'We Have Received Provocation Enough'

by Andy Hall

OldPete2.pngOn the first day of July 1863, Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet (left), writing through his adjutant, ordered General George Pickett to bring up his corps from the rear to reinforce the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia. The lead elements of the armies of Robert E. Lee and George Meade had come together outside a small Pennsylvania market town called Gettysburg. The clash there would become the most famous battle of the American Civil War, and would be popularly regarded as a critical turning point not just of that conflict, but in American history. More about Longstreet's order shortly.

I was thinking about the central role of the Battle of Gettysburg in our memory of the war when I recently read an essay by David G. Smith, "Race and Retaliation: The Capture of African Americans During the Gettysburg Campaign," part of Virginia's Civil War, edited by Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt-Brown. All but the last page and a few citations is available online through Google Books.

It's not a pleasant read.

During the Gettysburg Campaign, soldiers in the the Army of Northern Virginia systematically rounded up free blacks and escaped slaves as they marched north into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Men, women and children were all swept up and brought along with the army as it moved north, and carried back into Virginia during the army's retreat after the battle. While specific numbers cannot be known, Smith argues that the total may have been over a thousand African Americans. Once back in Confederate-held territory, they were returned to their former owners, sold at auction or imprisoned.

That part of the story is well-known. What makes Smith's essay important is the way he provides additional, critical background to this horrible event, and reveals both its extent across the corps and divisions of Lee's army, as well as the acquiescence to it, up and down the chain of command. The seizures were not, as is sometimes suggested, the result of individual soldiers or rouge troops acting on their own initiative, in defiance of their orders. The perpetrators were not, to use a more recent cliché, "a few bad apples." The seizure of free blacks and escaped slaves by the Army of Northern Virginia was widespread, systematic, and countenanced by officers up to the highest levels of command. This event, and others on a much smaller scale, were so much part of the army's operation that Smith argues they can legitimately be considered a part of the army's operational objective. Smith is blunt in his terminology for these activities; he calls them "slave raids."

These ugly episodes did not spring up spontaneously; it was a violent and entirely predictable result of multiple factors that had been building for months or years. For a long time, there was growing resentment in Virginia over escaped slaves seeking refuge in Pennsylvania, where there was considerable sympathy for the abolitionist cause, and stops on the Underground Railroad. These tensions increased substantially after the outbreak of the war, as Virginia slaves learned that they could expect to be safe as soon as they reached Union territory, where they would be considered contraband. White Southerners' resentment of this situation redoubled again in the fall of 1862, with the news that the Lincoln administration would issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This further encouraged slaves to flee to the North, and made it clear to slaveholders—had it not been clear before—that defeat would put an end to the "peculiar institution," and upend the economy and culture that went with it.

MarchinglavesSouth.png


A November 1862 Harper's Weekly (New York) illustration showing Confederates driving slaves further south, to put them out of reach of the Federal armies in advance of the Emancipation Proclamation. The accompanying article told of two white men who escaped to Union lines and:

upon being questioned closely, they admitted that they had just come from the James River; and finally owned up that they had been running off "niggers" having just taken a large gang, belonging to themselves and neighbors, southward in chains, to avoid losing them under the emancipation proclamation. I understand, from various sources, that the owners of this species of property, throughout this section of the State, are moving it off toward Richmond as fast as it can be spared from the plantation; and the slaveholders boast that there will not be a negro left in all this part of the State by the 1st of January next.

Against this backdrop, the organization of Federal units of black soldiers, comprised of both escaped slaves and free men, was taken as an outrage. It struck a raw nerve, never far off in the Southern psyche: fear of a slave insurrection. The prospect of African American men in blue uniforms was taken as an extreme provocation, so much so that it was proposed in the Confederate congress—and endorsed by General Beauregard, the hero of Fort Sumter—that all Federals captured, black or white, should be summarily executed. This proposal was never adopted, but the Confederate congress did eventually pass, in May 1863, a proclamation instructing President Jefferson Davis to exercise "full and ample retaliation" against the North for arming black soldiers.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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