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This Day in Labor History: April 9, 1865

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This post should have gone up on April 9, but sometimes, a professor can become so convinced of a piece of trivia like a date that said professor doesn’t actually look it up and then finds out it is wrong. Speaking of a friend of course.

On April 9, 1865, the traitor Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to U.S. general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. But while this might have ended the war, the slave labor system the Confederates committed treason to defend was already crumbling. That’s because the slaves, as W.E.B. DuBois noted in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward A History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880, had already committed a general strike by walking away from the plantations. That general strike is the subject of this post.

Slaves wanted freedom from the moment they were enslaved. Whether committing suicide on the slave ships by jumping into the ocean, engaging in open rebellions like Nat Turner or the Stono Rebellion, running away, or just dreaming of a free life, slaves always wanted freedom from the hell of their lives. They took any change to get it. During the American Revolution and the War of 1812, thousands of slaves fled to British lines because of the promise of freedom. Many thousands more would have fled if they could have reached the British.

The Civil War provided another opportunity for that long-cherished freedom. As soon as U.S. troops marched south, slaves began fleeing to their lines. This most famously became an issue for the American armies to deal with when three slaves reached Fort Monroe, Virginia, which was controlled by the U.S. and where General Benjamin Butler was in charge. When the owner came back and demanded the slaves back (by the way, the sheer temerity of Confederates to complain that the U.S. was violating the Fugitive Slave Act, as they did throughout the war, is amazing), Butler refused, classifying the slaves as contraband, although he never used the word. This received the approval of Republicans in Washington, who soon passed the Confiscation Act, which stated that if the Confederacy recognized slaves as property, that the United States had the right to confiscate that property in order to win the war.

But really, even without the Confiscation Act, slaves were going to take matters into their own hands anyway. Slaves like Robert Smalls would take enormous risks for freedom, in his case stealing a boat in the Charleston harbor while dressed as a Confederate ship captain, then picking up the families of the men with him who were at a waiting point, then fleeing north until they ran into an American ship. Smalls became famous for his bravery. Many fled to McClellan’s armies in the Peninsular Campaign in 1862. Planters quickly realized the danger and attempted to move slaves into the Confederate interior, especially western states like Texas and Arkansas. Perhaps most importantly, the slaves forced American officials and the Lincoln government to take the question of slavery seriously. Much to abolitionists’ frustration, Lincoln did not use the outbreak of war to end slavery. Union was his more important issue. But the slaves self-emancipating changed that. Faced with a fait accompli that slaves were going to flee on their own, Lincoln moved toward issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. I do think that Lincoln would have eventually done such a thing anyway, but certainly not in the fall of 1862. Slaves’ desire to flee slavery and then fight for the United States was an overwhelming argument for Lincoln and it shows how slave agency is absolutely central to our understanding of the decline of slave labor as an American institution.

Often, they completely overwhelmed northern armies that were marching in the South. That was especially true of that of William Tecumseh Sherman marching through Georgia and South Carolina. These slaves were often very poor and in terrible health. With the Confederacy going hungry by 1864 generally, slaves were getting less food than ever. But their sheer determination to win their freedom moved Sherman, who was no racial radical. These people were truly starving. Later they remembered scouring the ground to find nuts, roots, or wild greens to get something in their stomachs. Sherman marching through Georgia actually made slaves more hungry, but it also gave them the opportunity to win their freedom. Thousands of refugees were following Sherman’s armies by the time he got to Savannah in December 1864. That doesn’t mean that the officers wanted them. Some embraced the self-freed slaves, others wanted rid of them by any means necessary, but the now freed people were going to do whatever it took for obtain and keep that freedom.

Many of these slaves wanted to join the American military and seek to then fight for their own freedom and that of their loved ones. For example, John Boston fled from the plantation where he was a slavery in Maryland in 1862. He joined the military and later he was able to write to his wife, still stuck in slavery. He wrote, “My Dear Wife it is with grate joy I take to let you know Whare I am i am in Safety in the 14th Regiment of Brooklyn this Day I can Address you thank god as a free man I had a little truble in giting away But as the lord led the Children of Isrel to the land of Canon So he led me to a land Whare freedom Will rain in spite of earth and hell Dear you must make your Self content i am free from all the Slavers.”

