Slavery chain done broke at last!
Broke at last! Broke at last!
Slavery chain done broke at last!
Gonna praise God till I die!
Way up in that valley,
Pray-in’ on my knees,
Tell-in’ God a-bout my troubles,
And to help me if He please.
I did tell him how I suffer,
In the dungeon and the chain;
And the days I went with head bowed down,
An’ my broken flesh and pain.
I did know my Jesus heard me,
’Cause the spirit spoke to me,
An’ said, “Rise, my chile, your children
An’ you too shall be free.”
I done ’p’int one mighty captain
For to marshal all my hosts;
An’ to bring my bleeding ones to me,
An’ not one shall be lost.
Now no more weary trav’lin’,
’Cause my Jesus set me free,
An’ there’s no more auction block for me
Since He give me liberty.1
ON THE NIGHT of April 2, 1865, Confederate troops abandoned Richmond. The sudden decision caught Robert Lumpkin, the well-known dealer in slaves, with a recently acquired shipment which he had not yet managed to sell. Desperately, he tried to remove them by the same train that would carry Jefferson Davis out of the Confederate capital. When Lumpkin reached the railway station, however, he found a panic-stricken crowd held back by a line of Confederate soldiers with drawn bayonets. Upon learning that he could not remove his blacks, the dealer marched them back to Lumpkin’s Jail, a two-story brick house with barred windows, located in the heart of Richmond’s famous slave market—an area known to local blacks as “the Devil’s Half Acre.” After their return, the slaves settled down in their cells for still another night, apparently unaware that this would be their last night of bondage. For Lumpkin, the night would mark the loss of a considerable investment and the end of a profession. Not long after the collapse of the Confederacy, however, he took as his legal wife the black woman he had purchased a decade before and who had already borne him two children.2
With Union soldiers nearing the city, a Confederate official thought the black residents looked as stunned and confused as the whites. “The negroes stand about mostly silent,” he wrote, “as if wondering what will be their fate. They make no demonstrations of joy.” Obviously he had not seen them earlier that day emerging from a church meeting with particular exuberance, “shaking hands and exchanging congratulations upon all sides.” Nor had he heard, probably, that familiar refrain with which local blacks occasionally regaled themselves: “Richmond town is burning down, High diddle diddle inctum inctum ah.” Whatever the origins of the song, the night of the evacuation must have seemed like a prophetic fulfillment. Explosions set off by the retreating Confederates left portions of the city in flames and precipitated a night of unrestrained looting and rioting, in which army deserters and the impoverished residents of Richmond’s white slum shared the work of expropriation and destruction with local slaves and free blacks. Black and white women together raided the Confederate Commissary, while the men rolled wheelbarrows filled with bags of flour, meal, coffee, and sugar toward their respective shanties. Along the row of retail stores, a large black man wearing abright red sash around his waist directed the looting. After breaking down the doors with the crowbar he carried on his shoulder, he stood aside while his followers rushed into the shops and emptied them of their contents. He took nothing for himself, apparently satisfied to watch the others partake of commodities long denied them. If only for this night, racial distinctions and customs suddenly became irrelevant.3
Determined to reap the honors of this long-awaited triumph, white and black Yankees vied with each other to make the initial entry into the Confederate capital. The decision to halt the black advance until the white troops marched into the city would elicit some bitter comments in the northern black press. “History will show,” one editor proclaimed, “that they [the black troops] were in the suburbs of Richmond long before the white soldiers, and but for the untimely and unfair order to halt, would have triumphantly planted their banner first upon the battlements of the capital of ‘ye greate confederaci.’ ” Many years later, a former Virginia slave still brooded over this issue. “Gawdammit, ’twas de nigguhs tuk Richmond,” he kept insisting. “Ah ain’t nevuh knowed nigguhs—even all uh dem nigguhs—could mek such uh ruckus. One huge sea uh black faces filt de streets fum wall tuh wall, an’ dey wan’t nothin’ but nigguhs in sight.” Regardless of who entered Richmond first, black newspapers and clergymen perceived the hand of God in this ironic triumph. The moment the government reversed its policy on black recruitment it had doomed the Confederacy. And now, “as a finishing touch, as though He would speak audible words of approval to the nation,” God had delivered Richmond—“that stronghold of treason and wickedness”—into the hands of black soldiers. “This is an admonition to which men, who make war on God would do well to take heed.”4
To the black soldiers, many of them recently slaves, this was the dramatic, the almost unbelievable climax to four years of war that had promised at the outset to be nothing more than a skirmish to preserve the Union. Now they were marching into Richmond as free men, amidst throngs of cheering blacks lining the streets. Within hours, a large crowd of black soldiers and residents assembled on Broad Street, near “Lumpkin Alley,” where the slave jails, the auction rooms, and the offices of the slave traders were concentrated. Among the soldiers gathered here was Garland H. White, a former Virginia slave who had escaped to Ohio before the war and now returned as chaplain of the 28th United States Colored Troops.
I marched at the head of the column, and soon I found myself called upon by the officers and men of my regiment to make a speech, with which, of course, I readily complied. A vast multitude assembled on Broad street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind.
From behind the barred windows of Lumpkin’s Jail, the imprisoned slaves began to chant:
Slavery chain done broke at last!
Broke at last! Broke at last!
Slavery chain done broke at last!
Gonna praise God till I die!
The crowd outside took up the chant, the soldiers opened the slave cells, and the prisoners came pouring out, most of them shouting, some praising God and “master Abe” for their deliverance. Chaplain White found himself unable to continue with his speech. “I became so overcome with tears, that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fulness of joy in my own heart. I retired to gain strength.” Several hours later, he located his mother, whom he had not seen for some twenty years.5
The white residents bolted their doors, remained inside, and gained their first impressions of Yankee occupation from behind the safety of their shutters. “For us it was a requiem for buried hopes,” Sallie P. Putnam conceded. The sudden and ignominious Confederate evacuation had been equaled only by the humiliating sight of black soldiers patrolling the city streets. For native whites, it was as though the victorious North had conspired to make the occupation as distasteful as possible. Few of them could ever forget the long lines of black cavalry sweeping by the Exchange Hotel, brandishing their swords and exchanging “savage cheers” with black residents who were “exulting” over this dramatic moment in their lives. After viewing such spectacles from her window, a young white woman wondered, “Was it to this end we had fought and starved and gone naked and cold? To this end that the wives and children of many dear and gallant friends were husbandless and fatherless? To this end that our homes were in ruins, our state devastated?” Understandably, then, local whites boycotted the military band concerts on the Capitol grounds, even after Federal authorities, in a conciliatory gesture, had barred blacks from attendance.6
Four days after the entry of Union troops, Richmond blacks assembled at the First African Church on Broad Street for a Jubilee Meeting. The church, built in the form of a cross and scantily furnished, impressed a northern visitor as “about the last place one would think of selecting for getting up any particular enthusiasm on any other subject than religion.” On this day, some 1,500 blacks, including a large number of soldiers, packed the frail structure. With the singing of a hymn, beginning “Jesus my all to heaven is gone,” the congregation gave expression to their newly won freedom. After each line, they repeated with added emphasis, “I’m going to join in this army; I’m going to join in this army of my Lord.” But when they came to the verse commencing, “This is the way I long have sought,” the voices reached even higher peaks and few of the blacks could suppress the smiles that came across their faces. Meanwhile, in the Hall of Delegates, where the Confederate Congress had only recently deliberated and where black soldiers now took turns swiveling in the Speaker’s chair, T. Morris Chester, a black war correspondent, tried to assess the impact of these first days of liberation: the rejoicing of the slaves and free blacks, the tumultuous reception accorded President Lincoln when he visited the city, the opening of the slave pens, and the mood of the black population. “They declare that they cannot realize the change; though they have long prayed for it, yet it seems impossible that it has come.”7
It took little time for the “grapevine” to spread the news that Babylon (as some blacks called it) had fallen. When black children attending a freedmen’s school in Norfolk heard the news, they responded with a resounding chorus of “Glory Hallelujah.” Reaching the line “We’ll hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree,” one of the pupils inquired if Davis had, indeed, met that fate. The teacher told her that Davis was still very much alive. At this news, the pupil expressed her dismay “by a decided pout of her lips, such a pout as these children only are able to give.” Still, the news about Richmond excited them. Most of the children revealed that they had relatives there whom they now hoped to see, several looked forward to reunions with fathers and mothers “dat dem dere Secesh carried off,” and those who had neither friends nor relatives in the city were “mighty glad” anyway because they understood the news to mean that “cullud people free now.”8
When the news reached a plantation near Yorktown, the white family broke into tears, not only over the fall of Richmond but over the rumor that the Yankees had captured Jefferson Davis. Overhearing the conversation, a black servant rushed through the preparation of the supper, asked another servant to wait on the table for her, and explained to the family that she had to fetch water from the “bush-spring.” She walked slowly until no one could see her and then ran the rest of the way. Upon reaching the spring, she made certain she was alone and then gave full vent to her feelings.
I jump up an’ scream, “Glory, glory, hallelujah to Jesus! I’s free! I’s free! Glory to God, you come down an’ free us; no big man could do it.” An’ I got sort o’ scared, afeared somebody hear me, an’ I takes another good look, an’ fall on de groun’, an’ roll over, an’ kiss de groun’ fo’ de Lord’s sake, I’s so full o’ praise to Masser Jesus. He do all dis great work. De soul buyers can neber take my two chillen lef me; no, neber can take ’em from me no mo’.
Several years before, her husband and four children had been sold to a slave dealer. Her thoughts now turned to the possibility of a reunion.9
Only a few miles from the Appomattox Courthouse, Fannie Berry, a house servant, stood in the yard with her mistress, Sarah Ann, and watched the white flag being hoisted in the Pamplin village square. “Oh, Lordy,” her mistress exclaimed, “Lee done surrendered!” Richmond had fallen the previous week, but for Fannie Berry this was the day she would remember the rest of her life.
Never was no time like ’em befo’ or since. Niggers shoutin’ an’ clappin’ hands an’ singin’! Chillun runnin’ all over de place beatin’ tins an’ yellin’. Ev’ybody happy. Sho’ did some celebratin’. Run to de kitchen an’ shout in de winder:
Mammy, don’t you cook no mo’
You’s free! You’s free!
Run to de henhouse an’ shout:
Rooster, don’t you crow no mo’
You’s free! You’s free!
Ol’ hen, don’t you lay no mo’ eggs,
You’s free! You’s free!
Go to de pigpen an’ tell de pig:
Ol’ pig, don’t you grunt no mo’
You’s free! You’s free!
Tell de cows:
Ol’ cow, don’t you give no mo’ milk,
You’s free! You’s free!
Meanwhile, she recalled, some “smart alec boys” sneaked up under her mistress’s window and shouted, “Ain’t got to slave no mo’. We’s free! We’s free!” The day after the celebration, however, Fannie Berry went about her usual duties, as if she hadn’t understood the full implications of what had transpired. And as before, she permitted her mistress to hire her out. Finally, the woman for whom she was working told her she was now free, there was no need to return to her mistress, and she could stay and work for room and board. “I didn’t say nothin’ when she wuz tellin’ me, but done ’cided to leave her an’ go back to the white folks dat furst own me.”10
Unlike many of their rural brethren, who evinced a certain confusion about the implications of freedom and when to claim it, the blacks in Richmond had little difficulty in appreciating the significance of this event. And they could test it almost instantly. They promenaded on the hitherto forbidden grounds of Capitol Square. They assembled in groups of five or more without the presence or authorization of a white man. They sought out new employers at better terms. They moved about as they pleased without having to show a pass upon the demand of any white person. “We-uns kin go jist anywhar,” one local black exulted, “don’t keer for no pass—go when yer want’er. Golly! de kingdom hab kim dis time for sure—dat ar what am promised in de generations to dem dat goes up tru great tribulations.” And they immediately seized upon the opportunity to educate themselves and their children, to separate their church from white domination, and to form their own community institutions.11
Less than two years after the fall of Richmond, a Massachusetts clergyman arrived in the city with the intention of establishing a school to train black ministers. But when he sought a building for his school, he encountered considerable resistance, until he met Mary Ann Lumpkin, the black wife of the former slave dealer. She offered to lease him Lumpkin’s Jail. With unconcealed enthusiasm, black workers knocked out the cells, removed the iron bars from the windows, and refashioned the old jail as a school for ministers and freedmen alike. Before long, children and adults entered the doors of the new school, some of them recalling that this was not their first visit to the familiar brick building.12
DESPITE THE IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION experienced by the black residents of Richmond, the death of slavery proved to be agonizingly slow. That precise moment when a slave could think of himself or herself as a free person was not always clear. From the very outset of the war, many slaves assumed they were free the day the Yankees came into their vicinity. But with the military situation subject to constant change, any freedom that ultimately depended on the presence of Union troops was apt to be quite precarious, and in some regions the slaves found themselves uncertain as to whose authority prevailed. The Emancipation Proclamation, moreover, excluded numbers of slaves from its provisions, some masters claimed to be unaware of the emancipation order, and still others refused to acknowledge it while the war raged and doubted its constitutionality after the end of hostilities. “I guess we musta celebrated ’Mancipation about twelve times in Harnett County,” recalled Ambrose Douglass, a former North Carolina slave. “Every time a bunch of No’thern sojers would come through they would tell us we was free and we’d begin celebratin’. Before we would get through somebody else would tell us to go back to work, and we would go. Some of us wanted to jine up with the army, but didn’t know who was goin’ to win and didn’t take no chances.”13
Outside of a few urban centers, Union soldiers rarely remained long enough in any one place to enforce the slave’s new status. Of the slaves in her region “who supposed they were free,” a South Carolina white woman noted how they were “gradually discovering a Yankee army passing through the country and telling them they are free is not sufficient to make it a fact.” Nor was the protection of the freedman’s status the first priority of an army engaged in a life-and-death struggle. When the troops needed to move on, many of the blacks were understandably dismayed, confused, and frightened. “Christ A’mighty!” one slave exclaimed in late 1861 when told the troops were about to depart. “If Massa Elliott Garrard catch me, might as well be dead—he kill me, certain.” Even if Union officers assured him of his safety, the slave had little reason to place any confidence in the word of someone who would not be around on that inevitable day of reckoning. While encamped in the North Carolina countryside, the black regiment to which Henry M. Turner was attached had attracted nearly 700 slaves from the immediate vicinity. “To describe the scene produced by our departure,” he wrote, “would be too solemn, if time and space permitted. Suffice it to say, many were the tears shed, many sorrowful hearts bled.… God alone knows, I was compelled to evade their sight as much as possible, to be relieved of such words as these, ‘Chaplain, what shall I do? where can we go? will you come back?’ ”14
Widespread dismay at the impending departure of the Yankees reflected not only the prevailing uncertainty about freedom but the very real fear that their masters or the entire white community might wreak vengeance on them for any irregular behavior during the brief period of occupation. In a Mississippi town near Vicksburg, a number of slaves had joined with the Yankees to plunder stores and homes, apparently assuming that the soldiers would be around to protect them. But now the troops were moving on, leaving the looters with their newly acquired possessions and all the slaves, regardless of what role they had played in the pillaging, at the mercy of whites who felt betrayed and robbed. With “undisguised amazement,” the blacks watched the soldiers leave, and within hours one of them caught up with the Yankee columns and reported that a number of his people had already been killed. On a plantation near Columbia, South Carolina, the master and mistress waited until the Yankees departed and then vented their anger on a young slave girl who had helped the soldiers to locate the hidden silverware, money, and jewelry. “She’d done wrong I know,” a former slave recalled, “but I hated to see her suffer so awful for it. After de Yankees had gone, de missus and massa had de poor gal hung ’till she die. It was something awful to see.” With similar swiftness, a slaveholder who was reputedly “very good to his Negroes” became so enraged over the behavior of a black that the moment the Yankees left the area he strung him up to the beams of a shed.15
Where slave misbehavior had been particularly “outrageous,” as in northern Louisiana and the adjoining Mississippi counties, the Yankee raiding parties had no sooner returned to their bases than local whites demanded swift and severe retaliation. Not content to leave such matters entirely in the hands of the planters, a newspaper in Alexandria urged that public examples be made of “the ungrateful and vindictive scoundrels” who seized their masters’ property, volunteered information to or acted as guides for the enemy, and “were seen armed or participated in any active demonstration.”
