The Promise of Freedom

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1 The Promise of Freedom

Edisto Island must have seemed like an exotic place to Mary Ames. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Ames had arrived in this community in the Sea Islands, located just off the shore of South Carolina, in May 1865. Mary believed that slavery (the practice of forcing human beings to work for no wages and without the prospect of freedom) was wrong. She had come to Edisto Island to give its black residents—most of them former slaves freed after the Union victory in the Civil War (1861–65)—something they had long been denied. She was here to give them an education, to teach them.

The Civil War may have ended, but great challenges lay ahead. Black and white Southerners sought to remake a society that had been shaken by four years of bloody conflict between the Northern Union (federal government) and the Confederacy, the eleven Southern states that had seceded, or broken away, from the United States. Initially sparked by the secession of the Confederacy and the desire to keep the Union together, the war eventually became a struggle to free the four million blacks held as slaves in the South. Like other Northern teachers who had traveled south to help in this effort, Mary Ames was struck by the freed slaves' eagerness to learn. Students of all ages, from small children to grandparents, flocked to the brand new schools. In her diary, Ames wrote that on the first evening of class, a bent-backed old woman announced that she was "mighty anxious to know something."

A time of conflict, healing, and change

The desire among slaves to learn was deep and profound. This yearning extended throughout the Southern United States as African Americans adjusted not only to the strange reality of freedom but to the hopes and plans that freedom had awakened. For the next fifteen years or so, some of these hopes and plans would be realized, while others would be crushed. During the Reconstruction era, which began before the Civil War ended and lasted through the 1870s, U.S. citizens from both the North and the South took part in a process that was messy and full of setbacks yet also marked by achievement.

A deepening division

In the years following the founding of the United States of America, a division had been growing among the states and people that made up the young nation. In the Northern part of the country, the economy thrived on industry and trade, whereas in the Southern part, the states depended mostly on agriculture. Many Southern farms and plantations (large estates on which basic crops like cotton, rice, and tobacco were grown) depended, in turn, on the free labor of slaves, who had been taken against their will from their homes in Africa and brought to the shores of what to them was an unknown place.

As the nation grew, and especially as new states were added, the issue of slavery became more and more hotly debated. Many people—most of them Northerners—called for an end to this practice, which they considered immoral and inhumane. Others—most of them Southerners—asserted the racist view that black people were inferior to those with northern European ancestors, that they were not even fully human and thus undeserving of equal rights. They even claimed that slavery was good for black people, as they were not capable of taking care of themselves.

The fundamental disagreement about slavery and about whether individual states had the right to determine whether or not it should be allowed finally led to the Civil War. Eleven Southern states had seceded from the Union. President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65; see box) had declared that this could not be allowed. He had led the nation into war with the Confederacy (the name the Southern states had taken), first to preserve the Union, and eventually to free the slaves.

"With malice toward none…"

By the spring of 1865, the war was coming to an end. It was clear to both sides that the North would be the winner and that the prewar United States would survive. The Union victory brought freedom to four million enslaved African Americans, but the cost had been great: over six hundred thousand people had lost their lives, the South lay in ruins, and old hatreds had deepened. Lincoln had been reelected in the fall of 1864. In his second inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1865, he referred to the healing that must now take place.

It would be the nation's task, Lincoln said, "to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan." Most important, this task must be done "with malice [spitefulness] toward none; with charity for all." Although these eloquent words have been well remembered, the intention behind them was never fully realized. The years that immediately followed the war's end were marked more by malice than by charity. Yet they were also remarkable years, and what happened during this period would have profound consequences—both good and bad—for the decades that followed.

The challenge ahead

The Reconstruction era is often described as a time of dramatic change in the United States. The entire nation was changed, in a sense, by the fact that the Union had remained intact, and the power and reach of the government had been demonstrated. But in the South, the changes were especially noticeable and immediate. Southerners had to face the challenges of reorganizing their state governments, of rebuilding their cities and farms and renewing their shattered economy, and of finding a way for blacks and whites to live together in a much different relationship than before the war.

