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Unit Four - Freedom, Black Soldiers & the Union Military
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Freedom, Black Soldiers & the Union Military
Although President Abraham Lincoln's government at Washington was slow and inconsistent in aligning its military policy with the goal of uprooting slavery, among the slaves themselves there seemed from the very outset of hostilities a clear sense that the war would not end without upending the system that held them in bondage.
"When war began between the North and South," Booker T. Washington recounted in his autobiography, Up from Slavery, "every slave on our plantation knew that, though other issues were discussed, the primal one was slavery. Even the most ignorant members of my race on the most remote plantations felt in their hearts, with a certainty that admitted of no doubt, that the freedom of the slaves would be the one great result of the war if the Northern armies conquered."
Antislavery advocates in the north, including many free blacks and escaped slaves like Frederick Douglass, also sensed that the war would provide an opportunity for black men to prove themselves the equals of white men on the battlefield, and that through their military service in the cause of emancipation blacks could, after the war, stake their claim as citizens. Although individual northern commanders enacted piecemeal measures that compelled the Lincoln administration to reconsider its policy on black enlistment, fundamental change would have to await a wider shift in its attitude to emancipation. A major change of direction occurred in the late summer of 1862, when Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and was consummated in the final Proclamation that became effective on January 1st, 1863, and which cleared the way for enlistment of black troops. "The opportunity is given us to be men," Douglass told an audience shortly afterwards.
"With one courageous resolution we may blot out the hand-writing of ages against us. Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U. S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth...which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States."
By the time the Proclamation went into effect, some 3-4,000 black soldiers were already in arms, recruited as a result of small-scale, semi-official initiatives in areas under Union occupation, and by the end of the war nearly 180,000 black men would serve in the Union military. Eastern North Carolina and lowcountry South Carolina became the sites for some of the most ambitious early attempts to assemble black regiments: General David Hunter had been recruiting men in coastal Georgia and South Carolina from early in the summer of 1862, and by the end of the same summer Union forces had established a presence on some of the sea islands and port towns of eastern North Carolina. There, black soldiers assisted in harassing Confederate forces. The Emancipation Proclamation gave local commanders the formal authority and the logistical support they needed to broaden these efforts, and by the next summer Union officers were aggressively organizing in both states: General Edward A. Wild assumed responsibility for organizing the 'African Brigade' in North Carolina, and a team of abolitionist-minded commanders-Rufus B. Saxton, James Montgomery, Robert Gould Shaw and Thomas W. Higginson-undertook similar work in organizing the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.
In both states the black regiments were made up overwhelmingly of former slaves. The radicalizing effect of Union occupation on the coastal Carolinas was repeated for the interior, in early 1865, when General William T. Sherman marched his troops up from Savannah and deep into the interior of both states. For a long time afterwards white residents of the piedmont and the upcountry would heap special abuse upon Sherman's black troops who they held responsible for disrupting the status quo by urging slaves to desert their owners and strike for their freedom.
While the role of the Lincoln administration was crucial to the project of building up the 'colored' regiments, as the documents included here suggest it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the slaves' own initiative in transforming the Union military, or to assume that they enlisted for military service without expecting anything in return. Almost everywhere, black men enlisted with the full knowledge that they would face racism and inequality within the Union army. Forced to fight for the right to take part in combat operations, the right to equal treatment and pay, and the right to equal protection as prisoners of war, black soldiers waged a heroic struggle on two fronts-against Confederate foes who reacted with outrage to the sight of black men in military uniform, and against racist treatment within the army of Yankee 'deliverance'.
In this process of transforming the Union army, and the war itself, the 'colored' regiments became "schools of politics" in which former slaves debated the issues of the day, began to articulate a collective vision about the kind of society they wanted to see replace slavery, and assumed an important role as guardians of the black community as a whole. Unsurprisingly, as some of the documents included here suggest, they occasionally came into conflict with their white 'comrades-in-arms,' with army authorities and government officials, and with ex-Confederates after the war. Their experience in the ranks of the Union military helps to explain why such a large proportion of black veterans would play leading roles in grassroots Radical politics during the period of Reconstruction, just as their prominence in galvanizing black communities to assert their rights invested black soldiers with a special pride and authority after emancipation.
General Rufus B. Saxton's Report on an Early Engagement by Black Troops
No region of the territory claimed by the southern Confederacy was more dramatically upended by the onset of war than coastal South Carolina. Together the sea islands and the river-crossed coastal lowlands below Charleston were home to some of the most profitable plantations in the South. Over generations the massive slave workforce laboring in its rice swamps and cotton fields had planted and harvested the wealth upon which leading families in the region had risen to prominence, and the lowcountry planter aristocracy was as fervently committed to defending slavery as any of its counterparts elsewhere in the South. They were stunned, then, when Union forces took Port Royal in November 1861 and began a long and uneven process of extending federal military authority over the coast.