The uppermost thought in every one’s mind before the Yankee invasion of our Parish was, what will be the conduct of the slaves. The most important consideration for all of us now that the invasion has swept by, is what conduct are we to pursue to them? … Some offences have been committed that cannot be atoned for but by death. Others may be safely expiated by the lash or other corporeal punishment. Others may safely be left to the milder discipline of the plantation. The punishment for each proper to its kind, should be inexorably and unflinchingly afflicted.
The newspaper advised whites to scrutinize recent slave conduct and then select a particularly “diabolical” offender for immediate and public punishment. “This will inspire wholesome terror. Its example will be long remembered.” Acknowledging the losses already suffered by some masters and the fear of losing still more, the editor asked the planter class to place the security of the entire white population above any pecuniary considerations: “Here and there the life of a slave forfeited by his crime will entail a loss, but a great and good result will be attained, and those who are instrumental in engraving a wholesome lesson on the minds of this impressionable population will have cause to be thankful hereafter for this suggestion.”16
Requiring little prompting, some slaveholders had already acted in this spirit. In Rapides Parish, which included the town of Alexandria, John H. Ransdell moved very quickly to reassert his authority after the Yankees departed. “Things are just now beginning to work right,” he informed his absentee neighbor, Governor Thomas O. Moore. “The negroes hated awfully to go to work again. Several have been shot and probably more will have to be.” Less than a month later, he concurred with the governor that the recent Yankee raids had left him thoroughly disillusioned with the blacks. Even when two of the governor’s runaways returned, expressing pleasure at having escaped from the Yankees, Ransdell doubted their story and suspected “deep laid villany at the bottom of it.” In neighboring Mississippi, James Alcorn, a planter in Coahoma County, thought the recent Union raids had “thoroughly demoralized” the slaves, rendering them “no longer of any practical value to this vicinity.” Less than a month later, he informed his wife: “Hadley, Anthony & Bill are very faithful, about ten days since I whipped several in the field house including your filthy, lazy Margaret; it helped them greatly.”17
Nearly a year elapsed before the Union Army returned to these regions, and this time some of the slaves insisted that they be permitted to accompany the soldiers rather than be left behind. Near Alexandria, an elderly slave told a Union correspondent, “Oh, master! since you was here last, we have had dreadful times.” Several other slaves who had gathered around him corroborated his narration of a reign of terror.
We seen stars in the day time. They treated us dreadful bad. They beat us, and they hung us, and starved us.… Why, the day after you left, they jist had us all out in a row and told us they was going to shoot us, and they did hang two of us; and Mr. Pierce, the overseer, knocked one with a fence rail, and he died next day. Oh, Master! we seen stars in de day time. And now we going with you, we go back no mo’!18
Even if such stories were exaggerated for northern consumption, the fact remains that many slaves realistically perceived the degree to which their “freedom” rested on a Yankee presence. Once the troops moved on, despite the assurances of Union officers and regardless of how exemplary black behavior might have been, the status and conditions of labor of the slaves tended in many regions to revert back to what they had been, sometimes with painful consequences for those who insisted upon asserting their freedom or who were thought to have been “spoiled” by the Yankees. “The negroes’ freedom was brought to a close to-day,” a South Carolina white woman reported with relief, noting that as soon as the Yankees moved on, Confederate “scouts” assembled the slaves, told them the Union soldiers had no right to free them, and advised them to return to their usual tasks. Many former slaves recalled precisely that experience. “They tol’ us we were free,” an ex-North Carolina slave testified about the Yankees, but the master “would get cruel to the slaves if they acted like they were free.” Although recognizing that he was free, a former Alabama slave knew better than to claim that freedom in the presence of his master. “Didn’t do to say you was free. When de war was over if a nigger say he was free, dey shot him down. I didn’t say anythin’, but one day I run away.” After Confederate troops briefly reoccupied several parishes in southern Louisiana, James Walkinshaw, an overseer, quickly made it clear to the blacks he supervised that the Yankee invasion had changed nothing. “Don’t contradict me,” he shouted at a slave who protested his order to work harder. “I don’t allow anybody white or black to do that; if you contradict me again, I’ll cut your heart out; the Yankees have spoiled you Niggers but I’ll be even with you.” Apparently the verbal reprimand was not sufficient, for the overseer terminated the incident by stabbing the “spoiled” slave in the breast.19
The racial tensions exacerbated by black behavior during the Yankee invasion persisted long after the troops had moved elsewhere. With even greater vigilance, slaveholders and local whites scrutinized the remaining blacks, looking for any actions, words, or changes in their demeanor that suggested Yankee influences. Eliza Evans, a former Alabama slave, could recall quite vividly the day she first used the surname which a Yankee soldier had persuaded her to assume. “Jest Liza,” she had told the soldier when he asked for her name. “I ain’t got no other names.” After ascertaining that she worked for a John Mixon, the Yankee had told her, “You are Liza Mixon. Next time anybody call you nigger you tell ’em dat you is a Negro and your name is Miss Liza Mixon.” The idea appealed to the young slave. “The more I thought of that the more I liked it and I made up my mind to do jest what he told me to.” Several days later, after the Yankees had withdrawn from the area, Eliza was tending the livestock when her master approached. “What you doin’, nigger?” he demanded to know. “I ain’t no nigger,” she replied. “I’se a Negro and I’m Miss Liza Mixon.” Startled by her response and sensitive to any signs of post-Yankee insolence, the master picked up a switch and ran after her. “Law’, but I was skeered!” she recalled. “I hadn’t never had no whipping so I ran fast as I can to Grandma Gracie.” She reached her grandmother about the same time her master did. “Gracie,” he charged, “dat little nigger sassed me.” When Eliza explained what had happened, revealing the conversation with the soldier, her grandmother decided to mete out the punishment herself. “Grandma Gracie took my dress and lift it over my head and pins my hands inside, and Lawsie, how she whipped me and I dassent holler loud either.” Still, as she recalled the incident many years later, Eliza Evans suggested that she had derived considerable self-pride from this initial assertion of freedom. “I jest said dat to de wrong person,” she concluded.20
What, then, was “freedom” and who was “free”? The fluctuating moods of individual masters, unexpected changes in the military situation, the constant movement of troops, and widespread doubts about the validity and enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation were bound to have a sobering effect on the slaves’ perceptions of their status and rights, leaving many of them quite confused if not thoroughly disillusioned. The sheer uncertainty of it all prompted blacks to weigh carefully their actions and utterances, as they had earlier in the war, even in some instances to disclaim any desire to be free or to deny what the Yankees told them. “Sho’ it ain’t no truf in what dem Yankees wuz a-sayin’,” Martha Colquitt recalled her mother telling her, “and us went right on living just like us always done ’til Marse Billie called us together and told us de war wuz over and us wuz free to go whar us wanted to go, and us could charge wages for our work.”21
Only with “the surrender,” as they came to call it, did many slaves begin to acknowledge the reality of emancipation. The fall of Richmond and the collapse of the Confederacy broke the final links in the chain. With freedom no longer hanging on every military skirmish, slaves who had shrewdly or fearfully refrained from any outward display of emotion suddenly felt free to release their feelings and to act on them. Ambrose Douglass, who claimed to have celebrated emancipation every time the Yankees came into Harnett County, North Carolina, sensed that this time it was different, and he proposed to make certain. “I was 21 when freedom finally came, and that time I didn’t take no chances on ’em taking it back again. I lit out for Florida.” The day the war ended, Prince Johnson recalled, “wagon loads o’ people rode all th’ough de place a-tellin’ us ’bout bein’ free.” When the news reached Oconee, Georgia, Ed McCree found himself so overcome that he refused to wait for his master to confirm the report of Lee’s surrender: “I runned ’round dat place a-shoutin’ to de top of my voice.”22
In the major cities and towns, far more than in the countryside, the post-Appomattox demonstrations resembled the Jubilees that would become so firmly fixed in black and southern lore. If only for a few days or hours, many of the rural slaves flocked to the nearest town, anxious to join their urban brethren in the festivities and to celebrate their emancipation away from the scrutiny of their masters and mistresses. When news of “the surrender” reached Athens, Georgia, blacks sang and danced around a hastily constructed liberty pole in the center of town. (White residents cut it down during the night.) Although urban blacks had enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy in the past, military occupation afforded them the first real opportunity to express themselves openly and freely as a community, unhampered by curfews, passes, and restrictions on assemblages. Even before Appomattox, many of them made full use of such opportunities.23
The largest and most spectacular demonstration took place in Charleston, less than a month after Union occupation. More than 4,000 black men and women wound their way through the city streets, cheered on by some 10,000 spectators, most of them also black. With obvious emotions, they responded to a mule-drawn cart in which two black women sat, while next to them stood a mock slave auctioneer shouting, “How much am I offered?” Behind the cart marched sixty men tied together as a slave gang, followed in turn by a cart containing a black-draped coffin inscribed with the words “Slavery is Dead.” Union soldiers, schoolchildren, firemen, and members of various religious societies participated in the march along with an impressive number of black laborers whose occupations pointed up the important role they played in the local economy—carpenters, butchers, tailors, teamsters, masons, wheelwrights, barbers, coopers, bakers, blacksmiths, wood sawyers, and painters. For the black community of Charleston, the parade proved to be an impressive display of organization and self-pride. The white residents thought less of it. “The innovation was by no means pleasant,” a reporter wrote of the few white onlookers, “but they had sense enough to keep their thoughts to themselves.”24
Less than a week after the end of the war, still another celebration in Charleston featured the ceremonial raising of the United States flag over the ruins of Fort Sumter. Far more dramatic than any of the speeches on this occasion was the presence of such individuals as William Lloyd Garrison, the veteran northern abolitionist, for whom this must have been a particularly satisfying day. Robert Smalls, the black war hero who had delivered a Confederate steamer to the Union Navy, now used that same ship to convey some 3,000 blacks to Fort Sumter. On the quarterdeck stood Major Martin R. Delany, who had once counseled emigration as the only alternative to continued racial oppression and enslavement and who would soon take his post as a Freedmen’s Bureau agent in South Carolina. Next to Delany stood another black man, the son of Denmark Vesey, who some thirty-three years before had been executed for plotting a slave insurrection in Charleston.25
Nearly a week after the fall of Richmond, the Confederate dream lay shattered. When the news reached Mary Darby, daughter of a prominent South Carolina family, she staggered to a table, sat down, and wept aloud. “Now,” she shrieked, “we belong to Negroes and Yankees.” If the freed slaves had reason to be confused about the future, their former masters and mistresses were in many instances absolutely distraught, incapable of perceiving a future without slaves. “Nobody that hasn’t experienced it knows anything about our suffering,” a young South Carolina planter declared. “We are discouraged: we have nothing left to begin new with. I never did a day’s work in my life, and don’t know how to begin.” Often with little sense of intended irony, whites viewed the downfall of the Confederacy and slavery as fastening upon them the ignominy of bondage. Either they must submit to the insolence of their servants or appeal to their northern “masters” for protection, one white woman wrote, “as if we were slaves ourselves—and that is just what they are trying to make of us. Oh, it is abominable!”26
Seeking “temporary relief” from the recent disasters, including the loss of “many of our servants,” Eva B. Jones of Augusta, Georgia, immersed herself in fourteen volumes of history. But she found little comfort in a study of the past, only additional evidence of human depravity.
How vice and wickedness, injustice and every human passion runs riot, flourishes, oftentimes going unpunished to the tomb! And how the little feeble sickly attempts of virtue struggle, and after a brief while fade away, unappreciated and unextolled! The depravity of the human heart is truly wonderful, and the moiety of virtue contained on the historic page truly deplorable.
If she found any consolation in her readings, it was only to know how often “these same sorrows and unmerited punishments that we are now undergoing [have] been visited upon the brave, the deserving, the heroic, and the patient of all ages and in all climes!” Returning to the history that was being acted out in her own household, she bemoaned the abolition of slavery as “a most unprecedented robbery,” intended only for the “greater humiliation” of the southern people. “However, it is done,” she sighed; “and we, the chained witnesses, can only look on.”27
With such thoughts preying upon them, slave-owning families prepared to surrender their human property but not the ideology that had made such possessions possible and necessary.
