May 22, 1856 State’s Rights

The issue of slavery had joined and become so intertwined with ideas of self-determination, as to be indistinguishable.

Since the earliest days of the Republic, those supporting strong federal government found themselves opposed by those favoring greater self-determination by the states. In the southern regions, climate conditions led to dependence on agriculture, the rural economies of the south producing cotton, rice, sugar, indigo and tobacco. Colder states to the north tended to develop manufacturing economies, urban centers growing up in service to hubs of transportation and the production of manufactured goods.

domestic-tariffs-at-the-souths-expense (1)In the first half of the 19th century, 90% of federal government revenue came from tariffs on foreign manufactured goods. A lion’s share of this revenue was collected in the south, with the region’s greater dependence on imported goods.  Much of this federal largesse was spent in the north, with the construction of railroads, canals and other infrastructure.

The debate over economic issues and rights of self-determination, so-called ‘state’s rights’, grew and sharpened with the “nullification crisis” of 1832-33, when South Carolina declared such tariffs to be unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the state. A cartoon from the time depicted “Northern domestic manufacturers getting fat at the expense of impoverishing the South under protective tariffs.”

Chattel slavery pre-existed the earliest days of the colonial era, from Canada to Brazil and around the world. Moral objections to what was really a repugnant institution could be found throughout, but economic forces had as much to do with ending the practice, as any other. The “peculiar institution” died out first in the colder regions of the US and may have done so in warmer climes as well, but for Eli Whitney’s invention of a cotton engine (‘gin’) in 1794.

It takes ten man-hours to remove the seeds to produce a single pound of cotton. By comparison, a cotton gin can process about a thousand pounds a day, at comparatively little expense.

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The year of Whitney’s invention, the South exported 138,000 pounds a year to Europe and the northern states. Sixty years later, Great Britain alone was importing 600 million pounds a year from the southern states. Cotton was King, and with good reason.  The stuff is easily grown, highly transportable, and can be stored indefinitely, compared with food crops.  The southern economy turned overwhelmingly to the one crop, and its need for plentiful, cheap labor.

25The issue of slavery had joined and become so intertwined with ideas of self-determination, as to be indistinguishable.

The first half of the 19th century was one of westward expansion, generating frequent and sharp conflicts between pro and anti-slavery factions. The Missouri compromise of 1820 attempted to reconcile the sides, defining which territories would legalize slavery, and which would be “free”.

The short-lived “Wilmot Proviso” of 1846 sought to ban slavery in new territories, after which the Compromise of 1850 attempted to strike a balance.  The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 created two new territories, essentially repealing the Missouri Compromise and allowing settlers to determine their own direction.

This attempt to democratize the issue had the effect of drawing up battle lines.  Pro-slavery forces established a territorial capital in Lecompton, while “antis” set up an alternative government in Topeka.

78451229_783584_lIn Washington, Republicans backed the anti-slavery side, while most Democrats supported their opponents.  On May 20, 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner took to the floor of the Senate and denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Never known for verbal restraint, Sumner attacked the measure’s sponsors Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois (he of the later Lincoln-Douglas debates), and Andrew Butler of South Carolina by name, accusing the pair of “consorting with the harlot, slavery”.  Douglas was in the audience at the time and quipped “this damn fool Sumner is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool”.

In the territories, the standoff had long since escalated to violence. Upwards of a hundred or more were killed between 1854 – 1861, in a period known as “Bleeding Kansas”.

The town of Lawrence was established by anti-slavery settlers in 1854, and soon became the focal point of pro-slavery violence. Emotions were at a boiling point when Douglas County Sheriff Samuel Jones was shot trying to arrest free-state settlers on April 23, 1856. Jones was driven out of town but he would return.

Lawrence Massacre
Sack of Lawrence, Kansas

The day after Sumner’s speech, a posse of 800 pro-slavery forces converged on Lawrence Kansas, led by Sheriff Jones.  The town was surrounded to prevent escape and much of it burned to the ground.  This time there was only one fatality; a slavery proponent who was killed by falling masonry.  Seven years later, Confederate guerrilla Robert Clarke Quantrill carried out the second sack of Lawrence.  This time, most of the men and boys of the town were murdered where they stood, with little chance to defend themselves.

Meanwhile, Preston Brooks, Senator Butler’s nephew and a Member of Congress from South Carolina, had read over Sumner’s speech of the day before.  Brooks was an inflexible proponent of slavery and took mortal insult from Sumner’s words.

