Far too many folks on the left these days seem unable to find anything good to say about the United States. But is this single-minded dedication to our nations many crimes entirely helpful? Or should we occasionally take a break from such relentless criticism and consider some of the many positive things done in our history?
Think back, for example, to the U.S. Civil War and the 700,000 soldiers who died in this battle to end slavery.
Some people, including many historians, have emphasized other motives to the war, such as the economic struggle between North and South, or a desire simply to preserve the Union. Certainly these motives existed but they were not dominant in the minds of most soldiers who fought for the Union.
Such arguments would make little sense to Black men like Charles Shepard or his son, John, who walked 30 miles to the town of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin’s second oldest white settlement, to join the U.S. Army. Neither one made it back home to their tiny village of Pleasant Ridge. Charles died at Vicksburg, and John passed away in Cairo, Illinois, on his way back home after the war. Both enlisted in 1863, as soon as it was possible for Black men to join the Army. It seems doubtful that they would have worried much about preserving the union or the economic struggle between the North and South. It would be hard to imagine that the 40,000 African Americans killed in the war were worried about any cause other than eliminating slavery.
The story of how these former slaves arrived in rural Wisconsin is interesting. In 1848, their so-called “owner,” Sarah Edmonds, of Fauquier County, Virginia, died. In her will she set them free.
Years later, Sarah’s nephew. William Horner, along with Charles and Isaac, traveled to Wisconsin, hoping to strike it rich in lead mining. But by this time much of the lead was already dug out, so Horner purchased 1,000 acres of land. Charles earned enough to purchase 200 acres from Horner, and Isaac Shepard eventually owned about 700 acres of his own.
In time, however, the once thriving Black community left the area.
My father attended a rural school in the 1920s with some of its last Black students, not long before the African American community began to migrate away. The one-room school, integrated when established in 1873 by local Blacks and whites, finally closed down in 1966 because of lack of students. Farms had grown larger, and the rural population continued to decrease. The two once-thriving local villages, Flora Fountain and Pleasant Ridge, also disappeared.
The last time I was back in the area, I was amazed to see that Black descendants still visited and maintained their local rural cemetery in this corner of Wisconsin.