The Union Army’s false Afro-Canadians

Via my Twitter feed, I see that my host for the Past Present talk last week has an interesting article in the New York Times‘s blog on the Civil War, Disunion.  Adam Arenson, who is headed to Manhattan College later this year, has discovered a number of false Canadian volunteers for the Union Army.  After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, it was no longer sufficient merely for runaway slaves to cross into a free U.S. state, as Eliza did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in her desperate bid to cross the semi-frozen Ohio River with her little boy from Kentucky to Ohio.  The Fugitive Slave Act effectively denied that there was any such thing as a free state, so escape to Canada was the only sure means to escape the grasp of the U.S. slaveocracy.  The result, according to Arenson?  Fake Canadian volunteers!

As for those men who enlisted in St. Louis in August 1864, the man listed on the rolls as Jerry Watson explained to pension officers: “I did not tell them I was born in Canada and I was not asked where I was born.” Another, John Adams, said he had been enslaved in his home state of Kentucky, and that “I ran way from there and came to St. Louis and enlisted.” So why was he listed as a foreigner? “They had me say I was from Canada,” Adams replied. They — white substitute recruiters, paid a portion of the bounty, or perhaps even the enlistment officers themselves — seem to have coached these black men to claim foreign birth, and the advantages of a new identity for joining the Army. That could explain the strange phrase on Adams’s enlistment record: “born Canada British Prov.” — a description that doth protest too much.

With the flick of a pen, fugitive slaves could gain a connection to British North America, and lose some of the clues that would allow angry slaveholders or worried family members to track them down. Some of the African-Americans who had escaped to Canada considered the Great Lakes crossing as a new baptism, or coming under the protection of the British Lion’s paw. The experience of these soldiers as fake Canadians demonstrates how the talismanic power of Canada could extend far south of the border, to dwell in the minds of Union citizens and soldiers alike during the Civil War.

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Dead priest blogging! Next stop, Twitter?

La blogue?  C'est moi

La blogue? C’est moi!

Remarkable providences!  An eighteenth-century Jesuit is blogging now at Charlevoix (“a blog about New France”). Those of you in the know will recognize the blogger as the late Pierre F.-X. Charlevoix (1682-1761), who is considered one of the first historians of New France.  (I say one of the first historians of New France, because I consider the unsung annalists of women’s religious orders to be historians of New France as well–and most of them in the eighteenth century were Canadian-born historians, not imports like Charlevoix.)

Here’s a little flava, a brief comparison of New England and New France in his Journal of a Voyage to North-America (London, 1761; Readex Microprint, 1966, in two volumes), an English translation of his 1744 French travel narrative: Continue reading

RED ALERT! Representing women’s & gender history at the Omohundro Institute’s annual conference

cowgirlhayoopsFrom the mailbag today, a note from Sheila Skemp at the University of Mississippi:

A number of us returned from the (excellent!) Omohundro Institute Conference in Halifax this spring with a sense of uneasiness.  While the program was truly impressive, it did not include a single panel devoted to women/gender issues.  Given the strength of the field, this is truly troubling.  And we want to make sure that this does not happen again.

It’s true.  I reviewed the program, paper-by-paper, and while there were two paper titles that specifically mentioned women as historical subjects, they weren’t about women’s or gender history:  Megan Hatfield of the University of Miami gave a paper subtitled “War, Family, and the Transformation of Identity in the life of Eliza Pinckney,” and Rachel Hermann of Southampton University spoke on “‘Their Filthy Trash:’  Food, War, and Anglo-Indian Conflict in Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity Narrative,” (a subject I’ve written about before, in Abraham in Arms.CORRECTION, 7:45 P.M. MDT:  I missed Craig Bruce Smith’s paper on “Women of Honor:  Feminine Evolution through Dedication to the American Revolution.  That said, there were twice as many men named Craig on the program as there were papers focusing on women with a gendered lense.  Skemp continues: Continue reading

