Pa’s Tears

Pa has seen much in his years. His back shows the cruelty. While face wrinkles show toils and worries, the many hardships. And in his deep soulful eyes are all the experiences. They tell stories that are never shared. Though, he doesn’t have to. We’ve all seen much of the same.

In all the years, I’ve never seen pa cry. Stern looks and glares many times. And sadness when he thinks of mama, who lives on a different plantation, separated by many miles and a handful of poignant memories. Our plantation master sold her after I was born. “That was the most painful day of my life,” pa has always said.

His emotions come out in song and dance and hugs. He’s warm and loving. But tears just aren’t pa. Never.

Until January 1st, 1863.

Pa’s tears come flowing like rich rivers. He seems confused at their start. But then comes a wide smile while the tears keep running. Laughter, too; they are finally out. I imagine those tears had built up over decades. Just sitting there behind the dam pa created once mama was sold.

I reckon he set a goal for freedom that day of mama’s move. Then he prepared over the years, secretly learning to read and write from a fellow enslaved woman who was literate. She drew letters for pa in the dirt, then words and sentences. Rumor was she had a photographic memory. The ground became paper to share books she had read over the years. Pa wanted to read every book.

That’s how pa taught me, too, when I was old enough to understand how to keep this as our secret. “This enslaved life will come to end one day,” he’d say. “You have to know how to read and write.”

Now is that day. January 1st, 1863. “That on January 1st, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” Magical words said by President Lincoln in the Emancipation Proclamation. Freedom.

I don’t know if pa envisioned enslaved life ending this way. But either way, Pa and I and all those enslaved on our plantation are free. The Union Army has recently taken the land we live on, putting us under their rule of law.

“We’re going to fight,” pa says to me that night, his back upright, his voice a cadence deeper.

“Pa, you’re almost sixty years old.” He glares back at me. I know that look. It means no more; his mind is made.

We leave the next day for a Union Army camp. With time we’re sent to a black regiment. There we learn that change still has limitations. Though free, we’re still black. And that means we’re not treated the same as white soldiers. Our pay is different, the roles we can serve are different, the battle regiments are segregated, and harsher punishment awaits if we’re captured.

But all this is moot to pa. He puts on the Union Army uniform with a beaming smile. His tears come again. “After war is over, we’re going to find your mama and live as a family,” he says. Nearly twenty years apart, and pa still hasn’t given up on his dream to be with mama.

The battles rage for two more years. We fight for the Union Army in the Civil War for freedom and with the Union Army for equality. Equality comes in some forms, like pay. In 1864, President Lincoln mandates equal pay for all soldiers. And makes that change retroactive. With time, we’re able to participate in more battles, to help the Union Army.

War comes to an end on April 9th, 1865. The Union Army is victorious, and the United States stands.

Pa and I walk out of camp and begin the journey to the plantation mama lives on.

“Are we going to move north now?” I ask pa.

“No, the south is our home. We’re going to stay, help build a new life here.”

Notes:

“Pa’s Tears” is a work of historical fiction. While based on real events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.

Click here to read another historical fiction short story.

An equal pay appeal for Black Civil War soldiers

Background

For the beginning years of the Civil War, the U.S. government paid black soldiers $6/month less than white soldiers (black soldiers were paid $10/month with a $3 deduction for clothing, while white soldiers were paid $13/month with no deductions). Appeals were made for equal pay, which was granted in June of 1864 and made retroactive. The following is a letter from a soldier to President Lincoln, asking for equal pay.

Letter

Morris Island, S.C. 

September 28, 1863 

Your Excellency, Abraham Lincoln: 

Your Excellency will pardon the presumption of an humble individual like myself, in addressing you, but the earnest solicitation of my comrades in arms besides the genuine interest felt by myself in the matter is my excuse, for placing before the Executive head of the Nation our Common Grievance. 

On the 6th of the last Month, the Paymaster of the Department informed us, that if we would decide to receive the sum of $10 (ten dollars) per month, he would come and pay us that sum, but that, on the sitting of Congress, the Regt. [regiment] would, in his opinion, be allowed the other 3 (three). He did not give us any guarantee that this would be, as he hoped; certainly he had no authority for making any such guarantee, and we cannot suppose him acting in any way interested. 

