11/4/14

Just Another Of History’s Mysteries

I have so many questions regarding the lives of the Dent brothers; there are still so many missing pieces of the puzzle. Now I have a question about Frederick Dent’s afterlife. Included in his papers at SIU were copies of newspaper articles reporting his death and burial in 1892. The articles indicate he was interred at Ft. Leavenworth National Cemetery at his own request, yet he is today interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

I sent an email to Arlington asking when Frederick was moved and at whose request. I got back this response:

It was an honor serving you today.  Case ID 174810 has been created for our
communication today. Frederick Tracey Dent was interred in Arlington
National Cemetery in May 1915. At this time we done know who made this
request to have him moved to Arlington National Cemetery. 

So, Fred was moved from Kansas to Virginia twenty-two years after he died, but I still don’t know who requested that he be moved, or why. And, who paid for the move? Once again, if anyone reading happens to have any knowledge of this, please comment!

10/29/14

The Wonder of Historic Documents

 

Home from an all-day sojourn over to Carbondale, Illinois to look through Southern Illinois University’s collection of the papers of Frederick T. Dent, and I’m still digesting what I saw. My friend and colleague Nick Sacco went along and each of us looked through different folders of correspondence, newspaper clippings, Fred’s official promotion documents, and more. There was quite a collection of letters addressed to Fred asking for favors; interviews with his brother-in-law, the President, or help getting government appointments. I was hoping there might be a letter or letters from his brothers, John, George, or Lewis, but alas, there were none. We didn’t come across anything that shed light on Fred’s views on slavery or life at White Haven.

Nevertheless, there is something truly amazing about having a historic document in your hands. Perhaps only those who are really fascinated by history can understand this, but there were some documents that just seemed amazing; amazing because they had been held by Frederick Dent, or Ulysses Grant, or by Julia Grant; amazing because these fragile paper documents have survived way over a century or a century and a half.

One that really struck me was this telegram – the actual telegram that Fred Dent Grant sent from Mt. McGregor, New York to his uncle and namesake in Washington D.C. notifying him that Ulysses Grant had died. Maybe it didn’t tell me anything new, but it was moving nonetheless. Maybe what it told me was that these were real people; family; friends. What emotions and memories flooded Frederick Dent’s mind and heart as he read those simple, direct words, “Father died at eight o clock this morning.”?

If the telegram wasn’t enough to indicate the closeness of these people, and in particular Fred Dent and his famous brother-in-law, Ulysses Grant, there was this poignant letter also written by Fred Grant to Fred Dent. It said:

New York

March 28th, 1886

Dear Uncle Fred:

Just before my beloved father died he gave some instructions about what he would like done. Among these wishes was one about you. He said he wanted to send you a little present in memory of old and happy days. That he had always been very fond of you, and that if mother could spare it he would like her to send you $500 which I now enclose to you with her love.

Mother says if you and Aunt Hellen can come she would like you to pay her a visit. All join in love to you and yours.

Affectionately,

Your nephew,

Fred Grant

As Ulysses Grant lay dying, he had thought of Frederick Tracy Dent, reaching back, no doubt, to the days of their youth; of their shared experiences as roommates at West Point, of their shared experiences in the War with Mexico, of their shared experiences in 1864-5 as they battled to save the United States; of their shared experiences in the White House when Fred served as the gatekeeper to the President. These men had lived incredible lives of service to their country and in the process helped shape the world we live in today, but they were also real people, as these paper remnants of their lives attest.

 


 

 

 

 

10/28/14

Frederick T. Dent 1861

Frederick Tracy Dent

Frederick Tracy Dent

One question we are frequently asked at U. S. Grant NHS is, “Did any of Julia’s brothers fight for the Confederacy?” More specifically, “Did Fred Dent (who had been Grant’s roommate at West Point and his conduit to White Haven) fight for the Confederates?” The simple answer is that none of the brothers fought for the Confederacy, and only one, Fred, fought for the Union.

