This message was offered in collaboration with the Northern Hill Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. The Gathering and Pastor Doug were privileged to participate in this service at the Northern Hills location.
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In January 1865, the end of a very long and very bloody Civil War was near. The Union Army under the command of Ulysses Grant was laying siege to Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. They had the cities surrounded and its residents were living on subsistence rations. A force of forty thousand Confederate soldiers faced a Union Army of nearly one-hundred and fifty thousand. Confederate leaders from Jefferson Davis to Robert E. Lee were openly planning to evacuate the Confederate capital. In the South, defeat was in the air.
The final Union Army offensive began in July of 1864 – almost one-hundred and fifty years ago today. The north had pushed southern forces further and further south – never quite defeating them but finally cornering them into an area around the Confederate Capital. Throughout the pivotal months of siege warfare, General Grant and the Union Army had a key spy deeply imbedded within the Confederate inner sanctum. This person was so close to Jefferson Davis that daily briefings by his generals, war documents and battle orders were all listened to, read, remembered and reported almost verbatim. Such vital intelligence about Confederate plans made their way across enemy lines to the Union command center and the desk of General Grant. It is not an exaggeration to say that the intelligence gathered by this Union spy was invaluable to the capture of Richmond in April 1865 – which very quickly led to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, the end of the Civil War and the demise of slavery.
But in January of that year, as defeat seemed inevitable, Jefferson Davis realized there had to be a spy in his midst and he was determined to discover who was responsible for the pending Confederate defeat. Spies that worked for either the South or the North faced tremendous danger. Those caught were questioned, beaten, tortured and executed.
In this case, the spy who had personal access to Jefferson Davis lived and worked within the Southern White House. She was a house slave named Mary Elizabeth Bowser who operated under the assumed name of Ellen Bond. She had been personally hired by Varina Davis, First Lady of the Confederacy. While Mary Bowser was highly intelligent and educated – having attended a Quaker school in Philadelphia, her spy alter-ego Ellen Bond was illiterate, dull, dim-witted and completely servile. Mary acted this role extremely well. Her presence as a slave during meetings between Jefferson Davis and his generals, her access to Davis’ work papers and her photographic memory were never revealed until after the war. Even then, Varina Davis denied the spy that did so much damage to the Southern cause had been a supposedly ignorant black woman living in her home. “I had no educated negroes living in my house,” she arrogantly claimed. But she was wrong.
Mary Bowser, knowing she was close to being discovered, fled the Southern White House in the middle of night sometime in January 1865. Before departing, she started a fire which she hoped would burn the house down. The fire was quickly put out but Mary did escape, she crossed Union lines and lived to see the end of the war – an outcome she had greatly helped bring about.
After the war, the Union Army destroyed almost all records of Mary’s spy efforts in order to save her and others from Southern retribution. She was given no reward for her work and bravery. She was completely ignored by Northern leaders and history writers. After the war, she soon vanished into obscurity. We know almost nothing of the rest of her life. It was not until the 20th century that her spy efforts again came to light and it was not until the 1960’s that the Federal government formally acknowledged her vital contributions and inducted her into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. A drawn likeness of her, which appears on the front of your programs, hangs in the CIA headquarters.
The Civil War is a defining episode in American history. Its outcome determined whether this nation would live true to its founding ideals of July 4, 1776. Across our country are countless monuments and tributes to men who fought in the war and helped save this nation. There are even thousands of monuments for Confederate men who fought against the Union. And, there have been a few efforts to acknowledge the contribution of African-American male soldiers who fought in the war – and of free black men who argued against slavery. But, there are precious few tributes for women – much less for African-American women who also fought against the South. Civil War monuments, statues and history books detail the exploits of men – mostly white men. It is largely assumed that enlightened and brave white men were primarily responsible for winning the freedom of slaves.
According to other such histories, Jim Crow laws and segregation of schools were ended by white judges; Civil Rights laws of the 1960’s were made possible by white Congressmen and a white President; white voters were responsible for electing the first African-American President. Even today, white activists, charities and churches are given outsized credit for the fight against racism. But such histories are incomplete, too one sided and completely ignore the groundswell of social forces that made such landmark events happen.
