“Daddy said he was proud of his freedom, but he was afraid to own it.”
Susan High was born after the Civil War, but she recalled her father’s attitude for an interview with the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) in the late 1930s. The memory that her father, George Merritt, imparted to her was one about the perilous conditions under which the South’s 4.5 million enslaved people experienced emancipation. The news of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on Jan. 1, 1863, may have ignited joyous celebrations among those the document now proclaimed to be “forever free,” but some, like Merritt, felt apprehensive—and for good reason.
While the proclamation effectively ended slavery in all areas of the Confederacy in active rebellion, the executive order excluded slaveholding states that remained in the Union—Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri, and Maryland—as well as areas controlled by the United States Army, such as the Sea Islands and much of the Mississippi Delta. There would be two years until the Confederacy gave up, with several additional years between the 13th,14th,and 15th Amendments that would legal dismantle slavery from those areas. This would also establish civil and politically rights for Black Americans. Even then, their ability to openly embrace freedom and pursue their own desires and destinies would be severely limited by a number of factors, including white hostility, as well as the federal government’s growing indifference to their struggles.
But if the Emancipation Proclamation was to become a first step in the country’s “new birth of freedom,” the United States Army would have to win the Civil War, a proposition that, in 1863, was anything but certain. That was what the proclamation sought to address. Although Lincoln proclaimed his executive order to be an “act of justice,” the Emancipation Proclamation was an act of war. Lincoln justified the release of confederacy members who were enslaved in the active rebellion by citing his authority as commander-inchief. The southern army needed enslaved workers to do manual labor. They also had the ability to keep the plantations and farms that provided the rebels with much-needed food. They allowed white southerners to escape slavery and fight.
Enslaved people’s continued presence also provided white southerners at home much symbolic reassurance of the Confederacy’s righteousness and the promise of its ultimate triumph. But when enslaved people began to liberate themselves by leaving their farms—what Black historian W.E.B. DuBois referred to as the “General Strike”—the slaveholders’ fantasy quickly began to evaporate.
Enslavers were shocked and upset that those they considered to have been duty-bound to their service for the rest of their lives abandoned them. Catherine Edmondson (the wife of a North Carolina Planter) was nevertheless impressed by the organized and determined group of about 100 refugees that set out from her house shortly after the U.S. Army had landed a force in the Outer Banks. This occurred just a few days before the U.S. Army landed the army’s 1862 invasion. “So much method they seem to observe and so well are they piloted that the idea of its being a panic seems to lose ground,” she confided in her journal. They were as though they’d been in planning mode for a while.
Lincoln was aware of the psychological effects that the proclamation would have upon southern morale. He hoped it would encourage more enslaved people, by either abandoning Confederate owners or joining the U.S. troops, just as nearly 200 enslaved, free-born Black men would.
But war made it dangerous for people to “own” their freedom, as George Merritt recalled to his daughter. The memories of other formerly enslaved people contained in the FWP interviews reveal how the soldiers sent to liberate the Confederacy’s enslaved population were a source of hope as well as trepidation. As we struggle to understand the Civil War legacy for American society, it is crucial to bear this in mind. Reckoning with slavery’s existence also requires we reckon with slavery’s long and violent end.
Alice Green, who was enslaved in Georgia, and Hannah Brooks Wright, enslaved in Mississippi, both described Union soldiers as “bluebirds” because of the color of their uniforms. Frank Larkin, more than three quarters of century later, treasured his memories of U.S. soldier mounted on horseback riding proudly and tall.
“It was the prettiest sight I ever saw.”
U.S. troops brought freedom news to the Confederate landscape, but also caused destruction. Confederate livestock was confiscated by soldiers to make it easier for themselves. This also put at risk the existence of slaveholders and the people who depended on them.
“The Yankees sure throwed us in the briar patch,” recalled Violet Guntharpe, who found herself foraging the nearby woods for acorns after Union troops visited her South Carolina farm in the last weeks of the war. “All us had to thank them for was a hungry belly, and freedom.”
