The Soldier of U Street
The late winter day was overcast and nippy with the feel of pending snow in the air as I walked around the African American Civil War Memorial I snapped some pictures of the bronze soldiers known as the Spirit of Freedom, read a few of the names on the wall and looked around for the entrance to the museum. And I looked. And I looked.
Looking turned into full on searching. There were large photos of black Union soldiers decorating the walls of the building I was facing, but when I rounded the corner from the memorial, I only found an entrance to a CVS. I went in the building next to the CVS and asked a security guard about the entrance to the museum. “It’s across the street from the memorial,” he said. I exited and looked across the street – there was a row of houses, a charter bus and an old school, but nothing that looked like an entrance.
Frustrated, I started walking toward the memorial again when I spotted a young black man in full Union soldier uniform. I approached him and asked about the museum. Jackpot! He not only gave me perfect directions he offered to give me a personalized tour when he returned. “By the way,” he said, “I’m known as the Soldier of U Street.” Then he ducked into the CVS.
Marquett Milton, aka the Soldier of U Street, is a Washington, D. C. native, “born and raised on Capitol Hill,” he said. He’s passionate about learning as much as he can about the role of African Americans in the city he loves and sharing that knowledge with visitors of the museum.
Milton first learned of the museum when he was in high school. A teacher showed the movie “Glory” to him and some classmates and it instantly sparked Milton’s curiosity. “Why weren’t we taught this?” he recalled asking the teacher. “This history can make a difference in the world.” From that point on, Milton set out to learn as much as he could about African American Civil War soldiers and the colored regiments they served in.
Milton, now 24, volunteers at the museum full time and supports himself by doing jobs for other businesses in the U Street neighborhood family. He’s a military history buff who initially wanted to serve in the military, but said he didn’t score well on the entrance exam. Regardless, you can see how much he enjoys what he does. Once Milton gets to talking, he easily lapses into the language of a military man. He talks of his provost (sounds like provo) duties, which includes guarding and maintaining the memorial and the other work he does for the museum and the community.
“I tell young people daily, we fought and freed ourselves,” Milton said. “Nobody freed us. We freed ourselves.”
I asked Milton some more detailed questions about his passion and to show a portion of his museum tour – a demonstration of the components of a Union soldier’s uniform:
Q. When did you learn you wanted to be a Civil War reenactor?
A. When I was in high school, Eastern Senior High, I had a teacher, Mr. Irving, who showed the history class the movie “Glory.” We felt bad at the end when all of the soldiers were wiped out. At the time, I was in ROTC, so I was interested in military history. Mr. Irving pulled me aside and said, “Not all of the soldiers in the 54th died.” I was shocked! Something told me that I needed to know more.
Shortly after, I was walking in this neighborhood, U Street, and found the African American Civil War Museum. I walked in and talked to the curator, Harry Jones, who told me about the colored regiments that formed in Washington, D. C. I asked him how I could get involved with the museum and he took me on a tour and introduced me to Dr. Frank Smith, the museum’s director. At the end, he took me to lunch and when we were finished, I told him I’d be back the next day.
Q. What’s an average day at the museum like for you?
A. I’m here every day except Mondays. I usually arrive around 10 a.m. The first thing I do is put my uniform on.
I welcome our guests to the museum and walk them through the exhibits. When I’m finished here, I go across the street to the memorial and start my provost duties. I’ll pick up trash, inspect for marks – we have a lot of skateboarders who grind near the soldiers’ names – so, my job is to protect the memorial. And then I walk up and down U Street. A lot of people can’t find the museum. Since I’m in uniform, people can find me and I’ll guide them to the museum.
Q. You portray an actual Civil War soldier, Andrew Green. Tell us about him.
A. When Andrew Green was enslaved here in Washington, D.C., he was owned by a lady named Isabelle Williams. I’m still trying to find information about where they were. What I do know is Andrew was assigned to different hotels and would have been a waiter. We know that because he listed waiter as his occupation in the first USCT (United States Colored Troops).