Sadly, the written record of human activity since the beginning of time is mostly about men. Since it is men who have written much of history, their patriarchal prejudices are quite evident. To use an alternative word for history – “herstory” – is to acknowledge the vital but far too often overlooked contributions of women in the advancement of human rights, dignity and well-being.
As we celebrate this weekend of our nation’s birthday, it is wise to remember that the record of who we are, what we have become and how we got here is not a chronology of deeds by mostly white men. Indeed, the chapter of straight, white male dominance is thankfully giving way to what America has always been – an ever churning mix of native-American, pioneer, immigrant, small farmer, slave, factory worker, woman, latino, son or daughter of almost every ethnic group on earth. America is not the product of top-down actions by leaders and power brokers. It is not defined by the actions of privileged, white men.
Our true history and herstory is a record of bottom-up movements and actions – the kinds of everyday and unsung heroics of millions of people like Mary Bowser. Presidents, business people and Generals all have their due – but they often rode to fame on the backs of so-called common people and common women like Mary Bowser, Inez Milholland and Emma Goldman – three women whom I will focus my messages on during this month of July.
But even my focus will not be on these specific women but on who they represent and the grassroots social forces that truly made America. Such forces like that of opposition to slavery are written in the mundane and simple everyday acts of defiance, protest and rebellion of African-Americans – especially women. The great and mighty Union Army of the North did not win the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln did not free black men and women. The slaves won their own freedom.
In the shadows of Civil War herstory are the unsung words and deeds of countless black heroines – women who died unsung and unknown but who loosed the whirlwind that precipitated the demise of slavery. Such women offered the moral imperative for an end to slavery: women whose children were ripped from their arms to be sold away, women raped by white overseers, women who quietly subverted the southern economy through theft and sabotage, women who escaped and fled north, mothers who painstakingly learned to read and write – all the better to teach their children, women who committed the most painful act of revenge possible – by literally killing their children and thus sacrificing their babies on the altar of human freedom. The fight against slavery was waged by those most injured by it : black women, men and children.
Mary Bowser, an almost unknown American heroine, is the face of such unsung women – those who have lived out stories of prejudice, suffering and heartbreak but who fought back and who, even today, quietly advance the arc of moral herstory.
One of the hallmarks of authentic spirituality is the search for universal truth. We may never fully discover it and it is most certainly not found in the dusty pages of ancient and outdated Scriptures or in the mythologies of some god. It is also not exclusive to the acts and histories of power and wealth. Rather, it is found in our questions, in peering into our souls, in finding and discovering common yearnings for peace, justice, and goodness that transcend time and place. We each seek that elusive spark of spirit that animates each human to love, to forgive, to soothe, to help, to cry, to hunger for a world that is fair and kind to all.
In that regard, we learn from the actions of Mary Bowser that our history and herstory is far more complex. We find in her the shared instinct all humans have to find meaning in our lives not by wealth, power or privilege but by common acts of service and heroism for others. Such acts by us and others may never make it to history books or newspapers but they are just as noteworthy, just as crucial in the long arc of moral history that bends toward justice. Indeed, we find in the actions of Mary Bowser someone who was content with her obscurity even as she risked her life for freedom. In such humility is found true motivations to serve causes greater than ourselves and to be content just in that – without need for attention, or fame. Each person, each of us has the power to make history and most of us will do so in relatively obscure ways. But our service is nonetheless important and historic. In our power is the ability to help end hunger, to combat poverty, to fight racism, sexism and homophobia with words and deeds. We participate in the sweep of historical forces that are defined not by politicians and leaders but by everyday people who choose to help make a difference.
In the fight against slavery, we can also learn of other small acts of rebellion in the first person accounts of former slaves themselves. Interviewed and memorialized during the 1930’s as a last chance way to preserve eyewitness accounts of the slave experience, many former slaves told how they defied, like Mary Bowser, the slave system.
