Poetic Justice: The Whipping of William H. Clopton

By Hudson, Leonne M. | Negro History Bulletin, January-December 2001 | Go to article overview

Poetic Justice: The Whipping of William H. Clopton


Hudson, Leonne M., Negro History Bulletin


Whipping was the most common form of punishment administered by planters to their slaves. Planters frequently used the whip on bondsmen whom they deemed insolent or guilty of committing crimes. Corporal punishment was the preferred method of enforcing discipline on farms and plantations throughout the South. The recollections of men and women who experienced the whipping post tell the story of the brutal and cruel nature of slavery. The frequency and severity of lashing varied from owner to owner. Flogging was as much a demonstration of the power of the planter aristocracy as it was a punitive act. The historian Kenneth M. Stampp maintains that the whip was "the emblem of the master's authority." Furthermore, whippings were often public exhibitions in which slaves "watched as their wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, children, and relatives were flogged." (1)

The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter was the start of the conflict that would ultimately bring about the collapse of slavery. The Civil War produced many paradoxes, one of which was the whipping of a plantation owner by his former slaves. This rare event occurred in the camp of General Edward Augustus Wild who was a zealous abolitionist and recruiter of black volunteers for the Union army. The Massachusetts native and Harvard graduate lost his left arm at the battle of South Mountain in 1862. According to Edward Longacre, Wild was an officer whose "rabid idealism, tender-dry temper, and thirst for conflict gained him nearly as many enemies in blue as in gray." His hatred for slavery and secession fueled his idealism. (2)

The controversial Wild had a knack for getting himself into trouble. Wild who often marched to the sound of his own beat appeared "to have been driven by a compulsion to live up to his name." His contemptuous actions during the Civil War earned him the scorn of his superior, General Edward H. Hinks, commander of the 3rd Division of the 18th Army Corps. On May 5, 1864, General Wild landed a brigade of black men at Wilson's Wharf, a distance of about thirty-five miles below the Confederate capital on the James River. These troops cooperated with General Ulysess S. Grant in his fight against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. A few days after the landing, a group of black soldiers while on a foraging expedition killed a citizen who tried to resist them. On May 10, they captured the wealthy planter, William H. Clopton who "had been actively disloyal." (3)

The 53-year-old Clopton's worth in real estate and personal property totaled nearly $23,000. The fifteen males and ten females on his plantation ranged in age from two to seventy. Clopton's propensity for whipping slave women in the nude earned him the reputation "as the cruelest master in Charles City County." Prior to the planter's apprehension, he had severely beaten some of his female slaves. On this occasion, however, retribution would be swift. Wild ordered several of the refugees in his camp "to give their former owner a taste of slave discipline at the lash end of the whip." (4) On orders from his chief, William Harris of the United States Colored Infantry striped the slaveholder to the waist and tied him to a tree in front of Wild's headquarters.

Wild remembered that the impending flogging of the frightened Rebel caused him to "put on the character of a Snivelling Saint" and to beg for mercy. Wild who saw Clopton, as the embodiment of slavocracy was not in a forgiving mood. Cheers erupted among the black soldiers when Harris commenced to whip the slaveholder. According to Sergeant George W. Hatton, "Mr. Harris played his part conspicuously, bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of days gone by." After fifteen or twenty strokes from Harris, Wild handed the horsewhip to three former slave women whose scarred-backs told the story of years of abuse. Determined to exact a measure of revenge for decades of egregious treatment at the hands of the infamous planter, the women "took turns in settling some old scores on their masters [sic] back. …

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