(Learn more about contraband camps from this BackStory segment.)
It didn’t last long, but at the time, you had a large number of African Americans from all over at this camp. When they were recruiting African Americans to join the first and second USCT, he [Andrew] enrolled in the first and was put in Company A.
The reason why I chose him is because we’re the same age – I’m the age he was at the time he served – and we’re similar in height. They say he had hazel eyes, but other than that, we’re pretty similar.
Milton ended our conversation with this: “By doing this, I’m freeing myself. By learning how they freed themselves, I’m freeing myself.”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist
The Wilderness Returns
We return to a time when Americans were mired in civil war. Ulysses Grant had taken the citadel of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Philip Sheridan was raging through the bountiful Shenandoah Valley, and William T. Sherman was getting ready to march through Georgia. Wherever the Union Army went, it stripped the fields and slaughtered the livestock.
For many Southerners, this slash and burn strategy was terrifying. Their farms, their barns, their fences, all these were the things that they and their families had created to beat back the wilderness. And if those things were destroyed, then wilderness might soon reassert itself.
Host Ed Ayers sat down with Lisa Brady, a historian at Boise State University who’s studied how this threat of returning wilderness psychologically affected the white landholders who had been trying to hold the wild at bay.
On the threat of the advancing Union troops to the civilized south:
“The Southern people, whether they supported the Confederacy or not, had spent generations in managing and trying to exert some kind of control over their ecosystems, over their environments. And to take that control away was to throw them back into a state of wilderness. And so these battles where Grant in Mississippi, and Sheridan in the Shenandoah, and Sherman in Georgia and the Carolinas, went through and destroyed agricultural implements, and laid bare the agricultural landscapes, they were taking civilized landscapes and making them into wildernesses. And so that’s the language they used. This was the threat of taking Southern civilization, and throwing it back into an uncivilized wild state.”
On whether claims on both sides of turning the Shenandoah Valley into a “barren waste” were hyperbolic:
“Well I think that there is certainly some hyperbole on the side of Sheridan and Grant. And I would suggest there are even some hyperbolic statements on the part of those who experienced the campaign, some of the Southerners. But I don’t think we can dismiss their views entirely. Especially not those who were the victims of it. There are some really fantastic letter and diary entries by some of those who lived in the Shenandoah Valley who talked about how Sheridan had, in fact, turned this lovely, gorgeous, fertile valley into a wasteland. And so, again, whether or not it was materially turned into a place where nothing could grow– which I think we could demonstrably say was not true– psychologically, had that impact.”
This story comes from our show on Americans and the wilderness. You can listen to the whole episode here.
In light of the horrific shooting in Charleston’s historic Emmanuel AME Church, and the protests which followed, South Carolina officials have agreed that the Confederate battle flag – which currently flies at full mast in front of the state capitol building – should come down. For the flag to come down, two-thirds of South Carolina’s legislature will have to vote in favor of removal, a number that seemed impossible to muster before the shooting, when politicians often defended the flag a benign symbol of Southern heritage for many.
Several listeners have asked whether there is an episode of BackStory addressing this issue. While we have never had an entire show on the flag itself, we have addressed how modern groups have defended the use of the flag in public spaces, as well as whether or not its appropriate to maintain monuments to Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.
At a live performance marking the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Union troops in the capital of the Confederacy, the Guys discuss how the memory of Richmond’s fall has changed, and take questions from the audience.
Host Ed Ayers sits down with Frank Earnest, the “chief of heritage defense” for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Host Ed Ayers chats with Charlottesville, Virginia, City Councilwoman Kristin Szakos about two local monuments to famous Confederate generals.
For more on the flag’s earliest links to championing the twin causes of slavery and white supremacy, we strong recommend Ta-Nahisi Coates’ essay “Take Down the Confederate Flag – Now”. And for how the flag is used today, we recommend Logan Jaffe’s ongoing documentary project “Battle Flag.”
