The Darkest Side of White Supremacy: The Hanging of Martin Robinson

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by Tim Widowfield

By the time Union troops had begun to make deeper incursions into the western frontier of the Confederacy, well before they cut the South in two by taking command of the Mississippi, the acting abilities of captured rebels had gained legendary status. They lied about enemy strength, location, troop movements, and command structure. They told fabulous tales of starving and discouraged comrades and said they’d rather lose their liberty among the bluecoats than die like dogs in the muddy trenches.

Their ability to recount such stories, which tugged at the heartstrings, did not seem to upset the Northern troops. Instead, they marveled and often laughed at their resourceful Confederate cousins, slapping a thigh and shouting, “Oh, that Johnny Reb!”

It was all part of the game. White soldiers generally forgave other white soldiers. Why, after all, blame a good person for resorting to subterfuge when their lives and homes were in danger? American culture, since whites first began to settle the discovered territories of Massachusetts and Virginia, tacitly accepted the fact that white people are mostly good. As proof, we may point to the gift of white civilization, which we bestow upon all who fall beneath our gentle heel. And there’s more.

A hanging tree

If you search the web today, you can, for example, learn much from conservative thinkers who trumpet the good fortune of slaves who were taken from Africa to live in the greatest country on Earth. How else would they have been led to Christianity? Surely, white apologists tell us, masters would not abuse their valuable property. It just stands to reason. And can you imagine all the bountiful food and fresh air? They were clearly better off. Such attitudes lie at the root of white complaints about the ingratitude of inferior people.

As you might suspect, the playful disinformation game was strictly a whites-only affair. You should understand that white superiority wasn’t (and isn’t) based on the idea that whites score higher than anyone else on the intelligence tests they have written. A careless reader who skims the surface of caucasian apologia might think we reached the top of the pecking order thanks to our brainpower.

But intelligence plays only a minor role here. The manly virtues of strength, courage, righteousness, trustworthiness, and honor mark the true nature of the white gentleman. Here we find the foundations of the benefit of the doubt we still extend exclusively to whites. When the gentleman resorts to violence to defend his property or his supposed honor, we presume he must have had good reason. When a white man brandishes a weapon, we must do our utmost to hear him out and talk him down.

White superiority is chiefly about moral superiority, not intellectual superiority. After all, the inferior person may frequently demonstrate shrewdness, using innate intelligence for dark purposes. Presumption of innocence does not apply here. Heaven help the sly person of color who outsmarts the morally superior white man.

Heaven did not help Martin Robinson, an African American guide, hanged on March 1, 1864. I first encountered this sad tale while reading the second volume of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. You can find a somewhat fuller account in Historic Records of the Fifth New York Cavalry, a day-to-day chronicle of the regiment by the good Reverend Louis N. Boudrye.

In a nutshell, Colonel Dahlgren, leading the Fifth Cavalry, needed to ford the James River in order to join forces with the Union contingent heading toward Richmond. He enlisted the aid of Robinson, who said he could lead them to a spot in the river that was shallow enough to cross. Unfortunately, recent torrential rains had caused flooding. They could find nowhere safe to ford the river.

Although the guide appeared to be quite as surprised as he himself was at the condition of the ford, Dahlgren suspected treachery, and in his anger at having been thwarted — for it was clear now, if nothing else was, that he could not reach his objective either on time or from the appointed direction — ordered him hanged. (Foote, p. 913)

We need not doubt the righteousness of Dahlgren’s rage. For as Rev. Boudrye piously observed, Robinson was as shrewd as he was treacherous.

I afterwards learned that he came into our lines from Richmond, in company with several officers who escaped from Libby Prison by Col. Streight’s tunnel, and whom he piloted through. He was born and had always belonged in the immediate vicinity of Dover Mills, was very shrewd and intelligent, and it would seem impossible that he should not know that no ford existed in the neighborhood, where he had seen vessels daily passing. Col. Dahlgren had warned him that if detected acting in bad faith, or lying, we would surely hang him, and after we left Dover Mills, and had gone down the river so far as to render further prevarication unavailing, the colonel charged him with betraying us, destroying the whole design of the expedition, and hazarding the lives of every one engaged in it, — and told him that he should be hung [sic] in conformity with the terms of his service. (Boudrye, p. 99, emphasis mine)

Three days later, the New York Times echoed Boudrye’s sentiments.

It is proper to say what every one with the expedition believes, that had it not been for the false information of a guide, the principal object in starting the expedition would have been accomplished. The man who thus dared to trifle with the welfare of his country, when it became evident that one of the most important objects would prove a failure through his wilful connivance, was immediately hanged on the spot; thus meeting a fate he so richly deserved. (Moore, p. 572, emphasis mine)

We thus learn that the rage of the betrayed white commander is understandable, even laudable, especially juxtaposed against the suspected connivance of a clever black man. Modern commentators lament the unfortunate confluence of events.

Our correspondent terms this the case of the “Faithless Negro”, but posterity has the luxury of a less paranoiac reading than indulged by a troupe [sic] of hotheaded commandos deep in enemy territory all a-panic as their expedition implodes. The James River was just plain swollen with winter rains. Bad luck all around. (The Headsman at ExecutedToday.com)

Yes, indeed — a spate of bad luck. Dahlgren lost a chance at glory; Robinson lost his life. Oh, well. These things happen.

The next time you hear of an innocent, unarmed black American killed in the street by an officer of the law who must be given the benefit of the doubt (while social media and “real” media dig up dirt on the ungrateful victim), consider the fate of Martin Robinson. To some, he was an unlucky guy placed in an unfortunate situation. But viewed through the prism of white supremacy, he was just another “faithless negro,” an object to be loathed and feared, hence the target of understandable righteous fury.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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3 thoughts on “The Darkest Side of White Supremacy: The Hanging of Martin Robinson”

  1. To some, he was an unlucky guy placed in an unfortunate situation. But viewed through the prism of woken moral supremacy, he was just another member of a victim class, an object oppression, hence the target of systemic racism.

  2. Another example of a crime against humanity by a Union commander:

    • McBride, W. Stephen and McBride, Kim A. (2011). “Seizing Freedom: Archaeology of Escaped Slaves at Camp Nelson, Kentucky”.

    African American women and children who escaped slavery in Kentucky during the Civil War and entered the U.S. army depot of Camp Nelson. The women and children, along with their husbands and fathers, began entering Camp Nelson in large numbers during the spring of 1864 . . . The women and children, however, who were generally the wives and children of the enlisting soldiers, were initially not successful in attaining their freedom, but many did stay within camp, at least in temporary encampments.

    “[O]n November 22–25, 1864, District Commander Speed S. Fry . . . reversed this practice. He ordered soldiers to force out under threat of death 400 women and children onto wagons and escort them out of the camp. Fry ordered soldiers to torch the refugee huts. Temperatures that day were well below freezing. The refugees suffered 102 deaths due to exposure and disease.” [“Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument”, Wikipedia].

  3. Thank you Mr. Widowfield. You really understand the deep and dark conundrum that we all wrestle with, those who are trying to free ourselves and those who are not.

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