Of course, there are rarely simple answers to questions about history. Even if they didn’t fight, what were their individual responses to the slaveholder’s rebellion? What did each of them do during the war? I’ve been exploring these questions and I intend to write more regarding the brothers, but for this post I want to mention a curious statement on the Frederick T. Dent page of the FortWiki website.

The page notes that Fred was stationed in the Pacific Northwest at the outbreak of the Civil War: “Between June and November 1861 Capt. Dent and Company B of the 9th U.S. Infantry were located at Fort Hoskins Oregon and Captain Dent was the fort commander.” It goes on to say: “In November 1861 he was accused of involvement in a plot to turn over Fort Hoskins to ‘secessionists’ which remained unproven.” Unfortunately, there is no source citation for this allegation. The idea that Fred might have been sympathetic to the secessionists is entirely contrary to what Grant himself wrote and to Fred’s subsequent service.

In a letter dated April 19, 1861, Grant wrote to his father-in-law (Fred’s own father), “I have just rec’d a letter from Fred. He breathes fort[h] the most patriotic sentiments. He is for the old Flag as long as there is a Union of two states fighting under its banner and when they dissolve he will go it alone. This is not his language but it is his idea not so well expressed as he expresses it.”

So, I’m curious as to where the story comes from that Fred was involved in a treasonous plot in November 1861. Who accused him? Who else was supposed to be involved? If anyone reading this post knows something about this story, please comment.

Tomorrow, I’m heading over to Carbondale, Illinois to look through the papers of Frederick T. Dent in special collections at Southern Illinois University. I’m looking for more pieces of the puzzle.

10/21/14

Growing Up at White Haven

From "The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant"

From “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant”

The four sons of Frederick Fayette Dent, patriarch of White Haven, were all born between 1816 and 1823. Dent purchased the property in 1820. All four died before the coming of the twentieth century; George, the last to go in 1899. The world and America were vastly different places at the end of their lives than the world and the America they had been born into. Their famous brother-in-law, Ulysses Grant observed in his Memoirs that “the country grew, rapid transit [railroads, telegraphs, and steamboats] was established, and trade and commerce between the States got to be so much greater than before.” And, of course, there had been wars; wars for territorial expansion and a great war that had tested, as Abraham Lincoln so famously said, whether a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could long endure. Grant said “our republican institutions were regarded as experiments to the breaking out of the rebellion, and monarchical Europe generally believed that our Republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it.” The Civil War settled on the battlefield the question of secession, though “states’ rights” and the proper role of the federal government remained contested. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution radically altered definitions of freedom and citizenship.

The prologue to the movie Gone With The Wind read:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called The Old South…Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow…Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their ladies fair, of Master and of Slave…Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind.

Historians have rightly condemned this romanticized vision of the “Old South,” yet this is exactly how many Americans chose to remember their past. Julia Grant chose to remember White Haven in ways not dissimilar. She adored her father, and admired her older brothers. In her Memoirs she wrote, “My four dear brothers, John, George, Fred, and Louis, were brave fellows, and to my mind and also papa’s and mama’s were heroes.” The Dents and their slaves were, for the most part, in Julia’s memory one big, happy family. It can be argued that Missouri, a border state, and especially St. Louis with its mix of cultures, was never the “Old South,” and White Haven certainly wasn’t the mythical Tara. As I’ve written before, White Haven never operated like a deep south plantation. For one thing, there was no cotton. Nevertheless, there were Masters and Slaves, and Frederick F. Dent, by most accounts, liked to think of White Haven as his plantation and himself as a southern aristocratic gentleman. Historian Eugene D. Genovese once wrote:

The planters [before the war] commanded Southern politics and set the tone of social life. Theirs was an aristocratic spirit with values and mores that emphasized family and status, had its code of honor, aspired to luxury, leisure and accomplishment. In the planters community paternalism was the standard of human relationships, and politics and statecraft were the duties and responsibilities of gentlemen. The gentleman was expected to live for politics and not like the bourgeois politician, off politics.

