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Unit Two - Freed Slaves Mobilize
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Freed Slaves Mobilize
Northern victory in the Civil War brought an end to slavery, but marked the beginning of a struggle on the part of freedpeople and their allies to invest their new freedom with real substance. Their ability to mobilize in their own interests varied from one community to the next, particularly in the early aftermath of the war. In the rural interior, embittered Confederate veterans known as 'bushwhackers' organized into gangs and wreaked their vengeance upon freedpeople and more than a few vulnerable whites. By the late spring of 1865 whites in parts of the Carolina piedmont and upcountry were attempting to resurrect the antebellum 'slave patrols,' requiring that freedpeople traveling the roads carry a 'pass' from their white employers and punishing those who did not. Elsewhere, however, ex-slaves were in a better position to assert their rights in the new context: along the South Carolina coast below Charleston, freedpeople took possession of the abandoned plantations divided out under General Sherman's Special Order no. 15, looking to a future as independent farmers. To the north in Georgetown and into coastal and northeastern North Carolina, freedpeople never benefited from land redistribution, but they did take advantage of early Union army occupation to begin to establish free communities on secure foundations. Their strength in numbers in port cities like Charleston and Wilmington offered some protection against violence and gave them leverage in dealing with landowners and employers.
Historians have been struck by the capacity and enthusiasm for organization shown by freedpeople in the early months and years after their release from slavery. In the past scholars hostile to the ex-slaves sometimes attributed this to their manipulation by carpetbaggers'- entrepreneurial adventurers from the north - and 'scalawags' - their home-grown southern equivalents. Implicit in these explanations was a deep-rooted assumption that on their own, blacks could not have mustered the intelligence and determination to mobilize in their own interests; they required white leadership and guidance. Over the past generation, we have come to understand that even in the desperate conditions that confronted them under slavery, African Americans found ways to develop the resources with which to resist. In a system that denied literacy to the broad slave population, preachers, ministers and 'oracles' from within the slave community would play a disproportionate role in holding together communities before emancipation and leading them afterwards. Some evidence exists (included here) that fraternal orders like the freemasons and benevolent societies had madeinroads among the slaves even before the outbreak of Civil War, and from port cities and larger towns connected to the railroads abolitionist literature and the latest news made its way to slaves on plantations in the deep interior.
A Wartime Encounter Between Two South Carolina Slaves
The first document is from a memoir by the Boston-born James Robert Gilmore, who toured South Carolina in the period leading up to secession and published his Life in Dixie's Land, or South in Secession Time, under the pseudonym Edmund Kirke, in 1862. In this excerpt, Gilmore recalls (and renders 'in dialect') a wartime encounter that he witnessed between two slave teamsters (wagon drivers) outside of Georgetown, South Carolina. The slave Scipio had been assigned by his owner the task of transporting Gilmore, by wagon, into the South Carolina interior, and it was during their trek that they met up with Jim.
One other detail might help in making sense of the document: the night previous to this incident, Scipio had overheard a conversation between his owner and the visitor, Gilmore, in which the latter expressed his opposition to slavery. Awareness of his passenger's abolitionist leanings may have made it easier for Scipio to confide in Gilmore.
..."Jim, this is Scip," I said, seeing the darkies took no notice of each other.
"How d'ye do, Scipio?" said Jim, extending his hand to him. A look of singular intelligence passed over the faces of the two negroes as their hands met; it vanished in an instant, and was so slight that none but a close observer would have detected it, but some words that Scip had previously let drop had put me on the alert, and I felt sure had a hidden significance.
[later, after Jim has departed]
"Scip, did you know Jim before?" I asked.
"Hab seed him afore, massa, but neber know'd him."
"How is it that you have lived in Georgetown five years, and have not known him?"
"I cud hab know'd him, massa, good many time, ef I'd liked, but darkies hab to be careful."
"Careful of what?"
"Careful ob who dey knows; good many bad niggas 'bout."
"P'shaw, Scip, you're 'coming de possum;' there isn't a better nigger than Jim in all South Carolina. I know him well."
"...Come, Scip, you've played this game long enough. Tell me, now, what that look you gave each other when you shook hands meant... If I should guess, 'twould be that it meant mischief."
"It don't mean mischief, sar," said the darky, with a tone and air that would not have disgraced a cabinet officer; "it meant only Right and Justice."
"It means that there is some secret understanding between you."
"I told you, massa," he replied. "dat de blacks am all freemasons. I gabe Jim de grip, and he know'd me..."
