Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Ulysses S. Grant (January 19, 1865) #24

Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Ulysses S. Grant (January 19, 1865) #24

Photo Courtesy of "Mr. Lincoln and Friends" Courtesy of Picture History Reference Number: MES13865

Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant Photo Courtesy of “Mr. Lincoln and Friends”
Courtesy of Picture History
Reference Number: MES13865

By: Graham Klimley

Abraham Lincoln might have been one of the most celebrated Presidents of the United States of America. It was right before the Civil War when he took office. Lincoln was elected President in 1860 and the war started in 1861. President Lincoln supported the Union side of the conflict. Like other northern abolitionists, Lincoln believed that slavery should be abolished for good. The issue of slavery, however, was not as important to Lincoln as protecting the integrity of the United States Union. Lincoln did not want the pro-slavery southern states, known as the Confederacy, to secede The President clearly articulated his position regarding the war when he said,

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could do it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”[1]

Abraham Lincoln made it plain that his desire to save the Union, and not the issue of slavery, was his primary concern. Firmly believing that the Union had to stay together, Lincoln elected Ulysses S. Grant to lead the charge for the Union North against the Confederate South.

In 1864, Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant Lieutenant General of the Union Army, tasking the future president with the job of leading all Union troops against the Confederate Army.[2] This was a monumental step because the rank of Lieutenant General had remained inactive since 1799. In the beginning, Grant struggled at leading the Union in battle, but, after a while, he took command of the fight winning battles in the Western Theater. He captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee, forced the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and defeated a larger Southern force at Chattanooga, Tennessee. In the last year of the war, he was both praised and criticized for his willingness to fight and sustain a high number of casualties.[3]

Lincoln always saw poise and power in Ulysses S. Grant. There were a great number of similarities between the two men which made the pair extremely compatible and a good match. John Y. Simon writes,

“Like Mr. Lincoln Grant was a good and loving father. Like Mr. Lincoln he had some trouble with their formal education. Like Lincoln he had four children. Grant was more concerned about his children’s formal schooling than was Mr. Lincoln. Like Mr. Lincoln, Grant had problems with his father. In his Grant’s case, he was a disappointment to his father. But he appears to have been ashamed of his mother for some reason; she did not attend his inauguration. Neither did Mr. Lincoln’s stepmother attend his in 1861. Like Mr. Lincoln, Grant had a strong sense of duty. Like Mr. Lincoln, he did what had to be done without a great deal of superfluous commotion. Like Mr. Lincoln (in Congress), Grant endured a prolonged separation from his wife (while on army duty in California in the 1850s).”[4] The fact that Lincoln and Grant were so much alike led to a good working relationship even during the more challenging times of war.

When Grant won Fort Donelson, thereby gaining control of the two main rivers with a direct line to Nashville, Lincoln was obviously pleased. The President’s happiness, however, was short lived due to the tragic death of his eleven-year-old son, Willie, who died from Typhoid fever.[5] Lincoln was heartbroken. Lincoln was very close to his family. Unfortunately, he was plagued by the fact that three of his four children died at a very young age. His children were Robert Todd (1843–1926), Edward Baker (1846–1850), William Wallace (1850–1862), and Thomas “Tad” (1853–1871). Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, was the only child to live to maturity and to make it through college. After college, Robert needed a job and wanted to enlist.

During the period Abraham Lincoln was President, it was very difficult for him to find time to spend with his family. Robert was never close to his father and complained that he “scarcely even had ten minutes quiet talk with him during his Presidency, on account of his constant devotion to business.”[6] Robert always wanted to join the army, but Lincoln was nervous to have his son enlist because of his wife’s fear of losing another son far too soon. After long discussion and thought, Abraham Lincoln finally agreed to let his son go to war, and he actually reached out to General Ulysses S. Grant.