Returning POWs, eighteenth-century style

The recent redemption of captive Bowe Bergdahl has interested me–not the political pissing match, which seems as drearily predictable as the plot of a Harlequin Romance.  The details coming out about his experiences as a prisoner of war are what I want to know more about.  The news that he has trouble speaking English now is especially fascinating to me.  It called to my mind this passage from A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. [Susanna] Johnson, Containing an Account of her Four Years of Suffering with the Indians and French.  First published in 1796, it told of her family’s experiences from 1754-58 as prisoners during the Seven Years War after they were captured in a raid on Fort Number Four in what’s now Charlestown, New Hampshire.  Johnson relates this about the return of her son Sylvanus, whom she last saw at age six or seven.  He was eleven before she saw him again:

In the October following [1758], I had the happiness to embrace my son Sylvanus; he had been above three years with the Indians, followed them in all their hunting excursions and learnt too many of their habits; to civilize him, and learn him his native language was a severe task, (136).

Little Sylvanus Johnson has been on my mind recently, because I wrote an essay last summer about child war captives in early America, and I focused on his experiences in one portion of the essay.  In successive editions of her narrative, Susanna Johnson either gives us more details about Sylvanus’s condition, or she embroiders the story.  From the 1814 third edition published after her death in 1810:

In October, 1758, I was informed that my son Sylvanus was at Northampton [Massachusetts], sick of a scald.*  I hastened to the place, and found him in a deplorable situation; he was brought there by Major Putnam, afterwards Gen. Putnam, with Mrs. How and her family, who had returned from captivity.**  The town of Northampton had taken the charge of him; his situation was miserable; when I found him, he had no recollection of me, but, after some conversation, he had some confused ideas of me, but no remembrance of his father.  It was four years since I had seen him; he was then eleven years old.  During his absence, he had entirely forgotten the English language, spoke a little broken French, but was perfect in Indian.  He had been with the savages three years, and one year with the French.  But his habits were somewhat Indian; he had been with them in their hunting excursions, and suffered numerous hardships; he could brandish a tomahawk or bend the bow; but these habits wore off by degrees, (130).

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Women’s History & Public History: NWHM update, Berks alert, and the Peg Strobel Travel Grant winner

cowgirlrarintogoI won’t be at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women this year, but I wanted to alert you to a few sessions in particular that focus on women’s history and public history, the National Women’s History Museum controversy, and finally, the winner of the first Peg Strobel travel grant competition.

First, Sonya Michel has informed me that she has posted a number of relevant responses to the breakdown between Joan Wages, President and CEO of the NWHM, and professional historians at the Coordinating Council for Women in History website.

Second, there are two events that will interest folks gathering in Toronto at the Berks that pertain to the NWHM fracas:

  • Session 123: “Women’s History Meets Public History,” Saturday May 24, 8-10 a.m., University College 144
  • Open Meeting re: Historians and the Women’s History Museum in Washington, DC, Sunday May 25, 9:30-11:30 a.m., University College 44 (lower level)

cowgirl3Third, congratulations to Tracey Hanshew, a Ph.D. student at Oklahoma State University, who won the Peg Strobel Berkshire Conference Travel Grant!  And you will not believe what she’s writing about, friends:  cowgirls! Continue reading

New Journal: History of Women in the Americas

History of Women in the AmericasCommenter Susan alerted me to a new English language journal which will likely be of interest to readers of this blog:

History of Women in the Americas (ISSN 2042-6348) is an open-access journal publishing cutting-edge scholarship on women’s and gender history in all parts of the Americas and between the Americas and other nations across all centuries. The journal provides a unique forum for interrogating women’s history from a hemispheric perspective that stretches from Canada and the United States to Latin America, Central America and Mexico to the Caribbean.  History of Women in the Americas is a showcase for historians of North American, South American and Caribbean women from postgraduates and early career scholars to well-established academics. The journal places a spotlight on the significant contributions to the history of women in the Americas that researchers are continuing to make. At the same time, History of Women in the Americas aims to assist scholars by publishing book reviews on related areas and publicizing conferences and other similar items of interest.  

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