Now the main question is, are we Soldiers, or are we Laborers? We are fully armed, and equipped, have done all the various duties pertaining to a Soldier’s life, have conducted ourselves to the complete satisfaction of General Officers, who were, if anything, prejudiced against us, but who now accord us all the encouragement and honors due us; have shared the perils and labor of reducing the first stronghold that flaunted a Traitor Flag; and more, Mr. President, today the Anglo Saxon Mother, Wife, or Sister are not alone in tears for departed Sons, Husbands, and Brothers. The patient, trusting descendant of Africa’s Clime have dyed the ground with blood, in defence of the Union, and Democracy. Men, too, your Excellency, who know in a measure the cruelties of the iron heel of oppression, which in years gone by, the very power their blood is now being spilled to maintain, ever ground them in the dust. 

But when the war trumpet sounded o’er the land, when men knew not the Friend from the Traitor, the black man laid his life at the altar of the Nation, and he was refused. When the arms of the Union were beaten, in the first year of the war, and the Executive called for more food for its ravenous maw, again the black man begged the privilege of aiding his country in her need, to be again refused. 

And now he is in the War, and how has he conducted himself? Let their dusky forms rise up, out of the mires of James Island, and give the answer. Let the rich mould around Wagner’s parapet be upturned, and there will be found an eloquent answer. Obedient and patient and solid as a wall are they. All we lack is a paler hue and a better acquaintance with the alphabet. 

Now your Excellency, we have done a Soldier’s duty. Why can’t we have a Soldier’s pay? You caution the Rebel chieftain, that the United States knows no distinction in her soldiers. She insists on having all her soldiers of whatever creed or color, to be treated according to the usages of War. Now if the United States exacts uniformity of treatment of her soldiers from the insurgents, would it not be well and consistent to set the example herself by paying all her soldiers alike? 

We of this Regt. were not enlisted under any “contraband” act. But we do not wish to be understood as rating our service of more value to the Government than the service of the ex-slave. Their service is undoubtedly worth much to the Nation, but Congress made express provision touching their case, as slaves freed by military necessity, and assuming the Government to be their temporary Guardian. Not so with us. Freemen by birth and consequently having the advantage of thinking and acting for ourselves so far as the Laws would allow us, we do not consider ourselves fit subjects for the Contraband act. 

We appeal to you, Sir, as the Executive of the Nation, to have us justly dealt with. The Regt. do pray that they be assured their service will be fairly appreciated by paying them as American Soldiers, not as menial hirelings. Black men, you may well know, are poor; three dollars per month, for a year, will supply their needy wives and little ones with fuel. If you, as Chief Magistrate of the Nation, will assure us of our whole pay, we are content. Our Patriotism, our enthusiasm will have a new impetus, to exert our energy more and more to aid our Country. Not that our hearts ever flagged in devotion, spite the evident apathy displayed in our behalf, but we feel as though our country spurned us, now we are sworn to serve her. Please give this a moment’s attention.

“An equal pay appeal for Black Civil War soldiers” notes

Sources: Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States (New York: Citadel Press, 1951), 482–484 – History Matters, George Mason University

Note: click here to read a letter from President Lincoln to General Grant during the Civil War.

Confucius quote: “The ancients who wished…

Confucius quote: 

“The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.

From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.”

– Confucius

14th century painting depicting Confucius
14th century painting depicting Confucius

Sources:

Quote – The Great Learning by Confucius / Wikiquote 

Painting – Portrait of Confucius (https://collections.artsmia.org/art/5790), late 14th century. Published by Minneapolis Institute of Art. Accessed on Jan 23rd, 2023. 

Walt Whitman: The Spanish Peaks

Portrait of Walt Whitman seated, taken in circa 1867
Walt Whitman, circa 1867

Between Pueblo and Bent’s fort, southward, in a clear afternoon sun-spell I catch exceptionally good glimpses of the Spanish peaks. We are in southeastern Colorado—pass immense herds of cattle as our first-class locomotive rushes us along—two or three times crossing the Arkansas, which we follow many miles, and of which river I get fine views, sometimes for quite a distance, its stony, upright, not very high, palisade banks, and then its muddy flats. We pass Fort Lyon—lots of adobie houses—limitless pasturage, appropriately flecked with those herds of cattle—in due time the declining sun in the west—a sky of limpid pearl over all—and so evening on the great plains. A calm, pensive, boundless landscape—the perpendicular rocks of the north Arkansas, hued in twilight—a thin line of violet on the southwestern horizon—the palpable coolness and slight aroma—a belated cow-boy with some unruly member of his herd—an emigrant wagon toiling yet a little further, the horses slow and tired—two men, apparently father and son, jogging along on foot—and around all the indescribable chiaroscuro and sentiment, (profounder than anything at sea,) athwart these endless wilds.

