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Freedom's Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner

Freedom's Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner

by Jean Lee Cole (Editor), Aaron Sheehan-Dean (Foreword by)

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With an introduction by Jean Lee Cole and a foreword by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Freedom's Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner restores this important figure to the historical and literary record.


With an introduction by Jean Lee Cole and a foreword by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Freedom's Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner restores this important figure to the historical and literary record.

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West Virginia University Press
Publication date:
Regenerations Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

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Freedom's Witness

The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner

By Jean Lee Cole

West Virginia University Press

Copyright © 2013 West Virginia University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-935978-62-6


Emancipation and Enlistment

March 22, 1862–April 18, 1863

Turner's first letter to the Christian Recorder was published on March 22, 1862, just over two years after Elisha Weaver re-launched the newspaper. He wrote to Weaver in response to President Lincoln's March 6 message to Congress, where he recommended the passage of a joint resolution that would provide financial compensation to any state that would "adopt gradual abolishment of slavery." Turner was skeptical of this "Message"; while many believed that it was a cause for "hope for a brighter day" — that is, full emancipation — he believed it was nothing more than an "ingenious subterfuge," a sop to the abolitionists that would in fact accomplish little. In fact, Lincoln's message almost immediately bore fruit: the District of Columbia Emancipation Act was passed in April 22, an event that Frederick Douglass described to the abolitionist senator Charles Sumner as feeling like "a dream."

Soon after the District of Columbia Emancipation Act was passed, Turner relocated to Washington from Baltimore and was installed as pastor of the Israel A.M.E. Church. Washington at this time was experiencing explosive growth due to the war; the historian Shelby Foote relates that the "ante-bellum population of 60,000 ... nearly quadrupled under pressure from the throng of men and women rushing in to fill the partial vacuum created by the departure of the Southerners who formerly had set the social tone." Turner found himself engaged in a tone-setting exercise of his own, writing in his diary that he found "this church very much delapidated [sic] both in a spiritual and temporal point of veiw [sic]." During his first months as pastor, he led services on weeknights and several times each Sunday. He also initiated renovation projects to the church building, established a speaker series that featured prominent African American citizens (including Robert Smalls, one of the best-known African Americans to serve in the U.S. Navy), started up the Israel Lyceum, a debating society for young male members of the church, and organized aid for the contrabands — the name given to slaves who were received as "contraband" by the Union troops as they overtook Confederate territory. The contrabands, in particular, excited Turner's deepest sympathies. From these "homeless, shoeless, dressless, and moneyless" refugees of the war he heard stories of "horrid, hideous, shocking and inconceivable scenes of suffering"; some, he was told, killed their own children to prevent them from being killed by their masters, while others narrowly escaped being executed themselves.

Turner also spent hours attending the legislative sessions of Congress, located several hundred yards away, in the yet-to-be-completed Capitol Building. Perhaps his familiarity with congressional debates and the views aired by his representatives led him to change his views about Lincoln. By the time Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, Turner's skepticism had turned into admiration. To those who doubted Lincoln's sincerity, Turner responded:

But suppose the president did not deliver his proclamation in good faith? What need I care? Or suppose he was driven to it by force of circumstances. What of it? That is nothing to cavil over. Let us thank God for it, for to him be the glory forever and ever. ... Mr. Lincoln loves freedom as well as any one on earth, and if he carries out the spirit of his proclamation, he need never fear hell. God grant him a high seat in glory.

Once the proclamation did, indeed, go into effect in January 1863, Turner quickly embraced the idea of arming black soldiers (an idea that his contemporary, Frederick Douglass, had strongly advocated from the outset of the war in 1861). He lamented war's violence, for "it only shows how low down in the scale of moral depravity we are. ... The pugnacity of a man does not establish his greatness." At the same time, he was willing to entertain the possibility that wars were a necessary expression of God's providence. In the same column, he wondered if "Christ foresaw that feuds would breed and fester, and that men's growing virulence would lead them on to dreadful collisions out of which they should purgatorially emerge from their own throttled and ruptured combats with lessons experimentally learned, which should gradually advance them to a higher degree of conception of their rights and wrongs."

During the months following emancipation, lawmakers and military leaders also were undecided about whether and how black regiments should be used. Turner mentions several of the debates surrounding black enlistment that occupied Congress in early 1863, at one point noting a shocking proposal to "try" black regiments against Indians (most likely, the Sioux in the West who were engaged in the Dakota Wars). If they were successful against the Indians, then they would be used against the Confederates. Turner, viewing blacks and Indians as "co-sufferers," was horrified by this idea. "O Indian," he wrote, "how could I slay thee; how could I cut thy throat, or put the dagger to thy heart?" Turner argued instead that blacks should be used in combat, against pro-slavery forces. "Let me front my enemy and then demand my courage," he declared.

Turner also argued for black leadership of black troops — in fact, he advocated black soldiers' "entire separation from soldiers of every other color," so that "if we deserve any merit it will stand out beyond contradiction." In addition to heightening racial tensions, he foresaw that having whites and blacks fighting together would result in the manipulation of accounts to minimize the bravery of black troops or to discredit them altogether. Turner's views, unsurprisingly, failed to carry the day. When the Bureau for Colored Troops was established on May 22, 1863, it stipulated that all black regiments would be commanded by white officers.