The planter typically recoiled at the notions that profit is the goal of life; that the approach to production and exchange should be internally rational and uncomplicated by social values; that thrift and hard work are the great virtues; and that the test of wholesomeness of a community is the vigor with which its citizens expand the economy.

The planter was certainly no less acquisitive than the bourgeois, but an acquisitive spirit is compatible with values anti-ethical to capitalism. The aristocratic spirit of the planters absorbed acquisitiveness and directed it into channels that were socially desirable to a slave society; the accumulation of land and slaves and the achievement of military and political honors. Whereas, in the North people were impelled by the lure of business and money for their own sake, in the South specific forms of property carried with [them]the badges of honor, prestige, and power.

This description of planter mentality is compatible with accounts of Frederick F. Dent (except, perhaps, the notion of thrift). Dent had worked hard, made his wealth as a merchant, and at White Haven “aspired to luxury, leisure and accomplishment.” As Julia recalled:

He did not like the mercantile business after he had once enjoyed the repose of country life. He once said to me when I asked him why he did not remain in business in the city: “My daughter, the Yankees that have come west have reduced business to a system. Do you know that if a man wants a loan of a few thousand dollars for a few days –God bless you! – they want a note and interest. This was not so in my time.”… Papa found this place [White Haven] and the life so delightful that he gradually gave up all occupation and passed the summer months sitting in an easy chair reading an interesting book, and in the winter, in the chimney corner beside a blazing hickory fire, occupied in the same way.

Someone, of course, had to do the work required to live in the mid-19th century; tending the crops and livestock for food, the cooking, the laundry, even keeping that blazing hickory fire going in the winter. It is likely, however, that to Frederick Dent’s paternalistic way of thinking, it was he who was taking care of the enslaved people, not the other way around. This is reflected in Julia’s memory:

Most of our old colored people were from Virginia and Maryland, and papa used to buy for them great barrels of fish – herring from that part of the country. Molasses, tobacco, and some whiskey (on cold, raw days) were issued regularly to them from the storehouse, and then they had everything the farm produced, such as vegetables, bacon, beef, and, of course, poultry….[My father] was the most indulgent and generous of fathers and the kindest of masters to his slaves, who all adored him. I call back the memory of those Christmas holidays and Whitsuntide festivals, the weddings of those poor people…, the fine suppers the master and mistress always gave them on these occasions.

Julia’s very turn of phrase is interesting – everything the farm produced – as if “the farm” could produce anything without the labor of the enslaved.

At some point, Frederick F. Dent had acquired the military title of Colonel, and would be known as Colonel Dent the remainder of his life. By some accounts he had served in a militia during the War of 1812, though not as an officer, so the title was apparently honorary. Still, it comports with Genovese’s mention of military honors among planter gentleman. Frederick F. Dent was also very involved in politics, even though he never ran for office. When he died in 1873, one newspaper report noted he “was always called upon to preside at [local] political meetings. He persistently refused to accept office, though often asked to do so. He was always a staunch democrat, and boasted that he had voted for every democratic President since he had attained his majority, except Buchanan, of whom, for some reason, he did not approve. He almost invariably came to Washington to attend Presidential inaugurations.”

Genovese stated that “in the South specific forms of property carried with [them] the badges of honor, prestige, and power.” Certainly, the “form of property” Genovese is referring to is slaves. “Southern honor,” though, is a subject that has been much written about by historians and social scientists. A blog post at The Art Of Manliness, outlined Southern honor thus:

The code of honor for Southern men required having: 1) a reputation for honesty and integrity, 2) a reputation for martial courage and strength, 3) self-sufficiency and “mastery,” defined as patriarchal dominion over a household of dependents (wife/children/slaves), and 4) a willingness to use violence to defend any perceived slight to his reputation as a man of integrity, strength, and courage, as well as any threats to his independence and kin. Just as in medieval times, “might made right” in the American South. If a man could physically dominate or kill someone who accused him of dishonesty, that man maintained his reputation as a man of integrity (even if the accusations were in fact true).