"Why did he call you Scipio? I called you Scip."
"Oh! de darkies all do dat. Nobody but de white folks call me Scip. I can't say no more, massa; I SHUD BREAK DE OATH EF I DID."
Source: Edmund Kirke, Life in Dixie's Land, or South in Secession Time (London, 1863), pp. 73-75
Document 1 Questions
- Why might Jim insist on addressing Scipio by his full name, rather than the familiar form that Kirke uses?
- Kirke is trying to suggest that some sort of bond or relationship exists between these two slaves who, according to Scipio, have never in fact met. What can we tell from the document about the nature of this relationship? Does this have any significance beyond the personal ties between Jim and Scipio?
- In what ways did slavery restrict collective organization among blacks? How important were these restrictions to maintenance of the slave system? How might those held in slavery attempt to overcome these constraints?
- What might Scipio mean when he remarks that there are a "good many bad niggas 'bout"? Is he referring to their honesty? Their propensity for violence?
- In responding to Kirke's questioning, Scipio asserts that "all the blacks" are freemasons. If this is the case, how might it affect their capacity to mobilize politically when the war ends?
Rev. Henry McNeal Turner Reports on Organizing among Freedpeople in Georgia
This is one of a number of reports received by Robert C. Schenck, a former Union Army general, later a prominent member of the Republican Party and one of the individuals responsible for organizing on its behalf across the former Confederate states after the war. Schenck's collected papers are one of the most important sources for examining the relationship between the national Republican leadership and early grassroots mobilization among the former slaves. This report was submitted by the Rev. Henry McNeal Turner, a minister (later Bishop) prominent in the African Methodist Episcopalian (A. M.E.) Church and one of the most energetic black organizers during the early Reconstruction period.
Born free at Newbery, South Carolina, Turner served as chaplain in a 'colored' regiment during the war and toured the southern states in the immediate aftermath of emancipation, eventually settling into a prominent role in Republican politics in Georgia. There he was elected to the state legislature in 1868 but denied his seat-along with 26 other black officials- by the state's white conservatives, until the federal government intervened. Dejected by the failure of Reconstruction to secure equality for blacks in the United States, Turner would later become prominent in advocating emigration to Africa. Here he recounts his experience in organizing one of the first assemblies of freedpeople in Georgia in July 1867.
From Macon, Georgia under date of July 8th  the Reverend H. M. Turner, a colored speaker and organizer writes as follows:
This will inform you that our Union Republican Convention is over and our platform framed and adopted. It is not as replete with good sense and prudent feeling as I desired but they overruled me in the committee room and I submitted to the majority."
After the convention adjourned, I ordered all the colored delegates to remain until the next day, which they did, with a few exceptions, and met in the Methodist Church. Some 40 counties were represented in this assemblage (Turner's Convention as they called it) and I spent five hours in instructing them concerning their duties assisted by Costina and Campbell (colored) and Mr. Timony (white.) We read over the dialogues to the delegates and commented on them at great length, so that no mistake might be entertained. While we were reading the dialogue, I acted as the Freedman and Mr. Campbell as the true Republican, I asking and he answering in a suitable voice, giving emphasis to the facts being related. You ought to have seen the effect which it produced. When Campbell would read some of those pointed replies, the whole house would ring with shouts, and shake with the spasmotic motions and peculiar gestures of the audience."
The rule which we adopted it is to have them read in our country churches, societies, leagues, clubs, balls, picknics and all other gatherings, allowing one man to sit back and the audience and read the questions and the other to stand up in the pulpit or some conspicuous part of the house and read the answers. This, I find is much better than merely letting one man read them. The two voices and the interrogatory manner which can be assumed has double the effect upon the uneducated masses.
I have ordered them read in our meetings until our people know them by heart and can relate them from memory."
The dialogues are sought for with eagerness everywhere. I went twenty miles in the country yesterday and while going along the road, I saw a crowd of 25 or 30 persons sitting under a tree. When I came up I found them reading the dialogue"
"The rebels are doing all they can to mislead the colored people in the rural districts by telling them all kinds of falsehoods.
a John T. Costin. See Document 5.
Source: Robert C. Schenck Papers, Miami University Archives, Ohio
Document 2 Questions
- The vast majority of former slaves were illiterate, having been denied literacy under the slave system. What kinds of problems might this present for attempting to organize a political party in the South? How did Turner attempt to 'get around' the problem of illiteracy?
