Prince Greer: Slave, Freedman, and Entrepreneur

Prince Greer

One of the issues facing newly freed men and women was how to make a living in a world that had never paid them a living wage for their contributions. Even the USCT initially were paid less than white soldiers, and contraband labor was not paid at all. One of the African-American men who not only contributed to efforts during the Civil War but was instrumental in developing the African-American-based business model was simply known as Prince Greer.

Slaves burying the Union dead at Antietam

What we might recognize as proto-modern embalming techniques were introduced during and after the Civil War. Embalmers often followed both armies, hoping to profit from the misfortune of others. A number of Union soldiers or their families pre-paid for embalming and shipment back North in the event of a soldier’s death in the war. After a battle, especially in the East, black soldiers were recruited to bury the dead and keep records of burial sites for soldiers killed in combat. Black assistants to doctors were trained in embalming and conducted much of this work.[1]

One particularly interesting example is that of Prince Greer, America’s first African American embalmer.  He was the personal slave of a Confederate cavalry officer who was killed in Tennessee.  Greer took it upon himself to return the body of his former master to his estate and contacted a Nashville undertaker, Dr. W. P. Cornelius, for help in this endeavor.  Cornelius embalmed the officer, and his body was shipped back to Texas, but during this time Cornelius’ current assistant, a Dr. Lewis, decided that embalming was not quite the job he wanted.  Upon the departure of Lewis, Prince Greer stepped forward.  He offered to learn the embalming trade in exchange for room and board, and Cornelius was glad to have him. Greer became the first recorded embalmer of color in the United States.[2]

William R. Cornelius, Greer’s employer, was an interesting man in his own right. Originally from Pennsylvania, he was apprenticed as a carpenter and furniture maker. During this time he also learned how to make coffins. By 1849 he had moved to Nashville, TN and had become the sole proprietor of the firm McComb and Carson, which focused exclusively on undertaking. He won a contract to bury the Confederate dead and when the Union army arrived in 1862, he got a contract to bury the Union dead at the same terms.  He opened branch establishments in Murfreesboro and Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as Stevenson, Huntsville, and Bridgeport, Alabama, and Rome, Georgia.  He claimed to have buried or shipped to their homes over 33,000 remains by the end of the war:

                        I suppose I embalmed and had embalmed some 3,000-3,500 soldiers and   employees of the U.S. Army. Embalming was not introduced until after the  Confederate Army left, so I did not embalm any Confederates.  I embalmed and shipped General McPherson, General Scott and General Garesché.  The latter  had his head shot clear off.  I shipped nearly all of the Anderson cavalry to Philadelphia at one time.  After the fight at Stones River, I shipped colonels,majors, captains and privates by carloads some days.[3]

Staged Union embalming enterprise

The work was overwhelming for one man and the addition of an eager pupil such as Prince Greer was a welcome boon. Cornelius trained Greer to perform the arterial embalming method perfected by Dr. Thomas Holmes, of Washington.[4] Cornelius bragged about his star pupil:

Prince Greer appeared to enjoy embalming so much that he himself  became an expert, kept on at work embalming during the balance of the war and was very successful at it.  It was but a short time before he could raise an artery as quickly as anyone.  He was always careful, always . . .  coming to me in a                         difficult case.  He remained with me until I quit the business in 1871.[5]

Once the Civil War was over, embalming remained an intrinsic part of the burial process. Undertaking now required a higher level of skill, and trade schools and universities began offering mortuary science as a concentration. Along with learning embalming techniques, morticians were also taught how to touch up bodies for viewing and how to counsel grieving families. Undertaking evolved from a skilled trade to a profession, and with this came economic and social status, making it a promising opportunity for blacks as well as whites. Almost at once, these services became segregated. While socially despicable, this was sometimes economical for black undertakers, who were able to corner the market on African American burials. It also meant that undertaking became one of the few professions open to blacks at a time when they were largely relegated to unskilled labor. With white undertakers unwilling to care for black bodies in more than a passing way, grieving families turned to their own in the hopes of a dignified homecoming. By the turn of the century, Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League tried to work against these beliefs by encouraging blacks to keep their money within the black community.[6]

Horses & Carriages in front of C. W. Franklin Funeral Home

The combination of experiences with slave funerals, Civil War burials, and embalming prepared African-Americans to become pioneering funeral service professionals. Prince Greer was an expert embalmer during and after the Civil War and was the first historically recorded African-American to hold such a position. Funeral parlors were among the first businesses opened by blacks after slavery was abolished and undertaking was a promising profession for any aspiring black entrepreneur. The funeral director was a well-respected figure, and the funeral home was a place of safety for the black community, away from prying eyes and ears. It is not known when Prince Greer discontinued his business, but without his example, there may have been many fewer African-American undertakers, morticians, and embalmers making their living through Reconstruction and into the future.

