Saturday, June 9, 2012

Rallying with the Hearts of Lions

When Samuel Cable ran away from his owner in Brunswick, Missouri, he was exuberant. In 1863, he found himself in Massachusetts and decided to enlist in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry (a sister regiment of the famous 54th Massachusetts, notably profiled in the movie Glory). He was 21, eager to fight for the cause of freedom for other enslaved African-Americans, and especially for his wife, whom was still bound into servitude. In a eloquent letter transcribed below, he writes to his wife in the summer of 1863, and tells her why he fights for the Union:

An unidentified African-American Soldier (Library of Congress)

Dear wife i have enlisted in 
the army i am now in the state 
of Massachusetts but before this 
letter reaches you i will be in 
north carolina and though
great in the present national 
difficulties yet i look forward to 
a brighter day when i shall have
the opertunity of seeing you in 
the full enjoyment of freedom 
i would like to no if you are still
in slavery if you are it will not 
be long before we shall have crushed 
the system in that now opreses you
for in the course of three months 
you shall be at liberty. 
great is the outpouring of the 
colored people that is now rally[-]
ing with the hearts of lions against
that very curse that has separated 
you and me yet we shall meet 
again and oh what happy time 
that will be when this ungodly
rebellion shall be put down 
and the curse of our land is 
trampled under our feet i am
a soldier now and i shall use my
utmost endeavor to strike at 
the rebellion that so long has kept
us in chains. write to me just as soon 
as you get this letter tell me if you
are living in the same cabin where 
you use to live. tell eliza i send 
her my best respect, and love
ike and sully likewise i would send 
you some money but i now it is 
impossible for you to git it 
i would like to see little jenkin, now 
but i no it is impossible at present 
so no more but remain your own
afectionate husband until death

                                 Samuel Cabble

An image of the letter, included in Samuel's service record at the National Archives (NARA) is below.

The Letter from Samuel Cable's service file at NARA

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Living in the Big House

The Hampton Mansion
(Hampton NPS photo)

Several months ago, I decided to go to Baltimore and see Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shine (!!), which was really cool. They have a new visitors center there, and the interpretation is well done, and made me feel very patriotic about the Star-Spangled Banner. While there I learned about another national park site in the area that was once a large plantation, located in Towson, MD. Finding my way out there, I luckily caught the last tour of the day there, and really took to the place. By the end of the tour, I wanted to buy the park handbook and learn more*.

The large plantation was and is (in a way) called Hampton, and is now preserved by the NPS as Hampton National Historic Site. It originally was identified for preservation for the architectural quality of its main house, one of the largest examples of Georgian architecture in the area (The house is pictured above). The house and plantation were the summer and later permanent home to seven generations of the Ridgley family, one of the most prosperous and wealthy families in the region. At one time the estate held over 25,000 acres, hundreds of black slaves, and many agricultural and industrial pursuits.

Much of the home and its contents is original, and in a sense when you walk into the house, you feel like walking back in time, when the scions of society would gather in such a house and talk about politics and current events. To me, it is very interesting to see a place where so many generations of a family lived and called their own, while America changed around them. In a sense, it is a cross section of the American experience, from one family's perspective. From the building of the house in the late 1700s to the 1940s (when it was given to the NPS), the Ridgleys' world changed in many ways.

Possibly one of the most significant changes that occurred in the 19th Century at Hampton was the coming of the Civil War. Originally, the Ridgleys' prosperity was driven by a Ironworks that the owned and operated in the area. However, by the mid-1800s, their Ironworks had closed and agricultural value of the land (now only 4,500 acres) was the primary driver of wealth. With Maryland as a slave state, the primary workers of such a large farm operation were enslaved blacks. At the time of the Civil War, the master of Hampton, John Ridgley owned 61 slaves.
Some of the slave quarters at Hampton (Hampton NPS photo)
When the Civil War began, Maryland was divided. Many of the eastern counties relied, like the Ridgleys, on slave labor for Tobacco and other various crops, while in western Maryland, many yeoman farmers and recent immigrants resented the wealth and power of the large plantation owners. After the fall of Sumter, Maryland remained bitterly divided, as various areas and families identified as unionists or as confederates. As slaveowners, the Ridgleys identified with the Confederacy; Charles Ridgley, John's son, helped organize a local Confederate cavalry unit, the Baltimore County Horse Guards. Soon after the Baltimore Riot of April 1861, helped guard against Union incursions into Baltimore and sought to destroy railroad bridges leading into the city. However, union authorities began to arrest leaders of the various confederate militia companies in the area, and faced with imprisonment in Fort McHenry, Charles disbanded the cavalry company, and remained quiet for the remainder of the conflict. Some of Ridgleys' relatives, however, especially David Ridgley Howard fought with the Confederacy, including at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he lost a leg during the last day's fight.

With emancipation in Maryland in 1864, Hampton and the Ridgleys began their slow decline. In the following years, much of the original estate would be subdivided to heirs and to pay off debts. The Ridgleys lived a comfortable life for many years at Hampton, and indeed, some of the former slaves stayed on at the mansion as servants and tenant farmers. However, when John Ridgley, Jr. gave Hampton to the Park Service, only the original mansion and 63 acre tract remained. Hampton provides a cross-section into one family's American experience, warts and all.I think that through the lens of Hampton, it is easy to see the American Dream, for white and eventually black, for all of us.

Eliza Ridgely III and servant Nancy Davis in 1863
(Hampton NPS photo)

Sources:  Historic Hampton, Inc., Hampton National Historic Site Guidebook (Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Co., 2010) and Hampton National Historic Site, NPS

(*Since the bookstore was closing, I couldn't buy it then. I pretty much began a quest to find a copy of this book on the internet. After not much success, I eventually ended up buying a copy from the park bookstore over the phone, to which the kindly older woman over the phone who took my order said I was the first person to do such a thing).