The last change was probably the hardest, and at the end of the Reconstruction era it appeared that this goal had not been met. During the late 1860s and 1870s, Southern blacks had actually been able to vote and hold political office. The promise of integrated (open to both blacks and whites) schools and public places had seemed within reach. By the end of the century, these rights and promises had disappeared. White terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan kept African Americans in a stranglehold of fear and dread, while a labor system shaped by prejudice and resentment kept

Abraham Lincoln: Beloved Leader in Hard Times

One of the most beloved of U.S. presidents, Abraham Lincoln, presided over the beginning of the Reconstruction era. Historians have often wondered how things might have turned out differently if Lincoln had lived through the whole period.

Lincoln was born in a backwoods Kentucky log cabin in 1809. His parents were poor, illiterate farmers. The family moved to Indiana in 1816, and two years later his mother died. A year later, his father remarried. Lincoln received less than a year of formal schooling but, at his step-mother's encouragement, educated himself by reading every book he could find. He learned about hard work by helping his father farm, but he wanted to do something else with his own life.

In 1828, Lincoln joined a four-month expedition on a Mississippi River flatboat, which took him into the South and exposed him for the first time to the harsh realities of slavery. This experience, as well as his parents' antislavery stance, seem to have influenced his later views.

For the next six years, after his family had resettled in Illinois, Lincoln worked in a number of jobs, including general-store owner, postmaster, surveyor, and hired hand. During this period, he also served briefly in his state's militia (an army called up to help in emergencies) and was elected captain of his unit.

Lincoln taught himself law and became qualified as an attorney in 1836. He served in the Illinois state legislature from 1834 until 1841. In November 1842, he married Mary Todd (1818–1882), with whom he would have four sons: Robert, Edward, William, and Thomas. Returning to his law practice, Lincoln earned a fine reputation as an attorney.

In the meantime, the United States was embroiled in a debate about whether slavery should be allowed in the new territories of the West, which were on their way to becoming states. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise had barred the expansion of slavery, but this ruling was overturned by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Sponsored by U.S. senator Stephen Douglas (1813–1861) of Illinois, the act allowed the individual states to decide if they would allow slavery.

In 1858, the brand new Republican Party recruited Lincoln to run for senator against Douglas. In a political event that would become one of the most famous in U.S. history, Lincoln met Douglas in a series of seven debates on the slavery issue that drew huge crowds and national attention. Lincoln lost that election, but when it came time for the Republicans to choose a candidate for the 1860 presidential election, they called upon him again.

The campaign's focus on the issue of slavery highlighted the deep divisions between the Northern and Southern states. Lincoln's victory in the election caused panic among white Southerners, who feared that despite his reassurances to the contrary the new president would outlaw slavery immediately. In February 1861, eleven states that had seceded from the Union formed the Confederate States of America (also known as the Confederacy) and began gathering an army.

In April, the Confederacy captured Fort Sumter, located on the South Carolina coast, sparking the Civil War. The first years of the conflict did not go well for the North, and public confidence in Lincoln ebbed. His initial goal had not so much been to end slavery as to hold the Union together, but after the Union army started to gain ground on the battlefield, the war's focus shifted. Lincoln began to emphasize the need to end slavery, and on January 1, 1863, he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared most slaves forever free.

Lincoln did not expect to win the 1864 election, and he was surprised by his victory in the fall of 1864. Following the January 1865 passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which officially outlawed slavery, the nation's leaders began to discuss how the Southern states would be readmitted to the Union and what shape the new South would take. In a partial answer to these questions, Lincoln issued a Reconstruction program called the Ten Per Cent plan. It was considered too mild by some, because it did not include harsh punishment for former Confederates.

No one will ever known how Lincoln's ideas about Reconstruction would have developed. On April 14, he was shot by a Southern-born actor who blamed Lincoln for the South's troubles. The next day, Lincoln died. He was deeply mourned by the nation he had served, but especially by African Americans, many of whom gave the president credit for leading them out of slavery.

most of them in poverty. Southern society was fully segregated (blacks and whites were kept apart), and equality was nowhere in sight. These circumstances would not begin to change until the twentieth century, and in some ways and in some places such arrangements have lasted into the twenty-first century.

A changing view of the Reconstruction era

For many years, the popular view of the Reconstruction era focused on its effects on white Southerners. Historians who shared the prevailing view of blacks as inferior to whites claimed that African Americans had proved their incompetence to take part in politics. They portrayed the Reconstruction era governments as hopelessly corrupt, and the carpetbaggers (Northerners who came south to participate in various aspects of Reconstruction) and scalawags (white Southerners who belonged to the Republican political party, which had sponsored the Reconstruction policies) as people who took advantage of and preyed on the South. According to this view, white Southerners had been victimized by Reconstruction.

