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America Can’t Confront Slavery’s Legacy Without Reckoning With Its Long and Violent End

9 minute read
Carole Emberton is an associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo. Her book, To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Priscilla Jordan, is available now from W.W. Norton.

“Daddy said he was proud of his freedom, but he was afraid to own it.”

Susan High was born after the Civil War, but she recalled her father’s attitude for an interview with the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) in the late 1930s. The memory that her father, George Merritt, imparted to her was one about the perilous conditions under which the South’s 4.5 million enslaved people experienced emancipation. The news of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on Jan. 1, 1863, may have ignited joyous celebrations among those the document now proclaimed to be “forever free,” but some, like Merritt, felt apprehensive—and for good reason.

While the proclamation effectively ended slavery in all areas of the Confederacy in active rebellion, the executive order excluded slaveholding states that remained in the Union—Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri, and Maryland—as well as areas controlled by the United States Army, such as the Sea Islands and much of the Mississippi Delta. It would be two full years before the Confederacy would surrender, and several more until the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments would legally dismantle slavery in those excluded areas and establish the foundations of civil and political rights for Black Americans. Even then, their ability to openly embrace freedom and pursue their own desires and destinies would be severely limited by a number of factors, including white hostility, as well as the federal government’s growing indifference to their struggles.

But if the Emancipation Proclamation was to become a first step in the country’s “new birth of freedom,” the United States Army would have to win the Civil War, a proposition that, in 1863, was anything but certain. The proclamation aimed to remedy that uncertainty. Although Lincoln proclaimed his executive order to be an “act of justice,” the Emancipation Proclamation was an act of war. Citing his powers as commander-in-chief, Lincoln justified the freeing of enslaved people in areas of active rebellion as means to strip the Confederacy of an important component of their war effort. Enslaved people not only performed manual labor for the southern army, they also kept the farms, plantations, and other industries that supplied the rebellion producing much needed food and other materials. Their forced labor freed white southern men to fight.

Enslaved people’s continued presence also provided white southerners at home much symbolic reassurance of the Confederacy’s righteousness and the promise of its ultimate triumph. But when enslaved people began to liberate themselves by leaving their farms—what Black historian W.E.B. DuBois referred to as the “General Strike”—the slaveholders’ fantasy quickly began to evaporate.

In diaries and correspondence, enslavers expressed shock and indignation that the people whom they believed to be duty-bound to serve them for life abandoned them the first chance they got. Catherine Edmondson, the wife of a North Carolina planter, was nonetheless impressed by the orderly and determined large group of 100 or more refugees who struck out from her home shortly after the U.S. Army had successfully landed a force on the nearby Outer Banks in 1862. “So much method they seem to observe and so well are they piloted that the idea of its being a panic seems to lose ground,” she confided in her journal. It was as if they had been planning their departure for quite some time.

Lincoln understood the psychological impact the proclamation would have on southern morale and hoped it would embolden more enslaved people to join the revolution already in progress, either by abandoning their Confederate owners, or by enlisting in the U.S. forces, as nearly 200,000 enslaved and free-born Black men would do.

But war made it dangerous for people to “own” their freedom, as George Merritt recalled to his daughter. The memories of other formerly enslaved people contained in the FWP interviews reveal how the soldiers sent to liberate the Confederacy’s enslaved population were a source of hope as well as trepidation. It is important to keep this in mind as we continue to struggle with the legacy of the Civil War for American society. Reckoning with slavery’s existence also requires we reckon with slavery’s long and violent end.

Alice Green, who was enslaved in Georgia, and Hannah Brooks Wright, enslaved in Mississippi, both described Union soldiers as “bluebirds” because of the color of their uniforms. More than three quarters of a century later, Frank Larkin treasured his memory of mounted U.S. soldiers riding tall and proud on their horses:

“It was the prettiest sight I ever saw.”

U.S. soldiers brought the news of freedom to the Confederate countryside, but they also brought destruction. When soldiers confiscated Confederate livestock and food stores to feed themselves, they jeopardized the material existence not only of rebel slaveholders but also the enslaved people who relied on those supplies.

