Young Johnny loves his mule, Nell, and his Uncle Silas but hates being a slave. When presented with an opportunity to join the passing Union army, Johnny leaves the plantation and joins up. Though he likes being free, and is treated well by his fellow soldiers, Johnny misses Nell and Uncle Silas. His sadness is eventually lessened when he is asked to help a soldier take care of the mule team used to drive a supply wagon. Johnny is given an opportunity to show his new comrades how competent his is and, in the process, his bravery earns him a Union uniform.
The story is based on the memoirs of John McCline who ran away from his Tennessee plantation in 1862 to join up with the 13th Michigan Volunteer Infantry and who became a teamster for the regiment. McCline’s memoirs were published in 1998.
This is a great, age appropriate introduction to a topic of African American self-liberation. There were approximately 179,000 former slaves and freedmen in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and their role in fighting for their emancipation is often times overlooked in the greater discussion of Presidential and Abolitionist influence in the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.
Children can begin to understand the iniquity of slavery through two age-appropriate concepts: sadness at separation and the lack of appreciation he receives for his hard work. Parents will recognize strong will and understand the need of children to be given an opportunity to prove themselves.
Hopkinson focuses on Johnny’s sadness at the separation from those he loves most in the world—Nell and Uncle Silas. Johnny’s mother is “gone” and there is no indication why. She may have been sold, or she may have died or run away (though Johnny’s initial reluctance to do so himself probably means it wasn’t the latter). The separation of families was one of the primary themes of abolitionist literature, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and is a concept that children can understand, probably better than concepts of freedom and owning the fruits of your own labor. The theme also allows families to discuss why Johnny’s freedom doesn’t alleviate his sadness, and why sometimes in life, people can feel conflicting emotions.
Children may also be able to relate to needing to hear praise for a job well-done, something that Johnny doesn’t get on the plantation but does receive from his fellow soldiers after he delivers supplies. As a parent with an elementary school student, Johnny’s insistence that he can do it (drive the wagon) on his own, resonates with me and is a nice reminder that while I parent, it is important to allow children the opportunity to prove they can, in fact, do important things on their own.
The narrative is helped along by excellent, but subtle, illustrations by Brian Floca. Though the text is very gentle on the institution of slavery, the illustration accompanying Johnny’s tale of being beaten for a runaway cow is powerful in its understatement. The overseer beating a figure is so small and inconspicuous, it implies this happens regularly and is not an extraordinary event that requires attention.
Hopkinson and Floca’s work is a great way to address important topics of slavery and freedom in an age-appropriate and relatable way.
Dubious history and preschoolers are a dangerous combination. I found this out as Drummer Boy and I sat next to my parents in a horse-drawn carriage, slowly wending our way through the narrow streets of Charleston, South Carolina. The end of the tour was drawing near, and I was already on the driver’s nerves for correctly answering his trivia question about the familial relationship between George Washington and Robert E. Lee, and had been silently shaking my head over his assertion that Washington D.C. had the country’s largest slave market (though D. C. did have slave markets, that particular “honor” belonged to New Orleans). Then came his words about the fighting out on Morris Island. “You would know that as the location of Fort Wagner. That battle was featured in the movie Glory. That was the first time black troops were in battle in the Civil War.”
Only two rows back from the driver, I muttered, “That’s not true.” Drummer Boy, whose volume tends to range from loud to “screaming banshee” doesn’t know what sotto voce means, and couldn’t approximate it if required. So his response, “What’s not true, Mommy?” was clearly heard by our driver.
I didn’t explain what his error was...he seemed disinclined to hear that he was 2 months and 800 miles off. That isn’t to say that the 54th Massachusetts doesn’t have an important place in American history. But rather than the first, new wave of a movement that would eventually see over 179,000 African Americans in Union blue, it was the final battle during the summer of 1863 that proved that African Americans would fight for their freedom.