During the 1960s, however, U.S. society began to change as the civil rights movement gained strength and African Americans made advances. Historians began to put forth a different and more balanced view of the Reconstruction era. They asserted that Reconstruction had, in fact, led to some important achievements, especially the three amendments that were added to the U.S. Constitution during this period.

There is no doubt that the Reconstruction era was a troubled time. White Southerners resented the military occupation that followed their defeat in the Civil War, and even more deeply they resented the destruction of a way of life they valued. They fought the changes in every way they could, including violence. For their part, black Southerners were allowed only a brief glimpse of equality before it was snatched away. They saw their hopes for advancement die, not to be rekindled for many, many years. Although the policies of the Reconstruction era may not have been successful, this period holds important clues to later developments in U.S. history. The first of those clues may be found before the Civil War ended, or even before it began.

North and South: Two different worlds

In the years between the founding of the United States of America and the Civil War that threatened its survival, two distinct areas or regions of the nation developed. Each had its own economic system, and the residents of each region had their own way of life.

Although there were plenty of small farms in the North, this part of the country was home to several of the nation's largest and busiest cities. Most of the residents of these urban centers were laborers in factories or seaports or in other places of business and trade. Many were merchants who bought and sold the goods either being manufactured in the factories at home or imported from abroad, with customers all over the United States as well as in other countries.

The Lives of Slaves

By the time of the Civil War, nearly four million blacks were living as slaves in the Southern United States. Only about one-quarter of Southern whites owned slaves, of whom more than half lived on plantations with twenty or more slaves. About a quarter of Southern blacks lived among fifty or more slaves.

Their work and living conditions depended to some extent on where they lived and what kind of masters they had. In the states of the Deep South—such as South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi—most slaves lived on large plantations, where they worked either in labor gangs tending cash crops like cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar, or as domestic servants in homes. In the Upper South and border states (such as Missouri and Kentucky), slaves lived on smaller farms and often worked alongside their owners, performing not only field labor but a variety of other tasks. Half a million blacks also worked in the cities and towns, serving as domestic servants or toiling in factories, lumber or cotton mills, mines, or other places of business.

Plantation owners employed white overseers, who supervised the work, care, and output of the slaves. The overseers often used harsh forms of punishment to control the slaves and were frequently hated figures, as were the drivers (many of them black) who drove the work gangs along with whips. Also hated and feared were the "pattyrollers," the slaves' name for the patrollers who roamed the neighborhood, making sure that any slaves they found had passes from their owners. The patrollers were employed to prevent slaves not only from running away but from organizing rebellions or uprisings, and they whipped any slave they caught off the plantation without a pass.

Some masters treated their slaves fairly well, even trying to keep slave families together. But most slaves endured long work hours (fifteen or sixteen hours a day during the peak seasons) as well as poor food, shelter, and clothing. They were subjected to a wide variety of punishments, including beatings, whippings, being hung by the thumbs, and branding. Worst of all was to be sold away to another plantation. This meant separation from friends and family, often permanently. Slaves were generally sold at auctions, public sales where they were put on display (sometimes stripped of clothing) for prospective buyers. Prices for slaves varied according to their sex, age, and physical condition: a young, healthy male might be sold for as much as $1,800, while babies were often sold by the pound.

Describing an 1846 scene in which slaves learned they were to be sold, a nineteenth-century writer (quoted in Everyday Life in the 1800s) recounted their horror: "A shade of astonishment and affright passed over their faces, as they stared first at each other and then at the crowd of purchasers whose attention was now directed to them. When the horrible truth was revealed to their minds that they were to be sold, and nearest relations and friends parted forever, the effect was indescribably agonizing. Women snatched up their babies, and ran screaming into the huts. Children hid behind the huts and trees, and the men stood in mute despair."

Most slaves were sold at least twice, making it very difficult if not impossible to maintain family ties. In addition, slaves were not allowed to become legally married, instead taking part in a simple ritual that required a couple to jump over an extended broom, after which they were declared married. When slavery ended, many couples hurried to legalize their marriages.

