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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

William Street: "There is not a man born, who can represent slavery so bad as it is."

Benjamin Drew, a Boston abolitionist acting in cooperation with officers of the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society, visited various towns of Upper Canada around the middle 1850's, interviewing scores of refugees from the slave states and printing their interviews. For reasons of safety, he protected the identity of his informants and used fictitious names. There were about 30,000 people of African descent at that time in Upper Canada, mostly adults who had once been enslaved. 

Will Street was a blacksmith from Middle Tennessee. He mentions knowing of the Perkins family's iron works.  I can't help but wonder if he was somehow related to Williamson County's Reuben Street whom I have written about before.  Street's narrative provides a fascinating description of his escape from a slave trader while onboard a steamboat in Nashville as he was about to be taken south to be sold. 

Below is a full transcript of his story.  I am printing it as an example of what life in Middle Tennessee was like for those who lived under the horror of slavery.  This was not "Gone With the Wind."  These were places of torture and we should not and must not forget that.

A North-Side View of Slavery.The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada.Related by Themselves, with an Account of the History and condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada: Electronic Edition. Drew, Benjamin, 1812-1903

Testimony of WILLIAM STREET. 
I am from Middle Tennessee, where I worked as a blacksmith, another man taking my wages. All I got was my victuals and clothes, and not much at that. Twenty-five years I was a slave,--was bred and born a slave, and cannot read or write.

My mother has several times told me that her father was sick, and his mistress drove him out of the house, and he leaned his breast over the fence and died. She often showed me the place where he died. I was hired out when very young--did not get the lash. It was never "Can you do it?" or "Will you do it?"--but "You must go and do it." Sometimes I would do a good day's work, and then have another job put on me. I can't paint it as bad as it is. I have seen a man at the iron-works--Perkins's--who said he did not believe that there was a bit of skin on him that he was born with,--they had whipped it all off.

If a northern man were to go right into a slave State, he would not see the worst of slavery. By the time he was up in the morning, the slaves would be a mile off--he would see but little of the evil--he wouldn't get to see it.

My master died when I was seven; my mistress when I was twenty-five. Then we were divided out: I fell to a son who lived in Mississippi. I had been living with a doctor two years, and I asked him to buy me. But my master wouldn't sell--the doctor offered $1,100 for me. I was put in jail five days--I and my brother, who had fallen to the same man, were there. Our owner came in with irons and handcuffs, and put them on, and took us to the blacksmith to have them riveted. I left two men in the jail who had run away from Mississippi and had lain there eleven months,--in one month to be sold. One of them was a great fellow to pray: I'd hear him praying every morning for the Lord to help him. He said he wished the doctor would buy me. The rivets were fixed: we went to Nashville, and were put on board a steamboat, I and my brother chained together. They were loading the boat, which takes two or three days. I heard some one tell a colored man to pump the boilers full, and they'd put out in the morning. I said to my brother, "When you hear me say to-night, the dog's dead, then we 'll put out."

At 11 o'clock we laid down. I made believe that something ailed me, and kept going out. By and by, I said "the dog's dead." We crept into the wheelhouse, and down on the wheel, to the outside of the guard, and got on board a stone-coal boat. We walked eighteen miles that night,--but we were not away yet--yet had no thought about Canada. I had heard of it, but had no thought about getting to it. We laid down, meaning to stay till next night.

Two men went out to hunt partridges, and at about one o'clock they came across us. "What are you doing here, boys?" We had broken off the chains, but the handcuffs were on each of us. "I am going to Columbia--did n't you see that wagon with the boiler on it?" They said, "Come, go this way," and one threatened with his gun. We up and ran. The slaveholders both followed us. We ran across a field about half a mile: when we got across there was a mill and a creek. We ran through the creek: there was a big hill. I went one side, and my brother the other: they followed after me. I stopped and hailed, "What do you want?" They thought I was coming in to give up,--but I passed them and went into the creek, where I fell down, and got wet all over. I crossed at the mill; they after me: there was a horse tied there, and there were several men about the mill; one a colored man, who had the horse. "Can I take your horse?" "No." I took him any how. I cut the bridle, jumped on, and started. Then a white man put his gun over a tree and shot me--some eight or ten small shot went in--they are most of them in me now. The horse then put out with me--then I was shut of them. They had no horse--he put out like lightning--I did not know where I was going,--I rode two miles, got off, hitched the horse, and went away and left him. Thinks I, they 've gone from the mill now--I'll go back and get my clothes now,--I had left them in my hurry. As I went back to the mill, I saw them and took them, and then I saw the men coming back from pursuing my brother. I heard them say, "Yonder he is! yonder he is!" I ran to an open field where there was a little grass, and laid down. They did not see--they hunted about and gave it up: then I went to an old house that had hay in it, and put my clothes in there. I then walked right before the door of a house where were slaves at work--nobody spoke a word to me. After I got through them, I saw an old colored man with a wagon. He told me, "You go this way, and when they come I'll tell 'em you 've gone that way." I did as he advised me, and got into a tree that had been burned out, and stayed in it till night: then I went and got my clothes, and started for the old place where I was raised.

