‘What’s this Thadeus? More nigger-lovin propaganda?’ John Braimbridge sneers as he snaps the pamphlet from the master’s hands. The smoke-filled saloon overflows with men. A rancorous discord pervades the room, what I would forever note as a harbinger of mob rule.
The master sits at the table, erect but small in the towering shadow and brutal reputation of neighboring plantation owner John Braimbridge. ‘The Senate has declared their full support for compensated emancipation,’ the master responds. ‘Emancipation will begin with compensatory liberation, a voluntary conscription of slaves in the army.’
Braimbridge erupts, rears back, roaring with a laughter that swells the room, he waves his arm in my direction, ‘Do you hear that boy? Compensatory emancipation!’
Deepening into the dim corner of the saloon, I burrow my chin into my chest.
‘Tell me, boy – Would you rather be free all at once or slowly freed? Maybe we ought to just cash you in one piece at a time, first an arm and then a leg, how’s that for compensatory emancipation?’.
Cackled laughter among the men.
The master interjects, ‘John, I don’t give a damn about their freedom, I’m no abolitionist, I only seek solutions to end this godforsaken war before the rest of our sons and daughters die.’
Braimbridge drains his glass and speaks to the entire room, glaring at Thadeus, ‘So, we’re going to slowly lose our farms and livelihood. Releasing slaves into our civilized society will destroy the entire economy of the South and maybe that of the entire nation much less arming them, you’re asking us to arm a damned insurrection!’
‘I’m not defending them John, I’m just saying we should consider the inevitable. The ranks of Union soldiers will soon be filled with negroes whether you submit or not. The provost marshal for the army is offering $300 for each slave that we allow to enlist.’
The room flares into a hostility of jeers and voices vying to be heard, until the master, rising to his feet, shouts above the tumult, ‘For every slave enlisted, a white man is spared!’
Ripples of his pronouncement dissipated through the murmuring. ‘This might be an unwinnable war. I either sell my estate and move north or sell my slaves and submit to the Union. The President’s proclamation goes into effect in a few months. All slaves in the rebellion states will be legally free. It’s only a matter of time before-‘
Braimbridge leaps to his feet, slams his fist on the table, ‘I’ll be goddamned if I’ll let a nigger fight for me’.
‘Then enlist’, Thadeus retorts, sitting down and leaning back with his arms across his chest. ‘Enlist and die in the war on their behalf. I say let them fight for their own freedom, if they fight, they might just preserve this nation’.
Braimbridge towers across toward Thadeus, ‘How will you afford to crop and shear and culture your plantation?’
‘Hired labor. Eventually, I will emancipate all my slaves and hire back those willing to work.’
‘Your costs will escalate and without a whip, those damn freedmen will strangle any shred of profit you make. It’s a slow death, Thadeus.’ Braimbridge counters.
‘It is either less profit or no profit. The republic must be held. It is better to lose profit than our entire country.’
James McLaughlin, a neighboring plantation owner with a ruddy complexion, petulant mouth, and small, wiry frame, explodes into expletives, ‘I’m for colonization. Ship them back to Africa. Get rid of the whole damn lot at once. Jobs are scarce as it is, we cannot flood farms and fields with cheap labor, they will be taking work from white men who do a much better job. These niggers will steal from our children’s mouths right under our noses. Hell, hire the Irish, they’ll work circles around these shiftless darkies.’
Thadeus shakes his head in exasperation and stares at his hands folded before him on the table, ‘Your Irish brethren have spoken their piece about this war, the New York draft riot declared the mind of the Irish, they want no part of our Republic. Besides, repatriation is ludicrous. It will cost the country millions of dollars. Who pays for colonization? We do. Taxes will escalate and it’s impractical. There are millions of slaves now permanently woven into the fabric of this nation, impossible to extract’.
‘Infested in the fabric of this nation. Like a goddamned pestilence,’ Mclaughlin lifts his gray hat and runs his hands through his hair, glowering at me, ‘And the Irish did what we should have done, revolted against a monarchy!’
The room explodes with shouts of approval, the surge rising on a crest of bitter gall.
I sense McLaughlin’s stare and divert my eyes, concentrating on a tobacco stain on the floor.
