We’ll soon be free,
We’ll soon be free,
We’ll soon be free,
When de Lord will call us home.
My brudder, how long,
My brudder, how long,
My brudder, how long,
’Fore we done sufferin’ here?
It won’t be long,
It won’t be long,
It won’t be long,
’Fore de Lord will call us home.1
AFTER SEARCHING the slave quarters, the overseer solved the mystery of the missing ammunition. Ishmael had been accumulating shot and powder with the intention, as he confessed, to desert to the enemy. That had been the first indication of trouble on the Manigault rice plantations, located in coastal Georgia along the Savannah River. The war was in its seventh month, the slaves had been “working well and cheerfully,” and no desertions had been reported. But the Yankees were moving into the Sea Islands, black field hands had reportedly sacked the town of Beaufort, and a panicky Savannah feared imminent attack. Equally ominous were the reports of “murmuring” and disaffection among the slaves working the Savannah River plantations. “We had no trouble with our own Negroes,” Louis Manigault noted, “but from clear indications it was manifest that some of them were preparing to run away, using as a pretext their fear of the Yankees.” In the months that followed, Manigault, like so many plantation managers, came to discover that the always arduous task of controlling enslaved workers took on new dimensions under wartime conditions. His own slaves would teach him that much and more.
Seeking to minimize potential slave defections, Manigault conferred with his overseer, William Capers, a “remarkable” man and “perfect Gentleman” in whom he had complete confidence. The previous overseer had foolishly placed himself “on a par with the Negroes,” participating in their prayer meetings and “breaking down long established discipline.” Capers was not so easily misled. He claimed to know the Negro character, arguing that “if a Man put his confidence in a Negro He was simply a Damned Fool.” Only by understanding and acting upon that proven proposition, he believed, had he achieved success in managing slaves. In late 1861, convinced that “all was not quite correct” among the Manigault slaves, he advised that those most likely to cause trouble be removed to a safer area. Manigault agreed, and the two men soon learned how accurately they had appraised the character of some of those selected. That night, three of them attempted to escape; they were quickly apprehended and forcibly removed in handcuffs. The remaining seven “came very willingly.”
Despite these precautions, trouble persisted on the Manigault plantations. On February 21, 1862, Jack Savage, the head carpenter, ran away. That came as no surprise to Manigault, who said he epitomized the “bad Negro.” “We always considered him a most dangerous character & bad example to the others.… I think Jack Savage was the worst Negro I have ever known. I have for two years past looked upon him as one capable of committing murder or burning down this dwelling, or doing any act.” At the same time, he was “quite smart” and “our best plantation Carpenter,” and that presumably was why he had been retained. Savage did not flee to the Yankees; instead, he secluded himself in the nearby swamplands, where other neighborhood runaways soon joined him, including Charles Lucas, a Manigault slave (“one of our Prime Hands”) who had been entrusted with the plantation stock and who had recently been punished after the mysterious disappearance of some choice hogs. “His next step,” Manigault guessed, “was to follow the animals which he had most probably killed himself, and sent to the retreat where he expected soon to follow.” Shortly after this incident, Manigault sold a large portion of the livestock. “This was,” he explained, “through fear of their being all stolen some night by our Negroes.” On August 16, 1863, nearly eighteen months after his escape, Jack Savage returned to the plantation, “looking half starved and wretched in the extreme,” but acting with such impertinence that Capers suspected he would soon flee again. With Manigault’s approval, Capers quickly sold him in Savannah for $1,800, despite Savage’s attempt to depress that price: “It would have provoked you,” the overseer wrote, “to have heard Jack’s lies of his inability &c.” That same month, Charlie Lucas was apprehended.
While trying to anticipate runaways among the field hands, Manigault also had to deal with defections among his household servants. The disappearance of “his Woman ‘Dolly’ ” must have particularly perplexed him, as the description which he posted in the Augusta and Charleston police stations indicates:
She is thirty years of age, of small size, light complexion, hesitates somewhat when spoken to, and is not a very healthy woman, but rather good looking, with a fine set of teeth. Never changed her Owner, has been always a house Servant, and no fault ever having been found with her.
At a loss for a plausible explanation, Manigault finally concluded that she had been “enticed off by some White Man.” Although such defections annoyed Manigault, he found even more incredible the strange behavior of Hector, who for nearly thirty years had been his “favorite Boat Hand” and “a Negro We all of us esteemed highly.” He had been a good worker, a trusted slave, “always spoiled both by my Father and Myself, greatly indulged,” and “my constant companion when previous to my marriage I would be quite alone upon the plantation.” And yet, he was “the very first to murmur” and “give trouble” after the outbreak of the war. Only after considerable personal anguish did Manigault agree to remove him to Charleston; there was no question in his mind but that Hector “would have hastened to the embrace of his Northern Brethren, could he have foreseen the least prospect of a successful escape.”
The wartime experience with his slaves unsettled Manigault. The unexpected behavior of Hector proved to be “only One of the numerous instances of ingratitude evinced in the African character.” In the end, he would no longer harbor any illusions about the depth of slave fidelity. “This war has taught us the perfect impossibility of placing the least confidence in any Negro. In too numerous instances those we esteemed the most have been the first to desert us.”
When Manigault paid his last wartime visit to his Georgia properties, the sound of cannon fire could be heard in the distance. He thought the slaves still seemed pleased to see him. More than two years would elapse before he would see any of them again; meanwhile, on Christmas Eve 1864, Yankee troops left a trail of destruction as they moved through the largely abandoned Savannah River plantations.2
“DE WAR COMES ter de great house an’ ter de slave cabins jist alike,” recalled Lucy Ann Dunn, a former slave on a North Carolina plantation. When the Yankees were reported to be approaching, even the less perceptive whites might have sensed the anxiousness, the apprehension, the excitement that gripped the slave quarters. “Negroes doing no good,” a Tennessee planter reported. “They seem to be restless not knowing what to do. At times I pity them at others I blame them much.” The tension was by no means confined to the fields but entered the Big House and affected the demeanor of the servants, including some who had hitherto betrayed few if any emotions about the war. “I tole you de Nordern soldiers would come back; I tole you dose forts was no ’count,” Aunt Polly, a Virginia house slave, exclaimed to the master’s son. “Yes,” he replied, obviously taken aback by her bluntness, “but you told me the Southern soldiers would come back, too, when father went away with them.” “Dat because you cried,” she explained, “and I wanted to keep up your spirits.” With those words, Aunt Polly, a long-time family favorite for whose services her master said he could set no price, prepared to leave her “accustomed post” in the kitchen.3
Although few slaves demonstrated such “impertinence” in the presence of the master’s family, they did appear to be less circumspect in expressing their emotions. The pretenses were now lowered, if not dropped altogether. “The negroes seem very unwilling for the work,” a young white woman confided to her journal; “some of their aside speeches very incendiary. Edward, the old coachman, is particularly sullen.” On some plantations, the once clandestine prayer meetings were noticeably louder and more effusive, and there appeared to be fewer reasons to muffle the sounds before they reached the Big House. The singing in the slave quarters, Booker T. Washington remembered, “was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night.” They had sung these verses before but there was no longer any need to conceal what they meant by them; the words had not changed, only their immediacy, only the emphasis with which certain phrases were intoned. “Now they gradually threw off the mask,” Washington recalled, “and were not afraid to let it be known that the ‘freedom’ in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.”4
The mood of the slaves often defied the analysis of the master. On certain plantations, the slaves continued to act with an apparent indifference toward the war and the approaching Union troops, leaving their owners to speculate about what lay behind those bland countenances. In early 1865, as General Sherman’s troops moved into South Carolina, a prominent rice planter observed little excitement among his slaves; in fact, they seemed “as silent as they had been in April, 1861, when they heard from a distance the opening guns of the war.” Each evening the slave foreman dutifully obtained his instructions for the next day, and the work proceeded smoothly and silently. “Did those Negroes know that their freedom was so near? I cannot say, but, if they did, they said nothing, only patiently waited to see what would come.” A neighboring planter found his slaves performing little work but they “appear to be calm and are quite lively. They are orderly and respectful more so than one could expect under the circumstances.” With Yankee raiding parties reported a few miles away, the daughter of a Louisiana planter observed the slaves busily engaged in preparations for a Christmas party. That night, after hearing that a nearby town had been virtually destroyed, the white family witnessed the slave festivities with mixed feelings.
We have been watching the negroes dancing for the last two hours. Mother had the partition taken down in our old house so that they have quite a long ball room. We can sit on the piazza and look into it. I hear now the sounds of fiddle, tambourine and “bones” mingled with the shuffling and pounding of feet. Mr. Axley is fiddling for them. They are having a merry time, thoughtless creatures, they think not of the morrow.
On New Year’s Day 1864, Catherine Broun gave her servants their customary party—“everything I would prepare for a supper for my own company”—even as she wondered how many of them would be with her by the end of the year; the “general opinion” in her neighborhood was that few of the slaves would remain. “I sometimes think I would not care if they all did go, they are so much trouble to me we have such a host of them.”5
Before the arrival of the Union Army, the roadsides were apt to be filled with the retreating columns of Confederate troops, their condition imparting most vividly and convincingly the visage of defeat. For many slaves, that sight alone confirmed what the “grapevine” and the demeanor of their “white folks” had earlier suggested, and the contrast with the initial predictions of ultimate victory could hardly have been more striking.
I seen our ’Federates go off laughin’ an’ gay; full of life an’ health. Dey was big an’ strong, asingin’ Dixie an’ dey jus knowed dey was agoin’ to win. I seen ’em come back skin an’ bone, dere eyes all sad an’ hollow, an’ dere clothes all ragged. Dey was all lookin’ sick. De sperrit dey lef’ wid jus’ been done whupped outten dem.6
But even the anticipation of freedom did not necessarily prompt slaves to revel in the apparent military collapse of the Confederacy. Whether from loyalty to their “white folks,” the need to act circumspectly, or fear of the Yankees, many slaves looked with dismay at the ragged columns of Confederate soldiers passing through the towns and plantations. For some, faithfulness may have been less important than simply pride in their homeland, now being ravaged by strangers who evinced little regard for the property and lives of Southerners, black or white.7
The ambivalence that characterized the reaction of some slaves to the demise of the Confederacy reflected an understandable tension between attachment to their localities and the prospect of freedom. Three years after the war, an English visitor asked a Virginia freedman his opinion of Robert E. Lee. “He was a grand man, General Lee, sah,” the ex-slave replied without hesitation. “You were sorry when he was defeated, I suppose?” the visitor then asked. “O no, sah,” the freedman quickly retorted; “we were glad; we clapped our hands that day.” If few slaves yearned for a Confederate victory, they did nevertheless view themselves as Southerners, they did sense that their lives and destinies were intricately bound with the white people of the South, and some even shared with whites the humiliation of defeat. “Dere was jes’ too many of dem blue coats for us to lick,” a former Alabama slave tried to explain. “Our ’Federates was de bes’ fightin’ men dat ever were. Dere warn’t nobody lak our ’Federates.”8
When the unfamiliar roar of gunfire echoed in the distance, the emotions of individual slaves ranged from bewilderment and fear to unconcealed elation. In eastern Virginia, within earshot of the battle raging at Manassas, an elderly slave “mammy” preparing the Sunday dinner greeted each blast of the cannon with a subdued “Ride on, Massa Jesus.” When the guns were heard near Charleston, a sixty-nine-year-old woman exclaimed, “Come, dear Jesus,” and she later recalled having felt “nearer to Heaben den I eber feel before.” The younger slaves were apt to be less certain about what was happening around them. The strange noise, the hasty preparations, the talk in the slave quarters were at the same time exciting and terrifying. Two young slaves who lived in different sections, Sam Mitchell of South Carolina and Annie Osborne of Louisiana, each heard what sounded like thunder when the Yankees approached, and both of them sought an explanation. “Son,” Sam’s mother assured him, “dat ain’t no t’under, dat Yankee come to gib you Freedom.” When the cannons ceased booming, Annie’s brother told her, “We’s gwine be all freed from old Massa Tom’s beatin’s.” No amount of time could dim those recollections, any more than Sarah Debro, who had been a slave in North Carolina, could forget the moment she asked her mistress to explain the thunder that had frightened her “near ’bout to death.” Those were Yankee cannons killing “our men,” the woman replied, before breaking down in tears. Alarmed by this unusual sight, Sarah ran to the kitchen, where Aunt Charity was cooking, and told her what had just happened. “She ain’t cryin’ kaze de Yankees killin’ de mens,” the black woman declared, “she’s doin’ all dat cryin’ kaze she skeered we’s goin’ to be sot free.”9
To perform the usual plantation routines under these conditions proved to be increasingly difficult. Although planters and overseers tried to maintain business as usual, and some succeeded, the reported approach of the Union Army tended to undermine slave discipline and in some places it brought work to a complete standstill. From the moment Yankee soldiers were sighted in the vicinity, John H. Bills, a Tennessee planter, found he could exert little authority over his slaves. “My people seem Contented & happy, but not inclined to work. They say ‘it is no use’ the Yankeys will take it all.” Moble Hopson, who had been a slave in Virginia, recalled how they had paid little attention to the war until the day they reported to the field and found no one there to supervise them. “An’ dey stand ’round an’ laugh an’ dey get down an’ wait, but dey don’ leave dat field all de mawning. An’ den de word cum dat de Yankees was a comin’, an’ all dem blacks start tuh hoopin’ an’ holl’rin’, an’ den dey go on down to deer shacks an’ dey don’ do no work at all dat day.”10
The approach of the Union Army forced planters and slaves alike into a flurry of last-minute activity. “ ’Fore they come,” a former Georgia slave recalled, “the white folks had all the niggers busy hidin’ everything they could.” On the assumption, which proved to be incorrect, that the Yankees would not disturb the slaves’ possessions, many white families secreted their valuables in or under the slave cabins or on the very persons of the slaves. “Miss Gusta calls me and wrops my hair in front and puts her jewelry in under the plaits and pulls them back and pins them down so you couldn’t see nothin’.” With Union troops sighted nearby, a South Carolina planter moved some of his house furniture into the cabin belonging to Abram Brown, the driver and headman on the plantation, and told him to claim ownership if the Yankees asked any questions. To the Union soldiers, it must have looked like the best-furnished slave cabin in the South, and they refused to believe Brown’s story. Knowing the risks, some slaves simply refused to accept such responsibilities, using time-honored devices. “Mamma Maria was too nervous,” her mistress wrote, “and cried too much to have any responsibility put on her.”11
During those tense, anxious days of waiting, there were slaves who provided whatever encouragement and support they could muster for their masters and mistresses. With the Yankees expected any moment, Emma LeConte, the daughter of a prominent South Carolinian, found great comfort in the declaration of her servant, Henry, that he would stand by the family, whatever the consequences. “I believe he means it, but do not know how he will hold on.” On the day the Union Army entered Columbia, the LeConte servants (including Henry) returned from the center of town laden with looted provisions which they then shared with the white family. “How times change!” a grateful Emma LeConte wrote in her diary that night. “Those whom we have so long fed and cared for now help us.” Where the mistress and her daughters were the only remaining whites on the plantation, the slave women sometimes reversed paternalistic roles and insisted upon moving into the Big House, even into the same room, to afford them a greater degree of security. And with so many strangers prowling through the neighborhood, including Confederate Army stragglers and deserters, the slaves often treated with apprehension anyone who approached the plantation. On one Georgia plantation, a “suspicious-looking character” asked for food, only to be told by the servants that the master was not at home. But the mistress, who remained upstairs at the insistence of the servants, sent word to them to feed the stranger. “They made him sit in the piazza,” she wrote her son afterwards, “and when he attempted to come into the house (as he said, ‘to see how it looked’) Flora and Tom barred the front door. I could see him from the balcony, and when his dinner was ready they … would not even trust him with a knife or fork, but gave him only an iron spoon.”12
Not only did some slaves vow to protect their “white folks,” as though the imminent arrival of the Yankees required a reaffirmation of loyalty, but they did what they could to ensure their safety. Preparing for the Union soldiers, a maid in Mary Chesnut’s household urged her mistress to burn the diary she had been keeping lest it fall into the hands of the enemy. During the siege of Vicksburg, Mary Ann Loughborough, along with her daughter and servants, took refuge in a cave and remained there during the Yankee bombardment; one of the servants stood guard, gun in hand, assuring his mistress that anyone who entered “would have to go over his body first.” No one had more experience in anticipating the changing moods of a master than did his slaves, and this valuable asset enabled some of them to save the lives of their masters. When the Yankees were sighted, Charley Bryant, a Texas slaveholder, ran into the house and grabbed his gun. But George Price, the head slave on the plantation, fearing for the safety of his volatile master, disarmed him and locked him in the smoke-house. “He ain’t do dat to be mean,” a former slave recalled, “but he want to keep old massa outten trouble. Old massa know dat, but he beat on de door and yell, but it ain’t git open till dem Yankees done gone.”13
Anticipating the path of the Union Army, many planters had already removed the bulk of their slaves to safer areas. If that proved impractical, some attempted to hide them, along with the family jewels, money, and livestock, until the Yankees had passed through the neighborhood. Reversing traditional roles, the planter himself might seek refuge in the nearby woods or swamp, depending upon the slaves to supply him with food and not to betray his hiding place. Rather than take such chances, Amanda Stone and her family, like so many others, chose to abandon their plantation in Louisiana. In helping them to prepare for the hasty evacuation, the slaves proved helpful—almost too helpful. The family claimed not to be deceived. “You could see it was only because they knew we would soon be gone. We were only on sufferance. Two days longer and we think they would all have gone to the Yankees, most probably robbing and insulting us before they left.” Only two of the remaining slaves agreed to accompany them. “So passes the glory of the family,” Kate Stone sighed. Appearances could, indeed, be deceptive. John S. Wise, the son of a prominent Virginian, recalled the abandonment of the family plantation near Norfolk and how Jim, the butler, had diligently assisted them. “Jim my father regarded as his man Friday. Nobody doubted that one so faithful and so long trusted would prove true in this emergency.” But after helping to load the carriage with silverware and valuables, and just before they were to depart, Jim disappeared. “In vain we called and searched for him. We never saw him again. The prospect of freedom overcame a lifetime of love and loyalty.”14
The flight of the white families evoked a variety of responses in their slaves. Some claimed to understand the decision, though it seemed like a strange turnabout to remain on the plantation while the white folks ran. “Funny how they run away like that,” a former North Carolina slave reminisced. “They had to save their selves. I ’member they [the Yankees] took one old boss man and hung him up in a tree across a drain of water.… Those white folks had to run away.” Still other slaves came away with contempt for their masters for having fled and abandoned them, while some thought it highly amusing, even ludicrous, and most certainly an admission of defeat. The scene lent itself, in fact, to one of the most popular wartime songs, “Kingdom Comin’,” in which it was even suggested that some of the fleeing masters tried to pass themselves off as “contrabands.”
Say, darkies, hab you seen de massa,
Wid de muffstash on his face,
Go along de road some time dis mornin’,
Like he gwine to leab de place?
