George Wasington Carver: The Life of the Peanut Man

Interesting Facts about George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver, 1910

George Washington Carver, 1910

As a young slave in Diamond Grove, Missouri,

  • George Washington Carver knew very little about his parents. His mother’s name was Mary, but she and George were kidnapped when George was young and he never saw her again. His father died before George’s birth. After the Civil War ended, their former owners, Moses and Susan Carver, raised George and his
    brother Jim.
  • Young George got sick often as a child, so he did mostly household chores with Susan. The Carvers treated George like their own child, giving him free time to explore the woods on the family farm. They also taught him to read and George spent a lot of time with his spelling book.
  • George wanted to learn the names of plants, trees, animals, and flowers. Since he couldn’t find the answers in his spelling book, George sought other opportunities to go to school. His determination helped him walk eight miles to the Lincoln school for black children. Unfortunately, George soon discovered that the teacher didn’t know much more than he did.
  • George went to Kansas to finish his education, but he learned more about racial hatred there than anything else. At Ft. Scott, he saw a black man lynched and burned. Though he left Ft. Scott, he stayed in Kansas to finish high school.
  • To pay for his education, George worked a variety of jobs, including helping a black family with their laundry business.
  • Although he was accepted into Highland College in Kansas, when he arrived he was turned away because of the color of his skin. Eventually he graduated from Iowa State Agricultural College.
  • After graduation, George got an offer from Booker T. Washington to teach agriculture at Tuskegee Institute. He took the job because “It has always been the one ideal of my life to be the greatest good to the greatest number of ‘my people’ as possible.”
  • While at Tuskegee, George came up with new ways to help poor black farmers. For example, many farmers were only planting cotton, a crop that used up a lot of nutrients in the soil. George suggested that farmers plant crops like peanuts, which would nourish the soil. He said they should plant peanuts one year, and then plant cotton the next year.
  • After farmers started taking George’s advice, they had way too many peanuts. George had a solution, though—he found more than 300 uses for peanuts, including peanut milk and peanut soap!

Ida B. Wells: African American Activist

Before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., other African-Americans fought for black rights in the South. One of these activists was a young woman named Ida B. Wells.

Photo of Ida B. Wells

Photo of Ida B. Wells

Although she was born a slave in 1862, Ida B. Wells had advantages that other slave children did not. Unlike most slaves, both of Ida’s parents could read. They taught their oldest daughter Ida to read when she was very young. After the Civil War ended and slaves were freed, Ida’s parents got involved in the politics of the Republication Party, which promoted the rights of free blacks. Her parents died from yellow fever when Ida was just a teenager, but she inherited their interest in education and equal rights for blacks.

Ida went to college and became a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. One day, she purchased a first-class ticket on the train and went to sit in her seat. A white conductor came up to her and told her to move to the black section, which didn’t have first-class accomodations. Ida refused and was removed from the train. She sued the railroad company and won her case in a lower court, but the railroad won in an appeal.

Although she didn’t make much money at first, Ida had a passion for writing. Eventually, she edited her own newspaper, which she named Free Speech. She wrote about the poor quality of schools for blacks and the need for black people to stand up for their rights. One incident, the lynching of a good friend Tom Moss, changed Ida’s life.

Moss owned a grocery store on the edge of the white and black parts of the town. In 1892, he and two other black men were shot when they tried to defend Moss’ store from a white mob.

After Moss’ death, Ida changed her position on black self-defense and told her readers to save their money so they could leave Memphis. Her articles were so effective that the city’s economy started to suffer because of the lack of black customers. Blacks who remained in Memphis started walking to work instead of paying to ride the streetcars that were owned by whites. The owners of the streetcar company asked Ida to tell her readers to start riding the cars again. Instead, she wrote an article calling for a black boycott of the streetcars.

