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A Chaplain of U.S. Colored Troops Declares
“Emancipation...is the idea of the war to me.”
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A scarce, lengthy, and eloquent missive from a noted chaplain of a distinguished black unit. Storrow Higginson, a Harvard-educated poet and writer who rubbed elbows with the Transcendentalists, writes a friend who has not yet embraced Emancipation hoping to bring him along.

[AFRICAN AMERICAN SOLDIERS]. SAMUEL STORROW HIGGINSON. Autograph Letter Signed, to [Clifford]. No date but evidently early Jan. 1865. On U.S. Christian Commission lettersheets, 8 pp., 4¾ x 8 in.

Inventory #23323       Price: $1,250

Transcript

Beneath a Biblical verse printed under masthead, Higginson begins:

“Hopeful isn’t it? (The way they cram ‘religion’ down your throat in the Army makes one long for an (?)...as Shelley put it at Oxford: ‘Atheism a necessity’ simply for self preservation).

Your letter Clifford gave me both joy and sorrow. I am truly happy to believe that you are arriving at what I have always thought the highest human philosophy: the subjection of self in the service of humanity. And yet sad enough when I hear you long for true work in times like these. To me the harvest is broad and the reapers few enough -- take thy sickle and do not wait for a prescience and wisdom no earthly mind can hope to entertain, but fearlessly commit thyself, for the ears are golden.

I can fully understand, I think, your method of reasoning and only <2> hope it may save you from Scepticism [sic]. To Hawthorne as to yourself, every subject presented itself with a twofold condition -- of course, nature is controlled by a law of duality, and because he could not with finite powers solve the riddle of the infinite, he was never committed to either side of any question and lived most miserably.

But I hope this state of mind is but temporary with you, and that life hitherto too subjective is unburdened longer with this terrible weight of self. I speak from profound experience, an experience which has cost me bitter sorrow. You are right when you speak of the consciousness of intellectual superiority, but this is my motto of action—or I would make it so—(and what truth and beauty throughout Corinthians) “For though I be free from all men[,] yet I have I made myself servant unto all that I <3>  might gain the more.”

Your photograph of the ‘Fates’ reached me safely and gives me continual pleasure, though it is a daily enigma to visitors. My boy takes it for a family group! There is a subtle meaning in the picture which grows upon one with acquaintance. I can hardly tell you how grateful to me here is such an expression of friendship. Had I Emerson’s Essay in his “gifts’ I could quote a few passages for you. Do you hear the lectures upon ‘American Life’? If so please write me about them. (The abstracts in the ‘Commonwealth’ are hardly satisfactory.) Then what of pictures? You see I am just now much concerned about your health, Clifford, and hope you will, at least for the present, remain within reach of Art & creation(?) which will give your mind <4> the repose it needs.  Pray do not let a thousand cares of domestic life or housekeeping wear upon you. I know how fatal to all peace of mind are these Considerations of personal comfort, and were I in a city should prefer a restaurant to dining alone; dreary as this ‘bully thing’ (?) always is. I shall be anxious about your health til I hear from you.

How beautiful—as you suggest—become our Earthly relations, when friendship is dependent not upon regular Correspondence or ‘fulfilled duty’ but when a lovely trust fills all spaces and bridges all silence. And soul is bound to soul in a simple truth never to be shaken. We are fortunate Cliff to have arrived at these relations—to me the purest and surest on Earth. In these days of Constitutional servitude it takes courage to be true, and few are those to whom we may <5>  speak sincerely without the fear which perfect love casteth out.  And to live year after year misunderstood by those whom you would have nearest and dearest that the blessings of home may become real to you: To know that in all your family Circle there beats no heart responsive to your own—this is desolation, this is to be alone. And I who have struggled so long in vain that she who bore me might have confidence in my Aims and life—whose love is more than all others love though it be less than these, joyfully accept a banishment (?) in God’s Service and feel that to me it is no sacrifice for I never knew yet what home is. And to me, then, losing (?) double (?) expression of you trust Comes like a grateful messengers and gives me new encouragement. You may never quite understand my present position—I think few of my friends do—but if you trust my motives you will be sure <6> I should not remain an instant did I not believe I was doing the best service I can find in these dark years.

Our paths—so far as the humanitarian question goes—are too divergent at present to admit of mutual sympathy in the direction of Emancipation—would they could meet! but as I believe fidelity to what is highest in us should be the rule of action, not opinions of others. I never feel discouraged for an instant because I am alone but only at times of sorrowful lose (?) unto tears. I write these Confidential thoughts to you because I feel that there a between us an affinity of task and temperament and that what you suffer is but the reflection of my own sufferings. Still more do I write to assure you that I found no comfort or release until I subjicked [sic] self in the service of what I thought to be a great and spiritual idea. This life is killing me slowly but I cannot mur- <7> mur (?) when I think how sublime is the opportunity that has fallen to our generation, and if others so cheerfully give the dearest gifts of Earth in the defense of an idea they neither understand nor dare to confess! I can gladly offer health and self for a definite object, Emancipation (for this is the idea of the war to me). But this brings me to a point in the road when you lay aside your staff and say, ‘I go no further. It is dark. I cannot see the way.’ I believe and have kept on in solitude and already I see the dawn breaking over the Eastern rim and look tearfully back to when you still sit undecided. Do I understand you? If not, you know, my readiness to retract, for to be misunderstood—Ugh! It is like the breath of an iceberg.

I shall have to close this suddenly please tell me about your health and be assured anything of your own <8> feelings will interest and touch me deeply.

With kindest regards to your brother Stanley

I am as ever

            Truthfully yours

            Storrow Higginson

9th U.S.C.T./25th Corps. 1st Division/Army of the James/Washington, D.C.

Why don’t you meet Miss Street? I know you would like her truthfulness and simplicity. Every blessing for the New Year.”

Historical Background

After being organized at Camp Stanton, Maryland between November 11-30, 1863, the 9th Regiment U.S.C.T. served in many places throughout the Department of the South including Hilton Head, S.C., Johns and James Islands, and the Sieges of Petersburg and Richmond in 1864. They participated in a number of skirmishes, as well as the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm on September 28-30. They were then ordered to Texas, serving there for over a year before being mustered out at New Orleans in November 1866. The unit elected Storrow Higginson as its chaplain after he went south to teach for the Union army.

Samuel Storrow Higginson (1842-1907) was the nephew of minister, editor, literary critic author, soldier, and militant abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Storrow shared many traits with his uncle: he was also an abolitionist, minister, led a regiment of black troops during the Civil War, and eventually pursued literary and publishing opportunities. Storrow Higginson attended Franklin Sanborn’s Concord Academy and later graduated from Harvard in 1863 and then served in the office of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments, in Philadelphia. He was elected regimental chaplain of the 9th Colored Troops, and had earlier served as an Army instructor of blacks. By April 3, 1865, his unit was occupying Richmond, and then traveled through Texas until October 1866. After the war, Higginson sailed to Buenos Aires to open a school and was later appointed Rector of the National College at Conception Del Uruguay, though the revolution resulted in the school’s destruction. Upon his return to the United States, he worked for publishers, including the Boston Herald and Osgood and Company book publishers as well as serving as Superintendent of Archives for the Massachusetts Secretary of State. In 1893 he moved to Chicago to work of Rand, McNally, and Company. He died in Milwaukee in 1907.

Condition

Some blind handling wrinkles, minor fold wear, tape repair of one fold tear, else very good.

Sources

Robert Stanley Bahney, Generals and Negroes: Education of Negroes by the Union Army, 1861-65. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966).  p. 140.


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