Juneteenth 2020 is getting more recognition than any other in modern history. Beyond decrees from government entities, businesses are giving employees a paid holiday, mainstream media are writing about it, and companies are issuing statements of support. With all the #BlackLivesMatter supporters expressing solidarity, I wanted to reflect on the reality of the day.
Despite some of the media portrayals, Black people were not sitting idly, waiting to be rescued. Before we were enslaved, we were engineers, writers, artists, mathematicians, scientists, teachers in our own cultures. Despite being separated from everyone who could speak our language and abused, we learned to communicate with the people around us, learned to read and write English against the law, combined our own religions with the religion forced upon us. While we were enslaved, we printed our own newspapers, rebelled, and worked for the Union Army, not only as soldiers, but also as spies against the Confederacy. We played an active role in our own emancipation.
“The true history of this war will show that the loyal army found no friends at the South so faithful, active, and daring in their efforts to sustain the government as the Negroes. Negroes have repeatedly threaded their way through the lines of the rebels exposing themselves to bullets to convey important information to the loyal army of the Potomac." Frederick Douglass, 1862
Have you heard of the Loyal League? They were a group of Black abolitionists who came together more than 10 years before the Civil War at the State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio in 1851. According to Hari Jones, curator of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, they voted 28-2 “to work in league with the Constitution to gain equal rights as citizens and abolish slavery.” They would come to be referred to as the 4Ls: Lincoln’s Legal Loyal League or the Loyal League.
John Scobell was a free Black man who impersonated a slave to spy on Confederate soldiers for the Union Army. White Confederate soldiers had no idea that the Black man who served as their field hand, deck hand, or butler could read the important documents they left lying around and understand the military discussions about troop movements. They really didn’t suspect that a Black man could relay the information to the Union Army.
In May 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, stated, "The chief source of information to the enemy is through our negroes."
Head of the Union Intelligence Service at the beginning of the Civil War, Allan Pinkerton memorialized his use of Black spies in his autobiography, including missions by Scobell.
So many of the spies were Black Women.
I’ve posted about Mary Touvestre, a free woman who was formerly enslaved, before. She worked for an engineer who participated in converting the USS Merrimac into the first Confederate ironclad warship, the CSS Virginia. She stole the warship plans and shared them with officials at the Department of the Navy in Washington, DC. This intelligence drove the Union to immediately work on their own ironclad, the USS Monitor. It was completed just in time to neutralize the threat of the CSS Virginia to the Union fleet at the Battle of the Ironclads in Hampton Roads, VA. Without the bravery and smarts of Mary Touvestre, the Confederacy would likely have defeated the Union fleet.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser was a Black woman who was born enslaved and freed in 1843 by Elizabeth Van Lew after the death of her husband. Bowser stayed on with Van Lew as a paid servant and Van Lew sent her to school in Philadelphia. When Bowser returned home at the start of the Civil War, Van Lew recruited her to be spy for the Union. She changed her name to Ellen Bond and posed as a slave servant to President Jefferson Davis in the Confederate White House. Davis didn’t suspect Ellen Bond was the leak in his White House for years until near the end of the war. Mary Elizabeth Bowser was able to escape, and she tried to burn down the Confederate White House as a last act of defiance, but she was unsuccessful. In 1995 the U.S. Government inducted Mary Bowser in the "U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame".
According to the CIA, " ‘Black Dispatches’ was a common term used among Union military men for intelligence on Confederate forces provided by Negroes. This source of information represented the single most prolific and productive category of intelligence obtained and acted on by Union forces throughout the Civil War.”
So as we celebrate Black emancipation (even if it was actively thwarted for years after Lincoln’s 1863 announcement and enslaved persons were encouraged to remain on their current plantations and work for wages by Major General Gordon Granger, who made the final announcement on June 19, 1865 in Texas) let us honor the true history of an intelligent, active, resilient people who worked for their own liberation.