Unidentified Member of Alert Hose Company. / THF212048
Sometime during the late 1870s, members of the Alert Hose Company in Big Rapids, Michigan, posed for the local photographer. Arms crossed and standing tall, each of the firefighters wears a uniform—typical of those worn when competing in a local or regional firemen's tournament. The men had won several tournament prizes by the time they posed for these photographs—perhaps the prize money helped pay for the cartes-de-visite that became a remembrance of the company's victory. But these images offer more than just a glimpse at the Alert Hose Company's participation in a sporting event. They document the culmination of the company's years of hard work protecting Big Rapids against the ravages of fire, the pride in their company and their community, and their connection with the greater fraternity of 19th-century firefighters.
Fires in Big Rapids
Big Rapids, located in Mecosta County, Michigan, was incorporated in 1869. Like many 19th-century cities, it was susceptible to fire. The wood used to construct early homes and businesses offered ready fuel to the flames of an unwatched candle or lamp or a stray ember from a stove or fireplace. According to the 1883 Mecosta County history [p. 645], "Big Rapids has been a sufferer from fire at various times… The first fire of any consequence in the place was… in the year 1860." It was not any better in 1869 when another disastrous fire occurred [p. 645]: "No water supply or engines for extinguishing fires were here at that time, and common pails or buckets were the only appliance afforded. Lines of men were formed to supply water with buckets from wells in the vicinity, and even from the river, but without avail. The Mason House... was only saved by tearing down a small building [nearby] belonging to Harwood & Olds, and then hanging carpets and bed-clothes from the roof and windows, and keeping them saturated with water."
Finally, in 1871, men in Big Rapids organized volunteer fire companies, and the citizens and the city government discussed creating a local water supply for fire protection and private use.
Volunteer firefighters needed to work as a unit when it came time to fight a fire. Nineteenth-century fire companies usually consisted of men from similar class divisions, backgrounds, or ethnic groups and kinships. This sense of fraternity cemented the unit's cohesion. The camaraderie and kinship of fighting fires and their unique status as protectors in the community bound the firefighters together.
The Alert Hose Company was one of several volunteer firefighting companies to organize in Big Rapids in the early 1870s. The volunteers' job was to get to a burning structure as quickly as possible—pulling a hose cart or carriage—and attach hoses to an available water source so they could begin controlling the conflagration. By 1876, the growing city of Big Rapids had at least two other hose companies (Defiance and Protection) and the Pioneer Hook and Ladder company. (Hook and ladder companies employed hooks to tear down parts of buildings to limit a fire's spread and ladders to fight fires and rescue individuals in multi-story buildings.)
Little is known about the men who made up the Alert Hose Company, though names written on the back of some of the photographs provide a start. A quick review of census records from 1870 and 1880 and a city directory from 1884 give a few clues about a small subset. They were young working men mostly in their mid-20s and a couple in their 30s, though one was in his late teens. Several were related in some fashion. Their occupations included laborers, clerks, and a drayman (teamster)—none of the known men owned a business, though a few may have owned farms. Being part of the local fire company provided connections to businesses in the community to help guide their careers. A more thorough search of records (outside the scope of this blog) would provide more information on why this group of men came together to form the Alert Hose Company.
By the 1870s, fire companies tested their firefighting skills against other companies at various regional, state, and national firemen's tournaments. Local companies usually competed against one another on holidays or community fair days. State and national associations sponsored large competitions and set tournament rules and dates. Companies invited to participate usually competed in hose cart races, hook and ladder competitions, and pumping contests (to see how far a company could spray water from a hose), among other activities.
Training for and participating in firemen's tournaments tested and sharpened a company's firefighting skills, promoted a sense of pride in competition, and strengthened the sense of teamwork and fraternity. Participation in these tournaments by fire companies also engaged the local community. Government officials, business leaders, and ordinary citizens supported fire companies by cheering them on and providing monetary support through donations and prize money. Finally, friendly competitions between local companies broadened the sense of fraternity by creating a larger brotherhood of firefighters.
The men of the Alert Hose Company in Big Rapids, Michigan, began participating in hose cart races at various tournaments in the mid-1870s. In a hose cart race, a fire company ran a set distance pulling a cart reeled with hoses. Men in the company unwound the hoses, attached them to a water source, and then sprayed water. The fastest time won the prize. A review of articles from the Detroit Free Press highlights the successes of the fire company and the support of its community.
In 1875, the Alert Hose Company (along with the Pioneer Hook and Ladder company) made an appearance at the State Firemen's Tournament held in Jackson, Michigan. Reports mentioned no prizes, but, according to the papers, when they returned home, the men were met "with an enthusiastic reception and dinner[.]" On July 4, 1876, the Big Rapids' firefighting companies competed against one another for prize money. The "Alerts" won the champion belt and a cash prize of $50 offered by the mayor. The other firefighting companies took home lesser amounts funded by the citizens. The following year at the Mecosta County Fair, the "Alerts" took home a $100 purse in the hose cart race.
A bigger prize awaited in 1878. In September, the "Alerts" headed off to Chicago to compete in a national competition. Their teamwork paid off; they finished second within a long list of competitors. The prize this time was noteworthy—$300 in cash and a nickel-plated hose cart made by Silsby Company of Seneca Falls, New York. Citizens of Big Rapids turned out to greet their heroes when they returned home. Evergreens, flags, and banners decorated the local hall, the women of the town prepared a dinner, and, of course, there were speeches. A final mention from this period came in an 1882 article that reported the men of the Alert Hose Company had won a special prize of $10 at the State Firemen's Tournament for the "best appearing company."
