Robert Garlick Hill Kean: Confederate Commentator
    by Rachel Gaffin, Undergraduate Research Assistant

                     An 1852 University of Virginia graduate who went on to serve as chief of the Confederate Bureau of War, Robert Garlick Hill Kean was a strong proponent of perpetuating the systematic enslavement (and consequently, dehumanization) of black Americans. In his wartime diary, Kean deplores the idea of “negro enlistment” in the Confederate Army, since doing so would entail the effective acknowledgement of the shared humanity of blacks and whites. He abhors the idea of abolition, and makes clear in his entries from 1864 that the Confederacy must maintain independence, declaring that “when independence is lost, slavery is at the same blow destroyed.” Later, he refers to emancipation as “the [dislocation] of the foundations of society from which no practical results will be reaped by us.” In 1864, as the war still rages on, Kean writes that “a state of society, in which the negroes had been suddenly freed and given political franchises as citizens, the whites overawed by garrisons ruled by Yankee policy, and humbled by defeat and practical subjugation, was one in which I am unwilling my children shall grow up.” Kean’s framework for believing in slavery’s ultimate good for society proves to be purely functional; he gives no room for the humanity of the enslaved to come into play.

 

                    After the Civil War's end, Kean continues to comment extensively on the political and social environment of his time. Interestingly, and despite his pro-slavery ideology, he dedicates a significant portion of his diary to examine the ways in which the Union troops, sent into the South to enact Reconstruction, fail to deliver on their promises to the newly freed black population. As the South faced infrastructural, economic, and social upheaval, the United States government offered little framework for either white or black Southerners to navigate this full-scale shift. Newly freed blacks flocked to Southern towns “garrisoned” by “Yankees,” leading to a steep drop in the labor force. Instead of working to regulate the hiring practices of plantation owners, or of seeking ways to secure landownership for black citizens, Union soldiers instead “gave stringent orders that Negroes should remain on the plantations and work.” As early as 1865, by Kean’s account, Union officials had already begun the practice of convict leasing; in towns such as Richmond, where Kean lived, Northern officials “arrested, put in barracks, and hired out [black citizens] … without consulting their wishes as to employer or price.”

 

                    In another chilling account, Kean notes an exchange between a spokesperson of the black community in Gordonsville, VA, and a Union soldier: “[the spokesman] enquired ‘what sort of freedom this was? and whether they were not to have land given to them?’ The officer turned to the overseer and asked where the graveyard was. It was pointed out – turning to the negro he said, ‘The only land you will get, or any of you, will be 6x3 feet in that lot, and if you do not behave yourselves properly you will get your share very quickly.’” After noting the exchange in Gordonsville, Kean observes, “Manumission after this fashion will be regarded hereafter, when it has borne its fruits, and the passions of the hour have passed away, as the greatest social crime ever committed on the earth” [commas inserted].

 

                    Undoubtedly, Kean’s statement would be more accurate if he had seen and declared slavery as the “greatest social crime.” Still, Kean’s statement is not without consequence. He, along with the spokesperson of the black community in Gordonsville, both find themselves asking (for different reasons) “what sort of freedom” it was that the Union offered their black citizens. Sadly, in many ways, the freedom that the black community experienced was rarely the holistic liberation they had hoped for. While in itself a fruit of slavery, Reconstruction's failure bore its own fruit – the continued systemic oppression of black Southerners, a way of living that, despite abolition and the Constitutional amendments that accompanied it, remained protected and codified in law well into the 20th century.

References: 

Kean, Robert Garlick Hill. Journal of Robert Garlick Hill Kean.