WHATEVER DOUBTS persisted in the minds of slave owners about the status of their blacks were largely resolved in the aftermath of the Confederate collapse. On the day he heard of General Lee’s surrender, Thomas Dabney, a prominent Mississippi planter, rode out into his fields and informed the slaves that they were free; at the same time, his daughter recalled, he advised them “to work the crop as they had been doing” and he promised to compensate them “as he thought just.” Not all masters acted with such decisiveness, even after Appomattox. Only gradually, often belatedly, did many of them concede freedom to their slaves, but not without considerable self-torment, bitterness, and anxiety about the future. After Union troops occupied Augusta, Georgia, some three weeks after Lee’s surrender, Jefferson Thomas read the edict from the commanding officer and only then did he feel compelled to call his slaves together to talk to them about the probability of freedom. When David G. Harris, a South Carolina planter, first heard about the emancipation edict in early June 1865, he said nothing to his slaves; not until mid-August, four months after the end of the war, and only after Union troops stationed nearby ordered the planters to inform their slaves, did most of them in his vicinity do so.28
Although they had anticipated it for some time, many slaveholding families still expressed incredulity when emancipation became a reality. “If they don’t belong to me, whose are they?” one woman asked, clinging to the certainty that black people had to belong to someone. To be deprived of property some of them had worked hard to accumulate struck them with particular dismay. “I tell you it is mighty hard,” a dispossessed slave owner averred, “for my pa paid his own money for our niggers; and that’s not all they’ve robbed us of. They have taken our horses and cattle and sheep and every thing.” Even when they faced up to the inevitable, some had no way of knowing how to go about freeing their slaves. “This is more than I anticipated,” the widowed mistress of a Georgia plantation wrote on May 17, 1865, “yet I trust it will be a gradual thing & not done all at once.” Twelve days later, she remained undecided on how to proceed. “What I shall do with mine is a question that troubles day & night. It is my last thought at night & the first in the morning.” After finally telling them they were free and promising to look after them, she wondered how she could possibly survive without them.29
The way to retain their slaves, some families determined, was to make freedom a vague and frightening prospect. Not until nearly two months after Union occupation and the end of the war did the Elmore family of Columbia, South Carolina, “talk very freely” to their servants about “the probability of freedom,” and then only to make clear to them that they would find freedom “much harder than slavery.” Even as some of their blacks were taking the initiative to claim their freedom, the Elmores waited until the end of May to inform the remaining servants that they were no longer slaves. In nearby Camden, Emma Holmes heard that an emancipation edict had been issued in Columbia, “but we have not yet seen it, nor have any Yankees been here”; in the meantime, Emma and her mother warned the servants that in the event of freedom they would have to pay their own expenses. The uncertainty about emancipation did not deter them from dismissing two servants for insubordination, nor did it inhibit several of their slaves from leaving in mid-June without saying a word to anyone. To retain Chloe, a valued servant and cook, they told her that freedom for the blacks remained uncertain until Congress acted and most likely “negroes [would] still [be] obliged to remain with their masters.” They also pleaded with Chloe “not to sneak away at night as the others had done, disgracing themselves by running away.” When the Yankees finally arrived, the commanding officer, as Emma Holmes understood him, declared that the slaves were not yet free but “shall work and behave properly, though on a different footing with their former masters.” Nevertheless, Chloe left in late August, after giving two days’ notice, and Ann, the laundress and a “poor deluded fool,” departed without even finishing her ironing.30
Henry W. Ravenel, the prominent South Carolinian who thought of himself as a benevolent master, was typical of those who refused to rush headlong into an acknowledgment of emancipation. “Many negroes in Aiken,” he wrote in early May 1865, “hearing they were free in Augusta have gone over to hear from the Yankees the truth. Some are returning disappointed.… Most that we hear is mere rumor.” The Union officers stationed nearby claimed to have received no instructions regarding emancipation. Thinking the issue still in doubt, Ravenel opted for delay. “My negroes have made no change in their behaviour, & are going on as they have always hitherto done. Until I know that they are legally free, I shall let them continue.” After the local Union Army commander ordered that the slaves be set free, Ravenel took the required oath of allegiance to the United States Constitution in late May and only then did he resolve his doubts about emancipation. “It is the settled policy of the country,” he concluded. “I have today formally announced to my negroes the fact, & made such arrangements with each as the new relation rendered necessary.”31
While slave-owning families determined how and whether to break the news, the blacks themselves were not necessarily passive spectators. Most often, they first heard about their freedom when the Yankee soldiers passed through the vicinity. “We’s diggin’ potatoes,” a former Louisiana and Texas slave recalled, “when de Yankees come up with two big wagons and make us come out of de fields and free us. Dere wasn’t no cel’bration ’bout it. Massa say us can stay couple days till us ’cide what to do.” In the cities and towns, the presence of Union troops both confirmed and helped to enforce black freedom; many rural slaves, in fact, learned of their freedom by accompanying their master to town on some errand. “No Negro is improved by a visit to Columbia, & a visit to Charleston is his certain destruction,” an up-country South Carolinian concluded, after he had observed the demoralizing effects of such a visit on a neighbor’s slave who now talked wildly about making a “bargain” before working any more.32
The same network of communications developed by slaves to keep themselves informed of the war also helped to spread the news about freedom to plantations and farms bypassed by the Yankees. The conversations of the “white folks” remained a prime source of information, and many body servants returning with their masters from the war front were feted by their fellow slaves not only for their heroism but for the valuable information they brought. “All de slaves crowded ’roun me an’ wanted to know if dey wus gonna be freed or not an’ when I tol’ ’em dat de war wus over an’ dat dey wus free dey wus all very glad.” Charlotte Brooks had been sold at the age of seventeen to a hard-driving Texas planter. Working in the house as a cook, she overheard a conversation about freedom, immediately ran into the field to inform the other slaves, and they all quit work together. Still another source of information was employers seeking to hire black laborers. Taking advantage of the momentary absence of a master, who had refused to tell his slaves they were free, two white men representing a nearby mill informed Lizzie Hughes’s mother she was a free woman, handed her “a piece of paper” to prove it, and offered to pay her twelve dollars a month if she would cook for the mill hands.33
Whatever the source, the news reached some slaves at a most opportune time. During an altercation with her mistress, Annie Gregg, a Tennessee slave, watched as she picked up a handful of switches with the intention of meting out the usual punishment for insolence. “I picked up the pan of boiling water to scald the chickens in. She got scared of me, told me to put the pan down. I didn’t do it.” Quickly called to the scene, the master scolded his wife rather than the slave, reminding her that the slaves were now “as free as you are or I am.” To Annie Gregg, the intervention of her master, whom she had always considered “cruel,” was only slightly less startling than the news itself. “That is the first I ever heard about freedom,” she recalled. The news of freedom had immediate significance, too, for the Louisiana slaves hiding out in the cane brakes along the Mississippi River, for the Texas mother who dreaded having to send her small child out into the fields to work, for the North Carolina slave still wearing a ball and chain after trying to run away (a Yankee officer had to take him to town to cut it off), and for the many slaves who suddenly found themselves released from slave pens and jails—among them, “Uncle Tom,” an Arkansas slave, “the best reader, white or black, for miles,” who had made the mistake of reading a newspaper with the latest war news to a gathering of blacks. And for a Tennessee slave who had been purchasing her freedom, the news relieved her of the need to pay any more. “De rest ain’t paid yet,” she said with a smile. “No, sah! leave dat to de judgment-day.”34
While their “white folks” refused to confirm their freedom, numbers of slaves continued to strike out on their own. The many blacks who flocked to the Union camps or left with the Yankee soldiers had acted to determine their own status, as did the slaves in Kentucky and Missouri and other states and regions unaffected by the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet despite examples of slave initiative, the habits and dependency learned as slaves, as well as the need to survive, prompted many blacks to refrain from any premature or hasty assertion of their freedom. If doubts persisted, both reason and fear sustained those doubts. Even when the Yankees informed them of freedom, they often accompanied the announcement with admonitions that left some blacks understandably confused. In explaining their new status to them, a Union officer in Liberty County, Georgia, reportedly warned the blacks “to stay at home and work harder than they had ever done in their lives.” The soldiers, he added, were there to make certain “that they behaved themselves.” A white resident who overheard the talk observed, “They (the Nigs) were quite disgusted.”35
The example of blacks who were beaten for claiming their freedom prematurely tended to make the others cautious about how they acted and what they said. Again, the temperaments of individual masters and mistresses varied considerably, particularly when they had to face still further losses from a war that had already cost them dearly. While some tried to deny or distort the news of freedom, others backed their denials with a show of force. The master on a Tennessee plantation interpreted a slave’s assertion of freedom as a display of insolence and slapped the woman across the face—the first time he had ever laid hands on her. Only after a visit to the nearby town did he reluctantly accept the fact of emancipation. “Seemed like he couldn’t understand how freedom was to be,” one of his former slaves recalled. No matter what they heard, however, some slave-owning families resisted the advent of freedom and used every wile and device to postpone or deny it. “Ed,” a Georgia mistress inquired of a young slave, “you suppose them Yankees would spill their blood to come down here to free you niggers?” That question he could not answer, but “I’se free anyhow,” he insisted. At that, the mistress dropped any further attempt to reason with him. “Shut up,” she ordered, or “I’ll mash your mouth.” Not until midsummer 1865, and only after the arrival of Union troops, did she acknowledge his freedom.36
With the end of the war, Federal officials attempted in various ways to impress upon slaves and masters that emancipation was now the law of the land. That ran contrary, however, to the persistent belief in some regions that slavery remained a legal institution until the new state legislatures and perhaps eventually the Supreme Court of the United States resolved the question. By offering inducements to their blacks to remain with them, some planters evidently hoped not only to complete the current crops but to reap the benefits of court decisions which might invalidate the Emancipation Proclamation. The only real question to be decided, according to the leading newspapers of Jackson, Mississippi, was whether or not the state should adopt a system of gradual and compensated emancipation. After visiting three counties in that state, a Union officer thought such opinions “to be the views of the people generally” and that the prospects for an early recognition of emancipation were quite dim. “Nowhere that I have been do the people generally realize the fact that the negro is Free.”37
Disturbed by the apparent resiliency of the “peculiar institution,” the Freedmen’s Bureau, a new Federal agency designed to ease the slave’s transition to freedom, undertook the task of publicizing and enforcing the abolition of slavery. In late May 1865, Bureau officers warned that any person employing freedmen who failed to compensate them for their labor would be adjudged disloyal to the United States government and risked having his or her property seized and divided among the freedmen. In Louisiana, Bureau agents were asked to read the Emancipation Proclamation on every plantation within their jurisdiction and to leave copies (in French and English) with the freedmen as well as the planters. At the same time, Bureau officers in Mississippi distributed circulars to black preachers and urged that meetings of freedmen be convened at which the Proclamation would be read and explained.38
For numerous slaves, in fact, freedom came only when “de Guvment man” made his rounds of the plantations and forced the planters to acknowledge emancipation. The mere threat of such visits and the rumors that Union soldiers were patrolling the countryside in search of offenders prompted a number of holdouts to free their slaves. The day she knew she was a free woman, Sarah Ford recalled, a Union officer came onto the plantation and read the Emancipation Proclamation to the assembled slaves. “Dat one time Massa Charley can’t open he mouth, ’cause de captain tell him to shut up, dat he’d do de talkin’.” On a Louisiana plantation, “way after freedom,” the same scene was acted out, except that the planter’s wife emerged from the house after the officer left and told her newly freed blacks: “Ten years from today I’ll have you all back ’gain.” Although most masters no doubt resented the interference of Federal officers and would have preferred to tell the slaves in their own time and way, Henry W. Ravenel requested the presence of a Union officer in order to make clear to his blacks that they were entitled to none of his land, they were expected to remain at work, and they were free to serve him without fear of reprisals. (The rumor had circulated, allegedly the work of black troops, that slaves found working for their previous owners would be shot.) The officer happily obliged Ravenel, warning the newly freed slaves of “the trouble & sufferings they would encounter if they left their homes.”39
The old order died slowly, often with considerable resistance. In the remote and relatively isolated interior counties and parishes where Yankee troops had rarely if ever been seen, the war had barely interrupted the old routines and the patrollers made certain that the blacks remained on the plantations. The news of emancipation, like much of the war news, had been delayed and sometimes deliberately suppressed or distorted. “De Yankees never come into de ‘dark corner,’ ” a black resident of Chester County, South Carolina, recalled, and not until two years after the war did they learn of their freedom—“then we all left.” In the up-country of North Carolina, a freedman remarked several years after the war, “the whip is a-goin’ and the horn a-blowin’ just as it used to be.” On some plantations, the owners barred all visitors, locked their slaves in the yards at night, and intimidated them with stories of how the Yankees intended to sell them to defray the cost of the war. Traveling through the upper and interior sections of Georgia in August 1865, James Lynch, a missionary for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, found that “in some places the people do not know really that they are free, and if they do, their surroundings are such that they would fear to speak of it.”40
Nowhere was the problem more persistent than in Texas, which had been relatively untouched by the war. The slave population, however, had swelled after many planters in neighboring states moved their chattel there in the hope of avoiding both the Yankees and emancipation. Not until June 19, 1865, more than two months after Appomattox, would black freedom be acknowledged in Texas. “Dat a long year to wait, de las’ year de war,” recalled Henry Lewis, who had been a slave in Jefferson County. But even then, some planters clung to the notion that “niggers would never be free in Texas” and acted in that belief. Wash Ingram, who had faithfully toted water for Confederate soldiers during the war, claimed that his master did not free the more than three hundred slaves on the plantation until at least a year after Lee’s surrender. Sometime around September, Susan Merritt recalled, “a gov’ment man” came to the plantation in Rusk County and demanded to know why the slaves had not yet been informed of their freedom. The master replied that he had first wanted to complete the crop. That day, the slaves were called out of the fields and told the news—“but massa make us work sev’ral months after that. He say we git 20 acres land and a mule but we didn’t git it.” What compounded the problem for the slaves in Rusk County, Susan Merritt remembered, was that freedom had been acknowledged several months earlier in neighboring counties. “Lots of niggers was kilt after freedom, ’cause the slaves in Harrison County turn loose right at freedom and them in Rusk County wasn’t. But they hears ’bout it and runs away to freedom in Harrison County and they owners have ’em bushwhacked, that shot down. You could see lots of niggers hangin’ to trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom, ’cause they cotch ’em swimmin’ ’cross Sabine River and shoot ’em.”41
Even where the slaves realized they were free, some preferred to wait until their masters had confirmed their new status. Hearing about freedom from others, whether they be Yankees or even neighboring slaves, seemed somehow less satisfying, perhaps less believable. Morris Sheppard, a former Oklahoma slave, claimed to have learned about Lincoln the Emancipator only from what his children were later taught in school. “I always think of my old Master as de one dat freed me, and anyways Abraham Lincoln and none of his North people didn’t look after me and buy my crop right after I was free like old Master did. Dat was de time dat was de hardest and everything was dark and confusion.” The number of blacks who responded to questions about their freedom by declaring, “Mas’ Henry ain’t told me so yit,” often infuriated postwar visitors to the South, as it did black clergymen like James Lynch and Henry M. Turner who reproached their people for the way they still cringed before their old masters and mistresses. Near Lexington, North Carolina, a northern correspondent encountered a seventy-year-old black ferryman who had outlived seven masters and who for forty-three years had conveyed passengers across the Yadkin River. Although freedom had been declared in this region, he had not yet severed his ties with the woman who owned him.
“Well, old man, you’re free now.”
“I dunno, master. They say all the colored people’s free; they do say it certain; but I’m a-goin on same as I alius has been.”
“Why, you get wages now, don’t you?”
“No, sir; my mistress never said anything to me that I was to have wages, nor yet that I was free; nor I never said anything to her. Ye see I left it to her honor to talk to me about it, because I was afraid she’d say I was insultin’ to her and presumin’, so I wouldn’t speak first. She ha’n’t spoke yet.”
Bewildered by these responses, the reporter finally asked him if he intended to work on “just the same” until he died. At this point the loyal slave made it clear that although good manners and a sense of mutual obligations had kept him from asserting his freedom, he was quite prepared to impose deadlines on his patience.
“Ye see, master, I am ashamed to say anything to her. But I don’t ’low to work any longer than to Christmas , and then I’ll ask for wages. But I want to leave the ferry. I’m a mighty good farmer, and I’ll get a piece of ground and a chunk of a hoss, if I can, and work for myself.”42
The number of slaves who waited for the master to confirm their freedom, rather than assert it independently, is not altogether surprising. Whether the enslaved worker had labored on a plantation or a farm, he had been brought up to view his master as the primary source of authority—the provider and the protector, the lawmaker and the enforcer, the judge and the jury, and most masters had deliberately cultivated feelings of dependency and helplessness in their slaves. No edict of emancipation could immediately obliterate the habits of obedience and deference with which many slaves had been inculcated since childhood. Nor could it in some instances destroy a familiar relationship worked out over a period of time, involving mutual obligations of service, sustenance, and protection. The defeat of the Confederacy and the abolition of slavery no doubt weakened the master’s stature in the eyes of many slaves. But it did not necessarily lessen the respect, fear, and obedience he commanded by virtue of his authority and economic power. “A lot o’ de niggers knowed nothin’ ’cept what missus and marster tole us,” a former Georgia slave observed. “What dey said wus just de same as de Lawd had spoken to us.” And in this instance, he told them that Lincoln was dead, they were still slaves, and he would distribute black cloth so they could mourn both Lincoln and their freedom.43
But there were sharply contrasting stories, too, which revealed the compelling need some slaves felt to confront their masters and mistresses with the truth about freedom, if for no other reason than to remove the last doubts and to observe their reactions. Hired out to another family during the war, a Virginia slave had been working in the fields when a friend informed her that she was now free. “Is dat so?” she exclaimed. Dropping her hoe, she ran the seven miles to her old place, found her mistress, “looked at her real hard,” and then shouted, “I’se free! Yes, I’se free! Ain’t got to work fo’ you no mo’. You can’t put me in yo’ pocket now!” Her mistress broke into tears and ran into the house. That was all the slave needed to see. The momentary doubt at hearing the news had been resolved, and for the first time she could begin to think of herself as a free woman.44
The legends that grew out of emancipation would assume a special place in the folk history of Afro-Americans. Like their white owners, they retained strong, often emotionally charged memories of this critical moment in their lives. In the interviews with former slaves conducted more than seventy years later, no event would stand out with greater clarity in their minds than the day they heard of their freedom. Even as many of the slave descendants moved into the urban North in the next century, the stories of emancipation would follow them. That was how Kathryn L. Morgan came to learn of her great-grandmother Caddy, a strong-willed and defiant slave who had been sold many times in her life but never ceased to torment her owners. Of the many tales about this remarkable woman, the one that became the favorite among her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren was about the day she learned of her freedom.