On January 19, 1865, Lincoln wrote a letter to Grant concerning his son joining the war effort. Lincoln began by writing, “Please read and answer this letter as though I was not President, but only a friend”, and he made sure that the letter did not sound too aggressive by using words such as, “without embarrassment, detriment to the service, some nominal rank.”[7] Lincoln did not want to come across as officious or demanding. In trying to secure a position for his son in the army, he did not want to use his office as President as a matter of influence when writing to his friend Grant. The Civil War was such a deadly and serious conflict, Lincoln did not want to appear intrusive in any way.

Photo Courtesy of Quigley's Cabinet

Robert Todd Lincoln: Photo Courtesy of Quigley’s Cabinet

When Ulysses S. Grant received the letter, he responded magnanimously and offered Robert a spot in the army. Robert joined the Union Army in 1864 and was made a captain and assistant adjutant general of volunteers on the staff of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Between his enlistment in the summer of 1864 and his active duty in February 1865, Robert spent a few lackluster weeks at Harvard Law School. He then served with Grant until the end of the war.[8]

Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant were compatible personalities who worked well together. They knew each other personally and had faith in each other’s abilities. Since they were so close, it was appropriate for Lincoln to write and reach out to Grant, as a friend and not in his official capacity as President, regarding his son joining the army. Assisting Robert in securing a position in the army was also a way for Lincoln to get closer to his son who had felt neglected while growing up because of his father’s preoccupation with work and the war. It was indicative of the relationship that Lincoln and Grant shared that the Lieutenant General invited Lincoln’s son to join the army and serve under his command. Robert proved a worthy soldier in the war. Even through the toughest times of war, Abraham Lincoln never lost confidence in General Grant and Grant never gave up on President Lincoln. The match was perfect, and their combined abilities and strengths helped the Union in its fight against the Confederates, ultimately, winning the Civil War.

[1] Louis P. Masur, The Civil War A Concise History (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 41


[2] History.com Staff, Lincoln signs Ulysses S. Grant’s commission to command the U.S Army  History.com; A+E Networks, 2009) ,

[3] John Waugh (editor) Ulysses S. Grant: Life in a Brief (U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

[4] John Y. Smith, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant (Featured Book) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

[5] Louis P. Masur, The Civil War A Concise History (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 32

[6] Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington, (New York Harold, undated) p. 292

[7] Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, (Washington, Jan. 19, 1865)

[8] Jason Emerson, Robert Todd Lincoln: The Perpetual Non-Candidate (American History Magazine, December 2004)

Underground Railroad

William Still

William Still

The Underground Railroad was a metaphor used by antislavery activists to describe and publicize efforts at helping runaway slaves during the years before the Civil War. While secrecy was essential for particular operations, the movement to help fugitives was no secret at all. Northern Underground Railroad operatives were often openly defiant of federal statutes designed to help recapture runaways. Agents used state personal liberty laws, which aimed to protect free black residents from kidnapping, as a way to justify their fugitive work. Vigilance committees in northern cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Detroit formed the organized core of this effort. These committees often worked together and provided legal, financial and physical protection to black people threatened by kidnappers or slave-catchers. Notable vigilance leaders included black men such as William Still in Philadelphia, David Ruggles in New York, Lewis Hayden in Boston and George DeBaptiste in Detroit. There were also thousands of other individuals, often white and usually motivated by religious belief, who helped fugitives during the antebellum period. Though most of these Underground Railroad figures operated with relative impunity in the North and across Canada, southern operatives faced grave dangers and thus maintained a much lower profile. This is one reason why Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave herself, was such a courageous figure. Her repeated rescues inside the slave state of Maryland during the 1850s became the basis for her legendary post-war reputation as “Moses.” Though Underground Railroad agents such as Tubman freed only a fraction of the nation’s slaves (probably no more than several hundred each year out of an enslaved population of millions), the widespread reports about their actions infuriated southern political leaders and helped bring about the Civil War and the end of slavery in the United States.

Additional Resources

Mary Prince


Mary Prince, a West Indies slave from Bermuda, published her narrative The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave,  in 1831 with the intention of providing English people with a picture of the horrors of slavery. Mary was born in Bermuda and was bought and sold by many different families throughout her lifetime. In her narrative, she describes the awful treatment and harsh conditions she lived in during her time as a slave, and the personal characteristics that enabled her to keep going.

