Emancipation in the United States
Emancipation in the United States
Few events in American history can match the drama and the social significance of black Emancipation in the midst of the Civil War. Since the early seventeenth century, when African-born slaves were first brought ashore in Virginia, through the long development of the South's plantation economy and its dependence upon slave labor, emancipation had been the dream of African-American people. From the age of the American Revolution when northern states freed their relatively small numbers of slaves to the time of increasing free black community development in the North, emancipation became a matter of political and religious expectation. To be a black abolitionist, a fugitive slave desperately seeking his or her way through the mysterious realities of the Underground Railroad, or one of the millions of slaves cunningly surviving on southern cotton plantations was to be an actor in this long and agonizing drama. The agony and the hope embedded in the story of emancipation is what black poet Francis Ellen Watkins tried to capture in a simple verse written in the wake of John Brown's execution in 1859 and only a little over a year before the outbreak of the Civil War:
Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill,
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
Soon, by the forces of total war, which in turn opened opportunities for slaves to seize their own freedom, emancipation became reality in America. Black freedom became the central event of nineteenth-century African-American history and, along with the preservation of the Union, the central result of the Civil War.
On Emancipation day, January 1, 1863 (when Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was to go into effect), "jubilee meetings" occurred all over black America. At Tremont Temple in Boston, a huge gathering of blacks and whites met from morning until night, awaiting the final news that Lincoln had signed the fateful document. Genuine concern still existed that something might go awry; the preliminary proclamation had been issued in September 1862, a mixture of what appeared to be military necessity and a desire to give the war a new moral purpose. Numerous luminaries from throughout antebellum free black leadership spoke during the day; the attorney John Rock, the minister and former slave John Sella Martin, the orator and women's suffragist Anna Dickinson, author William Wells Brown, and Boston's William Cooper Nell as presiding officer were among them. The most prominent of all black voices, Frederick Douglass, gave a concluding speech during the afternoon session punctuated by many cries of "Amen."
In the evening, tension mounted and anxiety gripped the hall, as no news had arrived from Washington. Douglass and Brown provided more oratory to try to quell the changing mood of doubt. Then a runner arrived from the telegraph office with the news: "It is coming!" he shouted. "It is on the wires!" An attempt was made to read the text of the Emancipation Proclamation, but great jubilation engulfed the crowd. Unrestrained shouting and singing ensued. Douglass gained the throng's attention and led them in a chorus of his favorite hymn, "Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow." Next an old black preacher named Rue led the group in "Sound the loud timbel o'er Egypt's dark sea, Jehovah has triumphed, his people are free!" The celebration lasted until midnight, when the crowd reassembled at pastor Leonard A. Grimes's Twelfth Baptist Church—an institution renowned among black Bostonians for its role in helping many fugitive slaves move along the road to liberty—to continue celebrating.
From Massachusetts to Ohio and Michigan, and in many Union-occupied places in the South where ex-slaves were now entering the Yankee army or beginning their first year as free people, such celebrations occurred. Full of praise songs, these celebrations demonstrated that whatever the fine print of the proclamation might say, black folks across the land knew that they had lived to see a new day, a transforming moment in their history. At a large "contraband camp" (center for refugee ex-slaves) in Washington, D.C., some six hundred black men, women, and children gathered at the superintendent's headquarters on New Year's Eve and sang through most of the night. In chorus after chorus of "Go Down, Moses" they announced the magnitude of their painful but beautiful exodus. One newly supplied verse concluded with "Go down, Abraham, away down in Dixie's land, tell Jeff Davis to let my people go!" Many years after the Tremont Temple celebration in Boston, Douglass may have best captured the meaning of Emancipation day for his people: "It was not logic, but the trump of jubilee, which everybody wanted to hear. We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which should rend the fetters of four millions of slaves; we were watching as it were, by the dim light of stars, for the dawn of a new day; we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries. Remembering those in bonds as bound with them, we wanted to join in the shout for freedom, and in the anthem of the redeemed." For blacks the cruel and apocalyptic war finally had a holy cause.
The emancipation policy of the Union government evolved with much less certitude than the music and poetry of jubilee day might imply. During the first year of the war, the Union military forces operated on an official policy of exclusion ("denial of asylum") to escaped slaves. The war was to restore the Union, not to uproot slavery. But events overtook such a policy. Floods of fugitive slaves began to enter Union lines in Virginia, in Tennessee, and along the southern coasts. Thousands were eventually employed as military laborers, servants, camp hands, and even spies. Early in the war, at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, in May 1861, the ambitious politician-general Benjamin F. Butler declared the slaves who entered his lines "contraband of war." The idea of slaves as confiscated enemy property eventually caught on. In early August 1861, striking a balance between legality and military necessity, the federal Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, allowing for the seizure of all Confederate property used to aid the war effort. Although not yet technically freed by this law, the slaves of rebel masters came under its purview and an inexorable process toward black freedom took root. Into 1862 the official stance of the Union armies toward slaves was a conflicted one: exclusion where the slaveholders were deemed "loyal," and employment as contrabands where the masters were judged "disloyal." Such an unworkable policy caused considerable dissension in the Union ranks, especially between abolitionist and proslavery officers. But wherever Union forces gained ground in the South, the institution of slavery began to crumble.