 

Preston Brooks (left), Charles Sumner, (right)

Brooks was furious and wanted to challenge the Senator to a duel. He discussed it with fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt, who explained that dueling was for gentlemen of equal social standing. Sumner was no gentleman, he said.  No better than a drunkard.

Brooks had been shot in a duel years before, and walked with a heavy cane. Resolved to publicly thrash the Senator from Massachusetts, the Congressman entered the Senate building on May 22, in the company of Congressman Keitt and Virginia Representative Henry A. Edmundson.

Caning of Charles SumnerThe trio approached Sumner, who was sitting at his desk writing letters. “Mr. Sumner”, Brooks said, “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”

Sumner’s desk was bolted to the floor.  He never had a chance. The Senator began to rise when Brooks brought the cane down on his head. Over and over the cane crashed down, while Keitt brandished a pistol, warning onlookers to “let them be”. Blinded by his own blood, Sumner tore the desk from the floor in his struggle to escape, losing consciousness as he tried to crawl away. Brooks rained down blows the entire time, even after the body lay motionless, until finally, the cane broke apart.

states_rights_imgIn the next two days, a group of unarmed men will be hacked to pieces by anti-slavery radicals, on the banks of Pottawatomie Creek.

The 80-year-old nation forged inexorably onward, to a Civil War which would kill more Americans than every war from the American Revolution to the War on Terror, combined.

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April 27, 1865 Sultana

Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in United States history, though its memory was mostly swept away in the tide of events that April.  The United States Customs Service records an official count of 1,800 killed, though the true number will never be known.  Titanic went down in the North Atlantic 47 years later, taking 1,512 with her.

In April 1865, the Civil War was all but ended.  General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on the 9th.  President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated five days later, and John Wilkes Booth run to ground and killed on the 26th.  Thousands of former POWs were being released from Confederate camps in Alabama and Georgia, and held in regional parole camps.

The sidewheel steamboat Sultana left New Orleans with about 100 passengers and a few head of livestock, pulling into Vicksburg Mississippi on the 21st to repair a damaged boiler and to pick up a promised load of passengers.

The mechanic wanted to cut a bulging seam out of the boiler and install a new plate, easily three day’s work.  Captain J. Cass Mason declined, for fear of losing his passengers.  He wanted the seam hammered back into place and covered with a patch, and he wanted it done in a day.

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The passengers Mason was so afraid of losing were former prisoners of the Confederacy, and Confederate parolees, returning to their homes in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Federal government was paying $5 each to anyone bringing enlisted guys home, and $10 apiece for officers.  Lieutenant Colonel Reuben Hatch, chief quartermaster at Vicksburg and one of the sleazier characters in this story, had approached Captain Mason with a deal.  Hatch would guarantee a minimum of 1,400 passengers, and they’d both walk away with a pocketful of cash.

As it was, there were other riverboats in the vicinity.  Mason didn’t have time to worry about boiler repairs.

The decks creaked and sagged, as beams were installed to shore up the load.  Sultana backed away from the dock on April 24, with 2,427 passengers.  More than six times her legal limit of 376.

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This animation gives a sense of the size, of Sultana’s boilers

Sultana spent two days traveling upstream, fighting one of the heaviest spring floods in the history of the Mississippi River.  She arrived at Memphis on the evening of the 26th, unloading 120 tons of sugar from her holds.  Already massively top heavy, the riverboat now lurched from side to side with every turn.

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SS Sultana was equipped with four such boilers, mounted from side-to-side.  Massively top heavy, water would run from left to right as she lurched from side to side, water then flashing to steam and creating enormous surges in pressure

The crew must have exceeded allowable steam pressure, pushing all that load against the current.  Pressure varied wildly inside Sultana’s four giant boilers, as water sloshed from one to the next with every turn, boiling water flashing to superheated steam and back to water.

The temporary boiler patch exploded at 2:00am on April 27, detonating two more boilers a split second later.  The force of the explosion hurled hundreds into the icy black water.  The top decks soon gave way, as hundreds tumbled into the gaping maw of the fire boxes below.

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Within moments, the entire riverboat was ablaze.  Those who weren’t incinerated outright now had to take their chances in the swift moving waters of the river.  Already weakened by terms in captivity, they died by the hundreds of drowning or hypothermia.