“The Yankees sure throwed us in the briar patch,” recalled Violet Guntharpe, who found herself foraging the nearby woods for acorns after Union troops visited her South Carolina farm in the last weeks of the war. “All us had to thank them for was a hungry belly, and freedom.”

White soldiers were often indifferent to the suffering their presence caused. Sam Word’s mother was outraged to find a white Union soldier ransacking her cabin and taking her prized quilts. When she scolded him for stealing from the very people he was supposed to be fighting for, he snapped:

“I’m fighting for $14 a month and the Union.”

Other soldiers harbored more sinister intentions.

Lizzie McCloud hid under the porch from a soldier who seemed to have more on his mind than quilts. She watched the man’s boots as he paced back and forth calling to her, “Come out, Dinah! Dinah, we’re fighting to free you and get you out from under bondage!”

Like “Sambo,” a caricature of enslaved men in white popular culture, “Dinah” was a generic name for enslaved women. In the book of Genesis, Dinah was also the name of Abraham’s granddaughter who was kidnapped and raped by the Canaanites.

In her interview, McCloud never explicitly says what she feared the soldier might do to her, but her apprehension as she retells the story is palpable. Rape and the threat of rape have always been potent tools for any army, and Civil War armies—both northern and southern—were no different. The Emancipation Proclamation did nothing to reduce the risk, and in fact, may have worsened it.

Rape was not simply a tragic consequence of war but a potent symbol of Union victory. When a Union soldier raped an enslaved woman, they sent a message to enslavers about their dwindling authority. “Such public acts of sexual violence served to demonstrate power over Black women, threaten white women, and mark southern defeat,” explains historian Crystal Feimster.

In most cases, the U.S. army’s physical presence in rural areas was often short-lived. Once they were gone, the old ways continued as before. An enslaved person who failed to recognize this fact faced harsh consequences.

As he passed through her neighborhood, a Union soldier instructed young Eliza Evans that her master should call her “Miss” now that she was free. Emboldened by the news, Evans did as she was told. When she relayed the soldier’s order to the white man, however, he whipped her with a switch. When her grandmother heard how she had spoken to their owner, she whipped the girl, too.

Evans’s grandmother may seem heartless to 21st century readers, but her reaction reveals an essential pragmatism shared by elder enslaved people, including Martin Jackson’s father, who cautioned him against running away to join “the Yankees.” Jackson’s father told him the war wasn’t going to last forever, “but our forever was going to be spent living among the Southerners, after they got licked.”

This was the hard lesson George Merritt had learned when, after the war, his former owner turned him and his family out without any support.

White southerners may have been defeated, but they were unbowed. In the lean years after the war, many of them seemed to exist solely on the vindictiveness they felt for the people they had so recently owned—and, in nearly all cases, still believed they should. White landowners may have had no choice but to agree to pay freedpeople wages for the labor they once compelled with the lash, but they found new ways to ensure that they paid as little as possible. If a freedperson complained, they were often met with violence.

When Sylvia Parker saw her former employer, a white man named John Lawrence, on the street in Wilmington, North Carolina, she asked him about the money he owed her for work she had performed the previous year. Lawrence denied he owed her anything. She insisted he did, telling him that “he had not done right by her.” Incensed that a Black woman had publicly impugned his integrity, Lawrence picked up a stick that was lying nearby and began beating her about the head and arms.

The FWP interviews are filled with similar emancipation stories, ones that run counter to the scenes of “Jubilee” that we often associate with the Emancipation Proclamation. These first-hand accounts remind us that there was no escaping the fact that emancipation in the United States came as an act of war. The Emancipation Proclamation, and by extension, the U.S. Army, destroyed much of slavery’s economic and political apparatus. That destruction touched the lives of enslaved people in profound and sometimes tragic ways.

After the guns fell silent, the recently enslaved went about the hard work of rebuilding their lives amidst the physical and emotional devastation of war. Generations of enslaved people had prayed for deliverance, but when it finally came, the price it exacted was high.

Patsy Moore recalled both the jubilation and sadness that accompanied freedom for the people she knew in Mississippi. “When freedom come, folks left home, out in the streets, crying, praying, singing, shouting, yelling, and knocking down everything,” she told the FWP. “Then come the calm. It was sad then. So many folks dead. Things tore up and nowhere to go and nothing to eat, nothing to do.”

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