The Second Confiscation Act, passed in 1862, first opened the door for African American soldiers when it proclaimed in Section 11: “And be it further enacted, That the President of the United States is authorized to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion, and for this purpose he may organize and use them in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare.” This language didn’t specifically refer to enlisting African Americans--freeborn or fugitive slaves--in the army. But it did set the groundwork for the use of black men in the war effort.
For reticent Northerners and some in the administration, the idea of using blacks for fatigue duty—chopping wood and digging ditches--wasn’t an abhorrent one. They could appreciate the idea of blacks laboring for the cause of Union, but many still believed manual labor was all that blacks were good for. They doubted that black soldiers would stand up under enemy fire, leaving their white comrades vulnerable in battle.
There were still those voices in the North when Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. This final version of the Emancipation Proclamation included something that the two previous drafts—the very first draft which Lincoln read to his cabinet on July 22, 1862 and the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation written on September 22, 1862—didn’t. “And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations and other places and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” And with a stroke of a pen, African Americans in areas of rebellion would not only be “then, thenceforth and forever free”, but would also be accepted into the United States Army.
At first, the African American regiments were raised to do the duty specifically laid out in the Emancipation Proclamation. These duties were previously provided by white soldiers, and their replacement by the black units would free up veteran white units to fight on the front line. Even now, however, there were plenty of northern civilians and politicians who believed that black men would not make good soldiers.
In May 1863, Union forces surrounded the final two Confederate strong holds on the Mississippi River. Vicksburg, Mississippi was invested by troops under Ulysses S. Grant. 130 miles further south, Port Hudson, Louisiana was surrounded by troops under Union General Nathaniel P. Banks. Among the troops with General Banks were two regiments on the verge of making history.
The 1st Louisiana Native Guard was originally formed as a response to Louisiana Governor Thomas Moore’s call to form militia companies upon the secession of the state from the Union. 1,500 free black men initially joined the 1st Louisiana Native Guard when its muster roles were opened on April 22, 1861. The governor accepted them into service with the Louisiana state militia. The unit was disbanded when the Confederate government refused to accept the unit into its service (the Confederate States of America would not enlist black men into its army until March 1865).
After the fall of New Orleans to Union forces in April 1862, General Benjamin Butler located his headquarters there and began recruiting efforts. Once the Second Confiscation Act passed on July 17, 1862, he reached out to the city’s large population of freedmen and to the slaves escaping to Union lines, both groups of which could now serve the Union. Ten percent of the enlistees of the former 1st Louisiana Native Guard joined this new Union regiment. The regiment was even allowed black line officers. They were mustered in on September 27, 1862.
The 3rd Louisiana Native Guard was similarly mustered into service in November 24, 1862 (its designation was changed to the Corps d’Afrique on June 6, 1863). After the departure of General Butler for eastern pastures, General Banks arrived in Louisiana. In general, Banks did not support the use of black troops and the presence of black line officers was even more concerning to him. He attempted to remove black line officers and replace them with white commanders, but in the case of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard, he largely failed.
The night of May 26, 1863, the night before Banks’ planned attack on the fort at Port Hudson, the men of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard took up their position and prepared to commence the attack in the morning. As the sun rose, the difficulties of the attack were revealed. The ground had not been reconnoitered and as the troops surveyed the fort and its surroundings, they saw the Confederates had chosen the location wisely. The Native Guard would have to cross a pontoon bridge and advance on the fort under a high bluff lined with Confederate sharpshooters. Swamps and brush lining the road made it impossible to dislodge the Confederates from the bluff. There was no relief at the end of the road either, as the fort they were advancing toward sat high upon another bluff where more Confederate infantry men waited, along with the big artillery.