Caddy had been sold to a man in Goodman, Mississippi. It was terrible to be sold in Mississippi. In fact, it was terrible to be sold anywhere. She had been put to work in the fields for running away again. She was hoeing a crop when she heard that General Lee had surrendered. Do you know who General Lee was? He was the man who was working for the South in the Civil War. When General Lee surrendered that meant that all the colored people were free! Caddy threw down that hoe, she marched herself up to the big house, then, she looked around and found the mistress. She went over to the mistress, she flipped up her dress and told the white woman to do something. She said it mean and ugly. This is what she said: Kiss my ass!45
ALTHOUGH THE TIME and manner varied from place to place, the majority of masters eventually got around to informing their slaves that emancipation had become the law of the land. Occasionally, they did so under the compulsion of a Federal order, upon the visitation of a Freedmen’s Bureau officer, or at the demand of their own slaves. Usually, the master himself decided how and when to make the announcement. When he sent out the word for his slaves to assemble the next day, nearly everyone knew what to expect. “There was little, if any, sleep that night,” Booker T. Washington recalled. “All was excitement and expectancy.” Except perhaps for the coming of the Yankees, it was like no other day in their lives. Outside the Big House, the master waited for them on the front porch, often with his entire family standing beside him. To the very end, he would invariably act the role of the patrician, even as he presided over the dispersion of his flock and the sundering of traditional and even intimate ties. Observing how their master “couldn’t help but cry” or “couldn’t hardly talk,” some former slaves confessed to having felt a certain compassion for him at this moment, putting the best possible face on his previous treatment of them. “We couldn’t help thinking about what a good marster he always had been,” a former Georgia slave recalled, “and how old, and feeble, and gray headed he looked as he kept on a-talkin’ that day.” Such sentiments were not shared by all slaves, not even on the same plantation, and each black had a different way of recollecting a master’s or mistress’s tears at the moment of emancipation. “Missy, she cries and cries, and tells us we is free,” a former Louisiana slave recalled, “and she hopes we starve to death and she’d be glad, ’cause it ruin her to lose us.”46
Once the slaves had been assembled for the master’s announcement, most of them stood quietly and anxiously, waiting to hear how he would choose to tell them of their freedom. Some of them remained apprehensive, recalling that the only previous occasion for such a gathering had been to tell them they had been sold. Before his master could say a word, Robert Falls remembered questioning him in a mocking manner, “Old Marster, what you got to tell us?” His mother quickly warned him that he would be whipped but the slave owner decided instead to use the outburst to make his point. As Falls recalled his words:
No I wont whip you. Never no more. Sit down thar all of you and listen to what I got to tell you. I hates to do it but I must. You all aint my niggers no more. You is free. Just as free as I am. Here I have raised you all to work for me, and now you are going to leave me. I am an old man, and I cant get along without you. I dont know what I am going to do.
In less than ten months, he was dead. “Well, sir,” Falls explained, “it killed him.”47
What the slaves recalled most vividly, “jes like it yestiddy,” was the manner in which the master recognized their freedom, both his words and temperament at that moment. The way he imparted the information revealed much about his state of mind, the kind of relationship he thought he enjoyed with his slaves, and how he viewed the future. He first read to them some official-looking paper setting forth the details of emancipation. It might have been the Emancipation Proclamation itself or a recent Federal circular; in any event, the language was cold, detached, bureaucratic, and often incomprehensible. After the formal reading, Silas Smith of South Carolina remembered, “us still sets, kaise no writing never aggrevated us niggers way back dar.” Since such a moment called for absolute clarity, most masters obliged with their own explanation, and those were the words the slaves had waited to hear. “We didn’t quite understand what it was all about,” a former Missouri field hand recalled, “until he informed us that it meant we were slaves no longer, that we were free to go as we liked, to work for anyone who would hire us and be responsible to no one but ourselves.” As if to underscore the significance of his remarks, and perhaps in some instances to commemorate the slave’s graduation to a different status, some masters ceremonially presented to each of them “de age statement,” which included his or her name, place of birth, and approximate age or date of birth. “I’s 16 year when surrender come,” Sam Jones Washington told an interviewer many years later. “I knows dat, ’cause of massa’s statement. All us niggers gits de statement when surrender come.”48
To free his blacks was not to surrender the convictions with which he had held them as slaves. In explaining to them the circumstances that now made freedom necessary, most masters made it abundantly clear that their actions did not flow from some long-repressed humanitarian urge. “We went to the war and fought,” a Texas planter declared, “but the Yankees done whup us, and they say the niggers is free.” That was the typical explanation, as most ex-slaves recalled it: they were now free “ ’cause de gov’ment say you is free” or “ ’cause the damned Yankees done ’creed you are.” If some slaves had felt that only “massa” could free them, many masters insisted that the Yankees had set them free. That they chose to view emancipation in these terms was perfectly consistent with their own self-image. “I have seen slavery in every Southern State,” a prominent Virginian concluded in June 1865, “and I am convinced that for the slave it is the best condition in every way that has been devised.” The “tens of thousands” of old men, women, and children he expected would now starve for lack of support only made him that much more certain. “A Farmer now has to pay his hands and he will keep none but such as will work well, women with families and old men are not worth their food and they are being turned adrift by the thousands.” As many masters viewed this moment, then, if they had acted from humanitarian considerations, they would have retained slavery, because of the protection and sustenance it afforded a people incapable of caring for themselves.49
If slaveholders felt morally reprehensible or guilt-ridden, they evinced no indication of it at the moment they declared their blacks to be free. Nothing in the postwar behavior and attitudes of these people suggested that the ownership of slaves had necessarily compromised their values or tortured their consciences. Nor was there any reason to suspect hypocrisy or self-deception in the “strong conviction” of Henry W. Ravenel, for example, “that the old relation of master & slave, had received the divine sanction & was the best condition in which the two races could live together for mutual benefit.” Any detectable twinges of conscience in the slaveholding class largely stemmed from the realization that some had abused the institution. But like any northern employer, the master maintained that the excesses of the few should not be permitted to question or undermine the system itself. Nor were most of them intent on foisting the responsibility for bondage on the New Englanders who had initially supplied them. After all, a New Orleans newspaper observed several years after the war, the transplantation from Africa to North America had “humanized” the Negro, regenerating him in body, mind, and morals. Rather than confess any misgivings about their slaveholding past, most masters at this moment viewed themselves as decent men, good Christians who had performed a useful, necessary, and benevolent task, fulfilling an obligation to an inferior people which more than compensated for the labor they had received in return. There was nothing for which they needed to apologize. As George A. Trenholm proudly told the Chamber of Commerce of Augusta, Georgia, in early 1866, “Sir, we have educated them. We took them barbarians, we returned them Christianized and civilized to those from whom we received them; we paid for them, we return them without compensation. Our consciences are clear, our hands are clean.”50
If any slave owner felt the need to reassure himself, he might use the occasion of emancipation to remind the assembled blacks how well they had fared under his tutelage. After making precisely that point, a Texas planter who had moved his slaves there from Virginia during the war asked them if he had ever treated anyone meanly. Every one of the slaves, Liza Smith recalled, shouted, “No, sir!” and that brought a smile to their master’s face. Equally confident of his image, Isaiah Day, known to his slaves as “Papa Day” because he never liked the title of master, read the official proclamation and then told them, as one of his slaves recalled: “De gov’ment don’t need to tell you you is free, ’cause you been free all you days. If you wants to stay you can and if you wants to go, you can. But if you go, lots of white folks ain’t gwine treat you like I does.” With slightly less confidence, a Georgia planter, proud of the behavior of his slaves during the Yankee occupation, confessed to them, as he freed them, that he had never realized the extent of their love for him. “He told us he had done tried to be good to us and had done de best he could for us,” one of his former slaves recalled. John Bonner, an Alabama planter, after reminding his slaves how well he had provided for them, simply warned any who now chose to leave that they would “jes’ have to root, pig, or die.”51
To impress his freed slaves with the bounties and security they had enjoyed was less designed to assuage any feelings of guilt than to entice them to remain with him. That prime consideration elicited many a personal note in the master’s announcement of freedom. With tears in his eyes, his head bowed, and his hands clasped behind his back, the Reverend Robert Turner, a preacher, farmer, and storekeeper, told his newly freed slaves how much he admired each of them, appreciated their faithfulness, and hated to lose them. The appeal had no apparent effect, as nearly every one of his blacks left him. To remind their slaves of the “good life” they had provided them, some masters chose to celebrate emancipation with a bountiful feast or party. On a plantation in Harnett County, North Carolina, Taylor Hugh McLean called his slaves out of the fields, met them at the gate, told them they were free, and invited them to eat dinner. It proved to be a feast few of them could forget.
He had five women cooking. He told them all he did not want them to leave, but if they were going they must eat before they left. He said he wanted everybody to eat all he wanted, and I remember the ham, eggs, chicken, and other good things we had at that dinner. Then after the dinner he spoke to all of us and said, “You have nowhere to go, nothin’ to live on, but go out on my other plantation and build you some shacks.”
With similar generosity, John Thomas Boykin, a substantial Georgia planter, turned emancipation into “a big day,” killed several hogs for the occasion, rolled out barrels of whiskey, and invited his freed slaves to enjoy themselves and consider his proposal to stay with him and work for pay.52Whether or not a master consciously used such festivities to seduce his newly freed work force, none of those ex-slaves who recalled them claimed it influenced their decision to stay on or leave.
Few slave owners, in any case, thought it necessary or desirable to accompany the announcement of freedom with a lavish entertainment. Maintaining the posture of the protective father, addressing his “children” who might soon experience the cruel and inhospitable world outside the plantation, many masters preferred to use this solemn occasion to offer advice and moral instruction. This was “no time for happiness,” a Mississippi planter told his former slaves, for they had no experience with freedom. Albert Hill, who had been a slave in Georgia, recalled how his master tried to explain to them on this day the difference between freedom (“hustlin’ for ourselves”) and slavery (“dependin’ on someone else”). Even as the master stressed the problems his slaves were liable to confront as freedmen and freedwomen, he seldom suggested, at least not in their presence, that he may have been negligent in preparing them to assume the responsibilities of freedom. Rather, he reminded his blacks how he had raised them to be honest, to work diligently, and to lead moral and Christian lives. But at the same time, and without perceiving any contradiction, he usually urged them to remain on the plantation until, as one former slave recalled, “dey git de foothold and larn how to do”—that is, until they learned how to take care of themselves.53
The least any gentleman planter could do at this time was to invite his “people” to stay with him and continue to share in the comforts, sustenance, and protection the old “home” supposedly afforded them. He acted, in other words, to preserve his source of labor in the guise of protecting his former slaves from the inevitable hardships and snares of freedom. Claiming a responsibility toward them as dependents, which emancipation should in no way compromise, some masters tried to ease the “burden” of freedom on the older slaves and the children. “Old Amelia & her two grandchildren,” Henry W. Ravenel wrote, “I will spare the mockery of offering freedom to. I must support them as long as I have any thing to give.” Whether from a sense of paternal obligation or to exploit their labor, some masters insisted that the children remain with them until they reached the age of twenty-one, and the apprenticeship laws usually permitted them to do so if the parents were missing or unable to support the children. Silas Dothrum, a former Arkansas slave who could not recall ever seeing his parents, was about ten years old when freedom came: “They kept me in bondage and a girl that used to be with them. We were bound to them that we would have to stay with them. They kept me just the same as under bondage. I wasn’t allowed no kind of say-so.” In some instances, the attempt to retain the children amounted to little less than kidnapping, with the masters resisting the efforts of parents to claim them. Millie Randall, a former Louisiana slave, recalled how her master “takes me and my brother, Benny, in de wagon and druv us round and round so dey couldn’t find us.” Finally, their mother induced the justice of the peace to intervene on her behalf.54
Although a confusion of values often marked their efforts, many slaveholders perceived the need to accommodate their old views and moral justifications to the reality of freed blacks. Few planters embodied the paternal ideal more faithfully in this moment of transition than Myrta Lockett Avary’s father, a Virginia slaveholder. His daughter’s recollection of the day freedom came to the plantation testified quite vividly to what the South wanted so desperately to believe—the enduring strength and viability of the traditional ties that had bound the white family and their blacks. Although the Yankees had already told the slaves they were free, they waited to hear the master make it so. On the night of the announcement, Myrta Avary recalled, the slaves assembled in the back yard, many of them holding pine torches. On the porch of the Big House stood her father, next to a table on which a candle had been placed. Looking out at a “sea of uplifted black faces,” all of them now fastened on him, the planter first read from a formal document, presumably the Emancipation Proclamation, after which he spoke to them in a trembling voice.
You do not belong to me any more. You are free. You have been like my own children. I have never felt that you were slaves. I have felt that you were charges put into my hands by God and that I had to render account to Him of how I raised you, how I treated you. I want you all to do well. You will have to work, if not for me, for somebody else. Heretofore, you have worked for me and I have supported you, fed you, clothed you, given you comfortable homes, paid your doctors’ bills, bought your medicines, taken care of your babies before they could take care of themselves; when you were sick, your mistress and I have nursed you; we have laid your dead away. I don’t think anybody else can have the same feeling for you that she and I have. I have been trying to think out a plan for paying wages or a part of the crop that would suit us all; but I haven’t finished thinking it out. I want to know what you think. Now, you can stay just as you have been staying and work just as you have been working, and we will plan together what is best. Or, you can go. My crops must be worked, and I want to know what arrangements to make. Ben! Dick! Moses! Abram! line up, everybody out there. As you pass this porch, tell me if you mean to stay; you needn’t promise for longer than this year, you know. If you want to go somewhere else, say so—and no hard thoughts!
After their master completed his talk, the blacks, who had “listened silently,” passed before him, each one of them indicating that he intended to remain. Uncle Andrew, the black patriarch on this plantation, no doubt spoke the sentiments of most of them when he explained his decision: “Law, Marster! I ain’ got nowhar tuh go ef I was gwine!” The next morning, the freedmen went about their regular duties, except for Uncle Eph, who was nowhere to be found. Several days later, he returned, a disillusioned man and “the butt of the quarters for many a day.” On this Virginia plantation, the transition from slavery to freedom had been completed.
It was the perfect picture, embodying the notions of white nobility, black humility, mutual obligations, faithful service, and the extended family unit—black and white. The slaves had reacted precisely as any “grateful” and properly trained people would have been expected to react. And Uncle Eph had discovered for all of them the advantages of the old home compared to the uncertainty and insecurity that lay outside. “I jes wanter see whut it feel lak tuh be free,” he explained after his brief sojourn, “an’ I wanter to go back to Ole Marster’s plantation whar I was born. It don’ look de same dar, an’ I done see nuff uh freedom.”55
If every planter could have been reasonably confident of this kind of scenario, the anxieties and fears which gripped so many of them in the aftermath of emancipation might have been avoided. But that was not to be. Neither the dispossessed slaveholders nor their newly freed slaves were always willing or able to play the roles expected of them.