Her friend’s death inspired Ida to expose the evils of lynching through writing and speeches. In one pamphlet, called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases,” Ida wrote, “The mob spirit has increased with alarming frequency and violence. Over a thousand black men, women and children have been thus sacrificed the past ten years. Masks have long been thrown aside and the lynchings of the present day take place in broad daylight.”

During a trip to the Northeast, the offices of her paper were destroyed by a mob. While in New York, she learned that some whites threatened to kill her if she returned to Memphis. As she encouraged her former readers to do, Ida settled in the North. She continued to write and give speeches about the injustice of lynching. She traveled extensively throughout the North and even brought her anti-lynching campaign to England.

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Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

One hundred and fifty years ago on New Years Day, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln never liked slavery, and he recognized that having slaves gave the southern states advantages in the Civil War. For example, southern slaves worked as cooks or nurses on the sidelines to save soldiers energy for fighting.

In the summer of 1862, Lincoln decided to write an emancipation proclamation. The document declared that any slave in a state that was fighting Union soldiers would be free on January 1, 1863.

Before issuing his proclamation, Lincoln asked his cabinet members to listen to a rough draft. He told them he would use his powers as president in wartime to free slaves who might otherwise help the Union cause. His Secretary of State, William Seward, supported the idea of freeing slaves, but warned Lincoln that the Union army’s losses during the year might influence the public’s opinion. He suggested that the president wait for a battle victory before announcing the emancipation proclamation. Lincoln agreed.

When the South’s General Lee retreated from the North after the battle at Antietam, Lincoln publicly announced his intention to sign the proclamation on January 1, 1863. Some people doubted that he would follow through on his promise, but they were wrong. On the morning of January 1, Lincoln made a major change in the proclamation. Though it still said that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebel southern states “are, and henceforth shall be free,” he added that African Americans could join the Union army. Lincoln knew the Union needed the manpower. In fact, though they served in all black units, between 180,000 and 200,000 black men fought for the Union during the war.

Before he could sign the document, Lincoln and his wife Mary hosted a New Years Day reception at the White House. First government officials mingled with the president, and then the public was invited to stand in a line to shake the president’s hand. Afterwards, Lincoln went back to his office to sign the emancipation proclamation. Lincoln said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.” His hands were so stiff after three hours of shaking hands that he waited before signing his name. He said, “If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine the document hereafter will say, ‘He hesitated.’” After a few moments, Lincoln’s hand felt less numb and he put his signature on the historic document.

The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free any slaves right away. It only declared the slaves in the rebel states free—something Lincoln could not enforce in 1863. The document was important because it changed the way people thought about the war. Now soldiers in the Union army were fighting not only to bring the southern states back to the Union, but also to free the slaves.

The American Soldier in World War I

When the U.S. joined forces with Britain and France against Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1917, it had a small army. Unable to get volunteers to fight in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson instituted the draft so that the army would have more soldiers. In July, a drawing was held to determine which men would go to the warfront. By the end of the day, over 1 million men were chosen to fight. Despite being the largest army in American history, the new recruits didn’t know much about twentieth century warfare.


New technology led to a new kind of warfare during World War I. During the Civil War, hundreds of men charged toward the enemy in battle. The invention of the quick firing machine gun made traditional warfare impossible. With the use of machine guns, the charging soldiers died within minutes. In order to defend themselves against these weapons, the European armies dug trenches, or holes in the ground, to defend the territory they gained. The trenches got so big that they accommodated both the armies and their supplies. When U.S. soldiers arrived, however, they quickly learned that the trenches and new equipment that were supposed to protect them from bullets also caused problems.


Living in the dirt of the trenches made it impossible for soldiers to keep clean. Without regular baths, disease spread through the army. Parasites, referred to as “the cootie” by soldiers, caused fevers. One soldier described the parasite, “The vermin were about the size and color of small grains until they would gorge themselves on the blood of their victims…It was a standing joke that there was no point in scratching since the little buggers had legs on both sides.” Unsurprisingly, seventy percent of the time that soldiers spent off duty was caused by illness.


