Phillis Wheatley

On September 1, 1773, Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London, England. Wheatley’s collection was the first volume of poetry by an African-American poet to be published. Regarded as a prodigy by her contemporaries, Wheatley was approximately twenty at the time of the book’s publication.

ARISE, my soul, on wings enraptur’d, rise
To praise the monarch of the earth and skies,
Whose goodness and beneficence appear
As round its centre moves the rolling year,
Or when the morning glows with rosy charms,
Or the sun slumbers in the ocean’s arms:
Of light divine be a rich portion lent
To guide my soul, and favour my intent.
Celestial muse, my arduous flight sustain
And raise my mind to a seraphic strain!

Phillis Wheatley, “Thoughts on the Works of Providence.” In Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: Printed for A. Bell, bookseller, Aldgate; sold by Messrs Cox & Berry, Boston: 1773. Rare Book Selections. Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

Frontispiece and Title Page, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Engraving attributed to Scipio Moorhead, 1773. Imagination Gallery B. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Born in the Senegambia region of West Africa, she was sold into slavery and transported to Boston at age seven or eight. Purchased off the slave ship by prosperous merchant John Wheatley and his wife Susanna in 1761, the young Phillis was soon copying the English alphabet on a wall in chalk.

Rather than fearing her precociousness, the Wheatleys encouraged it, allowing their daughter Mary to tutor Phillis in reading and writing. She also studied English literature, Latin, and the Bible—a strong education for any eighteenth-century woman. Wheatley’s first published poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” was published in Rhode Island’s Newport Mercury newspaper on December 21, 1767.

To pursue the publication of a book of her poetry, the poet sailed to London in 1773 with the Wheatleys’ son, Nathaniel. Her reputation preceded her. She met many influential people, including the Lord Mayor of London who presented her with a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Her volume of poetry was published under the patronage of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon.

S. Huntingdon / H.B. Hall, sc. [Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791)]. [between 1830 and 1880(?)]. Prints & Photographs Division

Learning of Mrs. Wheatley’s ill health, Phillis Wheatley returned to Boston prior to the book’s appearance. Arriving in Boston in September 1773, she nursed her mistress until Susanna Wheatley died the following March. Wheatley continued to write. In 1776, she sent her poem “To his Excellency General Washington,” later published in the Pennsylvania Magazine, to the commander in chief of the Continental army. General Washington thanked her for the poem in a letter:

I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents. In honour of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the Poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the World this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of Vanity. This and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public Prints.

George Washington to Phillis Wheatley, February 28, 1776. Series 3, Varick Transcripts, 1775-1785, Subseries 3H, Personal Correspondence, 1775-1783, Letterbook 1: May 31, 1775-Dec. 25, 1779. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division.

Although she had been emancipated, Phillis Wheatley continued to live with various members of the Wheatley family until 1778. After the death of John Wheatley and his daughter, Phillis moved to her own home. She soon married John Peters, a free black Bostonian who held a variety of jobs before falling into debt. She bore the frequently absent Peters three children. Beset with financial problems, she sold her volume of Milton to help pay his debts. To support herself and her only surviving child, Phillis Wheatley worked in a Boston boarding house. Both the poet and her child died there on December 5, 1784.

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Fall of Atlanta

On September 1, 1864, Confederate General John B. Hood evacuated Atlanta, leaving the city, a crucial supply center for the Confederacy, in Union hands. Union General William T. Sherman’s victory helped ensure President Lincoln’s reelection two months later. With 98,000 men under his command from the Chattanooga area, Sherman prepared to move toward Atlanta on May 4, 1864. By July 6, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, who was defending the city with half as many men, had retreated, heading south of the Chattahoochee River to Peachtree Creek. General Hood relieved Johnston and attacked Sherman on July 20, but was forced to retreat with a large number of casualties. By August 31, Sherman had crossed Hood’s supply line, forcing him to evacuate the city the following day. In response, Hood moved toward Nashville where he later met defeat at the hands of General George H. Thomas.

So Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.

Telegram from Major General William T. Sherman to Major General H. W. Halleck, September 3, 1864.

Atlanta, Ga. Gen. William T. Sherman, leaning on breach of gun, and staff at Federal Fort No. 7. George N. Barnard, photographer, 1864. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

On November 16, Sherman began his famous march from Atlanta to the sea, leaving devastation in his wake. Although many Southerners vilified Sherman for the destruction wrought upon their homeland, others saw him as a liberator. E. W. Evans was nine when Sherman’s troops passed by the plantation where he was born. As was the custom of the day, interviewer Geneva Tonsill transcribed his words in dialect. Evans remembered Sherman as the herald of his family’s freedom.

He [Sherman] come through Madison on his march to the sea and we chillun hung out on the front fence from early morning ‘til late in the evening, watching the soldiers go by. It took most of the day…. The next week…Miss Emily called the five women that wuz on the place and tole them to stay ’round the house…She said they were free and could go wherever they wanted to.

[E. W. Evans, Brick Layer & Plasterer]. Geneva Tonsill, interviewer, Atlanta, Georgia, ca. 1936-39. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

By the 1930s, Evans, who started out in 1877 as a bricklayer and plasterer, owned a twelve-room Atlanta home that was, he noted, “somewhat larger than Colonel Hill’s house where the family lived who owned us as slaves.”

Atlanta, Before Being Burnt: by Order of Gen’l. Sherman, from the Cupola of the Female Seminary. George N Barnard, photographer,October, 1864. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Union veteran L. C. McBride fought with Sherman in the siege of Atlanta and remembered his venture into the South as the event that made him a Republican. Ninety-two-year-old McBride, wounded fighting in southeast Tennessee after the fall of Atlanta, recalled the taunts he endured at the hands of Confederates while recuperating in a Murphysboro [Tennessee] hospital:

There were four Rebels in there and they used to roast me something fierce. ‘What did you’uns come down here to fit weuns for? I can hear them saying it yet. I had always been a Democrat but after that I turned Republican and have been so ever since. These Rebels were Democrats.

[L. C. McBride]. Harold J. Moss, interviewer, Lincoln, Nebraska, March 21, 1939. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Marching Through GeorgiaExternal. In honor of Maj. Gen. Sherman’s Famous March “From Atlanta to the Sea.” Words and music by Henry Clay Work; Chicago, IL: Root & Cady, 1865. Historic American Sheet MusicExternal. Duke University Libraries

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