This is the promise of freedom. This is how African-Americans self-emancipated. They simply walked away. When Confederate power faded, as it did with the arrival of American armies near plantations where male authority was waning as the war went on because of military service, they took their lives into the own hands. They effectively stopped growing cotton and rice, stopped working in the house, stopped supporting the plantation system. They followed the American army to freedom. They wanted more–primarily land, education, and eventually, the vote. Most of that would be temporary or denied or granted and then repealed in the case of Sherman’s Special Order No. 15 that gave slaves 160 acres of confiscated plantation lands between Charleston and the Florida border. The promises of emancipation would not be fully implemented. But whatever happened, slavery was dead. And it was dead in no small part because the slaves themselves decided they wouldn’t be slaves any longer.

And, not surprisingly, the now-freed slaves joyously rubbed their freedom in their masters’ faces when they could. The brilliant letter from ex-slave Jourdon Anderson to his ex-master Col. P.H. Anderson when the latter wrote to ask him to come back to work on the plantation after the war is the best way to conclude:

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

This is the 175th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • N__B

    Is it too late for me to nominate Jourdan Anderson for president?

    • elm

      The last sentence is possibly the best mic drop of all time.

  • Mrs Tilton

    The US government missed a great opportunity by failing to appoint Jourdan Anderson to an ambassador’s post. The man was obviously a born master of kicking an opponent in the crotch, repeatedly and with shocking force, using heavy, spike-soled but polite and even deferential boots.

    • Lester Freamon’s Tweedy Impertinence

      + size 12EEE

    • sonamib

      Yeah that letter is amazing. I like it when he asks to be paid for all his past labor.

      • Rob in CT

        My favorite bit is the “tell that guy thanks for preventing you from shooting me” but there are so many good choices.

        • Srsly Dad Y

          He had me at “the folks call her Mrs. Anderson.”

    • MacK

      Steel toecaps in velvet slippers….

  • Thom

    Harriet Jacobs was also no slouch at this type of rhetoric.

    Great post, Erik.

  • Todd

    What was the disposition, generally, of the slaves who escaped to British lines during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812? Did Britain make provision for their safety after they set sail for home, give them safe passage to some place like Canada, or try to negotiate their freedom in some way?

    • Thom

      A large number were relocated to Nova Scotia. Many of that group became founding settlers of the British colony for freed slaves, Sierra Leone. But I also have a dim memory of reading somewhere recently, perhaps here, of a considerable number abandoned by the British forces withdrawing from New York at the end of the Revolutionary war.

      • Warren Terra

        And those that did make it to Nova Scotia faced official discrimination, and their families still lack title to the land they’ve lived on for two hundred years. Which is of course better than what they escaped from, but shouldn’t be ignored.

      • galanx

        In the Treaty of Paris the Americans demanded all blacks who had fought for the British on a promise of freedom be returned to slavery, and the British government agreed:

        “All prisoners on both sides shall be set at liberty, and his Brittanic Majesty shall with all convenient speed, and without causing any destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American inhabitants, withdraw all his armies, garrisons, and fleets from the said United States” [OTL Treaty of Paris 1783]

        However, Guy Carleton and other British officers were furious that their promises to the blacks who had enlisted in the Loyalist cause were being broken- not that they had any notable love for them; it was their own honour that was the main concern- and disregarded the orders of the British government and arranged for as many as they could to get to Nova Scotia, in spite of the vehement protests of George Washington:

        “…I find it my duty to signify my readiness in conjunction with you to enter into agreements, or take any measures which may be deemed expedient to prevent the future carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American people.”

    • Richard Hershberger

      If I recall correctly, some from the War of 1812 were settled in Jamaica. It is interesting to read about the Royal Navy’s operations in the Chesapeake. The Americans had a few local successes, and a clear win at Baltimore, but mostly the British had nearly free run of the Chesapeake for a couple of years. One advantage they had was that slaves were routinely providing them with intelligence. The British had the mobility to show up nearly any place, and they knew what they would find there ahead of time. This is a tough combination to beat.