If lowcountry planters were bewildered, their slaves were jubilant. Those who'd spent their lives laboring under the control of whites asserted their freedom, in some places dividing out the plantations from which their owners had fled and laying the basis for new lives free of the deprivations and indignities that slavery had forced upon them. When, late in the summer of 1862, federal authorities began organizing black regiments among the former slaves, many responded enthusiastically-enrolling in the military and proving their valor in skirmishes and battles with their former masters. The following letter was written by Brigadier General Rufus B. Saxton, a consistent and outspoken proponent of black enlistment, for a period after the war the commander of the Department of the South and-until he was forced out by President Andrew Johnson-the leading Freedmen's Bureau official in South Carolina. The letter accompanied a report on one of the first military engagements of former slaves, under the command of Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson-like Saxton a white, northern-born abolitionist.
Beaufort, South Carolina
February 2d, 1863
Hon. Edwin M. Stanton
Secretary of War.
I have the honor to enclose for your information the report of Col. T. W. Higginson, 1st South Carolina Volunteers, of an expedition made by a portion of his regiment under his command up the St. Mary's rivera.
It gives me pleasure to report that the expedition accomplished every object I had in view in sending it and was a complete success. Great credit is due to Col. Higginson for his bravery and skill in penetrating so far into the interior of a country filled with a wary and active foe, with so small a force. It foreshadows clearly the very important advantages which might result to our cause by the extensive arming of the blacks. I have labored and am still laboring diligently toward this end in this Department but the limited extent of our lines renders it impossible for the blacks to get to me in any very great numbers. The establishment of posts on the main-land would enable them to do so. None know better than the traitors, now in arms against our government the great element of strength if we would but use it, which the cause of liberty and the Union has in the hearts and muscles of these loyal blacks.
In my humble opinion it would be no misapplication of the best energies of the government should they now be directed towards the arming and disciplining [of] every one that can be brought within our lines.
I am, Sir,
With great respect,
Your obt. servant,
Brig. Gen. Vol. [Rufus B. Saxton]
aSt. Mary's River forms the border between Georgia and Florida north of Jacksonville. Higginson's objective was to destroy a Confederate encampment fifteen miles upriver. Reports of the successful expedition appeared in the national press.
Source: Rufus B. and S. Willard Saxton Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library
Document 1 Questions
- The Lincoln administration resisted appeals from antislavery activists to allow for the enlistment of black troops until late in the summer of 1862, and in the South, enrollment could take place only where Confederate authority had been disrupted. Given this context, what might have motivated Saxton to include his covering letter to the Secretary of War?
- Imagine yourself a very recently-liberated male slave in an area now occupied by the Union military. You are part of a large audience listening to a northern officer's appeal to enlist. Are you inclined to join, or to stay out of the fighting? What might the officer say or do to convince you that you should enlist?
- Saxton explains that there are practical obstacles that make it difficult to undertake an "extensive" arming of slaves in the lowcountry. What are they, and how might they be overcome?
- What would you expect to be the likely reaction of local whites to large-scale enrollment of blacks in the Union military?
New Bern's Black Community Negotiates their Terms for Military Service
Control over the towns and waterways of coastal North Carolina slipped back and forth between Union and Confederate forces between late 1861 and the end of the war, but their capture of the strategically important riverport town of New Bern in March 1863 gave Lincoln's forces the upper hand on both sea and land. As in South Carolina, planters tried to carry off (or "refugee") their slave 'property' into the state's interior and away from northern lines, but the heavier traffic seems to have moved toward the coast. As word of the Union military's presence spread across the state, slaves made their break for the coast, and New Bern became the temporary home to large numbers of escaped slaves anxious to make their freedom permanent.
From the late spring of 1863 Union military authorities, led by an abolitionist-minded General named Edward A. Wild and supported by black northern troops, began recruiting these men into a 'colored regiment,' and by the late summer enough of them had enrolled to form an 'African Brigade.' The willingness of recently liberated slaves to enlist in large numbers is evidence that they understood clearly that their fate was tied up in the outcome of the war, but we shouldn't assume that they took the decision to enroll lightly. For some it meant leaving behind families that they had only recently managed to reunite; many understood that they would face racial hostility and unequal mistreatment inside the ranks of the 'liberating' army; and for all who enlisted military service brought the risk of injury, death, or capture by embittered Confederates determined to refasten the chains of slavery. This document tells of a remarkable encounter that took place in New Bern between a Union recruiter and a group of radicalized freedmen led by Abraham Galloway. His commitment to black freedom, so clearly revealed here in the spring of 1863, would make Galloway the most outspoken proponent of racial equality in eastern North Carolina, and his death in 1870 was a heavy blow to freedpeople in the region.
The enlistment of the colored troops in North Carolina was a matter in which the members of the Forty-Fifth Regimenta took a deep interest, largely so, because of the earnest support given to the project by the Hon. Edward W. Kinsley, the loyal and enthusiastic friend of the regiment.