Another hazard for World War I soldiers on both sides was the invention of mustard gas, a poison chemical fired in a shell at the enemy. It was called mustard gas because of its scent. Exposure to mustard gas produced blisters on the skin and lungs. A nurse described the suffering of these soldiers, “[they were] burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-colored blisters, with blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath.” Soldiers exposed to mustard gas often became blind or died.


In addition to being shot at or gassed, soldiers also died by getting stuck in mud. Much of the western front in France was low-lying land, and rain turned the trenches into pools of mud. Wounded soldiers fell into the mud and drowned. Soldiers also got “trench foot” by standing in the water for hours or days. The soldier’s toes numbed and his foot rotted. To save the soldier’s life, medics amputated, meaning cut off, the foot.

One soldier tried to explain the hazards of World War I this way: “Have you ever fought half madly through days and nights and weeks unwashed, with feverish rests between long hours of agony, while the guns boom…and the bullets zip-zip-zip ceaselessly along the trench edge that is your skyline—and your deathline, too, if you stretch and stand upright?”

Clara Barton: Women’s Work during the Civil War

Clara Barton, 1865 by Matthew Brady

Clara Barton, 1865 by Matthew Brady

In the spring of 1861, the Massachusetts Sixth Regiment arrived in Washington, D.C. The troops were recruited to fight in the Civil War after the bombing of Fort Sumter. Clara Barton, who worked in Washington, D.C., watched the troops arrive. She knew some of men because she grew up in Massachusetts and also taught school there. Worried about “her boys,” she arrived at the Capital building where the troops were staying.

Collecting Supplies

She discovered that many of the soldiers lacked basic supplies like blankets and adequate food. She bought some items with her own money and appealed to others to donate. To a group of ladies in Worchester, Massachusetts Clara wrote, “It is said upon proper authority, that ‘our army is supplied.’ How this can be I fail to see.” Soon donations poured in, and Clara stored them in her apartment.

She collected and distributed supplies for one year, but felt that she was not doing enough to help the soldiers. After hearing stories of the soldiers’ suffering on the battlefields, she longed to join them but wondered if such work would be proper for a lady. Clara’s father encouraged her to follow her conscience. When he died, she petitioned leaders in the government and the army to bring food and medical supplies to the field hospitals and battle sites.

Going to the Battlefront

The first of her many trips to the Civil War battlefields occurred after the battle of Cedar Mountain in northern Virginia. Clara brought a wagon filled with supplies. Though she was unprepared for the number of wounded, she pinned up her skirt and moved among the men, distributing food as she went. The surgeon on duty was so grateful for the help that he wrote to his wife, “at a time when we were entirely out of dressing of every kind, she supplied us with everything, and while the shells were bursting in every direction…she staid [sic] dealing out shirts…and preparing soup.”

Clara put herself in danger many times during the war. For example, she did not stay with the regular medical units at the rear of the column at Antietam. Instead, she ordered the drivers of her supply wagons to pull ahead so she could be on hand when the battle started. While the battle raged, she and her helpers nursed and brought food to the soldiers. She seemed unconcerned about the danger and said, “I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner.” Clara narrowly escaped death at Antietam when an enemy bullet hit a wounded soldier who lay in her arms.

Women’s Work

By the end of the war, Clara had served troops on nine different battlefields. Her courage and resourcefulness won her the admiration of doctors and generals who thought women would only create chaos during battle. General Benjamin Butler stated that Clara had “executive ability and kindheartedness, with an honest love of the work of reformation and care of her living fellow creatures.”

Clara was human—she enjoyed the praise she received for her work and rarely cooperated with other women’s groups during the war because she didn’t want to share credit. Yet most of Clara’s praise was earned. She worked without pay, bought many of her own supplies, and lived (and sometimes nearly died) alongside the Civil War soldiers.


