We thought it was a series to revisit during 2018 Black History Month.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
Nearly everyone knows that the Emancipation Proclamation became effective on January 1, 1863. This document formally established abolition of slavery as one of the Union’s goals in fighting and winning the Civil War and enabled the North to recruit African American men to fight as Union soldiers and sailors. Before signing it, President Abraham Lincoln famously remarked, “If my name shall have a place in history, it will be for this act.”
However, the Emancipation Proclamation was not the only significant act or law to become effective 155 years ago today. The Homestead Act, signed by Lincoln on May 20, 1862, also took effect on January 1, 1863. While certainly not as well-known as the Emancipation Proclamation, the homestead law still had great impact on the United States and remained in effect for an incredible 123 years.
The Homestead Act’s provisions offered qualified settlers the opportunity to select a piece of public land up to 160 acres in size (though claims in some areas were limited to 80 acres). Once selected, the prospective homesteader paid minimal administrative costs to the government and had to take up residence on the land within six months. At least ten acres had to be placed in cultivation, and the settler had to stay on the property for five consecutive years. Once that time elapsed and the homesteader met all legal requirements of the law, the federal government transferred the property’s permanent title to the homesteader. This law eventually led to the transfer of more than 270 million acres of land to settlers in 30 different states. The Homestead Act remained active in some parts of the country until 1976 and until 1986 in Alaska.
Questions about whether and how the federal government should distribute land to settlers had persisted since the end of the Revolutionary War. Like so many other questions of national importance, land distribution eventually got wrapped up in the debate over slavery, and Congress was never able to agree on a bill that satisfied both northerners and southerners. As the nation started down the road that eventually led to the Civil War, the Homestead Act became a critically important issue to the fledgling Republican Party in the late 1850s and early 1860s. As abolitionists joined the Republicans’ ranks, more and more southerners came to oppose homesteading on principle alone—basically due to guilt by association with Republicans. Early Republicans included abolitionists, disaffected Whigs and Democrats, former “Know-Nothings,” and the castoffs of other regional parties. Homesteading, even more than abolition of slavery, was one issue on which most of them agreed from the beginning and was therefore an important cause for creating cohesion among the first Republicans.
As Americans clamored for some kind of homestead bill into the 1850s, the idea became more and more politicized. Southerners that cared little about western settlement under a homestead act came to vehemently oppose it, viewing it as a northern plot to populate the western territories with free soil settlers and prevent the expansion—and, therefore, survival—of slavery. Likewise, northerners far removed from the West who might not have given any real thought to that region’s concerns came to view homesteading as a critical measure to provide genuine opportunity to the homesteader while limiting the South’s options to expand slavery.
The Homestead Act became a central piece in a series of western bills that Republicans rammed through Congress during the Civil War while no southerners were present to object. This represented Republicans taking full advantage of the opportunity to pass what the party viewed as a critical tool to determine the future of the West and the nation as a whole. Republicans used homesteading, a transcontinental railroad, new taxes, land grant colleges, national banking, and other radical ideas to completely change the nation’s financial system, settlement patterns, commerce, economy, and social structure. In fact, the Homestead Act represented a foundational piece of a legislative agenda that had as much impact as the New Deal some 70 years later.
The Homestead Act initiated significant changes to American society. Homesteading provided new levels of opportunity to many not accustomed to it. Women, still unable to own land in their own names in many parts of the country, were free to claim and own homesteads. Significantly for a law that went into effect the same day as the Emancipation Proclamation, after the Civil War and the resulting Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution African Americans were also able to claim and own land as homesteaders. Thousands traveled west for the opportunity to do so. Immigrants from most areas of the world were welcomed and sometimes even invited to the United States to make claims. Homesteading contributed to the United States becoming one of the world’s largest agricultural producers.
The law was not perfect by any means. Reflecting American society’s values of the era, immigrants of Chinese origin were barred from homesteading. The Homestead Act also had catastrophic effects on many American Indian populations and cultures. Indian displacement and removal had been occurring for decades before the Homestead Act, but this law represented yet another in a long line of acts that served to remove natives from their ancestral homes and force them onto reservations. Homesteading had environmental impacts that contributed to drought, soil erosion and degradation, and the onset of the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.
The upheaval of the 1850s, rising sectional tensions, and the creation of the Republican Party were all important milestones on America’s road to the Civil War. The “free land” idea manifested in the Homestead Act played an important role in all of these events and must be considered when assessing the actions of both the North and South in the decades before the war. Abraham Lincoln and his Republican colleagues saw the Homestead Act as a means to provide genuine opportunity to the masses while accomplishing their political goals of keeping slavery out of the West and determining the future settlement and economic success of that region.