The drifting and burnt out hulk of the Sultana sank to the bottom, seven hours later.  The steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocohontas joined the rescue effort, along with the navy tinclad Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler.  700 were plucked from the water and taken to Memphis hospitals, of whom 200 later died of burns or exposure.  Bodies would continue to wash ashore, for months.

Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in United States history, though its memory was mostly swept away in the tide of events that April.  The United States Customs Service records an official count of 1,800 killed, though the true number will never be known.  Titanic went down in the North Atlantic 47 years later, taking 1,512 with her.

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Despite the enormity of the disaster, no one was ever held accountable.  One Union officer, Captain Frederick Speed, was found guilty of grossly overcrowding the riverboat.  It was he who sent 2,100 prisoners from their parole camp into Vicksburg, but his conviction was later overturned.  It seems that higher ranking officials may have tried to make him into a scapegoat, since he never so much as laid eyes on Sultana herself.

Captain Williams, the officer who actually put all those people onboard, was a West Point graduate and regular army officer.  The army didn’t seem to want to go after one of its own.  Captain Mason and all of his officers were killed in the disaster.  Reuben Hatch, the guy who concocted the whole scheme in the first place, resigned shortly after the disaster, thereby putting himself outside the reach of a military tribunal.

Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2010
Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, 2010

The last survivor of the Sultana disaster, Private Charles M. Eldridge of the 3rd (Confederate) Tennessee Cavalry, died at his home at the age of 96 on September 8, 1941. Three months before the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

April 16, 1866 Pleasant Paths

“Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

On April 16, 1866, the American Civil War was barely a year in the past.  An unknown widow brought her children to the Hiller Cemetery, near Carbondale, Illinois.  She and the children placed flowers on an unmarked grave, as several veterans watched from the steps of the nearby Crab Orchard Christian Church.

The group was struck by her simple gesture.  When the family left, the men gathered up wild flowers and so decorated the graves of their fallen comrades, as she and the kids had done. Word of the gesture soon spread, and it was agreed that a more formal act of Memorial should be carried out. A community wide event took place at Carbondale’s Woodlawn Cemetery on April 29, 1866.

212 veterans took part in that first ceremony, among them Major General John A. Logan, invited to give the keynote address.

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Two years later, General Logan was Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, in Washington DC. In March of that year, General Logan’s wife Mary visited several battlefields of the late war, in Virginia. While there, Mary Logan noticed a number of small flags, wilting flowers and other decorations, marking Confederate graves at the Blandford Cemetery, near Petersburg.

On her return, Mary expressed the opinion that the North should so decorate the graves of its fallen. Perhaps reminded of that earlier occasion near Carbondale, General Logan issued General Order No. 11, setting aside a date in May as an annual date “for the purpose of strewing flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of Comrades who died in the defense of their country.”

Some two dozen communities claim the honor of having held that first Memorial Day, though it wouldn’t be called that until much later. For now, it was “Decoration Day”. The first large-scale observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

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The veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of General Robert E. Lee, was draped in mourning. A number of officials attended the event, including General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia. There were speeches and hymns, and then children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home joined with members of the GAR, in laying flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate alike.

General Logan’s order instructed all posts to decorate the graves of the fallen “with the choicest flowers of springtime”. “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance“, he wrote, “Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

So may it always be.

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A Love of History

If you are so inclined, there’s nothing like a visit to the place where history happened, to make the story come alive.

“Today in History” will be suspended for a time, following the passing of the man for whom I am namesake: Lieutenant Colonel (retired), Richard B. “Rick” Long, Sr.

I have a few new articles tee’d up to post automatically. If you’re interested, please sign up on the right, to receive email notifications when they come out.

Thank you for your interest.

Rick Long, Jr.

Long Family "Blue/Gray Ramble", Gettysburg, 2012
The Patriarch explains the story of John Burns, the civilian old timer who came out to help fight back the invasion of his town. He fought with the Union forces on the second day and then, having been “nicked” three times by three bullets, he quietly went back to his farm to await the end of the battle. Long Family “Blue/Gray Ramble”, Gettysburg,
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Walking with the Rebel side of the family. Long Family “Blue/Gray Ramble”, 32nd North Carolina, Culp’s Hill
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Long Family “Blue/Gray Ramble, Petersburg Campaign
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Long Family “Blue/Gray Ramble, Spotsylvania

 

 

Featured image, top:  Rick Long, Sr., remembering the 17th PA Cavalry Regiment at Gettysburg, with which our ancestor served as Blacksmith.

Photography by my son and Rick Sr.’s grandson Daniel Christopher Long, an apple who didn’t fall far from the tree.