He seen a smoke way up de ribber,
Whar de Linkum gunboats lay.
He took his hat, an’ lef berry sudden,
An’ I spec’ he run away!
De massa run! ha, ha!
De darkey stay! ho, ho!
It mus’ be now de kingdom comin’
An’ de year ob Jubilo!
He six foot one way, two foot tudder,
An’ he weigh free hundred pound.
His coat so big, he couldn’t pay de tailor,
An’ it won’t go half way round.
He drill so much, dey call him Cap’n,
An’ he get so drefful tanned,
I spec’ he try an’ fool dem Yankees,
For to tink he’s contraband.
De darkeys feel so berry lonsome,
Libing in de log house on de lawn.
Dey move dar tings to massa’s parlor,
For to keep it while he’s gone.
Dar’s wine an’ cider in de kitchen,
An’ de darkeys dey’ll hab some;
I spose dey’ll all be confiscated,
When de Linkum sojers come.
De oberseer he make us trouble,
An’ he dribe us round a spell;
We lock him up in de smoke-house cellar,
Wid de key trown in de well.
De whip is lost, de han’cuff broken,
But de massa’ll hab his pay.
He’s old enuff, big enuff, ought to know better
Dan to went an’ run away.15
Nor did the irony of their masters suddenly becoming fugitives seem to escape the slaves. In the newspaper edited by Frederick Douglass, who had himself once been a fugitive, there appeared an advertisement purportedly written by a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, offering a reward for the return of his “runaway master.” Whatever the authenticity of the item, the point could not have been made more graphically.
$500 REWARD.—Rund away from me on the 7th of dis month, my massa Julian Rhett. Massa Rhett am five feet ‘leven inches high, big shoulders, brack hair, curly, shaggy whiskers, low forehead an’ dark face. He make big fuss when he go ’mong de gemmen, he talk very big, an’ use de name ob de Lord all de time. Calls heself “Suddern gemmen,” but I’ spose will try now to pass heself off as a black man or mulatter. Massa Rhett has a deep scar on his shoulder, from a fight, scratch ’cross de left eye, made by Dinah when he tried to whip her. He neber look people in de face. I more dan spec he will make track for Bergen kounty, in the furrin land of Jersey, whar I ‘magin he hab a few friends.
I will [give] $100 for him if alive, an’ $500 if anybody show [him] dead. If he come back to his kind niggers without much trouble, dis chile will receive him lubbingly.
Beaufort, S.C., Nov. 9, 186116
Before a master fled, he might entrust the plantation or town house to some responsible slave, usually the driver or house servants, in the hope that his property could be kept intact until his return. Such confidence in most instances was not betrayed, with the slaves demonstrating what few masters had willingly conceded them—the ability to look after themselves and the plantation without any whites to advise or direct them. If the able-bodied hands had been removed earlier, however, the only remaining slaves were apt to be “the old and sickly,” the very young, and a few house servants. This could result in a precarious existence, particularly in those regions where the dreaded “paterollers” and Confederate guerrillas were active. In the Mississippi River parishes, the frequency with which the slaves left on abandoned plantations were kidnapped, taken to Texas, and sold finally forced the governor to send troops to curtail such activity and, if possible, to recover the slaves.17
When white families abandoning the plantations tried to take slaves with them, they often encountered the same resistance that had greeted earlier attempts to remove slaves to safer areas. The classic example occurred early in the war, when the sudden appearance of Union warships at the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina precipitated a mass exodus of planters and their families. Despite pleading, threats, and violence, however, the slaves stubbornly refused to accompany their owners to the mainland, many of them hiding in the swamps and fields rather than be taken. With freedom perhaps only a few hours or days away, this reluctance was not surprising. After being ordered to row his master to the mainland, Moses Mitchell, a carpenter and hoer, heeded his wife’s suggestion to “go out dat back door and keep a-going.” Equally determined, a slave named Susannah, valued as the family seamstress, refused to leave with her master and mistress despite their dire warnings about what would happen if she remained. Several days later, when her master’s son returned and ordered the slaves to destroy the cotton lest it fall into the hands of the Union Army, they refused to cooperate. “Why for we burn de cotton?” they asked. “Where we get money then for buy clo’ and shoes and salt?” Rather than burn the cotton, the slaves took turns guarding it, “the women keeping watch and the men ready to defend it when the watchers gave the alarm.” In some instances, however, slaves who resisted removal were shot down, even burned to death in the cotton houses. On Edisto Island, where a Confederate raiding party had tried to remove some blacks, “the women fought so violently when they were taking off the men,” a white Charlestonian wrote, “that they were obliged to shoot some of them.”18
Not only did the areas of comparative safety within the Confederacy shrink with the advance of the Union Army but there were more compelling reasons why most slaveholding families chose not to flee. To stay was to try to save their homes and plantations from destruction and to preserve their slaves from the fearful epidemic whites diagnosed as “demoralization.” By remaining at home, a Mississippi planter decided, he would be in a position to prevent his slaves “from denuding my place.” Henry W. Ravenel of South Carolina entertained more lofty thoughts. Still imbued with the old paternalism, he thought it wrong—morally as well as practically—to desert his slaves at this time. “We know that if left to themselves, they cannot maintain their happy condition. We must reward their fidelity to us by the same care & consideration we exercised when they were more useful.” Apart from economic considerations, slavery had long been defended as a necessary instrument of social control that benefited both races. And now, with the Yankees not far away, some slaveholders deemed it their duty to protect their blacks from vices that would inevitably accompany liberation and freedom.19
Whether the master and mistress chose to stay or flee, they might lecture the slaves on how to behave when the Yankees arrived. Although they were to avoid impertinence, that did not require them to welcome the invaders as they did most guests. Traditional plantation hospitality was to be extended most discriminately. “Dey ain’t our company,” a former North Carolina slave remembered being told. A Virginia master, after reciting the “barbarities” of the Yankees, threatened to punish anyone who suggested to the enemy that they had not been content as slaves. “Dey tol’ us to tell ’em how good dey been to us,” a former Alabama slave recalled, “an’ dat we liked to live wid ’em.” Rivana Boynton, who had been a house slave on a plantation near Savannah, remembered the day her mistress, Mollie Hoover, assembled the slaves and instructed them on what to tell the approaching Yankees. “If they ask you whether I’ve been good to you, you tell ’em ‘yes.’ If they ask you if we give you meat, you say ‘yes.’ ” Most of the slaves did not get any meat, the former servant recalled, “but I did, ’cause I worked in the house. So I didn’t tell a lie, for I did git meat.” Most importantly, the white family warned the slaves not to divulge where the valuables had been hidden, no matter what the Yankees told them. “We knowed enough to keep our mouths shut,” a former Georgia slave remarked. But a Tennessee slave, named Jule, who claimed not to fear the Union soldiers, had some different ideas. As the Yankees neared the plantation, the mistress commanded the slaves to remain loyal. “If they find that trunk o’ money or silver plate,” she asked Jule, “you’ll say it’s your’n, won’t you?” The slave stood there, obviously unmoved by her mistress’s plea. “Mistress,” she replied, “I can’t lie over that; you bo’t that silver plate when you sole my three children.”20
When the Union Army was nearby, slaves were quick to discern any changes in the disposition of their owners. In some places, the frequency and the severity of punishments abated, and the masters—perhaps fearing slave retaliation—assumed a more benign attitude, prepared for the eventuality of free labor, and even offered to pay wages. After the Yankees had been sighted less than two miles away, a Tennessee planter who had beaten one of his slaves that morning apologized to him and begged him not to desert. But as slaves had learned so well, usually from bitter personal experience, the moods of their “white folks” were capable of violent fluctuations. If the wartime disruptions, privations, and casualties had earlier provoked fits of anger, the impending disaster they now faced and the knowledge that they were about to lose both the war and their slaves rendered even some usually self-possessed whites unable to contain their emotions. That was how Katie Darling, a nurse and housegirl on a Texas plantation, recalled her mistress. When the Yankees drew near, “missy go off in a rage. One time when a cannon fire, she say to me, ‘You li’l black wench, you niggers ain’t gwine be free. You’s made to work for white folks.’ ” A former Georgia slave recalled a “good master” who broke under the strain and tension that preceded the Union soldiers. “Marse William ain’t eber hit one of us a single lick till de day when we heard dat de Yankees was a’comin’.” When one of the slaves jumped up and shouted “Lawd bless de Yankees” on that day, the master lost his composure. Shouting “God damn de Yankees,” he slapped the slave repeatedly. “Ever’-body got outen dar in a hurry an’ nobody else dasen’t say Yankees ter de marster.”21
Not knowing what to expect of the invading army but fearing the worst, white families, in those final days and hours, often verged on panic and hysteria. At least that was how some of their slaves perceived them. In exasperation, masters were known to have lashed out at men and women who were too quick to celebrate their imminent release from bondage, while others refused to acknowledge either defeat or emancipation. After hearing of a new Confederate setback in the vicinity, Katie Rowe’s master mounted his horse and rode out onto the plantation where the slaves were hoeing the corn. He instructed the overseer to assemble the hands around the lead row man—“dat my own uncle Sandy”—and what he told them on that occasion Katie Rowe could recall vividly many years later:
You niggers been seeing de ‘Federate soldiers coming by here looking purty raggedy and hurt and wore out, but dat no sign dey licked! Dem Yankees ain’t gwine git dis fur, but iffen dey do you all ain’t gwine git free by ’em, ’cause I gwine free you befo’ dat. When dey git here dey going find you already free, ’cause I gwine line you up on de bank of Bois d’Arc Creek and free you wid my shotgun! Anybody miss jest one lick wid de hoe, or one step in de line, or one clap of dat bell, or one toot of de horn, and he gwine be free and talking to de debil long befo’ he ever see a pair of blue britches!
Not long after that warning, the master was “blowed all to pieces” in a boiler explosion, “and dey jest find little bitsy chunks of his clothes and parts of him to bury.” And when the Yankees finally arrived, the overseer who had previously terrorized them “git sweet as honey in de comb! Nobody git a whipping all de time de Yankees dar!”22
Looking on with a growing sense of incredulity, slaves observed the desperation, the anguish, the helplessness that marked the faces and actions of their “white folks.” A Tennessee slave recalled how her mistress, at the sight of Union gunboats, suddenly “got wild-like” and “was cryin’ an’ wringin’ her han’s,” while at the same time she kept repeating to her slaves, “Now, ’member I brought you up!” Although the slaves shared much of the uncertainty that pervaded the Big House, the quality of their fears and the anticipation they felt were quite different. When Margaret Hughes, who had been a young slave in South Carolina, heard that the Union soldiers were coming, she ran to her aunt for comfort. Much to Margaret’s surprise, she found her in the best of spirits and not at all dismayed by the news. “Child,” she reassured her, “we going to have such a good time a settin’ at de white folks’ table, a eating off de white folks’ table, and a rocking in de big rocking chair.”23
With Union soldiers already in the vicinity, Emma Holmes, a twenty-six-year-old white woman of “aristocratic” tastes and breeding, calmly attended the Methodist services in Camden, South Carolina. On that day, the Reverend Pritchard delivered a “thoroughly practical sermon” to the slaves in the audience, drawing his illustrations from “daily life,” warning them about lying, stealing, cursing, and quarreling, and telling them that the Yankees had been “sent by the devil.” But, like Job, they were all to bear their losses. Overhearing her servants discuss the sermon afterwards, Emma Holmes was both “amused” and “interested,” and concluded “that good seed had been sowed and was bearing fruit.” The attire worn by many of the black women at the service, however, deeply distressed her. Rather than wear “the respectable and becoming handkerchief turban,” they had appeared “in the most ludicrous and disgustingly tawdry mixture of old finery, aping their betters most nauseatingly—round hats, gloves and even lace veils.” They would do best to adopt “a plain, neat dress for the working classes, as in other countries, and indeed among our country negroes formerly.” Even as the death of slavery appeared imminent, the thoughts uppermost in this woman’s mind after attending church that day hardly conceded as much. “If I ever own negroes, I shall carry out my father’s plan and never allow them to indulge in dress—it is ruin body and soul to them.”24
The appearance of the first Yankee soldier symbolized far more than the humiliation of military defeat. No matter how certain they were of their own slaves, nearly every master and mistress sensed that the old loyalties and mutual dependencies were about to become irrelevant. “Negro slavery is about played out,” John H. Bills, the Tennessee planter, observed, “we being deprived of that Control needful to make them happy and prosperous.” And Sarah Morgan, the daughter of a slaveholding family, could find solace only in recalling the past. “No more cotton, sugarcane, or rice!” she lamented. “No more old black aunties or uncles! No more rides in mule teams, no more songs in the cane-field, no more steaming kettles, no more black faces and shining teeth around the furnace fires!” The previous night, she had sat around the fire with a crowd of family slaves, singing with them, enjoying their company. “Poor oppressed devils!” she thought. “Why did you not chunk us with the burning logs instead of looking happy, and laughing like fools?”25
Preparing to abandon the family plantation, as the Yankees approached, Eliza Andrews took time to note in her journal: “There is no telling what may happen before we come back; the Yankees may have put an end to our glorious old plantation life forever.” That night, she paid a final visit to the slave quarters to bid her blacks farewell. “Poor things, I may never see any of them again, and even if I do, everything will be different. We all went to bed crying …” Four months later, returning to her home, she confided to her journal: “It is necessary to have some nickname to use when we talk before the servants, and to speak very carefully, even then, for every black man is a possible spy. Father says we must not even trust mammy too far.”26
Don’t you see the lightning flashing in the cane brakes,
Looks like we gonna have a storm
Although you’re mistaken it’s the Yankee soldiers
Going to fight for Uncle Sam.
Old master was a colonel in the Rebel army
Just before he had to run away—
Look out the battle is a-falling
The darkies gonna occupy the land.27
THE LONG, often excruciating wait was nearly over. On plantations and farms in the path of the Union Army, the tension and uneasiness, albeit in different degrees, pervaded both the Big House and the slave quarters. Mary Brodie, a thirteen-year-old slave in Wake County, North Carolina, could easily sense the change that had come over the plantation on which she resided. “Missus and marster began to walk around and act queer. The grown slaves were whisperin’ to each other. Sometimes they gathered in little gangs in the grove.” In the next several days, the noise of distant gunfire grew louder, everybody “seemed to be disturbed,” the slaves walked about aimlessly, nobody was working, “and marster and missus were crying.” Finally, the word went out for every slave to assemble in front of “the great house.” Sam and Evaline Brodie came out on the porch and stood side by side facing their more than 150 slaves. “You could hear a pin drop,” Mary recalled, “everything was so quiet.” After greeting them, the master explained why he had called them together. “Men, women and children, you are free. You are no longer my slaves. The Yankees will soon be here.” There was no more to be said. The master and mistress went back into the house, picked up two large armchairs, placed them on the porch facing the road, and sat down to wait. “In about an hour,” Mary recalled, “there was one of the blackest clouds coming up the avenue from the main road. It was the Yankee soldiers.”28
When Union gunboats were sighted coming up the Combahee River in South Carolina, the overseer frantically assembled the slaves. “The Yankees are coming!” he told them. “You must all keep out of sight. Don’t let them see you. If they land near here, cut and run and hide where nobody can find you. I tell you them Yanks are the very devil! If they catch you they will sell you to New Orleans or Cuba!” The slaves assured the overseer that they would run so fast “de Debil hisself” would be unable to catch them. “Don’t you worry, Massa Jim,” the old slave cook added. “We all hear ’bout dem Yankees. Folks tell we they has horns an’ a tail. I is mighty skeery myself, an’ I has all my t’ings pick up, an’ w’en I see dem coming I shall run like all possess.” Reassured, the overseer announced that he was going to the mainland and would leave everything in their care. The slaves gathered to watch him ride off. “Good-by, ole man, good-by,” they shouted as he disappeared down the road. “That’s right. Skedaddle as fas’ as you kin. When you cotch we ag’in, I ’specs you’ll know it. We’s gwine to run sure enough; but we knows the Yankees, an’ we runs that way.” And so they did, directly toward the Union gunboats.29
When former slaves recalled the war years, what remained most vivid in their memories—“just as good as it had been dis day right here”—was that moment when freedom from bondage suddenly became a distinct possibility in their own lifetimes. The first slaves who experienced that sensation were usually those whose homes lay in the path of the Union Army. “We hear’d ’bout de Yankees fightin’ to free us,” remembered Berry Smith of Mississippi, “but we didn’ b’lieve it ’til we hear’d ’bout de fightin’ at Vicksburg.” When the “freedom gun” was fired, and Sherman’s troops came through the plantation, Susan Hamilton was scrubbing the floors. “Dey tell me I wus free but I didn’t b’lieve it.” While driving the cows to pasture, Rilla Pool, a North Carolina slave, glanced down the railroad tracks and “everything was blue”; she ran home to tell the others, and heard her grandmother exclaim, “Well I has been prayin’ long enough for ’em [and] now dey is here.” Hester Hunter, a South Carolina slave, recalled the day her grandmother ran into the house with news that the Yankees were on their way, after which the mistress screamed, fetched her valuables, and told the slave to sew them up in the feather bed. Still another South Carolina slave was about to be whipped by his master for misconduct when they heard the shout that Union gunboats were coming up the river; both fled, but in opposite directions.30
Uncertainty, skepticism, and fear marked the initial reaction of many slaves to the Yankee invaders. The first impulse was often to hide. “I done what all of de rest o’ de slaves done,” recalled a former slave who had fled to the nearby woods. Young Margaret Lavine remembered how her mother grabbed her in her arms; indeed, some slave women ordered their children to bed, told them to feign illness, and warned the Union soldiers not to enter the cabin because “dere’s de fever in heah!” Neither ignorance nor devotion to their “white folks” necessarily explains the caution with which many slaves greeted their liberators. The activities of the much-feared “paterollers,” who roamed the countryside to keep the blacks in check, had already made the slaves exceedingly wary of approaching strangers, even those claiming to be Yankees; the citizens’ patrols, as well as Confederate guerrillas (sometimes wearing Yankee uniforms), were known to have beaten and murdered slaves who mistook them for Union soldiers and prematurely rejoiced over their liberation, and some slaves had been tricked into giving information to alleged Yankees, only to find themselves strung up as spies and informers. Many a slave suffered, too, at the hands of white stragglers and deserters, and General Joe Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry had become notorious for the ways in which it pillaged and terrorized the countryside, leaving in some areas of South Carolina and North Carolina little for the Yankees to plunder. “Dey was ’Federates but dey was mean as de Yankees,” Sarah Debro recalled. “Dey ax de niggahs if dey wanted to be free. If dey say yes, den dey shot dem down, but if dey say no, dey let dem alone. Dey took three of my uncles out in de woods an’ shot dey faces off.”31
If the approaching soldiers were, in fact, Yankees, there remained compelling reasons why the slaves might act cautiously. Although freedom appeared to be at hand, uncertainty about what forms that freedom would take, how their “liberators” would treat them, and what would happen to them once the soldiers departed suggested the need to adopt that noncommittal stance that had served them so well in relations with the “white folks.” Realizing that their master would most likely regain control after the soldiers moved on, slaves had good reason to fear that a terrible revenge might be visited upon those who behaved contrary to expectations. Despite reassurances by General Sherman himself that the Yankees came as friends, an elderly Georgia slave remained skeptical. “I spose dat you’se true,” he told the General; “but, massa, you’se ’ll go way to-morrow, and anudder white man ’ll come.” Experience with both Yankees and Confederates led one former slave to conclude, “Dem ‘Blue-coats’ wuz devils, but de ‘gray-coats’ wuz wusser,” and it prompted many slaves to maintain a safe distance between themselves and either army.
