Saturday, February 15, 2014

Finding Sherman Amid The Lions And Tigers And Bears

This life-size rendition of Gen.
William T. Sherman and a Union
soldier stands along the south side
of the Congaree River in Columbia.
Sherman peers at the new S.C. capitol,
under construction in February 1865.
 Photo Barry Ahrendt.
We find traces of the American Civil War in strange places, so it should come as no surprise that a tantalizing reminder of Sherman's raid on Columbia in February 1865 lies hidden amid the lions and tigers and bears at a zoo just west of the South Carolina capital.

Walk along the Woodlands Path through tall hardwoods and thick underbrush in a corner of the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden's 170 acres, and you'll find what locals call "Sherman's Rock."  The ledge of granite on a bluff overlooking the Saluda River marks the spot where Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and some of his 65,000 men encamped after marching farther into the Carolinas. Legend has it that the famous general spent the night under the shelter of this granite slab.

Legend has it that General Sherman
slept under this granite ledge, known
as "Sherman's Rock" before his troops
invaded Columbia, S.C.,  in 1865.
Now we know that Civil War generals generally didn't sleep under rocks.  They took up quarters in  houses, as Sherman had done many times on his March To The Sea. That winter night outside Columbia 150 years ago, he probably slept in a nearby dwelling that Union troops later burned down. Still, "Uncle Billy's" bigger-than-life reputation as a solder's soldier — just one of the guys —  keeps the legend of "Sherman's Rock" alive.

A while back, I took a bus tour of sites related to Sherman's march on Columbia, known around South Carolina as "The Darkest Days."  Our tour guide, Tom Elmore, a bearded man in a gray flannel shirt, told our group how "the most hated Yankee general" strategized on the bluff along the Saluda River before invading the nearly defenseless capital of the hated state that had started it all.

The highly lauded Riverbanks Zoo
near Columbia protects nearly 2,000
animals, many rare and endangered. It
also safeguards a few historic gems.
"Sherman had it in for Columbia," he told our enthusiastic group of history buffs, adding that "It really shocked the entire South to see Sherman outside Columbia."

Indeed, only a few months before, Sherman had mused, "The whole army is burning with insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina.  I almost tremble at her fate, but she deserves all that seems in store for her."

The bluff where Sherman's men encamped rose near a former prisoner-of-war camp, "Camp Sorghum." (The bus tour also stopped at the POW site at an intersection near downtown Columbia .) The starving Union officers imprisoned in the camp dubbed it Camp Sorghum after the type of molassas Confederates served them.

Union General Sherman
Wrote Sherman in his memoir: "On the night of the 16th I camped near an old prison bivouac opposite Columbia, known to our prisoners of war as 'Camp Sorghum,' where remained the mud-hovels and holes in the ground which our prisoners had made to shelter themselves from the winter's cold and the summer's heat."

 "They were very, very ticked off by what they saw," Elmore told our Civil War tourists. Elmore said that Camp Sorghum still held about 200 prisoners when Sherman came to town, although up to 1,400 Federal officers had once been imprisoned in the open field.

In 1865, the Camp Sorghum site had no trees, in sharp contrast to the area today. The trees had been harvested for use. Likewise the bluff now inside the Riverbanks Zoo complex where Sherman's men encamped. Another contrast: When Sherman allegedly slept under his eponymous rock, one of the worlds largest textile mills, the Saluda Manufacturing Co., chartered in 1834, stood nearby on the bluff. (See photo below.) Today, all that remains of the mill are sections its granite foundation, camouflaged by weeds, grasses and vines.
A portion of the 1834 Saluda
mill ruins at Riverbanks Zoo.
In 1855, a new owner renamed
the four-story factory The
Columbia Cotton Mill.