– Walt Whitman, written while on a trip in Colorado in 1879

“Walt Whitman: The Spanish Peaks” sources: “The Spanish Peaks – Evening on the Plains” – Specimen Days, published in 1882. Complete Prose Works – Project Gutenberg / Photograph taken by Matthew Brady circa 1867 – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Feinberg, NPG.76.96

Note: click here to read a note written by Walt Whitman on the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Frederick Douglass: a snapshot biography.

Upbringing & Early Years

Like most enslaved people, Frederick Douglass didn’t know his birthday. He just knew that his birth happened sometime around 1817 in Talbot County, Maryland. He also didn’t know who his father was. Though based on rumors, it was the plantation master. And as for his mother. She didn’t live with Frederick. She was moved during his infancy and enslaved on a plantation about a dozen miles away. His memories of her were sparse. Just a handful of times they met, when she’d walk at night to be with her son for a few hours before heading back. She had to be at work in the morning. Those visits ended when she passed away around the time Frederick was seven years old. Such went the beginning of the young boy’s life. On a plantation, father unknown, mother miles away at first, and then orphaned.

More trauma was part of his upbringing. As a child, he watched his aunt whipped by an overseer. He wrote of that experience and many others of the same to come,

“I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.”

Around age eight marked a significant change in Frederick’s life. Selected to live with a relative of the plantation master in Baltimore, the young boy saw a glimpse into a different life. In his new home, Frederick described the mistress as “a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings.” The mistress began teaching Frederick the alphabet and how to read. But her husband, upon learning of the lessons, forbade them to continue. For Frederick, however, a new world had already opened. He was inspired to learn and understood the importance of learning.

From his time in Baltimore came two significant changes in Frederick’s life. The first was his commitment to learning to read and write. That he did by exchanging food with some of the neighboring poor white children for lessons. The other was new thoughts of life as a free man. “I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart,” he wrote. The latter he could not act on at the time.

This chapter of Baltimore life ended with Frederick being sent back to a rural plantation. While enslaved life was always unjust and cruel, life for those enslaved in the countryside tended to be worse than for those in cities. Frederick experienced this change, enduring more cruelty with frequent whippings. “The dark night of slavery closed upon me,” he wrote.

For a time, he lived with a broken spirit, often anxious about the changes of his new experience. “I suffered more anxiety than most of my fellow-slaves. I had known what it was to be kindly treated; they had known nothing of the kind. They had seen little or nothing of the world. They were in very deed men and women of sorrow, and acquainted with grief. Their backs had been made familiar with the bloody lash, so that they had become callous; mine was yet tender; for while at Baltimore I got few whippings, and few slaves could boast of a kinder master and mistress than myself.”

But after standing up to cruel punishment, his resolve for freedom returned.

Oil painting of Frederick Douglass, circa 1845
Frederick Douglass, circa 1845

Freedom and Later Years

September 3rd, 1838 – freedom. Frederick Douglass successfully fled Baltimore for New York that day. Of his feelings upon escaping, he wrote,

“I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State. I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself. It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. I was yet liable to be taken back, and subjected to all the tortures of slavery. This in itself was enough to damp the ardor of my enthusiasm. But the loneliness overcame me. There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger; without home and without friends, in the midst of thousands of my own brethren–children of a common Father, and yet I dared not to unfold to any one of them my sad condition. I was afraid to speak to any one for fear of speaking to the wrong one, and thereby falling into the hands of money-loving kidnappers, whose business it was to lie in wait for the panting fugitive, as the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in wait for their prey.”

Engraved portrait of Frederick Douglass, 1855
Frederick Douglass, 1855

Though feelings were as such at first, he also felt much “gladness and joy,” and kindness from others helped Frederick settle into his new life. One man, in particular, bestowed much generosity and guidance. And with his help, Frederick married and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the couple settled.

Taking a job and adjusting to a new life, Frederick came across an abolitionist newspaper called the Liberator. He became an avid reader, and with time it led him to what would become his life’s work. After all the pain and suffering Frederick experienced while enslaved, he became a man determined to help bring change. He wanted to see an end to enslavement and equality for all, dedicating himself to public speaking, writing, and meeting with leaders.

