I neglected to mention, yesterday, the source of that family reunion story. The chaplain's name is Garland White, he served with the 28th USCI, arguably the first (it's disputed) regiment to set foot in Richmond when the Confederates took flight, after the fall of Richmond. White's letter can be found in the book A Grand Army Of Black Men (p. 175.) For the serious civil war nerd, this book, a massive collection of letters written by black soldiers during the War, is indispensable.
What you see above is the train of Rebels fleeing the city, as the Union troops enter from the other side. I was thinking about the Richmond yesterday, and The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." For those who are unfamiliar, the song is a mournful ballad about the fall of Richmond and Petersburg. I'm told that it's a great song, and I don't so much doubt this, as I doubt my own magnanimity.
I'm reminded of one of my father's favorite quotes, "The African's right to be wrong is sacred." Or Aaron McGruder's line, "I reserve the right to be a nigger." I can no more marvel at The Band then a Sioux can marvel at the cinematography of The Died With Their Boots On. I wouldn't fault the man who could, but it's not me My empathy is a resource to be rationed like all others. My right to be wrong is sacred. My right to be a nigger is reserved.
I started to play the song yesterday, and stopped myself. Again, I was angry. Again, another story about the blues of Pharaoh, and the people are invisible. The people are always invisible. "These motherfuckers," I mumbled to myself. Kenyatta came in from work and caught me rambling. This is just what you want to hear after coming off the late-shift--your past-drunk spouse ranting about some group you've never heard of.
And again, I was tempered, and had to laugh. The expectation that someone else will tell your story for you, will write your ballads for you, will reconcile your history for you, is foolish and vane. This isn't about proprietorship--much of what I know of black history, I learned from white historians. It's about the expectation that everyone will see the world the way you see it, and honor what you honor. The Band has their myths. I have mine.
I'm no Robbie Robertson, but I do carry the words of my old, magical people.
I have just returned from the city of Richmond; my regiment was among the first that entered that city. I marched at the head of the column, and soon I found myself called upon by the officers and men of my regiment to make a speech, with which, of course, I readily complied. A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him. In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart. I reftred to gain strength, so I lost many important topics worthy of note.
Among the densely crowded concourse there were parents looking for children who had been sold south of this state in tribes, and husbands came for the same purpose; here and there one was singled out in the ranks, and an effort was made to approach the gallant and marching soldiers, who were too obedient to orders to break ranks.We continued our march as far as Camp Lee, at the extreme end of Broad Street, running westwards. In camp the multitude followed, and everybody could participate in shaking the friendly but hard hands of the poor slaves.
Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere, was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for one by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy, and was bought by a lawyer named Robert Toombs, who lived in Georgia.
Since the war has been going on she has seen Mr. Toombs in Richmond with troops from his state, and upon her asking him where his body-servant Garland was, he replied: "He ran off from me at Washington, and went to 'Canada. I have since learned that he is living somewhere in the State of Ohio." Some of the boys knowing that I lived in Ohio, soon found me and said, "Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you." I quickly turned, following the soldier until coming to a group of colored ladies. I was questioned as follows:
"What is your name, sir?"
"My name is Garland H. White."
"What was your mother's name?"
"Where was you born?"
"In Hanover County, in this State." "Where was you sold from?"
"From this city."
"What was the name of the man who bought you?"
"Where did he live?"
"In the State of Georgia."
"Where did you leave him?"
"Where did you go then?"
"Where do you live now?"
"This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son."
I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them. I have witnessed several such scenes among the other colored regiments.
Late in the afternoon, we were honored with his Excellency, the President of the United States, Lieutenant-General Grant, and other gentlemen of distincfion.5 We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis's mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose. I never saw so many colored people in all my life, women and children of all sizes running after Father, or Master Abraham, as they called him. To see the colored people, one would think they had all gone crazy. The excitement at this period was unabated, the tumbling of walls, the bursting of shells, could be heard in all directions, dead bodies being found, rebel prisoners being brought in, starving women and children begging for greenbacks and hard tack, constituted theorder of the day. The Fifth [Massachusetts] Cavalry; colored, were sfill dashing through the streets to protect and preserve the peace, and see that no one suffered violence, they having fought so often over the walls of Richmond, driving the enemy at every point.
Among the first to enter Richmond was the 28th U.S.C.T. better known as the First Indiana Colored Volunteers. .
Some people do not seem to believe that the colored troops were the first that entered Richmond. Why, you need not feel at all timid in giving the truthfulness of my assertion to the four winds of the heavens, and let the angels re-echo it back to the earth, that the colored soldiers of the Army of the James were the first to enter the city of Richmond. I was with them, and am still with them, and am willing to stay with them until freedom is proclaimed throughout the world. Yes, we will follow this race of men in search of liberty through the whole Island of Cuba. All the boys are well, and send their love to all the kind ones at home."
Chaplain Garland H. White,
28th USCI, Richmond, Virginia,
April 12, 1865; CR, April 22, 1865