This sign tells visitors to the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden about
the cotton mill that operated along the Saluda River when Sherman
readied to raid Columbia, S.C. in 1865.  Eighty looms and a thousand
women manufactured goods for the Confederate effort
 during the American Civil War.
Zoo visitors can observe this ruin
of the destroyed Saluda River bridge
from the current pedestrian bridge.
To access the mill ruins and Sherman's Rock, our tour group (and myself on a later visit), crossed a narrow, pedestrian/tram bridge over the Saluda.  The modern bridge stands where a covered bridge  traversed the frolicking river waters during most of the Civil War years. Confederates burned down that bridge to impede the Union troops advance to Columbia.  But Union troops laid a pontoon bridge at the site, and by mid-afternoon on Feb. 16, 1865, the soldiers crossed the river under the protection of Union sharp-shooters on the top floor for the Columbia Cotton Mill.

Today, you can see four granite abutments of the old Saluda bridge that Confederates burned in an effort to halt Sherman's army.

Columbia after Sherman's descent on the South Carolina
capital in February 1865.  This photo facing Main Street
 was taken from the site where the nearly destroyed state
 capitol stood. (See previous blogs for more about this.)
Photo, Library of Congress.
On the morning of February 17, 1865, Sherman observed that his troops had reached the Broad River, where they had also built another pontoon bridge and were preparing to advance into the heart of Columbia. (For clarification, three rivers converge in Columbia: the Broad, the Saluda and the Congaree. Confederates burned the bridges across those rivers, trying to stop Sherman's advance.)

During The Darkest Days of Sherman's campaign against South Carolina, Columbia's 20,000 residents suffered. Homes, businesses and buildings were plundered. In the end, two-thirds of the city's 124 blocks and nearly 500 buildings were destroyed, mostly by fire. Who started the fires and whether they were deliberate or accidental remains one of history's hot controversies.

Whether or not Sherman actually snoozed under a rock at the Riverbanks Zoo also sparks debate.   As for me, Sherman's Rock makes a good story and a great destination for a hike through the woods at one of America's most interesting zoos.

SOURCES: Sherman, William T.,  Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (1865). Da Capo Paperback, 1984. New York; Battle For Columbia, Lexington (SC) County Chronicle, 2008; All photos, unless noted, were taken by B.J. Welborn. For more photos, go to PHOTOS page. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Part 2: Battlefields, Myths Of Lesser People, And My Rosetta

                                 America’s history is an ongoing civil war.

                                                                               — Chris Matthews, TV Commentator

In my last blog, I said I'd introduce you to Rosetta, an African-American maid who worked in my childhood home in North Carolina during the 1960s. Rosetta's story, I think, helps illustrate the historical disconnect between American ideals of equality and our carefully cultivated myths of lesser people that began with the first European explorers on New World soil.  

President Abraham Lincoln presents his
Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet in this
1864 painting by artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter.
Lincoln's history-making order freed
African Americans enslaved in the rebellious
(Confederate) states, where ironically, the federal
government's power wasn't recognized.  Photo, Wikipedia. 
If we read our nation’s story as a metaphorical civil war, the chapter about America’s actual Civil War epitomizes the fight. That fight took a sharp turn with President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and viscerally continued through the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. (That's when my family hired Rosetta as a maid.) Myths of lesser people persist today in our nation's political, cultural and religious arenas.  

In my book-in-progress about the Civil War and its legacy, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, I write about Rosetta against the background of the war in which African Americans sought recognition as soldiers on battlefields misty with prejudice, and newly freed slaves sought a place in a nation built on democratic principles. Even Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, often characterized as great a liberator as Lincoln, didn't know how to deal with the problems of freed slaves. (More on this later.)

The original Emancipation Proclamation
 in President Lincoln’s handwriting.
  Photo courtesy National Archives
 and Records Administration

In my last blog, I explored the Civil War as one chapter of America’s ongoing story, often focusing on the war's legacy. While the Civil War ended slavery for African Americans (though slavery continues today in America, especially in the sex trade), the war did not end the myths of lesser people. They flourish today, in our nation's politics, culture and religion. I plan to further explore this topic and welcome your input.

Meanwhile, I introduce you to my Rosetta.

From  Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You:  

 From the time I was born until I went to college, a long line of African-American women worked in our home. Some people in our town called these women housekeepers or domestics.  In my middle-class neighborhood, we called them maids. 