At the twenty-fifth reunion of "Company A, 45th Associates," Mr. Kinsley gave an interesting and thrilling account of his trip to New Berne, about this time, a little of the inside history, so to speak. He was well known to be one of Governor Andrew'sb truest and most confidential friends, and came down, ostensibly, as a servant to General Wild but actually in the capacity of a diplomat. Governor Andrew had seen enough of the bickerings and jealousies of army officers, to lead him to have very little faith in the success of the undertaking unless backed by brains and executive ability, and Mr. Kinsley must pack up, go to North Carolina, and look the field over. [Kinsley] went to Washington and had a long interview with Mr. Lincoln, answered questions and arguments innumerable, but the iron rules of war were not relaxed, no pass could be obtained. Determined not to be thwarted in his purpose he signed articles as a servant to General Wild and in that capacity entered New Berne. But the blacks did not come forward to enlist. Something was wrong and it did not take Mr. Kinsley long to find out the trouble. Among the blacks was a man of more than ordinary ability, a coal black negro, named Abraham Galloway. So great was his influence among the colored people that all matters of importance concerning them were left to his decision. Mr. Kinsley had several interviews with him, but still the recruiting hung fire. One day a message was brought to Mr. Kinsley to be at the house of Mary Ann Starkey, a colored woman, at twelve o'clock that night.
He was there at the appointed hour, was blindfolded and led to an attic room. When the bandage was removed he could see, by the dim light of the candle, that the room was nearly filled with blacks, and right in front of him stood Abraham Galloway and another huge negro, both armed with revolvers. With these weapons at his head, they put him under a solemn oath, that any colored man enlisted in North Carolina should have the same pay as their colored brethren enlisted in Massachusetts; their families should be provided for; their children should be taught to read; and if they should be taken prisoners, the government should see to it that they were treated as prisoners of war. To all of this Mr. Kinsley made oath and he was then conducted out of the house. He often avowed that these few moments spent in Mary Anne Starkey's house was the most thrilling experience of his life. The next day the word went forth, and the blacks came to the recruiting stations by hundreds and a brigade was soon formed...
aThe 45th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was organized in August 1862 in response to President Lincoln's call-up of 'nine-month' enlistees, and was stationed mainly in Virginia and North Carolina, where beginning in the spring of 1863 it was encamped on the Trent River below New Bern.
bMassachusetts Governor John A. Andrews had advocated black enlistment from early on in the war, and was among President Lincoln's most persistent critics on this issue. He personally dispatched Kinsley to North Carolina to assist in raising native black regiments, and assigned the 45th Regiment to play a 'protective' role in relation to these.
Source: Albert. W. Mann, History of the Forty-fifth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia (Jamaica Plain, 1908), 300-302.
Document 2 Questions
- Read the document closely, bearing in mind that the events it describes occurred in 1863, nearly two full years before the end of the war. What evidence, if any, does it provide of organization, or coordinated action, in the activities of New Bern's black population? Given the repressive conditions they lived under, how might we explain slaves' propensity for this kind of organization?
- What are the concerns expressed by the men Kinsley encounters in Mary Ann Starkey's house? Were their fears reasonable? What was their object in compelling Kinsley to take an oath?
- "The next day the word went forth, and the blacks came to the recruiting stations by the hundreds..." How might word of the encounter between Kinsley and Galloway's party have traveled so quickly through New Bern's black community? What does this response suggest about their willingness to undertake the risks involved in military action?
- Mary Ann Starkey plays an important role in the events this document describes. What are the consequences for her and other black women if, in future, debates about black citizenship centered on black military service?
North Carolina's 'African Brigade' Raids the State's Interior
Substantial black enlistment and the organization of General Wild's African Brigade greatly enhanced the ability of Union forces to move out from their strongholds in New Bern and elsewhere along the seaboard and conduct operations deep in the North Carolina interior. Equally as important, perhaps, was the effect these had in bolstering the slaves' impression of the Union military as an army of liberation. The author of the document that follows, a black Pennsylvanian prominent in antislavery agitation, lent his support to Wild in organizing black regiments in the spring and summer of 1863. Here he recounts one of the black troops' early forays into the state's interior in July of 1863.
Wild's African Brigade
New Bern, North Carolina
July 11, 1863
...I am happy to say that I, with the invading expedition in the enemy's country, safely returned to Newbern. Indeed, we were exceedingly successful in marching ninety miles over the rebel country... We expected to have to fight our way through, but the rebels flew away from our advancing forces as the darkness flies from the rays of light. We made rapid charges, but only caught their pickets. Our destination was Warsaw,a and there we tore up and twisted the railroad track so that it can never be used again. But I am somewhat before our march. When we arrived at the town of Duplin,b we were informed that there were upwards of thirty colored prisoners in the Duplin Court House prison that were to be tried for their lives for attempting to escape inside the lines of the US forces. We tried to break down the door with axes. We worked for about an hour. This door seemed to be about as hard as that of any iron safe. Finally the key was sent for, threatening the sheriff with vengeance in case of refusal, in the form of a can of tar and feathers. At the arrival of the key the prison doors were opened and another iron cell opened, and Paul and Silas came walking out.