Plantation slaves lived in gatherings of one-room cabins, usually referred to as slave quarters, that usually had dirt floors and lacked glass windows or furniture. On a typical work day, they would wake before sunrise to the sound of a bell or horn and, after a meager breakfast of corn cakes and perhaps a small amount of salt pork, they would be led to the fields to work until dark. Men, women (even when pregnant or nursing), and older children and teenagers worked, while the elderly often stayed behind to care for the smaller children. Slaves who worked in homes performed such duties as cooking, cleaning, and child care, often working even longer hours than the field hands.

Most slaves were not required to work on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. Saturday afternoons were for washing clothes, cleaning homes, and tending gardens. Social events were often held on Saturday nights, while on Sundays slaves attended church, fished and hunted, and socialized. Many slaves found comfort in religion, and especially in the religious songs called spirituals that they sang both in church and in the fields.

Meanwhile, in the warmer surroundings of the South, most people lived on farms where they grew such crops as tobacco, rice, and especially cotton, which was turned into fabric in the great textile mills of the North. The owners of the largest farms, called plantations, counted on the labor of their unpaid work force of slaves brought from Africa. The Northern states had outlawed slavery around the time of the American Revolution (1775–83), but the South held onto slavery as an essential part of its economy and culture.

Wealth based on slave labor

Although many Southerners did not own slaves, the region's politics were dominated by what has been called the plantation aristocracy. Traditionally, aristocrats were occupants of society's highest positions and enjoyed privileges they had gained merely through birth into particular families. In the South, the wealthiest plantation owners lived in a manner modeled after that of European aristocrats. Even though relatively few white Southerners actually could afford this lifestyle, few questioned its validity.

The South's prosperity, shown off most dramatically in the huge, richly decorated mansions of the plantation aristocracy, would not have been possible without the brokendown cabins called slave quarters that were found close to every grand mansion. Beginning in 1620, Africans had been captured and brought to the shores of North and South America on slave ships. Shackled together in the most brutal of conditions, those who survived the treacherous journey (known as the Middle Passage) were sold at public auctions. They were then forced to work for their owners, some as household servants but most as field laborers.

The majority of the slave population was concentrated in the Deep South—including such states as Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina—but many also lived in the border states in which slavery was allowed, such as Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Only about one-quarter of Southern farmers actually owned slaves, and 90 percent of these owned fewer than twenty. About ten thousand families made up the planter aristocracy, one-third of which owned more than one hundred slaves.

Conditions under slavery

Although their situations and their treatment varied, the vast majority of slaves worked long hours, ate poor food, wore tattered clothing, and lived in unfurnished, dirt-floored dwellings. Families were often separated when individuals were sold to other owners, never knowing if they would ever see each other again. Most slaves were denied any education, for it was considered dangerous to teach a slave to read and write. Those who misbehaved or tried to escape were punished harshly. Black women and girls were often forced into having sex with the white master or his sons, and the biracial children who were born of these encounters joined the ranks of the slaves.

Through all the long years of hardships, indignities, and suffering, African Americans demonstrated incredible resilience and courage. Despite their isolation, their illiteracy (inability to read), and the chains that bound them, many of them managed to keep the hope of freedom alive. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they were no longer Africans, even though traces of their heritage remained. They were African Americans. The enslavement of four million of them was in stark, brutal defiance of the supposed ideals on which the United States had been founded.

Abolitionists condemn a cruel system

Over one hundred years later, people wonder how this situation could have existed. After all, freedom was supposed to be one of the highest values of the founders of the United States, and the Declaration of Independence said that "all men are created equal." How could U.S. citizens have approved of slavery? The answer lies in both economic necessity and racism. On the one hand, slavery allowed Southerners to build a thriving agricultural economy without paying for labor; on the other hand, their belief in the inferiority of black people eased their consciences. They believed, in fact, that blacks were better off living as slaves, because they needed someone to tell them what to do and to take care of them. Because they viewed people of African descent more as property than as human beings, they did not think the words of the Declaration of Independence applied to slaves.

Of course, these opinions were held, to varying degrees, not only by white Southerners but by many other white people in all parts of the United States. Such racist thinking was a fact of life in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, and some of it survives into the twenty-first century. But even in the earliest days of slavery in the United States, there were individuals who fought against it. They were called abolitionists because they wanted to abolish (get rid of) slavery. Many were followers of the Quaker religion, which holds both equality and nonviolence as sacred values. As the nineteenth century progressed, the abolitionist movement began to grow in strength and influence as its members spoke out more and more against slavery. They also served as "conductors" on the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses (places of refuge) that helped runaway slaves escape to freedom in the North.