  • Rob in CT

    Perhaps most importantly, the slaves forced American officials and the Lincoln government to take the question of slavery seriously.

    Yup. They forced the gov’t to make policy re: “contraband.” The first step (confiscation act) was a pretty obvious half-measure and wasn’t going to be tenable for long. So Lincoln finds his way to the E.P.

    Special Order 15, along with Thaddeus Stevens’ bill that died in congress which would have done something similar (on a grander scale), were missed chances.

    The letter, which I recall seeing before (via Coates? via Civil War Memory? I can’t remember) is awesome. So awesome, in fact, that whenever I see it, I wonder about how it came to be written, and want to know more about Jourdan Anderson.

    Edit: huh, I guess I never saw this before in Wikipedia:

    On August 7, from his home in Ohio, Jordan Anderson dictated a letter in response through his abolitionist employer, Valentine Winters, who had it published in the Cincinnati Commercial. The letter became an immediate media sensation with reprints in the New York Daily Tribune of August 22, 1865[2] and Lydia Maria Child’s The
    Freedmen’s Book the same year.[4]

    Aftermath

    Colonel Anderson, having failed to attract his former slaves back, sold the land for a pittance to try to get out of debt.[3] Two years later he was dead at the age of 44.[3] Prior to 2006, historian Raymond Winbush tracked down the living relatives of the Colonel in Big Spring, reporting that they “are still angry at Jordan for not coming back,” knowing that the plantation was in serious disrepair after the war.[3]

    • Warren Terra

      I was curious about that last, somewhat incredible statement, so I went to the Wikipedia article you quoted. The reference (#3) is this in the Daily Mail:

      Freed slave who penned sarcastic letter to old master after he was asked back to farm pictured for first time
      In a 2006 speech at a conference on slavery reparations, historian Raymond Winbush retold the story of Anderson’s letter. He also revealed that he had tracked down some of Patrick Henry Anderson’s descendants, still living in Big Spring.
      ‘What’s amazing is that the current living relatives of Colonel Anderson are still angry at Jordan for not coming back,’ knowing that the plantation was in serious disrepair after the war, said Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Maryland’s Morgan State University.

      Obviously it’d be nice to know more about just what kind of monumental assholes Col. Anderson’s descendants are, but sadly that’s all that’s there. The article has a photo of Jordan Anderson and of his great-grandson and two great-greats. It also pictures Col. Anderson’s grave in Lebanon, TN should Erik want more additions to his series.

    • Murc

      They were still angry at him for not coming back in 2006?

      God damn, we joke about the descendants of slaveowners, but… god damn.

      • BiloSagdiyev

        I wonder how they vote lately? I bet they’re very concerned about Big Government and debt. If you know what I mean.

    • Mrs Tilton

      Colonel Anderson … sold the land for a pittance to try to get out of debt…. Two years later he was dead at the age of 44….

      Ah, so the story even has a happy ending!

      • Rob in CT

        Much like the story of Preston Brooks.

        Brooks died unexpectedly from croup in January 1857, a few weeks before the March 4 start of the new congressional term. He was buried in Edgefield, South Carolina. The official telegram announcing his death stated “He died a horrid death, and suffered intensely.”

        • This is one of my favorite things to tell my students.

    • CaptainBringdown

      Heritage, not hate.

      • so-in-so

        Heritage OF hate.

    • toberdog

      Some nice stuff about Jordan Anderson here.

  • Judkins Major

    Lee surrendered on April 9 and Lincoln was assassinated on April 14.

    That said, the rest of this post was awesome; I never tire of reading Jourdon Anderson’s letter whenever I see it in slavery and Civil War histories.

    • AlexRobinson

      Lincoln was shot on the 14th. He died on the 15th.

      For word nerds: On what day was Lincoln assassinated?

  • CaptainBringdown

    First time I’ve seen that brilliant letter. Great way to start my day. Thanks, Erik!

  • M31

    That Jourdan Anderson letter always makes me smile, until I get to this part:

    “You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine.”

    which is so horrifying and chilling.

    • Rob in CT

      Yeah. Reference to rape, at a minimum.