In my conclusion to Turning Points of the American Civil War, I suggest that Lincoln’s assassination was perhaps a turning point of the war rather than just a tragic coda that followed the surrender at Appomattox.
In his outstanding book Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, my colleague Brian Matthew Jordan articulated an idea that was instrumental in my thinking: “if anything, Appomattox was halftime,” he wrote. That’s because, as he told me in a 2105 interview for ECW, the veterans themselves knew “military triumph on the battlefield hadn’t settled all the issues, and they were keenly aware of the unfinished social and political work of this war.” That gave me pause to reconsider events in April 1865 and reconceptualize the war’s overarching narrative.
It stands to reason that Lincoln, as newly re-elected president would have had much to say about how the “unfinished social and political work of the war” would have been addressed. Instead, that fell, in turns, to the embattled Andrew Johnston, the vengeful Radical Republicans in Congress (with whom Johnston had an adversarial relationship), and eventually to President Ulysses S. Grant.
It’s impossible to know how Reconstruction would have played out under Lincoln’s guiding hand, but we have several strong bits of evidence to suggest a much different approach than the one that ended up unfolding.
The first, of course, is the compassionate vision Lincoln articulated at the end of his Second Inaugural Address:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
How does a sweeping vision like that play out in practical terms? Lincoln offered some thoughts during a March 28, 1865, conference with Grant, William T. Sherman, and Admiral David Porter aboard the River Queen and, a few days later on April 4, when he visited Richmond following the fall of the Confederate capital. While the former conversation went unrecorded, he summed up his sentiment for listeners in Richmond: “let ‘em up easy.” (For more on this, see my afterword, “With Malice Toward None,” in Bert Dunkerly’s ECWS book To the Bitter End: Appomattox, Bennett Place, and the Surrenders of the Confederacy.)
We have another piece of textual evidence that suggests in even clearer terms how Lincoln might have guided Reconstruction. It comes from a July 1863 exchange Lincoln had with Gen. John Schofield, then in command of the Department of Missouri. Lincoln expected to occupy a “middle position,” as he called it, being just tough enough to keep the peace but not too tough as to provoke even worse dissent.
The parallels to the postwar South aren’t perfect, but they’re close enough to be instructive. As a loyal border state, Missouri enjoyed a tumultuous peace at best, with pro-Union and pro-Confederate bands of guerrillas operating across the land and residents often, literally, at each other’s throats.
Unfortunately, Schofield proved too aggressive in the job, riling up opposition rather than calming it. Of particular note was a feud the general picked with the editor of the pro-Union Missouri Democrat in St. Louis. Lincoln urged Schofield to drop it, but Schofield—his dander up—persisted. By mid-July, Lincoln finally convinced the general to desist, and in doing so, clearly laid out his intent for martial law: “Let your military measures be strong enough to repel the invader and keep the peace, and not so strong as to unnecessarily harass and persecute the people.”
In the context of Reconstruction, there would have been no need to “repel the invader,” of course, but every other part of Lincoln’s instruction would have held true—particularly “keep the peace” and don’t “harass and persecute.” It sounds like a firm but gentle hand very much in keeping with his later “let ‘em up easy.”
The northern victory in the Civil War may have forced the southern states back into the Union, but it didn’t do much to win back southern hearts and minds. Appomattox might’ve been an end to the fighting, but the road to peace stretched well beyond the battlefield. Lincoln expected to lead the way “with malice toward none, with charity toward all,” but never had the chance. Where his path might have led, no one can say, of course.
But with his assassination, the road took a sharp, unexpected turn.
Two days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, a council of officers in what was left of the bedraggled Army of Northern Virginia hashed out three possible options for Robert E. Lee to consider. General John Brown Gordon, who was not present at the meeting but who heard about it later, said that the first option was “To disband and allow the troops to get away as best they could, and reform at some designated point.” In other words, Lee could later rendezvous with the remains of his army and then try to drag out the conflict indefinitely, perhaps through guerilla warfare, with the aim of wearing down the Northern will to carry on. In fact, this would be the very strategy Southern resistance would adopt during Reconstruction, eventually wearing down the will of the North to support continued occupation of the South.
According to Gordon, though, in early April 1865, “This was abandoned because a dispersion over the country would be a dreadful infliction upon our impoverished people, and because it was most improbable that all the men would reach the rallying-point.”
