Tag Archives: Slavery

The 150th Anniversary of the US Civil War

The Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 —...

Antietam Creek, MD September 17, 1862. Image via Wikipedia

The horror of the Civil War is in the accounting—a terrifying piece of accounting.

Between April 12, 1861 and April 9, 1865 (the last shot was fired in June) almost 2.2 million Americans fought against each other—almost 40% of those eligible for military service. In that time, approximately 625,000 Americans were killed, either in action, in hospital or illness. Another 402,000 were wounded, with injuries as varied as a scratch and a severed limb. 10% of the North’s population of military age, and 30% of the South’s never came home.

We will never know for sure the total number of civilian casualties.

I bring out these numbers as a static, mathematical reminder of the costs of fanaticism, militaristic saber-rattling, authoritarian usurpation and a lack of compromise. The math can often resound decibels louder than any rhetoric.

Tomorrow, we mark the 150th anniversary of the greatest disaster in our history, and I mean “greatest” in all its senses. The Civil War has been written about to death. It has been the culprit of reams of academic pap, both useful and useless, often hashing and rehashing the debates about slavery, states’ rights, civil rights, Lincoln’s actions and inactions, as well as every slight movement of the battlefield in those little blue and red rectangles.

If that wasn’t enough, the unlettered masses have fistful of Hollywood movies, some good (Gettysburg, Glory, Gods and Generals) and some God awful (Sommersby –I threw up a little on saying its name). Then there’s documentaries, docu-movies, PBS documentaries, History Channel documentaries, even those weirdoes who dress up each weekend, playing ancestors with which they have a dubious family connection. There’s no way ALL you guys had a great uncle who fell at Shiloh, right?

In a sense, the sesquicentennial ruckus can be just as disturbing as the war itself. That’s pretty frightening, since the greatest effusion of blood in American history still hold lessons today—particularly in how we forget our past.

David Von Drehle, in a funny connection to two anniversaries this year (he wrote the book Triangle, about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire) wrote an interesting piece in this week’s Time Magazine about a collective amnesia Americans from both North and South have about our greatest conflict. In a nutshell, Von Drehle writes about how Americans have washed away the more distasteful or painful elements of the Civil War in the course of 150 years.

Some of these include:

The persistent need to push the slavery issue as secondary to the issue of states’ rights. Slavery, in fact, was the elephant in the room ever since the Revolution, and even Thomas Jefferson (himself a slave owner) prognosticated civil war over the issue.

The connivance of monied interests on both sides. Arms, munitions and logistics industries in the North were itching for a conflict to cash in on army contracts. Yet there were even more business to be lost by the South. Southern cotton not only greased the wheels of the mills in New England and the clothing factories in New York, but also buttressed the textile industries of Great Britain, France, even Germany. New York City, in fact, came close to “seceding” from the Union over the issue of lost revenue due to the lack of cotton.

The lack of enthusiasm—and outright rage—over fighting to free enslaved Africans. The 1862 Emancipation Proclamation was not met with resounding enthusiasm, even in the North. Many states began to question continuing the war. The Irish of New York rioted outright in the summer of 1863, fearing they would lose their jobs to free blacks. Even the arrival of black soldiers did not ease the racism and hatred that pervaded the North—a hatred well established in the South.

The burial of the events leading up to the shots on Fort Sumter. Events such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, “Bleeding Kansas,” the Pottowatamie Massacre, the 1857 Dred Scott decision, even so far back as the compromises of 1820, 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act.

Furthermore, the period after the war became a time when veterans of the Blue and Grey would meet in reunions as brothers to remember the old times—and to decry the Northern reformers and shiftless Blacks that sent them to fight in the first place. Ever since, according to Von Drehle, we have been struggling to find the complete story.

This anniversary, we at the Neighborhood implore our readers to look at the Civil War with open minds, with clear eyes and with an empty heart.

Take a new look at the war for yourself, filtering out the din of media and talking heads. Look at the photos. Read the letters. Hear the arguments. Examine the carnage. Let the war speak to you.

In fact, 625,000 soldiers speak to us everyday.

They speak whenever we debate about the government’s role in our lives, be it on the federal or state level. They speak whenever an American is slighted due to race, ethnicity, religion, or socio-economic status. They speak when moneyed classes suffer a severe disconnect from the reality of the American people.

Most importantly of all, they yell—they scream—when intransigent politicians, policymakers and ideologues entrench in their opinions with no room for compromise.

The 625,000 are the warning of fanatical, unscrupulous, un-American partisanship. Their number, and their silence, is the loudest of all.

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This Day in History 3/14: Whitney Patents the Cotton Gin

March 14, 1794 patent for Eli Whitney's cotton gin, courtesy of the National Archives

Eli Whitney made slavery profitable.  I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it.

In one of the great “my bads” in American history, Connecticut inventor Eli Whitney received Patent X72 for his cotton “engine”, or “gin.”  This device mechanized the separation of cotton seeds from their fibers, which had been an arduous, labor-intensive process.  Once considered a luxury item, short-staple cotton became a valuable commodity almost overnight, and it revived a dying institution in the South–slavery.

Yet if his patents were respected–which was impossible at the time–Whitney probably didn’t intend for it to be that way.

