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Post Anti-Black Violence: Cincinnati 1841 (from Gary Moore)
Created by John Eipper on 07/02/19 3:14 AM

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Anti-Black Violence: Cincinnati 1841 (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA, 07/02/19 3:14 am)

Gary Moore writes:

John Eipper considerately asked me to contribute on the subject of violent public feelings (riots and morale) in the North during the American Civil War. Rather than looking at the war's well-known draft riots, I'd like to point out some neglected bellwethers: a string of largely anti-black riots in the booming Cincinnati area in the 1830s-1850s. One reason: these may involve perhaps the first documented instance of a written ethnic cleansing plan in the nation's troubled racial history. Another reason: a shocked eyewitness (looking down on a burning city from the Ohio River bluffs) was Harriett Beecher Stowe, the fulcrum of the century a few years later when she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Beneath the polemics and hagiography on the Civil War, one of its mysteries is how Northern opinion so suddenly turned anti-slavery, so intensely. As late as the 1820s, abolitionists in the North were widely viewed as sentimentalist fanatics oblivious to the value of national unity, and were mobbed and denounced. Northerners doing so included some reverse sentimentalists along the lines of Pittsburgh's Stephen Foster ("Way down upon de Swanny Ribber..."), who idealized plantation life, but many vaguely envisioned slavery as being only an obnoxious national wart, not worth the cost of removal. Meanwhile, slavery was explosively growing, as Northern and European manufacturing advances demanded cotton for fabrics. Waves of pioneer planters pushed west, mass-buying so many slaves for new empires that trader-speculators were said to break up perhaps one in three slave marriages in the old settled regions. The occasional smuggling ship was still bringing in Africans (the Middle Passage had been outlawed since 1808), and movements like the Knights of the Golden Circle, unsung precursor of the as-yet-unborn Klan, made it clear that Southern hopes for a newly conquered slave imperium as far south as Panama and across the Caribbean (the Golden Circle) were very real and serious. The sources of this picture are all the more credible by their rejection of some of the more flagrant anti-slavery myths, such as supposed clandestine "stud farms" for depraved breeding.

In the middle was "the Queen City of the West," Cincinnati, trading with slave-owners in Kentucky just across the Ohio River and beginning to divide explosively over large numbers of slaves escaping north. The Cincinnati riot of 1841 targeted a neighborhood housing such arrivals, accused as a crime nexus, with a tumultuous vigilante-style meeting prior to the riot producing a morbid scrap of paper showing how the neighborhood was to be erased. In the event, the rioters (disowned by many other whites) used a six-pounder cannon in efforts to seek their goal, but fell short, as mob fantasies often do when tested against resistant reality. The gun boomed through the nighttime glare of flames that could be seen from high on the bluffs where Harriet Beecher Stowe then lived. The family compound was at Lane Seminary, run by her distinguished father Lyman Beecher, both an abolitionist and a vehement anti-Catholic, who accidentally helped incite the burning of the Ursuline Convent in Massachusetts in 1834. The national landscape of passions and demonizations (i.e., "morale") was a complicated morass.

And now fast-forward from Stowe to a figure of later fame, militia colonel John Chivington, who, while the Civil War still raged, led a Colorado massacre targeting peaceful, pro-settler Indians, in this case the Black Kettle faction of the Cheyenne. Chivington was tried and came to be nationally loathed, but his past before his 1864 massacre was somewhat obscured. He had been a dedicated Unionist, and he hated the institution of slavery, giving up a career as a preacher to join the Union army to help stamp slavery out. The westernmost fastnesses of the Civil War in New Mexico remembered Chivington as a hero, but forgot that he won the 1862 Battle of Glorieta Pass by a massive supply-line massacre--in this case of Confederate pack animals, apparently hundreds of them. War is brutal and transport is an established target, but Chivington seemed to be followed by a penchant for mass solutions, in somewhat the same vein as the racial cleansing plan of Cincinnati in 1841. As the Civil War neared, Northern opinion was making its tectonic shift, to reclassify slavery as a national toxin that must be purged--though many hated it more as a supposed Old World-style patrician ploy that would undermine the white American working man. Hence there was ambivalence toward the actual individuals caught in its grip, the slaves. The never-dying idea that the Civil War was actually waged for nefarious Northern economics ignores this vast landscape of passions. John Chivington and Harriet Beecher Stowe are only two of the individuals reminding that human sympathies, in all their convolutions, are not always as neat as the conspiracy theories.

JE comments:  Cincinnati now celebrates its front-line abolitionist past with the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, but there are many blotches of racism in the city's history.  A quick question for now, Gary:  is the "morbid scrap of paper" that inspired the 1841 mob action still extant--or at least, do we know what it said?


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