      The Wiki article mentions that nobody knows what became of Matilda and Catherine.

  • Butler’s actions at Ft. Monroe received approval from Republicans in Congress. The Republicans in the Lincoln administration were paralyzed and initially took no action, allowing Butler’s policy to stand where Butler had implemented it. It was more of a combination of fait accompli in the field and pressure from the radicals in Congress that that compelled Lincoln to adopt a policy that, while he certainly wasn’t opposed to and probably favored in his heart, he would have otherwise restrained himself from doing because of competing considerations.

  • Rob in CT

    Speaking of Civil War Memory, I hadn’t checked over there in a while.

    For your amusement/horror:

    http://cwmemory.com/2016/03/29/if-donald-trump-had-delivered-the-gettysburg-address/

    • Murc

      I like the cut of this Angry Staff Officer’s jib.

  • AlexRobinson

    Thank you for describing Bob Lee as a “traitor.” Proper terminology appreciated.

    • Murc

      I’ve always preferred “slaver” to “traitor.” I don’t care that he was a traitor. Washington was a traitor. So was Jefferson, Franklin, etc.

      I care that he was so passionately committed to the cause of enslaving people he thought that was worth committing treason over.

      I also prefer “slaver” to “slaveowner” because Lee didn’t just own him some slaves, he kidnapped free people and made them slaves.

      • I don’t like “slaveowner” because it makes it sound as if someone might have a deed in his papers, like being a stockholder. It buries the intimate, personal experience of spending one’s life personally meting out violent oppression, of learning how to do so at your daddy’s knee. You think about how a farmer who was raised by farmer-father, who had been raised on that same farm by his farmer-father, has it in his blood to know what the clouds mean and when the buds are ready and how to gentle a mule – these slavers had that kind of knowledge and instinct about how to work slaves.

        They were slavers. Slave-drivers.

      • Rob in CT

        Which is why “treason in defense of slavery” is a good description. The treason itself might be justifiable. It’s the slaving that was the problem.

        • JohnT

          Very true. Mind you, there is a case (I have never been totally clear how strong) that in that case the Revolutionary War should be the Treason in Defense of Slavery and Stealing Land from Natives (plus some more Highminded Stuff) War – the phenomenon isn’t unique to the Confederacy.

          • Rob in CT

            There is indeed such a case to be made.

            Only recently have I learned about the extent to which “westward expansion” (aka, screw those treaties with the tribes, I want that land damnit!!) drove the rebellion. I mean, obviously I knew the colonials wanted to expand West, but I didn’t know that the Crown was standing in their way (or at least refusing to protect them if/when they did go West) and that this was a major grievance.

            • Murc

              The grievances of the colonials were actually mostly along the lines of “we don’t want to obey these perfectly reasonable laws.”

              I mean… yeah, they were ruled by a government that refused to grant them a voice in it, which is, in my opinion, by itself sufficient to justify armed rebellion. But we talk about the revolution in terms of being 100% about resistance to tyranny, when a lot of it was basically “they expect me to not make a fortune smuggling and tax-dodging? UNACCEPTABLE.”

              • Lurker

                Technically, the British were enforcing some pretty mercantilistic laws. Those laws would have impeded the economic growth in the 13 colonies quite a bit, but made the empire stronger as a whole. Thus, local patriotism was a factor supporting the rebellion.

                Yet, the example of the British dominions shows that most likely, the colonies would have become independent and democratically governed anyhow. The treason of the colonies was quite unnecessary.

            • JohnT

              There was a lot of good stuff on this in a museum I went to in NC a while back (the Cherokee museum?, I think). The British government was very far from perfect but it did on the whole believe that the Native American Nations were sovereign and that treaties with them were binding, and the western frontier therefore a legal border, to the utter disgust of the American colonists.

              As for slavery, given the sequel a century later, I wonder what weight the colonists gave to the legal decisions made in British courts in the UK itself between 1763-1773 which made clear that slavery was incompatible with British law, at least in the British Isles. Are there any good books looking at these darker motivations for the Revolutionary War?

              • JG

                I highly doubt the British Empire would be so gung-ho about getting rid of slavery if their biggest colony was a slavery cash cow.

