A Complicated Relationship with Race

A Complicated Relationship with Race

Though Turner was a proud Northerner and Union man, he did not support the ideals of abolitionism held by many of his fellow New England citizens.  Turner understood the war strictly in terms of putting down the confederate rebellion, and gave minimal consideration to ideas of emancipation.  From Turner’s first experience with the “contrabands,” he developed an animosity toward these large groups of displaced ex-slaves that flooded Hilton Head Island.  Rather than creating a refugee camp to deal with this influx, General Ormsby M. Mitchel created a community where ex-slaves were allowed to govern themselves, and work the surrounding land for their own profit on the northern corner of the Island.  With the establishment of Mitchelville, Hilton Head Island became a major place of refuge and opportunity for runaway and freed slaves. This was a new and unique approach to dealing with the masses of ex-slaves that the Civil War and emancipation created.  This placed Turner at the center of the changing racial dynamics of the period.  As a result, his relationship with the surrounding black men and women was complicated. Turner often described his frustration over the sympathy and donations freed slaves received over Union soldiers and as the focus of the war turned toward emancipation, while also commending the service of black regiments. 

This theme in the letters exemplifies the conflicting relationship that Turner had with African Americans in which he simultaneously disparaged, and praised them.  His letters go back and forth between the two extremes of hating, and admiring the African Americans he encountered.  Though Turner often made broad sweeping statements of his dislike for the “contrabands,” he also wrote of his positive encounters, sometimes within the same letter.  These letters demonstrate that his racial perceptions could be challenged by his own experiences.  Though Turner often states that he strongly disliked the African Americans he encountered, he did not deny individuals and groups the respect they earned because of their race.

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