The Civil War Isn't Tragic, Cont.


Burns.jpg

By my own right arm...
--William Parker

In 1866, William Parker serialized his memoirs in this very publication. Parker escaped from slavery in Maryland during his youth and went on to a colorful career as a direct abolitionist. Setting up shop in Lancaster County, he formed a vigilance committee "for mutual protection against slaveholders and kidnappers." 


I explained a few weeks ago that, in the memoirs of blacks of the era, violence by slaves is often painted as redemptive, not tragic. Here Parker sketches the slave-quarters and how his earliest sense of violence was as a potential force for good: 

This building was a hundred feet long by thirty wide, and had a large fireplace at either end, and small rooms arranged along the sides. In these rooms the children were huddled from day to day, the smaller and weaker subject to the whims and caprices of the larger and stronger. The largest children would always seize upon the warmest and best places, and say to us who were smaller, "Stand back, little chap, out of my way"; and we had to stand back or get a thrashing.

When my grandmother, who was cook at the "great house," came to look after me, she always brought me a morsel privately; and at such times I was entirely free from annoyance by the older ones. But as she could visit me only once in twenty-four hours, my juvenile days enjoyed but little rest from my domineering superiors in years and strength. When my grandmother would inquire of the others how her "little boy" was getting on, they would tell her that I was doing well, and kindly invite me to the fire to warm myself. 

I was afraid to complain to her of their treatment, as, for so doing, they would have beaten me, after she had gone to the "great house" again. I was thus compelled to submit to their misrepresentation, as well as to their abuse and indifference, until I grew older, when, by fighting first with one and then with another, I became "too many" for them, and could have a seat at the fire as well as the best. 

This experience of my boyhood has since been repeated in my manhood. My rights at the fireplace were won by my child-fists; my rights as a freeman were, under God, secured by my own right arm.
 
Parker's time in Lancaster coincided with the era of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a law that James McPherson calls "the strongest manifestation of nation power" up to that point in American history. The law did not merely authorize the recapture of slaves in free states, it compelled all citizens to participate in the act. 

The law touched off a wave of violent resistance throughout the country. In Boston, a U.S. marshal was killed in the unsuccessful attempt to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns. In 1851, the Boston Vigilance Committee stormed a jail and excised Shadrach Minkins, sending him North to Canada.  The most famous case to come out of the Fugitive Slave Law is probably Margaret Garner, who escaped to Ohio but was recaptured by slave-catchers -- she killed her baby rather than allow her to become property. Garner is the historical basis for Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Two points bear repeating: First, when people speak of "compromise" as a viable option to the Civil War, it should always be remembered that the Fugitive Slave Law is, in fact, exactly that. It was probably the worst of a series of such compromises stretching back to the last days of Thomas Jefferson, but for our purposes it's important to remember that the law was, like all laws, an attempt to broker a peaceful solution--peace being defined, as it so often is, as peace for white people.

Second, the resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law -- manifested most powerfully in a mother killing her child -- is evidence that the violence of the Civil War did not materialize from the ether, but was the culture of the day and intrinsic to the nation's wealthiest institution, the slave society. Resistance to that society was not merely the work of agitators in the street but a thing cultivated by public servants. Massachusetts Governor John Andrew praised the violent rescue of Minkins. In Ohio, two years after Garner was apprehended,  House Representative Joshua Reed Giddings endorsed the killing of U.S. marshals after several citizens of Oberlin were imprisoned for trying to free a fugitive slave.


In Lancaster, Parker's vigilance committee was a network of spies who kept surveillance on man-catchers and enforcers who meted out punishment to those who collaborated with them. In his memoirs, Parker talks up such justice, including attempts to murder other black people who had cooperated with slave-catchers. In all honesty, I read much of this with skepticism, because Parker's work is filled with a kind of macho braggadocio that shows (to my eyes) overcompensating for the humiliating experience of slavery.

That said, one can hardly blame him. Here he sketches out the precise manner by which he came to abolition and abscondence: 

One morning word was brought to the Quarter that we should not work that day, but go up to the "great house." As we were about obeying the summons, a number of strange white men rode up to the mansion. They were negro-traders. Taking alarm, I ran away to the woods with a boy of about my own age, named Levi Storax; and there we remained until the selections for the sale were made, and the traders drove away. 

It was a serious time while they remained. Men, women, and children, all were crying, and general confusion prevailed. For years they had associated together in their rude way,--the old counselling the young, recounting their experience, and sympathizing in their trials; and now, without a word of warning, and for no fault of their own, parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, were separated to meet no more on earth. 

A slave sale of this sort is always as solemn as a funeral, and partakes of its nature in one important particular,--the meeting no more in the flesh. Levi and I climbed a pine-tree, when we got to the woods, and had this conversation together. 

"Le," I said to him, "our turn will come next; let us run away, and not be sold like the rest." 

"If we can only get clear this time," replied Le, "may-be they won't sell us. I will go to Master William, and ask him not to do it." 

"What will you get by going to Master William?" I asked him. "If we see him, and ask him not to sell us, he will do as he pleases. For my part, I think the best thing is to run away to the Free States." 

"But," replied Levi, "see how many start for the Free States, and are brought back, and sold away down South. We could not be safe this side of Canada, and we should freeze to death before we got there...." 

As we turned our faces toward the Quarter,--where we might at any moment be sold to  satisfy a debt or replenish a failing purse,--I felt myself to be what I really was, a poor, friendless slave-boy. Levi was equally sad. His mother was not sold, but she could afford him no protection...This slave sale was the first I had ever seen. The next did not occur until I was thirteen years old; but every year, during the interval, one or more poor souls were disposed of privately. 

Levi, my comrade, was one of those sold in this interval. Well may the good John Wesley speak of slavery as the sum of all villanies; for no resort is too despicable, no subterfuge too vile, for its supporters. Levi was made the victim of a stratagem so peculiarly Southern, and so thoroughly the outgrowth of an institution which holds the bodies and souls of men as of no more account, for all moral purposes, than the unreasoning brutes, that I cannot refrain from relating it. 

He was a likely lad, and, to all appearance, fully in the confidence of his master. Prompt and obedient, he seemed to some of us to enjoy high favor at the "great house." One morning he was told to take a letter to Mr. Henry Hall, an acquaintance of the family; and it being a part of his usual employment to bring and carry such missives, off he started, in blind confidence, to learn at the end of his journey that he had parted with parents, friends, and all, to find in Mr. Hall a new master. 

Thus, in a moment, his dearest ties were severed. I met him about two months afterwards at the Cross-Road Meeting-House, on West River; and, after mutual recognition, I said to him,-- "Levi, why don't you come home?" 

"I am at home," said he; "I was sold by Master William to Mr. Henry Hall." 

He then told me about the deception practised upon him. I thought that a suitable opportunity to remind him of our conversation when up the pine-tree, years before, and said,-- "You told me, that, if you could escape the big sale, Master William would not sell you. Now you see how it was: the big sale was over, and yet you were sold to a worse master than you had before. I told you this would be so. The next time I hear from you, you will be sold again. Master Mack will be selling me one of these days, no doubt; but if he does, he will have to do it running." 

Here ended our conversation and our association, as it was not in our power to meet afterward. 

History is never inevitable, but it does not happen on account of magic. Likewise, the Civil War happened for actual reasons, in an actual context of violence. William Parker was born into war. In 1860, his country caught up.

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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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