Southerners brought these concepts of honor to Missouri; one only needs look to the history of Bloody Island in the Mississippi River near St. Louis. “Young boys were encouraged by both their parents and the community to be aggressive and manly, and to fight to defend one’s honor from an early age [and] that even if you got creamed, simply showing your willingness to fight demonstrated your manhood.”

This is the culture and environment in which the Dent brothers were raised. None of them stayed at White Haven to achieve the planter gentleman status that their father aspired to. In fact, their father’s dream of being a planter gentleman was crumbling long before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, and their brother-in-law Grant’s attempt at making a go at White Haven only further showed the futility of such a dream. Each of the four brothers were individuals in their own right, and they made individual choices and lived individual lives. Nevertheless, when they left White Haven they, no doubt, took with them distinct ideas regarding family, politics, white superiority, martial manliness, class entitlements, and honor learned in their childhood. Though they would often live far apart, their lives remained entwined. In addition, in her book, New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, Rebecca Edwards wrote:

Pre-Civil War Americans had expected most people to become independent craftsmen, shopkeepers, businessmen, or farmers, an ideal that in the early republic had undergirded confidence in the independence and virtue of the citizenry. Permanent paid employment was widely derided as “wage slavery.” Over the course of the post-Civil War decades, however, debate over the legitimacy of wage work faded. For most workers the key issues came to be not the fact that they were wage earners but whether they enjoyed decent hours and working conditions and whether they could live comfortably on their pay.

None of the Dent brothers ever became “wage slaves.” They became military officers, lawyers, business owners, plantation lessees, politicians, and government agents in various capacities. And, when the opportunities arose, they would often try to use their relationship to their famous brother-in-law to their advantage. Julia wrote that when her father died he “left a large and, I think, most worthy family to lament him.” She likely knew when she added the qualifier “I think,” that her assessment would be a matter of historic debate. Yet, theirs is a distinctly American story.

 

10/17/14

The Passing of George W. Dent

After leaving Missouri in 1852, George Wrenshall Dent lived most of his life in California, much of the time living in the San Francisco Bay area. This means that George and Henrietta Jones lived very near each other even after Henrietta became free, whenever that might have been. This obituary does not mention that George was elected to the California State Legislature, serving in 1859 and 1860 as a Democrat.

 

 

 

10/16/14

California and Slavery

I’d like to expand on a few things I wrote in yesterday’s blog post. To wit:

“The moment an enslaved person touched foot on California soil they would be free.”

“Henrietta [Henrietta Jones, the Dents enslaved woman] would have been free the moment she reached California’s border.”

“Did they [Colonel Dent or George W. Dent] tell Henrietta that if she agreed to remain in servitude for some specified amount of time, that she would earn her freedom, even though that would have been illegal?”

As I wrote, these were precisely the arguments that opponents of a ban on blacks coming into the state made at the 1849 Constitutional Convention when confronted with the allegation that slaveholders would bring their slaves to California, work them for a time in the mines or as servants and then set them free. Nevertheless, slavery didn’t end as easily as the anti-slavery folks in California hoped. This is made quite clear in Stacey L. Smith’s 2013 book, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle Over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction.

Anti-slavery advocates believed that having the state Constitution expressly prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude in the state would mean exactly that – no slavery. Slaveholders, however, refused to give up their chattel so easily. They continued after the Constitution was ratified and after the state was admitted to the Union to hold their slaves in bondage using various tactics to skirt the Constitution. One of those tactics was to sign slaves to labor contracts. Smith shows that in California these contracts were sometimes upheld in the courts and other times deemed illegal. Much depended on the ideological sympathies of the particular judge hearing the case.

Another proslavery argument was that although the “California constitution declared that slavery would not be tolerated in the state, it did not contain an enforcement clause that liberated slaves who arrived before or after statehood. Without this enforcement clause in place, proslavery jurists in California might (and did) declare the antislavery provision a mere ‘declaration of a principle’ that expressed an aversion to slavery but did not necessarily free any slaves.”