            Most of our maids were industrious, upright and kind, but a few were none of these things.  They screamed at us kids and hit us when our parents weren’t around. Beatrice once took my father’s belt and whipped the daylights out of my brother as he rolled on the ground begging for mercy.  Annette told us lies, including where babies came from.  Ethel ignored dust, stole our allowances and helped herself to the brandy my father hid in a kitchen cabinet for New Year’s Eve.  
             Our maids usually were young to middle-aged, but one maid, Rosetta, was bent, wrinkled and gray haired when she came to work for us in the1960s.  Rosetta would have been well past retirement age, if retirement had been a possibility.
            The neighborhood kids called Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, who lived across from us on Carr Street, “Mister Alsey” and Miz Faye.” We addressed Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, who lived a block up General Lee Avenue from us, as “Mister Tommy” and “Miz Julia.”  We called Rosetta simply “Rosa.” I never knew her last name.
HISTORICAL DISCONNECT: This photo of the author, center,
 her two sisters and one of our many "maids," whose name I don't
 remember, was taken circa 1952 in my small-town,
 N.C., home.  My parents, who both worked full-time,
 often six days a week,routinely left us in the care
of African-American employees.  I've often contemplated
how working parents in my neighborhood, in a
 disconnect between the American ideal of equality
and the reality of making economic ends meet, turned over
their most precious gifts — their children —
to the care of under-paid strangers, whom most
 whites in my town regarded as lesser people.
 Many maids came and went in our home as I grew up.
            Most every day when I got home from junior high, Rosa already had cleaned the house – except for the kids’ rooms, which were our responsibilities - and taken the wash from the clothesline.  She had a pan of hot bread pudding plumped with raisins waiting for us because it was my favorite. The smell of those bread puddings surrounded me in perfume of grace as soon as I walked through the door.
            When I did something to anger my parents, Rosa defended me. Her sorghum words flowed over big, yellowed teeth that stuck out from her top lip, reminding me of the cowcatcher on a Durham and Southern locomotive. 
            “She didn’t mean no harm, Miz Lucille,” she’d say.  “She didn’t mean no harm, Mista Ed.”
             Of all the maids who came and went at our house, I liked Rosa best. She did things for me that others had no time to do.
Most of the mothers in my neighborhood worked as teachers, hair stylists, secretaries, bank tellers, nurses and bookkeepers.  My Mother labored six days a week as
a self-taught bookkeeper in my father’s wholesale grocery business and other enterprises around town.  When Rosetta became our maid, my mother was toiling relentless hours in her small clothing store, Lucille’s Shop, “For The Woman Who Cares.” 
            In my Southern small-town existence, I didn’t experience the magnolia women of ease depicted in Hollywood films and ill-informed sentimentality. What I saw was mothers trying to bring home the bacon, achieve independence and gain a little dignity. I saw black women doing white women’s household tasks, including the traditional work of child rearing, all for weekly wages of twenty bucks under the table.
            Once I asked Mother why she paid Rosa only twenty dollars a week when she did so much. 
            “That’s what everybody pays,” she pointedly answered.  “If I paid more, all the maids would demand more.  They talk to each other. Our neighbors would never speak to me again.”
             I’d often find Rosa bent over the ironing board in a corner of our kitchen, an electric fan making her homemade dress billow about her scrawny body.  She’d sprinkle our garments with water from a Coca Cola bottle, then engineer the hot iron over them as sweat beads snaked from her head-kerchief down her face. Sweat slid past her thick bifocals and dropped from the tip of her nose. Rosa transformed our dirty laundry into crisp piles of cleanliness easily tucked into closets and drawers. 
             Sometimes, Rosa applied rags soaked in Clorox to whiten our enamel kitchen sinks until they shimmered. For supper she’d fry chicken or pork chops with gravy, boil green beans from our "lower forty" in ham-meat, and bake biscuits light as balloons.            
            After Rosa had washed our supper dishes and cleaned the kitchen floor with the dishpan water, she’d perch her bird-like self on a high stool and wait for my mother to drive her home.  Rosa would sit on that stool with her back straight, her legs crossed at the ankles, her hands neatly folded across the pocketbook in her lap.  
            My mother didn’t live by a watch.  Rosa always waited a long time to go home.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Misty Battlefields, Myths Of Lesser People, And My Rosetta

If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.                                                               
                                                                                                                                            — George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright

54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment re-enactors
 pose at a Civil War event I attended not long ago. The real
unit suffered heavy casualties in the war under the leadership
 of Col. Robert Gould Shaw of Boston. The 54th was
featured in the 1989 movie, "Glory." For more
information, go to PHOTOS page.
America's narrative — including the terrible chapter about the Civil War — has unfolded in an echo chamber of plots, characters and themes. The theme of racism, or the view that some among us are lesser people, has sounded throughout our nation's history since the first explorers landed on New World soil and continues today.