Mary’s narrative begins with a description of her childhood and her series of owners. Her first owner was Captain Williams, who gave Mary to his daughter Betsey. Mary and Betsey grew very close and she describes this as “… the happiest period of my life; for I was too young to understand rightly my condition as a slave, and too thoughtless and full of spirits to look forward to the days of toil and sorrow” (p 1). When her owners were no longer able to afford to keep so many slaves, they sold her to their neighbor, Mrs. Prudens, as a nursemaid for her son.

After working for Mrs. Prudens, Mary was then taken to the market place with her siblings to be sold. A man named Captain I— bought her and took her with him to Spanish Point. Mary never spells out his full name in her narrative. During her time with Captain I— Mary was abused daily. She writes that he would “…strip me naked–to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh open with the cow-skin, was an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence” (p 7). She recounts a story about a fellow slave named Hetty whom she befriended. Hetty became pregnant and was so badly abused by Captain I— that she miscarried and died shortly after. These awful images are just a few that Mary Prince describes during her time as Captain I—‘s slave.

Next Mary was sold to a Mr. D, who owned a salt pond on Turk’s Island. In this section of her narrative, Mary chronicles the strenuous physical labor that slaves endured. The slaves collected salt from four o’clock in the morning until dark.   On page 10 of her narrative Mary writes that she “…worked through the heat of the day; the sun flaming upon our heads like fire, and raising salt blisters in those parts which were not completely covered. Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the very bone, afflicting the sufferers with great torment” (p 10).

Mr. D took Mary back to Bermuda where she was later sold to the Woods. While she worked for the Woods, Mary joined the Moravian Church and was baptized in 1817. She married a free man named Daniel James years after. The Woods took her to England where slavery was no longer legal. After many conflicts with the Woods, Mary left the household and worked as a domestic servant for Thomas Pringle, who published Mary’s narrative in 1831. The narrative ends while she was working for the Pringles and it is not known whether she returned to Antigua.[1]

Mary Prince’s narrative provides her unique view of the horrors that slaves had to endure. She describes in gruesome detail the many physical and emotional hardships that she had to suffer while working for her masters and their wives. Her narrative conveys the optimism that she clung to as she kept praying for a better life. When she was sold to another family, she was always hopeful that the next situation would be better for her. Her story is an inspiring tale of the atrocities of human enslavement, and the personal character that helped her to endure.

[1] Williamson, Jenn. “Summary of The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by         Herself. With a Supplement by the Editor. To Which Is Added, the Narrative of Asa-Asa, a Captured African. University Library, n.d. Web. 01. Nov. 2015.

Mary Prince. The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. (London, England, 1831)

Life and Suffering of Leonard Black- Graham Klimley

Photo Courtesy of Documenting the American South

Photo Courtesy of Documenting the American South

Leonard Black was born just before the 1820’s and lived as a slave for more than twenty years. In his short sixty-three-page narrative entitled, The Life and Suffering of Leonard Black a Fugitive of Slavery, Leonard describes, in explicit detail, his life as a slave and how he escaped to freedom. In describing his life journey, some exact dates are omitted leaving the reader to estimate.

Leonard Black was born into slavery in Annarundel County, Maryland. He had a mother, sister and four brothers. When Leonard was six years old, his mother and sister were sold and sent to New Orleans, Louisiana. Separated from his family, Leonard was placed with Mr. Bradford. Living with the Bradford family was a terrifying experience for Leonard. Leonard writes, “Mrs. Bradford beat me so much that her husband sent me to his father’s. Mrs. Bradford ordered me one day to take a bushel of corn up stairs; but I was unable to do it, upon which she knocked me down with the johnny-cake board, cutting my head so badly that it bled more than a quart”(pg. 7). Leonard lived with Mr. Bradford’s father for approximately thirteen years. During this time, he was severely beaten, barely had enough food to stay alive, had no hat or pants, and possessed only one pair of shoes. Finally, Leonard’s old master returned, taking Leonard to Baltimore and then back home.