Live From Appomattox
On the 150th anniversary of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant (which effectively ended the Civil War), BackStory producers Emily Gadek and Kelly Jones went to the place it all went down – Appomattox Court House, Virginia. How well do we understand what happened on April 9, 1865 today?
Beg Your Pardon
We’re going to play the tape forward from Appomattox and explore what happened to the leaders of the Confederacy after their largest army in the field surrendered. President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate cabinet fled Richmond when their capitol city fell to federal troops on April 3. For the next month, what remained of the Confederate government moved across the South, desperately hoping to evade capture. Union troops finally caught up with Davis on May 10, in the tiny town of Irwinville, Georgia. He was taken to Fortress Monroe in Virginia to await trial for treason against the U.S. government. But Davis wasn’t put on trial in 1865, or the year after. In fact, he was never tried at all. After two years imprisonment, Davis was released on $100,000 bail. And believe it or not, that was the most severe punishment that any of the top Confederate leadership faced in the aftermath of the war. We spoke with historian David Blight to talk about what happened to some of other rebel leaders.
On the fate of famed Confederate general Robert E. Lee:
“Robert E. Lee was put under a kind of house arrest in Richmond. Now that really didn’t amount to much…he rode his horse out of Appomattox, in effect a free man — except for the fact that he did have his citizenship stripped. But Lee was freed to travel within the state of Virginia. And though declared not a citizen he had, in virtually every other way, the rights of any other American. Lee of course will only live till 1870, but he will live long enough to begin some gatherings and meetings and reunions of his surviving lieutenants…and he will begin to at first quietly, and then fairly openly, lead a kind of Confederate officers’ effort to denounce reconstruction policies.”
On many Confederate officers choosing to leave the country — at least temporarily:
“A good number of ex-Confederates — especially in the Army — possibly as many as six thousand fled the country. Particularly in Brazil a lot of ex-Confederates went and settled, hoping they could reestablish a kind of plantation slave owning life. A fair number of those who went into self exile eventually will come back to the U.S. A famous example is Jubal Early, one of Lee’s key generals. Early first fled to Canada, then to Mexico, believing he was going to be arrested.
Many fled, by the way, believing they were going to be arrested, tried and executed for treason. They had every reason to believe in a rational way that that’s what was going to happen. When Early realized, in I think 1866 that that wasn’t going to happen, he came back to the South took up residence in his home town of Lynchburg Virginia. He would become one of the staunchest advocates of the Lost Cause tradition.“
On the thousands of pardons granted to ex-Confederates by President Andrew Johnson:
“In the summer of 1865 and into the fall of 1866, Johnson, who was from East Tennessee offered presidential pardons to ex-Confederates — particularly if they came to Washington to request them and he set up a small bureaucracy to adjudicate or to administer these pardons. The only distinction he put into that process is that anyone who owned $20,000 worth of property or more had to personally apply to the president himself. Now, that was Johnson’s old personal contempt or scorn for the planter class of the South, which he was not part of. And he blamed in many ways the planter elite of the Cotton Kingdom for the succession and for the war. He started issuing first pardons by the dozens of them pardons by the hundreds and eventually pardons by the thousands to Confederates …it’s difficult to explain except that we need to step back again to to Lincoln’s leadership. It was basically Lincoln’s vision that Reconstruction, when it came — of course, they had they had debated this ritually during the war for two years — when the war ended, and when it was possible to reconstruct the Southern states and remit them to the union, Lincoln wanted it to be as rapid as possible. He wanted lenient terms. He wanted a quick surrender. He wanted surrenders that would not result in guerrilla war.”
This segment comes from our show on 1865: the uncertain, unpredictable year following the Civil War.