Frederick Douglass portrait, taken in 1876
Frederick Douglass, 1876

Frederick passed away in Washington, D.C., on February 20th, 1895.

Note:

If you enjoyed this snapshot biography of Frederick Douglass, please consider supporting Historical Snapshots with a donation. Visit our Patreon page to donate. Your support is much appreciated ❤.

Click here to read our snapshot biography of Harriet Tubman, who also escaped enslavement and went on to help others

Sources:

Story – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself: Frederick Douglass. Published by the Anti-Slavery Office, Boston, 1845 – Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina

Photographs – Top portrait: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.74.45 / Second portrait: Frontispiece: Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom: Part I- Life as a Slave, Part II- Life as a Freeman, with an introduction by James M’Cune Smith. New York and Auburn: Miller, Orton & Mulligan (1855) – Wikimedia Commons / Third portrait: National Portrait Gallery, NPG.80.282

To cite:

“Frederick Douglass: a snapshot biography.” Historical Snapshots. 

President Ulysses Grant Quote

Quote:

I do not bring into this assemblage politics, certainly not partisan politics, but it is a fair subject for soldiers in their deliberations to consider what may be necessary to secure the prize for which they battled in a republic like ours; where the citizen is the sovereign and the official the servant; where no power is exercised except by the will of the people. It is important that the sovereign, the people, should foster intelligence and the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation. If we are to have another contest in the near future for our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s Line but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition, and ignorance on the other.

Now, the centennial year of our national existence, I believe, is a good time to begin the work of strengthening the foundations of the structure commenced by our patriotic fathers a hundred years ago at Lexington. Let us labor to add all needful guarantees for the greater security of free thought, free speech, a free press, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion. Encourage free schools and resolve that not one dollar of the money appropriated to their support shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school; that neither the state or nation, nor both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford every child in the land the opportunity of a good common-school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogma.

Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and private schools entirely supported by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will have been fought in vain.

– President Ulysses Grant

President Ulysses Grant, circa 1875
President Ulysses Grant, circa 1875

President Ulysses Grant Quote sources:

Quote – President Ulysses Grant speech in Des Moines, Iowa, 1876 / “Ulysses S. Grant: The Separation of Church and School” The Annals of America, Volume 10, Encyclopedia Brittanica / Rena M. Atchison, Un-American Immigration: Its Present Effects and Future Perils, Chicago, 1894, pp. 90-91

Portrait – Pres. U.S. Grant. [Between 1870 and 1880] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2017893220/> & Wikimedia Commons

Eretz Israel, My Beloved

“Eretz Israel, my beloved,” papa often says. Usually, the remark comes as he’s gazing out at the endless countryside plains. You can see the love in his soulful blue eyes. And appreciation as he bows his head to the land.

It was 1912 when papa first set foot in Eretz Israel. Back then, he was a young lad of fifteen, arriving alone after a long, lonesome trek from Russia. He never talks about the experience or why he left. Just says, “That wasn’t my country.” The words flow with bitterness. We’ve learned over the years about pogroms and much anti-semitism in Russia. And the family tragedies that came about from both.

“Why Eretz Israel?” I’ve asked him over the years. “Sunshine and Jaffa Oranges, and Uncle Lev,” he replies with a wide smile. His uncle Lev was one of the first Tel Aviv settlers in 1909. He received a small plot of land where he built a home, which became papa’s home for a few months. But papa craved the countryside. He was a farmer at heart who wanted to work the land. And he wanted to honor his father, who deeply believed in communal settlements, by joining a kibbutz.

With kibbutz life a calling, papa packed his bags and trekked again. This time the journey was short and exciting. In broken Hebrew, he’d ask for directions. And in broken Hebrew, people replied. Though many knew Yiddish, the settlers were committed to speaking in their new language.

Papa arrived on the kibbutz and immediately took to farming. With time, he became known for his understanding of the land. Farming for him was an art and science, and he spent much time extensively studying all that was available and writing letters with pages of questions to scientists worldwide when information was not. Evenings were often spent learning a language to read a book or write a letter. By his thirties, papa spoke eight, with a library of correspondence in them all neatly arranged in stacked boxes around our small home.