Once home, Leonard, excited to be reunited with his brothers, quickly learned that his three oldest brothers were planning to run away to Boston, and that they were going to leave Leonard and his younger brother behind, because they were too young and not healthy enough to travel. Leonard was upset when his brothers left but knew it was for the best. “During those awful ten years we had not enough to eat, and were beaten shamefully. Most of the time we had bean soup for breakfast, dinner and supper–a pint at each meal. When we had potatoes, we were without bread. Such was our fare; and whether hungry or satisfied, we had no addition to it” (pg. 16)

In 1836, Leonard heard the words of God and became a true believer in God and His purpose. “I was awakened by the Holy Spirit of God, by its divine influence operating on my mind, and the words, “Give me of your oil,” rang in my ears continually; but I strove hard against the spirit, to shake off these feelings, yet at the end of this year I was brought to submit to the will of God” (pg. 21) A year later, in 1837, believing that it was God’s will that he become a preacher, Leonard ran away to Boston in pursuit of his brothers and his dream.

Once on his escape, Leonard was doing well until he ran into a Quaker. Quakers, during that time, did not like blacks, and a majority held them as slaves. Quakers had a number of servants that helped with planting crops, carpentry, brickwork, and general labor.[1] The Quaker stopped Leonard, asked him questions, and then started to beat him. Leonard fought back and ran for his life, eventually escaping the Quaker.

Leonard travelled, being careful to avoid capture again, passing through New Brunswick, New York, and Providence. All the while, he was anxious to get to Boston and to be reunited with his brothers.

Finally in Boston, Leonard inquired about his brothers and learned that Mr. Black, a resident of Portland, had passed through Boston some time earlier. Leonard contacted Mr. Black who, in turn, invited Leonard to Portland paying his fare. Although Mr. Black was not his brother, Leonard stayed with the Black’s who treated him like family and helped with his education. Having fallen in love with Mr. Black’s daughter, Leonard followed the Black’s when they moved back to Boston, marrying the daughter and having four children of his own.

After working on the wharves for five years in Boston, Leonard felt the need to leave to pursue preaching. In Providence, his preaching was rejected, however, and Leonard became so discouraged he almost quit his dream. Recovering from a broken leg, Leonard had a vision and decided that God wanted him to preach after all, and he had to do what God asked.

Leonard travelled to Nantucket and accepted a calling from the local church to be their pastor. Born a slave, and having suffered for over twenty years and escaped, Leonard was a free man preaching God’s word.



[1] Jean R. SunderLund, Quakers and Slavery: A Divided Spirit (Princeton University Press, 1985)

A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, From American Slavery


Moses Roper

Courtesy of Wikipedia


Moses Roper. A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of MosesRoper, from American Slavery. (Moses Roper. A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of MosesRoper, from American Slavery.)

Before the age of seven, Moses Roper had been sold over eight times. Moses’ mother was black and father was white making him a mulato, which meant he was difficult to sell and caused him to move all over the country. This, however, would be used as an advantage later on in his life.  In Moses Ropers famouse autobiography  A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper (1996) Moses uses graphic examples to discuss the cruelties of slavery. “In 1831 the Underground Railroad is given its name” (2). Moses was a reason that the Underground Railroad was hated by so many. He used this Underground Railroad to escape the shackles of slavery.

During the 1830’s Moses tried to escape over 2 dozen times. The man he tried to escape from the most was Mr. Gooch, a wealthy planter in Liberty, South Carolina. He was flogged daily and living under Mr. Gooch was not an option. In 1829 Moses attempted escaping several times but was left with the same result, punishment. “having determined from my youth to gain my freedom…made several more attempts, was caught and got a severe flogging of one hundred lases each time.” (1).  Moses was a slave to Mr. Gooch for over 5 years, and attempted escape over two-dozen times. “When he came back, the first thing he did was to pour some tar on my head, then rubbed it all over my face, took a torch, with pitch on, and set it on fire. He put it out before it did me very great injury, but the pain which I endured was most excruciating, nearly all my hair having been burnt off” (48-49).