The thirty was a fabulous number, which had diminished to three live colored men; their lives were saved. Two of them came on to Newbern to join Wild's Brigade. With more vigorous determination, we burnt the sabre factory and railroad to meet the enemy should they come in iron horse. Whilst the Union forces were tearing up the railway, storehouses were sacked and burned, and also the depot, and slaves came running from every side of the road seeking our protection by coming into our lines...
aWarsaw lies about 65 miles due west of New Bern, and slightly more than halfway between New Bern and Fayetteville.
bHere Williams is probably referring to the county seat for Duplin County, officially referred to from about 1820 onwards as Kenansville-about eight miles east of Warsaw.
Source: Joseph E. Williams in the Christian Recorder, July 18, 1863
Document 3 Questions
- What do you suppose were the objectives of the African Brigade in their expedition into the interior? How would the 'successes' outlined by Williams have affected the Confederates' willingness or ability to fight?
- Rumor played an important role in the transmission of information throughout the war? How is it manifested here?
- How did slaves respond to this incursion by black troops, and how might a string of similar successes affect the institution of slavery in North Carolina? What effect did this have on the Union's ability to sustain a campaign in 'hostile' territory?
General Saxton Protests against the Forced Enlistment of Freed Slaves
As Document 1 suggests, General Rufus B. Saxton was a forceful advocate of black military enlistment. But he was at the same time acutely sensitive to the mistreatment of freedpeople by federal authorities and military officials.
He protested, for example, when reports reached him that soldiers and sailors stationed in the vicinity of Beaufort, South Carolina, were frequenting plantations at night to carouse and to sexually abuse black women, and again when black fruit and vegetable vendors complained that US soldiers were cheating them and physically abusing them at the market. In the document that follows Saxton raises concerns about a recruitment policy towards former sea island slaves that amounted to physical coercion. He is responding to a letter requesting him to apprehend freedmen who had deserted the military.
Endorsement on letter from Lt. Col. Marple, 2d S. C. Vols.,a to Department Head Quarters, asking permission to send a company from his regiment to St. Helena Island, to capture certain deserters said to be on said Island, which letter was referred to Gen. Saxton, asking if he would undertake to apprehend & return the deserters, or would prefer to have the detail made as requested.
Head Qrs., U. S. Forces,
Beaufort, S. C.
Dec. 5th 1863.
Respectfully returned. I think it will be very difficult to capture these men, the range of country over which they compass is so great that but few of them would ever be captured.
I would respectfully recommend that it is for the best interests of the service that the attempt be not made. These men were declared by the President's proclamation "forever free." Where the right exists to force them all into the service,b I have never been able to discover. My instructions from the Secretary of War never contemplated or authorized it. He only authorized me to receive Volunteers, and unless I receive orders to that effect, I will never be a party to any such violation of the rights of the freedmen, as to force them into the service against their wishes. I believe it to be bad policy, and that it will diminish the number who will be received into the service. If, as is done at the South, a proportional levy is made, I will do all in my power to carry it out without orders; but when the question becomes one of the voluntary hunting down of these freedmen, and forcing into service everyone capable of bearing arms, I should prefer not to have any hand in the business, unless ordered by the proper authority to do so.
aWilliam Warren Marple was Lieutenant Colonel in the 2nd SC Volunteers, later named the 34th Regiment Infantry, USCT.
bForced enlistment had its origins in General David Hunter's policies in the lowcountry, and was described by another of his peers as "valuable as an example of how not to" recruit freedmen.
Source: Rufus B. and S. Willard Saxton Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University
Document 4 Questions
- On what grounds does Saxton distinguish between volunteers and the men that the military is attempting to apprehend?
- Why does he regard it as "in the best interest of the service" that no attempt be made to return the deserters? On what grounds might Saxton argue that such an approach would "diminish the number" of freed slaves who will ultimately enlist?
- Why might freed slaves resist enlistment? Why might black soldiers who've already enlisted decide to desert?
Clashes between White and Black Union Troops in Charleston
Among southern seaport cities, Charleston, South Carolina had few equals in terms of its importance to the slave system. In purely economic terms, it was rivaled by New Orleans, perhaps, but by few others: over two centuries nearly three of every four Africans brought to North America as slaves entered through Charleston harbor, and the ships sailing out of the city were heavily laden with cotton, rice and the other staples that afforded its elite lives of splendor and great wealth. But its importance was not merely economic: in the decades leading up to the outbreak of civil war, Charleston developed a reputation as the intellectual home of militant proslavery thought. Its leading men were at the forefront of the secessionist movement in the late 1850s, and the opening shots of the bloody Civil War were fired in the same harbor into which so many slaves had entered the United States.