I went on to where my oldest brother lived in Tennessee and told him the circumstances. I was then told to go into the barn-loft, and stay there,--I did--stayed three days hid in the wheat: then I went in the woods, and stayed eight months without ever going into a house,--from Christmas until the last of August. Then my owner came from Mississippi, with a man named T--, who brought three bloodhounds along with him. A white man who saw me the day before, told them where they had seen me. They went to that place, and put the bloodhounds on my track. I had never seen a bloodhound, but I heard them, and I spoke to myself; says I, "I'm gone." I had a pistol, a big stick, and a big knife. Then I ran out of the corn field into a little skirt of woods, and the bloodhounds got over the fence when I did. I wheeled and shot one of them through and through. He never got away from the place at all. I got back to the corn field, the others both with me in the field; one hold of my wrist, the other of my leg. I have the marks--here they are on my wrist. I struck at the dog with my knife a number of times--but he dodged every time. Then my master came up with a pistol, and said if I did'nt stand, he'd put a ball through me. T--came up and struck me with a hickory stick five or six blows, on the back of my neck. I cried, "Oh Lord! Oh Lord!" then T--made the dogs let go. He then took out his handcuffs and chains, and put them on, and took me to a blacksmith's, to have them riveted, putting in another chain between the cuffs, to make 'em strong, so I could n't get away anyhow.

They concluded I must know where my youngest brother was, but I did not and could not tell them any thing about it. They did n't believe that, I was standing up; a great many gathered round to see me: I was chewing tobacco. T--said, "G--d--you, quit chewing tobacco, and tell us where your brother is, for I know you know." Some fellow asked my master what he was going to do with me,--he said he was going to give me up to T--, because I had killed the bloodhound,--T--would n't have taken five hundred dollars for him; said "he was worth more than him, d--n him." He was the fastest one they had; before they brought them from Mississippi, they had caught a man and torn out his entrails,--T--told me so himself. They kept me going round from that day, Tuesday, to Friday, trying to find my brother,--chaining me to the bedstead at night. Thursday morning they thought they had heard of him; went eighteen miles to Shelbyville. A great many went with them for the fun of the thing. This was in the beginning of September, 1851.

I was now at the old place where I was bred, and was left with master's brother-in-law, in his care. At three o'clock, the brother had some sheep to shear: he took me into the stable, put on shackles, and took off my handcuffs, so I could shear. After dinner, said I, "Mr. E--, won't you give me some grease, if you please, to grease my boots?" "Oh, yes." I went into the kitchen where my mother had lived, close by, and thought over all things that had passed before. Pretty soon he told me to fill a kettle with water. The kettle was some fifty yards from the house; there were some six men on the piazza, who could watch me. I filled the kettle. "Did you see my boys?" says he. I told him, "Yes--behind the barn." The barn was further off than the kettle. "Shall I go and tell them to make a fire about the kettle?" Says he, "Yes." They wanted to kill a shoat against the folks got home with my brother. I stepped to the barn to tell them; I looked round,--no one was looking. I told them. They all started for wood, etc. I looked up to the sun, and said to myself, "it's three o'clock." I threw my boots over a stump, and drew them so I could run, I kept my boots, and ran off to Canada. . . . .

It is above my language to tell how overjoyed I was on getting into Canada. Nothing harasses a man so much as slavery. There is nothing under the sun so mean: after a man is dead, they won't let him rest. It is a horrible thing to think of, the ignorance slaves are brought up in. There is not a man born, who can represent slavery so bad as it is.

I work here at blacksmithing: I own this shop. I have plenty of work, and good pay."

Monday, June 29, 2020

Franklin's USCT Statue Honors Our Native Sons

Today, the final fundraising threshold was met to be able to erect a statue to the US Colored Troops on the Public Square in downtown Frankin. This would not have happened without the hard work of many people, especially those involved in the Fuller Story project.

The statue will be a full-scale bronze representation of a USCT soldier sculpted by Tennessee native Joe F. Howard. Design work and sculpting are already underway. Plans are to unveil the statue in early 2021.