NO MATTER HOW EASILY the old paternalism might adapt itself to new realities, the death of slavery remained difficult to accept. The slave-owning class had always included in its ranks men and women of varying degrees of temperament and mental stability, with the vast majority falling somewhere between the legendary gentlemen and sadists. Understandably, wartime tensions, privations, and personal tragedies had taken their toll and left many white families shattered, bitter, angry, and betrayed. Now, in addition to the other calamities which had been visited upon them, they faced the loss of their slave property and perhaps their labor force. That proved to be more grief than some masters and mistresses were capable of handling. After acknowledging their freedom, “Big Jim” McClain, a Virginia planter, asked his more than one hundred slaves to continue to work for him. None of them expressed a willingness to remain, not even to harvest the current crops. At this affront, the pent-up bitterness in McClain suddenly exploded. Seizing his pistol, he fired wildly into a crowd of terrorized blacks, killing some outright and wounding others. When finally restrained, McClain tried to take his own life. At this point, several blacks promised to stay for another year and that seemed to placate him. But Union troops would have to intervene before he would permit any of his former slaves to leave the plantation.56
Although few of their masters reacted as violently, newly freed slaves had little way of knowing what to expect. The violent outburst of a McClain, based on his record as a slaveholder, probably surprised none of his blacks. But Matt Gaud, on the other hand, had treated his three slave families like they were members of his own family. At least, that was how Anderson Edwards remembered him. “The other niggers called us Major Gaud’s free niggers.” Gaud had no sooner heard of emancipation, however, than he began to curse his blacks vigorously, proclaiming that the Almighty had never intended such a thing as “free niggers.” And, as Edwards recalled, his master “cussed till he died.” Having endured a hard bondage, which included being sold six times, Jane Simpson expected no help from her last owners—a temperamental mistress and alcoholic master. Anticipating no change in their attitudes, she learned soon after emancipation how accurately she had assessed their character. Like most of the slaveholding families in the neighborhood, she recalled, “dey was so mad ’cause dey had to set ’em free, dey just stayed mean as dey would ’low ’em to be anyhow, and is yet most of ’em.” Not surprisingly, the plantation mistresses, many of whom suddenly faced the unpleasant prospect of doing the cooking and housework themselves, often reacted with even greater resentment than their husbands, belying what may have been left of their reputation as the benevolent half of the household. Although the master “took it well,” a former South Carolina slave recalled, the mistress (who had lost two sons in the war) “just cussed us and said, ‘Damn you, you are free now.’ ” At the same time, the mistress of a Georgia plantation, where some two hundred slaves had resided, gave every indication of losing her mind after her husband acknowledged the emancipation decree. “I ’members how she couldn’t stay in the house,” Emma Hurley remarked, “she jest walked up an’ down out in the yard a-carrin’-on, talkin’ an’ a-ravin’.”57
To believe the testimony of former slaves, some of their masters and mistresses never did recover from emancipation but died shortly afterwards from “heartbreak” and grief. “Miss Polly died right after the surrender,” a former Virginia slave recalled. “She was so hurt that all the negroes was going to be free. She died hollering ‘Yankee!’ She was so mad that she just died.” Similarly, Isaac Martin, who had been a slave in Texas, remembered that his master “didn’ live long atter dey tek his slaves ’way from him. Well, it jis’ kill him, dat’s all.” In these instances, as in many others, it remains unclear whether the “heartbreak” was induced by the loss of slaves with whom the white owners thought they had intimate ties, the loss of property and suddenly dim economic prospects, or the fears engendered by the thought of four million free blacks. More than likely, the grief stemmed largely from a sense that the world as they had known it was collapsing all around them. Nevertheless, whatever the actual cause of death, the former slaves had their own ideas. Within ten or fifteen days after his freed slaves began to leave him, “Massa” Harry Hogan was dead, and one black he had owned attributed it to “all de trouble comin’ on him at once.” Within three weeks after the slaves on an Arkansas plantation heard they were free, they buried their mistress. “The news killed her dead,” one of them recalled. And when “Marster” Billy Finnely returned from the war (his brother had been killed in action), only to find the slaves freed and most of them leaving the plantation, he seemed unable to cope with reality; his mother found him one day in a shed, his throat slashed, and beside him the razor and a note which revealed that he did not care to live “ ’cause de nigger free.”58
To attribute the deaths of masters or mistresses to grief over the loss of their slaves poses obvious difficulties, despite the exactitude with which some blacks were able to pinpoint the occurrence. Still, the reported instances of this kind in the recollections of former bondsmen occur too frequently to dismiss them altogether as flights of fantasy or faulty memory. What remains crucial is that so many ex-slaves chose to recall the death of a master or mistress in this way, as if to suggest that their “white folks” had been so dependent on them that they were unable to conceive of a future without them. “Old Mistress never git well after she lose all her niggers,” Katie Rowe recalled, “and one day de white boss [the overseer] tell us she jest drap over dead setting in her chair, and we know her heart jest broke.” Such testimony differed in no significant respect from how Duncan Clinch Heyward remembered the death of his grandfather, who had been one of the largest rice planters in South Carolina.
As my grandfather sat on the piazza of his house at the Wateree, his former slaves stopped on their way to the station to bid him goodbye. All they said was that they were going home, and would look for him soon. He never returned to Combahee and did not see them again. Broken in health and staggered by his losses, Charles Heyward could not recover under the final blow. The emancipated slave could look forward to a better day for himself and his descendants, but the old slaveholder’s day was done. He soon went to his grave and his traditions and his troubles were buried with him.59
Although dismay and anxiety over emancipation were hardly uncommon, not all slaveholders shared these fashionable ailments in the same degree and only a very few permitted the shock to drive them to suicide or a premature death. Several months after Appomattox, Josiah Gorgas, the former Confederate chief of ordnance, discussed recent events with a wealthy Alabama planter and found him very much troubled, both about himself and about the future of the white race in the South. Now that his slaves had been freed, he seemed to think that his entire life had been “wasted.” “This state of mind is natural, and leads to despondency in his case,” Gorgas confided to his journal after the conversation, “but not so in the case of most planters.” In his recent travels, Gorgas had been generally pleased by the conduct of the planter class, particularly their equanimity in the face of disaster. Here were Yankee officers coming onto their plantations, meeting and talking with the slaves, telling them they were free and promising to protect their new rights, while the former masters made no protest but avidly questioned the officers about their new relations with the blacks. It all seemed like “a gigantic dream.” Four months ago, Gorgas reflected, “that Yankee Captain attempting to make such an address to their slaves, would have been hung on the nearest tree, and left there.”60
But the readiness with which Gorgas perceived the planters adapting themselves to the new conditions could manifest itself in many different ways, not all of them consistent with the image this class had long tried to cultivate. As slaveholders, many of them had preferred to view the “peculiar institution” as an obligation and a burden, binding them to feed, clothe, and protect the blacks in return for their labor and obedience. The plantation mistress who in a moment of exasperation screamed, “It is the slaves who own me,” gave perfect expression to that sense of burden. The slaveholding class had always taken considerable pride in its treatment of elderly slaves, contrasting such benevolence with the crassness of northern employers who cared neither for the aged nor the sick but turned workers onto the streets when they ceased to be productive. Actually, few slaves lived long enough to constitute a burden on their owners, and even the aged slaves often performed tasks that defrayed the cost of their upkeep. When his grandmother was no longer able to work, Frederick Douglass recalled, her owners manifested their gratitude for her many years of service by removing her to the woods, where they “built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness.” Whatever the quality of care owners had bestowed on their elderly slaves, emancipation, as some viewed it, absolved them of any further responsibility. If the blacks were no longer his slaves, the master might feel neither the compassion, the gentlemanly compulsions, nor the economic need to provide them with the same degree of protection, sympathy, and support. None expressed it more graphically than the Georgia planter who burned the slave cabins to the ground and expelled the occupants from the plantation. Nor did Will Davison, a Texas planter, refrain from making himself clear on the day he freed his slaves. “Well, you black sons-of-bitches, you are just as free as I am,” he declared, and he promised to horsewhip any of them he found on the place the next morning.61
Upon freeing their slaves, the expressions of relief voiced by some white families drowned out or blended indistinctly with the painful cries of betrayal and ingratitude. But this reaction reflected not so much a sense of guilt as a welcome respite from the vexations of managing troublesome blacks, as if they—the slave owners—had been emancipated. “I was glad and thankful—on my own account—when slavery ended and I ceased to belong, body and soul, to my negroes,” a Virginia woman declared. With a fine ironic twist, many a master and mistress thus managed to turn the trauma and financial loss of black freedom into deliverance from the chains that had bound them to their black folk. Cornelia Spencer, a prominent resident of Chapel Hill and a future educator, hailed emancipation for the benefits it would bestow upon all whites; slavery, she insisted, had been “an awful drag” on the proper development of the South. “And because I love the white man better than I do the black, I am glad they are free.” Nor could she help but add, “And now I wish they were all in—shall I say Massachusetts?—or Connecticut? Poor things! We are doing what we can for them.” The equally high-minded Henry A. Wise, whose popularity in Virginia remained undiminished, told a meeting in Alexandria more than a year after the war that he praised God daily for having delivered him from the “negrodom and niggerdom” of slavery. But he claimed to feel some compassion for the real victim. “He is now a freedman but without a friend. But he is a freedman. I am now free of responsibility for his care and comfort, and, I repeat I am content.” The expressions of relief tended to grow more vociferous as they became purely self-serving, designed only to cover a family’s losses and to compensate shattered egos for the black betrayals. “I lost sixteen niggers,” a Charleston resident remarked; “but I don’t mind it, for they were always a nuisance, and you’ll find them so in less than a year.… I wouldn’t give ten cents apiece for them.” Similarly, Emma Holmes expressed pleasure over the departure of several house slaves, “for we do not want unwilling, careless, neglectful servants about us,” and a Georgia woman described the loss of a maid as “Good riddance: all parties quite relieved.”62
But relief from the anxieties of supervising blacks could last only so long as white families managed to perform the house and field labor themselves or find suitable white replacements. That proved to be a painfully brief period of time. Even as planters recognized the need to maintain a work force, however, they were now in a position to make some important decisions, not only about the disposition of the old and the very young but how many and which of the able-bodied ex-slaves they wished to retain. Noting how her neighbor had been “awfully sanguine” over losing his slaves, Mary Chesnut thought she knew why. “His main idea is joy that he has no Negroes to support, and can hire only those that he really wants.” Although she had always had reservations about slavery, Mary Chesnut found no difficulty in sharing her neighbor’s realistic appraisal of emancipation. “The Negroes are a good riddance,” she confided to her diary. “A hired man is far cheaper than a man whose father and mother, his wife and his twelve children have to be fed, clothed, housed, nursed, taxes paid and doctors’ bills.”63
Whatever the former slaveholders thought of emancipation, it afforded them a convenient way out of supporting nonproductive laborers. Hence, a wealthy Richmond resident, who had owned large numbers of slaves, could suggest that the Emancipation Proclamation provided more immediate relief for the masters than for the intended benefactors of freedom. “It will prove a good thing for the slave-owners,” he explained; “for it will be quite as cheap to hire our labor as to own it, and we shall now be rid of supporting the old and decrepit servants, such as were formerly left to die on our hands.” Not all masters rushed to evict their older slaves, and some would have found it repugnant to their moral sensibilities, but many had no qualms about driving them off their plantations or thinking in such terms, even as they regretted the circumstances that made it necessary and claimed to sympathize with the victims. But why as employers should they assume any greater responsibilities than their far wealthier counterparts in the North? “We are to hire them just as free labor is hired in the North,” Elias Horry Deas reasoned, as he tried to resume rice cultivation in South Carolina. “I hope this may be so for if it is, I think we will be better off, & be able to plant more successfully than we have ever yet done, as we will not have a crew of old idle lazy negros with their children to feed & clothe.”64
Now that the blacks were no longer a financial investment, they suddenly became expendable—but only some of them. While freedmen made decisions about whether to remain on the same plantation, their former masters determined whom they wished to keep with them, based largely on previous records of behavior. “Now that they are all free,” Charles C. Jones, Jr., wrote his mother, “there are several of them not worth the hiring.” She agreed, and named one in particular: “Cato has been to me a most insolent, indolent, and dishonest man; I have not a shadow of confidence in him, and will not wish to retain him on the place.” If any planter felt uneasy about evicting the elderly, he might still eagerly avail himself of the opportunity to purge the work force of the proven troublemakers, the least efficient, and the bad influences, as well as those who were too quick to drop the old deference after emancipation. The sudden discovery that one of his former slaves had deceived him was sufficient provocation to discharge him. On an Alabama plantation, the newly freed workers affixed their marks to a labor contract, except for Arch, who signed his full name. That was too much for his former master, who ordered him off the place. “You done stayed in war wid me four years,” he told him, “and I ain’t known that was in you. Now I ain’t got no confidence in you.” The tribulations that awaited the employers of free black labor would provide still other excuses for discharging their former slaves. Thus did an elderly Virginia freedman find himself on the road to Richmond without a home. His master had become enraged after the able-bodied hands left him rather than work without wages, and he had countered this affront by driving everyone off the plantation, including the sick and the aged, declaring that he had no use “fo’ old wore-out niggers.”
I knowed I was old and wore-out, but I growed so in his service. I served him and his father befo’e nigh on to sixty year; and he never give me a dollar. He’s had my life, and now I’m old and wore-out I must leave. It’s right hard, mahster!
Although not knowing what to expect now, he made it clear that he had no desire to return to the old bondage. “I’d sooner be as I is to-day.” And with those words, he placed his bundle on his back and made his way along the road to Richmond.65
When it came to making practical decisions about the ideal labor force, planters divided sharply over whether to retain their former slaves or seek an entirely new group of blacks. Having known them so intimately as slaves, and accustomed to their deference, some families were disturbed at the idea of living with these same people as free laborers with the same rights as themselves. Perhaps, they reasoned, the former slaves knew them too intimately as well. Without citing any specific reason, Elias Horry Deas, the South Carolina rice planter, informed his daughter that “the general feeling on the river” was to discharge all the hands at the end of the season. “There are a very few of mine that I think I will hire again, & there is many an old one that will have to quit.” At the same time, Edward Lynch, also a rice planter, returned from a meeting in Savannah where the assembled planters concluded that “the worst possible labor for a man to employ was the labor formerly belonging to him.”66
But the clear preference in most instances was to retain the slaves they had known and supervised in the past. On the same day the master informed them of their freedom, he usually asked them to remain and work for some kind of compensation, with perhaps an added inducement to complete the current crops. How the freed slaves would respond, however, remained questionable. Although the “old ties” binding blacks and their “white folks” persisted long after the war, each freedman and each former owner clearly felt them in different degrees, and many felt nothing at all. It was possible for a freed slave to retain a certain affection for the old master without feeling any obligation to continue to serve him. To place any confidence in him—or perhaps in any white man or woman—was something altogether different. “You jes’ let ’em ’lone, ma’am,” a freed-woman observed of white people. “Yur never know which way a cat is going to jump.”67
NOT LONG AFTER THE WAR, the wife of a former slave trader watched in horror as a freedman in Petersburg, Virginia, skinned a live catfish. Clearly upset, she asked him how he could be so cruel. “Why, dis is de way dey used to do me,” he replied, “and I’s gwine to get even wid somebody.” Judging by the way many whites talked in the aftermath of emancipation, that was the fate that awaited them at the hands of blacks, who would now wreak a terrible revenge on those who had kept them in bondage. The South Carolina planter who glimpsed in the “looks and language” of the freed slaves “great bitterness toward the whites” gave voice to familiar fears that mounted with every report of a disorder, every act of “insolence,” and every jubilant black chorus promising to hang Jefferson Davis—and presumably the leading “rebels” along with him. Once again, there was no way the blacks could win the debate over whether they intended to avenge bondage by turning emancipation into a racial bloodbath. If they retaliated for the wrongs visited upon them and sought to punish their former masters, they revealed their ingratitude and savage natures. If they refrained from violence and showed compassion for their former owners, they revealed their natural docility, slavish mentality, and inferiority as men.68
In observing the black regiment he commanded, almost all of them former slaves, Colonel Higginson expressed surprise over the absence of any feelings of affection or revenge toward their former masters and mistresses. On one occasion, during a raid in Florida, a black sergeant had pointed out to him the spot where whites had hanged his brother for leading a band of runaway slaves. What impressed Higginson was the sergeant’s remarkable composure and self-control as he related the story. “He spoke of it as a historic matter,” Higginson recalled, “without any bearing on the present issue.” None of his men, he noticed, ever spoke nostalgically about slavery times but neither did they evince in his presenee any desire to seek a violent revenge on their former owners. Rather, they tended in their conversations to discriminate between various types of slaveholders, with some of them claiming to have had “kind” owners who had bestowed occasional favors upon them. But that in no way lessened their hatred of the institution of slavery. “It was not the individuals,” wrote Higginson, “but the ownership, of which they complained. That they saw to be a wrong which no special kindnesses could right.”69
But if Higginson detected no mood of vengeance, other whites were less certain. While the North engaged in a furious debate over what to do with the South and the Confederate leaders, more than one curious northern visitor thought to ask the freedmen they encountered what kind of punishment should be meted out to their former masters. The question itself made many blacks visibly uncomfortable, as though torn between what they really felt and what they thought the white reporters wanted to hear. Not being certain, many chose obfuscation. Although a few openly declared that hanging would be “too good” for their masters, the general response was that the Yankees should settle this question. If any slaveholders were to be punished, few if any of their former slaves wished to be around for the event, either to carry it out or to witness it. The same ex-slave who thought hanging was “too good” for his master rejected the invitation (no doubt made in jest) of a Union officer to inflict the punishment himself. “Oh, no, can’t do it,” he replied, “can’t do it—can’t see massa suffer. Don’t want to see him suffer.” With similar expressions of horror, a group of South Carolina blacks responded to a Yankee soldier who had promised to return their master to them for any action they deemed appropriate.