One night there’d be a gang of Secesh, and the next one, there’d come along a gang of Yankees. Pa was ’fraid of both of ’em. Secesh said they’d kill ’im if he left his white folks. Yankees said they’d kill ’im if he didn’t leave ’em. He would hide out in the cotton patch and keep we children out there with him.32
If a slave chose to believe only half of what he had been told about the approaching Union soldiers, there was every reason to be apprehensive. On the day the Yankees were expected, Betty Roach, a housegirl and nurse for the children on a small plantation in Tennessee, asked how she might be able to tell them apart from other whites. That would be easy, her mistress explained. “They got long horns on their heads, and tushes in their mouths, and eyes sticking out like a cow! They’re mean old things. And Betty—if they come to the house, don’t dare tell them the babies’ names—you hear? [The children had been named after two prominent Confederate generals.] If you do, they will kill the babies—and you too!” This same woman had previously assured Betty that if she worked hard and behaved herself, she would eventually turn white. Not at all uncommon, then, was the experience of a Union officer near Opelousas, Louisiana, when he wandered off the road to a shed in search of a cup of water. Seeing him, the slave women and children fled, leaving behind a small child who was trying desperately to join the others. The officer patted the child on the head and tried to assure him that he was perfectly safe. Emerging from their hiding places, the slaves who had run away explained that their master and mistress had told them that Union soldiers killed black children, sometimes even roasted and ate them.33
Since the outbreak of the war, white families had tried to frighten their slaves about the consequences of Yankee occupation, warning them to expect atrocities, forced labor, and military conscription. Since some slaves had come to expect anything of white men and women, the terrifying images of Yankee white devils might have seemed entirely plausible. But the slave’s perception of his master and mistress, based on years of close observation, and the information he gathered from a variety of alternative sources provided ample grounds for skepticism if not outright disbelief. Even with a limited access to the news, many slaves dismissed the atrocity stories because they simply made no sense. “Massa can’t come dat over we,” a Georgia slave told a Union officer; “we know’d a heap better. What for de Yankees want to hurt black men? Massa hates de Yankees, and he’s no fren’ ter we; so we am de Yankee bi’s fren’s.” After hearing those direful predictions of a Yankee hell, Aunt Sally, a Virginia slave, assumed a “darky” countenance and assured her mistress that there was nothing to fear from the enemy soldiers. “I done tell her what’d dey go to do to an ol’ good-for-nuffin nigger like me. Dey wouldn’t hab no use for me, I’se thinkin’. I’ll stay by de stuff.” The same master who warned his slaves about the Yankees, moreover, might have also boasted of the invincibility of Confederate arms, assuring them that the war would be brief and victorious. Why should they place any more confidence in their master’s word now than they had before? “They told her a heap more’n she believed,” a Louisiana freedwoman remarked after the war.34 And if the Yankees brought with them a promise of freedom, as everyone seemed to concede, why should the slaves fear them?
The first glimpse usually convinced even the more skeptical slaves, if not their masters, that the Yankees, in physical appearance at least, were less than the monsters they had been warned to expect. “Why dey’s folks,” one slave shouted with delight, as she ran down the road to greet them. Not knowing what he might see, Abram Harris, a former South Carolina slave, remembered his surprise at discovering that the Yankees were “jes lak my white folks.” Still not entirely convinced, Mittie Freeman, who had been a slave in Mississippi, recalled how she refused to come down from a tree until the Union soldier had removed his hat to show her he had no horns. Lingering suspicions of white men, whether Yankees or Confederates, were not always so easily set aside. Although anxious to celebrate their freedom, Gus Askew and his friends preferred not to do so in the presence of the Yankees. “We went on away from the so’jers and had a good time ’mongst ourselves, like we always done when there wasn’t any cotton pickin’.” The slaves were sometimes more restrained in their welcomes if their master or mistress happened to be present, and that may also account for the indifference with which some disappointed Yankees thought they had been received. “On our way up from Carrollton,” a Massachusetts soldier wrote, “one [slave] got the woodpile between him and the whites, and then vigorously waved his hat in welcome. It was our only welcome.”35
If the Yankees’ physical appearance seemed reassuring, the promise of freedom they had come to symbolize overcame for scores of slaves any doubts or suspicions. Without the slightest hesitation, many of them flocked to the roadsides, waved their hats and bonnets, greeted the soldiers with shouts of “God bress you; I is glad to see you,” threw their arms about in jubilation, stretched out their hands to touch them, even tried to hug them. “Massa say dis bery mornin’, ‘De damn Yankees nebber get up to here!’ ” a slave in the Teche country of Louisiana shouted at the passing troops, “but I knowed better; we all knowed better dan dat. We’s been prayin’ too long to de Lord to have him forgit us; and now you’se come, and we all free.” At the sight of Sherman’s army, one slave recalled, the whites fled to the woods and most of the slaves ran to their cabins, “but I’se on top o’ a pine stub, ten feet high, an’ I’se jes’ shoutin’ ‘Glory to God! take me wid ye! Glory to God! Glory Glory!’ ” Eliza Sparks, who had been a slave in Mathews County, Virginia, recalled most vividly the Union officer who wanted to know the name of the baby she was nursing. “Charlie, like his father,” she told him. “Charlie what?” the officer asked. “I tole him Charlie Sparks.” After presenting the baby with a copper coin, the officer rode off, but not before bidding the slave a farewell she would long remember. “Goodbye, Mrs. Sparks,” he yelled. That was what impressed her. “Now what you think of dat? Dey all call me ‘Mrs. Sparks’!”36
When the Yankees entered Charleston, a sixty-nine-year-old slave woman greeted them with a simple, repetitive chant:
Ye’s long been a-comin’,
Ye’s long been a-comin’,
Ye’s long been a-comin’,
For to take de land.
And now ye’s a-comin’,
And now ye’s a comin’,
And now ye’s a-comin’,
For to rule de land.
That the coming of the Yankees should have been suffused with religious significance for many slaves is hardly surprising. “Us looked for the Yankees on dat place,” a former South Carolina slave recalled, “like us look now for de Savior and de host of angels at de second comin’.” To the elderly, those who had endured nearly a lifetime of bondage, what they were now witnessing appeared to be nothing less than acts of divine intervention, with the Yankees cast as “Jesus’s Aids,” General Sherman as Moses, and Lincoln as “de Messiah.” That was the only way some slaves could explain what was happening to them, the only way they could render comprehensible these remarkable and dramatic events. Seldom had their prayers been answered so concretely. “I’d always thought about this, and wanted this day to come, and prayed for it and knew God meant it should be here sometime,” a Savannah slave declared as she shook her head in disbelief, “but I didn’t believe I should ever see it, and it is so great and good a thing, I cannot believe it has come now; and I don’t believe I ever shall realize it, but I know it has though, and I bless the Lord for it.”37
But the arrival of the Yankees on many plantations and farms came to be viewed, by slaves and their owners alike, as the visitation of God’s wrath. The soldiers would assemble the white family and the slaves, demand to know where the valuables were hidden, threaten them if they refused to divulge the information, and then commence to ransack the entire plantation, venting their anger on whatever or whoever got in the way. “De worst time we ever had,” recalled Fannie Griffin, who had been a slave in South Carolina. “De Yankees ’stroyed ’most everything we had.” On the plantation in Alabama where Walter Calloway worked as a plow hand, Confederate soldiers had already taken off the best livestock, making it “purty hard on bofe whites an’ blacks,” but the Yankees proved to be even more thorough, “smashin’ things comin’ an’ gwine.”38
What the Yankees did not take they might distribute among the slaves, even urging them to join in the pillaging. With their restricted diet having been further reduced by wartime scarcities, some slaves found it impossible to resist the invitation to partake of the food supply created by their own labor or the Big House furnishings accumulated through generations of their unpaid labor. When the soldiers broke open the storeroom on the Pooshee plantation in South Carolina, the slaves seized nearly everything in sight, much to the shock of the owner, who had to witness the scene. Afterwards, his granddaughter informed a friend of what had happened: “It must have been too mortifying to poor Grand Pa for his negroes to behave as they did, taking the bread out of our mouths. I thought better of them than that.” After the Yankees passed through her rice plantations, Adele Allston learned that the blacks had divided among themselves the furniture and livestock. But even when slaves were afforded these rare opportunities, their behavior defied predictability; many of them refused to have anything to do with such “looting” and were reluctant to accept any of the master’s property. In some instances, the slaves took what the soldiers gave them, so as not to anger them, but subsequently returned the goods to their owners, whether out of loyalty or because they feared the repercussions once the Union Army moved on.39
When Yankee troops looted the Morgan home in Baton Rouge, a faithful servant stood all he could before he exclaimed, “Ain’t you ’shamed to destroy all dis here, that belongs to a poor widow lady who’s got two daughters to support?” No matter how each slave felt inwardly, the sight of Yankees pillaging the plantation and perhaps humiliating the white residents had to be a unique experience. The way the soldiers “jes’ natcherly tore up ol’ Marster’s place,” as though they had a “special vengeance” for their “white folks,” left many slaves quite incredulous. So did the treatment of the women.
Upstairs dey didn’t even have de manners to knock at Mist’ess’ door. Dey just walked right on in whar my sister, Lucy, wuz combin’ Mist’ess’ long pretty hair. They told Lucy she wuz free now and not to do no more work for Mist’ess. Den all of’em grabbed dey big old rough hands into Mist’ess’ hair, and dey made her walk down stairs and out in de yard, and all de time dey wuz a-pullin’ and jerkin’ at her long hair …
With equal “impertinence,” the soldiers might force the white women to prepare meals and serve both them and the slaves. That was a sight Mary Ella Grandberry, a former Alabama slave, would never forget. “De Yankees made ’em do for us lak we done for dem. Dey showed de white folks what it was to work for somebody else.”40
Upon observing “the gloomy ebony scowl” on the faces of the slaves, a Union officer thought it arose from “jealousy at the liberties, taken by us, with what they consider their own plantations and possessions.” He was no doubt correct in his assumption. The slaves might have marveled at the audacity of the Yankees, and some perhaps derived pleasure from the discomfiture of their owners, but the indiscriminate and wasteful destruction of the food supply and what many regarded as their home struck them as excessive and unnecessary. The Yankees called it “a holy war,” a former South Carolina slave observed, “but they and Wheeler’s men was a holy terror to dis part of de world, as naked and hungry as they left it.” It was the pillaging, a former Mississippi slave recalled, that turned him against the Yankees, and he shared, too, the resentment of numerous blacks that the soldiers destroyed what they had worked so hard to produce. “We helped raise that meat they stole. They left us to starve and fed their fat selves on what was our living.” No less disturbing had been those planters and Confederate soldiers who had ordered the destruction of crops rather than leave them to the Yankees. “It made my innards hurt,” Charlie Davenport recalled, “to see fire ‘tached to somethin’ dat had cost us Niggers so much labor an’ hones’ sweat.”41
What compounded the bitterness was that the Yankees pillaged both whites and blacks, the Big House and the slave cabins alike. “The negroes all share the same fate as ourselves,” Emma Holmes noted after the Yankees had passed through Camden, South Carolina, “everything ransacked and whatever was wanted stolen, though the Yankees told them they had come to free them and called them ‘sis,’ talking most familiarly.” That they should be robbed and defrauded by those who claimed to be their liberators, that their cabins should be searched and ransacked, their wives and daughters insulted and abused, came as a shocking revelation to many slaves, leaving them both angry and confused. “I always bin hear dat de Yankees was gwine help de nigger!” one of the Allston servants exclaimed to her mistress after the Yankees had seized her few possessions. “W’a’ kynd a help yu call dis! Tek ebery ting I got in de wurld.” The depth of black disillusionment with the Yankees is suggested by the number of slaves who compared them to the much-despised and degraded poor whites. “By instinct,” Andy Brice of South Carolina observed, “a nigger can make up his mind pretty quick ’bout de creed of white folks, whether they am buckra or whether they am not. Every Yankee I see had de stamp of poor white trash on them.” Perhaps that was what a Mississippi slave had in mind after a Union soldier had addressed her as “Auntie.” “Don’t you call me ‘Auntie,’ ” she retorted, “I ain’t none o’ yo’ kin.”42
With considerable ingenuity, based on years of experience with their own “white folks,” some slaves managed to preserve their few possessions from the clutches of the Yankees. In Camden, South Carolina, for example, the soldiers seized the blankets belonging to an elderly black shoemaker. But he proved more than equal to the crisis. Feigning “a tone of terror,” he warned them not to mix his blankets with theirs, “as all the house girls had some catching disease.” On hearing this, the alarmed Yankees not only returned the blankets but presented the black with the mule on which they had placed the loot. Equally artful were the servants in the Mary S. Mallard household in Montevideo, Georgia, who sought both to avoid conscription into the Union Army and to save their belongings.
From being a young girl she [the cook] had assumed the attitude and appearance of a sick old woman, with a blanket thrown over her head and shoulders, and scarcely able to move. Their devices are various and amusing. Gilbert keeps a sling under his coat and slips his arm into it as soon as they appear; Charles walks with a stick and limps dreadfully; Niger a few days since kept them from stealing everything they wanted in his house by covering up in bed and saying he had “yellow fever”; Mary Ann kept them from taking the wardrobe of her deceased daughter by calling out: “Them dead people clothes!”43
Although the vast majority of slaves welcomed the Union soldiers, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, experience would reveal that their “liberators,” like their previous owners, might display moments of kindness, tenderness, generosity, and paternal benevolence but their racial beliefs and temperaments made them at the same time unpredictable and capable of a wide range of conduct. When an Arkansas slave confronted a Yankee who had stolen her quilts, she voiced the frustration of many of her brethren who had experienced a similar betrayal of expectations: “Why, you nasty, stinkin’ rascal. You say you come down here to fight for the niggers, and now you’re stealin’ from ’em.” But the soldier had the final word, aptly summing up his conception of the war and that of thousands of his comrades: “You’re a God Damn liar, I’m fightin’ for $14 a month and the Union.”44
BEFORE ENTERING THE SOUTH, few Yankee soldiers had ever seen so many blacks, such concentrations of them, appearing almost everywhere they marched. The tens of thousands who greeted them along the roadsides, the “contrabands” who flocked to their camps, the refugees who followed their columns, the sullen-looking figures who gazed at them from a distance provided most Union soldiers with their initial view of the “peculiar institution.” It was as if Harriet Beecher Stowe’s characters had suddenly materialized before their very eyes. “I never saw a bunch of them together,” a Wisconsin youth wrote, “but I could pick out an Uncle Tom, a Quimbo, a Sambo, a Chloe, an Eliza or any other character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”45
Although curious about what he would find in the South, the average Union soldier brought with him certain notions about black people, based largely on the racial beliefs and exaggerated caricatures with which he had been inculcated since childhood. His first impressions of the slaves he encountered invariably confirmed and reinforced those caricatures, and the descriptions he provided the folks at home dwelled upon them. If anything, their physical “peculiarities” struck him as even more pronounced than he had imagined; they were “so black that ‘charcoal would make a white mark on them,’ ” their mouths were excessively large, their lips excessively thick, and their noses excessively broad and flat. “They are the genuine Negro here,” a Pennsylvania soldier wrote from South Carolina, “as black as tar and their heels stick out a feet behind.” A New England soldier in Louisiana wrote his brother with a mixture of revulsion and attraction: “If I marry any one at all I believe I’ll marry one of these nigger wenches down here. One that grease runs right off of, one that shines and one that stinks so you can smell her a mile, and then you can have time to get out of the way.” Such disparagements were neither uncommon nor limited to Negrophobes. Even those Yankee soldiers who claimed to be antislavery expressed their amusement at the physical appearance and demeanor of the enslaved blacks, revealing more about their own backgrounds and biases than about the objects of their sympathy. “There is something irresistibly comical in their appearance,” wrote one such soldier, “they are so black, and their teeth are of such dazzling whiteness, their eyes so laughing and rolling, their clothes so fantastic, and their whole appearance so peculiar.”46
The Yankees expected to find a degraded, inferior, primitive people, who were at the same time picturesque, comical, indolent, and carefree, always wearing “a happy and contented expression,” displaying their broad grins, touching their hats to the white folks, answering questions politely and humbly. That was the kind of Negro they had seen cavorting across the minstrel stages of the North and pictured in the popular literature, and now they were simply viewing Sambo and Dinah in their natural habitat. “Until I saw and conversed with the greater number of these persons,” a northern reporter wrote from South Carolina, “I believed that the appearance and intelligence of Southern field hands were greatly libeled by the delineators of negro character at the concert saloons. Now I cannot but acknowledge that instead of gross exaggerations the ‘minstrels’ give representations which are faithful to nature. There were the same grotesque dresses, awkward figures, and immense brogans which are to be seen every night at Bryant’s or Christy’s.” Nor did the Yankees obviously expect to find any particular intelligence exhibited by these minstrel-like characters, quite apart from the laws that barred them from learning to read or write. Thus did a Union soldier, who was himself barely literate, inform his parents that the “niggers” he had encountered “dont no as much as a dumb bruit.”47
Unlike many southern whites, the Yankees had little awareness of the complexity of the slave’s demeanor and personality. They still had some hard lessons to learn in the kind of dissembling and deception that enslaved blacks often practiced on whites. That would come with time and experience. “One of these blacks, fresh from slavery, will most adroitly tell you precisely what you want to hear,” a northern journalist discovered in South Carolina. “To cross-examine such a creature is a task of the most delicate nature; if you chance to put a leading question he will answer to its spirit as closely as the compass needle answers to the magnetic pole.” Still other revelations would emerge with additional exposure to the variety of black folk. Although Union soldiers were quick to note the blackness of the slaves, the gradations in color did not escape them, and the abundant evidence of miscegenation would evoke considerable comment and curiosity. “Many of the mongrels are very beautiful,” a Massachusetts soldier conceded, “with their fine hair, straight or wavy, and their blue or dark eyes, always soft and lustrous and half concealed by the long lashes. They look more like voluptuous Italians than negroes.” He had been told by one “Southern gentleman” that the mulattoes were “more docile and affectionate” than “the unmixed negro,” although “less hardy” and “generally unchaste.” Whatever “handsome” qualities the mulattoes and quadroons possessed, the Yankees naturally attributed them to their white ancestry. How else could they explain the startling incongruity in the appearance of a mulatto child with his mother? “Judging by the extreme hideousness of some of these mothers,” a soldier wrote, “I was led to conclude that Southern passion was superior to Southern taste.”48
Although the prevailing image pictured blacks as a happy-go-lucky and carefree race, at best a source of amusement, some Yankee soldiers came away with altogether different impressions. The slaves they saw did not resemble “the rollicking, joyous, devil-may-care African” they had anticipated, nor did they hear any of the laughter and jubilant songs that were said to radiate from the slave cabins. When he had come to the South, Private Henry T. Johns of Massachusetts, like most of his comrades, had believed that the blacks, “if not a happy race, were at least careless and light-hearted.” But the longer he remained in the South, the more skeptical he became of that stereotype. “I have been with them a great deal,” he wrote from Louisiana, “and never before saw so much of gloom, despondency, and listlessness. I saw no banjo, heard none but solemn songs. In church or on the street they impress me with a great sadness. They are a sombre, not a happy, race.” Several weeks later, when his regiment was encamped near Baton Rouge, he attended a black religious service and described the “mingled excitement and devotion,” the shouting, the clapping of hands, the jumping, the often wild and excited singing. It all impressed him, however, as “a mournful joy,” and the hymns seemed “more a loud wail than a burst of joyous melody.”