Slavery did not go away easily in California. Still, slaveholders found it difficult to maintain their control over slaves in California given the “peculiarities of California geography, law, and social relations.”

The questions I posed regarding the Dents’ decision to bring or take Henrietta Jones from Missouri to California still remain. What did they tell Henrietta? Was there some kind of length of service agreement? How long did Henrietta stay with George Dent? How aware was she of the laws regarding slavery in California? Did she run away the first chance she got? I may never know, but I do recommend Smith’s book for a detailed and well-researched look at slavery in what was supposed to be a free state.  (And a hat-tip to Nick Sacco who loaned me his book.)

10/15/14

Piecing Together The Puzzle Of White Haven

Yesterday’s post was somewhat a prelude to this post.

In 1879, following a trip that had taken them around the world, former President and First Lady, Ulysses and Julia Grant returned to the United States at San Francisco. Many Americans had followed the Grants’ travels through newspaper reports and were delighted to have the Grants home again. Receptions were held to toast them. Julia wrote in her Memoirs of an encounter she had at one reception:

Towards the latter part of a reception tendered to the General, a colored woman entered and was announced as Mrs. Jones. She came up and, holding out her hand, said: ‘Miss Julie, I do not believe you know me. I am Henrietta, or Henny, as you used to call me at home.’ I took both of her hands now. She was one of our old slaves my father had sent with my brother G. W. Dent long years ago to nurse his (my father’s) grandchildren. I was very glad to see Henny and told her to come to my room the next day, but I never saw her afterwards.

This small passage, written by Julia some twenty or so years after this meeting between the former mistress of White Haven and a former enslaved woman of White Haven, raises a number of interesting questions, but first, some background.

In 1846, Julia’s youngest brother, Lewis (or Louis) left Missouri and journeyed west to California. There he became a lawyer and a judge. In 1849, Lewis, just 26 years old, was selected to be a delegate to the first California State Constitutional Convention charged with drafting a state constitution that would be acceptable to the United States Congress, allowing California to enter the Union as a state. The first and biggest question that had to be addressed was: Would California be a free or slave state? Nationally, it was a momentous question. Either way, the balance of power in the Senate between free and slave states would be upset. (In 1820, Congress, as part of the Missouri Compromise, had created the State of Maine to maintain that balance; Maine entered as a free state while Missouri entered as a slave state.) Many emigrants in California had come from slave states, including Lewis Dent, and might have been expected to advocate for the institution. Yet, when the convention met, the delegates voted unanimously and apparently with little or no debate, to apply for statehood as a free state. Lewis Dent voted to prohibit slavery in California.

Although the question of prohibiting slavery in California was settled rather quickly, another question arose at the convention (and more than once) that engendered serious and contentious debate. That question was: Should blacks, free and slave, be barred from entering California entirely? Proponents of such a ban made several dire predictions. They feared that the state would be overrun with “herds of free negros.” Not only was it feared that free blacks would come for the economic opportunities the Gold Rush was affording, but it was argued that slaveholders would bring their slaves to California for the very purpose of setting them free. One delegate put it this way:

The danger is that the citizens of the Southern States, whose slaves are gaining nothing, will emancipate them under certain contracts of servitude here for one year or more. Slaves are worth from three to four hundred dollars in Mississippi; it would be a very good speculation to serve either in the mines, or for a certain time as servants. We know that such is the intention, and that it has been made manifest to members of this House by private letters received from the States. Why should we not have the liberty of guarding against this evil?

Opponents of the ban countered that the fear of slaveholders bringing their slaves to California with the intention of keeping them in servitude for any length of time before setting them free was unfounded because slavery, or any form of involuntary servitude, would be expressly prohibited by the state constitution. The moment an enslaved person touched foot on California soil they would be free.

Ultimately, no such ban was included in that first California Constitution. Reading through the Report of the Debates, it doesn’t appear that Lewis Dent involved himself much in the debate over this issue, but he voted at least once in favor of directing the state Legislature to pass legislation addressing it. In this, he was in the minority; no directive was given to the nascent state legislature regarding any class of persons desiring to come to California.