“Oh! don’t massa, don’t bring him here; we no want to see him nebber more,” shouted a chorus of women.
“But what shall we do with him?”
“Do what you please,” said the chorus.
“Shall we hang him?”
“If you want, massa”—somewhat thoughtfully.
“But shall we bring him here and hang him?”
Chorus—much excited and shriller than ever—“no, no, don’t fetch him here, we no want to see him nebber more again.”
Since these freedmen were also occupying and working the land of their absent master, their reaction made considerable sense.70
As for punishing Confederate leaders, blacks may have sung about hanging Jeff Davis to a crab-apple tree but a black preacher came closer to capturing popular feelings: “O Lord, shake Jeff Davis ober de mouf ob Hell, but O Lord, doan’ drap him in!” Except for the confiscation of land, most freedmen saw little to gain by the punishment of ex-Confederate leaders; on the contrary, some feared that an aroused white populace would surely visit its rage on the most vulnerable targets—the newly freed slaves. Gertrude Thomas, a white resident of Augusta, Georgia, had only to watch the cheering blacks running down the street, all of them eager for a glimpse of Jefferson Davis as a prisoner, to wish at that moment she could have destroyed the whole motley group with a volley of gunfire. Recognizing how intensely whites felt about this issue, blacks who thought about it at all tended to view such matters in personal and pragmatic terms, calculating the effect it might have on their own lives and destinies. Few expressed that more pointedly than the freedmen of Claiborne County, Mississippi, when they petitioned the governor in 1865 to relieve them of oppressive laws and dishonest employers. “All we ask is justice and to be treated like human beings,” they pleaded, while making it clear they extended those principles to all people and bore no animosity toward their former masters.
We have good white friends and we depend on them by the help of god to see us righted and we not want our rights by Murdering. We owe to[o] much to many of our white friends that has shown us Mercy in bygone dayes To harm thaim.… Some of us wish Mr. Jeff Davis to be Set at liberty for we [k]no[w] worse Masters than he was. Altho he tried hard to keep us all slaves we forgive him.
Elizabeth Keckley, who had worked as a maid for Davis, thought singling him out for punishment was simply irrelevant to the noble cause that had prompted her to leave his service. “The years have brought many changes,” she reflected; “and in view of these terrible changes even I, who was once a slave, who have been punished with the cruel lash, who have experienced the heart and soul tortures of a slave’s life, can say to Mr. Jefferson Davis, ‘Peace! you have suffered! Go in peace.’ ” Regardless of how blacks had viewed the war, most of them could concur with the idea of amnesty for Jefferson Davis, if only because they intended to remain in a society made up largely of people of his color and outlook.71
The ambivalence that had always characterized the relations between slaves and their white families, along with the pragmatic need to placate an angry and bitter white South, was bound to affect how freedmen perceived their beaten and discouraged former masters and mistresses. The way in which Samuel Boulware, a former South Carolina slave, recalled the day the Yankees pillaged his master’s plantation typified a widely felt reaction. “Us slaves was sorry dat day for marster and mistress. They was gittin’ old, and now they had lost all they had, and more than dat, they knowed their slaves was set free.” Even so, many white families were left to question the depth of such feelings, particularly after what some of them had endured at the hands of their blacks, and came away with altogether different impressions. While a South Carolina planter saw hatred of whites in the faces of the freedmen, a North Carolinian expressed the certainty that they “felt for their masters and secretly sympathized with their ruin,” and she appreciatively noted what local blacks had written on a huge banner they unfurled at a recent celebration: “Respect for Former Owners.”72
That “respect” might assume more tangible forms than commiserations and banners. Much as the wartime distress had sometimes brought masters and slaves closer together, the hard times that followed the war taxed the charitable instincts of both races. Although some freedmen returned to the old place seeking help to tide them over a difficult period, the need for assistance worked both ways. Numerous white families, reduced to economic privation by the war and the loss of their property, felt no compunctions (at least, none they admitted) about calling on their former bondsmen for help. Whether out of affection, pity, or that old sense of mutual obligations, ex-slaves invariably responded with generosity to the plight of their old masters and mistresses, at least to the extent they could afford to be generous. Had it not been for a former slave who shared his earnings with her, a North Carolina woman confessed, the family could hardly have survived the loss of their property. Two years after the war, her black benefactor died. “But even at the last,” the grateful woman recalled, “he had not forgotten us. He left $600 to me, and $400 to one of my family.”73
No doubt many freedmen derived a certain satisfaction from extending a helping hand to those who had once held them in bondage. On the Sea Islands, for example, the success of blacks in working the abandoned plantations made them “objects of attention” to the dispossessed planters, who paid occasional visits to the old places, often to seek material assistance while they waited to reclaim their lands. Some women even went from cabin to cabin among their former slaves, pleading the family’s poverty and eagerly collecting food, silverware, dishes, and a little money. Such donations, a Federal official observed, were made partly out of pity but also to impress upon the owners how well they were managing themselves as free people—“an intense satisfaction if a little boastful.” On one plantation, Jim Cashman welcomed his former master back, offering him the same courtesies and warm hospitality any southern gentleman might extend to a visitor and proudly reciting his achievements.
“The Lord has blessed us since you have been gone. It used to be Mr. Fuller No. 1, now it is Jim Cashman No. 1. Would you like to take a drive through the island Sir? I have a horse and buggy of my own now Sir, and I would like to take you to see my own little lot of land and my new house on it, and I have as fine a crop of cotton Sir, as ever you did see, if you please—and Jim can let you have ten dollars if you want them, Sir.”
The former owner graciously accepted both his hospitality and his assistance. In still another instance, a Georgia freedman amassed some savings from working in a sawmill while at the same time planting cotton in a small lot he had purchased. Upon the death of his former master, he came to the aid of the mistress, who had been left without any land and apparently penniless. He supported her until the woman’s death some two years later. Only when it came to paying the cost of her funeral did local residents balk, saying, “He done his share already,” but her own kind would bury her.74
While serving the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, John William De Forest, a white agent, recalled a former slave who appeared at his office, not to pick up rations for himself, but to make a personal appeal on behalf of the Jacksons, a local white family in dire need of help. Except for the sudden plunge in the fortunes of this family, their plight and incapacity for steady labor, as described by this freedman, resembled the pessimistic white accounts of postwar blacks.
“They’s mighty bad off. He’s in bed, sick—ha’n’t been able to git about this six weeks—and his chil’n’s begging food of my chil’n. They used to own three or four thous’n acres; they was great folks befo’ the war. It’s no use tellin’ them kind to work; they don’t know how to work, and can’t work; somebody’s got to help ’em, Sir. I used to belong to one branch of that family, and so I takes an interest in ’em. I can’t bear to see such folks come down so. It hurts my feelings, Sir.”75
Even compassion had its limits. If some freed slaves manifested sympathy for their broken and impoverished or dead masters and mistresses, there remained those who saw no reason to feel remorse of any kind. “I never had no whitefolks that was good to me,” Annie Hawkins recalled of her bondage in Georgia and Texas. “Old Mistress died soon after the War and we didn’t care either. She didn’t never do nothing to make us love her. We was jest as glad as when old Master died.” On the Sea Islands, the generosity displayed by freedmen and freedwomen went only so far, and they made clear the distinction between serving their former masters and helping them. When a former resident sent word that “she thought some of her Ma’s niggers might come to wait upon her,” none volunteered; instead, some of them went to see her and offered some food, money, and clothes, and the woman in return swallowed her pride and position and agreed to become a dressmaker for the blacks. After the initial gestures of goodwill, moreover, freedmen became concerned lest their generosity be misunderstood and abused. “They say that two come for every one they send away relieved,” a Freedmen’s Bureau agent reported from the Sea Islands, “and that it is a new way ‘maussa’ has of making them work for him.”
Although the “masters” weep with joy at the sight of their humble friends, and though one of them said he “should go away and cut his throat if they looked coldly upon him,” yet the people are only transiently touched by this manifestation of affection. They look very jealously and uneasily upon all who return, often ask why Government lets them come back to trouble the freedman.
Near Beaufort, a former owner visited the old place, shook the hands of his former slaves, pleaded his poverty, and asked for sympathy and spare change. After all, he told them, they should realize that he and his wife knew nothing of work and had never done any. The ex-slaves needed no reminder, nor did they respond favorably to his plight when it became clear that he coveted the return of his lands upon which they were now working.76
Whatever the mixed emotions with which freedmen viewed their former owners after emancipation, nothing could obliterate the slave experience from their minds, and it would continue to shape the attitudes and behavior of many of them long after their old masters and mistresses had passed from the scene. Some preferred to put the past behind them, if only to contain their emotions and memories. Nearly a decade after the war, an older student at Hampton Institute, a black college, told a teacher that he preferred not to talk about slavery times. “I feel as if folks mightn’t believe me, and then, if I think too much about them myself, I can’t keep feeling right, as I want to, toward my old masters. I’d do any thing for them I could, and I want to forget what they have done to me.” When in the twentieth century ex-slaves reminisced about the old days, they were apt to be less harsh in their judgments, though Martin Jackson, who recalled “good treatment,” suspected many of them deliberately refrained from telling everything they knew.
Lots of old slaves closes the door before they tell the truth about their days of slavery. When the door is open, they tell how kind their masters was and how rosy it all was. You can’t blame them for this, because they had plenty of early discipline, making them cautious about saying anything uncomplimentary about their masters. I, myself, was in a little different position than most slaves and, as a consequence, have no grudges or resentment. However, I can tell you the life of the average slave was not rosy. They were dealt out plenty of cruel suffering. Even with my good treatment, I spent most of my time planning and thinking of running away.
But in the immediate aftermath of the war, memories were quite short, in some instances as short as the tempers of ex-slaves. All that might be required to set them off was the casual pronouncement by some northern visitor or reporter that many masters had been kind to their slaves. “Kind!” one freedman cried, not believing the naiveté and ignorance of the person who made the observation of his former master. “Kind! I was dat man’s slave; and he sold my wife, and he sold my two chill’en … Kind! yes, he gib me corn enough, and he gib me pork enough, and he neber gib me one lick wid de whip, but whar’s my wife?—whar’s my chill’en? Take away de pork, I say; take away de corn, I can work and raise dese for myself, but gib me back de wife of my bosom, and gib me back my poor chill’en as was sold away!”77
To forgive their former masters and mistresses for past wrongs was to forget neither the wrongs nor the men and women who had inflicted them. Forgiveness, like compassion, could be extended only so far. For many former slaves, the teachings of Christianity and their recollections of bondage would never be easily reconciled. Harry Jarvis remembered working for “de meanest man on all de Easte’n sho’, and dat’s a heap to say.” Early in the war, he fled the plantation, eventually joined the Union Army, and lost a leg in the Battle of Folly Island. Some years later, two white schoolteachers questioned him about slavery days, his escape and army service, and his intense religious conversion immediately after the war. “As you have experienced religion,” one of the teachers asked him, “I suppose you have forgiven your old master, haven’t you?” The question came unexpectedly, the glow immediately left the man’s face, and he dropped his head. Upon recovering his composure, he straightened himself and gave his reply. “Yes, sah! I’se forgub him; de Lord knows I’se forgub him; but”—and now his eyes suddenly blazed—“but I’d gib my oder leg to meet him in battle!” The schoolteachers thought it best at this moment to terminate the conversation.78
HOW THEIR FORMER SLAVES would perceive them had to be uppermost in the minds of the absentee planter families returning to their homes after the war. Where owners had abandoned their plantations, the slaves had often remained and continued to work the land, and in some regions they had been encouraged to believe that the land and the crops would remain in their hands. Now that the war had ended, however, the planters returned to reclaim their property—all but the slaves, whose freedom they were forced to acknowledge. Before long, many of the white families expected that life on the plantations would be very much as they had known it before the war. But success, as they clearly understood, still rested on the availability of labor—free black labor. As they approached the familiar surroundings, they had little way of knowing how many of their former slaves had remained, how they would be greeted, the extent to which the “old ties” had survived the crisis, and the kind of relationship they would be able to establish with those they had once called their “people.” The range of reactions they encountered suggested the diversity of black response and expectations elsewhere in the South.
Except for the physical devastation, some families found that little had changed since their hasty departure. Some of their slaves had left, never to be seen again, but substantial numbers had remained and still others would shortly return. The homecoming proved in some instances to be a most pleasant occasion, exceeding the expectations of the white family and allaying whatever fears they might have entertained. When he came onto his plantations near Natchez, a former Confederate general encountered “a perfect jubilee” celebrating his return. “They picked me up and carried me into the house on their shoulders, and God-blessed me, and tanked de Lo’d for me, till I thought they were never going to get through.” Returning to his “large and elegant” town house in Charleston, a former South Carolina slave owner found it occupied by his servants, “who were as humble, respectful and attentive as of old”; in his absence, they had kept the place “in the neatest and cleanest style.” No doubt his gratitude overflowed when he compared his situation with that of his far less fortunate neighbors, who found their places occupied by strange blacks cooking their meals in the drawing rooms.79
Despite the effusive homecomings, some planters quickly perceived that appearances could be quite deceiving. When Stephen Elliott returned to his father’s plantation at Beaufort, South Carolina, he found the former slaves comfortably settled and in good spirits. “They were delighted to see me, and treated me with overflowing affection.” The scene seemed to suggest that nothing had happened in his absence. But he soon learned otherwise, and in a most abrupt and unexpected manner. Although they greeted him warmly, the newly freed blacks combined their hospitality with an explicit statement of how matters now stood between them and their former owner. “They waited on me as before, gave me beautiful breakfasts and splendid dinners; but they firmly and respectfully informed me: ‘We own this land now. Put it out of your head that it will ever be yours again.’ ”80
The initial difficulty for some planters lay less in reclaiming their land than in dealing with changes in the demeanor of their former slaves. That “total change of manner” surprised and hurt Edward Barnwell Heyward “most of all” when he arrived to take over the Combahee rice plantations in South Carolina he had only recently inherited from his father. Only a year before, he had seen these people at the plantation to which they had been removed during the war, and they had seemed faithful and content. But now, as he wrote his wife, “Oh! what a change. It would kill my Father and worries me more than I expected or rather the condition of the Negroes on that place is worse than I expected. It is very evident they are disappointed at my coming there. They were in hopes of … having the place to themselves.” Not only did they refuse at first to come out of their cabins but when they did deign to speak with him, the old deference had given way to a provoking familiarity. “If I could meet with impudence, accompanied with intelligence,” Heyward told his wife, “it would not be so bad but to find the brutish rice field hands familiar, is perfectly disgusting. I have seen nothing like it before …”81
Rather than manifest any feelings of remorse or hatred for their former masters, many of the newly freed slaves would have been perfectly content never to see them again. Nowhere was this feeling more pervasive, of course, than on those lands they had been working and claiming as their own. The night before Captain Thomas Pinckney returned to El Dorado, his plantation fronting the Santee River in South Carolina, he stayed at the home of a neighbor who had overseen the property in his absence. His report was less than reassuring. “Your negroes sacked your house, stripped it of furniture, bric-a-brac, heirlooms, and divided these among themselves. They got it into their heads that the property of whites belongs to them; and went about taking possession with utmost determination and insolence. Nearly all houses here have been served the same way.” Proceeding to his plantation the next day, Pinckney could immediately sense how much the times had changed. Where he had once been welcomed by crowds of slaves shouting, “Howdy do, Marster! Howdy do, Boss!” only silence now greeted him. None of his former slaves was in sight. In the house, he found a solitary servant, and she seemed pleased to see him. But she claimed to know nothing about where the others had hidden themselves. The dinner hour passed but still none of the blacks ventured forward. Finally, the exasperated planter told his servant that he would come back in the morning and expected to see every one of his former slaves.