March 24, 1921 Coughing up Bullets

Twenty-one-year-old Peter Knapp spotted the Confederate sharpshooter, behind the iron plate. He raised his rifle, aimed at the peephole, and fired.

Willis Meadows grasped his throat, as he began to choke. The one-eyed 78-year old couldn’t breathe, as spasms became more violent. Whatever was in there wouldn’t come out. He thought his time had come. That’s when the bullet flew out of his mouth, clattering across the wooden table and onto the kitchen floor. It was March 24, 1921.

meadowsandknapp1Fifty-nine years earlier, nineteen-year-old Willis V. Meadows signed up with his brothers and his cousins, enlisting in Company G of the 37th Alabama Volunteer Infantry.

Meadows was assigned to the western front along the Mississippi River. By the following summer, Company G had joined in defending Vicksburg Mississippi, laid siege by the Union army of Major General Ulysses S Grant.

On July 1, Meadows was positioned just outside of town, firing at the oncoming Yankees through a peephole in an iron boiler plate. Three blue-clad soldiers approached from the east, members of Company H of the Fifth Iowa Volunteer Infantry, with orders to take out enemy snipers.

Twenty-one-year-old Peter Knapp spotted the Confederate sharpshooter, behind the iron plate. He raised his rifle, aimed at the peephole, and fired. It was a perfect shot, the one-ounce slug clearing the small hole and striking the sniper in the right eye.

vi_msWillis fell over apparently dead, blood streaming out of his eye with the bullet lodged near his brain.  The battle moved on. Vicksburg Mississippi fell to the Union army on July 4, 1863. The “Confederate Gibraltar” wouldn’t celebrate another Independence Day, for 80 years.

Meanwhile, Meadows was found and brought to Union physicians. Surgeons probed for the bullet but were unable to find it, and didn’t feel it was safe to operate. Instead, he was put on a POW ship and brought to a Federal hospital. Meadows was later paroled and brought to a Confederate hospital, there to spend the remainder of the war as a patient and sometime nurse’s aide.

Peter Knapp was captured that November at Missionary Ridge, part of the Chattanooga campaign, and spent the rest of the war in a number of Confederate prisons, including the Hell of Andersonville.

Both went back to civil life after the war. Meadows returned to his farm in Lanett, Alabama, just east of the Georgia state line. He would later marry, but the marriage produced no children. Knapp farmed for a time in Michigan before marrying, later moving to Kelso, in Washington state.

downloadWillis Meadows and Peter Knapp might have walked off the page of their time and on to obscurity, but for a circumstance even more unlikely, than a man holding a bullet in his head for fifty-eight years.

Following Meadows’ coughing episode in 1921, “Coughs Up Bullet” was a newspaper story, all over the country. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” ran the story eleven years later, published around the world in 42 countries and 17 languages. Even Robert Ripley missed the best part.

Peter Knapp read the story, and realized that that had to have been his bullet. He contacted Meadows a few months later, and the two compared notes.  Sure enough.  The two had met again.

When politicians make war, it is the young men and sometimes the young women, who do the fighting, and the bleeding, and the dying. Now these two old men, former mortal enemies who had tried their level best to kill one another, became friends. The two old warriors spent the rest of their days, exchanging photographs and wishing each other good health.

The Central Point Oregon newspaper editor who heard the story in 1950, had the final word.  “Can you beat that for a story?” he asked.  “How small this little old world is, after all.”

Afterward

article-2129086-12920C7E000005DC-788_306x483It’s remarkable enough that Peter Knapp survived the brutality of the notorious Andersonville prison camp, an institution described as the “Auschwitz of the Civil War”. The Union POW camp at Elmira New York might be described as the Andersonville of the North. My own thrice-Great Grandfather went to his final rest there, along with his brother.
A passage from Knapp’s journal written in January 1862 expresses the man’s patriotism: ‘May God give wisdom and strength to our rulers that they counsel wisely, so that this government, which has been the wonder of the world, may triumph over its many enemies, crush treason to the earth never to rise again and proving to the world that republican governments are capable of withstanding any storm which may gather on their political horizon.’
Following his death in 1924 at the age of 81, Peter Knapp’s remains were cremated and, for whatever reason, never claimed by his family. The ‘cremains’ of his wife Georgianna joined those of her husband in 1930, and there they sat, unclaimed.
download (28)In 2012, Alice Knapp was researching the genealogical records of her deceased husband Steve, when she came upon the story of his ancestor. Stunned to learn that he had never been buried, Ms. Knapp called the Portland crematorium. ‘Yeah, he’s here’. Alice Knapp got the death certificate in Washington. I “called back and said, ‘By the way, is his wife there?’ and they said, ‘Yeah.’ The shock was that he was not ever buried. That was the surprise to me.”
So it was that Peter Knapp of the 5th Iowa Infantry was laid to rest with his wife at the Willamette National Cemetery in Oregon, with full military honors provided by the Oregon National Guard.
A folded American flag was presented to representatives of the Knapp family, ‘on behalf of a grateful nation’.  One-hundred and forty-seven years, after the Civil War.