[1] http://www.civilwarmed.org/embalming1/

[2] http://taylorpolites.blogspot.com/2011/11/undertaker-undertakes.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://americacomesalive.com/2010/08/03/wars-drive-advances/

[5] Ibid.

[6] https://tbobdid.wordpress.com/the-need-for-black-undertakers/

Preservation Opportunity in the Western Theater

Our friends at the Civil War Trust sent along this announcement and opportunity to preserve more battlefield ground in the Western Theater. Continue reading for more information about this opportunity and how you can get involved.

“With the exception of Virginia, no state endured more significant Civil War battles than Tennessee. It was in Tennessee — during the war’s early stages — where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant first gained national recognition by demanding and securing the “unconditional surrender” of a Confederate army at Fort Donelson. In 1863, the nation’s gaze was again fixed upon the Volunteer State as Union and Confederate troops vied for control of Chattanooga. And it was in Tennessee that Gen. John Bell Hood launched a last-ditch effort to strike back at the Yankees, resulting in inconceivable suffering at Franklin and ultimate defeat at Nashville.

In recognition of the state’s importance during our nation’s defining conflict, you and I have already saved 3,491 acres in Tennessee, allowing future generations to walk the ground where history was made.

Today, we have the opportunity to save an additional 15 acres at three battlefields in Tennessee: Fort Donelson, Brown’s Ferry (near Chattanooga), and Franklin. We will be adding to the 639 acres we have already saved at these three battlefields—more tiles in the mosaic of Tennessee’s rich Civil War heritage. Thanks to a magnificent $21.17-to-$1 match, you and I can save this land—worth a combined total of $1.5 million—for just $73,250!

Help us build on our previous successes in Tennessee and save these three Tennessee battlefields.

’Til the Battle is Won,

Jim
Jim Lighthizer, President
Civil War Trust

P.S. Please join our efforts to save 15 acres at Fort Donelson, Brown’s Ferry, and Franklin. 

Not the Same African Americans We Always See

Civil War Medal of Honor

I was watching a television show a couple of weeks ago, and the subject of Black History Month was mentioned. One of the characters complained that America always trots out the same four African Americans every year to stand in for all the other African Americans about which no one knows anything. I immediately realized that this also applies to the African Americans we celebrate from the 1800s. This year, I think we
should give Mr. Frederick Douglas, the 54th Massachusetts, Ms. Harriet Tubman, and Ms. Sojourner Truth a break, and learn about some other men and women who made significant contributions to the American Civil War. For instance, Andrew Jackson Smith.

On September 3, 1843, in Grand Rivers, Kentucky, a baby boy was born to a slave mother, Susan, and her master, Elijah Smith. Susan named him Andrew Jackson Smith. When young Andy was ten years old, his father put him to work on a ferry that transported people and supplies across the Cumberland River. Andy worked at this job for eight years.[1] When the Civil War broke out, Elijah Smith joined the Confederate military and planned to take Andy, who was now 19, with him as a personal body servant to make the rigors of campaigning less odious–less odious for Mr. Smith, anyway.

Smithland, KY

Andy was having none of it. He convinced another slave to run away with him, through pouring rain, to a Union regiment camped at Smithland, Kentucky, twenty-five miles away. At that time the Union First Confiscation Act of 1861 was in place. This act directed that slaves not be returned to their masters if those masters were in Confederate service. Major John Warner, of the 41st Illinois Regiment, hired Andy as a servant and took him along when the 41st returned to the regiment’s post in nearby Paducah, Kentucky.[2]

Major John Warner

On March 19, 1862, the 41st moved from Paducah to Pittsburgh Landing, in Tennessee. A month later the regiment took part in the Battle of Shiloh. During the fighting at the Peach Orchard, Major Warner had two horses shot out from under him. Although it placed him under fire, young Smith brought one and then another mount to Warner. As he helped Warner into the saddle, Andy was struck in the head by a “spent Minié ball that entered his left temple, rolled just under the skin, and stopped in the middle of his forehead.”[3] The regimental surgeon removed the ball, and after the battle was over, Warner obtained a personal furlough to bring Andrew Smith home with him to Clinton, Illinois. There Smith recovered from his wound and continued to work as Warner’s personal servant until he heard the news that President Lincoln was allowing black troops to join the Union Army.

