Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Levi Coffin, abolitionist and "president" of the Underground Railroad, visits President's Island*

In May of 1863, well-known abolitionist Levi Coffin visited President's Island, as well as several other camps in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. At President's Island, he met John Eaton, then a colonel and superintendent over contraband in the West.

According to Coffin, the camp had been recently formed, and the freedmen (as they were now called since the Emancipation Proclamation) were living in army tents. He also observed that some blacks were cultivating the land and others were guarding the camp. As a result of this visit (and an earlier one to Cairo, Illinois, also a camp site), Coffin founded the Western Freedmen's Aid Commission. Through Coffin's fundraising, the Commission was able to send supplies including farming implements to this and other camps.

One may safely conclude from this activism that Coffin was a supporter of black farming although little known (or at least discussed before now) is this role that he played in its development. While Coffin seems not to have met Eaton until his visit to President's Island, the two men--fighting for the same cause--corresponded it seems even before their first meeting. In a letter to Coffin, commenting on a perhaps anticipated failure of the government to strongly support the creation of black landowners, Eaton wrote,

We need not faulter at their fault. If the federal government would not lead the way, the field was nonetheless open to 'friends of the cause'. We shall look for implements and seeds at once.**

We know from Coffin's writing that he did in fact send implements to the camp. And Coffin himself began to refer to Eaton and other supporters of the freedmen as "friends." As for Eaton, he seems in this letter to be suggesting that the Quakers will assist in the development of black landowners. The language of this letter is characterized by a degree of secrecy. Perhaps we might even say that Eaton uses code language. Certainly, such obscurity was not foreign to Coffin, who was so central a part of the culture of secrecy that was the Underground Railroad.

Commenting on another camp official, one John Rogers stationed at Cairo, Coffin wrote,

We believed friend Rogers to be the right man in the right
place, and felt much sympathy with him in his arduous task. He evinced a deep interest in the welfare of the contrabands...

Interestingly, much the same had been said of Eaton by Grant, that is, that Eaton was the right man to be placed at Memphis. One gets the feeling that few if any of the choices for camp leadership were made arbitrarily or haphazardly. One wonders just how closely knit however this network of men and women committed to black freedom and black success were.

*Based on Work Among the Freedmen--Visit to Cairo and other Points--Scenes and Incidents among the Contrabands--Condition and Sufferings of the Colored People--Efforts in their Behalf by Levi Coffin, http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/coffin.html

**Eaton to Coffin, March 27, 1863, BRFAL-GSC, Letters sent., Vol. 74; cited in From Contraband to Freedman, Federal Policy Toward Southern Blacks, 1861-1865, Louis S. Gerteis, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1973, 121-22.

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