Apparently no one from the weary group of officers dared bring the idea forward to Lee, but artillerist Edward Porter Alexander gave voice to the same idea on the morning of April 9. “We must either surrender,” Alexander told Lee, “or the army may be ordered to scatter in the woods & bushes & either to rally upon Gen. Johnston in North Carolina, or to make their own way, each man to his own state, with his arms, & to report to his governor. This last course is the one which seems to me to offer us much the best chances.”
“Well, what would you hope to accomplish by that?” Lee asked.
“If there is any hope for the Confederacy it is in delay,” Alexander replied, hoping for foreign recognition or northern frustration to somehow end the hostilities.
Lee demurred. His men, with no rations and under no discipline, “would have to plunder & rob to procure subsistence,” he said. “The country would be full of lawless bands in every part, & a state of society would ensue from which it would take the country years to recover.
As a soldier and an officer, Lee had determined to win or lose the question of independence not just through armed conflict but, specifically, on the battlefield. “[A]s for myself,” Lee told Alexander, “while you young men might afford to go to bushwacking, the only proper & dignified course for me would be to surrender myself & take the consequences of my actions.”
These exchanges have given birth, over the past 150 years, to the idea that Lee considered the possibility of a guerrilla war of some sort rather than outright surrender. To read Alexander’s account—which can be found on pp. 530-533 of his memoir Fighting for the Confederacy—Lee doesn’t seem to consider the idea at all, dismissing it casually and instantly.
Does that make his decision a kind of turning point—one nearly invisible to us because his choice really seemed like no choice at all? And because it led so quickly to the ending so well known to us?
As it happens, two of Emerging Civil War’s historians formerly worked at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, so I posed the question to them. Was Lee’s dismissal of guerrilla warfare a turning point of sorts?
Lee the soldier knew that a guerrilla war was not sustainable. If his army moved west to fight unconventionally, how would he sustain it? With no base of supply or an infrastructure supporting it, how would they obtain food, medicine, and ammunition? Successful guerrilla operations often depend on outside support, as Washington knew well from the Revolution with his army’s invaluable support from the French. The North Vietnamese support from China is another, more recent example.
More importantly, however, a guerrilla war would not obtain the result Lee or anyone in the Confederacy wanted: independence. Washington certainly knew this very well. Without any of the trappings of an independent nation: a capital, a currency, a government, an established military, and most importantly, territory, such a struggle would not deliver independence. A guerrilla force fighting without those elements, without “Respectability,” as George Washington once wrote, would lack legitimacy.
On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union armies under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Questions still abound regarding Lee breaking up the army to engage in guerrilla warfare and continue the conflict. To a certain degree, this option was certainly feasible for Lee; however, it was not likely to be sustainable.
Despite the fact that his army was surrounded the morning of its capitulation, elements from Lee’s cavalry corps had successfully slipped through the Federal vice and headed for the city of Lynchburg. This movement showed that small pockets of Confederate soldiers could evade capture to rendezvous at a pre-determined location. Elements from other Confederate armies were able to accomplish similar feats in the following weeks and months.
Should Lee haven taken this route and been successful, though, he would have other factors to consider—chiefly that of logistics.
One of Lee’s main concerns during the retreat from Richmond and Petersburg was the ability to supply his army. Had Lee ordered his small force to disperse, the issue of supply would have remained. Much of Virginia, and the Confederacy for that matter, had been devastated by the Union war effort. The means of subsistence for an army, even one relatively small in number, was difficult to procure.
Another element necessary for the successful operation of a guerilla effort is the support of the local population. It is difficult to determine if the Southern people, after four years of death and destruction, would have been willing to support such an endeavor.
Perhaps, however, asking such questions are moot. Guerrilla warfare simply was not in Lee’s DNA.
Lee was a strong admirer of and follower of the precepts of George Washington. Like Washington, Lee was bound by his honor and duty to do the right thing for the men in his charge. Two days prior to the surrender, in correspondence with Grant, Lee had expressed his “desire to avoid the useless effusion of blood.” Lee understood that any further combat, especially guerrilla-type warfare, would be devastating not only to the soldiers, but to the civilians as well. The morning that Lee met Grant in the parlor of Wilmer McLean’s house, he commented to his aide, Walter Taylor, that such actions would be “cruel.”
Much to Lee’s credit, he made a decision that set in motion a series of events that brought about the end of one of the worst conflicts in the history of the United States.