There is no evidence that Lewis had brought any slaves to California himself. In fact, we have a letter Lewis wrote from California in 1849 (prior to the convention) that would indicate that he held no slaves. In the letter he described the first reactions to the discovery of gold. Everyone scurried to the mines to seek immediate riches, including Lewis’ “Indian servant.” Lewis soon decided to try his own luck in the diggings. He wrote:

I first went to a river called the Yuba, flowing from the Sierra Nevada, and emptying into the Sacramento. My Sandwich Island servants, of whom I had employed fifteen, at forty dollars a month, deserted me at Sutter’s Fort. I also had ten Indians and a colored man, a cook. The Indians remained faithful; and his sable dignity condescended to remain, on condition I would give him “Congressman’s pay,” i.e. eight dollars per diem! I was compelled to agree to his terms; one must eat, you know.

In 1850 Lewis and the eldest Dent brother, John purchased a ferry on the Stanislaus River, and operated it until1856, along with a hotel and restaurant. (I haven’t determined yet exactly when John left Missouri for California. He may have been with Lewis in 1846, but I’m not sure about that.) All of this brings me back to Julia’s encounter with Henrietta Jones in 1879. George Wrenshall Dent was the last Dent brother to leave Missouri and head west. (Fred was in the Army.)

It was 1852 by the time George decided to join his brothers in California. No doubt, Lewis and John were sending letters back home to friends and family. So far, however, I’ve only found two, both written by Lewis, the one in 1849, the other even earlier in June of 1847. These two extant Lewis Dent letters are lengthy and descriptive. It seems likely that Lewis would have sent other letters that included descriptions of his experience at the Convention in 1849, even though I haven’t found any, perhaps even relating the arguments over the banning of blacks. At the very least, by 1852, George and Julia’s father, Colonel Dent were aware that California had been admitted to the Union as a free state. Nevertheless, Colonel Dent, according to Julia, sent Henrietta to California with George. Henrietta would have been free the moment she reached California’s border.

George and Colonel Dent would have certainly known this. This is where the questions arise. Did Henrietta know she would be free when she reached California? Did the Dents have any kind of conversation with her about this? Or, did they just tell her, “Henrietta, you’re going to California!”? In other words, was she allowed any choice in the matter? Did the Dents do what some of the constitutional delegates claimed slaveholders would do, did they tell Henrietta that if she agreed to remain in servitude for some specified amount of time, that she would earn her freedom, even though that would have been illegal? Or, did they tell her, “Just take care of the children on the way and you’ll be free when you get there”? However this all played out, the fact is that the fears of some delegates were realized, at least in the case of Henrietta. She was an African-American whose owner brought her (or sent her) to California where she eventually became free.

What does all this tell us about the Dents and their attitudes towards slaves and slavery? What was Henrietta thinking and feeling through all this and later when she came to see the Grants in 1879? Why did she not return to see Julia the next day?

I may never have the answers to these questions, but I’m still searching for pieces to the puzzle.

10/14/14

Interpreting Slavery At White Haven

One of the biggest challenges in working at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (White Haven) the last six years has been (and continues to be) how to interpret slavery. In other words, what should visitors to White Haven be told? At first glance the answer seems easy – just tell them the truth. Unfortunately, as I wrote in my last post, the truth is often elusive. Our knowledge of the slave experience at White Haven and the relationships of the enslaved people to the Dents and the Grants is limited. In previous posts I’ve written about Ulysses’ attitude toward slavery, about the one slave Grant is known to have owned, William Jones, about Julia Grant and the enslaved people she claimed, and even about the one account of life at White Haven ostensibly from the perspective of an enslaved person, Mary Robinson.

In her Memoirs, Julia described the slaves’ lives at White Haven in very benign terms. She only gives a few intimations that the Dent’s enslaved people might not have been happy. For example, she rather grudgingly admitted that “the young ones became somewhat demoralized about the beginning of the Rebellion, when all the comforts of slavery passed away forever.” She also told us that her nurse, known as black Julia, left her while traveling in Kentucky during the war; Julia supposing she “feared losing her freedom” if she returned to Missouri.