Throughout the 1870s, local fire companies organized in the newly formed city of Big Rapids, Michigan. These volunteer firemen worked to protect their homes and community against the ever-present danger of fire. Each company needed to work as a cohesive unit when fighting flames and smoke. Similar backgrounds, ethnicities, and economic status—and the desire to protect their community—brought these men together. And local and regional firefighters' tournaments provided a way to hone the skills needed to become an effective team. The small images shown here, taken by a local photographer, point to the unity and pride that the men of the Alert Hose Company had in their avocation and the fraternity they represented.
See all 14 members of the Alert Hose Company (including one member not in uniform) in The Henry Ford's Digital Collections here.
This Cincinnati Red Stockings trading card, issued by Peck & Snyder in 1869, is one of the earliest baseball cards. / THF94408
What does an old baseball card tell us about life in the United States? This baseball card was issued by Peck & Snyder, a New York sporting goods store. It features a team photo of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. This card is one of the earliest baseball cards, and in many ways, it marks the emergence of the modern game as a national pastime.
Since the 1840s, baseball had been evolving rapidly from a game for children to one for gentlemen. The grown-ups soon imposed structure and standardization on the largely improvisational kids’ game. Baseball clubs formed for recreation and exercise, and friendly competition between clubs was soon part of the mix. Following the end of the Civil War, that friendly competition became more intense. Strong rivalries developed between local baseball clubs; gradually, playing for sport was replaced by playing to win. Clubs began to recruit better players. They cast nets that extended well beyond their communities and quietly offered top players various enticements to play, including jobs and cash. The best ball players gained celebrity status and came to be known far and wide. Newspapers covered their exploits, fanning the flames of "baseball fever" across the country. The spread of railroads allowed clubs to play games farther away from home.
The stage was set for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings.
The Cincinnati Red Stockings are one of the legendary teams of baseball. Harry Wright, who played for several New York clubs before the Civil War, saw the business opportunity in baseball as a spectator sport. In 1869, Wright built a club around a nucleus of himself, his brother George, and several other strong players from teams from the eastern United States. Backed by Cincinnati investors, the Red Stockings became the first openly professional baseball team. Taking advantage of the opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the Red Stockings embarked on a coast-to-coast national tour, covering 12,000 miles and playing before over 200,000 spectators. They were unbeaten in more than 70 games over two seasons, finally losing to the Brooklyn Atlantics in June 1870.
The exploits of the Red Stockings did much to popularize baseball around the nation and demonstrated that professional baseball teams could be an economic success. Major League Baseball marks its start with the Red Stockings’ national tour of 1869. The team lasted only five years (1866–1871), but Harry and George Wright went on to form the Boston Red Stockings (which eventually became the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves) and are members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Andrew Peck, founder of Peck & Snyder, signed the reverse of this Cincinnati Red Stockings trading card. Peck & Snyder's offerings included a wide range of recreational items, from baseball equipment to accordions to magic tricks. / THF94409
Peck & Snyder was Manhattan's first sporting goods store. Founded by Andrew Peck, who got his start in 1865 making baseballs, Peck & Snyder is credited with starting the first baseball card series when the store pasted advertisements on the back of team photographs, including the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the Chicago White Stockings, the Boston Lowells, the Brooklyn Atlantics, the New York Mutuals, and the Philadelphia Athletics. Along with brewers, hotel keepers, and transit companies, sporting goods makers knew that baseball was good for business.
In this card, we can see the emergence of baseball as a true national pastime—and as a business. Here was a New York store, creating a trade card with a Cincinnati team on it. The example now in the collections of The Henry Ford was important enough that it was framed—reflecting the celebrity status of the players it depicted and, perhaps, the rooting interests of its owner.
Jim McCabe is former Curator and Collections Manager at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran in May 2008 as part of our “Pic of the Month” series. It was updated for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
The Bangor & Aroostook car—a very fine reproduction of an 1860s passenger coach—captures the character and physical nature of the first generation of American passenger cars. Its finish and level of decoration suggest both the ambitions of early railroad enterprises and the expectations of early railroad patrons.
Historian Wolfgang Schivelbush has convincingly claimed that open cars such as this were “economically, politically, psychologically and culturally the appropriate travel container for a democratic pioneer society”—contrasting such vehicles with the European compartment cars that reflected the stratified social conditions there. While it is generally acknowledged that Mississippi riverboat accommodation provided the prototype for the open cars developed by American railroads, there can be no doubt that the increasing spread of the American railroad network, using open cars as the standard passenger vehicle, helped promote this democratic, all-in-it-together approach to travel.
The open interior of our Bangor & Aroostook railroad passenger coach. / THF176785
The open layout might appear to us practical, rational, and straightforward, but in many ways it was radical and socially innovative. And even if its layout simply reflects the social norms or attitudes of its era, it absolutely offers evidence of a social leveling largely unknown in other developed nations. Not until the era of the cheap automobile did enclosed personal compartments become the transportation situation of choice for the general public.
This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
Lithograph, "Strawberries," by Currier & Ives, 1870 / THF624651, detail
By the mid-19th century, true leisure time was a rare commodity among the American population. There were very few “official” holidays on the calendar and a twelve-hour workday, six-day workweek was the norm. For these Americans, bringing and sharing food to an outside gathering, whether it be an excursion to the seaside, to a rustic location, or to enjoy a simple meal after church, was a shared experience, a time to pause and take a breath.