Its capture by Union forces in mid-February 1865-less than two months before the Confederate surrender-inaugurated a period of strain and upheaval. Freedpeople from the countryside began flocking to the city as a refuge from depredations being carried out against them in rural areas, and the town was briefly placed under the guardianship of the 21st US Colored Troops, a regiment made up largely of locally-recruited former slaves. By the early summer, three-way clashes began to develop between the 21st and white troops brought in to assist in the occupation, and between these white regiments (with a reputation for hostility against blacks) and the city's freed population. Members of one of the New York regiments "insulted the colored people everywhere," one observer noted, "stoned them, knocked them down, and cut them." The following letter was written by a native white Charlestonian, who appears to have been pleased when these tensions culminated in a riot in early July 1865.
[Charleston] is in much too sickly a state to bring anyone to it-already I have heard reports of Yellow Fever. I do not believe it is yet an epidemic but have not the smallest doubt it will be so before the Summer is over. The streets are miserably dirty, and smell most offensively. I heard the other day that 240 persons, white and black, but mostly black, had died in one week...
The City is crowded with negros from the country around-they cannot and will not be kept out by the authorities, they say they are free and have a perfect right to go where they please. One was overheard to say she was a free as a buzzard. In Cordesvillea about two weeks ago some gentlemen were out hunting, and in the course of their hunt, they overtook a party of negros enjoying themselves in the same way. The negros were armed with double barrel guns, and had their pack of dogs. This state of things cannot continue long some change must be made. I could tell you many other instances of their insolence appearance, insubordination and insolence but a letter is not a proper place for it.
They may give us a civil gov: civil rule or what else they please,b but all the black troops and all the negros must be sent out of the city, and those belonging to the plantations must be made to remain there, and until this is done anything will prove utterly unavailing for our peace and quiet. At one time I was opposed to the expelling of all Negros from the City, but now that I know them, I am fully for doing so, except those that may be personally attending on you. A negro is a (blank space) and has not as much gratitude about him as many of the inferior animals-in fact, until this is done our City never will be inhabited by respectable people, or rebuilt. I understand that many persons have come to the city, and after seeing how things go on, have returned in perfect disgust, and declare they will never bring in their families until some change takes place.
...The 127th New York Regiment which has been stationed in the City since the vacuation [sic] first took place, and have in consequence of their antipathy to the negro, tended in a great measure to keep them in order, have been sent home, and six companies of Dureyee's Zouaves (from Savannah) have taken their place[;] between these and ebony's no love whatsoever exists. They had not been in the city eight and forty hours, it is said, before they commenced operations by clearing the East Bay batteries, and in the evening having an encounter in John St. in which the 'freedmen' were decently used up -the Cold. troops (as they are called) and themselves also are no friends-all this is in our favor, and until the negros shall be made to know their places, I say, let it continue.
aCordesville lies about 30 miles north of Charleston.
bHere Deas is responding to rumors that President Andrew Johnson is going to restore civil authority to white Southerners.
Source: Elias H. Deas to Anne Simmons Deas, Elias Harry Deas Papers, Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina at Columbia
Document 5 Questions
- Why, according to Deas, are freedpeople coming into the city in such large numbers? What are the consequences?
- What does the writer find objectionable in the incident that he recounts from Cordesville? What does its rendering suggest about the state of sentiment among whites in Charleston?
- Reread the second full paragraph closely, bearing in mind that slavery ended, with the war, three months previously. Are the measures advocated by Deas compatible with a 'free labor' system? In what ways might we anticipate difficulties among whites in adjusting to the new state of affairs? Was it possible for the federal government both to protect the rights of freedpeople and secure the loyalty of whites like Deas?
- How might freedpeople in and around the city of Charleston react to news that rioting had broken out between 'Yankee' soldiers and former slaves? How might these tensions shape their assumptions about northern motives in the war, the dependability of white northerners as allies in emancipation?
Georgetown (S. C.) Whites Petition for the Removal of Black Troops
After a long and bitter war, white Southerners resented the presence of the US military in the region, but they expressed a special antagonism towards the presence of black troops. In a letter to President Andrew Johnson in 1865, the leading South Carolina planter and former Confederate General Wade Hampton complained of the "pouring into our country...of barbarians, your negro troops," and wrote that he considered the deployment of blacks "a direct and premeditated insult to the Southern people." The state's first postwar Governor, Benjamin F. Perry (appointed to his post by Johnson) received dozens of petitions like the one below, from outraged white citizens demanding the removal of black troops. Perry responded positively to this sentiment, beseeching federal military authorities to redeploy blacks away from the interior of the state and toward the coast, and giving his assent to the formation of all-white 'militias' that would guard against black 'depredations.'