By the spring and summer of 1862 Congress took the lead on the issue of emancipation policy. In April it abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, and a large sum of money was allocated for the possible colonization of freed blacks abroad. The Lincoln administration, indeed, pursued a variety of schemes for Central American and Caribbean colonization during the first three years of the war. The sheer impracticality of such plans and stiff black resistance notwithstanding, this old idea of black removal from America as the solution to the revolutionary implications of Emancipation died hard within the Lincoln administration and in the mind of the president himself. But Lincoln, as well as many other Americans, would be greatly educated by both the necessity and the larger meanings of Emancipation. A black newspaper in Union-occupied New Orleans declared that "history furnishes no such intensity of determination, on the part of any race, as that exhibited by these people to be free." And Frederick Douglass felt greatly encouraged by an evolving emancipation movement in early 1862, whatever its contradictory motives. "It is really wonderful," he wrote, "how all efforts to evade, postpone, and prevent its coming, have been mocked and defied by the stupendous sweep of events."
In June 1862 Congress abolished slavery in the western territories, a marvelous irony when one remembers the tremendous political crisis over that issue in the decade before the war, as well as the alleged finality of the Dred Scott Decision of 1857. In July Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, which explicitly freed slaves of all persons "in rebellion," and excluded no parts of the slave-holding South. These measures provided a public and legal backdrop for President Lincoln's subsequent Emancipation Proclamation, issued in two parts, maneuvered through a recalcitrant Cabinet, and politically calculated to shape Northern morale, prevent foreign intervention (especially that of the British), and keep the remaining four slaveholding border states in the Union. During 1862 Lincoln had secretly maneuvered to persuade Delaware and Kentucky to accept a plan of compensated, gradual emancipation. But the deeply divided border states bluntly refused such notions. In the preliminary proclamation of September 21, 1862, issued in the aftermath of the bloody battle of Antietam (a Union military success for which Lincoln had desperately waited), the president offered a carrot to the rebellious South: in effect, stop the war, reenter the Union, and slavery would go largely untouched. In his State of the Union address in December, Lincoln dwelled on the idea of gradual, compensated Emancipation as the way to end the war and return a willful South to the Union. None of these offers had any chance of acceptance at this point in what had already become a revolutionary war for ends much larger and higher than most had imagined in 1861.
Lincoln had always considered slavery to be an evil that had to be eliminated in America. It was he who had committed the Republican Party in the late 1850s to putting slavery "on a course of ultimate extinction." At the outset of the war, however, he valued saving the Union above all else, including whatever would happen to slavery. But after he signed the document that declared all slaves in the "states of rebellion … forever free," Lincoln's historical reputation, as often legendary and mythical as it is factual, became forever tied to his role in the emancipation process. Emancipation did indeed require presidential leadership to commit America to a war to free slaves in the eyes of the world; in Lincoln's remarkable command of moral meaning and politics, he understood that this war had become a crucible in which the entire nation could receive a "new birth of freedom." The president ultimately commanded the armies, every forward step of which from 1863 to 1865 was a liberating step, soon by black soldiers as well. On one level, Emancipation had to be legal and moral, and, like all great matters in American history, it had to be finalized in the Constitution, in the Thirteenth Amendment (passed in early 1865). But black freedom was something both given and seized. Many factors made it possible for Lincoln to say by February 1865 that "the central act of my administration, and the greatest event of the nineteenth century," was Emancipation. But none more than the black exodus of self-emancipation when the moment of truth came, the waves of freedpeople who "voted with their feet."
"We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which should rend the fetters of four million slaves."
frederick douglass on the meaning of emancipation day for african americans.
The actual process and timing of Emancipation across the South depended on at least three interrelated circumstances: one, the character of slave society in a given region; two, the course of the war itself; and three, the policies of the Union and Confederate governments. Southern geography, the chronology of the military campaigns, the character of total war with its massive forced movement of people, the personal disposition of slaveholders and Union commanders alike, and the advent of widespread recruitment of black soldiers were all combined factors in determining when, where, and how slaves became free. Thousands of slaves were "hired out" as fortification laborers, teamsters, nurses, and cooks in the Confederate armies, eventually providing many opportunities for escape to Union lines and an uncertain but freer future. Thousands were also "refugeed" to the interior by their owners in order to "protect" them from invading Yankee armies. Many more took to the forests and swamps to hide during the chaos of war, as Union forces swept over the sea islands of the Georgia or South Carolina coast, or the densely
populated lower Mississippi Valley region. Many of those slaves eventually returned to their plantations, abandoned by their former masters, and took over agricultural production, sometimes under the supervision of an old driver, and sometimes by independently planting subsistence crops while the sugarcane rotted.