What we call a picnic derives from the 17th-century French word “pique-nique,” a term used to describe a social gathering in which attendees each contribute a portion of food. They ranged from very formal affairs with several courses served by servants to very simple gatherings with the most basic of foods being served.
Mid-June is strawberry time here in Michigan, and strawberry-themed gatherings were a popular entertainment. Period magazines, newspapers, and other sources of the 1850s and 1860s go into great detail about picnic ideas and the logistical requirements for a successful event.
On Saturday, June 12, 2021, step back into the early 1860s to our re-created strawberry party outside the Chapman Home in Greenfield Village from 10 AM to 4 PM. You’ll be able to purchase strawberry hard cider, strawberry shortcake, strawberry pie, and strawberry frozen custard at various locations within the Village to soothe your own strawberry cravings, and can watch historic cooking demonstrations highlighting strawberries at Daggett Farmhouse, Ford Home, and Firestone Farm.
The recipes we’ll be demonstrating at each building are included below. Note that these are historic recipes and some of the measurements and techniques may not be familiar to today's home cooks. For more modern recipes dedicated to all things strawberry, check out Strawberry Love, featured in our Shop Summer 21 catalog.
A Pound Cake
Take a pound of butter, beat it in an earthen pan with your hand one way till like a fine thick cream; then have ready twelve eggs, with half the whites; beat them well, and beat them up with the butter, and work into it a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, and a few carraways, well together for an hour with your hand, or a great wooden spoon. Butter a pan and put it in, and then bake it an hour in a quick oven.
--Susannah Carter, The Frugal Colonial Housewife, 1742, pg. 104
To Make Currant Jelly
Strip the currants (strawberries) from the stalks, put them in a stone jar, stop it close, set it in a kettle of boiling water, half way the jar, let it boil half an hour, take it out, and strain the juice through a course hair-sieve; to a pint of juice put a pound of sugar, set it over a fine clear fire in our preserving pan or bell-metal skillet; keep stirring it all the time till the sugar is melted, then skim the scum off as fast as it rises. When your jelly is very clear and fine, pour it into gallipots; when cold, cut white paper just the bigness of the top of the pot and lay on the jelly, dip those papers in brandy; then cover the top close with white paper, and prick it full of holes; set it in a dry place, put some into glasses, and paper them.
--Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1747, pg. 183
2 cups of flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp shortening (1/2 butter)
About 1-1/2 cups sour milk “lobbered”
Sift the flour, salt, and soda together into a bowl and work in the shortening. Make a hole in the center and pour in the milk, stirring the flour into it from the sides with a wooden spoon. The dough should be just about as soft as it can be handled, so the amount of milk is indefinite. Pour it out on to a floured board and then pat it out or roll it gently—handling it just as little as possible—to a cake about three quarters of an inch thick. Put this into a buttered baking tin either square or oblong and bake it on a hot oven (450 degrees) for fifteen minutes. The amount of soda depends somewhat on the sourness of the milk. Do not try to sour pasteurized milk, for it can not be done. It will get "old" but it will not "lobber."
And if you don't know what "lobbered" means, it means thick—the dictionary stylishly calls it "clambered." If you use too much soda, the cake will be yellow and taste like lye. Of course, you may be safer in making a baking-powder dough, in which case you take your regular recipe for biscuits but add another tablespoonful of shortening (using half butter, at least, for the shortening) and bake it the same way.
When your cake is done (and "shortcake" in my kind of recipe doesn't mean "biscuits"), proceed after this fashion: have your strawberries (dead ripe) washed, hulled, mashed, and sweetened, in a bowl... And be sure there are plenty of them. Turn your hot cake out on the platter and split it in two, laying the top half aside while you give your undivided attention to the lower. Spread this most generously with butter just softened enough (never melted) to spread nicely, and be sure to lay it on clear up to the very eaves. Now slosh your berries on, spoonful after spoonful—all it will take. Over this put the top layer, and give it the same treatment, butter and berries, and let them drool off the edges—a rich, red, luscious, slowly oozing cascade of ambrosia. On the top place a few whole berries—if you want to—and get it to the table as quickly as you can. It should be eaten just off the warm, and if anybody wants to deluge it with cream, let him do so. But the memory of a strawberry shortcake like this lies with the cake and not the cream.
--Della Lutes, Home Grown, 1936, p. 128-130
Place strawberries in bottom of jar, add a layer of cinnamon and cloves, then berries, and so on; pour over it a syrup made of two coffee-cups cider vinegar, and three pints sugar, boiled about five minutes; let stand twenty-four hours, pour off syrup, boil, pour over berries, and let stand as before, then boil berries and syrup slowly for twenty-five minutes; put in jars and cover. The above is for six quarts of berries.
--Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, Estelle Woods Wilcox, Ed., 1877, p. 268
Fruit Ice Cream
To every pint of fruit-juice, allow a pint of sweet cream. The quantity of sugar will depend upon the acidity of the fruit used. Apples, peaches, pears, pine-apples, quinces, etc., should be pared and grated. Small fruits, such as currants, raspberries, or strawberries, should be mashed and put through a sieve. After sweetening with powdered sugar, and stirring thoroughly, let it stand until the cream is whipped—2 or 3 minutes. Put together and then whip the mixture for 5 minutes. Put into the freezer, stirring it from the bottom and sides 2 or 3 times during the freezing process.
