©’Glory’ was on tv tonight. I’ve seen that movie at least 5-6 times, and have been filled with emotion each time. Tonight I watched through new eyes. You see, I recently learned that my paternal 2nd great-grandfather, Aurin Miller, was a part of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry (later renamed the 79th USCT), the first regiment of black soldiers to see action in the Civil War. The 1st Kansas engaged in battle at Island Mound near Bates City, Missouri, on October 29, 1862, nearly a year before the 54th Massachussetts saw action. There was a scene in the movie where Denzel Washington’s character, ‘Tripp’, was asked by his colonel if he would do the honors of carrying the unit’s flag into battle the next day. Tripp said he wouldn’t do it. He expressed that the war would never end, that no one would win, that eventually the colonel would return to his home up north, but he had nowhere to return. That scene gave me pause. It carried me back to that time in our nation’s history when black men were willing to fight to the death for the right to be called “free”. They weren’t sure what “free” would really mean for them. Where would they go? Where would they live? How would they feed, clothe and care for their families? Would they now be treated as men instead of chattel?
The answer to those questions is best given by someone who lived during that time. My maternal great-grand uncle, Henry Clay Bruce, wrote these words in his book ‘The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave, Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man’:
“This was the condition of the Colored people at the close of the war. They were set free without a dollar, without a foot of land, and without the wherewithal to get the next meal even, and this too by a great Christian Nation, whose domain is dotted over with religious institutions and whose missionaries in heathen lands, are seeking to convert the heathen to belief in their Christian religion and their Christian morality.
These slaves had been trained to do hard manual labor from the time that they were large enough to perform it, to the end of their lives, right along, and received no education or instruction in the way of economy. They had no care as to the way they were to get the next meal, the next pair of shoes or suit of clothes. This being the duty of the master, they looked to him for these necessaries, just as a child looks to its mother or the horse to its master for its daily sustenance.
The history of this country, especially that portion of it south of Mason and Dixon’s line, shows that the labor of these people had for two hundred years made the country tenable for the white man, had cleared away the dense forests and produced crops that brought millions of money annually to that section, which not only benefitted the South, but the North as well. It does seem to me, that a Christian Nation, which had received such wealth from the labor of a subjugated people, upon setting them free would, at least, have given them a square meal. Justice seems to demand one year’s support, forty acres of land and a mule each.
Did they get that or any portion of it? Not a cent. Four million people turned loose without a dollar and told to “Root hog or die!” Now, whose duty was it to feed them? Was it the former masters’ or that of the general governments which had conquered the masters, and in order to make that victory complete freed their slaves? My opinion is that the government should have done it.
The master had been conquered, after four years’ hard fighting, and largely by the aid of the two hundred thousand Colored volunteers, mustered in the United States Army, and told to fight for the freedom of their race. The history of that conflict says they did it loyally and bravely.
General Lee had surrendered. The South had staked its all upon that contest and had been conquered and laid waste, as it were; its business gone, its crops confiscated by both armies, and its slaves set free, but it had to feed these homeless and penniless people or see them starve. No one will say the masters did not feed the freedmen until a crop was made, and, too, at a time when they had no money in cash and no credit at the North.
When we take into consideration the penniless condition of these four million people at the close of the war, and the fact that they were destitute of education and turned loose in the midst of a people educated in science, art, literature and economy, a people owning the land and chattels of every kind, with money to do the business of the country and with the experience and training of a thousand years, the fact that the freed-men did succeed under these adverse conditions in obtaining a living, and in many cases in getting little homes for themselves and families, instead of becoming a public charge, is greatly to their credit.” (pages 117-119)
I re-read the words of my great-grand uncle after watching ‘Glory’ as I said, through new eyes, and wonder what were the thoughts of my 2nd great-grandfather on the morning of October 29, 1862, at Island Mound. Rest in love, Grandpa Miller. Rest in love, Uncle Henry.