- What evidence does the document present in relation to freedpeoples' enthusiasm for politics? Why might we expect former slaves to respond this way in the early years of their freedom? What would it take for such enthusiasm to be sustained over the years ahead? What kinds of developments might curtail early excitement over their political prospects?
- In the sentence crossed out in paragraph one, Turner commented on the lack of "good sense" and "prudence" in the platform adopted by the state Republican Party. What kinds of issues might produce tensions between freedpeople and the Republican establishment?
- Why might the 'dialogues' work where a simple rule book might not?
- In what do you suppose the "rebels" [former Confederates] might be attempting to "mislead the colored people," as Turner observes, and why might they be more effective in rural rather than urban districts?
An Unnamed Black Organizer Reports on the Reception for Republican Speakers among Freedpeople in South Carolina
Here is another, briefer report to Schenck from one of the black "organizers" touring the South on behalf of the Republican Party. South Carolina, where this report emanated from, was one of two former slave states with a black majority at the time of emancipation (the other being Mississippi). The 'league' alluded to below is a reference to the Union (or 'Loyal') Leagues, which served as the organizational vehicles for grassroots Republican organization across the South. Though Republican officials intended them as mainly electoral machines intended to bring out black and white unionist voters at election time, in many places the Leagues took on a life of their own-serving as hubs for labor organizing, as networks for organizing self-defense, and as schools for the political education of freed men and women. While Reconstruction had been overthrown in Georgia by 1874, South Carolina's Republican state government would be the last among the former slave states to fall to white, conservative 'Redemption,' after a violent and bitterly fought election in 1876.
A colored speaker and organizer in South Carolina writes from Charleston under date of August 2d  as follows:
Yours of the 24th ultimo containing check for $50, came to hand in due time. I have been traveling for some time in this State and have addressed large meetings in 18 or 20 districts. Have organized the league in ten districts. The greatest interest exists among the colored men everywhere. They are wide awake. When any person known to be in sympathy with the Republican party and the North, goes into a neighborhood to speak, the Freedmen flock in crowds to hear him. It was a good move, sending speakers here. More are needed. In my next I will give a more extended report.
Source: Robert C. Schenck Papers, Miami University Archives, Ohio
Document 3 Questions
- How can we account for the assertion that black Carolinians manifested "the greatest interest" in the outdoor mass meetings begin organized by the Republicans across the state in 1867? What does this organizer mean when he asserts that the "colored men" were "wide awake"?
- The organizer mentions the enthusiasm of black men but not women in relation to the meetings. How might we explain this: is it an oversight on his part or do you suspect that it reflected the actual composition of the mass meetings?
- According to this document, there is an eager constituency for Republican politics in the immediate post-emancipation period. How might the party attempt to follow up this success in organizing meetings?
- The report notes the need for more speakers to tour the state. Where might the Republicans look to for individuals who could carry out this work effectively?
- How do you think South Carolina's white population might respond to these developments among the freedpeople?
A Destitute Local Union League President Seeks Aid from the Govenor of North Carolina
As the previous document makes clear, grassroots organizing on behalf of the Republican Party was hardly a lucrative endeavor in the post-emancipation South. Generally speaking those who undertook it did so out of genuine commitment to the freedpeople, and to the broader goal of building a new society in the South-frequently at considerable risk to their very lives. This was even more true at grassroots level than it was among those dispatched south from Washington by the national party: in the Carolinas, as elsewhere, the party's main constituency was among the laboring poor-overwhelmingly ex-slaves in South Carolina, but with a substantial influence among poor and middling whites in North Carolina. The following letter to Governor Holden from the president of a local Loyal League in Pasquotank County, in eastern North Carolina, sheds some light on the desperate straits that even prominent local leaders confronted in trying to hold the Republican grassroots together.
Pasqot.a Co. N. C.
Novr. 6th 1868
I take my pen to state you a few facts, hopeing that you will give the matter a moments attention.
Abought one year ago I became President of the loyal league in this place in which capacity I have been acting ever since to the best of my ability-I am a poor man have a wife and five little children. for two years I have failed in my crop and have not raisd this year to exceed 4 Bbls. [barrels] corn meel [?] and without and but for the kindness of a neighbor M. W. Buffkinb who loaned me corn my sufferings would have been much greater,--He is now calling upon me, he was the only man who would relieve me, and it is very humiliating to me to have to refuse him. When I took charge of the league I was promised remuneration from the government-up to the present I have not received a single dollar.
