The Civil War era, with its 750,000 dead saw a heightened interest in spiritualism and mysticism. In 1861, a spiritualist newspaper appeared called the “Banner of Light” and according to Civil War Talk,
Each issue of the newspaper provided a litany of answers from dead soldiers in a monthly article known as “Voices from the Dead.”. A Mrs. Conant would go into a trance and seek out dead soldiers on both sides.
Some of the dead channeled Mrs Conant with things like, “as a favor of you today, that you will inform my father, Nathaniel Thompson of Montgomery, Alabama, if possible, of my decease. Tell him I died …eight days ago, happy and resigned.”
Leonard Bolton wants to give my mother …”a little sketch of the manner of my death.”
Charlie Hiland reported, “I lost my life in your Bull Run affair, and the folks want to know how I died and what became of me after death… I should like to inform them.”
None of the soldiers mentioned were real soldier’s names. The Banner of Light did not present any reader’s actual kin, or any real details. The newspaper lasted well into mid-1870s."
Source: “The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War” – Drew Gilpin Faust
Sounds very similar to Sadie's experiences in Balm, doesn't it?
While spiritualism was extremely popular among whites, there is less of a record on its following among African Americans. Yet they too were experiencing traumatic separations, as plantations were disbanded, and slaves either escaped, were sold away or were taken up by Union regiments. Like Hemp, many slaves had no way of tracing what had become of their loved ones.
By juxtaposing the experiences of Sadie, the white widow trapped into channeling the spirit of a dead Union soldier, and Hemp, a displaced former slave, Dolen Perkins-Valdez skillfully links these twin traumas, and highlights the unrecognized and untold suffering of fractured African American families.
Please join us for our discussion of Balm this Tuesday March 21st, 7 pm at the Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center at 1823 Church St in Evanston. Copies of Balm are held at the 2nd floor desk of the Evanston Public Library.