Dred Scott Opinions
The article “The Lawsuit That Started the Civil War,” by Gregory J. Wallance in the March/April issue, was of great interest. However, he omitted an important fact— Harriet Robinson was a free woman before her husband’s case ever came before a court.
The Indian agent who owned Harriet was my great-great-great uncle, Major Lawrence Taliaferro. Taliaferro (pronounced “Toliver”) was born to a prominent slaveholding family of King George County, Va. Enlisted into the Army during the War of 1812, ambitious young Lawrence rose rapidly in rank. His unique capabilities did not go unnoticed in Washington, and in 1818 he was appointed by family friend James Monroe to the post at Fort Snelling, his tenure lasting from 1820-40.
Taliaferro indeed owned several slaves. Exactly how many others came to Minnesota with him is unknown. But he was obviously more paternalistic than your average slaveholder, for in his personal papers, held at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, it is noted that he refused to sell his servant Eliza to a fellow officer nor would he hire her out for personal profit, then a common practice. Lawrence and his wife raised my great-grandmother, Mary Louisa Taliaferro, who was orphaned as a child. She attested in later life that her uncle believed and taught that slavery was a moral evil.
In his autobiography Taliaferro states that in 1837 he was concerned about the number of traders with growing Indian families and induced them to legitimize the births of their children. As there was no minister in the area, he as senior officer performed a number of marriages. After naming several couples, he adds, “…and closing with the union of Dred Scott and Harriet Robinson—my servant girl, which I gave him” (emphasis added).
Scholars disagree on whether Taliaferro actually manumitted Harriet at the time of her marriage or if he loaned her out to Dr. Emerson so that the Scotts could remain a family. The latter is most likely. In any event, Harriet was not sold. This is evidenced, again in his personal papers, by his handwritten list of names over the notation “21 freed from slavery 1839-40- 43.” Harriet’s name is on that list.
Had the compelling evidence of Harriet’s freedom come up in Dred’s lawsuit, would it have changed the outcome? Probably not. The nation was already on an irreversible course. It only serves to make Chief Justice Roger Taney’s [depicted below] Supreme Court decision even more dreadful (no pun intended).
The article on the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, “The Lawsuit That Started the Civil War,” does not entirely explain Senator Stephen Douglas’ response to Lincoln’s question posed during their debates in the 1858 Senate race. That question asked if it would be legally possible for the citizens of a territory to exclude slavery before the formation of a state constitution in spite of the Dred Scott decision that Congress could not exclude slavery from a territory.
Douglas did say that the people of a territory had the lawful means to introduce or exclude slavery, as the article says. Douglas went on to explain that the people of a territory through their elected territorial legislatures could refuse to pass legislation creating broad police powers without which slavery could not exist. These would involve laws regarding the theft of slaves, the insurance of slaves, the sale of slaves, the use of slaves as collateral and so forth. Expounded at the town of Freeport, Ill., it was known as the Freeport Doctrine. It, plus Douglas’ opposition to the Lecompton Constitution for Kansas, which permitted some slavery if Kansas became a state, made Douglas unacceptable to many of the South’s slave-owning elite as the Democratic Party’s 1860 presidential candidate. The party split, and a new group assembled in another city and nominated Vice President John Breckinridge as the presidential candidate of the Southern Democrats.
A fourth presidential candidate, Whig John Bell, also got into the race. But the article incorrectly states that the Democratic Party split produced three candidates. [Editor’s note: The author and editors were aware of the error, but unfortunately were unable to fix it prior to presstime.]
I can find no evidence for the article’s claim that the rejection of a request for a national slave code—I assume as part of the party’s platform—was the cause of the Democratic Party’s coming apart at its national convention in 1860. Further, since the Dred Scott decision did not overturn the state laws and state constitutions outlawing slavery in the free states, I don’t understand what “a national slave code based on the [Dred Scott] decision” would have meant.
So I really don’t see how Dred Scott caused the Civil War, since the decision was favorable to the slave-owning elite of the South. The Republican Party’s platform in 1860 disavowed any intent to interfere with Southern slavery, as did the Republican candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln.
I grew up in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., quite literally in the shadow of Fort Sumner, one of the capital’s ring of Civil War defenses. I lived in a house whose floor joists came from the barracks of that fort. I have enjoyed a study of that struggle all of my life, having been to Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, Antietam, Monocacy, New Market, Winchester and other sites, both martial and not.
Last fall I went to Appomattox Court House in my 67th year. Like you expressed in your March/April editorial, I too was impressed by the serenity and air of finality of that place. I was singularly moved by the sight, in a little battlefield burial ground, of a line of two dozen Union graves marked by small “Old Glories”—and at the end of the line, a solitary grave marked by a small battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. If the Confederate States of America had to end, Appomattox was the right place.
In my own studies of the Civil War I have come to know that what I was taught in school was written by the side that did not stack their arms in surrender at Appomattox. And recent revisionists have only amplified those inaccuracies. To read, in the 21st century, an editor saying, “But slavery was not what the dream of the Confederacy was about” is rather refreshing. I wish you a long tenure at Civil War Times.
Joseph F. Ward
Shady Cove, Ore.
When it comes to Civil War prisons, Andersonville always seems to top the list as the worst of the worst. Well, it’s time to set the record straight.
Union prison Camp Douglas in Chicago had Andersonville beat hands down. Yet I had never heard of Camp Douglas until I saw a TV documentary (on the History Channel) on it recently. Much of the info presented came from author George Levy’s book To Die in Chicago.
I urge you to obtain this book and write an article about Camp Douglas for Civil War Times. As I said, it’s time to set the record straight!
Keep up the good work. I always look forward to my next issue.
Lon L. Leapley
The cover of the January 2006 issue, James E. Taylor’s painting The Grand Parade of General Sherman’s Army in Washington, shows as the lead unit in the parade the 66th Illinois Regiment (Western Sharpshooters). I had three great-great-great-uncles in Company C. That regiment marched over 5,000 miles in the war!
Citrus Heights, Calif.
For nearly 20 years I have been a reader of Civil War Times and have greatly enjoyed it. Several articles in your February 2006 issue prompt me to write to you.
Despite our being in the 10th decade of our lives, my wife and I drove in November last year on a rambling journey through the Southeast. We visited three battlefields. One was Shiloh, a site that I have wanted for a very long time to see. It is well laid out. We were loaned a recording of the program of the battle. It really came alive for me, and we were able to understand the battle as never before.
Then on the following day we visited Corinth, Miss., which has been featured in a number of articles through the years. The National Park Service operates a marvelous exhibit on the fighting that took place in that vicinity.
Two days later we were able to tour the well-marked site of the Vicksburg campaign. In fact, we were conducted on a tour by a real authority, Dr. Warren E. Grabau. He is a geologist and geographer who gave a penetrating account of the battles that preceded the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863.
Grabau’s volume Ninety-Eight Days: A Geographer’s View of the Vicksburg Campaign is unique and well-organized. It enables one to understand the entire grand strategy of the Civil War in a completely new light. We highly recommend it.
James K. Mathews
Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.