Many slaves waited and watched for their opportunity of escape, however uncertain their new fate might be. Octave Johnson was a slave on a plantation in St. James Parish, Louisiana, who ran away to the woods when the war came. He and a group of thirty, ten of whom were women, remained at large for a year and a half. Johnson's story, as he reported it to the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission in 1864, provides a remarkable example of the social-military revolution under way across the South. "We were four miles in the rear of the plantation house," said Johnson. His band stole food and borrowed matches and other goods from slaves still on the plantation. "We slept on logs and burned cypress leaves to make a smoke and keep away mosquitoes." When hunted by bloodhounds, Johnson's group took to the deeper swamp. They "killed eight of the bloodhounds; then we jumped into Bayou Faupron; the dogs followed us and the alligators caught six of them; the alligators preferred dog flesh to personal flesh; we escaped and came to Camp Parapet, where I was first employed in the Commissary's office, then as a servant to Col. Hanks; then I joined his regiment." From "working on task" through survival in the bayous, Octave Johnson found his freedom as a corporal in Company C, Fifteenth Regiment, Corps d'Afrique.
For many slaves, the transition from bondage to freedom was not so clear and complete as it was for Octave Johnson. Emancipation was a matter of overt celebration in some places, especially in Southern towns and cities, as well as in some slave quarters. But what freedom meant in 1863, how livelihood would change, how the war would progress, how the masters would react (perhaps with wages but perhaps with violent retribution), how freed-people would find protection in the conquered and chaotic South, how they would meet the rent payments that might now be charged, how a peasant population of agricultural laborers deeply attached to the land might now become owners of the land as so many dreamed, and whether they would achieve citizenship rights were all urgent
and unanswered questions during the season of Emancipation. Joy mixed with uncertainty, songs of deliverance with expressions of fear. The actual day on which masters gathered their slaves to announce that they were free was remembered by freedpeople with a wide range of feelings and experience. Some remembered hilarity and dancing, but many remembered it as a sobering, even solemn time. A former South Carolina slave recalled that on his plantation "some were sorry, some hurt, but a few were silent and glad." James Lucas, a former slave of Jefferson Davis in Mississippi, probed the depths of human nature and ambivalence in his description of the day of liberation: "Dey all had diffe'nt ways o' thinkin' 'bout it. Mos'ly though dey was jus' lak me, dey didn' know jus' zackly what it meant. It was jus' somp'n dat de white folks an' slaves all de time talk 'bout. Dat's all. Folks dat ain' never been free don' rightly know de feel of bein' free. Dey don' know de meanin' of it." And a former Virginia slave simply recalled "how wild and upset and dreadful everything was in them times."
But in time, confusion gave way to meaning, and the feel of freedom took many forms. For many ex-slaves who followed Union armies freedom meant, initially, life in contraband camps, where black families struggled to survive in the face of great hardship and occasional starvation. But by the end of 1862 and throughout the rest of the war, a string of contraband camps became the first homes in freedom for thousands of ex-slaves. At La-Grange, Bolivar, and Memphis in western Tennessee; at Corinth in northern Mississippi; in "contraband colonies" near New Orleans; at Cairo, Illinois; at Camp Barker in the District of Columbia; on Craney Island near Norfolk, Virginia; and eventually in northern Georgia and various other places, the freedpeople forged a new life on government rations and through work on labor crews, and received a modicum of medical care, often provided by "grannies"—black women who employed home remedies from plantation life. For thousands the contraband camps became the initial entry into free labor practices, and a slow but certain embrace of the new sense of dignity, mobility, identity, and education that freedom now meant. Nearly all white Northerners who witnessed or supervised these camps, or who eventually administered private or government work programs on confiscated Southern land, organized freedmen's aid societies and schools by the hundreds, or observed weddings and burials, were stunned by the determination of this exodus despite its hardships. In 1863, each superintendent of a contraband camp in the
western theater of war was asked to respond to a series of interrogatives about the freedmen streaming into his facilities. To the question of the "motives" of the freedmen, the Corinth superintendent tried to find the range of what he saw: "Can't answer short of 100 pages. Bad treatment—hard times—lack of the comforts of life—prospect of being driven South; the more intelligent because they wished to be free. Generally speak kindly of their masters; none wish to return; many would die first. All delighted with the prospect of freedom, yet all have been kept constantly at some kind of work." All of the superintendents commented on what seemed to them the remarkable "intelligence" and "honesty" of the freedmen. As for their "notions of liberty," the Memphis superintendent answered: "Generally correct. They say they have no rights, nor own anything except as their master permits; but being freed, can make their own money and protect their
families." Indeed, these responses demonstrate just what a fundamental revolution Emancipation had become.