The Childhood of Civil War General Robert E. Lee

Most history books show pictures of Robert E. Lee as an aging man with white hair and a beard. It’s almost impossible to imagine that this man was once a child. Like everyone else, the famous American Civil War general did have a boyhood, though it was not always happy.

The Lee Family Heritage

The potential for Robert E. Lee to be a great man started before his birth. Robert’s father, Henry Lee, served in the cavalry during the American Revolution. Henry impressed his general so much that he said Henry had “come out of his mother’s womb a soldier.” After the war, Henry served in the Continental Congress and encouraged his home state of Virginia to ratify the Constitution. By the nineteenth century, however, things started to go wrong for Henry Lee. He made bad investments and ended up in a debtor’s prison for a year.

His wife Ann Carter Lee gave birth to her son Robert in 1807, shortly before her husband’s imprisonment. She already had several children, and admitted to a friend that she did not want another child. Later on, however, when her husband left the family for the West Indies and never returned, Robert became her favorite.

Robert E. Lee Grows Up

Robert comforted his mother in her husband’s absence. He did household chores and served as a nurse to his ill sister and his mother. Though obedient to his mother, like most boys his age Robert enjoyed swimming and playing sports with his cousins. He especially loved tricking foxhunters by following hounds on foot. He became so good at taking shortcuts to find the foxes that when the adults arrived, Robert was already there. Even at a young age, Robert understood how to use geography and the element of surprise to his advantage—skills that would one day make him a great general.

Though Robert didn’t have a father, he did create a father image for himself. When the family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, Robert and his siblings often visited President George Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. Custis told the children stories about Washington and showed them Washington’s pistols and uniforms. Though Washington had died many years earlier, the people of Alexandria cherished their connection to the former hero. Washington’s career may have partly inspired Robert to pursue a military career, but in reality there was little money available for him to go to college. Luckily, he had family connections that helped him get one of the 250 spots available for the West Point cadets.

Robert At West Point

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point had many rules, and Robert was one of the few cadets who followed them. Others, like Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, partied and drank on a regular basis. Robert was a serious student who graduated second in his class. He was not a snob, however, and made close friends at West Point. His friend Joseph E. Johnson remembered that Robert “was the only one of all the men I have known that could laugh at the faults and follies of his friends in such a manner as to make them ashamed without touching their affection for him, and to confirm their respect.” His military training and the ability to positively influence others would come in handy when the U.S. Civil War broke out.

Elizabeth Van Lew: Southerner and Union Spy

Although she grew up in a wealthy household in Richmond, Virginia, Elizabeth Van Lew would later become one of the most successful spies for the Union during the Civil War. Like many southern households, Elizabeth’s family owned several slaves. When her parents sent her to school in Philadelphia, however, Elizabeth met people who thought slavery was wrong. After she returned home, Elizabeth tried to convince her father to free their slaves. Although he didn’t agree, Elizabeth convinced her mother to free them when her father died.

By the time of the Civil War, Elizabeth had grown up. She still loved her hometown, but she was devastated that Virginia decided to leave the Union. “Never did a feeling of more calm determination and high resolve for endurance come over me.” While some southerners with Union sympathies fled north, Elizabeth stayed, determined to help the Union cause from Richmond. Unionists who stayed behind often became agents for Elizabeth who slowly assembled a spy ring for the Union.

In July 1861, Elizabeth first visited Libby Prison where Union soldiers from the First Battle of Manassas were held.  From these men she got information about the location and movements of the Confederate forces and they received food and medicine from her. She was already considered by the townspeople to be odd because of her views on slavery. Some people called her “crazy Bet.” She used this perception to her advantage when visiting the prison. She talked aloud to herself and dressed in strange clothes so Confederate guards would think she was harmless. Her frequent visits allowed her to pass information to the Union army.

