Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Black Journalist in Civil War Virginia: Robert Hamilton and the Anglo-African

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Black Journalist in Civil War Virginia: Robert Hamilton and the Anglo-African

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1862, John Jay, grandson of the first chief justice of the United States, wrote a letter to Robert Hamilton. Jay reported that "The debate in the Senate yesterday [9 July] on the Employment of coloured soldiers was very significant," and he predicted the early passage of the bill in question, the Militia Act (approved by Congress on 17 July 1862), which authorized President Abraham Lincoln to accept black men into military service. Jay suggested that northern hostility to African American enlistment was on the decline and urged Hamilton to publish a "call" for black volunteers in his weekly newspaper. Considered in its entirety, Jay's letter reveals several things: his commitment to the abolitionist ideals about which scholars have written; the easy rapport between Hamilton and Jay, who were most likely allies on other abolitionist issues; and the high regard in which Robert Hamilton was held by at least one influential member of New York's community of white abolitionists. Finally, the letter identifies Hamilton's newspaper, the Weekly Anglo-African, as the preeminent paper of the northern black community-a logical choice, in Jay's opinion, for the placement of the proposed call for black soldiers in the United States Army.1

As the owner and publisher of the Weekly Anglo-African, Robert Hamilton controlled the most influential black newspaper of the Civil War years from a home base in the wealthiest, most-populous metropolis in the U.S.: New York City. Correspondents and subscribers from San Francisco to Toronto and Chatham in Canada West, from Troy, New York, to Jamaica, West Indies, sent the Weekly Anglo-African reports on the condition and achievements of the black communities in these disparate locations. Black people throughout the Americas relied on the paper for information on important current events, and the Weekly Anglo-African provided reporting that consistently received accolades from the readers it served. Black abolitionist Mary Ann Shadd Gary, an important leader in her own right and founder of the Provincial Freeman newspaper in Canada West (part of modern-day Ontario), paid a great tribute to Robert Hamilton:

It is not in anywise disparaging to others to say, that without exception, the Anglo African is the most important newspaper, in many respects, ever established in the interests of the colored people. As proof of this, refer to its contents for the year 1862, and we will discover that bondman, freeman, fugitive and freedman, have all shared alike in its sympathy and advocacy.2

The journalistic honor that Gary reserved for the Weekly Anglo-African may seem surprising given the extent to which many historians have overlooked its significance. The publication of the Black Abolitionist Papers Project (BAP), which brought to light previously lost issues of the Weekly Anglo-African for the critical years 1863-65, was a welcome development.3 But despite the availability to scholars of the BAP microfilm edition since the early 1980s, sufficient scholarly attention has not been paid to the historical importance of Robert Hamilton and his newspaper.4

This essay will first highlight Hamilton's political activities within the context of northern abolitionism and offer some basic details of the founding and operation of the Weekly Anglo-African newspaper. The main body of the essay will focus on his travels in the Union-occupied areas of eastern Virginia during the fall of 1863 through the end of January 1864. Hamilton documented his travel experiences in a series he called "Editorial Correspondence," which he forwarded to the Weekly Anglo-African for publication. This afforded his readers the benefit of firsthand information on the military, politics, and social issues that would forever change American life.

Born in 1819 in New York City, Robert Hamilton was a radical journalist undaunted by the anti-abolitionist sentiment of his hometown, an urban center dominated by a strong Democratic, pro-slavery economic and political culture. …

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