Andrew Jackson Smith

Major Warner gave Smith the money necessary for the trip to Boston, Massachusetts to enlist with the Massachusetts Colored Volunteers. On May 16, 1863, Private Andrew Smith was mustered into the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, Company B. Along with sister regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, they fought in five military engagements. Smith was in the army when the black soldiers found out that they would be paid less than white soldiers, and would have to pay a “clothing allowance” as well. Colonel Alfred Hartwell of the 55th protested all the way up to Secretary of War Stanton himself. Hartwell threatened to resign unless the pay issue was resolved. It was settled in August 1864 and by October everyone was paid fairly.[4]

By November 30, 1864, Smith had been promoted to corporal in the color-bearing unit of the 55th Massachusetts. On that day both the 55th and the 54th Massachusetts participated in the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina. Andrew Smith Bowden, Smith’s grandson, spoke of this at his grandfather’s Medal of Honor service in 2001:

                        When the battle began, you kept your eye on those flags.  And when the  flag went forward, you went    forward. And when the flag went back, you went back. Those men who carried those flags were extremely important, and as you might expect, were prime targets.[5]

The two units came under heavy fire while crossing a swamp in front of an elevated Confederate position. Rebel fire killed or wounded over half of the officers of the 55th and at least a third of the enlisted men in the full regiment of a thousand men. When the 55th’s color bearer was killed, Andrew Smith took up the Regimental Colors and carried them through the remainder of the fight. Smith’s regimental commander, Colonel Alfred Hartwell, recommended him for the Medal of Honor almost immediately after the battle. However, it was not until Smith’s family made a concerted effort that the medal was awarded to him posthumously, 137 years later.

Andy Smith, veteran

Andrew Jackson Smith was promoted to color sergeant and left the army after the war. He returned to Kentucky where he invested in property. He died on March 4, 1932, at the age of eighty-eight. Several people tried to get Smith’s medal awarded to him during his lifetime; he was nominated again in 1916, but the politics of racial unrest denied him once again.

Smith’s daughter receives her father’s medal

Smith’s grandson, Andrew Bowman of Indianapolis, Indiana, became determined that his grandfather would receive his Medal of Honor. Bowman spent several years collecting records, conducting research and working with government officials and a history professor at Illinois State University in order to make his grandfather’s public recognition a reality.  Smith’s records were found in the National Archives, where they had been since the end of the Civil War.  On January 16, 2001, 137 years after the Battle of Honey Hill, Sergeant Andrew Jackson Smith was recognized for his actions. President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to his 93-year-old daughter, Caruth Smith Washington, along with several Smith descendants during a ceremony at the White House. I shall let Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill), who spoke at the ceremony, have the last word:

                        A wrong righted 137 years too late is a wrong righted nonetheless. This day has been a long time coming. But, with the dedication of his family and the Illinois State University History Department, Sgt. Andrew Jackson Smith’s contribution has finally taken its rightful place in history.[6]

[1] http://civilwaref.blogspot.com/2013/09/andrew-jackson-smith-born-september-3.html

[2] Ibid. and http://kentuckyguard.dodlive.mil/2015/02/09/corporal-andrew-jackson-smith-kentuckys-only-african-american-civil-war-medal-of-honor-recipient-2/

[3] http://kentuckyguard.dodlive.mil/2015/02/09/corporal-andrew-jackson-smith-kentuckys-only-african-american-civil-war-medal-of-honor-recipient-2/. Quote is from medical records.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., words spoken by Smith’s grandson at Smith’s Medal of Honor ceremony on January 6, 2001.

[6] http://civilwaref.blogspot.com/2013/09/andrew-jackson-smith-born-september-3.html

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

Due to our recent site migration, we were unable to present this piece on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The 170th Anniversary of the final day of the treaty’s negotiations occurred on February 2, 1848.

It had been 635 days since the Mexican War’s first set battle at Palo Alto. Now the time had come to end it. Since Winfield Scott’s forces captured Mexico City the previous September, negotiators had met to discuss the treaty that would end the war. While Scott’s men continued to garrison the city, the peace-makers met just outside of it in the smaller village of Guadalupe Hidalgo. On February 2, 1848, the negotiators would meet one final time in the old Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe to sign their names to a treaty that would bring peace to the two nations.