The cotton gins were not originally meant to be sold to plantations to use onsite.  Whitney’s original business model (albeit flawed) provided that cotton growers send their bales to his gins in Connecticut, where his machines would process the cotton for 40% of the ginned product as a fee.  Most Southern growers resented this arrangement, which smelled of shady proprietorships of grist and saw mills.  Furthermore, since patent law was difficult to enforce at the time, it was easily copied by tinkerers and craftsmen throughout the South.  In fact, Whitney ate up all his profits fighting patent infringements in court, and his business went bankrupt in 1797.

If the system were left as Whitney designed, who knows what would have happened to slave populations in southern plantations.  By the end of the 18th century slavery was dying in the North, and was increasingly unprofitable in the South–almost to the point of planters selling all their enslaved Africans and using hired hands instead.

Yet the gin, especially the patent-infringed gins that spread on every plantation, made machine-processed short-staple cotton available onsite for massive profits.  Cotton became such a commercial boon it tangentially boosted the fortunes of textile mills in New England, Great Britain and continental Europe: Now these “free” places were also tied to the slave economy.  Easier processed cotton meant more production, and more production required more hands picking up to 300 or even 400 pounds a day as a quota.

The whole vicious cycle spiraled through the early 19th century until the matter was settled with four years of bloodshed.

Eli Whitney is not exactly a beloved figure in most Black households.  Most likely, he’s burned in effigy with Roger Taney, “Bull” Connor and George Wallace.  One cannot know a man’s true intentions, but I don’t think he wanted to expand slavery by building a machine.  Instead, he wanted to get rich from a labor-saving device that would revolutionize an industry.

Too bad he was such a crappy businessman.

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This Day in History 11/29: The 1781 Zong Massacre

Print of the crew of the Zong throwing sick Africans overboard (1781)

Movements can often be sparked by the most inane and ordinary of circumstances.

In the case of abolition, one could argue that it all began with an insurance fraud case.

On November 29, 1781, the Zong, a slave ship carrying Africans to Jamaica, had a problem.  Two months before, in their zeal for profits, the crew of the Zong stuffed the hold of the ship with more Africans than it could carry.  By November, malnutrition and disease had taken the lives of seven crew members and almost 60 enslaved Africans.

Luke Collingwood, captain of the Zong, now made what he considered the best decision to stem the losses for his bosses in Liverpool.  If he continued sailing, and delivered a pile of corpses to the Kingston docks, the owners had no redress.  If, however, the sick Africans were lost at sea, then the shipowners’ insurance would cover the loss.  Under the “jettison” clause, enslaved persons were considered cargo, and their loss would be covered at £30 per head.

So on November 29, Collingwood did the “logical” thing: he ordered 54 sick Africans dumped overboard.  Another 42 perished the next day, and 26 the day after that.  10 Africans voluntarily flung themselves overboard, in an act of defiance against the captain’s decision.  In all, 122 Africans were thrown overboard.

Yet when the ship owners filed their claim with the insurance company, things went downhill.  The insurers disputed the claims of the captain and the owners–largely on the testimony of James Kelsall, First Mate on the Zong.  According to the insurance claim, the Africans were thrown overboard “for the safety of the ship,” as there wasn’t enough water for the cargo and crew to survive the rest of the voyage.  But Kelsall–who expressed doubts early on to Collingwood about the scheme–testified that there was plenty of water for the remaining leg of the journey.  Indeed, when the Zong reached Jamaica on the 22nd of December, there was 422 gallons of drinking water in the hold.

The case went to court, and the court ruled in favor of Collingwood and the owners.  During the appeals process, an ex-slave and author, Olaudah Equiano, brought the case–soon to be known as the “Zong Massacre”–to the attention of Granville Sharp, one of Britain’s leading early abolitionists.  Sharp immediately became involved in the prosecution of the appeal, even though eminent jurists such as John Lee, Soliciter General for England and Wales, dismissed the affair stating “the case was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.” This time, the court ruled that the ship owners were not eligible for insurance since the water in the hold proved that the cargo was mismanaged.

Sharp and his colleagues tried to press murder charges against Collingwood and the owners, but to no avail.  The Solicitor General, John Lee, stated that:

“What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgement of an experienced well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”

Lee hoped the matter would rest with his decision.  Instead it unleashed a firestorm.

Within a few years of the Zong Massacre, abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and James Ramsay issued pamphlets and essays condemning the conditions of the slave trade.  Together with Sharp and Equiano, they would approach a young member of Parliament from Yorkshire, William Wilberforce, to take up the cause of abolition.

Beginning in 1784, Wilberforce would lead a 50-year struggle in Parliament to abolish slavery in the British Empire.  The efforts of abolitionists such as these led to the 1807 law abolishing the slave trade.  26 years later, the British Parliament outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire.  The British abolition movement inspired similar movements worldwide–including a burgeoning anti-slavery movement across the Atlantic that would lead to civil war and eventual emancipation.

And to think…it was all sparked by insurance fraud.

For more information about the Zong Massacre, here are some helpful sites:

Information about the slave ship Zong (1781)

Lesson Plan about the Zong case

Gloucestershire, UK County Council website about Granville Sharp and the Zong Massacre

British National Archives catalog of documents relating to the Zong affair

A Jamaican perspective on the Zong incident

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