If there is any chance for me to bee hope [helped?] a little it would bee very thankfully received besides it would stop the hunger of my wife and little ones-If it is in the rotine of things for me to have any thing for my servises, please let me hear from you on the receipt of this and very much oblige.
Your obt. servant
James A. Jonesc
P. S. Please direct to South Mills Camden Co. N. C.
aPasquotank County, bordering Camden County along eastern North Carolina's border with Virginia.
bBuffkin is listed in the 1860 U. S. Federal Census as a 26 year old farmer owning some $12,105 in real and personal property, placing him among the more substantial men in the County, though by no means the wealthiest. See 1860 U. S. Federal Census: North Carolina-Pasqoutank County, p. 145.
cJones, by contrast, is listed in the same census as an illiterate farmer with a wife and three children under the age of 4, owning just $100 in property. He would have been 43 at the time he wrote this letter; Buffkin was then 34. See 1860 U. S. Federal Census: North Carolina-Pasqoutank County, p. 148.
Source: Governor William W. Holden Papers, North Carolina Department of Archives and History
Document 4 Questions
- If, as conservatives frequently asserted, their own ranks included the "wealth and intelligence" of the South, and the Republican constituency was made up overwhelmingly of former slaves and non-elite whites, what problems might this present in relation to building and sustaining party organization?
- An older historical literature suggested that freedpeople were often the unwitting victims of manipulation by white 'carpetbaggers' and 'scalawags'. How does this document inform our assessment of that generalization?
- Let's assume that Mr. Jones's appeal for financial support goes unheeded by the Governor's office: what are his likely options in the circumstances in which he finds himself?
- Jones is a white Loyal League President living in a district with a substantial black population, though his correspondence makes no reference to race. What are the challenges to building a bi-racial organization in post-emancipation North Carolina, and to what extent do Jones and his African American neighbors share common grievances and aspirations? Where might their interests diverge?
John T. Costin Reports on the Difficulties of Organizing
One final document from the Robert C. Schenck Papers: a report from John T. Costin on his travels through northeastern Georgia in the summer of 1867. Costin, a preacher and a barber from Washington, D. C., was active in the black freemasonry movement in that city, and his father had been involved in assisting runaway slaves before the war. Here he reflects on the daunting challenges facing him while organizing in the face of deep-seated white hostility (and the threat of violence), but also on freedpeoples' impressive enthusiasm and determination. Both the bitterness among whites and the fervor that he found among freedpeople were evident just across the Savannah River, in the border counties of southwestern South Carolina, where conflict and violence remained endemic throughout Reconstruction.
John T. Costin of Washington D.C., a colored speaker now in Georgia writes from Macon under date of July 25th  as follows:
I herewith transmit a report of my last canvassing tour. Left Macon, June 6 and proceeded to Jefferson County and held a republican mass meeting at Louisville June 8. It was a grand affair, largely attended by the people of Jefferson as well as surrounding counties. Organized a republican club and a loyal league. Went from there to the help of our friends in Green county. Here again the mass meeting was a tremendous success. I was met at the depot by about six hundred persons, having reached Greensboro about 11 o'clock. We proceeded to the grove where there was assembled a vast audience amongst which there were a number of rebels. I felt a little shy to begin with, but when I got warmed up, I forgot all about rebs. and everything else except my duty. I have done good service in Green county.a From there I returned to Augusta and after consultation decided to make Burke county the next field of operation. Having heard so much about the rebels of Burke county, I confess I had some fears when I entered the county. The first sight that met my eye on arriving at Waynesboro, was a Johnny in a one horse buggy, driving at a fast rate with a freedman chained behind him and manacled with an iron collar round his neck.
I said to myself this looks rough. But nothing daunted, I applied to the bureau agentb and informed him of my business. In two hours after I had my posters in the hands of the number of teamsters who had come to the place after corn and provisions, announcing a Republican Mass Meeting at Waynesboro on the following Saturday. It was Tuesday when I arrived. I started out at night with a teamster and went twenty-four miles to a village by the name of Alexander. Here I remained all the next day and had quite a respectable gathering at night. After reading to them the registration and civil rights acts, I explained and commented upon each section and impressed upon the people the importance of registering as well as furnishing all the information I could. On my return I stopped at another town called Red Hills where I performed the same duty and organized clubs in each. I arrived in Waynesboro Friday evening. Our mass meeting was largely attended, all classes being present. To my surprise, I was offered the use of the Court House, but in consequence of the excessive heat and the large number of people, we took the grove. There were people at the meeting from a distance of 25 miles. It was a great success. Everything went off peaceable and pleasant. The freedmen declared it to be the first time since their emancipation that they had ever had explained to them their rights before the law. The rebs. cursed me terribly, some threatening to shoot me, but the only thing that occurred was being spit upon by a rebel while passing the street. I took no notice of the insult, because they were nearly 2000 colored persons in the place and nearly every one had fire-arms.