Fighting In Code
Francis Lieber knew firsthand what war was like. When he was seventeen years old, he joined the Prussian army to fight
Napoleon. A few months later, he was shot in the neck at the Battle of Waterloo. He later described his experience:
“I suddenly experienced a sensation, as if my whole body were compressed in my head. And this, like a ball, were quivering in the air. I could feel the existence of nothing else. It was a most painful sensation.”
Lieber asked a fellow soldier to put him out of his misery and shoot him dead. But the soldier refused, and a few minutes later, that soldier was shot in both kneecaps. He died, while somehow Lieber survived.
After that battle, Lieber left the military. He spent the next several years studying politics and philosophy in Europe, and then moved to the United States hoping to get a big university job. But the market for Prussian theorists with revolutionary tendencies was slim, and so in 1835, after a few years in Boston and Philadelphia, he had to take a job at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) in the then-small town of Columbia. He hated it. South Carolinian Calvinists attacked his religious views, the institution of slavery repulsed him, and as for the culture, Lieber wrote:
“I live in the South, it is true. But with respect to culture and intellectual life, I might as well be in Siberia.”
But despite his distaste for the place, Lieber put down roots and started a family. He became a prominent professor, with aspirations of becoming the university’s president. Maybe because of the pressure to fit into a society where slavery was a given, he even bought and rented slaves.
In 1856, Lieber finally escaped what he called his “exile” in South Carolina to take a job at Columbia University. His wife and
two younger sons followed him, but Oscar, his eldest son, opted to stay behind in the place where he had grown up.
When the Civil War began in 1861, all three of Lieber’s sons decided to fight, his two youngest for the North, and Oscar for the south. Meanwhile, Francis Lieber started lecturing at Columbia. His series for that fall? The laws of war.
At this time, the Geneva Conventions, the international agreement that now governs what can and can’t be done to prisoners of war, to civilians, and to the injured during wartime, were still years away. But for Lieber, wartime ethics was something he had been thinking about since his time fighting Napoleon. And now, other people were fascinated too. The Civil War was posing all sorts of new legal problems, and Lieber offered a fresh take on how to solve those problems. As someone with ties to both the North and South, he was exactly the kind of man you’d want writing the laws of war.
The New York Times published Lieber’s lectures as they were delivered, and the Lincoln administration soon took notice of
They ask Lieber to consult on the issue of guerrilla warfare in Missouri. Lots of men dressed as civilians were attacking Union soldiers and wreaking havoc across the state. The Confederacy had given its blessing to these gorillas, which put the Union in a bind. Should they treat these men as legitimate soldiers or as criminals?
The old way of thinking was that all you needed to be considered legitimate was the blessing of a real army. Francis Lieber disagreed. If you want to be treated as a soldier, he argued, you need to look like one. You need a uniform and a command structure.
Shortly after this, Lieber received devastating news. His son, Oscar, who had been fighting for the Confederacy, had been killed in the Battle of Williamsburg. One of Lieber’s other sons, Hamilton, had been badly wounded earlier in the year. The conflict was consuming his family.
And then in December, the Lincoln administration reached out again. They wanted Lieber to pull together a more comprehensive code of conduct, a law of war that would deal with all sorts of issues, a new framework for a new era of warfare. Lieber obliged.
Four months later, the Union Army issued general orders No. 100– the Lieber Code. It was Lieber’s magnum opus, covering topics ranging from torture to prisoners of war to the looting of cultural artifacts. The Code set the stage for the next century of humanitarian law.
We like to think that laws are decided by neutral parties, that the people who write the rules don’t have a horse in the race. But in war, it’s just the opposite. A father writing the rules for his sons seems the most logical, the most humane of authors. Lieber understood war could destroy, and in many ways, his code actually sanctions destruction. But he also understood that when it’s all over, we have to pick up the pieces. War, Lieber thought, isn’t just about tearing things down. It’s about pulling them back together.