When praying about their enslaved condition, or for the dying, or for the salvation of poor sinners, they unitedly break out into the most plaintive chorus imaginable. I can’t describe it, but to my dying hour I shall remember it. It seemed like the incarnation of sadness. I could think of nothing but a mother in heaven wailing for her lost son.… Almost like a nightmare it clings to me, ever presenting depths of sadness and resignation beyond my conception.49
The degree of enthusiasm with which slaves greeted their “liberators” created something of a paradox. If they acted indifferently or hostilely, as some did, the Yankees concluded they were too ignorant to appreciate or recognize freedom. But if they were effusive in their response, the Union soldiers often mocked their behavior. The typical Yankee was at best a reluctant liberator, and the attitudes and behavior he evinced did not always encourage the slaves to think of themselves as free men and women. Although Union propagandists and abolitionists might exult in how a war for the Union had been transformed into a crusade for freedom, many northern soldiers donned the crusader’s armor with strong misgivings or outright disgust. “I dont think enough of the Niggar to go and fight for them,” an Ohio private wrote. “I would rather fight them.” Few Northerners, after all, had chosen to wage this kind of war. “Our government has broken faith with us,” a Union deserter told his captors. “We enlisted to fight for the Union, and not to liberate the G-d d—d niggers.” Rather than view emancipation as a way to end the war, some Yankee soldiers thought it would only prolong the conflict. Now that the very survival of the southern labor system was at stake, not to mention the proper subordination of black people, the prospect of a negotiated peace seemed even more remote, and southern whites could be expected to fight with even greater intensity and conviction.50
That most Union soldiers should have failed to share the abolitionist commitment is hardly surprising. What mattered was how they manifested their feelings when they came into direct contact with the slaves. The evidence suggests one of the more tragic chapters in the history of this generally brutalizing and demoralizing war. The normal frustrations of military life and the usually sordid record of invading armies, when combined with long-held and deeply felt attitudes toward black people, were more than sufficient to turn some Union soldiers into the very “debils” the slaves had been warned by their masters to expect. Not only did the invaders tend to view the Negro as a primary cause of the war but even more importantly as an inferior being with few if any legitimate human emotions—at least none that had to be considered with any degree of sensitivity. Here, then, was a logical and convenient object on which disgruntled and war-weary Yankees could vent their frustrations and hatreds. “As I was going along this afternoon,” a young Massachusetts officer wrote from New Orleans, “a little black baby that could just walk got under my feet and it look so much like a big worm that I wanted to step on it and crush it, the nasty, greasy little vermin was the best that could be said of it.” And if anything, additional exposure to blacks appeared to strengthen rather than allay racial antipathies. “My repugnance to them increases with the acquaintance,” a New England officer remarked. “Republican as I am, keep me clear of the darkey in any relation.” Praying for an early end to the war, a Union soldier stationed in Missouri declared that he had had his fill of colored people. “I never want to see one of the animals after I leave here.”51
The thousands of slaves who flocked to the Union lines were apt to encounter the same prejudices, the same exploitation, the same disparagement, the same capacity for sadistic cruelty which they thought they had left behind them on the plantations and farms. To belittle the slave’s character, dress, language, name, and demeanor, to make him the butt of their humor, to ridicule his aspirations, to mock his religious worship, to exploit his illiteracy were ways of passing the duller moments of camp life and military occupation. Besides, the manipulation of blacks for the amusement of white audiences had a long and accepted tradition behind it. “There were five negroes in our mess room last night,” a New England soldier wrote from Virginia, “we got them to sing and dance! Great times. Negro concerts free of expense here.” Sarah Debro, who had been a slave in North Carolina, recalled the Yankee soldiers who threatened to shoot her toes off unless she danced for them, and other former slaves remembered, too, how the Yankees forced them to sing and dance and called them “funny names.” The soldiers who shared in these diversions did so regardless of their feelings about slavery and emancipation. Henry M. Cross constantly deplored racist sentiment in his regiment; what he had seen of the slaves, he wrote, made him despise even more intensely the bondage “which has brought them to their miserable condition.” But even as he made that comment, Private Cross wrote of a sixteen-year-old black youth attached to the adjutant in his camp:
He is filthy and lazy and seems to know as much as a child of four years, and yet once in a while shows gleams of intelligence beyond his years and condition. He never looks at you when talking, but shifts uneasily from one leg to the other and turns his head from side to side, rolling his eyes and grunting queer laughs. We make all kinds of sport of him.52
To strip the slave of his dignity and self-respect was not enough. Some Yankees exploited his ignorance and trust to defraud him of what little money or worldly goods he possessed. They might, for example, persuade him to exchange his money for certificates that turned out to be soap wrappers, or sell him equally worthless passes that permitted him to travel freely, or offer for a price to reunite him with his family. Some slaves were less gullible than the Yankees thought but were in no position to challenge their authority, while a few slaves managed to turn the tables on their liberators, like the elderly black man who claimed to be the original Uncle Tom and sold a souvenir-hunting Yankee the whip with which he had allegedly been beaten.53
To debauch black women, some Yankees apparently concluded, was to partake of a widely practiced and well-accepted southern pastime. The evidence was to be seen everywhere. Besides, Yankees tended to share the popular racist notion of black women as naturally promiscuous and dissolute. “Singular, but true,” a Massachusetts soldier and amateur phrenologist observed, “the heads of the women indicate great animal passions.” Although some Union officers made no secret of their slave concubines, sharing their quarters with them, a black soldier noted that they usually mingled with “deluded freedwomen” only under the cover of darkness, while they openly consorted with white women during the day. The frequency with which common soldiers mixed with black women prompted some regimental commanders to order the ejection of such women from the camp because their presence had become “demoralizing.” “I won’t be unfaithful to you with a Negro wench,” a Pennsylvania soldier assured his wife, “though it is the case with many soldiers. Yes, men who have wives at home get entangled with these black things.” Marriages between Yankees and blacks were rare, but when they did occur southern whites made the most of them.
Two of the Brownfields former negroes have married Yankees—one, a light colored mustee, had property left her by some white man whose mistress she had been—she says she passed herself off for a Spaniard and Mercier Green violated the sanctity of Grace Church by performing the ceremony—the other, a man, went north and married a Jewess—the idea is too revolting.
Not surprisingly, Union soldiers often shared the outrage of local whites at such liaisons. In November 1865, a black newspaper in Charleston reported that an Illinois soldier had been tarred and feathered by his own comrades for having married a black woman. “He was probably a Southern man by birth and education,” the newspaper said of the victim, “and Hoosiers and Suckers don’t take readily to Southern habits.”54
Whatever the reputation of black women for promiscuity, sexual submission frequently had to be obtained by force. “While on picket guard I witnessed misdeeds that made me ashamed of America,” a soldier wrote from South Carolina; he had recently observed a group of his comrades rape a nine-year-old black girl. Not only did some Union soldiers sexually assault any woman they found in a slave cabin but they had no compunctions about committing the act in the presence of her family. “The father and grandfather dared offer no resistance,” two witnesses reported from Virginia. In some such instances, the husband or children of the intended victim had to be forcibly restrained from coming to her assistance. Beyond the exploitation of sexual assault, black women could be subjected to further brutality and sadism, as was most graphically illustrated in an incident involving some Connecticut soldiers stationed in Virginia. After seizing two “niger wenches,” they “turned them upon their heads, & put tobacco, chips, stocks, lighted cigars & sand into their behinds.” Without explanation, some Union soldiers in Hanover County, Virginia, stopped five young black women and cut their arms, legs, and backs with razors. “Dis was new to us,” one of the victims recalled, “cause Mr. Tinsley [her master] didn’ ever beat or hurt us.” Most Union soldiers would have found these practices reprehensible. But they occurred with sufficient frequency to induce a northern journalist in South Carolina to write that Union troops had engaged in “some of the vilest and meanest exhibitions of human depravity” he had ever witnessed. If such incidents were rare, moreover, the racial ideology that encouraged them had widespread acceptance, even among those who deplored the excesses.55
The actions of white men could not surprise some blacks. Many of those who hailed the Yankees as their champions and liberators nevertheless were to experience a rude awakening. In Norfolk, Virginia, the slaves had rejoiced at the coming of the Yankees. “There was nothing we would not do for them,” one black resident remarked; “and they knew it, too. We were humble, grateful and respectful.” But the soldiers destroyed their property, shot at them, and abused them “in every possible way,” and it now appeared to him “as if we had no one to protect us, and there’s nothing left us but to protect ourselves.” Such experiences were more than unsettling; they raised real questions about the quality of the newly acquired freedom. What were the blacks to think when “those individuals whom we all regarded as our friends, and hailed as our deliverers,” broke up their celebrations, heaped physical and mental abuse on them, shoved them off sidewalks, cursed them as “niggers” and “mokes,” robbed them of their few belongings, and ravished their women? It was as if one set of masters had been replaced by another, and that was precisely how a Norfolk black woman viewed the change in her status: “I reckon I’m Massa Lincoln’s slave now.”56
Reflecting the wide range and diversity of northern opinion, the Union Army also contained in its ranks men who were imbued with abolitionist ideals, who were anxious to wage an antislavery war, and who would have resented any implication that they harbored racist attitudes. “I tell the boys right to their face I am in the war for the freedom of the slave,” a Wisconsin soldier boasted. Initially indifferent or hostile to emancipation, some Union soldiers were won over by military considerations, while others resolved their doubts when they came face to face with the victims of the “peculiar institution.” After hearing from slave runaways the stories of their escape and the bondage they had left behind them, a Union soldier in North Carolina wrote his parents that “every man in our army is now an abolitionist.” Even more convincing than the familiar tales of whippings and the separation of families was the direct physical evidence of how slaves had been treated. Upon visiting several plantations near New Orleans, where he released slave prisoners from heavy chains and weights, one Union soldier said he had seen “enough of the horrors of slavery to make one an Abolitionist forever.” When several new black recruits stripped for a physical examination in Louisiana, prior to their induction, a Union soldier afterwards described in detail the marks which bondage had left on the bodies of these men. It was a depressing sight.
Some of them were scarred from head to foot where they had been whipped. One man’s back was nearly all one scar, as if the skin had been chopped up and left to heal in ridges. Another had scars on the back of his neck, and from that all the way to his heels every little ways; but that was not such a sight as the one with the great solid mass of ridges from his shoulders to his hips. That beat all the antislavery sermons ever yet preached.57
The more sympathetic Union soldiers tried to alleviate the condition of the slave refugees who flocked in ever greater numbers to their camps. Anticipating the movement of teachers and missionaries into the South, they volunteered their time to establish informal classes for the slaves in reading and writing, and some insisted on giving them religious instruction. The life of an abolitionist in the Union Army, however, much like that of his counterpart in the North, was never very comfortable, particularly if he sought to proselytize his fellow soldiers, and he almost always sensed that he was in a small minority. “Most of the boys have their laugh at me for helping the ‘Niggers,’ ” a Wisconsin soldier confessed. The hostility toward abolitionism and blacks that so many Northerners carried with them into the war was sometimes vented on those who tried to agitate the subject in the Army. “If some of the niger lovers want to know what the most of the Solgers think of them,” an Ohioan informed his father, “they think about as much as they do a reble. They think they are Shit asses.”58
The abolitionist Yankee found himself troubled by more than the hostility of his fellow soldiers. Mirroring the ambivalence of the antislavery movement itself, he often found it easier to preach abolitionism than to accept the black man as an equal or to mix with him socially. Henry T. Johns, the well-meaning and sympathetic Massachusetts soldier, frankly confessed near the end of the war, “I know I always revolt at shaking hands with a darkey or sitting by him, but it is a prejudice that should shame me.” To free the slaves, he recognized approvingly, was to grant them equality. “There is no help for it, and the sooner we get rid of our foolish prejudices the better for us. In me those prejudices are very strong. I can fight for this race more easily than I can eat with them.” As they moved through the South and ultimately became an army of occupation, Union soldiers, like the North itself, failed to agree on the proper place of black people—both freed slaves and free blacks—in American society. If there was anything approaching a typical attitude, a Union Army physician stationed in Virginia may have come close to capturing it. He did not regard himself as proslavery. He wanted to see the institution of slavery abolished. But he found it difficult to view blacks as people possessing emotions, sensitivities, and aspirations like everyone else: “He thinks they are nobody and ought never to be anybody.”59
The attitudes and behavior of the Union soldiers varied considerably, ranging from condescension to outright brutality. That made the Yankees no different in the eyes of many slaves than their own masters and mistresses. Despite the uncertainties that awaited them, the movement of slaves toward the Union lines that had begun in the early months of the war continued unabated, with growing numbers now running away with Yankee raiding parties, or following Union troops when they passed through the vicinity, or seeking out the Union gunboats plying the southern rivers. The exodus reached such proportions in some regions that it took on all the drama and tragedy of the most classic wartime refugee scenes. When Sherman’s army moved through Georgia and the Carolinas, tens of thousands of slaves tried desperately to keep up with the marching columns, many of them carrying their household goods and children, fighting off hunger, exhaustion, exposure, harassment, and the efforts of Union officers to drive them off. “[W]e only wanted the able-bodied men (and to tell you the truth the youngest and best looking women),” one officer wrote. “Sometimes we took off whole families and plantations of niggers, by way of repaying some influential secessionist. But the useless part of these we soon manage to lose—sometimes in crossing rivers—sometimes in other ways.” This letter, allegedly found in the streets of Camden after the Yankees departed, may have been fabricated by Confederate propagandists but other evidence suggests little distortion of what took place on Sherman’s march. Numbers of slaves were left behind on the roads and at the river crossings, where they subsequently fell prey to General Wheeler’s Confederate raiders, and some drowned while attempting to cross the rivers. “The waters of the Ogeechee and Ebenezer Creek,” one of Sherman’s officers wrote, “can account for hundreds who were blocking up our columns, and there abandoned.… Many of them died in the bayous and lagoons of Georgia.” The terrible plight of the Georgia refugees moved a young Boston teacher to observe that “freedom means death to many.”60
Exulting over the mass desertion of slaves to the Union Army, a black newspaper in New Orleans proclaimed, “History furnishes no such intensity of determination, on the part of any race, as that exhibited by these people to be free.” But historical comparisons immediately came to mind, and abolitionist-minded northern whites and black leaders made the most of them. This “vast hegira” of slaves, they agreed, resembled the movement of the Israelites out of Egypt and to the Promised Land. The differences, however, seemed almost as striking. “There was no plan in this exodus, no Moses to lead it,” observed a Union officer who had been entrusted with the supervision of over 20,000 black refugees in the Mississippi Valley. Nor did it appear to have a Promised Land. By the time they reached the Union camps, the refugees were exhausted, half starved, frightened, and sick. It was not uncommon for malnutrition and pulmonary disease to claim the lives of three or four blacks every day in the hastily constructed and congested contraband villages. “The poor Negroes die as fast as ever,” a missionary teacher reported. “The children are all emaciated to the last degree and have such violent coughs and dysenteries that few survive.”61
The number of slaves entering the Union lines provoked considerable dismay among commanding officers who found their camps overrun and the movement of their troops impeded. “What shall I do with my niggers?” asked one beleaguered commander, while another complained that he had more blacks in his camp than whites and no rations to feed them. What to do with these slaves proved to be a formidable problem that would never be satisfactorily resolved. The most immediate solution took the form of the contraband camps in which slaves were put to work as government laborers, paid wages, fed on army rations, and clothed by philanthropic agencies. The camps soon became overcrowded, disease took a heavy toll, the promised wages were often not paid, and many slaves came to feel they had been defrauded.
Dey said that we, de able-body men, was to get $8 a month, an’ de women, $4 and de ration; only we was to allow $1 de month to help de poor an’ de old—which we don’t ’gret—an’ one dollar for de sick ones, an’ den anudder dollar for Gen’l Purposes. We don’t zactly know who dat Gen’l is, but ’pears like dar was a heap o’ dem Gen’ls, an’ it takes all dar is to pay ’em, ’cause we don’t get nuffins.
