Race and Racial Tensions

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Race and Racial Tensions

After Nat Turner's (1800–1831) rebellion in 1831, Southern fears of servile insurrections increased exponentially. Southern legislatures passed laws further prohibiting the already limited movement of slaves, slave patrols became more serious in the exertions, and the slightest hint of servile plotting brought swift and brutal retribution. Free blacks found themselves subjected to deeper scrutiny, while some states debated whether to allow blacks—free or enslaved—within their borders.

Events of the 1850s did nothing to lesson Southern concerns of a race war. In early 1855 several counties in Maryland experienced a scare, while later that year rumors of a Christmas insurrection stoked fears in a number of Southern states. The following year slaves rebelled in New Iberia, Louisiana; Hopkinsville, Kentucky; and Columbus, Texas (Wish 1937, pp. 314–320). Moreover, events in Bleeding Kansas threatened to spill over into the rest of the country. The Brooks-Sumner Affair; the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas; and John Brown's Pottawatomie Massacre—all occurring within a seven-day period—increased tensions to a fever pitch. The guerilla war in Kansas threatened to spread into other states. Southerners suspected abolitionist plots everywhere; and in the North, the concept of Slave Power as a malevolent force began to take hold.

Already strained race relations in the South reached their breaking point on the night of October 16, 1859, when John Brown (1800–1859), along with a small party of white men and five free blacks, seized the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Intent on leading a servile insurrection, Brown had exhibited a penchant for murder at Pottawatomie Creek that horrified Southerners. His sudden violent appearance in Virginia terrified the South. Captured, and sentenced to die, Brown wrote on the day of his execution that he had become "quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged but with blood," which many Southerners took as a prediction of a race war (Bancroft 1900, p. 497). In attempt to forestall such a future, many Southern states, believing free blacks were an unholy influence on otherwise content slaves, debated the idea of expelling free blacks from their boundaries. Rumors of insurrections persisted well into the Civil War. In the spring of 1861 several black coach drivers in Adams County, Mississippi, concocted a plan to murder their white masters and rape their female kin. Whites discovered the plan and executed an untold number of slaves suspected of participating in it. A year later the provost marshal of Natchez, Mississippi, wrote, "within the last 12 months we have had to hang some 40 for plotting an insurrection, and there has been about that number put in irons" (Farrar 1862).

Indeed the war placed a new set of strains on race relations. In the Black Belt region of the South, mobilization further changed an already dangerously skewed ratio of blacks to whites. In the North, white troops began marching south, encountering people of African descent in significant numbers for the first time. The troops's attitudes varied according to their political stripes and ethnicity. Hardened Democrats, as a general rule, did not care for blacks, considered the war a contest for the Union, and wanted no part of abolition. Rank and file Republicans, for the most part, remained ambivalent about slavery during the first half of the war, but gradually swung toward the radical position of abolitionism as they advanced farther into the South and saw the evil side of slavery for themselves. Irish soldiers—and civilians for that matter—had little love for blacks, free or slave. They considered them economic competition and at times lashed out violently, most notably during July 1863 when Irish civilians rioted in New York City, murdering blacks as they encountered them. About that same time, at freedmen camps and leased plantations along the Mississippi River, abuse in the shape of rape, murder, and robbery became so prevalent that General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) had to issue orders promising the summary dismissal of any officers who tolerated such behavior in their commands (U.S. War Department Series I, vol. 24, part, p. 571).

The year 1863 also saw the widespread recruitment of black soldiers into the Union army—which was abhorred by men in both armies. The average Union soldier was rather ambivalent about it, so long as they did not have to serve side by side with a black regiment. They believed a black soldier could stop a bullet as well as a white, and that blacks should fight for their freedom. Not all Union officers agreed. General Andrew Jackson Smith (1815–1897) expressed his disgust with Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas's (1804–1875) recruitment of black soldiers, claiming he would

hang old Thomas if he comes into his camp making such a speech. Says he hates abolitionists worse than he does the Devil. If Jesus Christ was to come down and ask him if he would be an abolitionist if he would have him to heave, he answers that "I would say NO! Mr. Christ, I beg to be excused. I would rather go to hell than be an abolitionist." (Hass 1961, p. 71)