This piece by producer Eric Mennel appears on our show Rules of Engagement: Ethics in Warfare. Special thanks to Coly Elhai for creating the graphics for this post.
What We’re Reading
As we put together each show, we producers read… a lot. Here are a few of the books and articles that helped us put this episode together.
Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth
Oxford University Press, 2015
Most of the stories we hear about John Wilkes Booth begin the night of April 14, 1865. Alford starts with Booth’s chaotic childhood, famous family, and his own rise to fame as “the youngest star in the world,’ and how he came to the cause of the Confederacy.
The Legend of John Wilkes Booth: Myth, Memory, and a Mummy
C. Wyatt Evans
University of Kansas Press, 2004
Evans follows Booth’s story after the Lincoln assassination – and his own death. In the early 1900s, a mummified corpse with a deformed thumb and a broken leg was exhibited as a sideshow attraction across the country. Its owner claimed that it was the body of John Wilkes Booth, who had survived in hiding for thirty years after escaping from Garret’s barn. The legend took on a life of its own, both as a symbol of Southern vindication, and one showing how nearly fifty years after Lincoln’s death, the country was searching for closure.
Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History
Richard Wightman Fox
W W Norton & Company, 2015
There’s no doubt Lincoln was an exceptional man intellectually – but he was physically, as well. Remarkably tall, with a distinctive face, his appearance was a source of public fascination from the start of his career. His homely appearance was held up as a reflection of his democratic ideals, or his personal failings, depending on the time and place. Fox traces Americans’ keen interest in Lincoln’s form from his early days in public office to his present day renaissance on page and screen.
Yale University Press, 2015
News that Abraham Lincoln had been gunned down by an assassin just days after Lee’s surrender to Union forces at Appomattox stunned Americans on both sides of the conflict. Public responses – in newspapers, in the crowds that gathered to see his funeral train. Hodes digs into the diaries and letters of everyday Americans to find a far fuller spectrum of feeling, as white Southerners both cursed Lincoln and sought to recast him as fallen friend of the South and Northerners rejoiced that the “slab-sided Yankee son of a bitch” was dead.
Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House
First published 1868
Elizabeth Keckley lived an extraordinary life. Born into slavery in Virginia, she was a talented dressmaker, eventually able not only to secure her and her son’s freedom with her wages and client connections, but establish herself as an independent and highly successful seamstress to the Washington elite. Although she’s usually described as Mary Todd Lincoln’s modiste, she worked for many prominent families in Washington – including future Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina Howell Davis. Her recollections range from Lincoln’s love for his pet goats to a boat trip down the James to tour Richmond with the First couple after it fell to Union forces, to attending the President’s last speech on April 11, 1865. A dramatic, and perhaps somewhat dramatized, account of the times she lived through.
Lincoln’s Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War
W. Norton & Company, 2004
In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination – and the attempt on the life of Secretary of State William Seward – an atmosphere of deep uncertainty reigned. Could Booth and his companions really have engineered this plot on their own? Enter Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, who felt sure that the conspiracy had been instigated by Jefferson Davis and was determined to prove it. Leonard’s book shows the consequences that determination had on the trials of the accused conspirators, and on Holt himself.
Edward Steers Jr
Southern Illinois University Press, 2014
There’s a tremendous amount of myth and half truth about Lincoln’s assassination – from the possible involvement of Secretary of War Edward Stanton, to Booth’s supposed escape to India. Steers lays out the evolution of the plot, from kidnap to murder, and investigates the roles of other conspirators and aides, including Mary Surratt and Samuel Mudd.
Fake Money, Real Problems
Today’s consumers can be pretty confident that the cash in their pockets or the numbers shown in their bank accounts represent real money, legal tender that businesses anywhere will accept.
Not so in the America of the 1800’s. Among the many things that have changed between this day and that was the money that people carried in their wallets. It was printed by private banks instead of by the federal government.