The Basilica had been finished in 1709, dedicated to the spot where, Mexicans claimed, the Virgin Mother made four appearances in 1531. Its importance to the Mexican people was tantamount and Nicholas P. Trist, negotiating for the United States, knew that. He wrote that the site for the treaty was “the most sacred on earth, as being the scene of the miraculous appearance of the Virgin, for the purpose of declaring that Mexico was taken under her special protection.”[1]

Through January of 1848 Trist and the Mexican contingent met in Guadalupe Hidalgo, debating through the issues. The Mexican envoys “insisted on a host of demands fundamentally at odds” with Trist’s position, as historian Robert Merry writes.[2] Trist stuck to his position and knew his future depended on his negotiating the treaty; Polk had recalled the ambassador the previous October but Trist, upon hearing of his recall, simply ignored the order.

Eventually, the two sides came to an agreement they could each sign. As the Mexican delegates made their way into the Basilica, one of them said to Trist, “This must be a proud moment for you; no less proud for you than it is humiliating for us.” The American simply responded, “We are making peace, let that be our only thought.” Though Trist did not show his emotions, he “viewed the war as a shameful display of naked American power,” and later wrote to his family, “Could those Mexicans have seen into my heart at that moment, they would have known that my feelings of shame as an American was far stronger than theirs could be as Mexicans.”[3]

With the signatures on the parchment, the officially designated Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic was all but finalized pending ratification by both countries. It soon became known as the far quicker to say Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

At the end of all the negotiations, the treaty had twenty-three articles, with one of them being eventually stricken out. Arguably though, the most important article for the Polk Administration was Article V, which finally and resolutely set the boundary between the United States and Mexico as the Rio Grande River. No longer would there be disputes about the Rio Grande or the Nueces Strip. Furthermore, Article V continued with the boundary line, stripping from Mexico and giving to the U.S. all or part of what would become the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and firmly establishing Texas’ boundary. At the end of it all, the entire land mass came to 525,000 square miles, nearly doubling the size of the United States and shrinking Mexico to half of its antebellum mass.[4]

For all of that land, Trist agreed to conditions that would have the United States pay $15 million, plus interest, in yearly installments of $3 million. In addition, the U.S. also agreed to pay off claims of American citizens against Mexico dating to before the war. This figure of $18 million, as historian John D. Eisenhower points out, approaches the initial $25 million that ambassador John Slidell was permitted to offer for purchase in 1845. Slidell had been denied as an ambassador, however, and instead war came. In that two-year war, from 1846-1848, the United States spent about $100 million on the Mexican War.[5]

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo made its way to Washington. President Polk, furious as he was with Nicholas Trist for the ambassador ignoring his recall orders, was nonetheless pleased with the end result. Polk got his land, and his boundary, and the expansion he had promised during his election campaign in 1844. The treaty passed through the Congress quickly, ratified along political lines—pro-war Democrats and expansionists overpowered anti-war Whigs and those who saw the war as little more than a way to spread an American slave empire. (More on that later.)

Similarly ratified by Mexico’s government, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo became effective on May 30, 1848. That meant, per Article IV, the United States had three months for “The final evacuation of the territory of the Mexican Republic, by the forces of the United States.” After two years, the war was over. People like Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and Thomas J. Jackson would be going home.

But with that completion, the question became: Now what?

The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. (Wikipedia)

Land acquisitions for the United States following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (Wikipedia)

 

Land acquisitions for the United States following the Treaty of the Guadalupe Hidalgo. (Wikipedia)

[1] Message from Nicholas Trist to Sec. of State James Buchanan.

[2] Robert W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), 424.

[3] Merry, 426; Amy Greenberg, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 259.

[4] Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

[5] John S.D. Eisenhower, So Far From God: The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848 (New York: Random House, Inc., 1989),369-370; Justin Smith, The War with Mexico, Vol. II, (New York: MacMillan, 1919), 267.

 

 

 

 

 

Escaping Notice

Greenwood Cemetery Monument

As monuments and memorials commemorating Confederate history became the flash point of protest, controversy, and in most cases, were removed, one city escaped notice. For once, being associated as the portal of the “happiest place on earth” played a part in a quiet move of a Confederate monument. The stone beacon not stands guard over the remains of sons who gave either their lives or years of those lives to her cause.

 

 

In the summer of 2017, the city of Orlando moved their Confederate monument from Lake Eiola Park to Greenwood Cemetery, where 37 ex-Confederate soldiers are interred. The statue, of “Johnny Reb” was commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and placed on Main Street in 1911. Six years later the statue moved to the bucolic Lake Eiola Park. For one-hundred years the 9-ton stone marker was a sole reminder that some of Orlando’s native sons, then a small hamlet spreading out from the environs of a former military post.

