Tag Archives: slavery

Am I Not a Man and a Brother?

Today marks the 155th anniversary in the United States since the slaves of the South were officially emancipated. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas with the news that the Civil War had ended and read the following statement:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

Even before this historic moment, the notion of breaking the chains of bondage had already graced itself on numismatic objects. In 1834, for example, engraver J. Davis of England created a silver medal that portrayed both a man while enslaved on the obverse with the famous inscription “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?” This medal came nearly thirty years after the British had ended the slave trade, and nearly thirty years before the United States did the same. The abolitionist movement was still strong in England and this medal helped spread the message. As such, the exergue states “A VOICE FROM GREAT BRITAIN TO AMERICA” with the date of 1834. The reverse of the medal depicts a formerly-enslaved man as he broke free from bondage with the words “THIS IS THE LORDS DOING; IT IS MARVELLOUS IN OUR EYES,” a reference from the book of Psalm (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Silver, 44mm, 24.79 g. American Numismatic Society, ANS 1987.122.24.

This same motif was used in the United States to help garner support for its own abolitionist movement. By 1837 and 1838, tokens that portrayed both enslaved men and women attempted to open the eyes of those were supportive or indifferent about the plights of slavery. These tokens are a part of a larger compendium of tokens from this period now known as Hard Times Tokens, most of which had nothing to do with slavery but with the economic plights caused by the Panic of 1837. Nonetheless, abolitionist causes were heard here as well, with one token portraying an enslaved woman and the inscription “AM I NOT A WOMAN & A SISTER?” (fig. 2).

Figure 2: Bronze, 28 mm, 10.44 g. American Numismatic Society, ANS 0000.999.39313.

In the South, however, where this insidious institution continued to thrive and led to the American Civil War, slaves were portrayed differently. Few tokens portrayed slaves here, but they were featured on several types of paper currencies. More often than not, slaves on paper currency were not represented in chains and, most of the time, look happy. This was a deliberate attempt to placate anyone who contended with narrative that slaves were unhappy or treated poorly. On this 1861 one-dollar note from Georgia, for instance, enslaved individuals are seen picking and packing cotton with a smile on the face of one individual (fig. 3).

Figure 3: Paper, dated July 20, 1861. American Numismatic Society, ANS 0000.999.13514.

Even long after emancipation, slavery has been depicted both negatively and, for lack of a better word, passively. On this medal in the Brookgreen Gardens series issued by the Medallic Art Company, for instance, slaves are seen passively, yet diligently, working in what the artist chose to depict as mere “Plantation Life” (fig. 4). By depicting only women and children in front of individual dwellings with lush trees and animals grazing, the perils that too many people faced under slavery is diminished to “life,” a state that many would have objected to.

Figure 4: Bronze, 75 mm, 183.28 g. American Numismatic Society, ANS 2001.15.1.

On a different note, a commemorative medallion issued by the National Commemorative Society and struck by the Franklin Mint in 1969 honored John B. Russwurm, who founded Freedom’s Journal in 1827 (fig. 5). Published in New York City, this was the first newspaper in the United States that was owned and operated by an African-American. The reverse of this piece depicts a former slave who recently broke free from his shackles reading the newspaper, along with the phrase “Righteousness Exalteth a Nation.”

Figure 5: Silver, 38 mm, 26.26 g. American Numismatic Society, ANS 1970.39.1.

While righteousness may have exalteth the United States on this day 155 years ago, the nation still has a long way to reconcile its slaveholding past. These numismatic tokens and medal serve as reminders to this, especially the fact that certain pieces issued more than a century after the end of slavery continued to present slaves as passive beings willing and content in their economic roles that they were forced to take. As is known, slaves aren’t slaves willingly, and this holiday signifies the emancipation of an entire group of people from their enforced bondage. On this Juneteenth, perhaps more than ever, the American Numismatic Society celebrates the end of the horrid institution of slavery in the United States.

Emancipation Day Token: Sarah Ann Prout

Sutlers were civilian merchants who supplied the Union Army with non-military goods that the government did not provide for the troops. Each military post had a designated sutler and although their activities were supposedly governed by the Federal Army Regulations of 1861, in practice they did what they pleased. Beyond standard necessities like clothing, kitchenware, and foodstuffs, they also stocked pipes and tobacco, playing cards, writing materials, books, newspapers, and other sundries that the huge camps of men mobilized for the war required.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, November 29, 1862
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, November 29, 1862

The article that accompanied the illustration above described the sutler as a “necessary evil” of army life. Because they were civilians whose primary motive was profit, sutlers could charge inflated prices and ensnare soldiers in credit schemes. Although officially prohibited, alcohol was a bestseller and contributed to their unsavory reputation, as bribes and smuggling quickly became standard operating procedure. Wherever the Union Army marched, the sutlers followed, selling their wares out of wagons, tents, and other temporary structures like the operation run by A. Foulke at a military camp in Virginia, ca. 1863-64.

Brandy Station, VA | ca. 1864 |Photograph by James F. Gibson Library of Congress
Brandy Station, VA | ca. 1864 | Photograph by James F. Gibson
Library of Congress

As most posts had only a single appointed sutler, they faced no competition and a combination of exorbitant prices and poor merchandise often led to strife and raids by angry soldiers. In short the sutler system was something of disaster throughout the war and the morale and discipline problems it created were so pernicious that it was abolished in 1866.