But the “private banks” of the 1800’s weren’t exactly the Bank of America’s of today. A lot of these were fly-by-night operations, each with its own currency designs, which meant there were hundreds of different currencies circulating. That made life a lot harder for merchants and a heck of a lot easier for counterfeiters.
That didn’t mean that counterfeiting wasn’t serious work, though. On the contrary, an intricate, sophisticated business sprouted up around creating and distributing fake money. The kind of operations that ran this business were far from the counterfeiters of popular imagination, working alone in their basements at night. A lot of the counterfeit notes came instead from one place: a dirt road called Cognac Street, right across the US border in Quebec. Cognac Street was a vast hive of activity– printers, engravers, people whose job it was to sign the false notes, to transport them up and down the East Coast, and pass them into circulation. There were rivals gangs, complex family alliances, and arson attacks on enemies. Here’s how our guest Steven Mihm, a historian at the University of Georgia, describes it:
“This was not a small enterprise. It was one that actually bound people together across a vast, clandestine economy that spanned hundreds of miles– as far west as Indiana, as far south as Georgia. It was an economy that, in a very perverse way in its complexity, mimicked the genuine economy that was taking shape south of the border.”
All this begs the question: how was it possible that such a vast and shady operation was able to survive and thrive outside the reach of the law?
One explanation is that what the counterfeiters were doing didn’t really seem all that different from what some perfectly legal banks were up to. Private banks were popping up all over the place, each issuing its own money. The problem was that a lot of these banks were completely unreliable. There was hardly any government regulation, so many simply churned out as much cash as they wanted, regardless of whether or not they had the reserves to back it up. This meant that even real bank notes could turn out to be worthless. Here’s Steven Mihm:
“It was a saying among businessmen at this time, merchants, that they preferred a counterfeit note on a reputable bank than a genuine note on a fraudulent bank or a bad bank. And this cuts to the core of what money fundamentally is for us on a very deep, almost epistemological level. What is money?”
Some savvier merchants might have answered that question by pointing to a little book called “A Counterfeit Detector”. This was a book that supposedly listed every single banknote in circulation and explained the difference between good notes and bad ones, letting readers distinguish real money from fake. These explanations, however, tended towards the subjective and unhelpful. Mihm cites the Bank of Utica $3 bill as an example.
“It gives you this endlessly bewildering description about how in the counterfeit, the horse looks vaguely suspicious. Whereas, in the genuine, it doesn’t.”
But when this book was the only standard of any kind for what was and wasn’t money, it’s no wonder it sold so well in the early 1800’s. In fact, it was knowledge that proved to be the best defense against being hurt by counterfeiting. As Steven Mihm explained
“[The counterfeit money] almost invariably stops not at a bank, but with someone who was the least knowledgeable person about money and was the one left holding the bag. And they’re the person who is most likely to go to jail. And if you look at the actual convictions of people accused and tried for counterfeiting or passing counterfeit notes, it’s almost invariably the low-level poor people, many of them immigrants, who sometimes couldn’t read, who end up getting the shaft.”
This problem of counterfeit money got so bad that during this era, as much as 30% of the money in some parts of the country was fake. Today, that number is just a fraction of a percentage point. What happened to trigger such a dramatic change?
Like so many other things in American history, the tradition of counterfeit money was transformed by the Civil War. Before the war, there were as many as 10,000 different kinds of paper money in circulation. While this worked fine for people who just needed to make everyday transactions, it was hardly feasible for the federal government to acquire the hodge-podge of different banks’ notes necessary to pay massive war expenses. Steven Mihm again:
“We all know that wars have to be financed as well as fought. And the North almost immediately runs into a crisis of financing. And while it ultimately pays a lot of the bills with bonds and taxes, it also pays the bills with a fiat [backed by law, not by a commodity] currency known as the greenback. And this is a note that is worth what it’s worth because the government says it’s worth that. It’s legal tender.”