March 8, 1863  The Gray Ghost

Late on the night of March 8, 1863, a light rain was falling when Mosby’s Rangers formed up for a raid on Fairfax Virginia, known at that time as Fairfax Courthouse. 

Like fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee, the Howardsville lawyer John Singleton Mosby opposed the destruction of the Union but, when secession came, he stayed with his state.  Small and frail as a boy, Mosby was often the target of much larger bullies.  Years later in his memoirs, he’d write that he never won a fight.  It seems that John Singleton Mosby never backed down from one, either.

Mosby participated in the 1st Battle of Manassas (1st Bull Run) as a member of the Virginia Volunteers Mounted Rifles, later joining James Ewell Brown “J.E.B.” Stuart as a Cavalry Scout.  A gifted horseman and natural tactician, information gathered by Mosby aided Stuart in his humiliating ride around McLellan’s Army of the Potomac in June, 1862.

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The following year, Stuart authorized Mosby to form and take command of the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, a regiment-sized unit operating out of north central Virginia.  These “Partisan Rangers”, 1,900 of whom served between January 1863 and April ’65, were under the command of Stuart and Lee and subject to their authority, but were not a traditional army unit.  Mosby’s Rangers shared in the spoils of war but had no camp duties, and lived scattered among civilian populations.

Known for lightning raids of the Virginia countryside, Mosby’s 43rd Cavalry would be called together to strike specific targets, dispersing afterward and making themselves next to impossible to run aground.  So successful were they that, to this day, parts of Virginia’s Piedmont region are known as “Mosby’s Confederacy”.

Late on the night of March 8, 1863, a light rain was falling when Mosby’s Rangers formed up for a raid on Fairfax Virginia, known at the time as Fairfax Courthouse.  Deep in the midst of several thousand Federal soldiers and only fifteen miles from the White House, Union Brigadier General Edwin H. Stoughton was sleeping in his headquarters.  Some sources indicate that he was “sleeping it off”.  The “Gray Ghost” entered the Union General’s quarters in the small hours of March 9, his rangers quickly overpowering a handful of sleepy guards.

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Entering the bed chamber as others went to the stables and gathered horses, Mosby lifted the General’s nightshirt and slapped his bare backside with a sword. General Stoughton sputtered awake, demanding “What is the meaning of this!?” “General, did you ever hear of Mosby“, came the question.

Mosby himself later recalled, “There was no time for ceremony, so I drew up the bedclothes, pulled up the general’s shirt, and gave him a spank on his bare back, and told him to get up”.  Stoughton replied, “Yes, have you caught him?” “I AM Mosby,” said the Gray Ghost, “and I have caught You. Stuart’s cavalry has possession of the Courthouse; be quick and dress.

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As prisoners came to the realization that they’d been captured by such a puny force, many melted into the woods, and escaped.  In the end, Mosby and his 29 rangers had captured a Union General, two Captains, 30 enlisted men and 58 horses, without firing a shot.  On hearing the story the next day, President Lincoln lamented:  “I can make another Brigadier in 5 minutes, but I can’t replace those horses”.

Mosby_Monument

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

March 6, 1857 Dred Scott

Dred Scott had lost at virtually every turn, only to win his freedom at the hands of the family which had once held him enslaved.

Dred Scott, his full name may have been “Etheldred”, was born into slavery in Southampton County, Virginia, sometime in the late 1790s.  In 1818, Scott belonged to Peter Blow, who moved his family and six slaves to Alabama, to attempt a life of farming. The farm near Huntsville was unsuccessful and the Blow family gave up the effort, moving to St. Louis Missouri in 1830, to run a boarding house. Around this time, Dred Scott was sold to Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon serving in the United States Army.