We the undersigned citizens of Georgetown District appeal to your Excellency to use the most prompt and earnest effort with the Federal Authorities to relieve us from the insecurity of life and property consequent upon the garrisoning of this place by colored troops. The effect upon the black population (here largely in the ascendant) is of such a character as to paralyze every effort at industry and to cause those who live isolated on the plantations to tremble for their lives. Lt. Col. Willard the Commandant has been polite and courteous and there have fortunately been but few instances of insolence on the part of the colored soldiers - but the negroes on the plantations universally refuse to work and the Col. while admitting the right of planters to their labour under the contracts approved during the past summer is himself unable to enforce the right. Indeed it is our belief that any effort to do so would lead to open mutiny on the part of his troops. An entire gang from one of the plantations came into town yesterday and on being ordered by the Colonel to disperse go back to their homes and work or they would be put in jail said with one voice that they would go to jail and it resulted in their returning to the plantation declaring that they would not work and encouraged in that determination by every Negro soldier present. On another place the Executor of the Estate...was run off and threatened with death by a mob of 30 or 40 negroes armed with rails sticks etc. On another a delegation waited upon the Overseer commanded and obtained the keys.
On another nearly the whole gang threatened to break open the barn to tie the overseer if he did not give up the keys and to burn him out at night if he did not leave the place and loss of life and property were only prevented by his extreme coolness courage and presence of mind... All these events have occurred within the past ten days and are rapidly thickening. The district has not made this year sufficient grain [?] to subsist its inhabitants. Labor cannot be enforced without action and summary measures, certainly not with the present garrison and unless the lands are prepared now no crops can be made the ensuing season. Nor is this all, not only is every effort at industry paralyzed but we are
rapidly drifting to a condition of lawlessness and violence which must end in open insurrection and the extermination of our race in this section unless instant aid be afforded. Prompt action now may avoid the evil. You will use every effort and that speedily to prevent such a consummation by procuring first a strong garrison of white troops and the removal of these is the earnest petition of sir.
Signed by 49 planters to Governor Perry, November 3, 1865
Source: Governor Benjamin F. Perry Papers, South Carolina Department of Archives and History
Document 6 Questions
- The petitioners remark that the Commandant in charge of the black troops has been "polite and courteous" and that there had been "but few instances" in which black troops showed "insolence," yet they insist upon being garrisoned by white troops. Why?
- Black soldiers seem at times unwilling to obey the direct commands of their officers in enforcing labor discipline on the plantations. How might we explain this?
- The laborers seem united ("with one voice") in refusing to work on the terms being offered by the planters. Why might this be so? Do the petitioners offer any explanation as to why they might refuse to labor in the fields? What kind of information might help us better understand the merits of the dispute between planters and laborers?
- Military commanders and Freedmen's Bureau officials were confronted by continual disputes between laborers and planters in the period after emancipation. What are the federal government's interests in resolving these, and how should the government intervene?
Contrasting Attitudes toward Union Troops in the South Carolina Upcountry
Lieutenant Colonel Charles T. Trowbridge commanded a regiment of black troops assigned to garrison northwestern South Carolina, with headquarters at Anderson Court House, at a particularly difficult time in the early aftermath of the Confederate surrender. His troops faced persistent hostility from white residents at a time when gangs of "bushwhackers"- made up mostly of demobilized ex-Confederate soldiers-roamed the upcountry taking vengeance on freedpeople and on some whites as well. During their time in Anderson, at least one black soldier was murdered by locals, and on their departure from the area the train Trowbridge's troops were riding in was ambushed, facing a fusillade of rifle fire from assailants hidden along the railroad tracks. These excerpts from his journal record conflicting local attitudes to the presence of a 'colored' regiment.
What was to be done for or with the negro now that he is free was the question that confronted this country at the close of the war, and that question brought into existence the [Freedmen's Bureau]. There was a large population of freed slaves who were very poor and destitute of clothing and who were most thoroughly hated by the whites who had owned them prior to the war...for me to take a regiment of Black Soldiers into this community and begin the work of organizing a form of government that should require the negro to stay on the plantation where he had been born, and work for his former master, and require the old master to treat him humanly not to say kindly was a work that taxed my skill as an executive officer...[Trowbridge recounts marching his troops northwest from Hamburg]. When we came in sight of the town where we were to make our headquarters, we were met by a committee of its citizens who implored me "not to bring them Niggers into their town." I saw at once that I had to take my stand, be very stern and resolute or my authority as the Commander of the district would soon be defied. I told them that these men were not "Niggers" but United States Soldiers and that I should march them into town, and quarter my troops in the Court House.
[mid-1865: Trowbridge's regiment is being transported to Charleston where they will be mustered out]
It was late in the afternoon when the train was ready to pull out ready to give the signal to the conductor to start when I saw a company of colored people coming from the town bearing what I thought was a stretcher containing a sick person. I waited for them, and when they reached the platform I found they were kindly bearing a white Union Soldier of the Fourth Union Cavalry. He said; "They [Confederates] shot me out of my saddle last April when we were scouring the country for Jeff Davis, took my horse and all I had. Then left me alone to die. These kind colored people have nursed me and cared for me ever since. I heard that you are leaving this country for the North, and I beg them to fetch me to the train and I now ask you to take me with you. I have a wife and little ones living in Sandusky, Ohio. I want if I can to see them again before I die.