Greenbacks presented a new, promising opportunity for counterfeiters, who could now prey not just on small, state charter banks, but on the federal government itself. The difference was that this “bank” fought back. With a public already skeptical about the new currency, counterfeiting could make the difference between greenbacks’ public failure or acceptance, and thus between the preservation or disunion of the nation. Realizing this, the federal government began a war on counterfeiting even as it battled the Confederacy. Its main weapon against the counterfeiters? An organization that quickly came to be known as the United States Secret Service.
But instead of protecting the president (something Lincoln definitely would have benefited from), this Secret Service protected the integrity of the national currency. It may not sound very glamorous, but as Steven Mihm put it:
“The Secret Service, very quickly, is known as a rather fearsome organization. It is something that actually strikes terror into people because it is ruthless. It becomes known in one journalist’s phrasing as a “gigantic, invisible machine,” a kind of surveillance state dedicated to crushing these people who dared insult the majesty of this newly reinvigorated state.”
And crush it did. The Secret Service set a clear boundary between currency that was legal and illegal, a boundary that has survived to this day. So next time you pull out your wallet or your credit card, take a moment to thank the original Secret Service.
This is a segment from our episode on the history of deception in American history. You can listen to the whole episode here.
What does the United States really look like? You can describe the physical landscape, the rivers, the mountains, the Grand Canyon. You can talk about its citizens, both famous and ordinary. But if you had to choose one person who embodied the whole nation…well, you might pick this guy:
Uncle Sam has been used as an allegorical symbol of the U.S. – or perhaps more accurately, the U.S. government – for about 200 years. But starting in the twentieth century, he started to usurp another figure, one who’d been with us since the very beginning: Columbia.
The figure of Columbia emerged during the Revolutionary War as an American equivalent to England’s Britannia, eventually becoming as easily recognizable to Americans as Uncle Sam is today. The first reference to Columbia as a human figure appeared in a poem by a woman named Phillis Wheatley. She wrote it for George Washington in 1775, and sent it to him as inspiration in the struggle for independence. Here’s an excerpt:
Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!
The poem is remarkable for several reasons. First, George Washington liked it enough to personally invite her to his camp and thank her for the poem she had written in his honor. He even helped her get the poem into print. And then there’s the story of its author. Wheatley was a former slave, who had learned to read and write while living in Boston with her owners, the Wheatley family. Even her name was a mark of her bondage: the slave ship that had taken her to America as a child had been called “The Phillis”.
After Washington helped publish Wheatley’s poem, Columbia began to show up in songs and newspaper cartoons. She helped give meaning to a nation in its infancy, says our guest Ellen Berg:
“She is this wise creature, this wise being who can lead the country. And I think that’s really important early on, because there’s some sense of a supernatural force who is helping us know what to do, where this country should be going.”
As the young nation grew, though, Columbia’s significance began to be superseded by that of another national symbol: Uncle Sam, who first appeared while America was fighting the War of 1812.
It wasn’t an exact replacement, since there were subtle differences in what the two symbols represented. Whereas Columbia was removed from politics and represented the nation itself, Uncle Sam came to represent the more aggressive, assertive representation of the federal state. For a time, it was even common for artists to depict the two of them together, though their relationship wasn’t entirely clear. Sometimes Sam was Columbia’s uncle, and sometimes the two were linked romantically, with the states – or, as in the case below, various ethnic groups – as their children.
But as the federal government grew stronger, Uncle Sam’s power grew too, until, within a hundred years of his first appearance, his reputation came to eclipse even Columbia’s. Once ubiquitous, Columbia is rarely depicted today.
But she still lives on, even though we may not know her by name – most notably, says Berg, in the figure of the Statue of Liberty, standing proud in New York Harbor:
“As our knowledge of Columbia has fallen, what remains is the statute who we know is the goddess of liberty. And the statue has become the stronger figure. So in a way, we can say that Columbia is still there, we’re just not really aware of it.”