Both free blacks (of which about 180,000 existed, most living in the North) and whites were active in the abolitionist movement. One of the leading white abolitionists was William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), the publisher of an antislavery newspaper called the Liberator. The most prominent black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass (c. 1817–1895; see box), was a former slave who, after escaping from bondage, had achieved an education and a reputation as an eloquent speaker and strong leader. While individuals like Garrison and Douglass called for an end to slavery on moral grounds, others declared that slavery was wrong because it gave the South an unfair economic advantage. Even among those who disapproved of slavery, there was disagreement about how much equality black people deserved. Eventually, a split developed between those who—like Douglass and Garrison—wanted not only freedom but full civil and political (especially voting) rights for African Americans and those who wanted only a limited equality for blacks.

The sectional split deepens

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States had expanded far beyond the borders of its original thirteen colonies. Events like the Louisiana Purchase (an area of more than 800,000 square miles purchased by the United States from France in 1803) and the Mexican-American War (1846–48; a conflict that resulted in the United States gaining territory that would become California, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of other western states) made more land available for the ever-growing U.S. population, and settlers moved west. As new states were formed and admitted to the Union, the sectional split between North and South deepened. Each state had to determine if it would allow slavery or not, and this caused political tension because it meant that either the North or the South would become more powerful. Both sides wanted to gain advantage, so each hoped to win the new western states over to its side.

The slavery question also helped to bring about a new political party in the United States. Formed in 1854, the Republican Party appealed mostly to Northerners. Its members favored business interests, public support for internal improvements (like roads and services), and social reforms. Although the party disapproved of slavery on moral grounds, its position was that the federal government should not intervene in the issue. On the other side, especially in the South, was the Democratic Party, which was opposed to the kinds of changes proposed by the Republicans. They felt that the Republicans were wealthy elites who wanted to limit individual freedom by making the federal government too strong. Democrats favored stronger state governments (giving citizens more local control) and a society in which white people were in charge and blacks kept in slavery.

The tensions between North and South were now heating up, with Southerners expressing the belief that individual states should have the right to govern themselves. Fiercely independent and proud, they felt that their very lifestyle and culture were threatened, and many believed that they should break away from the Union and form their own country. The 1860 presidential election was a crucial turning point. The winner was former U.S. representative Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, whose positions on slavery and on equality for blacks were somewhat ambiguous. He had spoken against slavery as an immoral practice, but he had also expressed the view that blacks and whites would never be able to live together peacefully in the United States. In any case, Lincoln had, during the campaign, tried to reassure Southerners that he had no intention of interfering with slavery. He did, however, promise to keep the Union together.

The Civil War begins

Soon after Lincoln's election, the slave states began to secede from the Union. In the spring of 1861, eleven Southern states joined together to form the Confederate States of America, or the Confederacy. The legislatures of the four slaveholding border states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—voted against secession. The Confederacy established its capital in Richmond, Virginia, with former U.S. senator Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) of Mississippi as its president. The leaders of the North and South both began to gather armies. The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate troops fired on the Union outpost of Fort Sumter on the coast of South Carolina. The federal troops defending the fort surrendered the next day.

The problem of runaway slaves

As the war got underway, the North appeared to have many advantages. The population from which soldiers could be recruited or drafted to fight (that is, white males) was much higher, and the North had a greater industrial capability for making weapons and equipment. In addition, the Union's navy was much stronger, as was quickly demonstrated when the North blockaded the South's largest ports.

Although it was not at all clear at the beginning of the war that slavery was its central issue, the question was always present. Almost immediately, Union troops began to be approached by slaves, who, equating the Northern army with the coming of freedom, had run away from their masters and were now seeking protection. It was clear that deciding what to do with runaway or freed slaves was going to be a big problem. One solution was demonstrated at Fort Monroe, Virginia, when the Federal commander, General Benjamin Butler (1818–1893), refused the request of a Confederate officer to return to their masters three slaves who had crossed the Union line. Instead, Butler declared that the slaves were contraband, or property that could be legally confiscated during wartime. In other places, freed slaves were put to work as wage-earning army laborers or farm workers.

