color re-emerged in the region of Gloucester and Middlesex Counties. Rumors of uprisings ignited the fears of whites, who responded with passage of draconian laws.

In 1724, Virginia lawmakers decreed that “Negroes, mulattoes, and Indians, bond or free,” convicted of fomenting conspiracies or insurrections would “suffer death and be Utterly excluded the benefit of Clergy and all laws made concerning the same.” Unsupervised meetings were forbidden among all “Negroes or other slaves.” Slaves “notoriously guilty” of running away could be ordered by the court “to be punished by Dismembering Or any Other Way not touching Life.” (Note 4)

Land rich and labor poor, white masters, including several Morrises, rapidly replaced unruly servants with chattel slaves. Between 1770 and 1782, William Morris, white, of Petsworth Parish owned 99 acres and five slaves; in neighboring Mathews County, a William Morris, Sr., white, owned 343 ½ acres and ten slaves. (Note 5)

Rosewell Plantation Ruins, Gloucester Co. Built in 1725 for planter Mann Page, this mansion of Flemish bond brickwork was patterned after the elaborate London homes of the era.

As a result, Elizabeth Morris’s children and grandchildren would grow up in a world increasingly defined by slavery. Although they were not themselves slaves, neither were they fully free. For several generations, they or their children remained in a cycle of servitude.

Servants, like slaves, were forbidden by law to marry, which increased the number of illicit births among them. Elizabeth’s pregnancy violated the terms of her indenture contract and resulted in her children being born into servitude. Between courthouse and church, the new family was alternately blessed and condemned. On March 15, 1705/06, Christ Church baptized Elizabeth’s newborn son, James Morris, while the Middlesex county court ordered its sheriff to administer 25 lashes to Elizabeth’s bare back as punishment. A year later, the process was repeated. Her newborn daughter Winnefred, born May 9, 1707, was baptized by Christ Church, while the court once again ordered the mother whipped for giving birth out of wedlock.

And so it went. Like her children, Elizabeth’s grandchildren were indentured, beginning when daughter Winnie gave birth to her own daughter, Biddy, at age fifteen. A second daughter, Betty, was born in 1728, but died less than a year later. By 1742, Winnie had three sons: Francis, George, and James. (Two other children, Thomas, born 1843, and William, born 1845, were likely sons of Winnie’s older brother, James Morris.)

Five years before her death in 1745 at the age of thirty-seven, Winnie was identified in the records as a free woman. Still, her children remained in servitude. Sons George and James were ordered “bound out” by the courts after Virginia’s race-based laws required that all “Mulattos and Indians” be apprenticed, or bound, to a master until age 31, regardless of their mother’s status. This apprenticeship system was adopted widely throughout the South, although the ages of release were lowered to 21 for males and 18 for females during the nineteenth century.  Until after the Civil War, apprenticeship functioned as a system for socially and economically controlling free people of color. (Note 6)

As they “aged” their way into freedom, the Morrises intermarried with other free families of color—notably those with the surnames of Lockley, Driver, Lemon, Blufoot (Blueford), and  Thias—and built large families. By the late eighteenth century, members from these families were landowners. By 1799, “Mulattoes” James and Seth Morris together paid taxes on forty acres of land. By 1821, James was deceased, and Seth Morris was the sole owner of the forty acres. (Note 7)

During the same years, Virginia slaveholders pushed for greater restrictions on free people of color. In 1793, the state required that “free negroes or mulattoes” register their status with the town clerk. Failure to do so could result in imprisonment. In 1806, it forbade them the right to bear arms without a license (after the Nat Turner Rebellion  of 1831, the right even to obtain a license was denied). How, one wonders, did men feed their families without the ability to hunt animals? Even the major occupation of Gloucester free men of color—netting oysters—was compromised by restrictive laws. In 1811, the legislature passed a law stating that:

Any waterman of color found strolling from his boat may be whipped any number of lashes, not exceeding twenty, if he is not going directly to or from any spring for the purpose of getting water.  (Note 8)

And so, as the nineteenth century progressed, the Morrises endured the indignities that accompanied the antebellum South’s evolving caste system. In December 1822, the registration papers of “William Morris, a free tawney man, no. 44,” and “Deanna Morris, a free mulatto woman, no. 45,” were examined by the court, and “found to be truly made.” The couple had passed muster and could continue to live in the conditional freedom accorded people of their status. (Note 9)

William’s racial designation, “tawney,” indicated a skin tone lighter than that of a “Mulatto” or “black” person. In 1823, Betty Morris and Mary Morris were likewise described by the court as tawney, while Lucy Morriss and Warner Morris were described as Mulattoes. No matter how light their skin, however, the Morrises would never be considered “white”; at least, not as long as they remained in Gloucester County, where officials knew the family’s racially-mixed background.