--Mrs. Frances E. Owens, Mrs. Owens’ Cook Book and Useful Household Hints, 1884, p. 301
Jim Johnson is Director of Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.
Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States / THF118582
March 4, 1861: Inauguration Day. Abraham Lincoln, the President-elect, takes the oath of office to become the 16th President of the United States. It was an uncertain time. The country was torn over the issue of slavery. For years, a tenuous arrangement had been maintained between free and slaveholding states, but now many Americans—on both sides—seemed unwilling to compromise. The Democratic Party had fractured over the issue. Two Democrats and a former Whig, each with differing views, vied to become president in 1860. This left the Republican Party, which wanted to limit slavery, with an opportunity for an electoral victory.
Lincoln, the Republican Party candidate, was elected by a minority of eligible voters, winning mainly Northern and Western states—enough for an electoral majority—but receiving little or no support from the slaveholding South. Since Lincoln's election in November 1860, seven Southern states had seceded from the Union, and many Americans feared the other eight slave states would follow. Americans anxiously waited to hear from their new president.
In his inaugural address, Lincoln tried to allay the fears and apprehensions of those who perceived him as a radical and those who sought to break the bonds of the Union. More immediately, his address responded to the crisis at hand. Lincoln, a practiced circuit lawyer, laid out his case to dismantle the theory of secession. He believed that the Constitution provided clear options to change government through scheduled elections and amendments. Lincoln considered the more violent option of revolution as a right held by the people, but only if other means of change did not exist. Secession, Lincoln argued, was not a possibility granted by the founders of the nation or the Constitution. Logically, it would only lead to ever-smaller seceding groups. And governing sovereignty devolved from the Union—not the states, as secessionists argued. Finally, if the Constitution was a compact between sovereign states, then all parties would have to agree to unmake it. Clearly, President Lincoln did not.
Lincoln did not want conflict. His administration had yet to govern, and even so, he believed that as president he would have "little power for mischief," as he would be constrained by the checks and balances framed in the Constitution. Lincoln implored all his countrymen to stop and think before taking rash steps. But if conflict came, he would be bound by his presidential oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the government.
Lincoln concluded his case with the most famous passages in the speech—a call to remember the bonds that unify the country, and his vision of hope:
"I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
Lincoln's appeal, however, avoided the cause of the onrushing war—slavery. Failing to take this divisive issue head-on only added to its polarizing effect. Many Americans in the North found Lincoln's speech too conciliatory. Southerners thought it threatened war. And the nation had little time to stop and think. Immediately after his inauguration, Lincoln had to decide whether to resupply Fort Sumter, the U.S. military post in Charleston harbor, the heart of secession. In April, the "bonds of affection" broke.
Lincoln had hoped that time and thoughtful deliberation would resolve this issue—and in a way it did. The tragedies of war empowered Lincoln to reconsider his views. His views on slavery and freedom evolved. No longer bound, Lincoln moved toward emancipation, toward freeing enslaved Americans, and toward his "better angels."
Engraving, "The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet" / THF6763
To read Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, click here.
Andy Stupperich is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
Joint Resolution of the United States Congress, Proposing the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, February 1, 1865 / THF118475
December 6, 2020, marks the 155th anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which legally abolished slavery.
The Emancipation Proclamation, first made public by President Abraham Lincoln in September 1862, laid the foundation for this amendment. With this presidential proclamation and executive order, President Lincoln hoped to counteract severe Union losses during the Civil War by calling on all Confederate states to rejoin the Union within 100 days (by January 1863) or the proclamation would declare enslaved people “thenceforward, and forever free.” On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln proceeded to sign this document, announcing freedom to all enslaved people in the Confederacy. It helped enlist needed support for the war from abolitionists and pro-union and anti-war supporters. But it was not a legal document, and Lincoln knew it.
President Lincoln and his allies in Congress soon began working to enact a constitutional amendment that would legally abolish slavery. Various versions were brought before Congress until, on April 8, 1864, the strongly pro-Union Senate approved this version of the Thirteenth Amendment as we know it today:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
However, this amendment failed to pass in the House of Representatives, whose members were more split on their views. The amendment stalled until November of that year, when, upon his own reelection and with like-minded Republican gains in the House, President Lincoln urged members of the Congress to reconsider the measure and give it their utmost urgency. He enlisted members of his Cabinet and selected allies in the House to help him sway enough House member votes for the amendment to pass.
On January 31, 1865, it barely squeaked by with the requisite two-thirds majority. Upon learning of the final vote, pro-Union and anti-war members of the House erupted in shouts and cheers, while outside spectators who had filled the Capitol’s galleries (both Black and white) wept tears of joy.
On February 1, 1865, members of Congress signed this Joint Resolution of the Thirteenth Amendment, indicating that it had passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives but had yet to receive state ratification. Although not legally required to do so, President Lincoln signed it as well. Immediately, Lincoln’s foes in both Congress and the press criticized him for wielding unseemly presidential power. But Lincoln was undeterred. Celebrating that evening, Lincoln happily announced, “This amendment is a King’s cure for all evils. It winds the whole thing up.”
It did help wind up the war. Its primary motive was, in fact, to preserve the Union by destroying the cornerstone of the Southern Confederacy. Sadly, on April 15, just as the war was winding down, President Lincoln was assassinated. Afraid that slavery might be re-established by individual states, Radical Republicans in Congress determinedly pushed the Thirteenth Amendment forward for state ratification. It was finally ratified by the requisite three-quarters of states on December 6, 1865—the date we are now commemorating.