In March 1862, Congress passed an article of war (a special wartime law) that prohibited the Union army from returning fugitive slaves to their former owners. Soon after this, slavery was abolished in the District of Columbia and the territories (areas in the west that were not yet states, such as Colorado Territory and Utah Territory). These steps, along with the Union's seesawing fortunes in the war, paved the way for a bold move on Lincoln's part that would set the stage for the freeing of the slaves.

No quick and easy victory in sight

In the days leading up to the war, both Northern and Southern commentators had predicted a quick and easy victory for their own sides. But the first two years of combat revealed neither a clear winner nor any end in sight. The Confederates surprised the Union forces by winning the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia in the summer of 1861, but Union troops under General Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) took control of Tennessee in early 1862. A few months later, the Union lost the Battle of Shiloh in Kentucky but captured the strategically important city of New Orleans. In Virginia, General George McClellan (1826–1885) pushed Union troops toward Richmond, only to be held up by fierce battles with Confederates under the command of General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (1824–1863) and General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870), the top commander of the Confederate army.

With the war not going as well as expected, Lincoln realized that a drastic measure was called for, especially one that could deplete the labor force that supported the Southern economy and thus weaken the Confederate war effort. On September 22, 1863, close on the heels of a Union victory at the bloody Battle of Antietam in Maryland, Lincoln issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation). Often characterized as a blanket statement of freedom for all slaves, it was not exactly that. In fact, this document reflected Lincoln's mixed feelings about the slavery issue and about the purpose of this war. The proclamation declared that, effective January 1, 1863, slaves in the rebellious Confederate slaves would be free. Not included were the approximately 450,000 slaves who lived in the loyal border states, the 275,000 in Union-held Tennessee, or those in the parts of Virginia and Louisiana that were under Union control.

The Emancipation Proclamation changes the war

Despite its limitations, the Emancipation Proclamation did succeed in transforming, according to A Short History of Reconstruction, "a war of armies into a war of societies." From this point on, the destruction of slavery—the institution that formed the backbone of Southern society—would be the central issue of the Civil War. This fact was not lost on the abolitionists and free blacks of the North, who greeted the news with excitement. As noted in Climbing Up to Glory: A Short History of African Americans During the Civil War and Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass wrote, "We shout for joy, that we live to record this righteous decree."

In the South, the news spread quickly along the "grapevine telegraph," the secret communication network by which the slaves shared information and gossip, in spite of their masters' best efforts to keep them ignorant. Some slaves openly expressed their joy and some fled to Union lines, including a few who might have been expected to stay put. As reported in Been in the Storm Too Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, an elderly man responded to a suggestion that he was too old to flee slavery with this comment: "Ise eighty-eight year old. Too ole for come? Mas'r joking. Never too ole for leave de land o' bondage." Many other slaves, however, chose a more muted response. Long accustomed to protecting themselves by hiding their true opinions and feelings, they kept quiet and waited to see what would happen next.

Even in the North, there were many whites who did not share black people's happiness about the coming end of slavery and approval of the war that would bring it about. In the summer of 1863, protesters opposed to the war staged a bloody, destructive riot in New York City. They burned down not only the city's draft office (where soldiers were enlisted into the army) but other government buildings, homes of prominent Republicans, and symbols of the abolitionist movement such as the Colored Orphan Asylum. The rioters also murdered an unknown number of black people in the streets before Federal troops got control of the situation.

The riot seemed to signal mixed feelings on the part of U.S. citizens about the conflict in which so many young men were losing their lives. But President Lincoln did not waver. Instead of backing away from the direction in which he was leading the country, Lincoln became even more convinced that the Emancipation Proclamation had been necessary and that slavery must be abolished. He did not expect to be reelected in 1864, so he was surprised when the voters did choose him as their leader for the next four years—and by a landslide yet, over his former general, George McClellan. Voters continued to count on Lincoln's leadership.

African American soldiers fight
for freedom

One of the most important consequences of the Emancipation Proclamation was that it cleared the way for African Americans to enlist in the Union army. By the end of the war, about 186,000 black soldiers (130,000 of them former slaves) would have served, making up 10 percent of the army's total enrollment. Even though they were forced to serve in segregated units led by white officers and were paid less than white soldiers, there is no doubt that the African American troops played an important role in the eventual Union victory. Their admirable performance gave skeptical whites a broader view of black people's ability and courage. Further, the experience of fighting in the war helped many African Americans develop the public status and personal confidence they would later carry into roles as political leaders in the Reconstruction governments.