After the Nat Turner slave uprising of 1835, it became illegal throughout much of the South for any slave to be educated. Nevertheless, such laws did not prevent African-Americans from fighting back. Many slaves secretly stole spelling books and hid them in order to learn to read. Some silently listened outside of white schools in order to soak up an education denied them. Others enlisted the clandestine teaching of educated slaves and formed what they called “pit schools” – classrooms hidden in ravines, caves or hollows. Through stories, song, small gatherings, and religious sermons preached by one of their own, slaves taught themselves their own history, their own culture, their own way of defying white domination.
But seeking an education was not some simple way to rebel. It was fraught with danger. As one former slave tells it, the first time one was discovered learning to read or write, he or she – no matter the age – was whipped by cowhide. The second time one was whipped with a cat-o-nine tails – strands of leather whose ends were tied with sharp nails to bite into flesh. The third time one had his or her two forefingers chopped off.
Those slaves who could write forged documents and passes that allowed some to escape. Still others altered purchase receipts, food orders and bookkeeping records in order to subvert and confuse the economic system. Some committed small acts of sabotage against the slave economy.
One former slave humorously told in 1937 of how slaves routinely tricked their white overseers – both to survive and to rebel. In one instance, just before nine hogs were to be butchered and sold at profit for a white plantation owner, they were found lying dead in their pens. The white overseer was shocked. What had happened, he asked. The various slaves grimly told the white man that they believed the hogs had all died of a serious and infectious condition called “mallitis.” This overseer turned pale, ran from the hog pen and told the slaves they should dispose of the dead hogs – which they quickly did by butchering them, smoking the meat and enjoying feasts like they had never had before. It seems, as the former slave recounted, that the “mallitis” disease fell upon each of the hogs after they had been swiftly struck between the eyes by a large wooden….mallet. Such a simple act of rebellion did as much as any white soldier to diminish and defeat slavery.
Other everyday acts of slave rebellion were just as effective but far more heartbreaking. One former slave told of a female slave who was to be seriously whipped for some infraction. As a woman, being whipped across one’s naked body was both humiliating and horrific. This woman declared to all that she would not be whipped. Quietly, the night before her punishment, she slipped out of her cabin, found a nearby tree, swung a rope over one of its branches, and then hung herself.
Another story told to the 1930’s historians was of a woman who had given birth to many children. After each one had reached the age of two or three, the white owner would take the child and sell it. Finally, this woman had enough. She would no longer enrich the white owner at the cost of her children. Having two children still of young age, she gave them each one night a specially prepared bottle. The next morning they were dead.
Slave resistance took many forms but one of the strongest was the refusal to give up hope. Appropriated from whites, Christianity offered slaves a way to express their culture and their dreams in ways that spoke to the real ideals of that religion. Prayer and spiritual songs were ways to secretly rebel against oppression. Slaves identified heavily with the Exodus Bible story of Jews and of Moses who escaped Egyptian slavery. The Promised Land was not just Canada where they could live free – but heaven and the afterlife. In that way, slaveholders could own the body but not the soul, not the spirit. Death was not so much a punishment but a deliverance.
For each of us, the Fourth of July celebrates not just the white founding fathers who charted our independence. It must not be just a holiday when we bow in honor of the history we’ve been taught. It is, instead, to celebrate the truth that countless millions of unsung Americans have dreamed, worked and sacrificed for a better nation – people like Mary Bowser. We celebrate this weekend simple acts of everyday heroism that made and continue to make our country – particularly by those who rarely get credit – women, slaves, immigrants, the poor and dispossessed.
The unsung heroines of America are much like Mary Bowser. They are even today inner-city African-American girls and boys who, like their ancestors, pursue learning against great odds – who out of the depths of poverty unknown to many of us – quietly defy systems that elevate only the rich and powerful. The ideal American heart, the ideal American soul is like most souls across the world. It beats for justice, it hopes for peace, it serves others beyond the self, it exists for a purpose and a reason…to help build a better earth for each and every person. May each of our hearts, I pray, beat in union with that rhythm.
I wish you all much peace and joy.
At the Gathering, one of our traditions is to engage in a time of comment after a message – words from the congregation. We like to say that the message is not over until others have had their say.
And so I welcome your thoughts and comments – particularly on my belief that grassroots social movements and actions by everyday people are what really shaped American history and herstory. For Gathering folks, the practice here is to use the microphones at the side of the sanctuary.