Over time Moses managed to get further and further and was a living testament to the Underground Railroad. He was in fact helped by few. “We came to the estate of ———, where we met with a colored man who knew me, and having run away himself from a bad master, he gave us some food, and told us we might sleep in the barn that night” (pp. 44-45). Moses even found his mother, sister and grandmother, but Mr. Gooch was there to capture him. In 1834, Moses escapes into Savannah, GA and changes his name to “John” Roper. Being a mulato, Moses was able to walk confidently down the streets with a phony passport that said he was half Native American and half white. “I went through the main street with apparent confidence, though much alarmed; did not stop at any house in the city, but went down immediately to the dock…” (pp. 74)

After going through Savannah, Moses found his way on a boat to New York City. Moses thought he was freed but he had always had suspicions because he had been caught so many times. “At Boston I met with a friend, who kept a shop, and took me to assist him for several weeks. Here I did not consider myself safe, as persons from all parts of the country were continually coming to the shop, and I feared some might come who knew me.” (pp. 81) This constant alertness kept Moses alive and free. In 1835, Moses got on a small boat called the “Napoleon” that would sail to Liverpool where he would ultimately be freed.

Moses Roper’s life shows the harsh reality of slavery. He had gone through excruciating amounts of pain and suffering to be freed. Moses uses the Underground Railroad and his mulato background to escape slavery. Throughout the course of his narrative, Moses bestows his blessings to Providence. Without this sense of faith during the hard times he wouldn’t not be free of his shackles. “But above all, to the God of all grace, I desire here before his people, to acknowledge that all the way in which he has led me, has been the right way; and as in his mercy and wisdom, he has led me to this country, where I am allowed to go free, may all my actions tend to lead me on, through the mercy of God in Christ, in the right way, to a city of habitation.” (pp. 89)


1  “A Chronology of Moses Roper’s Life.” A Chronology of Moses Roper’s Life. Accessed October 29, 2015.

2 PBS. Accessed October 29, 2015.

James Williams

Life and Adventures of James Williams, a Fugitive Slave, with a Full Description of the Underground Railroad

James Williams, although originally named John Thomas, escaped slavery when he was just thirteen years old. Born into slavery in 1825, Williams served William Hollingsworth of Cecil County, Maryland, remarking that “when I was ten years old I was a house-boy. I had to stand at the table and brush off the flies while the guests were dining”(13). A wrongful punishment where he was whipped numerous times was the final straw for Williams, as he wrote that, “my master, in conclusion, threatened to sell me to Georgia. After receiving the chastisement, I went off sniffling and crying”(13). Soon after, he stole a mare from the plantation and made his escape. Another factor which may have played a role in Williams’ determination to escape was that Hollingsworth freed his mother, saying to her, “‘Abby, it is hard enough to serve two masters, and worse to serve three. You have got three months to serve me yet, but, here is twenty-five dollars; I won’t tell you to run away. You can do as you like”‘(11). Perhaps her freedom also inspired his escape.

Williams trekked to Pennsylvania and asked his way along until he found his mother and step-father living near Lancaster City, where he stayed one night and was then transported to the Underground Railroad. He wrote that he, “travelled onward from one to another, on the underground railroad, until [he] got to a place of refuge”(12). Williams began to serve on the Underground Railroad at sixteen, carting escaped slaves in a covered wagon, telling anyone who asked that he, “was going to Lancaster to market”(14). In the several years before helping escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad, he mentioned several instances of slaveholders trying to recapture him, but none succeeded. Williams moved along the East Coast to New York, Boston, and eventually back to Philadelphia. Still fearing the danger of being recaptured, Williams became a maritime cook and fled to California, where he worked in various gold mines.