The forced apprenticeship of free children of color continued until after the Civil War. In the years following the Nat Turner rebellion, however, there was much talk of removing all “free Negroes” from the commonwealth, in which case, contracts specified, the apprenticeship would be voided.  By 1838, however, that plan no longer appeared feasible, and the caveat was dropped. (Note 10)

After May, 1838, a typical apprenticeship contract was that of “free boy” Lewis Morris. In February, 1840, Lewis was ordered bound to Robert P. Russell “until he attains the age of 21 years to learn the art . . .  of a shoemaker. And it is ordered that he keep said boy until he is fifteen years of age free of charge and to pay thereafter $10 a year and furnish him with an extra suit of clothes the last year of his apprenticeship.” Russell would thus benefit for years from the free labor of Lewis, depriving his mother, Winney Morris, of both the labor and companionship of her child.  (Note 11)

Though rare, apprenticeship contracts were sometimes successfully challenged by parents. In March, 1840, just one month after her son Lewis was ordered apprenticed to Robert Russell, Winney Morris managed to have the contract rescinded “for reasons appearing to the court.” Unfortunately, the court did not identify those reasons.

Twenty years later, also on unspecified grounds, Lucy Morriss challenged the legality of her twelve-year-old son Phillip’s apprenticeship to Isaac Woodland. In November, 1860, the court summoned Woodland to appear in its chambers “to show cause if any he can why the indenture of the said apprentice should not be revoked & annulled.” The outcome of that suit is uncertain, but it may be that the sectional crisis between North and South had begun to disrupt local communities, making apprenticeship contracts harder to enforce. (Note 12)

We do know the outcome of a suit against Tom Morris, a “free boy of color.” Like many a servant boy before him, Tom played hooky from his master’s home. From August until October, 1860, Henry Rilee lodged accusations that Tom had “deserted the service of said master.” The court ordered the missing boy to appear at its December term to answer charges. Tom, however, did not show up in court–not in December, and not in January, 1861, either, when he was ordered again to appear. By 1861 the South’s secession from the Union loomed on the horizon, and lawmakers may have concluded they had far more to worry about than the whereabouts of one rebellious teenage boy. In a decision that surely must have pleased young Tom, the court dropped Rilee’s case and ordered Tom Morris’s apprenticeship “revoked and annulled.”

The Civil War and Reconstruction soon revolutionized the world of free people, slaveholders, and slaves. The existence of the slaveholding South’s free people of color, like that of its Southern Unionists, was forgotten by many people.  In modern-day Gloucester County, however, the history of  the Morris family’s distant ancestors survived in the long-held tradition that “we were never slaves.”

Victoria E. Bynum

Follow-up posts: January 15, 2013, “Nathan Crowell on Racial Identity: Free People of Color in Old Virginia revisited.”;

Wayne K. Driver, ” ‘Free Negroes’ and ‘Mulattoes’ in Gloucester County and the Tidewater Area of Virginia prior to 1800.”

NOTES:

1. C. G. Chamber, compiler, Vestry Book of Christ Church Parish, Middlesex County, VA, 1663-1767 (Richmond: Old Dominion Press, 1927), p. 58.  (Hereafter cited as Christ Church Parish.)

2. Abingdon Parish Register, Episcopal Church, Gloucester County, 1678-1761

3. Polly Cary Mason, Records of Colonial Gloucester County, Virginia, (Newport News, Va: George C. Mason, 1948) vol 1-2; Christ Church Parish, pp. 6, 9.

4. Christ Church Parish,  pp. 189, 190

5. Mason, Records of Colonial Gloucester County, vol 1.

6. Christ Church Parish, pp 58, 222, 245, 270. The information on the Morrises from Christ Church Parish records is available online in Paul Heinegg’s Free African Americans. 

7.  Gloucester County, VA, Land Tax books, 1782-1850 (microfilm)

8.  June Purcell Guild, Black Laws of Virginia (Negro Universities press, 1969), pp. 5. 19, 97.

9. Gloucester County, VA, Court Minutes, 1822-1825 (microfilm).

10. Ibid., 1834-1839.

11. Ibid., 1839-1842.

12. Ibid., 1858-1867.

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