Poetic justice: the whipping of William H. Clopton
Leonne M. Hudson
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. (5)
During the lashing, the women delighted in telling Clopton that they had been rescued from slavery by northern soldiers and were then “safely housed in Abraham’s bosom and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner, and guarded by their own patriotic, though down-trodden race.” Wild intended for the lashing to leave scars on Clopton’s back as severe as those on the women whom he had repeatedly flogged. Sergeant Hatton no doubt spoke for his regiment when he rhapsodized: “Oh! that I had the tongue to express my feelings while standing upon the banks of the James river, on the soil of Virginia, the mother State of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse!” Wild sent Clopton to Fortress Monroe where he was held as a prisoner of war. (6)
On May 11, Hinks asked Wild for a report on the summary execution of the citizen and the whipping of Clopton. Unable to make sense of what his subordinate had done, Hinks proclaimed “the seeming impossibility of any justification for the one, and the extreme improbability of any excuse for the other.” An angry Wild retorted: “I shall continue to kill Guerrillas, and Rebels offering armed resistance Whether they style themselves Citizens or Soldiers.” Arrogance tinged with defiance, led Wild to declare that “under similar circumstances” he would not hesitate to mete out the same kind of punishment. Wild reported to his chief whom he had once described as “a mean spirited fellow” that the whipping of the notorious planter was “the administration of Poetical justice.” (7)
Upon reviewing Wild’s report, Hinks questioned his mental state for authorizing the killing of the citizen and the beating of Clopton. Hinks had issued an explicit order to his corps of officers to treat civilians with respect and magnanimity. Believing that his subordinate’s action constituted disobedience, Hinks recommended to General Benjamin F. Butler commander of the Army of the James that he be court-martialed. The possibility that he would have to appear in military court because of the Clopton episode and other matters did not frighten the Massachusetts general. Nonetheless, he complained “it [the court-martial] has subjected me to a great deal of petty tyranny from my immediate superior Gen. Hinks.” (8)
General Hinks prevailed, and Wild was court-martialed and found guilty of insubordination. His punishment included a suspension of his rank and lost wages for half a year. Wild contested his conviction on the basis that the court did not include any officers who commanded black troops. After careful review, Butler reversed the court’s decision in July 1864, concluding that “prejudice among some officers” had prevented Wild from being judged by “an impartial tribunal for the trial of an officer in command of Color’d Troops.” (9) The prevalence of racist attitudes was behind the promulgation of Butler’s order in December 1863 in which he decreed that in such cases, the court had to include a majority of military judges who commanded African American soldiers. The purpose of his directive was to protect commanding officers of black units from unfair prosecution in court-martial proceedings.
Without a doubt, Clopton’s former bondsmen derived a sense of satisfaction from punishing him. Their action represented a personal triumph of a few individuals over a man whom they considered the embodiment of the institution that had oppressed them and their race for generations. The submission of Clopton to his beating was symbolic of the defeat the Confederacy would suffer in less than a year. When the Civil War was over, United States Colored Troops could look through the telescope of retrospect with pride, knowing that they had played a vital role in helping to preserve the Union and to free the enslaved.
(1) Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), 174; John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 42.
(2) Edward Longacre, “Brave Radical Wild: The Contentious Career of Brigadier Edward A. Wild,” Civil War Times Illustrated 19 (June 1980), 9; Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964), 557-58.
(3) Longacre, “Brave Radical Wild,” 9.
(4) U. S. Department of Interior, Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Slaves Schedules, Charles City County, Virginia; Ervin L. Jordan, Jr., Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in the Civil War (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 163; Ira Berlin et al., The Destruction of Slavery, series 1, vol. 1, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 96.
(5) Richmond Examiner, June 30, 1864. Sergeant Hatton misidentified Clopton as “Mr. Clayton”; Wild to Robert S. Davis, May 12, 1864, cited in Berlin, The Destruction of Slavery, 68.
(6) Richmond Examiner, June 30, 1864.
(7) Edward H. Hinks to Wild, May 11, 1864, and Wild to Robert S. Davis, May 12, 1864, cited in Berlin, The Destruction of Slavery, 96-97.
(8) Wild to Edward W. Kinsley, June 28, 1864, Edward Wilkerson Kinsley Correspondence, 1862-1889, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
(9) Berlin, The Destruction of Slavery, 98.
Leonne M. Hudson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History Kent State University (Kent. Ohio)
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