That was only a precursor of the problems that would beset Federal policy toward the “contrabands.” By the end of the war, with more than a million ex-slaves under some form of Federal custody, the initial confusion regarding their status, disposition, and future remained unresolved, thereby frustrating anything approaching a genuine social reconstruction.62
What might have induced so many slaves to leave the relative security of the farm and plantation for the uncertainty of the Union Army and the contraband camps deeply troubled some slaveholding families. The most convenient explanation was that the Yankees forcibly removed them, and there were sufficient examples to warrant such a charge; some slaves, on the other hand, were thrown off the plantations by their owners, particularly the women and children of men who had run off or had enlisted in the Union Army. After the way the Yankees had stripped the plantations bare, some masters also pleaded poverty, claiming they simply could not feed or support the blacks. Recognizing this, numerous slaves had already left, deciding they might fare better on army rations. But most whites suspected that the prospect of immediate freedom, and the fear of losing it if they remained, induced many of their slaves to follow the Yankees. “Generally when told to run away from the soldiers, they go right to them,” Kate Stone observed in Louisiana, “and I cannot say I blame them.” More ominously, a Louisiana planter, after watching the slaves in his neighborhood for a week, thought many of them decided to leave with the Yankees because they feared retaliation for the outrages they had committed and they had heard that “the ‘rebel’ soldiers were coming on down and killing negroes as they came.” That may also help to explain why some slaves balked at Yankee questions about the names of their owners.63
The decision to desert their “home,” locale, and “white folks,” however, did not always come easily. Every slave would have to determine his own priorities. Near Milledgeville, Georgia, in the path of Sherman’s march, a staff officer came upon a scene that could have been enacted almost anywhere the Union soldiers appeared. In a hut he found a slave couple, both of them more than sixty years old. Nothing they said to him suggested that they were displeased with their situation; if anything, like many of the elderly slaves he had encountered, they were content to spend their remaining years in the service and care of those who had exploited them for a lifetime of labor. But as the troops prepared to move on, the woman suddenly stood up, and a “fierce, almost devilish” look came across a face that only minutes before had been almost devoid of expression. “What for you sit dar?” she asked, pointing her finger at the old man crouched in the corner of the fireplace. “You s’pose I wait sixty years for nutten? Don’t yer see de door open? I’se follow my child; I not stay. Yes, anudder day I goes ’long wid dese people; yes, sar, I walks till I drop in my tracks.” Only a Rembrandt, the officer later wrote, could have done justice to this scene. “A more terrible sight I never beheld.”64
If the Civil War initially drew some masters and slaves closer together, with both now sharing privations and suffering, the approach of the Union Army underscored the ambiguous nature of that relationship and forced the master to reevaluate not only individual slaves in whom he had placed his confidence but the entire system of racial subordination. Both sides in the war had an obvious stake in how the slaves responded to the Yankees. The faithful black reinforced the conviction that the great mass of slaves (there had always been some “bad niggers”) were perfectly content and had no real wish to alter their status; the fidelity and steadiness demonstrated by the slaves, a North Carolinian argued, “speaks not only well for themselves but well for their training and the system under which they lived.” Union propagandists and abolitionists, on the other hand, viewed the exodus of slaves to and with the Union Army as an oppressed and brutalized population welcoming its release from bondage. In that spirit, a Union reporter wrote of a recent victory:
The moment our forces defeated the enemy at Labadieville, hundreds of negroes, besotted by the most severe system of Slavery, were in a moment left to themselves, and in a delirium of excitement, they first threw themselves in an ecstacy of joy, on their knees, and “bressed God that Massa Linkum had come,” and then, as semi-civilized people would naturally do, they commenced indulging in all sorts of excesses, the first fruits of their unrestricted liberty.65
That captured the public mood in the North perfectly, indicting the enemy (slaveholders) while at the same time explaining black excesses in ways that reinforced prevailing racial beliefs and suggested the need for some form of continued racial control.
Caught between these polar positions were the slaves, themselves, many of whom were sufficiently familiar with the expectations of white people to frame an appropriate response.
THE EXPERIENCE of Wilmer Shields, who managed several plantations in Louisiana in the absence of the owner, suggests only the magnitude of the problem that thousands of masters and overseers had to confront when Union soldiers passed through the vicinity. “You can form no idea of my situation and the anxiety of my mind,” he informed his employer on December 11, 1863. “All is anarchy and confusion here—everything going to destruction—and the negroes on the plantation insubordinate—My life has been several times in danger.” Several weeks later, Shields confessed that he felt powerless to deal with “the outrageous conduct of the Negroes who will not work for love or money—but who steal every thing they can lay their hands on.” Although he offered to pay them for their labor, those who continued to work did so at their own pace; they reported to the fields in the late morning, picked a little cotton, and then returned to the quarters to cook the hogs and beef they had killed that day. “You have no idea of the mental agony I endure under this state of affairs,” Shields repeated, in still another dismal report to the absentee owner. “Neither life, liberty, or property is valued a pin here—bands of thieves stroll about the country plundering in every direction—and I have not been allowed a single weapon for self defense—I know not at what moment my time may come.”
When the local Union commander backed Shields’s authority “to make the people work,” conditions improved perceptibly, but the officer’s departure prompted a return to the earlier manifestations of disaffection. “Let me again repeat,” Shields advised the owner, “that but very very few are faithful—Some of those who remain are worse than those who have gone—And I think that all who are able will leave as soon as the warm weather sets in—in no other way can I account for their present course of conduct for they will not even gather food for themselves.” Like the field hands, most of the house servants left when they pleased and did little when they remained. “I do not miss her,” Shields said of a departed servant, “for she had long since ceased to attend to her duties here.… When all leave me, if they do, I will be compelled to hire one or two, and they if possible shall be White servants.”
After the war, a disillusioned Shields compiled for his employer a list of the ex-slaves who remained on the plantations, and he affixed next to each name a mark denoting his evaluation of their wartime conduct and dependability. Of the 146 adult slaves on four plantations, 16 had been “perfectly faithful,” 30 had “done well comparatively,” and the other 100 had “behaved badly; many of them Outrageously.” Nearly every slave on this list, Shields noted, had absented himself from the plantation at some time and then returned, “some of them half a dozen times.” So grateful was he to those few who had remained “perfectly faithful” that he now urged his employer to present medals to four of them, with some “appropriate” inscription testifying to their loyalty. “The Medals coming from me,” he explained, “would be but little valued, from you greatly.” More than eighteen months after the war, Shields remained obsessed with how the slaves had behaved during that crisis, and he was perfectly willing to use it as a standard by which to judge the blacks under his supervision. When his employer instructed him to give five dollars to one of the freedmen, Shields retorted: “Robin was always one of my favorites, and I have ever thought him honest, but it is a question whether he was faithful to you or me—True he did not betray or rob us, as a great many others did, but he deserted us in two or three weeks after the Federal occupation of Natchez—for gain—instead of remaining here, as Ellen and Frank, and two or three others did, assisting me in protecting and saving the place and property.… This was fidelity.”66
What transpired on the plantations managed by Wilmer Shields would be repeated on countless places lying in the path of the Union Army. Far more than any Federal proclamation, the slaves themselves undermined the authority of the planter class. In Mississippi and Louisiana, for example, the many reports of slave “demoralization” and “defection” came close to suggesting a coordinated withdrawal of labor and efficiency. When a large Union force passed through the Bayou Lafourche region in late 1862, A. Franklin Pugh, the part owner and manager of four sugar plantations, first noted “great excitement” among the slaves; the next day, he found them “in a very bad way”; two days later, they were “completely demoralized,” some of them leaving and more preparing to depart. “I fear we shall lose them all. They go off in carts.” Before the week had ended, one of his plantations had been virtually “cleaned out,” with many of the slaves fleeing at night, and conditions steadily deteriorated at the other places. In what Pugh perceived as “a rebellion,” the slaves on a neighboring plantation overpowered their master and overseer, tied them up, and tried to remove them to a nearby town. Elsewhere in the rich plantation parishes, slaves refused to work without pay (or for worthless Confederate currency) and were generally found to be “demoralized,” “refractory,” and “in a state of mutiny”—that is, if they remained at all. “The negroes have all left their owners in this parish,” a planter’s son reported from Bayou Plaquemine. “Some planters have not even one servant left. Our wives and daughters have to take the pot and tubs; the men, where there are any, take to the fields with the plough and hoe.”67
When Union forces in 1863 undertook an expedition into central and northern Louisiana, the news of their approach reportedly “turned the negroes crazy.” Not only did the slaves refuse to work, John H. Ransdell informed an absentee owner, but “they became utterly demoralized at once and everything like subordination and restraint was at an end.” The slaves who did not flee with the Yankees, he observed, “remained at home to do much worse.” For nearly a week, Ransdell, like other planter families in Rapides Parish, had to stand by helplessly (usually secluded in their homes) while the blacks engaged in “a perfect jubilee.” Some planters lost “nearly every movable thing,” as the slaves destroyed property, killed much of the livestock, and emptied the storerooms. “Confound them,” Ransdell wrote the governor of Louisiana, who owned the neighboring plantation, “they deserve to be half starved and to be worked nearly to death for the way they have acted.… The recent trying scenes through which we have passed have convinced me that no dependence is to be placed on the negro—and that they are the greatest hypocrites and liars that God ever made.” After enumerating his “considerable” losses, however, he thought them “nothing in comparison to those of the planters below us—and we really have great cause of thankfulness that we came off so well.”68
The heavy concentrations of slaves in parts of Louisiana and Mississippi help to account for the extent of the “demoralization”—that popular term used by whites to describe the disaffection of enslaved black workers. Even some ardent defenders of the “peculiar institution” might have agreed that slavery worked its greatest excesses in these regions and made the most impossible demands on black laborers. Not surprisingly, then, the brutalizing nature of the labor system in the Deep South supposedly made for a more volatile situation than elsewhere, and slaveholders were now reaping the consequences of years of abuse. Perhaps, too, the recalcitrant slaves who had been sold here from the more “benign” slaveholding states provided leadership or in some way influenced those who had known no other kind of bondage.
The problem with such explanations is that the excesses of bondage in the Deep South might have conceivably yielded some different results. As a number of fugitive slaves argued, the labor system in the Louisiana sugar parishes was calculated to produce the most docile, abject, obsequious, and degraded bondsmen, totally lacking in hope. If any system might have been expected to produce a crop of model Sambos, it should have been this one. But the reaction of these slaves at the approach of the Union Army, and the testimony of Louisiana and Mississippi planters, suggest that a people apparently broken in body and spirit had even more reason to contemplate the benefits of freedom and to hasten their liberation.
Every plantation, every farm, every town no doubt had its own version of how the slaves behaved. Until the Union Army made its presence felt, plantation life tended to remain relatively stable, crops were made, and most slaves went about their daily tasks. The Emancipation Proclamation by itself did little to alter this situation, with most slaves preferring to wait for a more propitious moment. But news that Yankee soldiers were somewhere within reach precipitated the rapid depopulation of the slave quarters, often without the slightest warning. “They have shown no signs of insubordination,” one observer noted. “Down to the last moment they cut their maize and eat their corn-cake with their old docility—then they suddenly disappear.” The experience of John H. Bills, the Tennessee planter, resembled that of his Mississippi neighbors and illustrated a pattern of slave response that crippled the labor system in substantial portions of the occupied South. With the appearance of the Yankees, the restlessness and reluctance to work he had observed during the past several months suddenly flared into “wild confusion” and “a general stampede.” In less than six weeks, more than twenty slaves left him (he estimated his loss at nearly $22,000), and those who remained might as well have gone, “they being totally demoralized & ungovernable.” Like the field hands, the servants worked erratically if at all: “the females have quit entirely or nearly so, four of the men come & go when & where they please.… I talk to them Earnestly but fear it will do no good.” Some six months later, “a wretched state of idleness” prevailed, and Bills found himself unable to exert any control. After still another six months, he conceded that slavery on his plantations was “about played out.”69
The epidemic of “demoralization” and “desertion” varied little from state to state (except for those regions untouched by the Union Army), nor did it make any perceptible distinctions between reputedly “cruel” and “benign” masters. When the Yankees approached her Georgia residence, Mary Jones might have wondered whether the many years of solicitude and concern with which the family had treated the slaves would now be sufficient to meet the test. Before his death in 1863, her husband—the Reverend C. C. Jones—had devoted much of his life to the spiritual uplift of the slaves. Upon the arrival of the troops, however, the slaves belonging to Mary Jones, and those in the immediate vicinity, exhibited a range of behavior that left her bewildered, hurt, and angry. “The people are all idle on the plantations, most of them seeking their own pleasure.” Although relatively few of her slaves had yet defected, Mary Jones was sufficiently dismayed by the behavior of some of those who remained to wonder if she would not be better off if they left. “Their condition is one of perfect anarchy and rebellion. They have placed themselves in perfect antagonism to their owners and to all government and control. We dare not predict the end of all this, if the Lord in mercy does not restrain the hearts and wills of this deluded people. They are certainly prepared for any measures.”70
AFTER ONLY A BRIEF FLIRTATION with “freedom,” some slaves drifted back to the plantations and farms from which they had fled. On a number of places, nearly every slave left at some point during the war, not necessarily together, but most of them returned within several weeks or months. “Father had eighty five negroes gone for a while,” the son of a Louisiana planter reported, “but about twenty have returned since.” Nor was it uncommon for slaves to return only to leave again. Homesickness, the families they had left behind, and disillusionment with the empty content of their freedom, compounded still further by near starvation and exhaustion, drove many back to the relative security of the plantation. The Yankees “didn’t show no respec’ for his feelin’s,” a Georgia slave explained, and he voiced the discouragement of many who had sought refuge in the Federal camps only to be subjected to hard work and personal abuse.71
Once having left the plantation and tasted even a semblance of freedom, the blacks who returned often behaved in a way that caused their owners considerable anxiety. On a Louisiana plantation, Mary C. R. Hardison complained that the servants heaped abusive language on her and did everything but strike her; the “leader” was thought to be a young black who had recently returned to the plantation declaring he had had enough of the Yankees. John H. Bills, the Tennessee planter, came to regret his decision to re-admit “My Woman Emmeline” after her brief stay in a Federal camp where her husband had died. Upon her return, the woman acted “verry Contrary,” refused to obey his commands, and threatened to “jump off the Waggon” if he tried to return her to the Yankees. “I feel that my desire to oblige has gotten me into trouble,” Bills concluded from this experience. Perceiving the changed demeanor of the returnees, or unwilling to forgive them for having once deserted, some masters simply refused to permit them back on the plantation or else kept them under constant scrutiny. “Jane returned to Arcadia,” a Georgia woman noted, “but as she has been to Savannah and returned before, I fear she may have come to steal.” Even more galling for masters were slaves like James Woodson, who returned to Fluvanna County, Virginia, with a detachment of Union troops, led them to the place where the valuables had been hidden, and then stood by while the Yankees whipped his ex-owner. That display of “insolence” was exceeded only by the former slaves who returned to the old plantation not with but as Union soldiers.72
After what many planters had experienced, the number of slave defections seemed less important than the behavior of those who remained. More often than most whites wished to believe or to concede publicly, the “demoralization” (as they preferred to call it) of the slave population took a violent and destructive bent. The victims of such depredations took little comfort in the ready explanation that these were exceptional cases. Nor was their anguish necessarily mitigated by the popular view that only the Yankees could have instigated the blacks to behave so outrageously. If only the slaves had been left alone, Henry W. Ravenel kept telling himself, they would have obeyed their natural instincts and remained “a quiet, contented, & happy people.” But Ravenel, a native of South Carolina, should have known better. The sacking of nearby Beaufort, early in the war, illustrated the capacity of the slaves for destructive activity in the days preceding the arrival of Union troops. (Local planters had already set an example by trying to burn down the cotton barns before their hasty departure.) If slaves in the Sea Islands region usually refrained from destroying the plantations on which they lived, the many who poured into Beaufort had little compunction about occupying and ransacking the stately town houses of well-to-do planters. When one planter momentarily returned to his home, he found a slave seated at the piano “playing away like the very Devil” and two young black women upstairs “dancing away famously”; he also discovered that many neighboring houses had been “completely turned upside down and inside out” and the local churches had been vandalized. When a Union landing party finally came ashore, they were startled by the extent of the devastation.
We went through spacious houses where only a week ago families were living in luxury, and saw their costly furniture despoiled; books and papers smashed; pianos on the sidewalk, feather beds ripped open, and even the filth of the Negroes left lying in parlors and bedchambers.
Much of the destruction, one reporter suggested, could not be defined as “plunder” but only as a “malicious love of mischief gratified.” When news of the sacking reached the North, Henry M. Turner, an outspoken black clergyman, was equally startled; in fact, he refused to believe the “ridiculous, outrageous, and cannibalistic reports” of slave excesses. Having been a resident of South Carolina for more than twenty years of his life, he could attest to the fact that “there are no class of colored people south of Mason and Dixon’s line, where more sound sense, morality, religion, and refined taste, prevails, than in Beaufort.” The slaves themselves said little about the fury they had unleashed on some of the more imposing symbols of the slaveholding aristocracy. Nor did they apparently deem an explanation necessary.73
Although the extent of slave “pillaging” in the South was sometimes exaggerated, or confused with Yankee depredations, that any should have occurred aroused consternation. “The Moorfield negroes are crazy quite,” a South Carolinian wrote; “they have been to Pinopolis, helping in the sacking of the houses.” In some areas, the slaves singled out the popular summer retreats for wealthy planters, where the quality of the furnishings provided sufficient temptation. Where white families had abandoned their homes, the slaves in many instances preferred occupation to pillage, moving from their own cramped quarters into the more commodious and comfortable lodgings which they had previously envied from a distance; the slaves who flocked into the towns from the outlying plantations, seeking the protection of Federal authority and a more congenial atmosphere in which to spend their first days of freedom, found an instant answer to their housing problem by occupying the elegant town houses of absent owners. To sleep in the master’s bed and eat at the dining-room table with the family silver and china was a novel and exhilarating experience. “Mamma’s house is occupied by freedmen, cooking in every room,” reported a South Carolina woman who had only recently heard from a friend in a nearby town that “all the houses around them are occupied by negroes.” Already in shock over the apparent collapse of the social order, native whites now listened to reports that slaves were using the baronial town houses to give “Negro balls” and dinner parties. “The whites [presumably Yankees] and blacks danced together,” a friend wrote Adele Allston of a recent “ball” in Georgetown, South Carolina.74
Where would it all end? The events of the past several weeks, Henry W. Ravenel confided to his diary, reminded him of the horrors of the French Revolution. “White man is nigger—and nigger is white man” was the way another South Carolinian chose to describe “the state of things.” Whether in the towns or in the countryside, the welcome accorded the Union troops by many slaves had not been confined to prayers and singing but had included as well the expropriation of nearly everything belonging to their masters and mistresses that could be moved. With a feeling of utter helplessness, Amanda Stone’s family, after abandoning the family home in Louisiana, heard how the slaves had quarreled over the division of clothes and how the house had been stripped of furniture, carpets, books, the piano, “and everything else.” Nor did the presence of the white family necessarily restrain the slaves. “The Negroes as soon as they heard the guns,” a rice planter in South Carolina reported, “rushed to my house and pillaged it of many things and principally wearing apparel”; he felt certain that the entire affair had been “pre-arranged.”75
For the masters, what proved most difficult to accept was the gratification some slaves derived from these attacks on property. “Many of them,” John H. Bills thought, “do all they can to have us destroyed & delight in seeing the work of destruction.” Upon returning to their plantation home, the Allston family suddenly understood the overseer’s report that their slaves had “behaved Verry badly.”