In her interview in 1885, Mary Robinson said nothing negative about life at White Haven. (Or, if she did, the reporter didn’t publish it.)

As 21st century interpreters, we certainly don’t want visitors to get the impression that enslaved people ever actually were content being slaves. Nevertheless, we can’t document the kinds of horrors that can be documented elsewhere. We can’t document physical slave abuse at White Haven. We can’t document what, if any, punishments might have been meted out. There is no record of whippings or other types of bodily mutilations. As far as we know, there was never a hired overseer working the slaves as gangs in the fields. (During Grant’s time at White Haven, he worked in the fields alongside the slaves.) We don’t know if any of the enslaved women were abused in any sexual capacity by any of the Dents. The only bill of sale we have of White Haven slaves is dated 1862, when Colonel Dent sold four slaves to Julia’s sister Emma. It was a time when Colonel Dent was threatened financially (hard times came a-knocking, as Julia put it), yet they kept the slaves in the family. As far as we know, the Dents never sold any slaves “down the river.”

Physical abuse might have occurred, but we can’t document it. That leaves mental abuse. Mental abuse is probably inherent in being enslaved. Personally, never having 001been a slave, I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have felt like. I am always uncomfortable with historians who claim to know what people of the past were thinking and feeling. (See here and here.) If they didn’t leave some record specifically telling us then we are just guessing. It must be remembered that the slave experience varied greatly and that slaves were individual human beings. As historian Ira Berlin wrote in an essay included in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American History: “The lives of slaves, like those of all men and women, changed over time and differed from place to place. Thus slavery was not one thing but many. Like every human being who ever lived, the slave was a product of his or her circumstances, only one part of which – to be sure, a significant part – was that he or she was owned. Knowing that a person was a slave does not tell us everything about him or her. It is the beginning of the story, not its end.”

Despite having worked at White Haven (U. S. Grant NHS) six years,  I emphatically don’t claim to know the whole story of any of the people, free or enslaved, who lived there. In fact, the truth is, I don’t know nearly enough, and so I continue to search, to dig, to try to learn more. I think of the story of White Haven’s many inhabitants as a giant puzzle. I’m missing many pieces of that puzzle, and every time I uncover a new one I’m excited. The problem is that I don’t always know how the pieces fit together. And, it sometimes seems like for every new piece of the puzzle I find, I realize I’m still missing several more. It’s a continual search for the elusive “truth.”

10/7/14

Just Gimme Some Truth

In the past few weeks I’ve been reminded of just how hard this history stuff really is, even though so many people seem to think it’s easy. Maybe this is because people think writing history should be a straightforward telling of truth. Unfortunately, “truth” is often elusive. In fact, the meaning of “truth” itself is a matter of debate. In addition, as I’ve said before, how we view history affects how we view the present. Here are just a few articles I’ve read this week that illustrate all this:

Here Alan Singer, author of New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth takes the New York Times and Russell Shorto to task for “mythologizing” the history of the Dutch in early New York and ignoring the history  of slavery there.

Here Richard Cohen of the Washington Post rips Bill O’Reilly’s latest attempt at history, Killing Patton. Cohen points out that O’Reilly deliberately left out of his account Patton’s virulent anti-Semitism.

Here, in an ongoing struggle, students in Colorado have been protesting their school board’s response to the new AP history curriculum. The students have been holding up signs that read: “Teach us the truth.”

But, this gets us back to this question of “truth.” What really is “truth” and how do we find it? This week, I was asked about the relationship of Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General James Longstreet. Specifically, I was asked to respond to claims made about Grant and Longstreet in a video interview. I’m thinking about writing a blog post about this, but just an example for purposes of this post is the claim that it was Longstreet who first introduced Ulysses to Julia. The interviewee makes this claim, but doesn’t say where he got this information. Searching through biographies of Grant (secondary sources) reveals biographers making the same claim. It appears that it originated in an interview with Longstreet himself published in the New York Times the day after Grant died in 1885 (a primary source). Apparently, Longstreet took credit for introducing Ulysses to his future bride. Longstreet’s story however, conflicts with Julia and Ulysses’ own accounts, and that of Julia’s sister Emma (also primary sources). What is the “truth”?