Some of the slaves she had freed and other Union sympathizers carried Elizabeth’s messages at various stopping points on the way to a federal fort in Hampton, Virginia. It was important that Confederates not intercept the messages, so Elizabeth devised different ways for her agents to hide information. Elizabeth later wrote, “Information was delivered by servants carrying baskets of eggs. One egg in each basket was hollow and contained notes…torn into small pieces. In addition, notes were carried in the soles of servant’s shoes.” Elizabeth got one of her servants, Mary Bowser, a position as a maid in the home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. The girl pretended to be illiterate, but she memorized letters Davis received and reported the information to Elizabeth so it could be sent to Union commanders.

Elizabeth’s spy ring was so reliable that she communicated with high-ranking officials, including General Ulysses S. Grant.  When the federal army overtook Richmond in 1865, General Grant stopped at the Van Lew home to thank Elizabeth. In a letter Grant wrote, “you have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

From Preserving the Union to Emancipation: President Lincoln’s Views on Slavery

President Lincoln believed that he would be best remembered for writing the Emancipation Proclamation. Although many people remember him as the president who freed the slaves, some of the facts surrounding that achievement have been clouded with the passing of time.

Although Abraham Lincoln hated slavery, his goal was not to free the slaves at the beginning of his presidency. Instead, he wanted the Southern states to remain in the Union and tried to prevent them from pulling out. He promised Southerners that he would not interfere with slavery in states where it already existed, but this assurance was not enough to prevent the Civil War.

As the war dragged on, however, Lincoln realized that freeing the slaves and preserving the Union were inseparable issues. Lincoln informed his cabinet of his plan to issue emancipation for the slaves in summer 1862, but was advised to wait for a Union army victory. When victory came, he pulled the proclamation out of his desk drawer. In his message to Congress in December 1862, he explained his actions: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.”

Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It stated that from that date “all persons held as slaves within any state or states, wherein the constitutional authority of the United States shall not then be practically recognized…shall then, thenceforward, and forever, be free.” Criticism came from within his own party. Conservative Republicans thought it was too radical, while the radicals complained that the proclamation only freed slaves in Southern states that the Union army had no authority to help.

In the military, some soldiers resented having to fight a war for the slaves and others did not want blacks to have the opportunity to join the Union army. Lincoln, however, felt that the former slaves had a stake in fighting for their freedom.  He was also impressed by the abilities of black troops on the battlefield. He wrote that when peace came, “there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation [eliminating slavery and saving the Union]; while…there will be some white ones unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.” In just a few years, Lincoln transformed from a politician who wanted little to do with the issue of slavery, to a statesman who wanted to destroy it.

Fort Sumter and the Start of the Civil War

Imagine that you have just become President of the United States. You gave your first speech to the nation and attended the inaugural ball. After the ball, you are handed a note that says that one of the remaining federal forts in the South is in danger. Abraham Lincoln had to deal with a crisis almost from the moment he became president.

The letter Lincoln read was from Major Robert Anderson, commander of the Federal troops at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Members of the newly formed Confederacy had surrounded the fort with ships and cannon. Anderson implored Lincoln to send more supplies to the fort.

Members of Lincoln’s cabinet all gave different opinions as to what the President should do. Some said the fort should be evacuated to avoid a civil war with the South, while others said he should send extra troops to protect the fort. Lincoln decided to do neither—he would send a boat with supplies to the fort but troops and warships were instructed to stand by and respond only if the Confederates fired the first shot. He sent a messenger to inform the governor of South Carolina “to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumpter [sic] with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, ammunition will be made…[except] in case of an attack on the Fort.”

The South Carolina Confederates, however, saw the fort as an example of a foreign nation (the Union) trying to stick around in the newly independent Confederate States. They also believed that war would bring the upper Southern States, like Virginia, to their aid. On April 12, 1861, Confederates opened fire on the fort. The supply ship had not yet arrived and other nearby boats were prevented from aiding Anderson’s men by the high seas. As a result, Federal forces were outmanned and had limited gun power. After over a day of bombardment that destroyed parts of the fort, Federal forces surrendered it to the Confederates. Ironically, no one was killed in the first confrontation of the Civil War that later took so many lives.