- I'm a Radical Black Girl"Black Women Unionists and the Politics of Civil War History
Hurrah fo' de Blue Bonnet Flag,Hurrah fo de home-spun dressesDat de colored wimmen wear;Yes I'm a radical girlAnd glory in de name—Hurrah fo' de home-spun dressesDat de colored wimmen wear.—"De Blue Bonnet Flag"
Maggie Whitehead was only seven years old when President Abraham Lincoln gave his now famous speech at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the occasion of the dedication of a cemetery honoring the men who had died there over three days in July 1863. They had given, Lincoln stated, "the last full measure of devotion" to ensure that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."1 Whitehead likely knew nothing of Lincoln's speech that spoke of a "new birth of freedom" but made no mention of emancipation. Enslaved in Gonzales, Texas, she lived far from the Civil War's major battlefields and political centers, but the war touched and profoundly shaped her world.
Gonzales held a place of honor in the state of Texas as the site of the first skirmish between Americans in Texas and the Mexican government and as the only town in the state to send men to the aid of the Alamo. All thirty-two of them died there in 1836. An important transportation hub and center of cotton production, slaves represented some 40 percent of the county's population in 1860 and slaveholders less than five percent. The county's white population had voted overwhelmingly in favor of secession and organized twenty-two volunteer companies and home guards. As war appeared on the horizon, the Confederate army's chief engineer ordered the construction of a fort at Gonzales for defensive purposes and [End Page 359] as a supply depot for the Confederate army in the Western Subdistrict of Texas.2
Though only a child, Maggie Whitehead would have witnessed this increased activity that spelled war and the growing number of slave coffles on the road when war came. As the Union tightened its grip on the Confederacy and the territory controlled by Confederate forces shrank, more slaveholders looked to Texas for refuge and carried their slaves to prevent them from falling into Union hands or running away. Listening to the talk of adults in her family and community, Whitehead may have heard of the big battles in Louisiana just east of Gonzales and those further away. Her father, John Whitehead, was a highly prized blacksmith—his skill commodified as part and parcel of his enslaved body—and her mother, Temperance, a midwife.3 Their work placed them in advantageous positions to hear talk among white people about slavery and the war. What we know for sure is that Maggie Whitehead lived in a community of men and women who honored black women unionists. In 1937, she was interviewed as part of the WPA project to record the memories of ex-slaves. She recalled the celebration of freedom's arrival they held on the first anniversary of their freedom, June 19, 1866. It was, she stated, their "first Nineteenth." On that day, the freedpeople of Gonzales paid tribute to black women's contributions to the struggle to defeat the Confederacy with a rendition of "The Bonnie Blue Flag" that acknowledged their community's and the nation's indebtedness to black women.4
In the hands of the freedpeople of Gonzales, "The Bonnie Blue Flag," a song beloved by Confederate soldiers, was re-imagined and transformed into a battle song for black women unionists. In a place far removed from the war's major battlefields, enslaved people saw black women as radical, Union women. They transformed a song that had originated as a symbol of self-governance for the short-lived Republic of West Texas in 1810 and was later used by the Republic of Texas in 1836 before becoming a song celebrating the Confederacy, into a song celebrating black women unionists, and this tells us something about their politics and understanding of the Civil War.5 With the verse "Hurrah fo de home-spun dresses," black women...