Source: Lieut. Col. Charles T. Trowbridge Papers, South Carolina Historical Society
Document 7 Questions
- Trowbridge relates the difficulty of "organizing a form of government that should require the negro to stay on the plantation where he had been born, and work for his former master, and require the old master to treat him humanly." Why might freedpeople dissent from this understanding of the federal government's responsibilities after emancipation?
- How did Trowbridge manage in his first encounter with local white citizens? What does the incident suggest about the kind of society some white Southerners aspired to after the end of slavery?
- Many accounts of the war in the South portray regional sentiment as uniformly hostile to northern troops. How does the second incident complicate our assumptions about 'Southern opinion'? How might historians do a better job in conveying the range of perspectives across the former Confederacy?
- Judging from these excerpts, what kinds of pressures are federal troops and their commanders likely to be subject to in white-majority areas? How might these complicate the task of Reconstruction?
Black Troops, White Hostility & Radicalization in the Upcountry
The report below, from the early autumn of 1865, was forwarded to General Ralph Ely, the Freedmen's Bureau Sub-Assistant Commissioner in Columbia, as evidence of conditions prevailing in western South Carolina. It vividly attests to the unsettled condition of the upcountry, where as late as August some black farm laborers had not yet received the news that slavery had been abolished, and where white planters seemed determined to place limits on the kind of freedom available to them in the new order. One of the important questions to be decided in the early aftermath of emancipation was whether and when federal troops should be withdrawn from the region, and here a Lieutenant in the 102nd USCT gives his opinion that they must remain in the region to guard the rights of freedpeople. He provides some evidence, as well, of the wide variation in support for black freedom in the ranks of the US military, and of the varying effects that friendly or hostile officers could have on the plight of freedpeople in rural communities.
[I] found the society of the Westn. Dist.a in a terrible state of disorder, the Freedmen not willing to work for nothing, and the Planters trying to compel them to work and not willing to agree to pay for it. There were many cases of driving whole families of Freedpeople off of plantations, with threats of shooting if they returned, and some cases of actual shooting. In many cases where the crops are 'laid by,' the Freedmen are told there is 'no further need of them,' that they had better go to the Yankee, etc. in some cases whipping and starvation is resorted to in order to compel them to leave and seek the means of sustaining life. [I find] comparative order [in Winnsboro]... The same result would probably have been attained all through the district, but soon after the arrival of the troops under Genl Chisholm the order came to muster out the majority of them and it was impossible to reach and correct all cases especially those a great distance from Hd Qtrs, or the rendezvous. It is my belief that as the troops are withdrawn, that everything pertaining to the Freedmen in that section of the country will be in a worse condition than ever, in short it will [mean] murder and starvation desolation and death; There is a feeling of deadly hatred towards the Blacks, and I have heard it expressed upon on many occasions... Hundreds of Freedmen have told me that the masters were only waiting for the soldiers to be taken out of the state, and then it was their intention to rule, and enslave the negro worse than ever... They do not recognize the freedom of the Negro, and the same course of treatment is still in force upon some plantations as when slavery actually existed.
[I find] some excuse for [tensions, related by local whites]. The first officer who went through that section of country...was Capt. Brown. He told all parties that the Negroes owned the lands and that they were to be divided up for their benefit; that the Whites must now do the work etc in that strain, causing the Negroes to think that they were to be encouraged in idleness. The next was Lieut. Ovatt Act. Provost Marshal. He talked directly in opposition to Capt. Brown, and to give force to his opinions, he caused a woman to be tied in the Court House of Chester, and administered with his own hands a flogging, upon her bare back[.] I was told by eyewitnesses, that it was a worse exhibition of cruelty than would be witnessed upon a plantation, in a lifetime, during the [worst] days of slavery. Next came a Capt Van Notingham who presented himself as a member of General Scofield's staff.b He called a mass meeting of citizens, white and black, and addressed them in a speech. He launched into a tirade of abuse of the colored race, told them that the 'Nigger' was made for slaves and nothing else that it was the duty of the white man to compel him (the Negro) to work and that he should be shot if he did not work, and that he had no right to ask anything for his labor. He said in his speech 'that all things were made by God in six days except the 'Nigger' 'that the seventh day the Devil made the Nigger, and when he saw how ill his work looked, he slapped it in the face, and that was how the nose of the Nigger became flattened.'...