Unfortunately, the Thirteenth Amendment was not a “cure for all evils.” Some Southern states were already instituting black codes, denying African Americans basic rights. The Thirteenth Amendment was followed by a Fourteenth and a Fifteenth—legally guaranteeing African Americans the basic rights of citizenship and the ability to vote. But these were just legal documents. Enforcing them was another matter, one fraught with violence and discrimination. African Americans would face an ongoing struggle for freedom and justice.
This is one of a limited number of original manuscript copies known to survive of the February 1, 1865, Joint Resolution of the US Congress, proposing the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. Lincoln’s signature was added by another hand.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
President Abraham Lincoln signed The Freedmen’s Bureau Act on March 3, 1865. That Act created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands as part of the War Department. It provided one-year of funding, and made Bureau officials responsible for providing food, clothing, fuel, and temporary shelter to destitute and suffering refugees behind Union lines and to freedmen, their wives, and children in areas of insurrection (in other words, within the Confederate States). The legislation specified the Bureau’s administrative structure and salaries of appointees. It also directed the Bureau to put abandoned or confiscated land back into production by allotting not more than 40 acres to each loyal refugee or freedman for their use for not more than three years, at a rent equal to six percent of its 1860 assessed value, and with an option to purchase. The Bureau assumed additional duties in response to freed people’s goals, namely building schools, negotiating labor contracts, and mediating conflicts.
Lincoln supported the Bureau because it fit his plan to hasten peace and reconstruct the nation, but after Lincoln’s assassination, support wavered. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866 provided two years of funding. During 1868, increasing violence and for a return to state authority undermined the goals of freed people and the Bureau that worked for them. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1868 authorized only the educational department and veteran services to continue. All other operations ceased effective January 1, 1869.
Collections at The Henry Ford help document public perceptions of the Freedmen’s Bureau as well as actions taken by Bureau advocates. Letters, labor contracts, and newspapers indicate the contests that played out as the Bureau tried to introduce a new model of economic and social justice and civil rights into places where absolute inequality based on human enslavement previously existed. The Bureau did not win the post-war battle for freedmen’s rights. Congress did not reauthorize the Bureau, and it ceased operations in mid-1872.
The Beginning Bureau appointees went to work at the end of the Civil War in 1865 to serve the interests of four-million newly freed people intent on exercising some self-evident truths itemized in the Declaration of Independence:
That all men are created equal That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights That among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
With freedom came responsibility to sustain the system of government that “We the People” constituted in 1787, and that the Union victory over secession reaffirmed in 1865. Little agreement over the best course of action existed. The national government extended the blessings of liberty by abolishing slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865. It established the Freedmen’s Bureau which advocated for the general welfare of newly freed people.
Expanding liberty and justice came at a price, both economic and human. Every time freed people exercised new-found liberty and justice, others resisted, perceiving the expansion of another person’s liberty as a threat to their own. The Bureau operated between these factions, as an 1868 illustration from Harper’s Weekly depicted. The newspaper claimed that the Bureau was “the conscience and common-sense of the country stepping between the hostile parties, and saying to them, with irresistible authority, ‘Peace!’.”
Economics Building a new southern economy went hand in hand with expanding social justice and civil rights. Concerned citizens and commanding officers knew that African Americans serving in the U.S. Colored Troops had money to save. They started private banks to meet the need. The U.S. Congress responded with "An Act to Incorporate the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company." Lincoln signed the legislation on March 3, 1865, the same day he signed “An Act to Establish a Bureau for the relief of Freedmen and Refugees.” Agents of the public Freedmen’s Bureau worked closely with staff at the private Freedman’s Bank because freed people needed the economic stability the bank theoretically provided.
At least 400,000 people, one tenth of the freed population, had an association with a person who opened a savings account in the 37 branches of the savings bank that operated between 1865 and 1874. This included Amos H. Morrell, whose daughter’s heirs resided in the Mattox House. Soldiers listed on the Muster Roll of Company E, 46th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, also appear in records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. Charles Maho, a private in Company E, 46th USCT, opened an account on August 13, 1868. He worked in a tobacco factory at the time. His brother in arms, James Parvison/Parkinson, also a private, opened an account on December 1, 1869 and his estranged wife, Julia Parkerson opened an account on May 14, 1870.
Freedmen’s Bureau officials encouraged deposits into the Freedmen’s Bank. This helped freed people become accustomed to saving the coins they earned, literally the coins that symbolized their independence as wage earners. Sadly, Bureau officials often assured account holders that their investments were safe. The deposits were not protected by the national government, however, and when the bank closed in 1874 it left depositors penniless and petitioning for return of their investments.
The U.S. Congress authorized the Bureau to collect and pay out money due soldiers, sailors, and marines, or their heirs. Osco Ricio, a private in Company E, 46th U.S. Colored Infantry, who enlisted for three years in 1864, but was mustered out in 1866, made use of this service in his effort to secure $187 due him.
Freedmen’s Bureau staff mediated between freed people and employers, negotiating contracts that specified work required, money earned, and protection afforded if employers reneged on the agreement. A blank form, printed in Virginia in 1865, included language common to an indenture – that the employer would provide “a sufficiency of sound, wholesome food and comfortable lodging, to treat him humanely, and to pay him the sum of _____ Dollars, in equal monthly instalments of ____ Dollars, good and lawful money in Virginia.”
