Archaeologies of Conflicting Ideologies: Frederick Douglass, Democracy, and Combating Racism

The following post comes from a paper I presented at the annual Society for Historical Archaeology conference held in Quebec City, Canada this January.  Continue below for the body of the presentation.

Frederick Douglass Statue. Talbot County Courthouse, Easton, Maryland. Photograph by the author.

Archaeologists working at Wye House in Talbot County, Maryland have taken advantage of the historical descriptions provided by 19th century writer, orator, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was enslaved there briefly as a child and describes his experiences in all of his autobiographies.  These textual accounts allow the archaeologist to see the plantation landscape and enslaved African American culture through the eyes of one who was enslaved there himself.  Such a perspective is extremely rare in the historical record and have greatly aided archaeological investigations.  Not only have we turned to Douglass for help in locating and describing the structures we excavate on his former plantation, but we have also turned to his writings and his work to help us get inside American slavery, race and racism, colonialism, and ideology.

During the American Civil War, Douglass was a vocal supporter of the US Colored Troops, and actively worked to organize regiments of African American soldiers to fight for the Union in the war. In support of this goal, Douglass gave many public speeches. During one, he said:

“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters US, let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”

Portrait. Frederick Douglass. ca. 1879. National Archives.

What Douglass is invoking here is the ideology of democracy.  One could argue that he is also invoking nationalism, patriotism, Americanism, etc.  Turing to the writings of the founding fathers (many of who were slave-owners themselves), the ideology of American democracy (or at least one of the ideologies of American democracy) is that all people are created equal, all are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, pursuit of happiness.  If African Americans can stand up and say, “I too, am an American”, then they are invoking the equality granted to them through the ideology of democracy in order to combat the inequalities inflicted through race and racism.

In order to combat the repressive ideology of race and racism, in the past people have and in the present people continue to invoke competing ideologies–ideologies which highlight the contradictions inherent within American society.  While race and racism imply inherent inequity, the competing ideologies of democracy, capitalism, and religion each allow for a condition of equality.  By activating and invoking these specific ideologies, Frederick Douglass and African Americans could make a claim for equality using the dominant ideologies that existed which all too frequently only reinforced race and racism.


Hard rubber military button. Novelty Rubber Company. Recovered from archaeological excavations at Wye House. Photograph by the author.

This small button was recovered by Archaeology in Annapolis in 2013 while excavating an enslaved and later servants quarter at Wye House Plantation in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  It is made from hardened rubber by the Novelty Rubber Company using a patent filed by Charles Goodyear in 1851.  On the front is an American eagle with a shield, clutching an olive branch in one talon and arrows in the other.  During the Civil War, many African Americans took Douglass up on his offer to fight for the Union and more than a few of those enslaved at Wye House enlisted by either running away and joining the army or were enlisted by their owner, Edward Lloyd the V who signed them up for $300 each.  The oldest of these volunteers may have even known Douglass from their youths.

However, during the mid-19th century, standard issue United States military buttons were made from copper or brass, not rubber.  While rubber buttons like this with other decorative designs aren’t uncommon, it is difficult to find much information about this one with its American eagle.  Both the Civil War relic collector and reenacting communities ascribe these small black rubber buttons to two specially equipped units of sharpshooters in the Union Army.

1st and 2nd United States Sharpshooter uniform and equipment.  Note the black rubber buttons on the coat.  Image source:

The 1st and 2nd United States Sharpshooters were formed in September 1861 in order to bring precision shooting to the battlefield.  One of the most notable elements of these two units was their specially designed uniforms.  Because they frequently engaged in non-conventional, non-Napoleonic engagements, their uniforms were designed to camouflage their presence.  They wore green instead of the standard Union blue uniforms to blend in with trees and vegetation and their buttons were made from black rubber instead of shiny brass. These buttons were created especially for these two units specifically so that they would not stand out.  None of the individuals who lived in this excavated building at Wye House served with either of these two units and an analysis of troop movements throughout the war show only a few instances where the US Colored Troops from Wye House were even at the same battles at the Sharpshooters.  It is possible that this button was taken home from the war as a memento, was acquired as a quick uniform repair from available supplies, or perhaps was systematically distributed to Colored Troops as a form of discrimination.


Horace Gibson’s headstone. Like the headstones marking other African American veterans in this cemetery, this marker was provided by the United States Government. Unionville, Maryland. Photograph by the author.

After the war and with the abolition of slavery, many of those formerly enslaved at Wye House moved off the plantation and settled nearby and formed small towns like Unionville and Copperville, outside of Easton, Maryland while some returned to live in the same quarters they had lived in before the war.  Probably brothers, John and Horace Gibson were born at Wye House and served in the 7th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops.  After the war, Horace helped to found the town of Unionville and moved there while John returned to live at Wye House as a farm hand—probably in the structure this button was recovered from.  Despite the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, racism and discrimination was still rampant in the post-war South.  After the war, a group of eighteen surviving African American soldiers came back to Talbot County and helped form Unionville.  In the case of Unionville, newly emancipated African Americans were able to rent land to start their town from a pair of Quaker brothers, one of who led many of the Unionville Eighteen during the war.

The promises of Reconstruction were far from guaranteed throughout the south and the newly won rights of African Americans were only guaranteed if they could be enforced.  A relevant vignette comes to us from a local newspaper account.  After reports of African American voter intimidation and violence associated with African Americans registering to vote in the fall of 1870, the African American Union veterans put on their old uniforms, grabbed their rifles, and marched in an armed column headed by their white former colonel into Easton, the county seat.  Reportedly, violence and intimidation against African Americans stopped and the election proceeded without further incident.

Quoting from a 2008 dissertation on Unionville by Bernard Demczuk:

“What a spectacle it was to have eighteen black United States Colored Troops along with their white commanding officer, Colonel Cowgill, ride in full uniform with full weaponry into the town of Easton, the heart of Talbot County’s Confederacy, displaying the force in which they employed to win the Civil War and preserve the Union.  Maybe they were not met with celebrations when they arrived home after the war, but this time the county’s residents sat up and noticed they were here and were here to stay.”

Shaw Memorial. Augustus Saint-Gaudens. National Gallery of Art. Washington, DC.

Rather than as a show of force, I suggest this incident is powerful because of the symbolism associated with the objects they used, of which are included this button and many others.  These men activated the ideologies of democracy and citizenship, pointing out to those who would use racism to disenfranchise African Americans that they too were Americans and had, as Douglass argued they would, “earned the right of citizenship in the United States”.  In this regard, racism and democracy are incompatible and these veterans used the brass letters on their buckles and the eagles on their buttons to make this claim for equality.

Returning to the quote by Douglass, here, Douglass does three things: first, he clearly invokes these artifacts recovered by Archaeology in Annapolis from three African American sites across Maryland; second, he invokes the ideologies of racism and discrimination; and third, he invokes the ideologies of democracy and citizenship.  By doing so, he ties these pieces of material culture to the mutually incompatible and contradictory ideologies of democracy and racism and lets them combat each other through the deeds and actions of their wearers.  By earning the right to wear or associate themselves with these objects, men like John and Horace Gibson, 19th century African Americans from Maryland, were able to make a claim to this equality that should be incontrovertible.

An unidentified United States Colored Troop soldier. 34th Regiment, USCT .

1 Comment
  1. Buttons of hard rubber like these are listed in Warren K. Tice’s book, Uniform Buttons of the United States, 1776 – 1865. Also, you will find them in, Albert’s, Uniform Buttons. Take a look on page 137 of Tice’s book. Pictured here are very similar buttons. They were worn by the Brigade of U.S. Sharpshooters.

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