There were people up north who thought that if these troops came under fire, they would drop their guns and run, but instead, the regiments advanced three separate times and were repulsed each time. The Native Guards did not break through the Confederate defenses. As they made their final retreat, the two regiments left nearly 200 men behind--dead, wounded or missing—including Captain Andre Cailloux who lost the use of an arm after being hit early in the battle but refused to leave the field. It was a fateful decision. Cailloux was hit by an artillery shell just before the final retreat. The injury was fatal.
Though their attack was not a success in the military sense, the tenacity of the Native Guard did serve a greater purpose. The men of the 1st and 3rd Louisiana Native Guard defied expectations by standing and fighting as well as their white comrades and in doing so, they began to roll back the tide of public opinion that saw them as no more than paid labor. After the attack, General Banks wrote his superior, General Henry Halleck, "The severe test to which they were subjected and the determined manner in which they encountered the enemy, leaves upon my mind no doubt of their ultimate success."
Only ten days later, more black regiments would get to prove their mettle at a small supply base in Louisiana called Millikens Bend.
As a historian and a bibliophile, I have a soft spot in my heart for children’s books that stress famous historic figures’ interest in, and love of, reading. In Words Set Me Free, Lisa Cline-Ransome uses the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave to set the stage for one of Frederick Douglass’s main thematic threads in his autobiography: education was the key to true freedom.
Cline-Ransome begins with the story of Douglass’s early life and chooses some of the most dramatic images from the Narrative to include:
She also uses a portion of Hugh Auld’s declaration to his wife to show the reason that education, in this case the ability to read, would become so important to Douglass: “He should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. If you teach him how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.”
From that moment on, Douglass determines if reading will unfit him to be a slave, then he must learn to read. Cline-Ransome takes us through Douglass’s learning process and how he bartered with and tricked the local boys into teaching him his letters.
Even the iconic moment from the Narrative, Douglass’s lamenting over the fact that the ships he watched sail out to see had more freedom than he himself had, makes an appearance in this book.
There are a few drawbacks. The language used is easy for adults, but the sentence structure and language may be too complex for younger children. The very first page of the book has two examples:
“After I was born, they sent me to my Grandmamma and my Mama to another plantation," and “Cook told me my mother took sick. I never saw her again.” This is not necessarily a bad thing, but be prepared for questions from younger readers.
I also dislike the ending of the book. The Epilogue describes Douglass’s first escape attempt in 1835, in which he and several slaves from the plantation tried to escape with forged passes. If you stop reading here--as many would after an Epilogue--and have no more knowledge of Douglass’s story than what is in this book, you would be left with the impression that this escape attempt was successful. It was not. The rest of the story is buried in an Author’s Note on the bibliographical page in the very end of the book.
All in all, this is a good introduction to the life of Frederick Douglass for young elementary students, and also provides a historical reference to encourage an interest in, and love of, reading.
If you proclaim an interest in the Civil War, there are a few books that it is assumed you have read. At the top of that list is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. One of the best known slave narratives, this autobiographical book packs a big punch in fewer than 100 pages.
At its most basic level, it tells the story of Frederick Douglass’s life in slavery and his escape from it. He details brutality at the hands of some masters and consideration at the hands of others. He tells about times of abundance and times of scarcity. He tells of the tasks he was set to do and those which he chose for himself, often, like his Sabbath School classes, in secret.
If this was all that was in this book, it would be enough. But the book also contains a significant amount of subtext that challenges the status quo of Antebellum America. Douglass is a master story teller using classic literature and the Bible to deliver an abolitionist sermon, especially aimed at northern Christians who were turning a blind eye to slavery. In fact, one of the overriding themes of this work is that Christianity is an aggravating factor in slavery, not a mitigating one. The masters who most conspicuously proclaimed themselves Christians were the worst masters. Further, Douglass's subtitle to this work--An American Slave--was, I believe, an intentional choice meant to claim the sin of slavery for the entire nation. Everyone--northerners and southerners, slave holders and free-labor proponents, Christians and non-Christians alike--were complicit in slavery. No one's hands were clean.