Prejudice gives way to necessity

Even before the war began, Frederick Douglass had called for the enlistment of free blacks, arguing that allowing them to fight would both strengthen the Union forces and highlight the moral urgency of abolishing slavery. But such a development was blocked by both law and prejudice. Even though African Americans had fought in every previous war in colonial history and in U.S. history, the popular belief was that blacks made poor soldiers and that white soldiers should not have to serve alongside them. In addition to the general idea that allowing black soldiers to fight was treating them too much as equals, there was also fear about a violent uprising or rebellion of blacks if they were provided with weapons.

President Lincoln himself had initially been opposed to the enlistment of black soldiers, but as the war dragged on, he changed his position. Even before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, realizing that nothing else would bring the influx of troops that was sorely needed to secure a Union victory, Lincoln signed the Militia Act. This guaranteed that slaves who enlisted in the Union army would earn their freedom.

Many African Americans saw joining the army as a chance to prove their loyalty to their country, even if many citizens of that country thought ill of them and some thought it would be best if they left and settled somewhere else. Most African Americans felt that, for better or worse, the United States was their home, and they wanted to show that they could and would defend it. Both soldiers and black

Frederick Douglass: A Respected Spokesperson

Frederick Douglass was the most prominent black leader of the nineteenth century and an eloquent spokesperson for African Americans. Long active in the abolitionist movement (to end slavery), he was one of the Reconstruction era's strongest advocates for black civil rights. Perhaps what gave Douglass his special authority was his firsthand knowledge of several different levels of black experience. Born into slavery, he had escaped to the North and gradually risen to a high status, even serving as an advisor to the president of the United States.

Douglass was born in Easton, Maryland, around 1817 to a slave mother. It was not known who his father was, but he may have been Aaron Anthony, who owned Douglass's mother, Harriet Bailey. Douglass was owned by Anthony's daughter, Sophia, and her family. Before her husband put a stop to the practice, Sophia started to teach Douglass to read. He continued to educate himself, and by the time he was a teenager he was committed to the ideals of liberty and equality that he had read about.

Desperate to gain his freedom, Douglass plotted an escape in 1835, but the plan was discovered before it could be carried out. Three years later, while working in Baltimore, Douglass managed to escape to New York. He married and settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, working as a day laborer and raising five children. In 1841, Douglass delivered a rousing speech to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, sharing details of his early life in slavery. Famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) was in the audience. He befriended Douglass, whose public-speaking skills had impressed him, and soon Douglass was launched on a career as an abolitionist and orator.

In 1845, Douglass published his autobiography, in which he recounted vividly the brutal treatment he had endured as a slave and his escape to freedom. Having gained public attention through the book, Douglass feared that he might be recaptured by his former master, who technically still owned him. Thus he fled to England for two years, where he raised enough money through speaking engagements to purchase his freedom.

Returning to the United States, Douglass founded a newspaper called the North Star (named for the star that escaping slaves had followed to the North) and began a distinguished career as a journalist. He spoke out not only against slavery but in favor of education for blacks and of women's suffrage. Although he stressed the traditional values of self-reliance, hard work, and morality, Douglass differed from more conservative white abolitionists in urging blacks to take political action—including violence, if necessary—to gain equality, rather than waiting for kindhearted white people to grant it to them.

During the Civil War, Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln several times to urge him to make the abolition of slavery the central issue of the conflict. He also advocated the enlistment of black troops in the Union army. Once this was approved, he began working hard to recruit young African American men to become soldiers; in fact, two of his own sons fought with the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts regiment, one of the first and best known of the black military units. Once Reconstruction began, Douglass pushed for the expansion of civil and political rights—especially the right to vote, which he felt was most essential—for blacks. When Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights to all male citizens, Douglass supported it, even though feminist leaders had criticized the amendment for limiting suffrage to men.

During the last decades of his life, Douglass held a number of federal government jobs. He served as U.S. marshal and recorder of deeds in the District of Columbia, and held diplomatic posts in Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) and Haiti. In 1881, the third and final version of his autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, was published. He continued speaking out on civil rights and equality, and caused something of a controversy when, after the death of his first wife, he married his white secretary. Douglass died of a heart attack in 1895, not long after attending a meeting on women's suffrage.

leaders hoped that joining the fight to preserve the Union might be a first step in gaining even more rights for African Americans.