What concerns us here were some of the interesting numismatic dimensions of the sutler system. Perhaps most notable in this regard were so-called ‘sutler tokens,’ which were essentially a way of extending credit to soldiers between paydays. Issuing tokens also prevented soldiers from spending their money elsewhere and more practically alleviated the acute lack of circulating currency in camp. Tokens and cardboard scrip issued by sutlers were oftentimes the only kind of small change available and they were the primary means through which business was transacted in camp.

ANS, 0000.999.55338
ANS, 0000.999.55338

These thin brass tokens typically had the name of the sutler and the unit on the obverse and either a generic pattern or the mark of its maker on the reverse. The token above was struck by John Stanton in Cincinnati for J. L. Cooper, the sutler for the 2nd Regiment of the Ohio Cavalry.  The general rarity of these tokens has inspired a community of Civili War-era collectors, but they were not the only numismatic objects related to sutlers.

One item that came to be sold by most every sutler were identification discs, which were an early version of what we now know as “dog tags.” As soldiers came to realize the brutality of the conflict and the near impossibility of being identified in the event of their death, a durable means of identifying oneself in case the worst happened was sought. A wide variety of solutions were used, from stencils used to ink names on clothes to preprinted paper tags that could be filled out and attached with wire. Any bit of metal that could be repurposed with a bit of engraving was tried and so an assortment of metal badges and pins appeared, but the most popular solution proved to be small brass coin-like tokens. These discs bore patriotic symbols or busts of renowned Americans on their obverse with the reverses left blank for stamping on identification information. A hole drilled in the top allowed it to be securely fastened to a uniform or worn as a necklace.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Their utility was borne out in battle. The cased tintype at left from the Library of Congress pictures Corporal Alvin B. Williams, who enlisted at the age of eighteen and was killed in May 1864 at the Battle of Spotsylvania. Although the precise  circumstances of his death are unknown, the case poignantly contains his identification disc, which might have been the only means by which he could be identified amidst the carnage of that particularly bloody battle. Williams was originally buried at Beverly’s Farm, but his remains were later relocated to the Fredricksburg National Cemetery. Because these brass discs were relatively cheap, they proved popular with the troops and sutlers concomitantly stocked them in many different styles. Discs with assorted obverse designs and blank reverses were purchased wholesale from die-sinkers in New York, Boston, and other locales, and then the sutler finished the work at the point of purchase by stamping letters on with metal punches. Maier and Stahl’s research suggests the sutlers bought the blank discs for about a dollar each and then sold them to soldiers for two or three dollars, a seemingly fair mark-up, at least by contemporary sutler standards. The finished product looked something like this:

ANS, 1967.225.569
ANS, 1967.225.569

Note that in this case the reverse was not simply blank but pre-stamped with certain generic information, which made finishing the work with punches much easier.

The American Numismatic Society has dozens of identification discs, each possessing its own interesting story, but the one I want to single out was not sold to a soldier. It was inscribed with the name of a woman named Sarah Ann Prout on the occasion of the passage of the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on April 16, 1862. The act was a notable precursor to the Emancipation Proclamation and the debates that surrounded it. This was in a sense a model piece of legislation in that it combined emancipation with compensation to slave owners, and also provided funds to newly freed slaves willing to emigrate abroad. The act obviously had the most direct impact on the three thousand or so slaves in the District of Columbia who were freed, but its passage was celebrated by African Americans and abolitionists around the country. The jubilation was such that Sarah Ann Prout went to a sutler and had this disc stamped to mark the day.

ANS, 0000.999.39579
ANS, 0000.999.39579

Who was Sarah Ann Prout? The likeliest candidate that I have been able to find is a “Sarah Prout” enumerated in the 1860 census. She was then a 33-year-old African-American woman living in Millersville, Maryland about twenty five miles east of Washington, DC. Listed as a “Free Inhabitant” of the state, her occupation was given as “Farm Laborer.” As detailed on the handy Legacy of Slavery in Maryland website, the slave (87,189) and free (83,942) black populations were then roughly equal in Maryland. I do not presently have access to some of the more specialized research tools and databases used by historians and genealogists so perhaps this identification is in error, but of the Sarah Prouts listed in the census she seems to make the most sense in terms of both background and geography. Perhaps she was attracted to work in the burgeoning military camps and complexes that sprang up around Washington as the war effort expanded. The passage of the Emancipation Act would certainly have been an occasion for celebration by the black community in and around the District of Columbia. Moreover there is always the possibility that this Sarah Prout, although free in 1860, was born into slavery, which would make the day particularly redolent. While this presupposes much, the token was certainly purchased by someone for whom the Emancipation Act was a significant event, and perhaps further research will tell us more about Sarah Ann Prout’s experience.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

As it was in many other African American communities around the United States, the day of emancipation subsequently became something of an annual holiday that was celebrated with a festival and parade. Indeed, it is observed in Washington DC to this day.

If a reader has any ideas or suggestions on tracking down more information about Sarah Ann Prout, please just email me here.

For more on sutlers and Civil War-era numismatics see Francis Lord, Civil War Sutlers and their Wares (1969); David E. Shenkman, Civil War Sutler Tokens and Cardboard Scrip (1983); Larry B. Maier and Joseph W. Stahl, Identification Discs of Union Soldiers in the Civil War (2008).

Matthew Wittmann