I wanted to take this moment to describe exactly who this statue is depicting - to put a human face on it. The soldiers represented by the statue have direct ties to Williamson County - they were born here, they lived here, married here, enlisted here, served here, raised families here, died here and are buried here. They are our native sons. Many of them left widows and orphans and bereft parents behind. So far, I have identified 59 Black soldiers from Williamson County who died in service to our country during the Civil War. At least ten of these men died of wounds received in the Battle of Nashville. Many of their remains lie in unmarked or unknown graves. When Franklin's Confederate monument was erected in 1899 - 35 years after the Civil War - many of the surviving local USCT soldiers were still living in Williamson County.  Not only was their service not honored, but it was also in many ways a liability.  It is beyond time - these local men all deserve public recognition for their service to us and to our nation.

For some context, you should know that during the Civil War, approximately 180,000 African American men joined the federal forces in the USCT to fight. Tennessee sent the third-highest number of men of any state - more than 20,000.

Tennessee sent the third-largest number of men to join the USCT during the Civil War.
About 20,000 black men from Tennessee joined USCT regiments.

I believe that the 300 men from Williamson County I have identified actually represent a significant undercount. I think the number of local USCT could easily be as much as double that or even triple. The reason for the undercount has to do with the lack of indexed and digitized military service records for these men, incomplete enlistment records, and other issues that make it hard to track and identify the birthplace and residence of these soldiers.

Further, it is important to remember in thinking about the statue and the men it represents, in addition to sending USCT from Williamson County, they were also active in and around our community throughout the War.

For example, in mid-August 1863 more than 60 African American men were enlisted into Company A of the 13th US Colored Infantry right in Franklin - perhaps inside the old Williamson County Court House that sits on the Square - right where the statue will be installed. Later that October 1863, recruiters again were enlisting Black men into US Colored troop regiments in Franklin.

In March 1864, Moscow Carter of the Carter House wrote a letter in which he said a company of USCT was garrisoned in Franklin and he expected a regiment to be sent here. He was probably referring to the 17th US Colored Infantry. On March 21, 1864, 19-year-old Samuel Cox - who was born in Williamson County - enlisted in Franklin in Company C of the 17th US Colored Infantry.

Company Descriptive Card
Samuel Cox
17th US Colored Infantry

Peter Bruner
12th US Colored Heavy Artillery

Later that summer, a portion of the 12th US Colored Heavy Artillery was sent here to guard cattle. Pvt. Peter Bruner described in his memoir how,

Then we started on our journey from Bowling Green to Nashville, Tennessee, to guard a thousand head of cattle. Everything went well with us until we arrived at Franklin, Tennessee, except it rained on us every day. After we had passed into Franklin the next night we went into camp, everything began to go wrong. The food gave out and the rebels fired in on us. The rebels had three men to our one but they did not get any of our men or cattle. All of this occurred after night. We managed the next day to go to the mill to get some flour and when we came back we made it up with water and put it on a board and held it up before the fire to bake it. We did not have any salt nor any shortening nor anything. That evening we found a hog that had five little pigs just about three days old and cleaned them and made soup of them. About that time that the soup was done the rebels fired in on us and made us go and forget all about our pig soup. So after this we did not have any more trouble until we reached Nashville with all of our cattle safe.

Most significantly, following the Battle of Nashville, probably hundreds of local men were serving with the 12th US Colored Infantry, the13th US Colored Infantry, the 14th US Colored Infantry, the 16th US Colored Infantry, the 17th US Colored Infantry, the 44th US Colored Infantry, and the 2nd US Colored Light Artillery, Battery A. Their contributions were significant to winning the Battle and bringing about the end of major fighting in the Western Theatre. You can learn more about the contributions of Williamson County's USCT in the Battle of Nashville in this blog post. The next day, these men hounded the defeated and retreating Confederate Army of Tennessee right through Williamson County and Franklin. A few USCT, including Franklin native Sgt. Major Andrew Ewing, was left sick in a hospital here.

As they came through town on their way to Murfreesboro to board trains, these local men - who were returning as triumphant soldiers, no longer slaves, had this remarkable encounter with their commander General Thomas:

Following the War, US soldiers discovered the remains of two soldiers from Company K of the 17th US Colored Infantry who were “Found in Vicinity of Squire Carter’s on Battlegrounds.” These men were later buried in the Stones River National Cemetery. They likely died during Hood's Retreat.

