27 words. That’s all Henry McNeal Turner wrote about Lincoln’s assassination, which took place 150 years ago this week.
27 words, from a man who never lacked for something to say. As one of the first black chaplains (and black officers) of the U.S. Army, as a pastor of Washington, D.C.’s Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and later, as bishop of the entire AME denomination, Turner wrote hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of words about what it meant to be black in the United States, and about their present, past, and possible future. So it is ironic that we have so few words devoted to this milestone in American history.
The words are cryptic, too. In a letter written to the African American newspaper The Christian Recorder on April 17, 1865, a long letter detailing the experiences of the 1st U.S.C.T. as they marched through North Carolina in the closing days of the war, he closes by saying:
… there were great fears here last night. The soldiers threaten to avenge the death of President Lincoln on the citizens. I will refer to that next time.
Avenge Lincoln’s death on the citizens? How? And who was afraid? These sentences raise tantalizing questions with their use of passive voice and unspecified antecedents. Just before this passage, Turner had written, “I know you want me to stop. I forget I am writing so much” (and indeed, he had written a lot– over 1700 words in this single letter, all written on the march and in camp, where both paper and ink were scarce and fragile commodities). It seems clear that he simply stopped writing, perhaps because he had come to the end of a sheet of paper and had no more, perhaps because the horse or wagon bound northward with letters was departing.
In any case, there was no reference to “that” in his next missive. The next time we hear from Turner is in a column dated nearly a month later and published in the Christian Recorder on May 27, 1865. Here, he refers to the many letter-writers whose contributions have “gorged” the columns of the Recorder, by way of excusing himself for having become “somewhat delinquent” in writing his weekly dispatches. And he describes, in fascinating detail, several encounters with white Southerners. They are alternately awed by the sight of black soldiers in of uniform, and outraged by Turner’s assumption of moral and military authority as an officer and chaplain of the U.S. Army. In one instance, he describes white Southern women lining the banks of the Neuse River in Smithfield, NC, dressed “in the finest attire imaginable,” as the 1st U.S.C.T. fords the river–the bridge having been destroyed by Sherman’s troops when they had passed through weeks before:
I was much amused to see the secesh women watching, with the utmost intensity, thousands of our soldiers in a state of nudity. I suppose they desired to see whether these audacious Yankees were really men, made like other men, or if they were a set of varmints. So they thronged the windows, porticos, and yards…. Our brave boys would disrobe themselves, hang their garments upon their bayonets, and through the water they would come, walk up the street, and seem to say to the feminine gazers, “Yes, though naked, we are your masters.”
In this 2000-word missive, he describes no violence enacted “on the citizens,” nor does he even mention Lincoln. Deep in the heart of North Carolina, of course he could not have witnessed the storied events that followed Lincoln’s death: his body lying in state in the Capitol; the nation (part of it, anyway), collectively mourning at train stations across the eastern half of the United States as his casket traveled back to Springfield, IL, to be buried. But this absence is hard to make sense of, and even harder to accept. It’s an absence that raises questions about whether or not Turner’s correspondence is of historical value.
I spent nearly ten years, off and on, transcribing and editing Turner’s Civil-War correspondence for the Recorder, and the lack of commentary about Lincoln’s death was one of my biggest challenges in proposing the volume for publication. (I eventually published Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of H. M. Turner, with West Virginia University Press in 2013.) It was not the only absence in Turner’s accounts: he happened to be away from the 1st U.S.C.T. during the momentous Battle of the Crater, when thousands of black troops were essentially sacrificed, and duly slaughtered, under the bumbling leadership of Ambrose Burnside and George G. Meade. He wrote very little during the year he spent actively recruiting black soldiers for the Army, for which he was awarded the chaplaincy of the 1st U.S.C.T. Only a few pages of his journal still exist, and they date from the pre-Civil War period. These are events for which historians are desperate for accounts, especially those provided by black Americans. It’s frustrating, if not galling, to know that Turner was so close to these events, and often directly involved, and did not write about them.
History is an endeavor that requires documented presence. Turner, in these and many other instances, is frustratingly absent–often because he was so intensely occupied in the moment that he did not have time to document his experiences. His letters are full of apologies for not writing, due to travel, illness, or simply, being so busy. (In making these excuses, Turner sounds positively contemporary.)
In the case of Lincoln’s assassination, it’s possible that Turner did, in fact, write the promised account of the 1st U.S.C.T.’s response to the event. The issue of the Christian Recorder in which this account would have appeared– the issue published on May 13, 1865—has been lost. Not a single copy of this issue of the Recorder is known to exist. Given the outswell of outrage and sentiment that appeared in the Recorder during the weeks following Lincoln’s assassination, this issue was likely read and reread so many times and passed from one hand to the next, that all copies were destroyed. Perhaps a copy exists in a scrapbook somewhere, or stored in a dusty trunk in an attic. But until one emerges, we must again confront an absence from history.
Physically present, thinking, and feeling, but historically absent: this is the conundrum that faces historians of marginalized populations who may have lacked access to the machinery of historical documentation (printing presses, publishing companies, newspaper offices, even pen and ink), or who lacked the ability to record their experiences in writing. In recent years, historians have turned to non-written “documents”–oral histories, material culture, archaeology–to locate traces of the history that has gone undocumented.
Turner himself, who was born free but impoverished in South Carolina in the 1830s, could only provide written traces of himself after about age 19, when he taught himself to read. Imagine the unrecoverable history represented by the hundreds of thousands of people enslaved in the United States, who were systematically denied access to literacy. Or the native populations who did not have written languages. Or, simply, those people historians haven’t cared about: the poor, rural populations. Women.
One could mourn the volumes of untold, undocumented history. It’s also important, however, to recognize these absences as history in their own right.
In the end, Turner’s accounts are fascinating precisely because they focus so minutely on the everyday lived experiences of soldiers in camp. In the same letter that includes his 27 words about Lincoln’s assassination, he also describes his reaction to seeing Sherman’s army returning from their storied March to the Sea (“I do not regard it as the army of America,” he says in disgust), as well as the jubilation of Southern blacks after the surrender:
As we marched out of our respective camps, cheer after cheer went up, and deafening huzzas rang far and wide. And thus we continued all day, passing through a country hostile to us, from every consideration, but at the same time possessing many things which were quite friendly, such as meat, chickens, turkeys, molasses, and a great many things which our boys knew how to make use of.
With pride mixed in equal measure with humor, he documents, in an irreducibly human way, a single man’s experience, of times both momentous and mundane. He acknowledged in another column that many believed he wrote simply to attain “personal aggrandizement,” an accusation he rejected out of hand; those who criticized him, he wrote, had “neither the ability nor the moral courage to encounter public criticism … it is a lamentable fact that in the very crisis that demands all the energies, gifts, attainments, natural or acquired, and every other qualification tending to give fitness and suitability, in shaping public sentiment, developing the capacities of the contrabands, moralizing our soldiers, whose unbridled lives for the past four years have almost hurled them headlong into the vortex of irrevocable profanity, vulgarity, and impoliteness, that men who would disdain to be called foolish will idle away their abilities straining at gnats and swallowing camels.”
Turner never minded being called foolish. And he was, at times, a fool. Perhaps he was foolish in deciding to expend more words on events in Smithfield, NC on April 15, 1865, than upon the death of a president. But the documents he provides–as well as the documents that remain absent–remind us of the contingencies, and lacunae, that form the unstated counterpart of history itself.