We looked at the house; it was a wreck,—the front steps gone, not a door nor shutter left, and not a sash. They had torn out all the mahogany framework around the doors and windows—there were mahogany panels below the windows and above the doors there were panels painted—the mahogany banisters to the staircase going upstairs; everything that could be torn away was gone.… It was a scene of destruction, and papa’s study, where he kept all his accounts and papers, as he had done from the time he began planting as a young man, was almost waistdeep in torn letters and papers.76
The systematic nature of much of the black pillaging suggests that it was frequently neither indiscriminate nor simply a matter of gratified revenge but rather an opportunity to supplement their meager diets and wardrobes and improve their standard of living. Why they killed the livestock, emptied the meat houses and storerooms, and expropriated the liquors and wines would seem sufficiently obvious. The furniture and materials removed from the Big House were often used to make their own cabins more habitable. One South Carolina slave explained that after the master departed, they stripped boards from his house in order to floor their own cabins and put in lofts. Similarly, when the slaves broke into closets, bureaus, trunks, and desks, ripped open the bedding, or scattered the master’s private papers, they were frequently seeking money, jewelry, or silverware that might be traded for needed commodities. When the slaves seized the mules, horses, and wagons, it was often with the idea of making their escape from the plantation, taking with them whatever the carts could carry. On A. F. Pugh’s plantation, an enterprising former slave accumulated a cartload of articles from several neighboring plantations and bartered them with other blacks in the vicinity; the overseer was powerless to stop this apparently flourishing business based on loot.77
What the whites defined as theft might be viewed by the slaves as long-overdue payments for past services. Adele Allston conceded almost as much when she wrote her son about the destruction visited upon their Chicora Wood plantation. “The conduct of the negroes in robbing our house, store room meat house etc and refusing to restore anything shows you they think it right to steal from us, to spoil us, as the Israelites did the Egyptians.” The slaves simply suggested that the question of theft be placed in its proper perspective, like the old Gullah preacher who asked his congregation, “Ef buckra neber tief, how come nigger yer?” That the constraints of slave life had made “thieves” of them some slaves readily conceded, though always stressing the conditions that had made this necessary. “We work so hard and get nothing for our labor but jes our ’lowance, we ’bleege to steal,” a South Carolina slave explained in 1863, “and den we must keep from dem ebery ting or dey suffer us too much. But dey take all our labor, and steal our chil’ren, and we only take dare chicken.” To attempt to reason with a slave on this sensitive matter could be an exasperating, if sometimes illuminating experience for a white. In Tennessee, a slave rode into a Union camp on a horse he had taken from his owner. Upon being questioned, presumably by a Union soldier or reporter, the slave insisted only that the usual notions of morality had little relevance to his action.
“Don’t you think you did very wrong, Dick, to take your mistress’ horse?”
“Well, I do’ know, sah; I didn’t take the bes’ one. She had three; two of ’em fuss-rate hosses, but the one I took is ole, an’ not berry fast, an’ I offe’d to sell him fo’ eight dolla’s, sah.”
“But, Dick, you took at least a thousand dollars from your mistress, besides the horse.”
“Why, you were worth a thousand dollars, and you should have been satisfied with that much, without taking the poor woman’s horse,” said I, gravely.
The contraband scratched his woolly head, rolled up his eyes at me, and replied with emphasis.
“I don’t look at it jis dat way, massa. I wo’ked ha’d fo’ missus mor’n thirty yea’s, an’ I reckon in dat time I ’bout pay fo’ meself. An’ dis yea’ missus guv me leave to raise a patch o’ ’baccy fo’ my own. Well, I wo’ked nights, an’ Sabbaths, an’ spar’ times, an’ raised a big patch (way prices is, wuff two hun’red dolla’s, I reckon) o’ ’baccy; an’ when I got it tooken car’ of dis fall, ole missus took it ’way from me; give some to de neighbors; keep some fo’ he’ own use; an’ sell some, an’ keep de money, an’ I reckon dat pay fo’ de ole hoss!”
Failing to find any conscience in the darkey, I gave up the argument.78
Even where slaves refrained from expropriating and destroying property, they often behaved in ways that troubled and infuriated their masters and mistresses. The decision of a slave to remain on the plantation was no guarantee of his fidelity or steady labor. The Reverend Samuel A. Agnew, a Mississippi slaveholder, understood that all too well. “Some of our negroes will not go to the Yankees,” he thought, “but they may all prove faithless.” For many slave owners, as for Agnew, the ability to retain the bulk of their blacks proved to be no cause for self-congratulation. Despite the concern voiced over the “stampede” of the slaves, some white families might have found reasons to be grateful, if only because they avoided the anguish experienced by so many of their neighbors.
Oh! deliver me from the “citizens of African descent.” I am disgusted forever with the whole race. I have not faith in one single dark individual. They are all alike ungrateful and treacherous—every servant is a spy upon us, & everything we do or say is reported to the Yankees. They know everything.79
THE TERMS with which slave-owning families described the conduct of their blacks—“insolence,” “impertinence,” “impudence,” and “ingratitude”—had been used often and indiscriminately to denote slave transgressions or departures from expected behavior. Once the Yankees arrived, masters and mistresses detected examples of such behavior almost everywhere—in the defection of the favorites, in the demeanor and language of the slaves who remained, in their refusal to submit to punishment, in their failure to obey orders promptly (or at all), and, most frequently, in their unwillingness to work “as usual.” To a Louisiana planter, traveling from Ascension Parish to New Orleans in mid-1863, the slaves he observed along the way were nearly all “insolent & idle,” which he defined as “working not more than half a day, yet demanding full rations of every thing.” To the wife of a prominent Alabama planter, the slaves behaved in “an insolent manner” by taking off whenever there was work to be done. “The negroes are worse than free,” she informed her son. “They say they are free. We cannot exert any authority. I beg ours to do what little is to be done.” To a Virginia white woman, the blacks were acting “very independent and impudent,” and like most whites she equated the two traits. To slave owners everywhere, the defections were difficult enough to understand but the ways in which some slaves chose to depart invariably provoked the most grievous charge of all—“ingratitude.” Few stated it more succinctly than Emily C. Douglas, a resident of Natchez who had earlier extolled the loyalty of her slaves: “They left without even a good-bye.”80
The “delirium of excitement” set off by the arrival of the Yankees gave scores of slaves a much-welcomed respite from their usual labors and momentarily paralyzed agricultural operations. That was the day, a former Florida slave remembered, when they dropped their plows and hoes, rushed to their cabins, put on their best clothes, and went into town to join with other slaves in a “joyous and un-forgettable occasion.” If the slaves did not stop work altogether, they often slowed down the pace and made only sporadic appearances in the fields, “going, coming, and working when they please and as they please,” sometimes spending the day in their cabins, sometimes venturing into town for a week at a time. The attempts to make a crop under these conditions were futile. On the Magnolia plantation in Louisiana, the overseer first complained that the slaves were “very slow getting out”; three weeks later, “the ring of the Bell no longer a delightful sound,” and the slaves were “moving very slowly”; more than a month later, in utter exasperation, he could only “wish every negro would leave the place as they will do only what pleases them, go out in the morning when it suits them, come in when they please, etc.” The erratic performance of the slaves even dismayed some northern observers, who wondered if this augured trouble for a free labor system. The Negroes’ idea of freedom, an alarmed Union reporter observed, “is that of unrestrained license to do as they please, and go where they choose.” The slaves might well have agreed, after having watched their masters and other whites for so many years interpret freedom in precisely that manner.81
To mark their release from bondage, blacks not only withheld their labor but in some instances vented their frustrations and bitterness on the most glaring and accessible symbols of their past labor—the Big House, which they might pillage; the cotton gin, which they might deliberately destroy; the slave pens and cotton houses, which in some cases were converted into freedmen schools and churches; and the overseer, who often represented the sole authority left on a plantation and who had come to personify the excesses of bondage. Many overseers clearly deserved their reputation for cruelty; nevertheless, the discipline they enforced, the punishments they meted out, and the labor they exacted from the slaves almost always reflected their need to meet the expectations of their employers. Rather than share the responsibility for any excesses that might result from his often inordinate demands, the planter all too readily permitted his overseer to assume the blame; indeed, the owner might even intercede at times to soften the overseer’s punishments, thereby enhancing his own sense of paternalism and “humanity” while reinforcing the image of the overseer as an uncaring brute.82
Neither the slaves nor the overseers were necessarily oblivious to this kind of deception, but the flight of the masters often left the overseer by himself to absorb the slaves’ wrath. Regardless of what whites remained on the plantation, the coming of the Yankees encouraged slaves to act as though there were alternatives in their lives: if they chose not to desert, they might simply refuse to submit to the usual discipline and punishments. On the C. C. Clay plantation in Alabama, the slaves had become “so bold,” the mistress informed her son, that they threatened to kill the overseer if he tried to punish them for disobedience. That these were not empty threats is borne out by what took place on the Millaudon plantation in Louisiana, where “bad feelings” between the overseer and the slaves had prompted the absentee owner to pay a visit to his place. When Millaudon tried to reprimand the “ringleader,” the slave responded “with insolence.” Unaccustomed to such conduct, the planter then struck him with a whip. This time the slave responded by furiously charging Millaudon, who finally felled him with a stick. “This seemed to bring the negro to his senses, and he took refuge in his cabin; but he presently came out with a hatchet …” One of the other slaves interceded at this point and grabbed the hatchet, the rebellious slave fled into the cane field, and Millaudon departed from the plantation, thinking he had suppressed “the affair.” He had not gone far, however, before the report reached him that his slaves were now “in full revolt” and had killed the overseer. Returning once again to the plantation, this time with Union soldiers, Millaudon beheld an extraordinary scene: a large number of his blacks, with their possessions and quantities of plantation goods, were walking alongside a cart on which lay the body of the murdered overseer, wrapped in a flag. “It appears that he had been attacked by five of them while he was at dinner, his head being split open by blows with a hatchet, and penetrated by shots at his face.” The “assassins” reportedly “rejoiced” over their success, and “the whole gang” of some 150 slaves had left the plantation.83
Anticipating acts of vengeance, some overseers fled shortly before the Yankees reached their plantations. Those who remained were apt to find themselves in an uncertain and often perilous situation. If the slaves did not drive the overseer forcibly off the plantation, they conducted themselves in ways that undermined his authority and left him powerless. On the Nightingale Hall plantation, one of several rice plantations in South Carolina owned by Adele Allston, the slaves imprisoned the overseer in his own house. “Mr. Sweat, was a very good, quiet man, and had been liked by all the negroes,” Adele Allston’s daughter wrote of him, “but in the intoxication of freedom their first exercise of it was to tell Mr. Sweat if he left the house they would kill him, and they put a negro armed with a shotgun to guard the house and see that he did not leave alive.” Watching from his window, the conscientious overseer kept a journal of the activities of the blacks, hoping someday to hold them to account.84
Conditions were no different on the Allstons’ Chicora Wood plantation, where Jesse Belflowers, reputedly one of the most efficient overseers in the South Carolina low country, had been in charge since 1842. Having been compelled to surrender the barn keys to the slaves, he confessed to his employer that the workers had become unmanageable. “I am not allowed to say any [thing] a bout Work and have not been to the Barn for the last five days. Jacob is the worst man on the Place, then comes in Scipio Jackey Sawney & Paul.” And in a “P.S.” he added: “Most all of them have arms.” Although Adele Allston continued to support him, she wondered in the aftermath of the war if Belflowers had not outlived his usefulness to the plantation now that the blacks considered themselves to be free. “Belflowers is cowed by the violence of the negroes against him,” she wrote to her son, “and is afraid to speak openly. He is trying to curry favour. His own morals are impaired by the revolution, and he always required backing as your father expressed it. You must tell him what to do and support him in carrying it out.” This proved to be an accurate assessment. Belflowers never really recovered from his wartime experience and he found it impossible to adapt himself to the post-emancipation changes. “[I]t Looks Verry hard to Pull ones hat to a Negro,” he conceded in April 1865. Within a year, he was dead—by natural causes. “He is one of our truefriends,” Adele Allston wrote when she learned he was seriously ill, “and a link connecting us with the past.”85
Not surprisingly, the war and emancipation played upon and exacerbated white fears and fantasies that were as old as slavery itself. Despite the apprehensions they voiced, far fewer masters and mistresses were murdered and assaulted than expected to be. While hiding from the Yankees, Joseph LeConte encountered a fellow South Carolinian who lived from day to day in a state of terror, convinced that a neighbor’s slave he had once flogged would now murder him. “We tried to reason with him and show him the absurdity of his fears,” LeConte recalled, “but all in vain. He looked upon himself as a ‘doomed man.’ ” Although the planter escaped the anticipated vengeance, the fears he had felt were neither unique nor groundless. Always eager for news from her beloved Charleston, Emma Holmes recoiled at the reported murder of “my old friend” William Allen, “who was chopped to pieces in his barn.” Still other reports and rumors of murder and assault dominated the conversations of whites, including the ominous story of a planter who “narrowly escaped being murdered by two of his most trusty negroes.” In a South Carolina community, the Union commander reported that whites were imploring him for protection from the blacks, “who were arming themselves and threatening the lives of their masters,” and one slaveholder had requested protective custody “to save his life.” In nearly all instances of slave violence against their owners, whites tended to blame the Yankees, as did Emma Holmes, for having aroused “the foulest demoniac passions of the negro, hitherto so peaceful and happy.” At least, such explanations preserved whites from what would have otherwise been a most excruciating self-examination.86
Rather than murder their masters, some slaves preferred to expose them to the humiliations they had once meted out so freely. In Choctaw County, Mississippi, slaves administered several hundred lashes to Nat Best, a local planter; in nearby Madison County, two slaves, one of them disguised as a Union soldier, were reported to have “mercillesly whipped” an elderly white woman; and in Virginia, near Jamestown, the former slaves of a reputedly cruel master whipped him some twenty times to remind him of past punishments. When the Yankees arrived, a former Virginia slave recalled, the mistress on a neighboring plantation was whipping a housegirl. “The soldiers made the house girl strip the mistress, whip her, then dress in her clothes. She left with the soldiers.” Young Sarah Morgan reacted with horror rather than skepticism to the reports from Baton Rouge, her home town, that blacks were stopping ladies on the street, cutting the necklaces from their necks, stripping the rings from their fingers, and subsequently bragging of these feats.87
That these proved to be exceptional and isolated examples made them no less sensational and ominous. Although most slave owners did not meet personal violence at the hands of their slaves, the persistent reports and rumors of murder, insubordination, insolence, and plunder sustained the threat and the genuine fear that black freedom might degenerate into insurrectionary violence. “We are afraid now to walk outside of the gate,” a South Carolina woman confessed, after hearing that field hands in the immediate vicinity were “in a dreadful state.” To listen to jubilant slaves welcome the Yankees by singing (to the tune of a Methodist hymn) “We’ll hang Jeff Davis on the sour apple tree” may have been more of an irritation than an overt threat, but on the Magnolia plantation in Louisiana the slaves erected a gallows intended for their master. To achieve their freedom, the slaves on this plantation had come to believe, according to their master, that they must first hang him and expel the overseer. “[N]o one now can tell what a Day may bring Forth,” the threatened master wrote, “we are all in a State of Great uneasiness.” The gallows was never used, but that became less important than the vivid impression the sight made on the local populace, both whites and blacks.88
The activities of armed groups of slaves operating out of outlaw settlements helped to sustain the fears of insurrection. In some areas they concealed themselves in the swamps, cane brakes, and woods, periodically raiding nearby plantations and farms for provisions. Where planters had abandoned their homes, the slaves belonging to these and adjoining plantations would sometimes congregate to test their newly won freedom and to organize themselves into bands of marauders that roamed the countryside, seizing plantations and parceling out the land and terrorizing the white populace. Even after Union occupation, the threat posed by these outlaw gangs and communities persisted. Early in September 1865, a low-country planter in South Carolina informed the absentee owner of a neighboring plantation that it was “being rapidly filled up by vagabond negroes from all parts of the country who go there when they please and are fast destroying what you left of a settlement. They are thus become a perfect nuisance to the neighborhood and harbor for all the thieves and scamps who wont work.”89
The point at which “insubordination” or “insolence” became “insurrection” was always somewhat obscure. Perhaps no real distinction existed in the white man’s mind, except for the number of blacks involved. When the slaves on the David Pugh plantation in Louisiana took their master and overseer prisoners, that was called “a rebellion.” When slaves on the nearby Woodland sugar estate refused to work without pay, that was termed “a state of munity [sic].” When a large group of slaves in low-country South Carolina indulged themselves in the wines and liquors obtained from the homes of former masters, they were perceived as laying the groundwork for “open insurrection at any time.” And when a group of Louisiana slaves, “armed with clubs and cane knives,” poured into New Orleans, a frightened white citizen wrote in his diary of “servile war” in parts of the city.90
If anything was calculated to revive the specter of black rebellion, it had to be the knowledge that substantial numbers of slaves now had access to weapons or were already in possession of them. “Molly tells me all of the men on our plantation have Enfield rifles,” Mary Chesnut noted bitterly, and perhaps now the enemy will get that “long hoped for rising against former masters.” To the shock of Henry W. Ravenel, blacks in a nearby town not only were armed but openly displayed their weapons and drilled, apparently modeling themselves after the black troops they had only recently observed. It became clear to Ravenel, as it eventually did to Union commanders, that some way would have to be found to deal with such an ominous situation. The “summary executions” of some of the leaders, Ravenel thought, had already had “a beneficial effect” and he suggested more of the same.91
Like the gallows the slaves in Louisiana had erected for their master, the terror and suspicions aroused by the fears of slave violence became more important than the actual number of incidents. The anticipated uprisings never materialized in New Orleans, Charleston, Wilmington, Lynchburg, and other localities where rumors to that effect had kept white residents in a constant state of anxiety and readiness. Nonetheless, the fears never seemed to subside, even after the much-dreaded day had passed without incident. “We are slumbering on a volcano,” the newspaper in Wilmington editorialized. “[T]he general eruption is likely to occur at any time.” The mere sight of unfamiliar blacks in the vicinity was enough to unsettle the local whites. “As we passed through our quarters,” Kate Stone wrote, “there were numbers of strange Negro men standing around. They had gathered from the neighboring places. They did not say anything, but they looked at us and grinned and that terrified us more and more. It held such a promise of evil.”92
Recognizing the unpredictability of black behavior, there was every reason for slaveholding families to be apprehensive. After the experiences some of them had endured, and the incredible scenes they had witnessed, they also came to be that much more appreciative of those slaves whose attachment to the family never seemed to waver. The “faithful few” stood out. That in itself had to be a frightening comment on the system the slave owners had so methodically erected.