In 1852, Williams boarded ship from California headed for Guaymas, Mexico, after a white man threatened him for helping a woman escape slavery. In Guaymas, he was robbed and left with $2.50 to his name. He wrote that, ”At this time I sold my coat – the only one I had got. Having but one shirt, I used to go to the shore and wash it, and lay there until it was dry. The bed I laid on was the ground; often were the times when the police wanted to arrest me, but I would not consent”(31). Through his perseverance, Williams made it back to California by boat, where he played a role in the famous Archy Lee Case in 1857. Archy Lee, formerly a Mississippi slave, was brought by his master to California where he tried to escape custody. Police arrested Archy Lee but the court eventually ruled in his favor, saying he was a free man because his master settled in California and was not merely traveling.[1]

Williams eventually returned to the Hollingsworth Plantation in 1869, to find it abandoned and crippled. He did not describe his role during the Civil War at all, but at some point he traveled back to the East Coast. James Williams lived through the arguably the height and most definitely fall of slavery, and it is possible that one of his other narratives explore his life throughout the Civil War.

Williams’ tale of slavery, the Underground Railroad, experiences as a civilian all show the difficult life that escaped slaves endured. After escaping, life did not become easier for James Williams, or any other escaped slaves, as he constantly was on the run and living in fear of being recaptured. It is not until Williams came to San Francisco in 1853 that he wrote, “then I concluded that I could remain, and not be molested by Copper-heads or Southern sympathizers, as I had done before”(33). Arguably, Williams and other escaped slave were never free from slavery until its abolition.

[1] “Archy Lee Case, 1858,” Black Past, accessed November 1, 2015, http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/archy-lee-case-1858



Scott Bond, From Slavery to Wealth

Scott Bond

Scott Bond

Rudd, Dan A., and Theo Bond. From Slavery to Wealth; the Life of Scott Bond. Freeport, NY: for Libraries, 1971. Print.

Born into slavery in the early 1850’s and then eventually becoming one of the most affluent businessmen known to Arkansas, Scott Bond is the epitome of the current day “American Dream”.  At the time of his death in 1933, he owned and farmed 12,000 acres, while also raising livestock and operating a large mercantile store, at least five cotton gins, a gravel pit, a lumber yard, and a saw mill [1]. As a member of the National Negro Business League, Bond supported the efforts of Booker T. Washington, whose philosophies regarding the social advancement of African Americans through economic and agricultural success mirrored Bond’s own according to his brother, Theo Bond.

The book is comprised of sixty-nine short vignettes all depicting different first hand accounts of Scott Bonds life and the hardships and lessons he learned on his way to becoming successful.  These vignettes are accounts that his children had acquired as knowledge growing up and learning how to eventually run part of the family business.  Most of the stories detail the hard work and “great strides made by the Negro,” to which “opened his eyes to the possibilities of advancement and convinced him that merit can and will compel its reward” (p. 370).

The book focuses on the goals of the future and impact of working together to achieve success. Bond believed that  “When individual effort is melted into teamwork, racial solidarity in economic action will be the outcome and the Negro will take his proper place in the commercial and civic life of the nation he clothes and helps to feed” (p. 382).  This is displayed time and time again throughout his life.  During hardships, such as overflows of the St. Francis River, Bond would always go out of his way to help others eat and collect belongings before they were taken away.  After the overflows, he would then work with all of the farmers to prepare the land to be replanted.  Bonds life was spent bringing people together to better their current situations.

[1] Gordon, Fon. “Scott Winfield Bond (1852–1933).” N.p., 24 Oct. 2012. Web.



GougingBackcountry, n. –a rural area or wilderness

Traditional US history textbooks typically focus on North-South sectionalism, because of the overriding importance of the Civil War.  However, students must never forget that other types of regional divisions also seemed quite powerful to American contemporaries, such as East and West, or tidelands and piedmont, or lowlands and backcountry.  The idea of the backcountry, in particular, was an especially potent one during the era of the early republic.  This was a time of rapidly changing social mores, and vast territorial expansion.  And yet it was also a period marked by relative isolation in communications and transportation.  Waterways still connected people and places faster than any other means.  The result was a society in turmoil as its leaders groped their way toward a new, post-revolutionary stability.  Few academic articles capture that moment, or the essence of the backcountry better than Elliott Gorn’s, “Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch”: The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry,” which appeared in the American Historical Review in 1985.  Gorn depicts a practical orgy of violence through the stories of the rough-and-tumble fighting culture of the Southern backcountry.   Students should be able to explain what gouging was and why it was significant. Why would Americans, especially white men in the southern backcountry, engage in such behavior and what does it suggest about their changing culture?  Both Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, the two most important American politicians of the mid-nineteenth century, grew up in the backcountry culture dominated by southern plainfolk.  How does their background help explain their political success?  In an even larger sense, how does the rise and fall of gouging in the backcountry help explain the story of nineteenth-century America?  Finally, how does the culture of rough-and-tumble fighting compare to the social dynamics of modern America?


