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