Recently, there has been a push to teach history through the use of primary documents, even to the exclusion of traditional secondary sources like textbooks. Just google “teaching with primary sources” and see how many links come up. (My friend and colleague, Nick Sacco recently wrote an excellentblog post about this.) On the face of it, this would seem like a good idea. For example, instead of having some 21st century historian telling us what the cause of the Civil War was why not look at what the people in the 1860s said the cause of the war was? Don’t misunderstand me here, I’m all for the use of primary sources in teaching, but it must be recognized that primary sources have their own limitations. The challenge with this approach is, as the Longstreet claims show, primary sources are often as conflicting and erroneous as secondary sources. Primary sources must be examined with a cynical eye just as secondary sources must be. In addition, primary sources must be put into context, which is exactly why secondary sources are as essential as primary sources. I’ve been searching through 19th century newspapers the last few weeks looking for news articles about the Dents of White Haven. These newspapers would be considered primary documents, and yet they are full of factual errors and conflicting information. In addition, they were obviously written from highly partisan perspectives. Think about historians a hundred years from now looking at our time. How will they make sense of today’s highly partisan media reports? How will future historians discern the “truth” about today?

All of this should be well known by any trained historian. However, as I said, too many people think history is easy; that anyone can do it; that “truth” is easy to find.

09/28/14

Why Would Freedmen Attend Their Former Master’s Funeral?

Colonel Frederick F. Dent’s gravesite at Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis.

I’ve written blog posts on Julia and Ulysses Grant and the slaves of White Haven. In a post on Julia and slaves (see here) I wrote:

By 1864, on a return visit to White Haven, Julia wrote:

“I was happy to be home [White Haven], busy putting my house in order, and hoped soon to have a visit from my husband. Our colored people had all left, but their places were readily filled by German and French men and women, who were most excellent substitutes.”

This would seem to indicate that the Dent’s enslaved people had taken advantage of the chaos of the war and the lack of supervision at White Haven, and had simply left. At this time there are no known records to indicate otherwise. We do not know where most of them went, although Mary Robinson, the Dent’s slave cook, gave an interview published in the St. Louis Republican newspaper on July 24, 1885.

Last night I came across the following notice in the Washington D. C. Evening Star newspaper dated December 22, 1873:

The remains of Mr. Frederick Dent arrived in St. Louis Saturday morning, accompanied by the President, Gen Babcock, Marshal Sharpe, Col. Casey, Gen. Fred. Dent, and Col. Fred D. Grant. Quite a number of old friends of the deceased and intimate acquaintances of the President received the remains at East St. Louis, and accompanied them as a guard of honor to the residence of Col. John C. Dent, a son of the deceased, where a great number of old citizens, friends and former neighbors of the Dent family had assembled. Gen. John Pope, several other military officers, and a number of freedmen, formerly slaves of the deceased, were also present. The funeral ceremonies were performed at 1 o’clock, and were very brief. The remains were then conveyed to Bellefontaine cemetery, where they will be buried beside those of Mrs. Dent. The funeral cortege was quite long. The pall-bearers were selected from among the oldest citizens and friends of the deceased.

In the years after the Civil War, Julia’s father, Colonel Dent, lived with the Grants in Washington and died in the White House in 1873. As related by this article, his remains were returned to St. Louis for burial. What intrigued me about this article is the report that “a number of freedmen, formerly slaves of the deceased, were also present [at the funeral].” The fact that “a number” of former White Haven slaves were still living in St. Louis in 1873 is interesting but, why would they choose to attend the funeral of their former master just ten years after escaping to freedom? What were they thinking and feeling?