When Pinckney returned, he was armed. Since he had often carried a gun as a huntsman, he thought he could do so now “without betraying distrust” or causing any undue alarm among his men. But even as he armed himself, he tried to deny the necessity for doing so.
Indeed, I felt no fear or distrust; these were my own servants, between whom and myself the kindest feelings had always existed. They had been carefully and conscientiously trained by my parents; I had grown up with some of them. They had been glad to see me from the time that, as a little boy, I accompanied my mother when she made Saturday afternoon rounds of the quarters, carrying a bowl of sugar, and followed by her little handmaidens bearing other things coloured people liked. At every cabin that she found swept and cleaned, she left a present as an encouragement to tidiness. I could not realise a need of going protected among my own people, whom I could only remember as respectful, happy and affectionate.
After telling the servant to summon the men, he waited for them under the trees. Slowly, they began to appear, and Pinckney could see only sullen and defiant faces, none of them showing the slightest trace of that “old-time cordiality.” No longer, as he quickly noted, did they address him as “Marster” but instead made a point of referring to him as “you” or “Cap’n.” That was not all he noticed. His former slaves, too, had brought their guns. “Men, I know you are free,” he told them. “I do not wish to interfere with your freedom. But I want my old hands to work my lands for me. I will pay you wages.” The blacks remained silent. “I want you to put my place in order,” he continued, “and make it as fruitful as it used to be, when it supported us all in peace and plenty. I recognise your right to go elsewhere and work for some one else, but I want you to work for me and I will on my part do all I can for you.”
This time they responded; their remarks were brief, punctuated with defiance, and accompanied by none of the old “darky” antics. “O yes, we gwi wuk! we gwi wuk all right,” one of them assured him, but in a tone that suggested trouble rather than compliance. “We gwi wuk. We gwi wuk fuh ourse’ves. We ain’ gwi wuk fuh no white man.” If they refused to work for any white man, Pinckney asked them, where did they intend to go and how would they support themselves? He had only to look at their faces to anticipate their reply. “We ain’ gwine nowhar,” they declared. “We gwi wuk right here on de lan’ whar we wuz bo’n an’ whar belongs tuh us.” Some of them had not been born on this land, Pinckney recalled to himself, but had been purchased by him during the war—“in the kindness of his heart”—to avoid the division of a family in the settlement of an estate. If such thoughts crossed the minds of any of the blacks, there was nothing to indicate it. One of them, dressed in a Union Army uniform and carrying a rifle, made it clear that he would work or not as he pleased, come and go as he pleased, and he claimed a portion of the land as his own. And then, as if to underscore these words, he went to his cabin, stood in the doorway, looked his former master in the eye, brought his gun down with a crash, and declared, “Yes, I gwi wuk right here. I’d like tuh see any man put me outer dis house!”
After giving the blacks some time to reconsider their position, Pinckney assembled them once again. If anything, their attitude had grown “more insolent and aggressive.” Failing to reach any understanding with them, he now gave his former slaves ten days, after which those who remained unwilling to work for him would be forced off the plantation. Meanwhile, Pinckney heard of neighbors having similar experiences, some of them “severer trials” than his own. Where only a few years before “perfect confidence” had characterized slave-master relations, or so he thought, almost every white man now went armed, with his weapon exposed to view, and so presumably did most of the blacks. After consulting among themselves, the planters finally appealed directly to the Union Army commander at Charleston, and he agreed to send a company of troops and to address the blacks himself.
Despite the “Federal visitation,” which Pinckney thought had a “wholesome effect,” the blacks still refused to work. He decided now to wait them out until “starvation” brought about their capitulation. He did not have to wait long. One day, his former head plower came to see him, claiming that he could no longer feed his wife and children. When Pinckney reminded him that he had brought this grief on himself and could return to work at any time, the former slave replied, “Cap’n, I’se willin’. I been willin’ fuh right smart while. I ain’ nuvver seed dis way we been doin’ wuz zackly right. I been ’fused in my min’. But de other niggers dee won’ let me wuk. Dee don’ want me tuh work fuh you, suh. I’se feared.” Although Pinckney considered distributing some food rations “without conditions,” he decided that this might be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Several days later, as he no doubt expected, his head plower reappeared. “Cap’n, I come tuh ax you tuh lemme wuk fuh you, suh.” The planter assented, told him the plow and mule were ready, and he could now draw his rations. Having broken the back of the resistance, Pinckney now had the final satisfaction of watching his former slaves slowly drift back to their cabins and out into the fields. “They had suffered,” he recalled, “and their ex-master had suffered with them.”82
The ordeal of Adele Allston, like that of Thomas Pinckney, suggested comparable situations, particularly in low-country South Carolina, where the reluctance of freed slaves to yield their brief occupation of the plantations often reached the dimensions of outright rebellion. The death of Robert F. W. Allston had left his wife with the responsibility of managing the several plantations belonging to the family, located in a section of South Carolina where blacks outnumbered whites by six to one. When the Yankees came into this region, many of the planter families had fled. On the Allston plantations, the slaves plundered the houses, seized the barn keys, locked up the overseer at Nightingale Hall, and completely intimidated the overseer at Chicora Wood. With the end of the war, Adele Allston moved almost immediately to reclaim her property and reestablish her authority. The initial skirmishes were fought over the keys to the barns, which contained the crops that the blacks had already made. Union soldiers had turned the keys over to the slaves, encouraging them in some instances to distribute the contents among themselves. Both the freed slaves and the planters recognized that whoever controlled those keys exercised more than symbolic authority over the plantations themselves. “This would be a test case, as it were,” wrote Elizabeth Allston, who would accompany her mother on the trip. “If the keys were given up, it would mean that the former owners still had some rights.”
After taking the oath of allegiance to the United States and securing a written order which commanded the blacks to surrender the keys, Adele Allston and her daughter set out for the plantations. They were under no illusions as to what they might expect to find there. “If you come here,” a close friend had warned, “all your servants who have not families so large as to burthen them and compel a veneering of fidelity, will immediately leave you. The others will be more or less impertinent as the humor takes them and in short will do as they choose.” If she still insisted on returning, her friend offered some advice: “I warn you … not to stir up the evil passions of the blacks against you and your family if you wish to return here. The blacks are masters of the situation, this is a conquered country and for the moment law and order are in abeyance.” And one sure way “to stir up the evil passions,” she believed, was to attempt to dispossess the blacks of the property they had seized. “The negroes would force you to leave the place, perhaps do worse. I have not been in my negro street nor spoken to a field hand since 1st March. The only way is to give them rope enough, if too short it might hang us. No outrage has been committed against the whites except in the matter of property.” If her friend’s warnings were not sufficiently alarming, Adele Allston had only to read a recent letter from the overseer at Chicora Wood, in which he related how the blacks permitted him to say nothing to them about work. Despite these ominous reports, Adele Allston remained adamant in her determination to return and face her former slaves. It was bound to be a memorable experience.
Arriving first at the Nightingale Hall plantation (where the blacks had been “specially turbulent”), Adele and Elizabeth Allston encountered less trouble than they had anticipated. Stepping out of the carriage (but insisting that her daughter remain inside), Mrs. Allston stood in the midst of her former slaves, spoke to each of them by name, and inquired after their children. Gradually, the initial tension eased, the black foreman surrendered the keys, and the Allstons quickly moved on. “She did not think it wise to go to the barn to look at the crops,” Elizabeth wrote of her mother. “Having gained her point, she thought it best to leave.” At the Chicora Wood plantation, the keys were handed over with even less difficulty. The Allstons concluded that was because Daddy Primus, the head carpenter, who held the keys, “was a very superior, good old man.” Although the blacks here “seemed glad” to see them, the house which they had helped to plunder stood there for everyone to view, and many of the furnishings now adorned their cabins.
That left the most formidable challenge, the Guendalos plantation, which belonged to Adele Allston’s son, Benjamin, whose service in the Confederate Army had kept him away from home during most of the war. With no whites present, the slaves had been reportedly “turbulent and excited.” As they neared the plantation, the two Allston women had only to look around them to confirm their worst fears. The former slaves lined the road on both sides, a mood of defiance clearly reflected in their “angry, sullen black faces.” What a contrast, Elizabeth thought, between their present demeanor and “the pleasant smile and courtesy or bow to which we were accustomed.” Instead of the usual warm welcome, only an “ominous silence” prevailed. As the carriage passed the blacks, they formed a line behind it and followed it into the plantation.
Stopping in front of the barn, the two women found themselves suddenly surrounded by several hundred blacks. The mistress stepped down from the carriage and asked to see Uncle Jacob, the former black driver who had been left in charge of Guendalos during the war. After he showed her the rice and corn barns, she complimented him on the condition of the stored crops. But when Adele Allston then demanded the keys, the driver refused to give them up unless ordered to do so by a Federal officer. After reading the written order which Mrs. Allston had procured, however, he finally relented and slowly drew the keys from his pocket. Before he could hand them over, a young black man who had been standing nearby shook his fist at the driver and warned him, “Ef yu gie up de key, blood’ll flow.” The crowd immediately shouted its agreement until it became “a deafening clamor.” The driver thought it best to pocket the keys, while the blacks, now “yelling, talking, gesticulating,” pressed closer around the two women, leaving them virtually no standing room. Finally, the mistress ordered her carriage driver to bring her son, Charles, to the place. At the same time, the blacks decided to send for the nearest Union officer. Before leaving, however, the black envoys admonished the crowd, “Don’t let no white man een dat gate,” and the remaining blacks responded, “No, no, we won’t let no white pusson een, we’ll chop um down wid hoe—we’ll chop um to pieces sho’.” Adding emphasis to their threat, some of them held up their sharp and gleaming rice-field hoes, while others brandished pitchforks, hickory sticks, and guns.
With no white person within five miles, the Allstons waited. While strolling about the plantation, they found themselves again surrounded by a shouting “mob of men, women, and children,” some of them dancing, some singing. To the two white women, the scene took on an eerie and unreal dimension.
They sang sometimes in unison, sometimes in parts, strange words which we did not understand, followed by a much-repeated chorus:
“I free, I free!
I free as a frog!
I free till I fool!
They revolved around us, holding out their skirts and dancing—now with slow, swinging movements, now with rapid jig-motions, but always with weird chant and wild gestures.
The Allston carriage driver returned alone, unable to locate the mistress’s son. “It was a great relief to me,” Elizabeth recalled, “for though I have been often laughed at for the opinion, I hold that there is a certain kind of chivalry in the negroes—they wanted blood, they wanted to kill some one, but they couldn’t make up their minds to kill two defenseless ladies; but if Charley had been found and brought, I firmly believe it would have kindled the flame.” Now determined to wait for the Union Army officers, the two women tried to ignore the “blasphemous mutterings and threats” they heard around them as they paced the plantation grounds. Finally, word reached the plantation that the officers could not be located but that the driver and one other black (perhaps to look after him) had gone to Georgetown to seek assistance.
Exhausted by the long ordeal, the two Allston women slept that night in their nearby Plantersville home, “which had no lock of any kind on the door.” Early the next morning, a knock at the door awakened them. Before they could reach the hallway, the door opened and a black hand held out the keys to Guendalos. “No word was spoken—it was Jacob,” Elizabeth Allston recalled; “he gave them in silence, and mamma received them with the same solemnity. The bloodless battle had been won.”83
To the Allstons, as to Thomas Pinckney and others, the battles they waged and won to reclaim their lands could easily be viewed as a struggle of wills in which the character and superiority of white men and women inevitably prevailed. But to the blacks, the defeats they sustained resulted not from a failure of will but from the readiness of Federal authorities to back up the legal claims of whites to their land. Nevertheless, even if planters remained certain of their land titles, they came to fear the turbulence which so often marked the efforts to reestablish a semblance of authority over their former slaves. The range of receptions accorded white families returning to their homes after the war suggests only one dimension in the unraveling of the complex relationships that had made up the “peculiar institution.” On most plantations and farms, the whites had remained, along with their slaves, and the issue at the moment of freedom was not so much who owned the land and the crops but on whose land the newly freed slaves would continue to plant and harvest the crops.
WHERE THE MASTER assembled the blacks to tell them they were no longer his slaves, the reactions he provoked gave rise to the legendary stories of a “Day of Jubilo,” in which crowds of ecstatically happy blacks shouted, sang, and danced their way into freedom. Large numbers of former slaves recalled no such celebration. Although not entirely myth, the notion of a Jubilee, with its suggestion of unrestrained, unthinking black hilarity, tends to neglect if not demean the wide range and depth of black responses to emancipation, including the trauma and fears the master’s announcement produced on some plantations. The very nature of the bondage they had endured, the myriad of experiences to which they had been exposed, the quality of the ties that had bound them to their “white folks,” and the ambivalence which had suffused those relationships were all bound to make for a diverse and complex reaction on the day the slaves were told they no longer had any masters or mistresses.
Capturing nearly the full range of responses, a former South Carolina slave recalled that on his plantation “some were sorry, some hurt, but a few were silent and glad.” From the perspective of the mistress of a Florida household, “some of the men cried, some spoke regretfully, [and] only two looked surly and had nothing to say.” Although celebrations seldom followed the master’s announcement, numerous blacks recalled taking the rest of the day off, if only to think through the implications of what they had been told. Still others, like Harriett Robinson, remembered that before the master could even finish his remarks, “over half them niggers was gone.” But the slaves on an Alabama plantation stood quietly, stunned by the news. “We didn’ hardly know what he means,” Jenny Proctor recalled. “We jes’ sort of huddle ’round together like scared rabbits, but after we knowed what he mean, didn’ many of us go, ’cause we didn’ know where to of went.” None of them knew what to expect from freedom and they interpreted it in many different ways, explained James Lucas, a former slave of Jefferson Davis, who achieved his freedom at the age of thirty-one.
Dey all had diffe’nt ways o’ thinkin’ ’bout it. Mos’ly though dey was jus’ lak me, dey didn’ know jus’ zackly what it meant. It was jus’ somp’n dat de white folks an’ slaves all de time talk ’bout. Dat’s all. Folks dat ain’ never been free don’ rightly know de feel of bein’ free. Dey don’ know de meanin’ of it. Slaves like us, what was owned by quality-folks, was sati’fìed an’ didn’ sing none of dem freedom songs.
How long that sensation of shock or incredulity lasted would vary from slave to slave. “The day we was set free,” remembered Silas Shotfore, “us did not know what to do. Our Missus said we could stay on the place.” But his father made one decision almost instantly: no matter what they decided to do, they would do it somewhere else.84
Suspicious as they might be of the white man’s pronouncements, some blacks were initially skeptical, thinking it might all be a ruse, still another piece of deception calculated to test their fidelity. With that in mind, some thought it best to feign remorse at the announcement, while others needed to determine the master’s veracity and sought confirmation elsewhere, often in the nearest town, at the local office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, or on another plantation. When his master explained to him that he was now a free man, Tom Robinson refused to believe him (“ ‘You’re jokin’ me,’ I says”) until he spoke with some slave neighbors. “I wanted to find out if they was free too. I just couldn’t take it all in. I couldn’t believe we was all free alike.”85
Although most slaves welcomed freedom with varying degrees of enthusiasm, the sense of confusion and uncertainty that prevailed in many quarters was not easily dispelled. The first thought of sixteen-year-old Sallie Crane of Arkansas was that she had been sold, and her mistress’s reassurance that she would soon be reunited with her mother did little to comfort her. “I cried because I thought they was carrying me to see my mother before they would send me to be sold in Louisiana.” The impression deliberately cultivated by some masters that the Yankees intended to sell freed slaves to Cuba to help defray war costs may have had some impact. No matter what they were told, a former North Carolina slave recalled of the master’s announcement, he and his mother were simply too frightened to leave the premises. “Jes like tarpins or turtles after ’mancipation. Jes stick our heads out to see how the land lay.”86
Nor did some slaves necessarily welcome the news when they fully understood its implications for their own lives. The sorrow which some displayed was not always pretense. To those who were reasonably satisfied with their positions and the relations they enjoyed with the white family, freedom offered no immediate cause for rejoicing. “I was a-farin’ pretty well in de kitchen,” Aleck Trimble remarked. “I didn’ t’ink I eber see better times dan what dem was, and I ain’t.” That was how Mollie Tillman also recalled the advent of freedom, since, as she boasted, “I warn’t no common eve’yday slave,” and her mistress refused to let her work in the fields. “I wuz happy den, but since ’mancipation I has jes’ had to scuffle an’ work an’ do de bes’ I kin.” To Moses Lyles, a former South Carolina slave, emancipation undermined the mutual dependency upon which slavery had rested and neither class benefited from the severance of those ties. “De nigger was de right arm of de buckra class. De buckra was de horn of plenty for de nigger. Both suffer in consequence of freedom.”87
Standing on the porch of the Big House and watching her fellow slaves celebrate their emancipation, Sara Brown wondered why they thought the event worthy of such festivities. “I been free all de time,” she thought. This insistence that they were already as free as they wanted to be repeated an old article of faith which some slaves had recited almost habitually in antebellum days when northern visitors pressed them on the subject of slavery. Disillusionment and “hard times” in the post-emancipation period helped to keep this perception of slavery alive. But for certain ex-slaves, the attachments went much deeper, and neither “good times” nor a bountiful freedom would most likely have altered the relationships and position they had come to cherish. To some of the strong-willed “mammies,” whose dominance in the white household was seldom questioned and whose pride and self-respect remained undiminished, emancipation threatened to disrupt the only world and the only ties that really mattered to them and they clung all the more stubbornly to the past. Even death would not undo such relationships, as some of them anticipated a reunion in an all-white heaven.