Later, in 1864, General William T. Sherman (1820–1891), wrote that in response to the question of

'Is a negro as good as a white man to stop a bullet?' Yes, and a sand-bag is better; but can a negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? Can they improvise roads, bridges, sorties, flank movements, &c., like the white man? I say no. Soldiers must and do many things without orders from their own sense, as in sentinels. Negroes are not equal to this. (U.S. War Department series 1, vol. 38, part 5, p. 793)

Questions of racism in the Union high command again came to the fore in December 1864 when Major General Jefferson C. Davis (1828–1879) ordered his men to remove a pontoon bridge over Ebenezer Creek in Georgia. The small army of freedpeople trailing Davis's corps fond themselves trapped between Confederate cavalry and the stream. Many desperate blacks, terrified at being captured or killed by the Rebels, drowned trying to swim the creek (Grimsley 1995, p. 199).

The recruitment of black troops by Union forces posed a major policy question for the Confederacy— should they be treated as prisoners of war, escaped slaves, or insurrectionists? Initially the Davis and the Confederate high command proscribed execution as the penalty for any Union officers caught in command of black troops. For black enlisted men captured under arms, it depended on who captured them. In some cases Confederates murdered captured black troops, but most ended up sold back into slavery. The most blatant example of Confederate disgust of black troops came in April 1864, when General Nathan Bedford Forrest's (1821–1877) troops overran Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River forty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. In the melee that followed the attack, Forrest's men killed nearly 300 Union soldiers, many of whom were trying to surrender.

A year later, at Fort Blakely near Mobile, Alabama, the Confederates found themselves in an earthen fortification with their backs to a major waterway, outnumbered by a mixed force of white Union regiments and United States Colored Troops (USCT)— Fort Pillow in reverse. Like Fort Pillow, the attackers worked themselves into a rage before the final assault. Walter A. Chapman, a newly commissioned white officer in the USCT wrote "As soon as our niggers caught sight of the retreating figures of the rebs the very devil could not hold them, their eyes glittered like serpents and with yells & howls like hungry wolves, they rushed for the rebel works." The sight of the howling, charging black troops struck fear into the white Mississippians in the Confederate line. Some threw down their arms and made for the river in their rear, hoping to swim their way out of the fight. Chapman wrote that the "others threw down their arms and ran for their lives over to the white troops on our left, to give themselves up to save being butchered by our niggers. The niggers did not take a prisoner. They killed all they took to a man" (April 11, 1865). While most historians believe that Chapman exaggerated to a certain extent, other Union accounts support the belief that the black soldiers at Blakely raised the cry of Fort Pillow, and came very close to visiting their wrath on the Confederates but for the efforts of a few brave Union officers (Fitzgerald 2001, pp. 248–251).

As the last major action of the Civil War, the battles around Mobile, Alabama, marked the end of organized combat. But the conflict between the races did not end. Confederate soldiers, who had spent most of the war campaigning, came home to a transformed society that afforded as much legal protection to a black laborer as it did to a white planter. Many Confederates found the situation intolerable and immediately set about to change things; if not to the way they were before the war, then at the very least, to something similar. White-led race riots broke out in Memphis, Tennessee in 1866; Colfax, Louisiana in 1873; and in a host of other Southern towns between 1874 and 1876, when whites finally restored their control over the former Confederate states. Thus, while the Civil War changed the legal status of race in America, it did not change people's hearts.


Bancroft, Frederic. The Life of William H. Seward. Two vols. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1900.

Chapman, Walter A. Walter A. Chapman Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

Farrar, A. K. "Provost Marshal A. K. Farrar to Governor John J. Pettus, Natchez, July 17, 1862." Records of the Office of the Governor. Jackson: Mississippi, Department of Archives and History, 1862.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. "Another Kind of Glory: Black Participation and Its Consequences in the Campaign for Confederate Mobile."Alabama Review 54 (2001): 243–275.

Grimsley, Mark. The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861–1865. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Hass, Paul H., ed. The Diary of Henry Clay Warmouth, 1861–1867. Master's Thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1961.

U. S. War Department. The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, DC, 1880–1901.

Wish, Harvey. "American Slave Insurrections before 1861." Journal of Negro History 22, no. 3 (1937): 299–320.

David H. Slay

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