By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017-2018, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2018 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
The word sarcasm comes from an ancient Greek word that literally means to tear the flesh. This makes sense, because a figurative tearing of the flesh is what sarcasm does, and what sarcasm is intended to do. However, sometimes sarcasm can be problematic, because too often, the line between sarcastic and hurtful is difficult to discern. In fact, I know someone who was so concerned that her sarcasm might be perceived as hurtful that one year she gave up sarcasm for Lent. (For me personally, I don’t know what would be a more challenging Lenten sacrifice: giving up sarcasm or giving up chocolate.) Although there can be issues with sarcasm, there are some situations in which sarcasm is warranted and in which the target of the sarcasm is deserving of it. Such a situation is the subject of this month’s history brief. The main characters in this story of sarcasm are Jordan Anderson (whose first name is sometimes spelled “Jordon” or “Jourdon”) and Patrick Henry Anderson, who went by his middle name, Henry. Prior to the Civil War, Jordan was a slave who was owned by Henry. During the war Jordan and his family obtained their freedom, and shortly after the war the family moved north. While Jordan was living in his post-war place of residence, he received a letter from Henry with a proposal that Jordan return to the plantation to work for his former master. The letter that Jordan sent in response is an exquisite piece of sarcasm. In recognition of February being Black History Month, Jordan Anderson and his brilliantly sarcastic letter are the subject of this month’s history brief.
Jordan Anderson was born in December 1825 in Tennessee, although the exact location is not known. When Jordan was age seven or eight, he was sold to a person named Paulding Anderson, who owned a plantation east of Nashville, Tennessee. Paulding then gave Jordan to his young son, Henry, to be Henry’s personal slave. Eventually Henry came to own the plantation, and Jordan continued to work there as one of Henry’s most important slaves. Sometime in 1848, Jordan married a slave named Amanda, who went by Mandy, and they had 11 children. In 1864 Union soldiers arrived at the plantation and gave Jordan and his family their freedom. Jordan immediately left the plantation, but not without some personal danger, because Henry shot at Jordan as Jordan was departing. Luckily for Jordan, Henry failed to hit his target, in part because a man named George Carter grabbed the gun from Henry. Jordan subsequently worked at a Union hospital, where he met a surgeon named Clarke McDermont. After the war ended, Jordan and his family, with help from McDermont, moved to Dayton, Ohio, and McDermont arranged for Jordan to meet with McDermont’s father-in-law, a lawyer and abolitionist with the romantic name of Valentine Winters, who helped Jordan find a job. In July 1865 Jordan received a letter from his former master, Henry, who was facing financial difficulties and desperately needed workers for that year’s harvest, particularly a worker like Jordan, who possessed the skills to oversee the harvest. Because Jordan could not read, he took the letter to Valentine Winters, who read the letter to Jordan. Since Jordan could not write a response himself, he asked Winters to write a letter that Jordan dictated, and this letter was sent to Jordan’s former master, Henry.
The letter begins, “Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jordan, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house…Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again…I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
“I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here; I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing, have a comfortable home for Mandy…Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again. As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864…Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you are sincerely disposed to treat us justly and kindly—and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, that earnings would amount to $11,680…Please send the money…in care of V. Winters, esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future…Here I draw my wages every Saturday night, but in Tennessee there was never any payday for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows.”
The letter continues with a telling request for assurance regarding the safety of Jordan’s daughters, whom Jordan described as “now grown up” and “good looking girls.” In a statement that alludes to one of many reprehensible acts by slaveowners, Jordan went on, “I would rather stay here and starve and die if it come to that than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters.” In an obvious reference to the pre-war proscription against educating slaves, Jordan also asked about schools for his daughters. The letter is signed, “From your old servant, Jourdon Anderson. P.S.—Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.” Not surprisingly, Jordan did not go back to the plantation. His former master, Henry, who was drowning in debt, sold the plantation and died two years later at age 44. Jordan remained in Dayton for the rest of his life and died in 1907 at the age of 81. Descendants of Jordan Anderson still live in Dayton.
Those who are of my musical generation probably remember a singer by the name of Brian Hyland. Brian Hyland had three recordings which peaked in the top five in the U.S. One recording, “Gypsy Woman,” reached number three in 1970. Another of Brian Hyland’s top-five recordings, which went all the way to number one in 1960, was “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini.” The third of Brian Hyland’s top-five recordings peaked at number three in 1962. This one was “Sealed with a Kiss.” As most people know, the expression “sealed with a kiss” refers to a letter that is filled with so much affection that the sender seals the letter with a kiss. I suspect that when Jordan Anderson sent the letter to his former master, he did not seal it with a kiss. In fact, in light of the sarcasm in Jordan’s letter, it seems that as far as Jordan was concerned, if there was any kissing associated with that letter, it was that his former master could kiss a certain part of Jordan’s anatomy.