After Slavery: Educator Resources

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9. Playing Politics with Gender

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Seven: Gender and the Politics of Freedom in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Those who engage in political debate have always availed themselves of gendered language. As a purportedly "natural" condition, understandings based on gender about those who are "feminine" or dependent provide leverage to those who want to present themselves in the "masculine" role of spokesman and protector. At the same time, representing a political opponent in dependent terms (which in nineteenth-century American usually meant casting that opponent in feminine or childlike terms) could also buttress claims to power. The editor of the Semi-Weekly Standard in Raleigh, North Carolina, attempts to do both in the clipping below.

Playing Politics with Gender

The Yankees in Elizabeth City.

We publish below, as we promised to do in our last, some extracts from a letter written by a lady of Elizabeth city to her husband, who is absent from that place on duty outside the Yankee lines. Comment on these extracts is unnecessary. They will excite the liveliest sympathy for that devoted town, and the deepest indignation against our enemies, who have even gone so far as to arm our slaves to aid them in their work of spoliation, insult, and devastation:- 

I have been thinking for sometime whether or not I should let you know the true condition of affairs in this part of the world, and after mature deliberation have concluded that I had better do so, although I know it will cause you great uneasiness. But I think, after all, you had better hear it from me than from any one else.

In the first place, we have suffered more or less ever since the 'Buffaloes' have been quartered here. I have mentioned some of the acts of their Captain (Saunders) in letters heretofore written you, but from some cause, I know not what, it means you have not received them. Well, matters have gradually been growing worse all the while, until at length the people resolved they would stand it no longer. On Monday night last, as Capt. Saunders and Joe McCabe (you know the miscreant,) were on their way to a negro party, some seven or eight persons assembled behind the bricks, near Nichols Hotel, or rather the place where it once stood, fired at them and killed both. One of the assailants ran in the direction of our house, jumped over our yard fence and ran under the house. A shot was fired after him, which struck the house and frightened us very much. Utter confusion and terror prevailed. The whole town in a few minutes was filled with excitement, and alarm. The house was almost immediately surrounded by armed negroes, but they made no attempt to enter it. The next day it was reported that you were here, and last night one of the men accompanied by seven negroes came to search the house for you. It was about 8 o'clock. We had to get up and dress, and when I opened the door, the first object I saw, was a negro armed with a musket. You may be sure I was angry. The white man, whose name is Fowler, and I am told a deserter from your company, apologized for his intrusion, but she he was compelled to obey orders.

I told him I could not imagine how so ridiculous a report got in circulation; but said I, you may rest assured that if Mr. ------ were here you would require a much better guard than you have to arrest him. He said he did not know about that, you might find your match. I cannot describe my feelings; but I endeavored to restrain them, knowing we were in their power; but oh my dear, it is hard to bear.

This morning they pronounced all the negroes free and called for three hundred volunteers. They have armed about two hundred, and we know not where it will end.- The brother of Saunders, who commanded the Buffaloes in Camden, has come here to take charge, and vows to be revenged. While I am writing, heavy cannonading is going on below. I do know whether they intend shelling the town or not. But my trust is in God. To Him alone do I look for help and succor in these perilous times. Oh, that He may protect us against the cruel, and malignant purposes of our enemies.

I do not think any place has suffered more than Elizabeth City bids fair to suffer. A number of our citizens have been arrested, Messrs. Whedbee, Dawson, Kellenger and A. I. Butt among the number. Several gentlemen from the county are also in arrest, but I have not learned their names. Mr. Whedbee was released this morning, but the others I am told are in irons, and some say they are to be hung. Oh! that Gov. Vance would send some troops here to our assistance. I believe he will do so if it is in his power. I can get along with every thing but the negroes, but must confess that I am afraid of them. Mine thus far are at home and act as usual, but I understand the Yankees say that those who do not go to them voluntarily, they intend to take.