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Dred & Harriet Scott’s restored quarters, at Ft. Snelling

As an army officer, Dr. Emerson moved about frequently, bringing Scott with him. In 1837, Emerson moved to Fort Snelling in the free territory of Wisconsin, now Minnesota. There, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson, a slave belonging to fellow army doctor and Justice of the Peace, Lawrence Taliaferro. Taliaferro, who presided over the ceremony, transferred Harriet to Emerson, who continued to regard the couple as his slaves. Emerson moved away later that year, leaving the Scotts behind to be leased by other officers.

The following year, Dr. Emerson married Eliza Irene Sanford, and sent for the Scotts to rejoin him in Fort Jesup, in Louisiana. Harriett gave birth to a daughter while on a steamboat on the Mississippi, between the free state of Illinois and the Iowa district of the Wisconsin Territory.

images (25)Dr. Emerson died in 1842, leaving his estate to his wife Eliza, who continued to lease the Scotts out as hired slaves.

Four years later, Scott attempted to buy his freedom for the sum of $300, equivalent to about $8,000 today. Mrs. Emerson declined the offer and Scott took legal recourse. By this time, Dred and Harriett Scott had two daughters, who were approaching an age where their value would be greatly increased, should they be sold as slaves. Wanting to keep his family together, Scott sued.

Ironically, Dred Scott’s suit in state court, Scott v. Emerson, was financially backed by three now-adult Blow children, who had since become abolitionists. The legal position stood on solid ground, based on the doctrine “Once free, always free”. The Scott family had resided in free states and territories for two years, and their eldest daughter was born on the Mississippi River, between a free state and a free territory.

The verdict went against Scott but the judge ordered a retrial, which was held in January, 1850. This time, the jury ruled in favor of Dred Scott’s freedom. Emerson appealed and the Missouri supreme court struck down the lower court ruling, along with 28 years of Missouri precedent.

By 1853, Eliza Emerson had remarried and moved to Massachusetts, transferring ownership of the Scott family to her brother, John Sanford. Scott sued in federal district court, on the legal basis that the federal courts held “diversity jurisdiction”, since Sanford lived in one state (New York), and Scott in another (Missouri). Dred Scott lost once again and appealed to the United States Supreme Court, a clerical misspelling erroneously recording the case as Dred Scott v. Sandford.

On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the 7-2 majority opinion, enunciating one of the stupidest decisions, in the history of American jurisprudence:
“[Americans of African ancestry] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it”.

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Frederick Douglass

The highest court in the land had ruled that slaves were private property and not citizens, with no right to legal recourse. Furthermore, the United States Congress had erred in attempting to regulate slavery in the territories, and had no right to revoke the property rights of a slave owner, based on his place of residence.

The response to the SCOTUS opinion was immediate, and vehement. Rather than settle the issue of slavery, the decision inflamed public opinion, dividing an already fractured country, further. Frederick Douglass assailed Chief Justice Taney’s opinion, noting that:

“We are now told, in tones of lofty exultation, that the day is lost all lost and that we might as well give up the struggle. The highest authority has spoken. The voice of the Supreme Court has gone out over the troubled waves of the National Conscience, saying peace, be still . . . The Supreme Court of the United States is not the only power in this world. It is very great, but the Supreme Court of the Almighty is greater”.

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Dred Scott, photograph circa 1857

The Supreme Court had spoken, but the Dred Scott story was far from over.  Eliza Irene Emerson’s new husband was Calvin C. Chaffee, a member of the United States Congress, and an abolitionist.

Following the Dred Scott decision, the Chaffees deeded the Scott family over to Henry Taylor Blow, now a member of the United States House of Representatives from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional district, who manumitted the family on May 26. Dred Scott had lost at virtually every turn, only to win his freedom at the hands of the family which had once held him enslaved.

For Harriett and the two Scott daughters, it was the best of all possible outcomes.  For Scott himself, freedom was short-lived.  Dred Scott died of tuberculosis, the following year.

Nationally, the Dred Scott decision had the effect of hardening enmities already nearing white-hot, increasing animosities within and between pro- and anti-slavery factions in North and South, alike. Politically, the Democratic party was broken into factions and severely weakened,  while the fledgling Republican party was strengthened, as the nation was inexorably drawn to Civil War.

Slaves Issues Plague the Democratic Party

The issue of Black citizenship was settled in 1868, via Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, which states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside …”

Dred Scott is buried in the Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. The marker next to his headstone reads: “In Memory Of A Simple Man Who Wanted To Be Free.”

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.