Despite his disagreement with the government on this point, Turner threw himself into recruiting with zeal; due in large part to his efforts, the 1st U.S.C.T., as its name implied, was the first to be mustered in by the bureau on June 30, 1863. Once Turner's efforts as a recruiter kicked into high gear, he was unable to continue as the Recorder's Washington correspondent. We thus must rely on secondhand reports for descriptions of this work. One "Lancaster," who substituted as a correspondent, explained in the June 20 issue that the "invaluable correspondent of this city, H.M.T., has become so carried away with shoulder straps, Sharp's rifles, Parrot guns, Uncle Sam's purse, &c., that he cannot find time to inform you and your numerous readers of what is going on in this city." Even his sermons apparently took on a military flavor; as one substitute correspondent described it, he pursued his argument like "a skillful military tactician," arraying his "columns of common duty," deploying the "bright bayonets of facts," and, as a last resort, launching the "flying artillery of theology's jurisprudence."

Turner also was too preoccupied with events on the ground to provide written responses to several key events affecting black enlistment. Perhaps most importantly, we lack his response to the New York City draft riots of July 1863, when mobs made up largely of working-class Irish men protesting the ending of slavery as a war aim lynched dozens — perhaps over one hundred — black New Yorkers. We also lack commentaries on several important battles involving black soldiers, including the Battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana (May 27), and the attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina (July 18). In effect, there is a gap in Turner's correspondence of over a year, from April 1863 until June 1864. However, the columns in this chapter succeed in showing the breadth of Turner's activities before he was appointed chaplain. They also show his views on emancipation, his belief in the centrality of education in the mission of the A.M.E. Church, and his support of female leaders in the African American Methodist community.

"Turner on the President's Message"

(The Christian Recorder, March 22, 1862)

Mr. Editor: — The late Message of President Lincoln to Congress, relative to emancipation, has given rise to more speculations and created more surmises than any other document ever issued from the mansion halls of the White House; and likely no other message ever, for the moment, was productive of so surreptitious suspense since this nation had its name. Its annunciation seems to benumb the most active intellects, and paralyze the most flippant tongues.

Both Houses of Congress were thrown into a mazy wonder, as to how they would unwind the intricate strata of its apparent preternatural syllabication. Collegiate sons who had been reared on the bread of literature, and had prowled through the fields of classic lore, gleaning from every source language, constructibility, and how its convoluted recticulations [sic] should be dismembered, were paradoxically magnetized from all appearance, or else logic, rhetoric, and analysis, were proving recreant to the noble trust for which they had been procured.

But passing on from Congressmen to the lower grades of society, we behold governors, state legislatures, mayors, city counsellors, police officers, political petit-maîtres, Irishmen, Germans, women, children, and, last of all in God's universe, the Ethiopian, all making terrible strides to get the paper. The newspaper boys are flitting up and down the streets as on India rubber toes and wiry springing heels, proclaiming, as they go, President Lincoln on emancipation! Silence, say the inmates of many houses (who never think of a paper). What's that? The boy shrills out again — President Lincoln on emancipation! Get the paper, get the paper! say the rich, poor, white, or colored, whoever he may be, for all must see. Accordingly, the paper is bought regardless of price; and the way they go at reading it! — every one is spell-bound, the children all come around with eager anxiety to see what is the matter, they look as though a death-warrant had arrived, the old folks are all breathless, the reader proceeds to chatter out the message, — listen — be quiet, —

"Resolved, The United States ought to co-operate with any State which may adopt gradual abolishment of slavery, giving to such State pecuniary aid to be used by such State in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such a change of system."

But at this juncture the baby wakes up, and countermands the silence by a few sonorous yells (great confusion). Every solace is offered, and unless the irritated child soon learns the art of muteness, it is hurried away to some sphere where its interrupting loquacity breaks not the incorporate charm that enshrines every fibre of the mind.

The Ethiopian, too, with all his untutoredness, verges out of his dreary iceberg cavern as if touched by the thawing sun of a freer day. Laying hold of the Message, he grapples with Herculean strength in untwisting its most technical terminologies, hoping to congratulate in the person of the President a Moses waving a mace of independence, with a voice waxing louder and louder, exclaiming, Let my people go, — hoping to hear freedom's birth heralded in tones of volcanic mutterings, — hoping it (the Message) to be the Jesus of liberty coming to dethrone the Herod of tyranny, — hoping to hear the Jubilee trumpet, Arise, ye slaves, and come to freedom! but alas, alas, not yet, is the echo.

Newspaper correspondents, too, join the puzzled van, and drift down the deep current of — I don't know what it means. Several days pass by, and no one dares to comment upon it. The thing is too tender — too near the heart strings. The vitals of the nation are touched. The immortal negro is too precious — dearer than the thousands of the gallant sons of the nation, who have fallen the bloody victims of slavery's hellish caprice.