Although the monument’s move was largely unnoticed by the larger media outlets, given its remoteness in terms of geography, there was some dissent. In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Don Price, sexton of Greenwood Cemetery had a significant point about the removal of the statue and its transfer to the cemetery.

“A cemetery is an equalizer. We have Christian crosses, Celtic crosses, graves for doctors, murderers, Catholics, Buddhists…it’s a non-judgmental place.”

After tests of the soil to make sure it the soil below and ground on the surface would be suitable. Then the process, which had a price tag of $182,000, could begin.

When finished, the Confederate monument will stand over the soldiers who served that cause. On the same grounds stands a monument commemorating the soldiers that fought to preserve the Union.

Greenwood Cemetery, big enough for both, it seems.

*Orlando Sentinel Article, which was accessed for this post can be found here
(hyperlink here if you don’t mind:
http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/breaking-news/os-johnny-reb-statue-greenwood-cemetery-20170822-story.html

A Backstage Tour of the Atlanta Cyclorama (part four)

Gordon Jones hardhat

Dr. Gordon Jones

(part four of four)

We’ve been touring this week the new Atlanta cyclorama building at the Atlanta History Center—a state-of-the-art complex built specifically to showcase The Battle of Atlanta, a painting that depicts the July 22, 1864, Confederate breakthrough during the battle of Atlanta and the Federal counterattack to stem the tide. Our guide has been Dr. Gordon Jones, senior military historian and curator for the museum.

At 42 feet high and 358 feet long, the Atlanta cyclorama is the largest in the country—although, arguably, not the most famous. That distinction would probably go to the Gettysburg cyclorama, which was installed in a custom-made home of its own in 2008.

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: Is there a friendly rivalry with Gettysburg or do you guys work with them to learn from them? 

GORDON JONES: It’s basically that. They played a huge role in getting this done. Two things kind of came together. One: in Grant Park, attendance was declining. There was no money left for maintenance. It was a hand-to-mouth operation. So as attendance declined, there was nothing to maintain the painting, and it was starting to need some help. It had been thirty-five years since its last restoration. And at the same time, in the mid-2000s, Gettysburg was doing their cyclorama restoration. I was up there as part of the Museum Advisory Committee, and I got to see this going on.

So we started thinking about this here in Atlanta and, right around the time they finished theirs, our then-director started seriously thinking about it, and we went to our architect and we said, “Hey, man, can you do a little scratch drawing and see if we can fit this thing on our property somewhere?” And one thing led to another.

And then, the mayor, realizing the painting was headed in a downward spiral, called for an advisory committee and a task force to study what to do with it, partly at the urging of some of us. This was one of the recommended places. Here, or taking it downtown—it was whoever had the money. So we had a set of donors that came out of the woodwork that we had never met before and that we didn’t know. They read about it in the newspaper and said, “We’d like to make a legacy gift. We really want to save the Cyclorama. Here, have ten million dollars.” So with that, we were able to leverage the rest of the money and, at that point, it was just a matter of lining up the deal.

The Atlanta Zoo was able to take up the old building at Grant Park, and we were able to refurbish the painting so that it’s not left as derelict. The 1921 building is saved, the painting is saved, and we did it all with private money.

The city has leased this and [the locomotive] the Texas to us for seventy-five years, so in essence, it’s a win-win for everybody involved. We saved the building, we saved the painting, we saved the locomotive. It’s in a viable place now, it’s supported by an endowment, and it’s no longer hand-to-mouth. If nobody ever comes in to this painting as a paying customer ever again, it won’t matter because we have the money to maintain it anyway.

C.M.: So how much did the building cost?

G.J.: We’re not finished with that yet, but we’re going to say we have approximately a thirty-million dollar project, ten million of which is an endowment.

C.M.: What have I not asked about this project yet that I should know? I assume you get a lot of interest in people asking when is this going to be ready and that type of stuff.

G.J.: I think the main thing I’m trying to get across to people is just how many stories this thing can tell. It is the battle of Atlanta, but it’s more than that. It’s all about the memory of the Civil War, and the science of these things, and the artists of these things, and the Germans—the guys who came over here and made it big.

George Peter, the horse painter, stays over here and becomes sort of famous in his own right. He ends up doing all the background murals in the Natural History Museum in Milwaukee. And some of these other guys turn out to be Western artists, famous Wisconsin artists, at least. A lot of times they didn’t want to highlight the fact that they came over here to paint panoramas because that was like a low art form since it was popular.

But there are so many good stories, and I think the problem with this painting is that it has been associated too much with the battle of Atlanta and therefore with Confederacy, and in this town, it was a political football for a while and it doesn’t need to be.