I will add a few words about my Crawfordville meeting as it is the residence of my old friend the Hon. Alexander H. Stevens.c I was offered the Court House here and it looked so much like rain, I accepted it. The house was packed from top to bottom. Col. Bryantd sent a number of letters complimenting me upon my effort, one from our staunch Republican friend, Judge Baldwin. Mr. Stevens invited me to quarter at his residence. I accepted the invitation and was treated with great distinction. We had some pleasant and agreeable conversations. I have hardly told you a fourth part of my campaign but it is too lengthy to go into full details. I set out trusting in the Lord and I know he has been with me. I have organized loyal leagues, Union Republican clubs, Educational and Temperance societies in nearly every place of any prominence where I have been. I have addressed sixty-four meetings during the campaign, my traveling expenses having been $142.40. I have traveled incessantly. I am under many obligations to you [. ]
With great respect I am
P. S. I have had great success and have held large county meetings in the following places: Penfield, Woodville, Lexington Crawfordville and Sandersville. Besides this I have instructed the people in smaller ones, sometimes in the cabins, sometimes on the plantations and wherever the chance occurred, in the churches after preaching. I have never failed to preach political sermons wherever I thought I could enlighten the minds of my people. I conceive I have the right to do so.
a Presently Greene County.
b An agent of the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees and Abandoned Lands, or Freedmen's Bureau. Scattered across the South, together with military officials these agents were the most accessible representatives of federal authority in the Reconstruction South.
c Alexander H. Stephens (misspelled here by Costin) was the former Vice President of the Confederacy. Just over a year before Costin filed this report, and before freedpeople had won the franchise, Stephens had been elected to serve in the Johnson-era [white] state legislature, but was unable to assume the seat after Congressional Radicals disbanded these governments as illegitimate.
d Col. John Emory Bryant was a white, Maine-born Union army veteran who became prominent in the Freedmen's Bureau and in Republican politics in Georgia. He had previously seen military action during the Union military's liberation of the South Carolina sea islands.
Source: Robert C. Schenck Papers, Miami University Archives, Ohio University
Document 5 Questions
- Why might Costin be "shy" about speaking before the "vast audience" attending the outdoor meeting at Greensboro? Stage fright? Unfamiliarity with his listeners?
- What is the impression made on Costin during his visit to Burke County? What practical steps does he undertake to ensure a safe and well-attended meeting there?
- Costin remarks that freedpeople came from up to 25 miles distant to hear him speak. How might they have known about the meeting, and by what means of transport did they make their way there? Aside from their political hostility and racial animosity, why might the region's planters object to meetings like this?
- Does the portrait of freedpeople that Costin presents us conform to or call into question the image of former slaves as passive, apathetic, timid? In what ways?
- Imagine yourself sitting among the congregation as Costin preaches one of his "political sermons." What is he saying from the pulpit? How are his words received by those around you? Do any of your fellow worshippers object to this combining of politics and religion?
A Union League Organizer Seeks permission to Bargain on the Behalf of Women and Children
The following document is from another minister, the Rev. Samuel L. Lewis, who is writing to North Carolina Governor William W. Holden on behalf of a group of twelve freedmen in the vicinity of Beatties Pond-about forty miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina. In the letter Lewis details the vulnerability of black laborers, and particularly of women and children, in the aftermath of emancipation. Concerned that they are being taken advantage of and exploited by local employers, Lewis is soliciting Holden's support for extending the role of the Union League into labor negotiations, and suggesting that freedmen might use their greater leverage to assist the rest of the freed community in bargaining for better wages and treatment. Freedwomen across the South found themselves in a difficult predicament after the end of slavery: while previously their child-bearing capacity had rendered them valuable 'property' to their owners, their new 'freed' status left them vulnerable-alongside young children, the elderly and the infirm-to being cut adrift and discharged to make their own way in the world. In these circumstances the Union Leagues and other local clubs and societies that had been founded by Republican officials for purely electoral aims were often compelled to overstep their narrow remit.