Freedman's Work Agreement Form, Virginia, 1865 Object ID 2001.48.18. THF 290704
Another pre-printed form reinforced terms of enslavement, that the work should be performed “in the manner customary on a plantation,” even as it confirmed the role of Freedmen’s Bureau agents as adjudicator. Freedman Henry Mathew, and landowner R. J. Hart, in Schley County, Georgia, completed this contract which legally bound Hart to furnish Mathew “quarters, food, 1 mule, and 35 acres of land” and to “give. . . one-third of what he [Mathew] makes.” This type of arrangement became the standard wage-labor contract between landowners and sharecroppers, paid for their labor with a share of the crops grown on the land.
Many criticized sharecropping as another form of unfree labor rather than as a fair labor contract. Close reading confirms the inequity which often took the form of additional work that laborers performed but that benefitted owners. In the case of Hart and Mathew, Mathew had to repair Hart’s fencing which meant that Mathew realized only one-third return on his labor investment in the form of a crop perhaps more plentiful because of the fence. Hart claimed the other two-thirds of the crop plus all of the increased value of fencing.
Education Freed people wanted access to education to learn what they needed to make decisions as informed and productive citizens.
Harper’s Weekly, a New York magazine, often featured freedmen’s schools that resulted from a cooperative agreement between the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association (AMA), based in New York. A reporter informed readers on June 23, 1866 that “the prejudice of the Southern people against the education of the ‘negroes’ is almost universal.” Regardless, freed people needed schools, teachers, and institutes to train teachers. The Freedmen’s Bureau and its partners committed their resources in support of this cause.
Commentary accompanying an illustration of the “Primary School for Freedmen” indicated that the school building was dilapidated and owned by someone who wanted rid of the school, but the students were eager to learn and as capable as other students of their age in New York public schools.
School curriculum often emphasized agricultural and technical training. The “Freedmen’s Farm School,” located near Washington, D.C., also known as the National Farm-School, taught orphans and children of U.S. Colored Troops reading, writing and arithmetic, standard primary school subjects. Students also cultivated a one-hundred-acre farm. The combination compared to a new effort launched with the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 to create a system of colleges, federally funded but operated at the state level to train students in agricultural and mechanical subjects. The combination could help students realize the American dream – owning and operating their own farm. While the system of land-grant colleges grew steadily during Reconstruction, the freedmen’s schools faced opposition locally and at the state level. Increasingly educators turned to philanthropists to fund education for freed people.
Struggles The individuals appointed to direct the Freedmen’s Bureau often had military experience. Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard served in the Union Army and gained a reputation as a committed abolitionist if not a strong officer. President Andrew Johnson appointed him the first Commission of the Bureau, and he remained in that position until the Bureau closed in 1872. Two years later Howard lamented lost opportunities: “I believe there are many battles yet to be fought in the interest of human rights”….“There are wrongs that must be righted. Noble deeds that must be done.”
Many shared Howard’s frustrations with the lack of public support for freed people’s goals. They also resented the obstructions that thwarted those goals. Newspaper reporting, such as the regular features in Harper’s Weekly, emphasized the good work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, but reporting also threatened projects aimed at sustaining the momentum.
Henry Wilson, a Republican Senator from Massachusetts, sought equality for African Americans. He took a correspondent to the Republican, a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts, to task for publishing misinformation about the extent of congressional fundraising for political purposes, and for downplaying the need for sharing facts with voters, especially the 700,000 Southerners newly enfranchised after ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Wilson explained that hundreds of thousands of documents, possible through the congressional fundraising, could educate voters about issues and prepare them for the upcoming election. Without donations from U.S. congressmen, Wilson believed such efforts would fail.
The End The short life but complicated legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau leaves much to ponder. The Bureau, as a part of the War Department, and then an independent national agency, mediated local conflict and supported local education. This occurred at an exceptional time as the Union began rebuilding the nation in 1865. Then, the Republican party interpreted the U.S. Constitution as a mandate for the national government to protect civil rights broadly defined. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, incorporated newly freed people as full citizens. Most believed that the Bureau had no more work to do, and Congress did not reauthorize it after July 1872. Those who favored the Bureau lamented its abrupt end and believed that much remained to be done to open the American experiment in equal rights to all.
Debra Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
”We are Bound for Glory with a Fair Wind, Nothing but Working and Fighting Ahead.” – Samuel Chapman Armstrong, Lt. Col., 9th USCT, between Hilton Head, South Carolina and Petersburg, VA, 1864
The American Civil War was the seminal event affecting daily life and ideals about freedom and citizenship during the 1860s and beyond. People coped with the reality of war-time devastation in a variety of ways. As the Civil War generation passed during the late 1920s and 1930s, when the collections of The Henry Ford were forming, the sacred family mementos that associated with personal memories of pride, honor and glory became part of this great museum of the American experience. Even though The Henry Ford is not a military history museum, the collections are rich with Civil War photographs and letters, battlefield relics, and even a medal of honor. The war is deeply imbedded in the collective memory of 19th and early 20th century Americans, and it was so often included in the “archives” of their lives that, by default, their mementos became part of our collections.
Henry Ford’s own interest in documenting the lives of his parents and his own childhood and young adulthood, caused him to collect his own family’s rich Civil War stories. Two of Henry’s mother’s brothers, John and Barney Litogot, served in the storied 24th Michigan. John was killed near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Barney survived to fight in many battles, including Gettysburg. He also served in the honor guard at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.