Columbus subjugated the natives; some natives joined whites — and some blacks — in slave ownership. The earliest settlers and the nation's  forefathers ensured that slavery survived, ignoring the irony that men who fought for their own freedom from England might own, buy and sell slaves.  

Thomas Jefferson, despite his eloquent defense of liberty and equality, possessed, exploited and allowed his slaves to face harsh punishments to ensure his elite, planter lifestyle. He didn’t free them when he died, as did George Washington.

"The Spirit of Freedom"memorial in Washington, D.C.,
 honors African Americans who fought for the
Union during the Civil War. The memorial stands
 near the African American Civil War Museum
In the Civil War, even with its relentless need for warm bodies, North and South, the cultivated myths of lesser people couldn't be set aside. At first, anyway. In 1862, black military units formed in Kansas, South Carolina and Louisiana for the Union cause. After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, when ending slavery became a goal of the war, the Union began recruiting African Americans into the United States Colored Troops, amid great controversy.

Though many Union leaders fought to keep African Americans out of the Federal military, ex-slaves and freed blacks joined the fighting ranks, sharpening the cutting edge for ending America's expensive and explosive institution of slavery.  The notion of treating all people as equal in America continued a circuitous and painful path.

The chart below chronicles the growth of African-American numbers in the U.S. military, beginning with the Revolutionary War. The percentage has

grown steadily throughout the nation's history. Four times the number of blacks fought for the British as for the Patriot cause. The British offered freedom to slaves if they abandoned their masters and helped suppress the push for American independence. Delivery on that promise proved spotty.

Through the centuries, the battlefield — whether land, sea or air — has provided African Americans a proving ground for manhood.  The rigors of war offered a time and place to exhibit the personal traits of courage, competence and cleverness that Americans traditionally honor as measures of worth.  Yet, even when great character was proven, the American ideal of equality often succumbed to the reality of seeing some people as less worthy. The mist of short-term memory and lack of historical literacy can obscure African Americans battlefield triumphs today.

Early in 1865, toward the end of the Civil War, the Confederate Congress approved a bill allowing slaves to become legitimate soldiers. Until then, African Americans had been hired out by their masters to fight or were impressed to work in support services for the rebel cause. That spring, the Confederacy moved to train and arm African American troops, but less than 50 men actually were recruited. *          

 Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment, U.S.
 Army, 1890. Photo, courtesy Wikipedia.
An estimated 200,000 African-American men fought in the Union army.  Up to 90,000 African Americans served the Confederacy in some capacity, usually in back-breaking tasks to support troops. Exact numbers remain controversial among scholars and lay historians alike. Misconceptions continue. 

 “Growing up in California, I was told many more blacks fought for the Confederacy instead of the Union,” Marvin Greer, a young re-enactor told me at a Civil War battle event recently. Greer, then a student at Morehouse College, said he began studying the war seriously after seeing the 1989 movie, “Glory.”

“I’ve been able to dispel some myths,” he said.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, federal soldiers went West to fight another version of lesser people in the American Indian Wars. This despite the fact the U.S. Senate passed the freedom-expanding Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on April 8, 1864. The amendment outlawed slavery. Some soldiers, including George Armstrong Custer, saw the new battlefields as a place to prove their mettle and move up the military ranks.  General Custer made his legendary last stand fighting the Lakota (Sioux) at the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana.  

I collected autographs of surviving 
Tuskegee Airmen, who were honored
at an air show in Camden, S.C. Find more 
about the WWII aces on PHOTOS page. 

