Mary Chesnut and Friend Consider What Good Manners are When Interacting with Whites of Lower Social Standing
March 12, 1864. A member of upper-class Southern planter society, Mary Boykin Chestnut Mary Boykin Chesnut was a South Carolinian married to a lawyer who was a U.S. Senator from South Carolina, and then a Confederate brigadier general, and aide to Jefferson Davis. Her diary is considered a literary treasure. On this date the legendary diarist noted:
“. . . Dr. Garnett at the Preston’s proposed to show me a man who was not an FFV [First Family of Virginia]. “Here he is in this house, and these people seem so fastidious too; and they have such beautiful daughters. He is a low-born loafer, this fellow is.” When I told Buck [socialite Sarah Buchanan “Buck” Preston] of Dr. Garnett’s annoyance at a black sheep having slipped into their fold, she smiled. “Well, until we came here, we never heard of our social position. We do not know how to be rude to people who call. Dear Mrs. Chesnut, did you ever hear of your social position, at home?” “No.” “I thought not. To talk of that sort of thing seems so vulgar. Down our way, that sort of thing was settled beyond a peradventure, like the earth and the sky. We never gave it a thought. We talked to whom we pleased, and if they were not comme il faut, why we were ever so much politer to the poor things.” Buck added: “After all, what harm does he do? To save my life I cannot see a way to get rid of this man, without forgetting one’s manners. His manners are as good as anybody else’s, and he talks ever so much better than most of these men who are FFV to the core!”
“Keeping the Jewel of Liberty in the Family of Freedom.” Early phases of Reconstruction and Andrew Johnson’s Political Ascendency
March 13, 1864. In early December 1863 President Lincoln had announced a preliminary Reconstruction program: rebellious Southerners willing to swear allegiance to the United States, including accepting the end of slavery, would be pardoned; when those taking the oath in a particular state reached 10% of those voting in 1860, they could form a state government, which Lincoln would recognize. In January 1864 Lincoln’s new policies had been initiated in Louisiana and Tennessee, each largely under Union control. In each state the central issue became the role that newly freed African-Americans would play in Reconstruction.
In New Orleans that month over a thousand “free people of color,” including 27 who had fought with Andrew Jackson against the British in 1815 and others who had sons in the Union armies, had petitioned the president for the right to vote. Lincoln received two of the petitioners at the White House and, on March 13, wrote to Louisiana’s newly elected governor, in advance of the convention at which a reconstruction government would be organized. Lincoln’s letter, however tentatively phrased, offered an indication of his developing view on the issue of race in a post-Civil War America. He wrote, “I barely suggest for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in — as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty in the family of freedom.” But those at Louisiana’s state convention who had accepted emancipation would not extend political equality to blacks and the state convention passed the buck on black voting to a yet-to-be elected state legislature.
In Tennessee, Lincoln had appointed as governor Andrew Johnson, a former Democratic senator who had opposed secession and had refused to vacate his Senate seat when Tennessee left the Union. Born into poverty, trained as a tailor, Johnson forged a political career as a champion of poor whites and a savage opponent of the slaveholding aristocracy. He blamed slaveholders for manufacturing the Civil War and had little use for black people, slave or free. Although Lincoln’s emancipation policies drove many Tennessee Unionists either to embrace the Confederacy or to agitate for a return to the pre-war racial status quo, Johnson advocated total abolition. Strong support from Nashville’s free black population and increasing black enlistments in the Union armies led him to begin to advocate black equality, although he stopped short of promoting African-American voting. Johnson’s actions in early 1864 drew national attention and influenced Republican leaders to pick him over incumbent Hannibal Hamlin as Lincoln’s vice-presidential running mate on a “National Union” ticket.
– Submitted by Victor W. Henningsen
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 698-699; 707.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, 43-44.