The impact slavery has on the enslaved is the central theme to many studies of the time, but in the person of Sophia Auld, Douglass illustrates the impact slavery has on the enslavers. When he first meets her, Douglass describes Sophia as “a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings. She had never had a slave under her control previously to myself, and prior to her marriage she had been dependent upon her own industry for a living.” He claimed to be “astonished by her goodness.” Sophia taught Douglass the alphabet and the rudiments of reading.
When her husband, Douglass’s master Hugh Auld, discovered this, he put an immediate stop to it. “If you give a n-- an inch, he will take an ell. A n-- should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n-- in the world. Now, if you teach that n-- how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanagable and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”
Douglass notes that from that moment on, Sophia Auld began to lose those qualities--piety, warmth, charity and tenderness--that had so thrilled Douglass upon his first meeting her. Her heart grew hard. Douglass even acknowledges, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me.”
Hugh Auld’s lecture to his wife also introduces another central theme: slavery was more than simply bondage of the body. It was bondage of the mind. Douglass understood from that moment on that education was the key to true freedom. Hugh Auld was right. Education would make him discontent and unhappy. Douglass would spend the rest of his childhood as a slave bartering what he could with local boys to get them to teach him to read. When he had nothing to barter, he would dupe those same boys into teaching him by issuing challenges he knew the boys couldn’t ignore. Once he knew how to read, he organized secret Sabbath Schools to help other slaves gain the education that had so discontented Douglass.
The original Preface, written by William Lloyd Garrison, can be a barrier. Garrison wrote like someone who liked to hear himself talk. His writing is bombastic in the formal and rather overblown language of orators of the time, and Douglass’s clear and concise writing is a welcome read after the multipage Preface.
There are many editions of this book. While the main body’s text will remain the same, some editions provide additional information that will help provide context and further understanding of this deceptively complex work. I read a 1993 edition edited by David Blight. Blight’s footnotes and the supplemental materials highlight the rich literature Douglass drew upon to write his autobiography, and give a glimpse into his subsequent public work. While this particular text is out of print, it can be found used on Amazon and abebooks.com.
Last week, I shared with you the story of Robert Smalls, who made a daring escape from freedom by stealing a boat in Charleston Harbor. The story is exciting and highlights the lengths to which some slaves would go to secure their freedom.
Seven Miles to Freedom tells the story of Robert Smalls from his birth though the successful escape in a format illustrated with beautiful impressionistic paintings.
The story starts off with the author drawing the biographical background of Robert’s life on the McKee plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina. Robert tells of the horrors of slavery that he sees on other plantations, but proclaims his master to be good and fair and himself to be treated well. But his personal experience doesn’t temper his hated of slavery.
Halfmann introduces us to Hannah, whom Robert falls in love with and marries. The two are lucky in that their masters allow them to live together. When Robert and Hannah’s daughter is born, the two are able to negotiate with Mr. Kingman, Hannah’s owner, for the eventual purchase price of Hannah and their daughter for a sum of $800. To help the couple earn the money, both Mr. Kingman and Robert’s owner, Mr. McKee, allowed them to hire themselves out, and keep all of their earnings but $15 a week paid to Mr. McKee and $7 a week paid to Mr. Kingman.
On the verge of having enough to earn his wife’s and daughter’s freedom, the Civil War erupts in nearby Charleston Harbor. Robert reluctantly becomes part of the Confederate war effort as the ship he is the wheelman on, the Planter, is enlisted by the Confederate government to strengthen the harbor defenses by laying mines and destroying lighthouses.
One evening, the white crew prepared to leave the boat. Before they left, they jokingly place the captain’s distinctive straw hat on Robert’s head. The simple act is the inspiration for Robert’s daring escape attempt.
Halfmann describes the plan. On the next night that the white crew leaves, they will take the boat, pick up their loved ones, and sail out to the Union blockade, with Robert posing as the ship’s captain, straw hat and all. If they are caught, everyone agrees they will sink the boat and if the process takes too long, they will hold hands and jump overboard to drown themselves. They refuse to go back to a life of bondage.