John and Barney Litogot at the time of their enlistment, August, 1862. THF 226852
The variety of Civil War objects in the collection is amazing, and represents both Union and Confederate perspectives.
Keeping troops in the field proved challenging for the Confederacy and the Union. A broadside confirms pay scales for Union troops and employees of the United States Army.
Recruiting Broadside, United States Army, c1863. THF 8551
Lackluster enlistment, however, prompted both armies to institute conscription. The Confederacy did this in April 1862 and the Union followed in March 1863.
The U.S. Army issued broadsides to recruit soldiers, including men of African descent, after passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. One broadside in the collection depicts a white male standard bearer front and center and elevated above others in the scene. He is armed with a sword and the banner, “Freedom to the Slave.” To the left sits a public school and a black man reading a newspaper rather than manning the plow. This implied that education and literacy could free people from manual labor. To the right, a black soldier aids black women and children recently freed from the shackles of slavery while black troops fight in the background.
“Freedom to the Slave. . . Fight for the Stars and Stripes,” 1863-1865. THF 118383
Black men had opportunities to serve in the Union forces before the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, in May 1862, General David Hunter, in command of occupying forces in Hilton Head, South Carolina, organized the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. He acted without permission of the War Department and reputedly impressed men enslaved on plantations in the occupied territory into service. This sparked controversy about whether contraband of war, the enslaved in occupied territory, could, or should, serve in the military. The regiment disbanded in August 1862
Wood Engraving, First and Last Dress Review of 1st Regiment South Carolina (Negro) Volunteers, 1862. THF 11672.
The Militia Act on July 1, 1862 made it legal for the U.S. President, as commander in chief, to accept “persons of African descent” into the Union military or navy. The Militia Act authorized their pay and rations equivalent to that of soldiers already serving, but instead of $13 per month, they received $10 per month, with the remaining $3 paid in clothing). It also allowed persons of African descent to work for the Union, performing camp service and building fortifications.
Union officers reorganized the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry in November 1862, in conjunction with the Port Royal Experiment to redistribute lands on the Sea Islands of South Carolina to the formerly enslaved. Company A, under command of Charles T. Trowbridge, became the first official regiment of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) on January 1, 1863, the same day that officials read the Emancipation Proclamation for the first time, in Beaufort, South Carolina, on Port Royal Island, just south of Fort Sumter. The First South Carolina was renamed the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry in 1864 and remained in service until January 31, 1866.
"Dress Parade of the First South Carolina Regiment (Colored) near Beaufort, South Carolina," 1861-1865. THF 8221
Stories of tragedy and triumph abound in the history of the USCT, including experiences lived by residents on our own Susquehanna Plantation.
Susquehanna as it appears in Greenfield Village today. THF 2024
Morris Robertson, an enslaved carpenter, left Susquehanna and enlisted with the Federal Army on October 25, 1863. He became a member of the 9th USCT, Company C. This regiment was organized at Camp Stanton, Benedict, Maryland, from November 11 to December 31, 1863. They saw service in South Carolina and Virginia, including Petersburg and Richmond. Following the end of hostilities, the regiment was moved to Brownsville, Texas, where it remained until September 1866. The 9th was ordered to Louisiana in October and mustered out at New Orleans, November 26, 1866. Sadly, it was in Brownsville, Texas, very near the end of his term of service that Morris Robertson died of cholera on August 25, 1866. We would like to think that Morris’ brief time of freedom, though under frequent periods of extreme danger, gave him some joy. It is troubling to know that though free, he would never see his family again.
Service Record for Morris Robertson from the Company Descriptive Book. (Library of Congress)
Other objects in the collections document USCT in several other states, and confirms their service across the Confederate States from Virginia to south Texas. Examples include the 54th Massachusetts, perhaps the most well-known USCT regiment. It received national media attention in July 1863 for its “gallant charge” on rebel-held Fort Wagner, on Morris Island in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor.
Lithograph: GALLANT CHARGE OF THE FIFTY FOURTH (COLORED) MASSACHUSETTS REGIMENT / On the Rebel Works at Fort Wagner; Morris Island near Charleston, July 18th 1863, and the death of Colonel Robt. G. Shaw. THF 73704
USCT saw action in the Gulf of Mexico. Evidence includes a portrait of J.D. Brooker. Inscriptions on the back of the photo matte indicated that Brooker served with the Corps d’Afrique, 79th Regiment of Infantry. U.S. Army recruiters worked at the parish-level in occupied Louisiana, to attract volunteers. Troops saw heavy action during the Port Hudson campaign, May through July 1863. Major General Nathaniel P. Banks praised the Corps--"It gives me great pleasure to report that they answered every expectation. In many respects their conduct was heroic. No troops could be more determined or more daring."
Portrait of J.D. Brooker, soldier with the Corps d'Afrique 79th U.S. Colored Troops from Louisiana. THF 93151
Fragments of “our flag” were glued to the back of J.D. Brooker’s portrait.
Collections include portraits of white commanding officers of black troops.
Union Army Colonel Bernard Gains Farrar, who assisted in the siege of Vicksburg, recruited African-American troops from the area after Vicksburg fell. He commanded the 6th U. S. Colored Heavy Artillery.