Black regiments perform well

The first black troops were called up and organized for duty in the fall of 1862, although most recruitment did not occur until the following spring. The first regiment, formed in November 1862, was the First South Carolina Volunteers. These soldiers were paid $10 per month instead of the $13 paid to white soldiers; they also had $3 deducted for their uniform, while white soldiers were paid $3 extra to cover the uniform cost. To protest this inequity, the men of the First South Carolina refused to accept any pay at all and fought for free. A double standard for black and white soldiers was also applied in regard to bounties (one-time bonuses paid upon enlistment) and pensions (money paid to former soldiers after their duty had ended), with black soldiers eligible for neither.

Nevertheless, many blacks were eager to join the army and generally optimistic about the results of their actions. As noted in Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, Thomas Long of the First South Carolina Volunteers said, "Now things can never go back, because we have showed our energy and courage and our natural manhood." Urging on the recruitment efforts, Douglass encouraged African Americans to fight for their own people's freedom, pointing out that "liberty won by white men would lose half its luster."

Black regiments formed as far west as Kansas, and in former Confederate strongholds like Mississippi, Virginia, and Louisiana. Six months after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, more than thirty regiments had formed; by December 1863, fifty thousand black soldiers had enrolled. One of the most famous regiments was the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts, whose story was dramatized in the 1989 movie Glory. Bound for Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, the regiment (which included two sons of Frederick Douglass) left Boston in May 1863, sent off with a parade lined with twenty thousand cheering spectators. Two months later, the regiment made an assault on Fort Wagner, located on Charleston Bay. Although they lost the battle and sustained heavy losses (including their white commander, Robert Gould Shaw [1837–1863]), the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts was honored for its valiant fighting.

Southern blacks react with pride

Although the Confederate response to the Union's black soldiers—they were known to immediately execute any they captured, rather than holding them as prisoners of war as they would white soldiers—may have dampened their spirits, they must have been lifted by the response of the black people they encountered as they made their way through the South. The surprise and amazement many felt when they saw the Union regiments made up of blue-uni-formed African Americans quickly turned to pride. The troops were greeted by cheers and hugs as they marched through cities, towns, and rural areas.

Almost as many African Americans served the Union army in noncombat jobs (such as cook, carpenter, blacksmith, scout, and guide) as fought in battles. Of those who did serve as soldiers, about one-third were counted as dead or missing by the end of the war. Of this number, only 2,751 had died in combat; the rest succumbed to diseases like diarrhea and dysentery (an infection of the intestinal tract producing fever, pain, and severe diarrhea), which also killed many more white soldiers than the actual fighting. Most observers and commentators agreed that the African American troops had performed as well as the white ones, and seventeen of them (along with four sailors) were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Through their willingness to sacrifice their lives in defense of the Union, African Americans hoped that they had proved their loyalty to the nation. As the war drew to a close and the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation began to be felt, the dream of freedom seemed more and more real. In a few years, the war would end and freedom would come, but in the meantime several important developments would have to unravel along the way to those much-hoped-for outcomes.

For More Information


Ames, Mary. From a New England Woman's Diary in Dixie in 1865. Nor-wood, MA: Plimpton Press, 1906. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Blassingame, John W., ed. Slave Testimony. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.

Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Golay, Michael. Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913. New York: Facts on File, 1996.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co., 1870. Reprint, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002.

Jenkins, Wilbert L. Climbing Up to Glory: A Short History of African Americans During the Civil War and Reconstruction. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2002.

Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Litwack, Leon F. Frederick Douglass. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.

McCutcheon, Marc. Everyday Life in the 1800s. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1993.

McPherson, James M. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.

Wagner, Margaret E., Gary W. Gallagher, and Paul Finkelman, eds. Civil War Desk Reference. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

Web Sites

Louisiana State University. The United States Civil War Center. (accessed on August 31, 2004).

"Reconstruction." African American History. (accessed on August 31, 2004).

"Reference Resources: Civil War." Kidinfo. (accessed on August 31, 2004).

"US Civil War." Internet Modern History Sourcebook. (accessed on August 31, 2004).

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The Promise of Freedom

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