The suffering caused by white soldiers was often ignored by them. Sam Word’s mother was outraged to find a white Union soldier ransacking her cabin and taking her prized quilts. After she had scolded him about stealing from those he was supposed be supporting, he decided to snap:
“I’m fighting for $14 a month and the Union.”
Others soldiers had more sinister motives.
Lizzie McCloud was hiding under the porch of a soldier. He seemed more interested in quilts than Lizzie McCloud. She watched the man’s boots as he paced back and forth calling to her, “Come out, Dinah! Dinah, we’re fighting to free you and get you out from under bondage!”
Like “Sambo,” a caricature of enslaved men in white popular culture, “Dinah” was a generic name for enslaved women. In the book of Genesis, Dinah was also the name of Abraham’s granddaughter who was kidnapped and raped by the Canaanites.
McCloud did not express her fear about what the soldier would do to her in her interview. However, her anxiety as McCloud recounts her story is evident. Rape and the threat of rape have always been potent tools for any army, and Civil War armies—both northern and southern—were no different. It did not reduce risk and may even have increased it.
The Union’s victory was marked by the power of rape as a symbol. Union soldiers sent out a warning to the enslavers when they raped an enslaved girl. “Such public acts of sexual violence served to demonstrate power over Black women, threaten white women, and mark southern defeat,” explains historian Crystal Feimster.
In most cases, the U.S. army’s physical presence in rural areas was often short-lived. After they had left, things went back to normal. The consequences for failing to see this were harsh for an enslaved individual.
As he passed through her neighborhood, a Union soldier instructed young Eliza Evans that her master should call her “Miss” now that she was free. Evans, enthused by the information, did exactly what was instructed. When she relayed the soldier’s order to the white man, however, he whipped her with a switch. Her grandmother also whipped her after hearing what she said to the owner.
Evans’s grandmother may seem heartless to 21st century readers, but her reaction reveals an essential pragmatism shared by elder enslaved people, including Martin Jackson’s father, who cautioned him against running away to join “the Yankees.” Jackson’s father told him the war wasn’t going to last forever, “but our forever was going to be spent living among the Southerners, after they got licked.”
George Merritt learned this hard lesson after his ex-owner turned Merritt and his family away without providing any assistance.
While the White Southerners might have lost, they were not defeated. In the lean years after the war, many of them seemed to exist solely on the vindictiveness they felt for the people they had so recently owned—and, in nearly all cases, still believed they should. Although white landowners had to accept that freedpeople would be paid wages for their labor, they also found ways to minimize the cost of the labor. Freed persons were frequently met with violence if they complained.
Sylvia Parker met John Lawrence (a white man) on the streets of Wilmington. She asked Lawrence about his debts to her money for the work she did the year before. Lawrence claimed he did not owe anything to her. She insisted he did, telling him that “he had not done right by her.” Incensed that a Black woman had publicly impugned his integrity, Lawrence picked up a stick that was lying nearby and began beating her about the head and arms.
The FWP interviews are filled with similar emancipation stories, ones that run counter to the scenes of “Jubilee” that we often associate with the Emancipation Proclamation. We are reminded by these firsthand accounts that US emancipation came as an act war. The Emancipation Proclamation, and by extension, the U.S. Army, destroyed much of slavery’s economic and political apparatus. This destruction had a profound impact on the lives and fates of those who were enslaved.
The newly enslaved began rebuilding their lives after the guns stopped firing. The long-awaited deliverance was a prayer that many enslaved people have prayed for over the years. However, it came at a high price.
Patsy Moore spoke of both joy and sorrow that came with freedom for her Mississippi friends. “When freedom come, folks left home, out in the streets, crying, praying, singing, shouting, yelling, and knocking down everything,” she told the FWP. “Then come the calm. That was sad. It was sad. Things tore up and nowhere to go and nothing to eat, nothing to do.”
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