Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

James C. Beecher and the Freedmen's Bureau

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

James C. Beecher and the Freedmen's Bureau

Article excerpt

JAMES C. BEECHER, THE YOUNGEST OF LYMAN BEECHER'S seven sons, all of whom became Congregational ministers, was the only one to serve as a soldier. His military career lasted five years, from June 1861, to June 1866, the last ten months of which he also served as a subassistant commissioner in the Freedmen's Bureau. At the same time he commanded the 35th United States Colored Troops, a regiment of freedmen, mostly ex-slaves from North Carolina, one of the first black units to be formed.

Aside from "Beecher's Bibles," and "Beecher's Pets," nickname of the 1st Long Island Regiment (later the 67th New York Infantry Regiment)(1), in which James spent his first year in the military, the Beecher family's associations were largely clerical and literary, not military. Both James and his brother Thomas K. Beecher served for a while as chaplains, but James's last three years in the army, although he continued to preach wherever he was stationed, were spent as commander of a regiment, and he rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general. James was glad to leave the chaplaincy behind, was proud of his military career, and tried to re-enlist after his tour ended in 1866.

James, like his half-siblings Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, ardently condemned slavery. A military Beecher in conquered South Carolina at the head of a black regiment was a powerful symbol, perhaps of the same magnitude as Henry Ward Beecher delivering the keynote speech at that supremely triumphant moment, the raising of the U.S. flag over Fort Sumter on April 14,1865. James, commander of the northern half of Charleston with his regiment garrisoned in the Citadel, was in the audience. James was a symbol who did not go unnoticed by newly freed slaves and by planters alike. One of the Ball plantations, according to the family's recent chronicler, Edward Ball, was liberated or "invaded" by James and the 35th USCT. "The Balls must have felt that an ambassador from President Lincoln himself had come to call."(2) When James's reputation began to sour in the spring of 1866 and his critics accused him of doing the planters' bidding rather than working for the freedmen, one wrote, "The job of turning out of house and home the poor loyal freedmen, to make place for rebels steeped in treason, was given to Col. Beecher, because his name and his antecedents might make the inhumanity seem less inhuman."(3) Aware of his name's power,James sometimes took it with a grain of salt. He wrote that his niece, engaged to marry one of the officers of the 35th USCT, "is the only sensible one of the whole family, all the rest are clean daft...."(4) Beechers' celebrity notwithstanding, no one would feel lucky to have his plantation house burned by a Beecher. Chalmers Davidson both indulged his sense of irony and saluted the celebrity and symbolic power of a military Beecher when he wrote, "Thomas Osborne Lowndes [1801-1886] had the distinction of having his resident plantation house ["Poplar Grove" in St. Paul's Parish, Colleton District] burned by a brother of Henry Ward Beecher and his other three by less distinguished Union officers...."(5)

Like most of the other 2,441 agents of the Freedmen's Bureau, James Beecher has not been the subject of full-length individual treatment. The names of scholars of the Bureau who have mentioned him are soon told: George R. Bentley, Claude F. Oubre, Richard N. Current, and Donald G. Nieman use him to illustrate conflict of authority between the military and the Bureau. Without giving him credit for obeying military orders, they cite him as an example of an agent who, disobeying the orders of the new Assistant Commissioner of South Carolina, Robert K. Scott, evicted freedpersons in the spring of 1866. Bentley's History of the Freedmen's Bureau contains the best summary of this episode and concludes rightly that Beecher and his military superiors "took the management of Sea Islands lands out of the hands of" the Bureau. …

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