Inexorably, Emancipation meant that black families would be both reunited and torn apart. In contraband camps, where women and children greatly outnumbered men, extended families sometimes found and cared for each other. But often, when the thousands of black men across the South entered the Union army, they left women and children behind in great hardship, sometimes in sheer destitution, and eventually under new labor arrangements that required rent payments. Louisiana freedwoman Emily Waters wrote to her husband, who was still on duty with the Union army, in July 1865, begging him to get a furlough and "come home and find a place for us to live in." The joy of change mixed with terrible strain. "My children are going to school," she reported, "but I find it very hard
to feed them all, and if you cannot come I hope you will send me something to help me get along…. Come home as soon as you can, and cherish me as ever." The same Louisiana soldier received a subsequent letter from Alsie Thomas, his sister, reporting that "we are in deep trouble—your wife has left Trepagnia and gone to the city and we don't know where or how she is, we have not heard a word from her in four weeks." The choices and the strains that Emancipation wrought are tenderly exhibited in a letter by John Boston, a Maryland fugitive slave, to his wife, Elizabeth, in January 1862, from Upton Hill, Virginia. "[I]t is with grate joy I take this time to let you know Whare I am i am now in Safety in the 14th regiment of Brooklyn this Day i can Adres 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 Fredom Will rain in spite Of earth and hell … i am free from al the Slavers Lash." Such were the joys of freedom and the agonies of separation. Boston concluded his letter: "Dear Wife i must Close rest yourself Contented i am free … Write my Dear Soon … Kiss Daniel For me." The rich sources on the freedmen's experience do not tell us whether Emily Waters ever saw her husband again, or whether the Bostons were reunited. But these letters demonstrate the depth with which freedom was embraced and the human pain through which it was achieved.
The freedpeople especially gave meaning to their freedom by their eagerness for education and land ownership. In the Sea Islands of South Carolina, the Port Royal Experiment was a large-scale attempt, led by Northern philanthropists interested as much in profits as in freedmen's rights, to reorganize cotton production by paying wages to blacks. But amid this combination of abolitionists' good works and capitalist opportunity, thousands of blacks of all ages learned to read. So eager were the freedmen to learn that the teachers from the various freedmen's-aid societies were sometimes overwhelmed. "The Negroes will do anything for us," said one teacher, "if we will only teach them." Land ownership was an equally precious aim of the freedmen, and they claimed it as a right. No one ever stated the labor theory of value more clearly than Virginia freedman Bayley Wyat, in a speech protesting the eviction of blacks from a contraband camp in 1866: "We has a right to the land we are located. For Why? I tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; for that reason we have a divine right to the land. … And den didn't we clear the land, and raise de crops ob corn, ob cotton, ob tobacco, ob rice, ob sugar, ob everything?" The redistribution of land and wealth in the South would remain a largely unrealized dream during Reconstruction, and perhaps its greatest unfinished legacy. But armed with literacy, and an unprecedented politicization, Southern blacks accomplished much against great odds in the wake of Emancipation.
By the end of the war in 1865, the massive moving about of the freedpeople became a major factor in Confederate defeat. Thousands of white Union soldiers who witnessed this process of Emancipation became, despite earlier prejudices, avid supporters of the recruitment of black soldiers. And no one understood just what a transformation was under way better than the former slaveholders in the South, who now watched their world collapse around them. In August 1865 white Georgian John Jones described black freedom as the "dark, dissolving, disquieting wave of emancipation." That wave would abate in the turbulent first years of Reconstruction, when the majority of freedmen would resettle on their old places, generally paid wages at first, but eventually working "on shares" (as sharecropping tenant farmers). Reconstruction would bring a political revolution to the South, a great experiment in racial democracy, led by radical Republicans in the federal government and by a new American phenomenon: scores of black politicians. This "disquieting wave" would launch black suffrage, citizenship rights, civil rights, and widespread black officeholding beyond what anyone could have imagined at the outset of the Civil War. That the great achievements in racial democracy of the period 1865–1870 were betrayed or lost by the late nineteenth century does not detract from the significance of such a passage in African-American history. Many of the twentieth-century triumphs in America's never-ending search for racial democracy have their deep roots in the story of Emancipation and its aftermath.
Berlin, Ira, et al., eds. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–67. Series 1, vol. 1, The Destruction of Slavery. Series 1, vol. 3, The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor. Series 2, The Black Military Experience. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982–1990.
Clark-Lewis, Elizabeth, ed. First Freed: Washington, D.C., In the Emancipation Era. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 2002.
Foner, Eric. Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
Guelzo, Allen C. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Knopf, 1979.
david w. blight (1996)