Beatties Pond, Lincolnton County northcarolina
January 4th 1869
Mr. W. W. holdin
Dear Sir I take my pen in hand this morning to drop you a few lines, hopeing you will agree with me in my undertaking by the Benevolence of the people, and by assisttance of the omnipotent God we elected you for our Governer for the State of N. C. we form our selfs in Sosieties and Ligues and elected you, and Genril Grant, and Colfax and all of the Radicals officials, and our Ligue has made a Cunclusion to write you this precep, the is a grate menny Womens and Childrens and boys going a Bout working for people and don't know how to make a Bargain and they is not giting theyr Rights by a grate dail. that is going on in this section of the country to a full ectence, and we want to know If Some of the Best men of our Ligue could Stand as garddeans for all such people in our Reach not let them make a bargain them selfs but some of us go and make it for them and See that they git the money &c. governer it is desspert the way Some of our Coler is treated and we hav a feeling for our Race and Coler, and we want to Stop Some of this intreatment, and if you please Sir gave us some infirmation a bout this all impordent matter, as we is a ignorant and donwtroden and yet oppressed Race of coler, 12 of us made this agreement in the neighborhood of Beattis Pond hopeing you will assist us in Standing gardains for Some of this Colord Race.
Please don't think Strnge of my Writing I am a poor Colord man don't know much, but please try and make out this Stamering hand, and write to me by next mail. When you write please direct
Rev. Samuel Lewis M. E.a to W. W. Holden
a Methodist Episcopalian
Source: Governor William W. Holden Papers, North Carolina Department of Archives and History
Document 6 Questions
- Four years after the end of slavery, a group of former slaves is addressing a letter to the Governor of their state. What is the tone of the correspondence? Are the petitioners begging Holden for assistance? Are they apologetic about their intruding on official business? Do they feel the government owes them a positive response?
- Compare the illustration which claims to depict a nighttime meeting of the 'Red Strings League' with the contents of this letter. Assuming that the Red Strings and the Union Leagues were broadly similar in composition, aims and methods of operation, what strikes you about the contrast between these two sources? How might we explain the contrast?
- Why might it fall to a minister to pen the letter to Holden? Why might ministers come to play such a disproportionate role in grassroots politics during this period? In what ways might their activism shape the outlook of the black churches?
- What does the document reveal about the extent and effectiveness of organization among freedpeople in North Carolina? Does Lewis's group appear to operate according to any formal procedures?
- Is there any reason why the Union Leagues should devote such prominent attention to economic issues like the exploitation of female and child labor? Does the Republican Party at national level share their concerns over such issues?
- Lewis's suggests in his letter a strong sense of sympathy and racial solidarity among former slaves. Why might this be the case, and what are its implications for grassroots Republican politics during the Reconstruction period and beyond?
A Federal Officer Reports that Freedpeople are Organizing Military Companies on the South Carolina Sea Islands
After emancipation, freedpeople came closest to controlling affairs in places where they enjoyed a clear demographic advantage, but also in exceptional settings like the South Carolina lowcountry, where well before the collapse of slavery they'd worked the area's lucrative rice and cotton plantations on the 'task' system for generations, only lightly supervised by whites and enjoying exceptional autonomy. Their strength in the lowcountry was bolstered by Union military occupation after November 1861, and by General William T. Sherman's Special Order no. 15, which after January 1865 confiscated land along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts for division among the freedpeople. In late 1865, President Andrew Johnson overturned Sherman's order and began restoring lands to their former owners, to the outrage of ex-slaves.
Johnson's retreat produced friction between freedpeople and federal authorities, and precipitated a series of armed clashes with the U. S. military-previously looked on as liberators. The following except from a report submitted by a Freedmen's Bureau agent at Edisto Island conveys a clear sense of the growing tensions.
For some time past there has been a disposition on part of the freedmen in some parts of this District [the sea islands below Charleston] to form Military Organizations: regularly enlist their members and most of them for life. All such organizations disbanded without trouble, upon my calling for the leaders and informing them of the consequences of persisting in such a course, except one company formed on Fenwick's Islanda on the plantation of Maj. J Jenkins and co., where one hundred laborers are employed. I visited this company, called together the reputed officers and directed them to disband, and not compel me to impose on them the severity of law. This they positively refused doing: stating they had orders from competent authority requiring them to form such organizations and they would continue to act under their instructions until compelled to disband by force of arms. They acted towards my directions in a very defiant manner; they positively refused to obey the directions of their employers...but complained that any interference on part of the Government with their organizations and drilling, was a retrenchment of their rights and privileges.