ALTHOUGH WHITE SOUTHERNERS would weave heroic images and tales into the legend of the faithful slave, both exaggerating and simplifying his wartime behavior, they did not simply create him out of a vivid imagination or a troubled conscience. Such slaves existed in sufficient numbers to warrant the oratorical tributes and legislative resolutions of gratitude. Whether their loyalty rested on genuine attachment, habit, fear, or sheer opportunism usually defied detection. What mattered to whites was that they fulfilled the highest expectations of their masters and mistresses. The runaways, the pillagers, the insubordinate could be charged to subversive Yankee influences. How much more comforting and reassuring it was to recall those slaves who remained “faithful through everything,” proving themselves “superior to temptations which might have shaken white people” and “shirking no debt of love and gratitude” to those who owned them. Risking even the hostility of their own people, the “faithful few,” including those legendary white-haired “uncles” and devoted “mammies,” tried to protect their “white folks,” stood in the doorway of the Big House to block the entrance of the soldiers, refused to divulge where the valuables were hidden, and scolded the Yankees for their “insolence.”93 With one leg bandaged, and feigning lameness (to avoid conscription), the servant of Mary Kirkland advised his mistress to stand up, keep her children in her arms, and remain calm while the Yankees pillaged the house. He then imparted to her a valuable lesson he had learned as her slave: “Don’t answer ’em back, Miss Mary. Let them say what they want to. Don’t give ’em any chance to say you are impudent to ’em.”94
To dissemble or “play dumb” had been effective ploys during slavery to mislead the master and obtain special advantages. The same kind of deception was now used by some slaves, particularly the house servants, to mislead the Yankees and protect the master and mistress. To save the family’s silverware which he had secreted, an elderly slave on a South Carolina plantation tried to impress the Yankee soldiers with how much he hated his “white folks,” even slapping the master’s children to demonstrate his loyalty to the Union cause. (He was said to have “cried like a child afterwards because he ‘had to hit Mas’ Horace’s children.’ ”) In Richmond, to preserve his mistress’s house, a servant deceived the Yankees into thinking she was “a good Union woman.” (Actually, the family was passionately pro-Confederate and had to be restrained from hanging the flag outside their window.) When asked about the location of the silver (which she had helped to hide), Hannah, a Mississippi house servant, told the Yankees it had all been sent “to Georgia or somewhyar a long time ago.” (“The silver and plate had been in Hannah’s charge for years,” her mistress explained, “and she did not wish to see it go out of the family.”) To thwart Yankee pillagers, Ida Adkins abandoned deception for direct action—she turned over the beehives: “Dey lit on dem blue coats an’ every time dey lit dey stuck in a pizen sting. De Yankees forgot all about de meat an’ things dey done stole; they took off down de road on a run.” The grateful mistress rewarded her with a gold ring.95
When confronted with Yankee threats and insolence, the “faithful few” often stood their ground and defended the lives and property of their owners. Booker T. Washington would later try to explain such loyalty: “The slaves would give the Yankee soldiers food, drink, clothing—anything but that which had been specifically intrusted to their care and honour.” Hoisted up by his two thumbs, a South Carolina slave still refused to divulge where he had hidden his master’s money and gold watch. After her master had been taken prisoner, a loyal housegirl clung to the trunk filled with valuables, thereby earning for herself the highest possible praise a slave owner could bestow: “She’s black outside, but she’s white inside, shore!” Individual feats of heroism would become legendary, along with the tales of how the slaves pleaded with the Yankees not to burn the master’s house and the ways in which they came to the defense of the white women. Even the most grateful white families might have found it difficult to fathom the quality of loyalty that could induce a young slave on a South Carolina plantation to save her mistress from rape by taking her place! That same kind of loyalty may have saved the life of John Williams, a Louisiana planter, whom the Yankees had ordered either to dance for them or to make his slaves dance.
Dar he stood inside a big ring of dem mens in blue clothes, wid dey brass buttons shining in de light from de fire dey had in front of de tents, and he jest stood and said nothing, and it look lak he wasn’t wanting to tell us to dance.
So some of us young bucks jest step up and say we was good dancers, and we start shuffling while de rest of de niggers pat.
Some nigger women go back to de quarters and git de gourd fiddles and de clapping bones made out’n beef ribs, and bring dem back so we could have some music. We git all warmed up and dance lak we never did dance befo’! I speck we invent some new steps dat night!
The slave performers appear to have satisfied the soldiers; more importantly, they felt they had saved their master from unnecessary humiliation and physical violence. “We act lak we dancing for de Yankees,” one of the slaves later recalled, “but we trying to please Master and old Mistress more than anything, and purty soon he begin to smile a little and we all feel a lot better.”96
The tales of slave heroism and sacrifice made the rounds of southern white society and no doubt cheered many a listener who had yet to face his moment of crisis. But the reassurances were at best ephemeral, and the doubtful remained doubtful. Unlike the popular toy Negro that danced minstrel-style when wound up, black men and women refused to conform to any predictable pattern of behavior. If they had, the white South might have felt less compelled to celebrate the feats of loyalty as though they were extraordinary and exceptional rather than what anyone should have expected of his slaves. “Such faithfulness among so faithful few deserves to be recorded,” Emma Holmes wrote of a slave who had saved the valuables of the family to whom he belonged. What made the behavior of the “faithful few” so praiseworthy was the mounting evidence of desertion, disaffection, and “betrayal.” “Five thousand negroes followed their Yankee brothers from the town and neighborhood,” Sarah Morgan noted; “but ours remained.” Mary Chesnut contrasted the exemplary conduct of her blacks with stories of recent outrages, and concluded that she had been among the fortunate.
They [her friends] talked of Negroes who flocked to the Yankees and showed them where the silver and valuables were hid by the white people; lady’s maids dressing themselves in their mistress’s gowns before their very faces and walking off. Before this, everyone has told me how kind and faithful and considerate the Negroes had been. I am sure, after hearing these tales, the fidelity of my own servants shines out brilliantly. I had taken it too much as a matter of course.97
From the outset of the war, the character of the slaves’ affections for their “white folks” had been a common topic of conversation and speculation. With the steady advance of the Union Army, particularly after 1863, the conversations turned increasingly gloomy as the behavior of the slaves became increasingly inexplicable. Previous assumptions needed to be reexamined, and new answers were required for the old questions. What lay behind the professions of fidelity? What lurked beneath the slaves’ apparent indifference? How genuine was their attachment to the master and his family? How far could they be trusted? The answers did not come easily. After observing the conduct of the slaves in his region, Henry W. Ravenel found two “exhibitions of character” he had never anticipated. On many plantations “where there was really kind treatment & mutual attachment,” the coming of the Yankees suddenly snapped the old ties. At the same time, numerous slaves resisted the temptations placed before them and remained, in his view, docile and submissive. With the blacks exhibiting such contradictory tendencies, Ravenel seemed to suggest the utter impossibility of calculating their loyalty.98
The “defections” were bad enough. But the “betrayals” within the plantation and Big House proved even more troubling, in part because they were more brazen, might be committed in the presence of the white family, and often involved the most trusted blacks. Even on the places where most slaves remained loyal, the fact that only one did not might spell the difference between a family keeping or losing its most valuable possessions. “All of our servants remained faithful except the cook,” a North Carolina woman wrote, but it was the cook who told the Union soldiers where the meat was hidden. On the plantation of Joseph Howell, the Yankees held “a court of inquiry,” questioned each slave individually about the location of the master’s valuables, and then went directly to the spot where they had been hidden. “Must have been a Judas ’mongst us,” recalled Henry D. Jenkins, who had been a slave there.99
For the white families, as they came to understand more fully the explosive potential of each of their slaves, such experiences were both bewildering and humiliating. How were the stalwart defenders of the “peculiar institution” to evaluate the behavior of those “petted and trusted” slaves in Virginia who burned the overseer’s house and deserted their aged, bedridden mistress after stripping the woman of her clothing? No less perplexed had to be the Confederate officer in South Carolina, the owner of several plantations, who found himself a prisoner of his own slaves, the very same slaves whose virtues and fidelity he had only recently praised. Manifesting their delight over this turnabout, they even improvised some verses while taking him to the nearest Union camp.
O Massa a rebel, we row him to prison.
Massa no whip us any more.
We have no massa, now; we free.
We have the Yankees, who no run away.
O! all our old massas run away.
Of massa going to prison now.
Stories such as these confirmed the increasingly gloomy talk about the fragile nature of the black man’s affections for his “white folks.” Were these truly the same individuals they had known so intimately as slaves, who had assured them of their loyalty, who had repeatedly denied any desire to be free? Little wonder that some whites simply threw up their hands in utter disgust over such examples of ingratitude and treachery. “Those their masters had put most confidence in,” a Virginia woman wrote, had revealed everything to the Yankees; the soldiers located pistols, guns, and uniforms in a secret place “that no one but the servants knew anything about. I am beginning to lose confidence in the whole race.”100
Few thought to ask the slaves to explain their apparent “betrayal” of the white families they had once served so faithfully. It remained easier to blame the Yankees and to cling to the notion that most slaves retained an affection for their “white folks” but feared to show it in the presence of the soldiers. Near Opelousas, Louisiana, a black youth rushed out of his cabin to tell a passing Union officer where his master had hidden two splendid horses. Although grateful for the information, the officer thought to ask the youth why he had betrayed his master’s prize possession: “You ought to have more love for him than to do such a thing.” Without the slightest hesitation, the slave replied, “When my master begins to lub me, den it’ll be time enough for me to lub him. What I wants is to get away. I want you to take me off from dis plantation, where I can be free.” Few whites were privy to the private conversations of their slaves; in the master’s presence, of course, a slave chose his words carefully and rarely betrayed his real feelings if they seemed inappropriate at the time. When Kate Stone’s brother ventured back to the family home in Louisiana, which they had abandoned, he had the rare opportunity to overhear a conversation between two of the remaining servants, one of whom was Aunt Lucy, the principal housekeeper. The two slaves sat before a fire drinking coffee and discussing the merits of their mistress, Amanda Stone. Remaining well hidden, James Stone heard enough to make a full report when he returned to the exiled family. Not only had Lucy and Maria abused his mother verbally but they referred to her always as “that Woman,” talked exultantly of strutting about in her clothes and replacing her as the mistress, and heaped scorn upon the entire family.101
The number of slaves who “betrayed” their masters, ran away, became insubordinate, or remained faithful defies any precise statistical breakdowns. Conceivably, if slave behavior could be quantified, the results might suggest that a majority of slaves (particularly in the areas untouched by the Union Army) remained with their masters, at least for the duration of the war. But this would prove to be a highly misleading criterion for determining loyalty or fidelity. The master cared less about percentages of faithfulness in the neighborhood than how he could be reasonably certain of the conduct of his own slaves. More than anything else, the uncertainty depressed him. Manifestations of disaffection could sometimes be dismissed with the observation that the slave in question “had always been a bad Negro,” or “we always considered him a most dangerous character,” or he “has been a runaway from childhood.” The mounting anguish of the master, however, often coincided with the realization that the previous demeanor of his slaves, the efficiency and loyalty with which they had served him, the antebellum record of mischief and devotion simply offered no reliable clues as to how they would behave when the Union Army came into the neighborhood or when they were informed of their freedom.102
Within the same household and plantation, the pattern of “betrayal” and “loyalty” created bewilderment, dismay, and surprise. The old distinctions a master had been able to draw between the “good slaves” and the “bad niggers” were no longer dependable. “Jonathan, whom we trusted, betrayed us,” Mary Chesnut wrote. “The plantation house and mills, and Mulberry House were saved by Claiborne, that black rascal who was suspected by all the world.” Few of Adele Allston’s slaves behaved more faithfully than did Little Andrew, “whom we never had felt sure of” and had thought would desert to the Yankees. In Camden, South Carolina, Emma Holmes wrote of a family in which “the old, favored family servant” betrayed them while a young slave “formerly so careless and saucy, proved true as steel.”103
If slaveholding families came to be alarmed by the extent of the disaffection, the implications for their self-image as benign and benevolent patriarchs could be even more disturbing, sometimes downright traumatizing. No more plaintive cry resounded through slaveholding society than that the slaves in whom they had placed the greatest trust and confidence were the very first to “betray” them. If this complaint recurred most frequently, perhaps that was because it seemed least comprehensible. “Those we loved best, and who loved us best—as we thought—were the first to leave us,” a Virginian lamented, voicing an experience that would leave so many families incredulous. To Robert P. Howell, a North Carolina planter who had lost a number of slaves, the behavior of Lovet “disappointed” him the most. “He was about my age and I had always treated him more as a companion than a slave. When I left I put everything in his charge, told him that he was free, but to remain on the place and take care of things. He promised me faithfully that he would, but he was the first one to leave … and I did not see him for several years.” To the wife of a prominent Louisiana slaveholder, the most troubling defection was that of “a colored woman born in the same house with me, always treated as well as me, always till my marriage slept in the same bed with me, and now, she is the first to leave.” John H. Bills, the Tennessee planter, least expected to hear of Tom’s departure—“he is the first to leave me & had thought would have been the last one to go”—while Louis Manigault, the rice planter, found himself at a loss to explain why the slave he esteemed most highly should have been “the very first to murmur” and “give trouble.”104
To whom could masters and mistresses turn for comfort and reassurance if not to the old family favorites, the legendary “aunties” and “uncles,” with whom they had lived so intimately, who had reared them as children, who had regaled them so often with their stories and songs, and who had shared with them the family tragedies and celebrations. But these slaves, too, refused to comply with the expectations of those who claimed to own them. “Even old Cirus went,” a perplexed Mississippian observed. “I reckon he is over a hundred years old.” Equally bewildered, Alexander and Cornelia Pope of Washington, Georgia, learned of “the rascality” of Uncle Lewis. This “old gray-haired darkey,” wrote Eliza Andrews, a neighbor and niece of the Popes, “has done nothing for years but live at his ease, petted and coddled and believed in by the whole family. The children called him, not ‘Uncle Lewis,’ but simply ‘Uncle,’ as if he had really been kin to them.” During the family prayers, he sat in a special place and was frequently called upon to lead the worship. “I have often listened to his prayers when staying at Aunty’s, and was brought up with as firm a belief in him as in the Bible itself.” Here, then, was the very prototype of the faithful servant, venerated by his owners and the townspeople as “an honored institution.” With the coming of the Yankees, Uncle Lewis not only deserted but told “a pack of lies” about his mistress and claimed a portion of the family lands. Although the Popes no longer tolerated his presence, the memories of their “fallen saint” and his startling betrayal lingered on.105
The behavior of an Uncle Lewis clearly overshadowed in significance if not in actual numbers those celebrated examples of wartime fidelity. The planter found it easier to resign himself to the defection of the field hands, for he may have had little direct contact with them, particularly if he employed an overseer or driver, and they could not be expected to have as strong an attachment to their “white folks.” But the conduct of the house servants, whom he thought he knew so well and no doubt felt he had pampered, most of whom had given him years of loyal service, raised questions which few slaveholding families wanted to confront. After awakening one morning to discover that every one of his servants had decamped, a Georgia planter found himself revising assumptions he had never thought to question. “We had thought there was a strong bond of affection on their side as well as ours! We have ministered to them in sickness, infancy, and age.” Not all masters failed to appreciate the attraction of freedom, and a few treated the slaves’ aspirations with the respect they deserved. After losing a trusted slave, James Alcorn, a Mississippi planter, experienced the usual humiliation over being deceived but he stopped short of condemnation and had little difficulty in ascertaining the cause. “I feel that had I been in his place I should have gone, so good by Hadley, you have heretofore been faithful, that you should espouse your liberty but shows your sense. I wish you no harm.” Unlike Alcorn, most planters reacted with outrage and bewilderment, suffering a severe shock to their egos as well as their pocketbooks, and demanded to know why their trusted servants fled a situation in which they appeared to be perfectly content.106
The house servants achieved a reputation as the “white niggers” and “Uncle Toms” of slavery, who identified with and tried to emulate their masters, and whose disdain for the field hands was exceeded only by the pride they felt in their quality “white folks.” “We house slaves thought we was better’n the others what worked in the field,” a former Tennessee bondsman recalled. “We really was raised a little different, you know …” From the vantage point of the fields, a former South Carolina slave confirmed a common impression: “De house servants put on more airs than de white folks.” Contrary to this image of a slave hierarchy, house servants and field hands actually spent a great deal of time together, not only in the slave quarters which they often shared (sometimes as husband and wife, with one working in the house and the other in the field) but in the daily agricultural operations, with the servants often called upon to help at harvest time. In the few urban centers (like Charleston, New Orleans, and Richmond) and on the relatively small number of large “aristocratic” plantations (like those of low-country South Carolina and the Mississippi River), house servants approximated an elite class that lived up to the legend. Elsewhere, the lines were not so clearly drawn between field and house slaves. Typically, the slave quarters rather than the Big House constituted the real social world for most slaves; consequently, few house servants were unconcerned about how their fellow slaves judged them and many of them acted as an intermediary between the Big House and the quarters. Although some field hands spoke scornfully of the superior airs of house slaves, many relished the tales of life inside the Big House and took a vicarious delight in watching house slaves deceive their masters and mistresses.107
The distinctions between house and field slaves seem more pronounced in the literature than in the day-to-day operations of slavery. Sufficient examples of the elite house servant lording it over his or her fellow slaves were always on hand, however, to sustain and reinforce the prevailing image. The accounts of both fugitive slaves and planter families lent further “inside” credence to that view. While the number of defections increased each day, Susan Smedes wrote, George Page, her father’s servant, “tried to make up in himself for what he looked on as the lack of loyalty on the part of the other servants. They were field Negroes; he belonged to the house.” Similarly, in the Allston household, Mammy Milly “held herself and her family as vastly superior to the ordinary run of negroes, the aristocracy of the race.” Nevertheless, surprisingly large numbers of house servants fled at the first opportunity, sometimes entire households, and if they remained, many of them refused to wait upon their masters and mistresses, coveted possession of the Big House and its contents (even Mammy Milly fell under suspicion), and “behaved outrageously.” After being told by Union soldiers that he was free, the coachman of a Virginia family headed directly for his master’s chamber, attired himself in the master’s finest clothes, and took his watch and chain and walking stick. Returning to the parlor, where his master sat, the slave “insolently” informed him that henceforth he could drive his own coach.108
The range of conduct exemplified by George Page and the Virginia coachman prompted whites to seek some plausible explanation that might be translated into appropriate action. But the initial assumptions they made about slave behavior rendered any real analysis impossible. What they found so difficult to believe was that their slaves might have developed their own standards of accepted behavior and evolved their own concepts of freedom. It was so much easier to think that the troublesome slaves, the defectors, and the rebels were simply not themselves, that they had been misled, that their minds had been contaminated by outside influences. After a Richmond slave denounced Jefferson Davis and refused to serve any white man, a local editor demanded that he “be whipped every day until he confesses what white man put these notions in his head.” There had to be an explanation which slaveholding families could accept without in any way compromising their self-esteem or the fundamental conviction that slavery was the best possible condition for black people. To pretend that the Yankees instigated slave aggression and enticed and forced slaves to desert their masters proved to be a highly popular explanation, since it contained a semblance of truth and conveniently evaded the hard questions. “The poor negroes don’t do us any harm except when they are put up to it,” Eliza Andrews thought. “Even when they murdered that white man and quartered him, I believe pernicious teachings were responsible.”109
Although many whites gave public voice to this charge, few thought it adequately explained the rate of desertion and betrayal. The more they reflected over their own experiences, as well as their neighbors’, slaveholders came increasingly to question the lax discipline and familiarity which, they now argued, had produced pampered, spoiled, and overly indulged servants. “It has now been proven,” Louis Manigault maintained, “that those Planters who were the most indulgent to their Negroes when we were at peace, have since the commencement of the war encountered the greatest trouble in the management of this species of property.” Nor was that observation peculiar to Manigault’s rice plantations, for Julia LeGrand made precisely the same point based on her experience in New Orleans. “So many people have been betrayed by pet servants. Strange that some of the most severe mistresses and masters have kept their servants through all this trying year.” After noting how the most indulged slaves had turned out to be “the meanest” and least trustworthy, a Georgia planter indicated that his wartime experience left him with only one conclusion: “A nigger has got to know you’re his master, and then when he understands that he’s content.… Flail a nigger and he knows you.” That was, of course, time-honored advice. By nature, it had long been held, blacks required rigid discipline and the full exercise of the master’s authority; without those restraints, they would revert back to the barbarism from which they had emerged. The closer blacks approached a state of freedom, the more unmanageable and dangerous they became.110
To understand why their most trusted slaves turned against them, most masters need not have looked beyond their own households. The answer usually lay somewhere in that complex and often ambivalent relationship between a slave and his “white folks,” in the intimacy and dependency which infused those relations and created both mutual affection and unbearable tension in the narrow quarters of the Big House. Unlike the field slave, who enjoyed a certain degree of anonymity and a prescribed leisure time, the house servant stood always at the beck and call of each member of the master’s family, worked under their watchful eyes, and had to bear the brunt of their capricious moods. The very same family that petted and coddled him might at any time make him the butt of their jokes, the object of their frustrations, the victim of their pettiness. He had to learn how to be the “good nigger,” to submit to indignities without protest, to submerge his feelings, to repress his emotions, to play “dumb” when the occasion demanded it, to respond with the proper gestures and words to every command, to learn the uses of flattery and humility, to never appear overly intelligent. He was expected to acquire and to exhibit at all times what a Georgia slaveholder defined as “a house look.” The quality of bondage to which he submitted could be measured neither by the number of beatings he sustained nor by the privileges and indulgences he enjoyed. What took the heaviest toll, as W. E. B. Du Bois observed, had to be “the enforced personal feeling of inferiority, the calling of another Master; the standing with hat in hand. It was the helplessness. It was the defenselessness of family life. It was the submergence below the arbitrary will of any sort of individual.”111
That a certain intimacy characterized the slave-master relationship in the Big House reveals little about the conflicting feelings it generated and the precarious base on which it often rested. To live in close day-to-day contact with his master, to know his capacity for deceit and cunning, to know him as few of the field hands could, enabled some slaves to hate him that much more, with an intensity and fervor that only intimate knowledge could have produced. Recalling her many years as the cook in a North Carolina family, Aunt Delia suggested ways in which a house slave might choose to manifest that feeling: “How many times I spit in the biscuits and peed in the coffee just to get back at them mean white folks.” The easy familiarity that pervaded service in the Big House made not only for ambiguity but for a potentially volatile situation.112
Even if the master had been a model of virtue and propriety, there was no assurance that the blacks he had most indulged would remain faithful to him. Recalling their own experiences, William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass, both of whom ultimately escaped to the North, testified that beneficent treatment, much more than abuse, had intensified their dissatisfaction with bondage. The better treated he was, Brown explained, the more miserable he became, the more he appreciated liberty, the more he detested the bondage that confined and restrained him. “If a slave has a bad master,” Douglass observed, “his ambition is to get a better; when he gets a better, he aspires to have the best; and when he gets the best, he aspires to be his own master.” To make a contented slave, he added, was to make a thoughtless slave. Rather than being grateful for his ability to read and write, he recalled those times when he envied the “stupidity” of his fellow slaves. “It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me.” On this point, then, Brown, Douglass, and the slaveholding class found themselves in unusual agreement, and the wartime experience demonstrated in scores of instances the validity of their observation: the best-treated, the most indulged, the most intelligent slaves might be expected to be the first ones to “betray” their masters.113
No plantation slave exercised greater authority than did the driver or foreman. The position he occupied as the director of labor and as an intermediary between the Big House and the quarters made him a crucial figure in the wartime crisis and in the subsequent transition to free labor. The driver dispatched the slaves to the fields, set the work pace and supervised performance of the daily tasks, maintained order in the quarters, settled disputes among slaves, and shared supervisory duties with the overseer or, quite commonly, combined the functions of driver and overseer. In a conflict between the overseer and the driver, the driver’s judgment might in many instances prevail; the very maintenance of discipline often demanded that his authority be sustained. “I constantly endeavored to do nothing which would cause them [the slaves] to lose their respect for him [the driver],” the manager of a plantation in South Carolina noted. With that same objective in mind, many planters provided the driver with better clothing, granted certain privileges to his wife, and always made a point of reprimanding him in private rather than in the presence of other slaves.114
In the literature and folklore of slavery, the driver enjoyed at best a mixed reputation, usually reflecting the ways in which he exerted his power to exact labor and mete out punishments. If the “Uncle Toms” came to dominate the legend of the house slave, the black “Simon Legrees” seemed to prevail in the characterization of the driver. Henry Cheatam, a former Mississippi slave, recalled the driver as “de meanest debil dat eber libbed on de Lawd’s green earth. I promise myself when I growed up dat I was agoin’ to kill dat nigger iffen it was de las’ thing I eber done.” To make matters worse, that driver along with the mistress ran the plantation after the death of the master in the war. In a song overheard by Colonel Thomas Higginson, some of his black troops improvised verses that reflected the prevailing image of the driver. And as with the house slave, sufficient examples abounded to make it quite plausible.