Taking all these things into consideration it is not to be wondered at that there is discontent and difficulty. The question is how to avoid trouble in future. Justice to the Blacks will not be rendered by any Court or Magistrate of this State at present, it can only be done by the power of the US military force... I know it to be the wish of nine out of every ten Southern men to make emancipation a failure, that is make it an injury to the colored race in America, and to do so they will resort to every means in their power to degrade, and starve them if possible to exterminate them, so that at last they can say that a system of free labor would not work well in the south, and that slavery was right.
aAlvord had recently returned from duty in Chester, York and Lancaster Counties (the "Western District") and was submitting this report from Winnsboro.
bProbably General John M. Scofield [sometimes spelled 'Schofield'], who accompanied Sherman on his march through the Carolinas, and was assigned to the Department of North Carolina in 1865 before being appointed military governor of Virginia and later Secretary of War, by President Andrew Johnson. Schofield was a conservative known to sympathize with southern white opposition to Radical Reconstruction.
Source: Henry H. Alvord, 1st Lieut. 102nd USCT, (Winnsboro) to General Ralph Ely (Freedmen's Bureau, Columbia), September 8, 1865
Document 8 Questions
- In Alvord's view, what are the impediments to peaceful relations between freedpeople and planters in the upcountry?
- Why does he consider the role of federal troops an essential one in the immediate postwar context? Does his account sound credible, and do you accept his warning about the likely results of troop withdrawal?
- Judging from Alvord's account, what is the range of sentiment regarding black freedom within the ranks of the Union military? Assuming that his observations are accurate, how much confidence can freedpeople have in the US troops as protectors of their rights? What are the alternatives to depending on federal troops?
- Why might it work to the interests of certain southern whites to ensure that the "system of free labor" is seen as a failure in the South? What can they do to make certain that this is the outcome of Reconstruction?
Petition from Union County Republicans against Removal of Troops
In 1870 and 1871 white paramilitaries in the South Carolina upcountry carried out a systematic campaign aimed at intimidating freedpeople and a handful of white allies from voting the Republican ticket. The sharp reduction in armed federal troops in South Carolina left Republican activists extremely vulnerable to violence.
Their predicament eased somewhat after President Grant declared martial law in ten upcountry counties, deployed bolstered federal troops in the area, and aggressively pursued prosecutions against Klan members. One result was the flight of suspected Klansmen out of the state, but by 1873, as these letters suggest, they felt confident enough to return, and Republicans were concerned that a new round of violence was about to be unleashed. Here a Republican activist in Union appeals to Governor Franklin J. Moses Jr. to maintain an adequate troop presence in the area.
February 20, 1873
We the undersigned Republicans, address you, in behalf of the peaceloving citizens of this County, to ask of you to use your influence, to have other troops, immediately sent here.
The subject is a very serious one, especially to the Republicans of this County, and many of the citizens of this County have expressed themselves, desirous that the troops should remain, and they openly acknowledge, that it is necessary for the maintenance of peace and order.
The action of the Government in pardoning members of the Ku Klux Klann [sic], instead of having the desired effect, in establishing peace and quietness seems to have operated in an entirely different manner, and men who have been members of the order and have been absent from the country, have already returned and are now making threats, what they will do when the troops leave.
We have no fear of any general trouble, but there will be insults offered and individual quarrels, and an undefined fear now prevails throughout the whole County, the removal of the troops at this time, is in our opinion certainly premature and we hope and implore that you'll have troops sent here immediately to occupy the barracks about to be vacated...
J. S. Mobley and others (Union, SC) to Governor Franklin J. Moses, Jr.
March 4, 1873
I tell you if something ain't done soon after the troops leave this place the KKK will commence [to] kill again a great deale of them that had left here come back again and making the boldest threats now they have commence having the meetings now and if you can't get the troops to stay you will Please inform me as soon as you can as all the Party come to me to know what to do men are here that I [saw] warrants authorized for their arrest and they have not been arrested yet if he can't do no way to keep the Piece let me know we can't stay here and be killed when we know that we will be killed...these are facts[.]
J. S. Mobley (Union, SC) to Governor Franklin J. Moses, Jr.
[Moses responds with note on back of letter]
Answer this letter and say that I have communicated with the President and troops will be promptly furnished whenever needed. The people shall be fully protected and they need not fear.
Source: Governor Franklin J. Moses, Jr. Papers, South Carolina Department of Archives and History
Document 9 Questions
- Judging from the first communication, what effect did the presence of federal troops have on whites prone to paramilitary violence?
- Mobley suggests that the government's policy in relation to prosecuting Klansmen has not had the desired effect. Why might federal authorities hesitate in bringing suspected paramilitaries to trial, and what did they hope to achieve by pursuing this approach?
- Judging from Mobley's second letter, what is the feeling among Radicals in the vicinity of Union as to their safety? What effect might his have on their willingness to take part in Republican campaigning? On freedpeople's willingness to come out and vote? On their ability to win support from whites?
- How should the federal government have dealt with the threat of paramilitary opposition to Reconstruction in the South?
This ends Unit Four.
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Unit Five: Conservatives Respond to Emancipation