Even long after the surrender, US Colored Troops were kept on active duty in this area as peacekeeping troops, security forces and burial details. On February 4th, 1866, two brothers of the 17th US Colored Infantry, Co E were on furlough from Nashville. They were traveling on foot to Triune to visit their parents who were living near there. They were attacked by a civilian and one of the brothers, Pvt.Henry Moon was shot and killed.

Pvt. John Dubuisson served in the 100th US Colored Infantry. In my blog post about him, I described how he married his wife Bettie here in early 1867. He died in July 1909 and is buried in the historic Toussaint L'Ouverture Cemetry in Franklin.

Pvt. Freeman Thomas was enslaved just west of downtown Franklin. He was shot in the leg during the Battle of Nashville, raised a successful family in Franklin following the War and owned a house on Franklin Road that still stands. You can read an interview with him in my blog post here. He died on his 91st birthday and is also buried in the Toussaint L'Ouverture Cemetery.

Private Granville Scales was enslaved in the College Grove area of Williamson County with his parents before the War. He enlisted in the 44th US Colored Infantry. He was taken Prisoner of War two times and escaped both times. The second time he was shot in the shoulder so badly that he had to have his arm amputated. In my blog post, I describe how he declined a medical discharge and stayed on active duty, becoming his regiment's principal musician. Following the War, he moved his family to Kansas and then Oklahoma where he built a grocery store and was a leading member of the community.

Felix Battle was born in Williamson County and was just 13 years old when he enlisted in the 13th US Colored Infantry. He served as a drummer boy during the intense Battle of Nashville and after the War raised a large family in Louisiana. He was a very successful farmer and sent his children to school in Nashville.

These are just a few examples of the connections that USCT had in and around Franklin and Williamson County during and after the Civil War. It is long past time to honor and remember them. We have lost their stories and now we can bring their legacies home. I am so grateful to everyone who is making this a reality through their support of the statue.

If you would like to learn more about these men, please subscribe to my blog and follow Slaves to Soldiers on Facebook.

Some additional local USCT Stories can be found here:

Monday, June 8, 2020

Tennessee's Confederate Independence Day - June 8, 1861

Today is a big day for the men portrayed by Franklin’s Confederate Monument. #OTD1861 On today’s date 1861, an overwhelming majority of the adult, white male voters in Williamson County voted to secede from the United States and join the Confederate States of America. Today is their “Independence Day.”  

Once all the votes were counted, 1,915 white men voted in favor of the state resolution to secede. Only 28 remained loyal to this country. It is important to remember that the votes of the rebels represented only a small fraction of the total population in Williamson County. At the time of the vote, about 24,000 people lived in Williamson County, more than half of whom were held in cruel bondage.

You have surely heard the arguments -- the South seceded over “States Rights” not slavery.  Well, listen to what the Nashville Republican Banner newspaper said the vote was about the day before it was taken. In an editorial titled, “What is to be voted To-morrow” the paper wrote:

“The people of Tennessee will cast the most important vote to-tomorrow that they have ever been called upon to cast. It is to decide whether Tennessee shall declare her Independence of the Federal Union, or continue a party to that Union under a Constitution violated for the purpose of urging a war upon the Southern States - a war for the extermination of slavery. This is the issue, blink it and pervert it as you will. The people of the Northern States have been for nearly half a century haters of slavery. For many years their pecuniary interests and a regard for their constitutional obligations kept them from making this hatred an active political element. But slowly and surely the once insignificant and contemptible abolition party has gained in strength and numbers, until finally under the name of the Republican party, and under the lead of such men as Lincoln, Greely, and others, and with the watch word of the “irrepressible conflict” between free and slave labor, it absorbed the entire Northen masses, and succeeded in the first grand set of the drama - gaining possession fo the Executive Department of the Government. … Is there a Southern man who is willing to trust his honor, his interests, his constitutional rights in the keeping of a government controlled by the spirit of abolitionism and hatred of slavery which has so signalized the whole public and private career of the men in power at Washington, and which has become the ruling sentiment of the whole North?  . . . "

Pretty clear, isn’t it?  It was a “war for the extermination of slavery.”  Right from the get-go.  And these men were rising to defend it. You cannot whitewash it.

So the next time you see a post that says something like, "We need to keep our historical monuments to preserve our history" or  "Our history should never be forgotten or rewritten." Know that I agree with you in part - this history should never be forgotten and it should never have been rewritten and told as a false narrative. Just remember exactly what history it is that our monuments today are honoring and telling. And whose. Think about what parts of our history we choose to commemorate and to celebrate.  There are other stories more worthy of elevation. 

This is the full text of the editorial -- you can download it here.