Portrait of a Union Army Colonel Bernard Gains Farrar, 1862-1864. THF 6229
Lieutenant Andrew Coats, served with the 7th Colored Infantry Regiment and as Acting Assistant Adjutant General for the District of Florida. In 1864, the 7th Colored Infantry Regiment was part of the 10th Army Corps, located in the area of Hilton Head and Beaufort, South Carolina.
Portrait of Lieutenant Andrew Coats, 7th Colored Infantry Regiment, 1864. THF 57539
Americans of African descent remained the fulcrum around which debates about status and citizenship revolved. An 1864 print by Currier and Ives, conveyed this debate graphically as a contrast between the George B. McClellan, the Democratic presidential candidate, who wanted to restore the Union, but not abolish slavery, and the incumbent, Abraham Lincoln, author of the Emancipation Proclamation. If McClellan won the election, the CSA president, Jefferson Davis, would slit their throats. If President Lincoln retained his seat, black soldiers could stand at Lincoln’s right hand, defending the Union of States against CSA president Davis, in rags and on his posterior and held at bay by Lincoln. Black soldiers, however, remained culturally distinctive in the Currier and Ives depiction, as the dialect in the captioning re-enforced.
“Your Plan and Mine,” Political Cartoon, Presidential Campaign, 1864. THF 251879
Our collections also document post-war service of USCT. The Muster Roll for Company E, 46th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry confirmed the presence of men serving in the Regiment between April 30 and June 30, 1865. It also included names of at least fifteen men who had been taken as prisoners of war and men who had been discharged and deceased. The roll may have been used to keep track of soldiers after the war, perhaps for pension applications. Some annotations are dated 1885 and 1890. The Company E, 46th Regiment USCT saw action in Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta.
Another muster roll, confirmed the presence of thirteen soldiers in Company G, 25th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, on April 12, 1865. Col. F.L. Hitchcock, commanding officer of the troops in Fort Barrancas, Florida, signed the roll. It includes details about each soldier:
Name; Rank; Date mustered in; Place mustered in; Mustered in by [name]; How long in service; Hair color; Eye color; Complexion color; Height (feet and inches); Where born; Age; Occupation; Pay information.
The 25th Regiment USCT was on garrison duty at Fort Barrancas, Florida, when these soldiers were recruited, and remained on garrison duty until December, 1865, never seeing action. During the spring and summer of 1865 about 150 men died of scurvy, the result of lack of proper food. Col. Hitchcock wrote:
"I desire to bear testimony to the esprit du corps, and general efficiency of the organization as a regiment, to the competency and general good character of its officers, to the soldierly bearing, fidelity to duty, and patriotism of its men. Having seen active service in the Army of the Potomac, prior to my connection with the Twenty-fifth, I can speak with some degree of assurance. After a proper time had been devoted to its drill, I never for a moment doubted what would be its conduct under fire. It would have done its full duty beyond question. An opportunity to prove this the Government never afforded, and the men always felt this a grievance."
Muster Roll of 13 Soldiers in Company G, 25th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, April 12, 1865. THF 284824
As we pause to celebrate Memorial Day, a holiday with its origins linked to the Civil War, we need to pause to also honor all those who have given their lives in service, and all those who have, and continue to, serve to protect our freedoms. Americans did not agree on the meaning of freedom during the 1860s, and the evidence indicates that Americans of African descent were not given their freedom by white Americans. They fought during the Civil War to attain it.
Jim Johnson is Curator of Historic Structures and Landscapes at The Henry Ford. Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
Jacket, Worn by Robert H. Hendershot, circa 1890. THF 155871
In the 1880s and 1890s, Civil War veteran Robert Hendershot wore this elaborate jacket when he played his drum at Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) events and at other community gatherings. The accompanying “souvenir” card is actually an advertisement, letting interested parties know Hendershot was available for hire.
Trade Card from Major Robert H. Hendershot, "The Original Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock," circa 1895. THF 115938
Since the 1860s, Hendershot had billed himself as “The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” But was he? In December 1862, during the fighting at Fredericksburg, Virginia, reports had come of a brave young drummer boy who had crossed the Rappahannock River with the 7th Michigan Infantry under a hail of Confederate bullets. The 12-year-old Hendershot was indeed with a Michigan regiment at Fredericksburg at this time. But so were several other young drummer boys.
The controversy over who really was “The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock” raged for decades among Civil War veterans—reports from members of Michigan units engaged at Fredericksburg offered conflicting stories. But Hendershot used his savvy promotion skills to keep his name before the public, receiving recognition from some G.A.R. members and even from prominent men like newspaper editor Horace Greeley.
Hendershot may or may not have been “The Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.” But throughout his life, he certainly used his celebrity to his advantage.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
The Gettysburg battlefield monument depicted in this painting honors the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. The figure of the soldier looks out over the field where this famed unit fought fiercely on July 3, 1863 to help assure Union victory on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Their commander was 23-year-old Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer, promoted only three days before. Gettysburg was the Michigan Brigade's first major engagement.
This "Wolverine Brigade" fought in every major campaign of the Army of the Potomac, from Gettysburg to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. A number of the surviving veterans were present at the monument's dedication in Gettysburg on June 13, 1889.
Jessie Zinn created this painting of the monument soon after. Did a proud Michigan Brigade veteran ask the 26-year-old Gettysburg artist to paint it? Did Michigan veterans commission the artwork to hang in their local Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) Hall?To learn more about Jessie's story, take a look at this special visit To Henry Ford.