Old Time Religion

Mustering out.jpg

In the following excerpt, Mary Livermore visits a religious service held by newly liberated slaves. There she encounters Aunt Aggy, a housekeeper on a plantation where she'd been governess. Upon seeint Aunt Aggy, Livermore flashback to the "comely mulatto woman's" days a slave:

I instantly recalled a drama of those long gone years, in which she was both spectator and actor. Her daughter "Carline" (Caroline), a pretty and graceful mulatto, was a servant in the dining-room. One morning when passing a cup of coffee to Mr. -----, her master and owner, by an unlucky movement of his hand he knocked it from the tray on which she served it, to his knees. It was warm weather; he was attired in linen, and the hot coffee scalded him. Jumping up with an oath, he raised his chair, and felled the girl to the floor, striking her two or three times after she had fallen. 

She was carried to the cottage of "Aunt Aggy," her mother, who had witnessed the scene from an adjoining room, stunned, bruised, bleeding, and unconscious. I left the table and withdrew to my own apartment, shocked beyond expression at the brutal outrage of the passionate master. Later in the day "Aunt Aggy" came to my room on some household errand, when I expressed my indignation at the brutal treatment her daughter had received, uttering myself with the frankness of a New England girl of nineteen who had been trained to be true to her convictions I was astonished at the change that came over the taciturn and dignified woman. 

Turning squarely about and facing me, with her large, lustrous eyes blazing with excitement, she spoke in a tone and manner that would have befitted a seer uttering a prophecy:--- "There's a day coming! There's a day coming!" she said, with right hand uplifted; "I hear the rumbling oh the chariots! I see the flashing of the guns! White folks' blood is running on the ground like a river, and the dead's heaped up that high!" measuring to the level of her shoulder. 
"Oh, Lord! hasten the day when thee blows, an' the bruises, an' the aches, an' the pains, shall come to the white folks, an' the buzzards shall eat them as they's dead in the streets. Oh, Lord! roll on the chariots, and give the black people rest and peace. Oh, Lord! give me the pleasure of living till that day, when I shall see white folks shot down like the wolves when they come hongry out of the woods!" 

And without another word she walked from the room, nor could I ever afterwards induce her to speak of the beating given Caroline. I reminded "Aunt Aggy" of the occurrence, at the close of the prayer-meeting, and found that it was photographed on her memory as distinctly as on mine.  "I always knowed it was coming," she said. "I always heard the rumbling o' the wheels. I always expected  to see white folks heaped up dead. An' the Lord, He's keept His promise, an' avenged His people, just as I knowed He would. I seen them dead on the field, Massa Lincoln's soldiers and' the Virginia soldiers, all heaped together, with the dead bosses, and the smashed-up wagons...

Old massa and missus both done died before the war, and young Massa Robert, what you teached in the school-room, he done died, in these here arms. Little Mass' Batt, what liked to say his prayers in yer room, he went to the war, an' was shot in ole Carolina, and buried with his soldiers. Miss Lucy and little Courty both done died when the war begin, an' they was buried in Liberty Hill. The whole place is all done broke up, and' the colored folks go just' where they please---no passes now. Oh, the Lord He do just right, if you only give Him time enough to turn Hisself." 

The meeting commenced by the singing of a hymn.

As a quick aside, I love the masking in this story--the sense that Aunt Aggy is calm. righteous, tolerant and respectable, but behind closed doors harboring a seething hate. Livermore mentions that she is mulatto as is her daughter. I kept wondering if she was the product, or victim, of sexual assault. Perhaps both. Anyway, there was a piece on Malcolm X about a year ago, where a man was saying his respectable father used to come home and watch the marchers getting beaten and would sit there silently seething. He went on to say that there was fear that Malcolm was telling a deep truth--that for all the forbearance of Joe Louis and Roy Wilkins, "maybe black people didn't like white people very much."

The Civil War is one of the few instances--perhaps the only instance--when black racial rage was given any sort of broad white sanction. I first read about Aunt Aggie in Drew Gilpin Faust's essential This Republic of Suffering. Looking at the willingness to exact vengeance among black soldiers and Aunt Aggy Faust says:

Killing was for black soldiers--as well as for black civilians like Aunt Aggy--the instrument of liberation; it was an act of personal empowerment and the vehicle of racial emancipation.

I was lucky enough, last week, to interview both Eric Foner (who agreed with me on the tragedy question) and David Blight (who didn't.) Blight was sharp as you'd expect, and talked a lot about how writing his new book shaped his own thoughts on war. He said that he viewed human history, itself, as tragic and marshaled the stunning body count of 20th century wars (250 million, I believe) to make his point. Frankly, it was hard to dispute. He went further noting that even in the time of the War, many people would have wondered if it was all worth it. Bruce Catton says the same thing. But therein lies the problem for me.

We both agreed that blacks, in that time, surely thought it was worth it. But after getting off the phone I thought back to my own readings of primary documents. When it comes to the death-toll of the Civil War, blacks of that time strike me as of the mind of Aunt Aggy. I think about Jourdan Anderson saying he'd rather die than return to work for his old master. Or colored troops invoking Fort Pillow and slavery to do violence:

These are not people who simply are happy to be free but sorry for the means. They are embracing of the means, itself:

If we hadn't become soldiers, all might have gone back as it was before; our freedom might have slipped through the two houses of Congress & President Lincoln's four years might have passed by and nothing been done. But no things can never go back, because we have showed our energy and our courage and our natural manhood.

Suppose you have kept your freedom without enlisting in this army. Your children might have grown up free and been well cultivated so as to be equal to any business; but it would have been always flung in there face--You father never fought for his own freedom--and could thy answer? Never can they say that to this African race any more.

Perhaps a bit too optimistic. But the point I'm driving is that many black people found their participation in war, itself. as liberation. How can one balance this African-American view of the war, with that sense of American tragedy?

I went to Gettysburg one last time last week. Like all the battlefields, very few African-Americans were there. I think the problem is that Civil War battlefields are sites of great mourning. But the black tradition doesn't mourn the Civil War. I think it's too much to ask the nation not to mourn. But I'm stuck on how to reconcile those two views.

Anyway, this is the last post in the "Tragic" series. The article will be out in a few months. I want to thank the Horde for participating. And especially want to thank those who disagreed. The conversation clarified my thoughts on this piece, but it also clarified some of my own uneasiness with my liberal home.