Recommended Slave Narratives

Here are about two dozen of the more significant (and teachable) slave narratives published in American history, available full-text online from “North American Slave Narratives,” in Documenting the American South.

Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery: An Autobiography (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1901).

Courtesy of House Divided Project

Courtesy of House Divided Project

When Booker T. Washington recalled the outbreak of the Civil War, he claimed that, “every slave on our plantation felt and knew that, though other issues were discussed, the primal one was that of slavery” (p. 8). Washington’s memory of life as young slave on a tobacco plantation in southwestern Virginia was surely enhanced by the passage of time –he had just turned five at the time of the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861– but it is also true that his famous autobiography Up From Slavery (1901) contains a series of remarkably vivid insights not only about slavery, but also about emancipation and reconstruction.

Consider, for example, how a nine-year-old slave experienced the end of the Civil War. He listened with others on his plantation as a Union army officer “made a little speech and read a rather long paper,” which the boy later presumed had been the Emancipation Proclamation. Then his mother “kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks.” Washington recalled that she “explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see” (pp. 20-21). Washington’s subsequent recollection of the bewildering mixture of emotions that seemed to prey on ex-slaves on his Virginia plantation soon after they received news of their freedom in the spring of 1865 offers a compelling snapshot of the promise and perils of the emancipation moment for an enslaved people who were given “nothing but freedom,” as one Confederate general put it.[1]

When he was 16-years-old, Washington traveled over 500 miles from his new home in West Virginia, mostly by foot, in order to receive an education at the Hampton Institute, one of several schools established for the freed people during the era of Reconstruction. In chapter 3 of his memoir, Washington recounts his penniless arrival in Richmond on his way to Hampton. In one of the most memorable scenes in American literature, he describes how he “crept under the sidewalk” and slept outside on his first night, exhausted and hungry, but still hopeful that he could “reconstruct” his life with a real education (p. 49).   After much hard work, Washington succeeded, but he still acknowledged the challenges that loomed so large in the 1870s, such as what he called the “Ku Klux period,” which he considered, “the darkest part of the Reconstruction days” (p. 78)

As a young teacher at the Hampton Institute in the late 1870s and early 1880s, Booker T. Washington was responsible for helping to instruct and assimilate Native American or Indian men. The complexity of this assignment –a black teacher trying to instruct red men in the ways of white culture– was not lost on Washington, who recalled his anxiety over the “experiment” in chapter 6 of Up From Slavery.

Booker T. Washington first became a celebrated –and then somewhat controversial– figure, during the 1880s and 1890s, when he gained renown as the leader of the Tuskegee Institute, a vocational school for African Americans in central Alabama. Washington was determined to promote self-made black people, who could thrive in American society by dint of their own hard work and positive thinking. He was adamant about that formula, sometimes to the point of alienating fellow civil rights reformers.[2] He claimed almost unbelievably, for example, that “in all my contact with the white people of the South I have never received a single personal insult” (p. 169). Washington also delivered a popular speech at the 1895 Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition that urged blacks to “Cast down your bucket where you are,” or in other words, to resist migration and political agitation and instead to focus on improving their lives in the South through economic self-sufficiency (p. 219). It was a message about how to achieve civil rights progress that made Washington beloved by many, and resented by others, but without doubt was the main theme of his autobiography and the central contested legacy of his notable career.


[1] Eric Foner, Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973), 6.

[2] William F. Muggleston, “Washington, Booker T.”, American National Biography Online Feb. 2000 [ANB].