Reporting from the SHA: Northern Civilians and the Occupied Wartime Confederacy

In this panel presented at the 2018 Southern Historical Association meeting in Birmingham, AL the panelists focused on the experiences of northern civilians who traveled south into the Confederacy during the Civil War. The panelists were Paul E. Teed (Saginaw Valley State University) and Frank J. Cirillo (New-York Historical Society) with Caroline E. Janney (University of Virginia) presiding. Comments were provided by Michael T. Bernath (University of Miami) ad Paul A. Cimbala (Fordham University).

Paul Teed’s paper was entitled “‘Among the Fifes and Drums’: Harriet Hawley and the Occupied South.” Harriet Hawley joined her husband Joseph whose unit, the 7th CT, was stationed in the South Carolina Sea Islands. Finding that the homefront didn’t suit her and spurred by anti-slavery sentiments, Harriet served for a time as a teacher for the freed population there. Joseph and Harriet found that she was uniquely suited to sway opinions back home in Connecticut as a correspondent for the Hartford Evening Press. She could present an “inside view” and give reports on the war and emancipation back to a community that was divided over those issues. These articles allowed Harriet to voice opinions on emancipation and present African-Americans in a positive light to calm northern fears. She also defended her husband’s reputation and the USCT after military defeats. This position also allowed Harriet to have a more public voice, a role that transformed her life. After she returned home from this experience, she found it hard to transition back into the domestic sphere and she worked as a ward nurse in Washington D.C. and helped with post-war relief efforts in the south. By looking at Hawley’s experiences, Teed can track the transformation of her life, but also how she presented the war, emancipation, African-Americans, and southern whites to the audience back home.

Frank J. Cirillo’s paper “‘Till I Came Here I Was Ignorant of Slavery’: Charlotte Forten, James Miller McKim, and Abolitionist Travel to the Sea Islands” compared the experience of two northern travelers, one white male and one black woman. James McKim and Charles Forten both arrived in the Sea Islands after the Union took control of the area and both initially reacted to the freedmen through a white, northern, middle-class lens. Both came from the abolition movement and initially had similar ideas about emancipation in the south. Cirillo found, however, that their views (analyzed through the lenses of race and gender) diverged based on their experiences in the South. McKim worked with short term aid for freedmen and encouraged black male enlistment once the USCT started to form. Based on his experiences, after the war he argued that emancipation was an ending point for the abolition movement and began to remove himself from that reform work. He was convinced that material aid was needed for freedmen, not social equality. Instead of pushing for social equality, McKim talked about freedmen as potential laborers and consumers within the northern economy, still passive subjects in a lower social place compared to white northerners. On the other hand, Forten’s work as a teacher and in more feminine spaces led her to promote social equality and emphasize the humanity of the freedmen. Her perspective changed markedly from the racial stereotypes she held when first arriving from Philadelphia. She believed that emancipation was just the beginning, a beachhead for the expansion of rights and equality to freed slaves and argued that activists needed to keep working to put actual meaning to emancipation. McKim and Forten represent a larger split that occurred in the abolition movement after the Civil War.

Opening his remarks, Michael Bernath commented that all three characters in the papers were in the same place, at the same time, with similar purposes and backgrounds, yet their experiences yielded different results. In that sense, the travel writing can tell us more about the writer than what they are observing and Bernath asked about how transformative the experiences were for each person. He also asked about whether there was a difference in their public writings versus their private thoughts, and what that revealed about their motives and audiences. In his comments Paul Cimbala added that intellectual biography can tell us a lot about the past by looking at how these unique characters fit into wider historical changes (in this case, the division of the abolition movement). He thought it was interesting to look at how each person’s backgrounds affected their experiences as they moved from “armchair abolitionists” to interacting directly with the institution of slavery. Analyzing the individual experiences and transformations of these characters allows historians to see how lenses of race, class, and gender affected them and reveals the diversity and complexity of the northern population.

In their initial responses, both Teed and Cirillo agreed that there were differences in the public and private voices of their subjects. Harriet Hawley did not include in her reports home her criticisms of Lincoln and northern officials over their management of emancipation and concealed the differences of opinion she held compared to her husband over policy. She was careful not to include anything in her public writings that might damage her husband’s reputation. In the case of Charlotte Forten, Cirillo found that her public writings were more moderate than her private thoughts and actions. While she advocated for her black students to realize what they could do with examples like USCT troops and Toussaint L’Ouverture, she did not include that in her writings about African-Americans and emancipation. In response to the commenters’ questions about how transforming these experiences were to these subjects, both panelists said that they did see evidence of transformation in their ideas and writings. For Harriet Hawley, she was initially condescending towards black women (seeing them through the stereotypes of northern whites), but as she got more involved in relief work African-American women became more central to her experiences and she evolved away from that racial condescension. Cirilo sees a similar evolution with Charlotte Forten; while she was part of the abolition movement before, her experiences in the Sea Islands caused her to become a leader and push for post-emancipation equality.

The audience offered a few questions for panelists consideration: How common was this experience of women traveling into the South like Hawley and Forten? How did the soldiers view these women? How do we see African-Americans directly affecting the experiences and transformations of these white northerners? How would the panelists like to see their research change the overall understanding of abolition and the Civil War Era? Did these three historical subjects look back from Reconstruction and the Gilded Age and see an idealistic golden age during the Civil War?

Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson earned her PhD in Nineteenth Century/Civil War America from West Virginia University, and also holds a M.A. from WVU and a B.A. from Siena College. Her research is on mental trauma and coping among Union soldiers and she is currently working on her first book, tentatively titled War on the Mind. She currently teaches history at several colleges and university and leads tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for several years and is the co-editor of Civil Discourse.