Who says I’se free? I warn’t neber no slabe. I libed wid qual’ty an’ was one ob de fambly. Take dis bandanna off? No, ‘deedy! dats the las’ semblance I’se got ob de good ole times. S’pose I is brack, I cyan’t he’p it. If mah mammy and pappy chose for me ter be brack, I ain’t gwine ter be lak some white folks I knows an’ blame de Lord for all de ’flictions dat comes ’pon ’em. I’se put up wid dis brackness now, ’cordin’ to ol’ Mis’s Bible, for nigh on ter ninety years, an’ t’ank de good Lord, dat eberlastin’ day is mos’ come when I’ll be white as Mis’ Chloe for eber mo’! [Her mistress had died some years before.] What’s dat, honey? How I knows I’se gwine ter be white? Why, honey, I’se s’prised! Do you s’pose ’cause Mammy’s face is brack, her soul is brack too? Whar’s yo’ larnin’ gone to?
Many of the freed slaves who viewed emancipation apprehensively readily confessed that they had escaped the worst aspects of bondage. “I ain’t never had no mother ’ceptin’ only Mis’ Patsey,” a Florida freedwoman remarked, “an’ I ain’t never felt lak’ a bond slave what’s been pressed—dat’s what dem soldiers say we all is.”88
The mixed emotions with which slaves greeted their freedom also reflected a natural fear of the unknown, along with the knowledge that “they’s alius ’pend on Old Marse to look after them.” For many blacks, this was the only life they had known and the world ended at the boundaries of the plantation. To think that they no longer had a master or mistress, while it brought exuberance and relief to many, struck others with dismay. “Whar we gwine eat an’ sleep?” they demanded to know. And realizing they could not depend on the law or on other whites for protection, who would now stand between them and the dreaded patrollers and “po’ buckra”? After hearing of their freedom, Silas Smith recalled, “de awfulest feeling” pervaded the slave quarters that night as they contemplated a future without masters or mistresses. “You felt jes’ like you had done strayed off a-fishing and got lost.” Fifteen years after emancipation, Parke Johnston, a former Virginia slave, vividly recalled “how wild and upset and dreadful everything was in them times.”
It came so sudden on ’em they wasn’t prepared for it. Just think of whole droves of people, that had always been kept so close, and hardly ever left the plantation before, turned loose all at once, with nothing in the world, but what they had on their backs, and often little enough of that; men, women and children that had left their homes when they found out they were free, walking along the road with no where to go.89
Since emancipation threatened to undermine the mutual obligations implicit in the master-slave relationship, some freed blacks responded with cries of ingratitude and betrayal that matched in fury the similar reactions of white families to the wartime behavior of certain slaves. When Yankee soldiers told an elderly South Carolina slave that she no longer had a master or mistress, the woman responded as though she had been insulted: “I ain’ no free nigger! I is got a marster an’ mistiss! Dee right dar in de great house. Ef you don’ b’lieve me, you go dar an’ see.” Like so many of the older slaves, this woman felt that her services and devotion to the “white folks” over many years had more than fulfilled her part of the relationship. For the family to abandon her now and deprive her of the security, care, and protection she clearly thought she had earned would be, in her view, the rankest form of ingratitude. On a plantation in South Carolina, the oldest black on the place reacted with downright indignation when his former master read the terms of a proposed labor contract; indeed, few blacks expressed the idea of mutual obligations more clearly:
Missis belonged to him, & he belonged to Missis, & he was not going to leave her.… Massa had brought him up here to take care of him, & he had known when Missis’ grandmother was born & she was ‘bliged to take care of him; he was going to die on this place, & he was not going to do any work either, except make a collar a week.90
The uncertainties, the regrets, the anxieties which characterized many of the reactions to emancipation underscored that pervasive sense of dependency—the feeling, as more than one ex-slave recalled, that “we couldn’t do a thing without the white folks.” Slavery had taught black people to be slaves—“good” slaves and obedient workers. “All de slaves knowed how to do hard work,” observed Thomas Cole, who had run away to enlist in the Union Army, “but dey didn’t know nothin’ ’bout how to ’pend on demselves for de livin’.” Of course, the very logic and survival of the “peculiar institution” had demanded that nothing be done to prepare slaves for the possibility of freedom; on the contrary, they had been taught to feel their incapacity for dealing with its immense responsibilities. Many years before the war, a South Carolina jurist set forth the paternalistic ideal when he advised that each slave should be taught to view his master as “a perfect security from injury. When this is the case, the relation of master and servant becomes little short of that of parent and child.” The testimony of former slaves suggests how effectively some masters had been able to inculcate that ideal and how the legacy of paternalism could paralyze its victims.91
Nor did Federal policies or programs in the immediate aftermath of emancipation address themselves to this problem. Whatever the freedman’s desire or capacity for “living independently,” he would in scores of instances be forced to remain dependent on his former masters. It was precisely through such dependency, a North Carolina planter vowed, that his class of people would be able to reestablish on the plantations what they had ostensibly lost in emancipation, “until in a few years I think every thing will be about as it was.”92
Upon hearing of their freedom, some slaves instinctively deferred to the traditional source of authority, advice, sustenance, and protection—the master himself. Now that they were no longer his slaves, what did he want them to do? Few freed blacks, however, no matter how confused and apprehensive they may have been, were altogether oblivious to the excitement and the anticipation that this event had generated. At the moment of freedom, masses of slaves did not suddenly erupt in a mammoth Jubilee but neither did they all choose to be passive, cowed, or indifferent in the face of their master’s announcement. Outside of the prayer meetings and the annual holiday frolics, plantation life had afforded them few occasions for free expression, at least in the presence of their “white folks.” If only for a few hours or days, then, many newly emancipated slaves dropped their usual defenses, cast off their masks, and gave themselves the rare luxury of acting out feelings they were ordinarily expected to repress.
Once they understood the full import of the master’s words, and even then perhaps only after several minutes of stunned or polite silence, many blacks found they could no longer contain their emotions. More importantly, they felt no need to do so. “That the day I shouted,” was how Richard Carruthers of Texas recalled his emancipation. Booker T. Washington stood next to his mother during the announcement; many years later, he could still vividly recall how she hugged and kissed him, the tears streaming down her face, and her explanation that she had prayed many years for this day but never believed she would live to see it. Freedom took longer to reach Bexar County, Texas, where the war had hardly touched the lives and routines of the slave. But Felix Haywood, who worked as a sheepherder and cowpuncher, recalled how “everybody went wild” when they learned of freedom. “We all felt like horses and nobody had made us that way but ourselves. We was free. Just like that, we was free.”93
If neither words nor prayers conveyed the appropriate emotions, the newly freed slaves might draw on the traditional spirituals, whose imagery easily befitted an occasion like emancipation. The triumph had come in this world, not in the next. The exuberance and importance of such a moment also inspired updated versions of the spirituals and songs especially composed for the occasion. Out in Bexar County, Felix Haywood heard them sing:
Abe Lincoln freed the nigger
With the gun and the trigger;
And I ain’t goin’ to get whipped any more.
I got my ticket,
Leavin’ the thicket,
And I’m a-headin’ for the Golden Shore!
Harriett Gresham, who had belonged to a wealthy planter in South Carolina, remembered hearing the guns at Fort Sumter that inaugurated the war, as well as the song that sounded the death of slavery:
No slav’ry chains to tie me down,
And no mo’ driver’s ho’n to blow fer me.
No mo’ stocks to fasten me down,
Jesus break slav’ry chain, Lord.
Break slav’ry chain, Lord,
Break slav’ry chain, Lord,
Da Heben gwinter be my home.
“Guess dey made ’em up,” Annie Harris said of many of the songs she heard in those days, “ ’cause purty soon ev’ybody fo’ miles around was singin’ freedom songs.”94
Although the classic version of the Jubilee featured large masses of people, some newly freed slaves only wanted to be alone at this moment. Neither fear of the master nor deference to his feelings entirely explains this preference. Overwhelmed by what they had just heard, some needed a momentary solitude to reflect on its implications and to convince themselves that it had really happened, while others simply preferred to express themselves with the least amount of inhibition. Lou Smith recalled running off and hiding in the plum orchard, where he kept repeating to himself, “I’se free, I’se free; I ain’t never going back to Miss Jo.” After hearing of his freedom, an elderly Virginia black proceeded to the barn, leaped from one stack of straw to the other, and “screamed and screamed!” Although confined to bed, Aunt Sissy, a crippled Virginia slave, heard the celebration outside, limped out the door, and then simply stood there praying. “Wouldn’t let nobody tetch her, wouldn’t set down. Stood dere swayin’ fum side to side an’ singin’ over an’ over her favorite hymn.”
Oh, Father of Mercy
We give thanks to Thee
We give thanks to Thee
For thy great glory.95
Like Aunt Sissy, many slaves viewed their deliverance as a sign of divine intervention. God’s will had been heeded, if belatedly, and in this act lay final proof of His omnipresence. Few expressed it more eloquently than the Virginia black woman who looked upon emancipation as something approaching a miracle. “Isn’t I a free woman now! De Lord can make Heaven out of Hell any time, I do believe.” In addressing his Nashville congregation, a black preacher interpreted emancipation as a result of his people having kept the faith, even when it appeared as though there was no hope and that the Lord had forsaken them.
We was all like de chil’en of Israel in Egypt, a cryin’ and cryin’ and a gronin’ and gronin’, and no Moses came wid de Lord’s word to order de door broke down, dat we might walk t’rough and be free. Now de big ugly door is broke down, bress de Lord, and we know de groans of de captive is heard. Didn’t I tell you to pray and not to faint away, dat is not to doubt, and dat He who opened de sea would deliber us sure, and no tanks to de tasker massas, who would nebber let us go if dey could only hab held on to us? But dey couldn’t—no dey couldn’t do dat, ’cause de Lord he was wid us, and wouldn’t let us be ’pressed no more …96
Even as many slaves reveled in their newly proclaimed freedom, few of them made any attempt to humiliate or unduly antagonize their newly dispossessed owners. Appreciating this fact, some masters and mistresses felt both grateful and immensely relieved. “Whilst glad of having freedom,” Grace Elmore said of her servants, “they have never been more attentive or more respectful than now, and seem to wish to do all in their power to leave a pleasant impression.” That the newly emancipated slaves had largely confined their release of emotion to a few relatively harmless celebrations encouraged some planters to think they could ease through the transition from bondage to freedom with a minimum of concession and change. Once the initial excitement subsided, they fully expected that economic necessity if not the “old ties” and attachment to the “home” would leave their blacks little choice but to carry on much as they had before the war. “We may still hope for a future I think,” a prominent Alabaman confided to his journal. Since on many plantations and farms the day after freedom very much resembled the days that had preceded the master’s announcement, such confidence appeared to be well founded. Even where a Jubilee atmosphere had prevailed, the blacks were no less appreciative of the immense problems they faced in acting on their new status. Like the other slaves on her Texas plantation, Annie Hawkins had shouted for joy; nevertheless, she recalled, none of them made any move to leave “for fear old Mistress would bring us back or the pateroller would git us.”97
What masters and mistresses perceived as blacks fulfilling obligations learned under the tutelage of slavery might have been viewed differently by the former slaves themselves. In agreeing to stay until the planted crops had been harvested or until their assigned tasks in the household had been completed, many field hands and servants not only confirmed the freedom of choice now available to them but also exhibited a dignity and self-respect commensurate with their new status. Several of Grace Elmore’s servants promised to give sufficient notice before leaving so as to enable their mistress to make other arrangements. The DeSaussure family of Charleston lost every servant but the nurse, and she agreed to stay only “as a favor until they could hire white servants.” Few freed slaves, however, thought it necessary to emulate the attentiveness of a South Carolina woman who prepared to leave the family she had served for thirty-six years; before departing to join her husband and son, she made certain that all the clothes had been washed, she distributed gifts to the white children, and she left two of her children behind to wait on the family.98
Despite the debilitating effects of dependency and the confusion which persisted over the precise nature of their new status, the freedmen were neither helpless, easily manipulated, nor frightened into passivity. Although some still deferred to the advice of the old master, many did not. During slavery, they had often survived only by drawing on their own inner resources, their accumulated experience, and the wisdom of those in their own ranks to whom they looked for leadership and counsel. Upon being told of their freedom, the blacks on many plantations retired to their quarters to discuss the announcement, what if any alternatives were now open to them, and the first steps they should take to test their freedom. On a plantation in Georgia, for example, where the owner had asked his former slaves to remain until they finished the current crop, they discussed his proposal for the next several days before reaching a common decision. “They wasn’t no celebration ’round the place,” William Hutson recalled, “but they wasn’t no work after the Master tells us we is free. Nobody leave the place though. Not ’til in the fall when the work is through.”99
The possibilities that suddenly presented themselves, the kinds of questions that freedom posed, the sheer magnitude of this event in their lives could not always be readily absorbed. Recounting his own escape to freedom, more than two decades before the war, William Wells Brown never forgot the strange sensations he experienced: “The fact that I was a freeman—could walk, talk, eat and sleep as a man, and no one to stand over me with the blood-clotted cowhide—all this made me feel that I was not myself.” For the newly emancipated blacks, however, most of whom chose to remain in the same regions in which they had been slaves, the problems they faced were far different and more formidable than those which had confronted the fugitives upon reaching the North. Experiencing her first days of freedom, a Mississippi woman voiced that prevailing uncertainty as to how to give meaning to her new status: “I used to think if I could be free I should be the happiest of anybody in the world. But when my master come to me, and says—Lizzie, you is free! it seems like I was in a kind of daze. And when I would wake up in the morning I would think to myself, Is I free? Hasn’t I got to get up before daylight and go into the field to work?”100
The uncertainties plagued both blacks and whites. Under slavery, the boundaries had been clearly established and both parties understood them. But what were the proper boundaries of black freedom? What new forms would the relationship between a former slave and his former master now assume? How would the freed blacks be expected to interact with free whites? Neither the blacks nor the whites were altogether certain, though they might have pronounced views on such matters. Now that black freedom had been generally acknowledged, it needed to be defined. The state legislatures, the courts, and the Federal government offered some direction. But freedom could ultimately be defined only in the day-to-day lives and experiences of the people themselves. “De day of freedom,” a former Tennessee slave recalled, the overseer came out into the fields and told them that they were free. “Free how?” they asked him, and he replied, “Free to work and live for demselves.”101 In the aftermath of emancipation, the newly freed slaves would seek to test that response and answer the question for themselves.