Their conduct had completely disorganized labor on that Island, and an utter failure of the crops was imminent. I sent the detachment of my Guard and arrested seven of the principal actors and sent them to Charleston to the Post Commandant, with charges against them. I consider it necessary for the prosperity of this District, that prompt action be taken and an example be made of a few, in order that the contagion does not spread. I have, in every case found that the leaders and prominent actors in these organizations, are men who have served as volunteers in the Federal Army, and their influence is doubly strong: the freedmen look on them as being instructed in the laws of the country: and also possessed of courage and valor to bear them through these undertakings should a trial at arms be necessary to preserve the life of their organizations.
There was a strong desire on part of the Freedmen on Edisto to form parades on the 4th of July, and celebrate the "Declaration of Independence" in grand style, but they courteously came forward and asked if I would permit it, which of course I refused; but informed them I would protect them in the enjoyment of any reasonable recreations, and impressed on them that I was not withholding from them any privilege that I would grant under any consideration to the opposite color; that my object was to preserve and increase harmony between the races, and that I could not grant a privilege to either class, that would be a source of aggravation to the opposite.
They seemed to comprehend my motive readily, and yielded their desire without a murmur: and asked if I would allow them the privilege of holding "Picnics" which I assured them I would not only do, but if the planters refuse them the places of holding, I would intercede and secure it for them...
a Fenwick Island, on the South Edisto River, southwest of Charleston.
Source: Lieutenant James M. Johnston to Lieutenant Horace Neide, 30 June 1867, in RG 105: Records of the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugee and Abandoned Lands, M869: Records of the Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina
Document 7 Questions
- Why might freedpeople resort to arming themselves and organizing along military lines in the early aftermath of emancipation?
- What does the document tell us about the relationship between freedpeople and federal authority (including the military) in the same period? How might we explain the assertion that most of the military companies complied with the order to disband while the one on Fenwick Island resisted? To whom do they look for "competent authority"?
- What was the effect of the freedpeople's militancy on labor discipline at Fenwick Island? What did freedpeople mean when they said they regarded federal "interference" as a "retrenchment of their rights and privileges"?
- What measures does Lieutenant Johnston resort to in order to suppress the disturbances on Fenwick's Island? Why does he regard it as necessary that the revolt be suppressed?
- What is the role of black Union army veterans in the military companies being organized on the sea islands, and how might we account for their prominence in the events?
- What does Johnston's intervention suggest about federal attitudes to freedpeople's mobilization?
White Conservatives Complain that the Union Leagues are Organizing Labor Strikes South of Charleston
Propertied whites were taken aback by the level of militancy evident among freedpeople, which in 1867 and 1868 manifested itself in a series of chronic clashes between planters and 'free' black laborers. Here, in an excerpt from an article in the conservative Charleston Mercury, editors fret over the effects of Republican agitation in the South Carolina lowcountry. They see the hand of both Republican officials and the Union Leagues in a rash of strikes across St. Paul's Parish, south of Charleston, around harvest time in 1868. By this time the Mercury had been for nearly fifty years a newspaper noted for its defense of slavery; in the years immediately preceding the Civil War it had been the mouthpiece of the most fervent secessionists. One might therefore question its sympathy for the "deluded freedmen" it describes here as the "abject slaves" of a local Republican official.
The comparative quiet of this Parish has been suddenly broken by a meeting held near this place on the 29th ult., which was addressed by Captain J. W. Grace and J. S. Craig. Captain Grace holds, he says, the office of Magistrate; and this added to the machinery of the League, causes the deluded freedmen to consider themselves his abject slaves. It was no surprise therefore to hear them state that they were 'ordered' to assemble...[in an] account derived from the statements of numerous freedmen... Finding upon this occasion that politics alone did not interest their audience, these orators painted for them a diabolical picture of their condition, should the Democrats succeed. Rebels would, they said, reduce them to a state worse than slavery; passes would be required to move from one point to another, permits would be necessary to sell anything, labour would be exacted and wages could not be collected, no meetings could be held and no arms were to be carried; their schools and churches would be leveled to the ground, and General Hampton was represented as stumping the State to disfranchise the coloured race. Craig stated that if the Republicans were defeated he must leave the country, or be hung to the nearest black jack. Captain Grace was more jovial, and promised a supply of whiskey at a future meeting.
As a result of these harangues, labour strikes have begun, and the lives of foremen reporting misconduct to their employers are threatened. Some of the most sensible of the freedmen seem quite relieved when informed that the Democrats are not such demons as depicted, but others of them in this vicinity are so excited that the desire is expressed openly, even amongst their own women, to 'shoot every rebel and Democrat from the face of the earth.'
