The Answers of Time
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
IF your weekly paper brings you a column of riddles and rebuses, there is no law against laying it aside till the next issue brings you the answers, and then swallowing your problems and their solution together. Solutions always make a stiff dose easier to swallow. In a world where most of the problems can be answered only through the slow working out of events, this hebdomadal relief may prove uncommonly grateful.
Something akin to it is found in looking at the raw materials of history in a period that has passed. The intervening years have supplied the answers to questions which were puzzles indeed to contemporary observers, or, not infrequently, were answered in terms quite opposite to those which the slow hand of history has written down as the truth.
Several illustrations of this phenomenon are found in a recently published collection of letters1 from members of that band of northern enthusiasts — social and educational missionaries — who set themselves the task of caring for the negroes left to their own devices by the fleeing of their masters from the Sea Islands of South Carolina soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. The “Port Royal Experiment ” is no new theme of reminiscence and record; but henceforth the student of it, and of all the early attempts to guide and instruct the freedmen, must reckon with this admirably arranged presentation of the immediate impressions of an intelligent company of pioneers in the work. The reviewers will point out its merits. Here it is enough to notice a point or two in which events and expectations did not tally.
Take, for example, the estimate which these early friends of the negro placed upon his fighting capacity. From different pages, all bearing the date of 1862, the following bits are taken: “The thing they dread is being made to fight. . . . I don’t believe you could make soldiers of these men at all — they are afraid, and they know it. ... In short, I don’t regard the blacks as of any account in a military light, for they are not a military race, and have not sufficient intelligence to act in concert in any way where firmness of purpose is required. ... I tell them there is little chance of such a thing [a return to slavery], but a strong probability that there will be a long, bloody war, and that they ought to prepare to do their share of the fighting. I can’t get one man to come up and drill yet. They say they would like to have guns to shoot with, but are afraid of being sent off into the ‘ big fight,’ though willing to fight any one who comes onto this island to molest them.”
Over against, these expectations must be set the events of Fort Wagner, in the following year and only a little farther up the coast, and of all the fields from which “ the colored troops fought nobly ” was so frequent a message as to become a byword.
Through the “far glasses” of the present day another racial observation bears even a stranger aspect. In one of the earliest letters, the writer remarks of the negroes: “ Dirty and ragged they all were, but certainly no more so than poor Irish, and it seemed to me not so dirty.” Several months later another writer says: “ I will only remark at present that I find the nigs rather more agreeable, on the whole, than I expected; that they are much to be preferred to the Irish.” And these are by no means the only observations of the kind.
If there were now an American com munity of negroes just emerging from slavery, what visitor would think of comparing them with our Irish fellow-citizens ? Such a possibility has been left far behind. Since its day the possibility of a similar comparison between backward negroes and Italian laborers has come and nearly gone. Perhaps our Slavic immigration has provided the material for present comparisons. Certainly there is food for thought in the change that has come since the Irish, as an element in the population, could lend themselves to the illustration of discouraging negro conditions. If the Southern plantation negro has not made quite a corresponding advance since 1862 — well, there is yet another occasion for sober reflection.
From the negroes themselves comes a pathetic illustration both of what the name of Lincoln meant to them and of their inability to separate him as a person from the thing for which he stood. “The death of Lincoln,” said one of the letterwriters in 1865, “was an awful blow to the negroes here. One would say, e Uncle Sam is dead, isn’t he?’ Another, ‘The Government is dead, is n’t it ? You have got to go North and Secesh come back, have n’t you ? We going to be slaves again ? ’ They could not comprehend the matter at all — how Lincoln could die and the Government still live. It made them very quiet for a few days.”
There were wiser men than these poor Sea Island blacks who found it hard to say with Garfield, “God reigns, and the government at Washington still lives.” The Port Royal “missionaries” themselves must, with all their enthusiasm, have had their grave misgivings — if not for the stability of the Union, then for the permanence of any good results from all their generous service. Only a strangely penetrating eye of faith could have enabled them to foresee such institutions as Hampton and Tuskegee.
Dr. Woodrow Wilson has lately written of the events which the Jamestown festival is celebrating, “A scant fragment of pitiful ruin and a few cracked gravestones are all that remain of Jamestown, where English dominion in America was first set up. But we do not need the material form of that old life to preserve the memory of the gallant thing that was done in Virginia by the men who founded the Old Dominion.” Every experiment that seems to fail may have its visible pathos in material remains and a still more poignant inner pathos in the personal annals of the men and women who have given their lives to it. But Jamestown and Port Royal — each in its own degree — are emblems of the ultimate triumph of the pioneer spirit. They are, moreover, true teachers of the lesson of waiting for the forces which make history to do their appointed work.
Lay your puzzle-column by for at least a week.
- Letters from Port Royal. Written at the time of the Civil War. Edited by ELIZABETH WARE PEARSON. Boston: W. B. Clarke Co. 1906.↩