Halfmann’s strength is in the narration of the escape attempt. The rather slow and ordinary beginning of the book hits its stride when Robert’s plan is executed. I am always impressed by authors who are able to achieve suspense when its readers know (or can easily find out ) how the story actually ends. Halfmann succeeds here, creating a “hold your breath” moment as Robert slides the ship past Fort Sumter as the sun rises and his cover could be blown.
This book works on several levels. First, it is an engaging story on the surface. Who doesn’t love a good, suspenseful escape from bondage story that allows you to cheer at the end? Second, for older children, the way Halfmann writes provides great opportunities to discuss the meaning of freedom:
There is some rather archaic language, as the author chooses to use the word “colored” on several occasions. This can be a bit of a shock for a book published in 2008. And I take a bit of exception to the idea that Robert knew, in 1861 , that a Union victory in the Civil War meant the abolition of slavery. At that time in the war, that conclusion could not be drawn, as the federal government was fighting for Union. Lincoln, after issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862, used the carrot of retained slavery to entice the recalcitrant Confederate states back into the Union before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863. Had any slave state chosen to return to the Union prior to that date, slavery would have been protected as it continued to be in the Union-loyal slave holding border states.
Robert Smalls was not a steamship pilot for the Confederacy. He was responsible for maneuvering the side wheel steamer, Planter, through the dangers of Charleston harbor to the relative safety of open water. Though those happened to be the same duties as a boat’s pilot, he was instead given the title of wheel man. Only white men could be pilots. The wages he earned were the property of the master who had hired him out. He was aiding the Confederate war effort by strengthening the defenses of Charleston Harbor. He helped lay torpedoes (mines) in the channels, destroyed a lighthouse, and brought supplies to the Charleston area forts. And he wanted the Union to win the war.
When the sun fell on the evening of May 12, 1862, the three white crewmembers from the Planter defied Confederate regulations by leaving the boat for the evening. They trusted Smalls and the other slaves who remained on board. When it became evident that the Confederate sailors were not coming back that evening, Smalls shared with his fellow slaves a daring plan.
Just before dawn, Smalls and a crew of eight, along with five women and three children-including Smalls' wife and children, eased the Planter from the dock. They knew their plan was daring and dangerous. If, at any point in the next few hours their plan failed, everyone agreed that they would blow up the boat. For them, it was freedom or death.
Smalls wore the straw hat that the boat’s captain usually donned on his rounds, and convincingly mimicked the captain’s posture so well that in the uncertain pre-dawn light, no one from the forts questioned the boat or crew as they moved through the harbor, flashing all the correct secret signals so as not to attract attention. Once they were out of range of the forts' cannons, the South Carolina and Confederate flags were struck, and they ran up a white bed sheet that had been brought onboard by Smalls' wife. The Planter and its crew set their sights on the ships of the Union blockade.
An eyewitness aboard the USS Onward, the nearest ship, described what happened next, ““Just as No. 3 port gun was being elevated, someone cried out, ‘I see something that looks like a white flag’; and true enough there was something flying on the steamer that would have been white by application of soap and water. As she neared us, we looked in vain for the face of a white man. When they discovered that we would not fire on them, there was a rush of contrabands out on her deck, some dancing, some singing, whistling, jumping; and others stood looking towards Fort Sumter, and muttering all sorts of maledictions against it, and ‘de heart of de Souf,’ generally. As the steamer came near, and under the stern of the Onward, one of the Colored men stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, ‘Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!’ ”(James McPherson, The Negro's Civil War)
Robert Smalls and his small band on the planter were slaves no longer. Though the Emancipation Proclamation had not been issued yet, Congress had already passed the First Confiscation Act permitting the confiscation of any property, including slaves, being used to support the Confederate war effort. They were free.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.