          • The case about stealing Native American land is a lot stronger than the case about slavery.

            The Crown wasn’t threatening slavery in 1776. You won’t find anyone making anything like Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech on behalf of the cause of American independence.

      • Ahuitzotl

        I don’t care that he was a traitor. Washington was a traitor. So was Jefferson, Franklin, etc.

        Treason’s only treason if it fails. THey were patriots :)

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  • Joe_JP

    Do we know of Jourdon Anderson’s education? That letter is rather eloquent even for your average person free all their life those days.

    • Murc

      It’s not, actually. This is how people spoke back then, and remember, the historical consensus is that this was dictated, not written; Anderson may have been illiterate at the time. The basic use of language is entirely equivalent to that of, say, the sort of letters union soldiers would write to their families and loved ones back home. Most of those people had nothing we’d recognize as formal schooling at all, or if they did it stopped at what we’d classify the primary school level.

      It is unusual in its cleverness and cuttingness, but you don’t need to be formally educated to turn a good phrase. Shakespeare wasn’t well-educated, assuming you’re not a conspiracy nut.

      • Joe_JP

        Okay. A bunch of stuff here.

        Shakespeare was actually educated in a school, which alone made him atypical. His father was reasonably well off and was an alderman. How “well educated” he was aside, he was educated. This made him more than the average person at the time. If some random peasant wrote plays like him, it would be noteworthy.

        I’m not speaking about the overall style of the letter as much as how eloquent and well written it is. The average person at the time did not write that well. This is reflected in war correspondence, of which I have read a decent amount. The correspondence could be eloquent but often was not polished or as extended as this. Plus, even there, they weren’t illiterate (if not, it would be noteworthy) slaves or someone who just learn how to write. Misspellings, grammatical errors etc. that would have made the letter here different was common. This letter feels more like something an educated person would write.

        If the letter was “dictated,” fine — so that very well might mean it isn’t quite his own words but a paraphrase by the person transcribing. “As told” slave narratives was common in the day, but that also means we should take some with a grain of salt.

  • Lurking Canadian

    I have seen that letter from Mr. Anderson half a dozen times. It never fails to make me both smile and tear up a little. I really wish we had a complete memoir from him. What a remarkable mind he must have had.

    They should have given him Taney’s seat on the Supreme Court. He would have been wasted as President.

  • DrDick

    As a side note, many of those slaves escaping across English lines (which basically meant into Florida) during the Revolutionary War joined the Seminoles and became an integral part of the tribe. They are still present among the Oklahoma Seminoles (where the majority of the tribe have lived since 1840).

    • galanx

      See the State of Muskogee- one you could be proud to be an Okie from:

      The State of Muskogee was a proclaimed sovereign nation located in Florida, founded in 1799 and led by William Augustus Bowles, a Loyalist veteran of the American Revolutionary War who lived among the Muscogee, and envisioned uniting the American Indians of the Southeast into a single nation that could resist the expansion of the United States. Bowles enjoyed the support of the Miccosukee (Seminole) and several bands of Muscogee, and envisioned his state as eventually growing to encompass the Cherokee, Upper and Lower Creeks, Choctaw and Chickasaw.
      ….
      [Bowles] defied American planters by welcoming runaway slaves, and enjoyed great support among the Black Seminole.

      Plus pirates!
      And a cool flag
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_of_Muskogee

  • Bruce Vail

    Appropos of nothing, there is a history museum at Fort Monroe where you can visit the jail cell where Jefferson Davis was held for about a year after the war ended. It’s pretty cool…

  • oaguabonita

    Heh. Anderson’s letter illustrates beautifully why it was considered preferable that slaves remained illiterate.

  • Ronan

    I’ve started into Walter Johnson’s “river of dark dreams” over the past week. It’s an amazing book so far. The insight it gives into slave life (at least for this layman) is astonishing . I choose it over the plethora of new slavery books out over the past 3 years and have to say I couldn’t imagine the others being better.
    Can anyone give me some insight into the creoles though? Who they were specifically and how they fit into America’s racial hierarchy ?
    Also, dubouis gets mentioned quite a bit in the book, how does he hold up as a historian ?

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