O, de ole nigger-driver!
O, gwine away!
Fust ting my mammy tell me,
O, gwine away!
Tell me ’bout de nigger-driver,
O, gwine away!
Nigger-driver second devil,
O, gwine away!
Best ting for do he driver,
O, gwine away!
Knock he down and spoil he labor,
O, gwine away!
After the war, on those plantations where the driver had a reputation for cruelty, the freedmen demanded his removal before they would consent to work.115
If a master maintained confidence in any of his slaves, outside of a few of the venerable “uncles” and “aunties,” he most likely trusted the driver. He had personally chosen this man for his loyalty, competence, and dependability, believing him capable of managing the plantation in his absence. But the master also selected a driver who commanded the respect and obedience of the slaves, and this leadership role was apt to create conflicting loyalties. When the Yankees arrived, numerous drivers exercised leadership and influence in ways few masters had dared to contemplate. On one of the Allston plantations, Jesse Belflowers, the much-harassed overseer, traced the prevailing disorder and the misconduct of the slaves to the driver. He “is not behaveing write,” Belflowers reported, “he doant talk write before the People.” Not far from this scene, Confederate scouts captured and hanged a driver for his “treachery.” When a number of slaves fled a Georgia plantation to join General Sherman’s army, “the leading spirit” as well as the youngest of the group was the driver, described by one Union officer as a “very quick and manly fellow, a model, physically.” Not only did some drivers desert to the Yankees, but they were likely as well to take other slaves with them, and in several instances the driver directed the seizure of deserted plantations and helped to wreak vengeance on masters and overseers. A South Carolina planter and his son were shot and seriously wounded while riding in their carriage near the plantation; the band of blacks who ambushed them had been “led on by his Driver.” After blacks had seized one of his plantations, Charles Manigault accused the driver of aspiring to be “lord & master of everything there.”
Frederick (the Driver) was ringleader, & at the head of all the iniquity committed there. He encouraged all the Negroes to believe that the Farm, and everything on it, now since Emancipation, belonged solely to him, & that their former owners had now no rights, or control there whatever.
No less dismayed, Edmund Ruffin described the exodus of blacks from his son’s plantation, Marlbourne, along with the decision of those who remained to refuse to work. “My former black overseer, Jem Sykes,” he added, “who for the last seven years of my proprietorship, kept my keys, & was trusted with everything, even when I & every other white was absent from 4 to 6 weeks at a time, acted precisely with all his fellows.” If the driver remained on the plantation, as he usually did, he might also assume the responsibility for informing the slaves of their freedom and initiating negotiations with the master for a labor contract.116
When some planters came to assess the wartime disaster that deprived them of an enslaved work force, they did not hesitate to project much of their anger and frustration on the trusted drivers. “The drivers everywhere have proved the worst negroes,” a Louisiana planter concluded. Actually, the record varied considerably, and as many planters voiced satisfaction and admiration for the ways in which their drivers managed to sustain agricultural operations and control the labor force during the war and in some instances run the entire plantation in their absence. With a number of slaves manifesting their discontent, Louis Manigault was much relieved to learn that Driver John “is still the same”; and since he deemed John “a Man of great importance” to the plantation, Manigault advised his father to furnish him with all the items the driver had requested—boots, a coat, a hat, a watch, and ample clothing. On the South Carolina Sea Islands, particularly on the smaller plantations, the drivers remained after the masters fled and succeeded in supervising and planting food crops and in maintaining a semblance of order and discipline. Impressed with the leadership and knowledge of plantation operations exhibited by these drivers, Union officers viewed them as a crucial stabilizing factor in the transition to free labor and tried to bolster their authority, particularly on the larger plantations where it had been seriously undermined by the absence of whites.117
Recognizing the influence many of the drivers retained over the freed slaves, planters went to considerable lengths after the war to maintain their services. Once again, the driver found himself caught between conflicting loyalties. Through the driver, the planter hoped to retain the bulk of his labor force on the most favorable terms, though in a few instances he would have to dismiss an unpopular driver to keep any of his former slaves. Through the driver, on the other hand, many former slaves hoped to present a united front to the employer and exact concessions from him that would make their labor sufficiently remunerative and less arduous. In many of these postwar arrangements, the planter and the driver, both leaders in their own ways, seemed to have reached a tacit understanding about the division of power. On a plantation near Lexington, Tennessee, the driver—Jordan Pyles—had fled with the Yankees and had served in the Union Army. When he returned to the plantation after the war, he “was a changed nigger and all de whites and a lot of de niggers hated him,” his stepson recalled. “All ’cepting old Master, and he never said a word out of de way to him. Jest tol him to come on and work on de place as long as he wanted to.” Whatever the hostility that initially greeted him, Jordan Pyles must have retained much of the leadership quality and influence he had previously exercised, for in 1867 he would be elected a delegate to the Radical state convention.118
Among the field hands, the house servants, the skilled black artisans, and the slave drivers, the Civil War provoked a wide range of behavior. Contrary to the legends of “docility” and “militancy,” the slaves did not sort themselves out into Uncle Toms and Nat Turners any more than masters divided neatly into the “mean” and the “good.” Rebelliousness, resistance, and accommodation might manifest themselves at different times in the same slave, depending on his own perception of reality. Rare was that slave, no matter how degraded, no matter how effusively he professed his fidelity, who did not contain within him a capacity for outrage. Whether or not that outrage ever surfaced, how much longer it would remain muted was the terrible reality every white man and woman had to live with and could never really escape. The tensions this uncertainty generated could at times prove to be unbearable. “The loom room had caught from some hot ashes,” Kate Stone confided to her diary, “but we at once thought Jane [the slave cook] was wreaking vengeance on us all by trying to burn us out. We would not have been surprised to have her slip up and stick any of us in the back.” If the vast majority of slaves refrained from aggressive acts and remained on the plantations, most of them were neither “rebellious” nor “faithful” in the fullest sense of those terms, but rather ambivalent and observant, some of them frankly opportunistic, many of them anxious to preserve their anonymity, biding their time, searching for opportunities to break the dependency that bound them to their white families. “There is quite a difference of manner among the negroes,” a South Carolina white woman noted in March 1865, “but I think it proceeds from an uncertainty as to what their condition will be, they do not know if they are free or not, and their manner is a sort of feeler by which they will find out how far they can go.”119
The war revealed, often in ways that defied description, the sheer complexity of the master-slave relationship, and the conflicts, contradictions, and ambivalence that relationship generated in each individual. The slave’s emotions and behavior invariably rested on a precarious balance between the habit of obedience and the intense desire for freedom. The same humble, self-effacing slave who touched his hat to his “white folks” was capable of touching off the fire that gutted his master’s house. The loyal body servant who risked his life to carry his wounded master to safety remounted his master’s horse and fled to the Yankees. The black boatman lionized by the Richmond press for his denunciation of the Yankees and enlistment as a Confederate recruit deserted to the Union lines with valuable information and “twenty new rebel uniforms.” The house slave who nursed her mistress through a terrible illness, always evincing love and affection, even weeping over her condition, deserted her when the moment seemed right—“when I was scarce able to walk without assistance—she left me without provocation or reason—left me in the night, and that too without the slightest noise.” On the Jones plantation, near Herndon, Georgia, the house servant had given no warm welcome to the Union soldiers. She dutifully looked after the white children entrusted to her care. “I suckled that child, Hattie,” she boasted, “all these children suckled by colored women.” And yet, when the Yankees threatened to burn down her master’s house, Louisa made no protest. “It ought to be burned,” she told a Union officer. “Why?” the astonished officer asked her, for he had been rather moved by her fidelity to the family and her apparent devotion to the children. “Cause there has been so much devilment here,” she replied, “whipping niggers most to death to make ’em work to pay for it.”120
To place the blame for slave disaffection on lax discipline or outside influences, as so many slaveholders chose to do, was to make the same false assumptions about blacks. If the war taught slaveholders anything, it should have revealed how little they actually knew their blacks, how they had mistaken the slave’s outward demeanor for his inner feelings, his docility for contentment and acquiescence, and how in numerous instances they had been deliberately deceived so that they might later be the more easily betrayed. The conduct of slaves during the recent crisis, a South Carolina planter conceded, should have impressed upon every slaveholding family that “we were all laboring under a delusion.”
Good masters and bad masters all alike, shared the same fate—the sea of the Revolution confounded good and evil; and, in the chaotic turbulence, all suffer in degree. Born and raised amid the institution, like a great many others, I believed it was necessary, to our welfare, if not to our very existence. I believed that these people were content, happy, and attached to their masters. But events and reflection have caused me to change these opinions.… If they were content, happy and attached to their masters, why did they desert him in the moment of his need and flock to an enemy, whom they did not know; and thus left their, perhaps really good masters whom they did know from infancy?121
Whatever happened in the future, no matter what kind of South emerged from the ruins, it seemed certain that the relations which masters and slaves alike had enjoyed or tolerated in the past would never be quite the same again.
WHEN THE UNION ARMY neared his Savannah River plantations, Louis Manigault fled. That was December 1864. More than two years later, having leased the plantations to a former Confederate officer, Manigault decided to visit the place for the first time since his hasty departure and assess the impact of the war. Traveling along the familiar roads between Savannah and his plantations, he noted traces of previous army encampments, the twisted ruins of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, and the remains of what had once been a magnificent neighboring mansion. Upon entering the plantations, he was greeted enthusiastically by his former slave cooper, George, who still called him “Maussa.” Standing next to the ruins of his country house, Manigault recalled how he had spent here “the most happy period” of his childhood. All that remained of the house was a tall chimney and some scattered bricks which the slaves had not stolen and sold in Savannah. Except for the “Negro Houses,” which he had constructed just before the war, the entire settlement had “a most abandoned and forlorn appearance.”
As he approached the old slave quarters, some of the blacks came out of their cabins, hesitant in their greetings, “not knowing whether under the new regime it would be proper to meet me politely or not.” Manigault shook hands with them, called each by his name (“which seemed to please them highly”), and joked with them about his present plight. “Lord! a Massy!” he mocked when asked why he had not returned earlier. “You tink I can lib in de Chimney.” Near the center of the plantation, twelve of his former slaves greeted him. “They all seemed pleased to see me, calling me ‘Maussa’ & the Men still showing respect by taking off their caps.” He spotted “Captain” Hector, “as cunning as Negroes can be,” his “constant companion” until the war transformed him into “a great Rascal” and troublemaker. Hector was now a foreman.
Much to Manigault’s surprise, Jack Savage, the slave he had sold in Savannah, had returned. “Tall, black, lousy, in rags, & uncombed, kinky, knotty-hair,” this man had been “the most notoriously bad character & worst Negro of the place,” the one slave he had thought capable of murder and arson, and yet acknowledged to be intelligent and an able carpenter. The two men now shook hands and exchanged “a few friendly remarks.” To Manigault, it seemed highly ironic that Jack Savage, “the last one I should have dreamt of,” greeted him, “whilst sitting idly upon the Negro-House steps dirty & sluggish, I behold young Women to whom I had most frequently presented Earrings, Shoes, Calicos, Kerchiefs &c, &c,—formerly pleased to meet me, but now not even lifting the head as I passed.”
Unlike many slaveholders, Louis Manigault had never pretended to understand his blacks. Before the war, he reflected, fear had largely shaped the behavior of the slaves, and “we Planters could never get at the truth.” Those who claimed to know the Negro were simply deceiving themselves. “Our ‘Northern Brethren’ inform us that we Southerners knew nothing of the Negro Character. This I have always considered perfectly true, but they further state that They (the Yankees) have always known the true Character of the Negro which I consider entirely false in the extreme. So deceitful is the Negro that as far as my own experience extends I could never in a single instance decipher his character.” Conversing now with his former slaves, Manigault was suddenly overcome by a strange feeling. “I almost imagined myself with Chinese, Malays or even the Indians in the interior of the Philippine Islands.” It was as though he were on alien turf and had never really known these people who had once been his slaves.122
Before setting out to make a new life for himself, William Colbert, a former Alabama slave, looked back for a last time at the old plantation on which he had spent more than twenty years. He had no reason to regret his decision to leave. The bondage he had endured had been harsh, reflecting the temperament of a master who had never hesitated to whip his slaves severely. “All de niggers ’roun’ hated to be bought by him kaze he wuz so mean,” Colbert recalled. “When he wuz too tired to whup us he had de overseer do it; and de overseer wuz meaner dan de massa.” The arrival of the Yankees had not materially affected their lives. After a few days of looting, the soldiers had suddenly left “an’ we neber seed ’em since.” After the war, the blacks only gradually left and the plantation slowly deteriorated. Many years later, reflecting on his experience, Colbert captured with particular vividness the ambivalence that had necessarily characterized a slave’s attachment to his master. His recollections were tinged neither with romantic nostalgia nor with abject hatred. Whatever bitterness he still felt may have been dissipated both by the passage of time and by the knowledge that Jim Hodison, his former master, had come to learn in his own way the dimensions of human tragedy. And that was an experience William Colbert could easily share with him.
De massa had three boys to go to war, but dere wuzn’t one to come home. All the chillun he had wuz killed. Massa, he los’ all his money and de house soon begin droppin’ away to nothin’. Us niggers one by one lef de ole place and de las’ time I seed de home plantation I wuz a standin’ on a hill. I looked back on it for de las’ time through a patch of scrub pines and it look’ so lonely. Dere warn’t but one person in sight, de massa. He was a-settin’ in a wicker chair in de yard lookin’ out ober a small field of cotton and cawn. Dere wuz fo’ crosses in de graveyard in de side lawn where he wuz a-settin’. De fo’th one wuz his wife. I lost my ole woman too 37 years ago, and all dis time, I’s been a carrin’ on like de massa—all alone.123
After the war, Savilla Burrell left the plantation near Jackson’s Creek, South Carolina, on which she had been raised as a slave. Not until many years later did she return to visit her old master, Tom Still, in his final days. Sitting there by his side, trying to keep the flies off him, she could clearly see the lines of sorrow “plowed on dat old face” and she recalled that time when he had looked so impressive as a captain in the Confederate cavalry. “It come into my ’membrance de song of Moses: ‘de Lord had triumphed glorily and de hoss and his rider have been throwed into de sea.’ ”124