Papa found much joy in being a kibbutznik. He thrived in an environment where people felt equal, fulfilled in working the land, and while impoverished financially, they were rich in feeling accomplished and together. And adding to the joy, it was also on the kibbutz that he met mama. As they tell the story, mama arrives one day on the kibbutz with her parents. Papa, sixteen and beginning to think about marriage, sees her and knows. “I’m going to marry her,” he says to a friend. Tall and handsome with a calm demeanor, papa caught mama’s eye too. She approached him before he could approach her.

“I still remember her smile at that moment we met,” he tells us. “And her strong voice. She spoke with much conviction.”

They married shortly after. A year later, I was born on the kibbutz.

My early memories and most after that were spending time with kibbutzniks and papa. Mama didn’t like kibbutz life. She was an ardent Zionist who wanted to take part in the movement politically. Starting as the kibbutz representative, she grew in stature over the years, spending much time traveling away for meetings. But papa always welcomed her home with flowers on the table, a warm hug, and a gentle kiss. He loved her dearly.

We gathered around the radio to hear the news. Loud cheers and many hugs came with the United Nations announcing partition. The dream was now real. Eretz Israel was to become a nation officially recognized by the world. But the celebration was short-lived. With the announcement came an understanding that war would follow. The surrounding Arab countries refused to accept partition. They vowed to attack if Israel was to form. We knew they would.

Years of sporadic violence had worsened in the recent past. As momentum for nationhood grew, resistance did so as well. The time leading up to and after the partition was full of strife. We worried for mama’s safety whenever she left the kibbutz for meetings, as many roads, including the main one between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, were lined with snipers attacking Jewish people. On one bus ride, the man sitting next to mama was shot and killed. Mama came home with her blouse bloodied. Papa nearly fainted thinking she had been hurt.

Even on the kibbutz over the years, there had been skirmishes. Though, in general, we were friendly with our Arab neighbors. Sometimes I’d hear papa and his friends on both sides discussing the topic. “Such is the world. We have to learn to share and live together,” papa would say.

On May 14th, 1948, Eretz Israel became the State of Israel. The next day, Egypt, Iraq, Transjordan, Syria, and others attacked Israel.

Papa and I had joined the defense movement. Now we were armed and part of a battalion. And we were under attack. As we hunkered down behind the wall of an ancient building in Jerusalem, a home where our ancestors of many generations back watched their young grow old, papa looked at me and said, “I’m proud of the woman you’ve become.”

The war went on for over a year. Many died. Israel lost nearly one percent of its population. After the war, we watched our Arab neighbors leave. And papa cried that night. For all the turmoil and conflict, some of his closest friends were now gone, their lives uprooted. But in the end, Israel survived the attacks and held on to statehood. Eretz Israel was truly re-born.

Note: “Eretz Israel, My Beloved” is a work of historical fiction. While based on real events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.

Note: click here to read another historical fiction short story.

Charles Eliot quote: “The endless controversies…

Charles Eliot, 1904
Charles Eliot, 1904

Quote:

“The endless controversies whether language, philosophy, mathematics, or science supplies the best mental training, whether general education should be chiefly literary or chiefly scientific, have no practical lesson for us today. This university recognizes no real antagonism between literature and science, and consents to no such narrow alternatives as mathematics or classics, science or metaphysics. We would have them all, and at their best. To observe keenly, to reason soundly, and to imagine vividly are operations as essential as that of clear and forcible expression and to develop one of these faculties, it is not necessary to repress and dwarf the others.”

– Charles Eliot, President of Harvard University from 1869 – 1909

“Charles Eliot quote: ‘The endless controversies…” sources: 

Quote – Educational Reform, Essays and Addresses, New York, 1901 / The Annals of America, Volume 10 1866- 1883 Reconstruction and Industrialization, Encyclopedia Britannica.

Portrait – Chas. W. Eliot. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2002725456/>. / Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens quote: “To conceal…

Charles Dickens, 1868
Charles Dickens, 1868

Quote:

“To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.”

– Charles Dickens

“Charles Dickens quote: ‘To conceal…” sources:

Quote – “Master Humphrey’s Clock” by Charles Dickens, published in 1840 by Charles & Hall / Wikiquote

Portrait – Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. “Albumen photograph, on card, of Charles Dickens” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1868. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/91c440c0-eda8-0130-b008-58d385a7bbd0