Source: "Things in St. Paul's," Charleston Mercury, 10 Sept 1868
Document 8 Questions
- According to the article, what motivates freedpeople to take part in labor strikes and political agitation? In what ways might this reflect prevailing white ideas about blacks' capacity for independent thought?
- How much cajoling might it require for freedpeople to suspect that their former owners, organized in the Democratic Party, would resubjugate them along the lines suggested in the article? Assuming that they did respond to Republican warnings in this regard, were they unreasonable to do so?
- A substantial proportion-perhaps a majority-of the foremen on affected lowcountry plantations were of African descent. How might strikes and other forms of labor conflict affect the black community?
- From the perspective of the editors of the Mercury, what are the notable qualities by which the "most sensible" freedmen can be distinguished? What of the rest? Why do you suppose they mention freedwomen specifically?
A Charleston Newspaper on the 1868 Municipal Elections
This excerpt from an article on Charleston's 1868 municipal elections illustrates the polarization that marked political contest throughout Reconstruction. Here the conservative Charleston Mercury provides an account of the raucous conduct of the mayoral elections and of the celebrations, and resentments, that accompanied the announcement of Republican triumph. While it is difficult to know where the reporting of facts leaves off and sensationalism and racial animosity intrudes on the story, the assertion that freedpeople and white conservatives jostled for control of Charleston's streets and polling stations is consistent with a variety of accounts of clashes spanning the entire period.
[Charleston is] full of excitement on account of the colored men, who hung around the polls, and particularly polls 1 and 2...indulg[ing] in demonstrations that at various periods threatened trouble. They made use of the most trivial causes to congregate in different parts of the streets, and brandish their clubs; draw their knives and gather brickbats...and became so turbulent at one time that [a Republican official] had to mount the railing of the city park and address them on their unbecoming conduct... Their conduct to the colored men who [voted the conservative ticket] was a shameful commentary on their alleged respect for the rights of others, who would not bow down and worship at their shrine. Whenever an announcement was made showing a majority for Pillsbury,a they would give vent to hurrahing and the utterance of epithets, to say the least of it, disgraceful. Not an unimportant feature in the assemblage, was the number of women, who seemed vastly interested in the political conflict. They shook their skirts and twisted themselves, as though the millennium had dawned for their special benefit. [Later, freedpeople paraded through the streets after Republican victory was announced] They went after procuring an American flag bordered with black, emblematic we fear of the future of our municipality, which was borne at the head of the disorderly column hilarious in the extreme... Pillsbury's remarks were temperate and full of promise to respect the rights and his "enemies" as well as his friends...
On our way towards Rutledge Street, we saw a quartet of Negroes, led by a white man with his "shillalay" in hand, while they bore aloft a pole on which there was a dead rooster, hanging by his feet. As they walked, they continually cried, "the rooster's died that crowed so lustily this morning"..."tramp[ing] the city with the pole and the dead rooster 'wagging to and fro'."
a Gilbert Pillsbury, the [white] Republican candidate for mayor of Charleston, who ran on a platform of free schools for all, equal justice (including proportionate recruitment of blacks to the municipal police force), and employment for the city's large indigent population. Although he won the vote, Pillsbury was denied office by the incumbent mayor, a conservative who upheld white charges that the results had been obtained through "violence and intimidation." Republicans at state level eventually overturned this action and installed Pillsbury as mayor.
Source: "Election Day and Its Incidents," Charleston Mercury, November 2, 1868
Document 9 Questions
- The 1868 elections would have been the first opportunity that freedmen had to vote in municipal officials. Why might this have been a particularly tense moment in the Charleston's history?
- According to this article, black Republicans manifested open hostility to African Americans who voted the conservative ticket? Why might former slaves decide to vote for the Democrats, and how might this effect their relationship to the city's African American community?
- The article offers a very powerful commentary on political sentiment among the city's freedwomen. Why might they feel such a stake in an election in which they themselves were denied the right to vote? How might women attempt to influence the political situation in a situation where they were excluded from the franchise?
- Although the article conveys the impression that the elections aggravated racial tensions, the Mercury correspondent notes the presence of a white man in the small procession 'tramping' through the streets after the results have been declared. If the city was as polarized as the article suggests, what might lead a white man to join in celebrating the Republican victory?
This ends Unit Two.
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Unit Three: Land and Labor