The generals, colonels, captains, lieutenants, and soldiers who have wallowed and died in human gore at Bull Run and other places, the carnage hand and devastating sweep of death, which racks the nation and convulses society, the widowed wives and orphaned children, are all insignificant and worthless when compared with the brave sons of Africa. Why, who would have thought, five years ago, that we were so valuable?

But what is the conclusion arrived at in relation to the true spirit of the Message? Sir, it is this: — A great many here have been blinded and made to believe that it portends hope for a brighter day; but I look at it as one of the most ingenious subterfuges, to pacify the humane and philanthropic hearts of the country that was ever produced, and I believe it will result to the North what Senator Douglas' Squatter Sovereignty did to South Carolina. I have not time nor space to analyze the Message; but how some of our people can see so much in it to elate them, I cannot find out; for, after recommending it, it denies that Congress has any power to legislate on slavery — leaving it under the absolute control of individual states, with which control they have ever been invested. Before we raise our joys too high, mark this phrase, — giving to such state pecuniary aid to be used by such state in its discretion. — In that phrase there is a broad field, a wide space, an ocean of thought.

H.M.T. Baltimore, March 16, 1862.

"Letter from Washington"

(The Christian Recorder, June 21, 1862)

Mr. Editor: — There is a very happy state of things in our churches in this city. Our promise for future success is very bright, and if the Lord will be with us, we trust to have a most glorious harvest in the ingathering of souls; souls whose existence must run counter with an never ending eternity. Quite an excitement has been in the city for several days, caused by the constant income of rebel prisoners, which draw on the street a large crowd of curious spectators. And what was equally, if not more curious, was the shaggy, paltry-looking rebel chaps brought in under the nomenclature of Confederate prisoners; for certainly a harder specimen of humanity never existed than they claimed to be the portraiture of. Some soft-headed misanthropists have puffed off a great deal of gas in order to prove that the negro is an emanation of the orang-outang, but I think if they were in Washington at the time when some of the rebel prisoners were coming in, the result of their anthropological investigation would have assigned many of them a place among the baboon species. And as for their uniforms, they are like Joseph's coat of many colors, but the most prominent color was dirt color. One very remarkable peculiarity, however, about their uniforms, which distinguished them from any I ever saw before, was the manner in which their uniforms were fringed and flounced. Many of them were fringed and flounced from head to foot, though it was threadbare fringe and ragged flounces. In consequence of so many wounded and sick soldiers being brought to the city, the government authorities have seized several churches and notified others that it is probable they too will be taken as temporary hospitals. It was thought at first that the disloyalty of some of the ministers was the cause of this seizure, but since, others have been taken which are known to be loyal. The matter is looked at from an entire benevolent stand-point. Some of our people are apprehensive that our church may be seized. The white friends here are very much put out with General McClellan about his slow movements before Richmond. They think he is waiting for them to evacuate their capital, otherwise he will not move for the next six months. ...

Last Monday night the members of Israel Church met, and authorized the trustees of said church to repair the basement of their church, which has for many years been standing in a useless condition. They intend to floor, plaster, and bench it in fine order, so as to be appropriated to the use of protracted meetings, lectures, and other demonstrations, which are not unbecoming to a Christian edifice. They farther resolved to repair the vestibule, enlarge the gallery, fresco the main audience room, which, when completed, will not only be a magnificent church, but hold at least twelve hundred persons, two hundred more than it now holds; while the improved basement will seat, when done, one thousand. The said church has made quite an improvement on the Sabbath School. Five weeks ago it numbered about twenty scholars, now it numbers two hundred and fifty. The entire afternoon is devoted to the Sabbath School, which consists of children and adults.

Rev. James A. Handy, pastor of Union Bethel Church, is making quite an impression in the upper part of the city. The members of Union Bethel have, though a young man in the ministry, one whom they need to be proud of, as he is not only a very eloquent man, but one of unquestionable ability.

H.M.T. Washington, June 16th, 1862.


Excerpted from Freedom's Witness by Jean Lee Cole. Copyright © 2013 West Virginia University Press. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
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Meet the Author

Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915) was born free, but poor, in South Carolina. He joined the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E. Church) as a young man and quickly rose to become pastor of congregations in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. In Washington, he actively recruited black troops for the Union army, and in 1863 he was awarded the chaplaincy of the 1st Regiment U.S. Colored Troops. After the war, he served in the South Carolina state legislature during Reconstruction and was elected Bishop of the A.M.E. Church in 1880. As Bishop he championed the interests of poor Southern blacks within the denomination. As black civil rights eroded at the end of the century, Turner became a vocal advocate for emigration to Africa. A charismatic and controversial figure, Turner presaged Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement and 1960s-era black nationalism. Upon his death in 1915, W. E. B. Du Bois described him as “the last of his clan: mighty men, physically and mentally, men who started at the bottom and hammered their way to the top by sheer brute strength.”
Jean Lee Cole is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the co-editor of The Collected Plays of Zora Neale Hurston (with Charles Mitchell, Rutgers UP 2008) and the author of The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton: Redefining Ethnicity and Authenticity (Rutgers UP 2002).
Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University. He is the author of Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia, the Concise Historical Atlas of the U.S. Civil War, and co-author of American Horizons.

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