Georgia Planter Robert Toombs was determined never to break up the family of one of his slaves, but when he received into service young Garland White; he may have realized that his entanglement with the “peculiar institution” had already involved him in the breakup of a black family. Garland White was just ten when he was prepared for sale further South. Garland’s mother Nancy wept as the boy was taken from his home Northwest of Richmond, Virginia, and sold to Robert Toombs.
Toombs went on to become a prominent Georgia politician, serving as a Whig in the U.S. House of Representatives. His close political ally, Rep. Alexander Stephens (Whig-Georgia) also formed a friendship with an Illinois Whig, Rep. Abraham Lincoln. Although he opposed the Mexican War, which many Northern “conscience” Whigs opposed, as well, Toombs was an unapologetic defender of slavery. He once bragged on the floor of the U.S. Senate that he would take his property into any Northern state and would “call the roll of his slaves in the shadow of the Bunker Hill monument.” Few words could have inflamed his Northern opponents more. Robert Toombs’ roll of slaves would be missing one trusted and confidential servant, however. Garland White took flight to Canada and freedom in 1860.
And when Lincoln was elected President of the United States in November, 1860, Georgia Senator Robert Toombs urged the Southern states to secede from the Union. He resigned his seat in the U.S. Congress with a powerful speech in which he said: “We want no negro equality, no negro citizenship; …and as one man [we] would meet you upon the border with the sword in one hand and the torch in the other.”
Despite his brilliant mind and his eloquent oratory, Toombs was passed over for president of the new Confederate States of America because, it is generally accepted, of his serious drinking problem. Nonetheless, he was chosen as the Confederacy’s first Secretary of State. In that capacity, he was a standout in the small circle of advisors to Jefferson Davis, named as head of the provisional C.S.A. Almost alone among the leading secessionists, Toombs warned Davis not to attack Fort Sumter, the federal installation in the harbor of Charleston, S.C. He said:
"Mr. President, at this time it is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet's nest which extends from mountain to ocean, and legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal."
Toombs lived to see his prophetic words come true. The deeply divided North rallied to the flag once Fort Sumter was attacked.
Meanwhile, Garland White in Canada watched all this with mounting excitement. He very early offered his services to carry arms for the Union, but was initially rejected. Lincoln’s administration was concerned for the loyalty of slaveholding Border States -- Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. And many of the white troops from Northern states like New York, Ohio, and Illinois were openly voicing their opposition to “fighting for the negro.” For war Democrats, the watchword was “The Union as it was and the Constitution as it is.” They would vocally oppose any move to make the Civil War an Abolition War.
Abolition leader Frederick Douglass loudly denounced the policy of excluding black troops from the Union ranks. We were good enough to fight for General Washington, he said, why aren’t we good enough to fight for General McClellan? How long can we continue this life-and-death struggle with one arm -- he called it memorably “Uncle Sam’s sable arm” -- tied behind our back?
By 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation in effect, the Lincoln administration threw off all restraints and began vigorously recruiting black troops. Garland White, now the pastor of a African Methodist congregation in Toledo, Ohio, threw himself into the effort. He helped enlist the Twenty-Eighth Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry and soon was serving as its chaplain.
In 1864, the 28th Regiment joined the Army of the Potomac in the siege of Petersburg. This was the final chapter in the Union assault on Richmond. An ingenious plan to blow a giant hole in the rebel breastworks was brought forward by Pennsylvania coal miners serving in the Union ranks. They dug a long tunnel and filled it with explosives. The huge blast they set off was the greatest explosion to that point on the North American continent, and it could be heard twenty-two miles away in Richmond, the Confederate capital.
Desperate to take advantage of the momentary opportunity to end the war, Gen. Meade ordered the 28th Regiment to advance toward the giant crater the blast had created. But knowing they faced certain death, black soldiers of the 28th asked Chaplain White to write to their families and tell them they died bravely fighting for the Union.
Chaplain White would return to his hometown of Richmond. This time, he would enter the city as a free man in the company of his fellow Freedmen of the 28th. With the fall of Richmond on April 2, 1865, a dramatic scene occurred. Bruce Levine’s Fall of the House of Dixie picks up the thread:
White thrilled to “the shouts of ten thousand voices” celebrating liberation on the streets of the former Confederate capital. Black men and women gathered around him, urging him to speak, and so he did: he “proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind.”
Prof. Levine continues:
As White stood in the street, trying to take it all in, an older woman approached him and asked his name, his birthplace, and the name of his mother. When he had answered all her questions, she quietly informed him that “this is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son.”
It was in Richmond in 1775 that Patriot leader Patrick Henry had cried out: “Give me Liberty or give me Death!” Now, ninety years later, many a soldier in the 28th U.S.C.T. had received his liberty, only to be given death in the crater. Nonetheless, their sacrifice made possible this tender mother-and-son reunion, and the reuniting of many a family broken up by slavery.
In this Black History month, we can reflect on the importance of the church, the pastors, and the faith of Americans of all races as a powerful force in the reunion of our divided land. May that prove as true for our future as it was in our past.