Braimbridge gesticulates wildly, pointing his finger as weapon, ‘Property, Thadeus! Property is our inviolable right! Lincoln’s a dictator. Preservation of the Union is but a plot to take our property and possessions that we are entitled to by law. Preservation of the Union is not possible as long as personal property rights are threatened. Lincoln’s ruse of war is to save the Republic so he can rule it. Hell, the Irish at least had the sense to fight the draft, any kind of draft, conscription or otherwise’.
A murmur of agreement breaks across the room.
McLaughlin cackles, ‘This whole damn war is a farce. Niggers can’t fight, hell, they can’t even think’.
Thaddeus turns to McLaughlin, an idea lightening across his face, ‘You’re wrong, McLaughlin, they can learn and they will.’
The sound of his voice booms toward me, ‘Benjamin, come here’.
Turning to the room, the master declares, ‘If we can convert these slaves into a volitional fighting force and a volitional work force, we might save our sons and daughters from this war and save our farms’.
I freeze. My legs immobile, glaciated by fear. Dizzy, my tongue thickens in my head.
‘Do as I say’, the master commands in a low growl.
Stepping from the shadows, trembling, head bent, I walk toward the master’s outstretched hand, toward the pamphlet extended before me.
‘I know you can read. Read.’
I stare at the master wide-eyed, desperate, seeking in his countenance some means of escape. I realize none is to be had. I lift the shaking pamphlet high to hide my face, screening the faces scowling back at me.
‘Resolved. That … the un … conditional, Union p-people of Miss-ouri, having favored compen … sated, compensated eman … ci … pation, emancipation for the slaves of loy … loyal owners in this state, do most cord-ially endorse President Lincoln’s policy as ex-pressed in his instruct … instruct …. instructions to Major General Scho … field, and em … embodied by that officer in General Order No. 135, direct-ing the organ … ization of colored troops into companies and regi-ments and the payment therefore to loy … loy … loyal owners the sum of three hundred dollars for each slave so enlisted.’
A pall descends on the room, a breathless compression of silence.
‘Go on’, the master orders.
I stammer, ‘Re-solved. That we hereby ten-der our cor … cor … cordial sympathy and support to the Pres … President of the United S … States, in all his great mea-sures for the suppress … suppression of the re-bellion, punishing trea … son … treason ... and restoring the sup … sup … supremacy of the Consti … Constitution of the whole country.
‘More. Keep reading’, the master commands.
‘Re-Resolved. That in view of the great compli … complication pending in the next great nat … nat … national struggle for the Presidency, and having full con-fi-dence in the ability and pat-riot-tism of Abraham Lincoln, declare him our choice for re … re ... election as President of the United States.’
A disquieting pause sustains among the men. I hold the trembling page before me, pamphlet as barrier.
Finally, McLaughlin’s sneer cracks the silence, ‘Well, I’ll be goddamned’.
Thaddeus turns to him, ‘As you will McLaughlin, but I suggest you return to your farms and ready yourselves for a radical transition, one you would be wise to support, one the state senate has already endorsed. If we wish to save our livelihood, we have no other choice.’
The master stands. I follow him out of the room to repulsive gazes, in a wake of white fury.
While in town, we finish our purchase of supplies. The master, ever punctilious, adheres to the same route while running errands. Every weekend, a stop to the saloon for news, then the requisite round of provisions. When we finally point the horses home, the sun is settling atop the horizon’s rim.
We ride in silence.
Throughout the ride, I process the day’s events, ruminating over the discussion back at the saloon and moreover, what lay ahead. How did the master discover I could read? Rufus? Momma? What will become of the plantation? The master will never sell me to the Union, I am too reliable as a skilled hand with his beloved horses. Other slaves might see freedom through service in the army, but not me. The Union Army is firmly ensconced in our community and will remain there until their quotient for soldiers is filled. If the purchase of negroes does not meet their requirements, whites will be conscripted into service. Moreover, Lincoln’s reelection receives the full blessing of the State Senate. I did not know then what a State Senate was and only later learn the impact of Missouri (a border state’s) support, but the reelection carries significant weight with the master. Based on the silence that overpowered that small saloon, Lincoln’s second term and winning the unwinnable war through the successful recruitment of thousands of slaves, could hasten the war’s end and with it, the unequivocal demise of slavery. This development will cause more alarm among the whites in our area than any other news yet.
A few miles out from the plantation, we crest the hill that begins its descent toward the farm entrance. Suddenly before us, spread out against the night sky, a conflagration of light bursts into view. The unmistakable, distant flare of fire and smoke.