Friday, January 9th.
I commenced several days ago writing this letter, as you will perceive by the date, but the bomb-shells flew so fast, and there was so much confusion in the town, I was compelled to stop. Our enemies are determined to give us all the trouble in their power. Never, never, has such trouble been seen here before. Our citizens had a meeting to-day to try and prove to Capt. Saunders, the brother of the one that was killed, that they knew nothing about the matter; but he said he would not believe every man, woman and child in the place, though they might swear to it. The next morning a notice was stuck up requiring every male inhabitant over sixteen years of age to take the oath of allegiance, to the Lincoln government, or leave the place. Hence the trouble. A great many have not the means of taking their families with them, and are afraid to leave them behind.- I went out to-day for the first time in three weeks, and I assure you the appearance of the men of our town startled me. They look as though they have been sick for weeks upon weeks. Not a smile was to be seen upon a single face. If those who are so ready to call this a 'Union hole' could be here now, they would be compelled to change their opinions. No people are more loyal to their government than the people of Elizabeth City. Nothing but the sternest necessity will ever induce them to take the hateful oath, and all who can, will leave the place. But oh! it is heart rending for them to think for a moment of leaving their wives and daughters at the mercy of armed negroes. No one can blame them for refusing to do so. They say if there was a regiment of Yankees here they would know precisely what to do, but they can't consent to leave them with negroes. The Lord help us, for vain is the help of man.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sunday Night, January 11th.
I promised you the other the other [night?] that if any thing worth mentioning occurred before I met with an opportunity of sending this letter to you, I would let you know it. I think, if possible, our troubles increase. I am at my wit's end to know what to do for the best. A great many of our people are going to leave, and the probability is, that the place will again be deserted. Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Whedbee, Mr. Overcase, and many others talk of going to Norfolk.- They are compelled to leave between this time and next Friday, or take the oath. The people are nearly crazy.- The Buffaloes are constantly expecting guerillas, and say if they come the town will be shelled. A great many ladies went to see Capt. Saunders this morning, but got no satisfactory assurances from him. I would not go, for I intend to ask no favors of him. I know it would be useless, for I could place no reliance in any promises they might make.

* * * * * * * * * *

You say in your last letter that we may yet lose all we have of this world's goods. Very true. I think we are in a fair way to lose it all very soon. The negroes are all declared free, and I expect ours to leave me every day.- ------ has changed very much, and spends most of his time at the water with the Buffaloes. I asked him yesterday if he was going to leave, and he said he had'nt 'strictly made up his mind. I told him he must make it up and that quickly, for I did not intend feeding him unless he did my work.------ told me to-day that he thought his labor was worth more than his victuals and clothes. I told him then to go elsewhere and work. I have no doubt but that they will all leave sooner or later, but it gives me no trouble. Since I have seen them armed I almost despise the whole race. I had rather cook and wash all my days than bear with their consequential airs and intolerable insolence.

Mr. Griffin's negroes made a plot to kill him the other night, and he had to fly for his life. He took his family and went to Hertford, but had to leave everything behind him.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is a poor return to make for your cheerful, hopeful letter, but I have tried to give you a true statement of affairs, knowing that the news will reach you through other channels, and will probably be made ten times worse than it really is."

Source: Raleigh, North Carolina, Semi-Weekly Standard, Jan. 1, 1868


Questions to Consider

  1. This is obviously a letter written shortly after Union forces arrived in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in February 1862. Why do you think the editor of the Semi-Weekly Standard chose to print it nearly six years later, on January 1, 1868?

  2. Who are the "good people" in this letter? Who are the "bad people"? What kind of language does the author use to distinguish between those two groups?

  3. Are all the "bad guys" in these letters equally as bad? Why or why not?

  4. According to the author, what are the town's white male residents most afraid of? Why? How does your answer help you understand the author's gender sensibilities? (In other words, how does your answer help you understand what to the author constituted a good woman and a good man?)

  5. How does the author depict black people? What kind of civil, political, and economic role does she imagine for them? Why do you think she only refers to black men?

  6. The author of the letter was clearly addressing her remarks to her husband. Who do you think the newspaper editor was hoping would read the piece when he published it on New Year's Day 1868? What kind of lessons about gender, race, and civic order do you think the editor was hoping his readers would draw from this letter?

  7. Is the author, and by extension, the editor of the Semi-Weekly Standard making a political argument? Why or why not?

  8. If the editor published this letter in an effort to create a particular kind of worldone governed by very specific understandings about the relations between men and women, black and white, capital and laborwhat does that suggest about the actual experiences of gender and race in 1868?

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