The U.S. Army units assigned to round up American Indians on the western frontier and move them to reservations included the all-black "Buffalo Soldiers." These troops were members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Regiment, formed in 1866 in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The units' nickname possibly originated with American Indians, who likened the soldiers' hair to that of the buffalo. Other theories say black troops earned the moniker because they fought as ferociously as cornered bison.

The nickname stuck to all four regiments of the "Negro Cavalry."  Eighteen Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The units remained active until 1951, participating in six more wars, including World War II.

It's worth noting here that American Indian tribes often subjugated prisoners of war into slavery. When the Civil War erupted, up to 7 percent of the Cherokee of North Carolina owned African-American slaves. Many Cherokees fought for the Confederacy. About 5 percent of Southern whites owned slaves at the time. 

Beyond "Glory," Hollywood also captured the trials and triumphs of blacks in the U.S. military in "Red Tails." The 2012 movie tells the story of the nearly 1,000 Tuskegee Airmen who participated in the great World War II "experiment" to allow "Negros" to fly airplanes in war. Before 1940, African Americans were barred from flying in the military. Civil rights groups pushed for a black squadron, which was based in Tuskegee, Ala.

In 1941, the airmen began training in hand-me-down airplanes at a remote airfield near the Tuskegee Institute, founded by famous Afrian-American educator Booker T. Washington. (More about my visit to Tuskegee on the PHOTOS page.)

A group of Tuskegee Airmen, 1943,
at their training field in Tuskegee,
Ala.  Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
"The program was designed for us to fail,"said LeRoy Bowman, 90, a Tuskegee Airman in an interview this year with a Columbia, S.C., newspaper. Bowman and other Airmen from the state that triggered the Civil War were being honored for their WWII service. "They had no intentions of us succeeding." (Bowman's autograph appears in the above photo at top of the right column.)

This representation of a slave boat
packed with bodies is part of the
African American History Memorial
on the lawn of the S.C. State House
in Columbia. The memorial was built in
2001 as part of a compromise to remove the
Confederate battle flag from atop the
capitol and fly it in front of the building.
But succeed they did. The Tuskegee Airmen flew at least 15 combat sorties and 170 bomber escort missions.  Airmen earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, one Silver Star, and eight Purple Hearts.  In 2006, President George Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal Award to 300 surviving Tuskegee Airmen, including Bowman.  Sixty-six Tuskegee pilots died in action before the program was deactivated in 1946 at war's end.

Despite profound progress in race relations in the United States,
change in persistent perceptions remain, caught in the echo chambers of history. Read more in my next blog.

COMING SOON: Part 2 of "Misty Battlefields, Myths Of Lesser People, And My Rosetta."
Join me in exploring the historical disconnect of our American ideal of equality from our intractable myths of lesser people.  I'll introduce you to Rosetta, one of many African-American "maids" who worked from early morning to late evening in my childhood home in North Carolina.

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, about the Civil War and its legacy:

Our maids usually were young to middle-aged, but one maid, Rosetta, was bent, wrinkled and gray haired when she came to work for us in the mid-1960s.  Rosetta would have been well past retirement age, if retirement had been a possibility.
            The neighborhood kids called Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, who lived across from us on Carr Street, “Mister Alsey” and Miz Faye.” We addressed Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, who lived a block up General Lee Avenue from us, as “Mister Tommy” and “Miz Julia.”  We called Rosetta simply “Rosa." I never knew her last name.

For more, go to PREVIEWS page.


* In spring 1865,  free blacks of New Orleans formed a regiment of "Native Guards" for the Louisiana militia.
** U.S. Department of Defense, November 2012

SOURCES:  McPherson, James M. The American Heritage New History of The Civil War. Barnes and Noble, New York. 2005.  XXX, “XX,” Smithsonian magazine, November 2012. “American Experience,” PBS. Online at Bernstein, R.B. “Thomas Jefferson.” Oxford University Press, 2003. U.S. Department of Defense.  Civil War Homepage online at; African American Civil War Memorial and Museum online at Tindall, George and Shi, David, AMERICA, A Narrative History. Norton and Co., New York, 1996. Flanagan, Anne-Katherine. "They Had No Intentions Of Us Succeeding," The State newspaper, Columbia, S.C. Oct. 9, 2012.