May 20, 2015: Celebrating Emancipation Day in Florida

Emancipation-Day Florida 2015
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: Tallahassee resident Brian Bibeau (center) portrays Brigadier General Edward McCook and presents a dramatic recitation of the Emancipation Proclamation from the front steps of the historic Knott House Museum. He is joined by the Leon Rifles 2nd Florida Volunteer Infantry Regiment Co. D, Captain Chris Ellrich Commanding, and the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit & Living History Association, led by Sgt. Major (Ret.) Jarvis Rosier.
Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com

May 20, 2015, marked the 150th anniversary of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. That date is observed as Emancipation Day in the state; thus, Florida Emancipation Day is the equivalent of Juneteenth in Texas. Activities were held throughout the state to commemorate the event, including a reenactment of the Proclamation reading in Tallahassee.

Here’s the history behind the Day: on May 10, 1865, Union soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Edward McCook entered Tallahassee. This was weeks after April 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces in Virginia, and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his forces in North Carolina. Successive waves of Confederate surrenders followed throughout the South. McCook and his men came to Tallahassee from Macon, Georgia, to facilitate the end of hostilities in the state and begin Union control. On May 20th, General McCook announced the Emancipation Proclamation in the city. Freedom in Florida was now “official.”

Of course May 20, 1865, was not the first time that slaves in Florida had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation or gained freedom as a result of the war. Union forces made forays into Florida throughout the Civil War. The state was not strategically important enough for the Union to conduct many operations there. But Union troops did, for example enter Jacksonville during the war, and that city changed handed hands several times throughout the conflict. Some of the Union forces consisted of men from the US Colored Troops (USCT). In NE Florida for sure there was an awareness of the Emancipation Proclamation, and slaves seesawed from slavery to freedom and back more than once as the Union and Confederacy took turns at controlling Jacksonville.

As noted here, the 2nd Infantry Regiment, USCT, did time in Florida. The source notes:

The 2nd U.S.C.T. was attached to the District of Key West, Florida, Department of of the Gulf, in February, 1864, and saw duty in New Orleans and Ships Island, Mississippi. In May the unit also participated in an attack on Confederate fortifications at Tampa, resulting in the destruction of the Confederate positions. The 2nd participated in several operation along Florida’s west coast between July 1st and 31st, 1864; including raids from Fort Myers to Bayport, and from Cedar Key to St. Andrew’s Bay. During the St. Andrew’s Bay expedition the 2nd skirmished with Confederate troops on the 18th of July.

There is a monument to the 2nd USCI in Fort Myers, FL, which is south of Tampa/St Petersburg:

My guess is that many slaves in west-central Florida – and admittedly, the huge part of the slave population resided in the northern part of the state – would have been aware of the Proclamation from Union soldiers.

Emancipation-Day FL  2nd USCT Reenactor speaks to school children
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: a member of the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit speaks to a group of school children.
Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com


From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: USCT Reenactors at the Knott House Museum
Source: Photograph copyright WTXL TV, “2015 Knott House Museum Hosts Emancipation Day Celebration”

Fort Pickens was an island fort just outside Pensacola, Florida that remained in Union hands throughout the war. It is somewhat infamous in some circles as one of the first federal locations where slaves sought refuge from bondage, but were turned back. (This happened after the first rash of Confederate secessions, but before the attack on Fort Sumter). The book Blockaders, Refugees, and Contrabands: Civil War on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 1861-1865 by George Buker talks of how the war affected Florida’s western coast. The book notes that as the war progressed, many slaves (also called “contrabands”) escaped, and some sought out the Navy blockaders as a path to freedom. Some slaves joined the U.S. Navy and Army. (During the Civil War, the Union established a naval blockage over southern ports to prevent Confederate commerce with other nations.)

One of the most famous Civil War battles in the state was the Battle of Olustee, also called the Battle of Ocean Pond. It occurred in Baker County, Florida, roughly 50 miles west of Jacksonville, on February 20, 1864. The battle, which included several USCT regiments (54th Massachusetts Infantry, the 8th Infantry USCT {from Pennsylvania}, and the 35th Infantry USCT {from North Carolina}), was a loss for the Union, and a bloody one at that.

So, although General McCook did read the Emancipation Proclamation (EP) in Tallahassee at the time noted, many slaves throughout the state were aware of the EP; an untold, perhaps relatively small number gained freedom as a result of Union occupation or the proximity of Union army and navy forces; and a number of African American soldiers and sailors were involved in military activities in the state. So there is a depth of black Civil War experience in Florida that goes beyond just the reading of the EP on that day in May 1865. Of course, the surrender of Confederate forces and a more widespread Union occupation made the proclamation of freedom into the reality of freedom. But if the “grapevine telegraph” was at all active throughout the state, it was probably abuzz with the idea that freedom might be coming, and McCook confirmed that the rumors and their hopes were true.

Emancipation Day has been observed throughout the state for many years. However, just in the past few days, I have met a handful of Florida residents who were not aware of it. Which is further proof that we must do more to ensure that our history – America’s history – of freedom, emancipation, and service are remembered and commemorated.

Emancipation Day Parade- Lincolnville, Florida 1920s 1
Emancipation Day Parade: Lincolnville, Florida (1920s). Lincolnville was community in St. Augustine, FL that was founded by former slaves after the Civil War.
Source: FloridaMemory.com Blog, “Emancipation Day Celebrations in Florida”

St. Paul A.M.E Church float- Lincolnville, Florida 1920s
St. Paul A.M.E Church float, Emancipation Day, Lincolnville, Florida (1920s)
Source: FloridaMemory.com Blog, “Emancipation Day Celebrations in Florida”

The Queen and her court- Lincolnville, Florida 1920s)
The Queen and her court, Emancipation Day, Lincolnville, Florida (1920s)
Source: FloridaMemory.com Blog, “Emancipation Day Celebrations in Florida”

The March 1865 Review of the Union’s Black Soldiers: “President Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops”

Union Troops enter Richmond VA Leslie's Illustrated
“The Union Army Entering Richmond, VA., April 3,” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 25, 1865.
As depicted in the illustration, African American soldiers led the way into Richmond when it was captured near the end of the Civil War. Just a week earlier, these same soldiers had marched in review for President Abraham Lincoln.
This is a colorized versions of an image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News by the postcard publisher Southern Bargain House of Richmond, VA.

Image Source: From MetroPostcard.com

For the Confederates, it was time to do the unthinkable: enlist slaves in their war to create a slaveholders’ nation. For the Union, it was time for black soldiers to strut their stuff in front of the president of the United States.

Such was the state of the American Civil War in March 1865. These two very different stories are discussed in the book HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS IN THE WAR OF THE REBELLION 1861-1865, by George Washington Williams. The historian Williams was a veteran of the Union army as a member of the United States Colored Troops, or USCT. The section of his book which is cited below shows how the contrasting policies of the Union and Confederacy toward black enlistment played out in the closing months of the war.

By March 1865, the Confederate States of America (CSA) was on the verge of military defeat, and desperate times dictated desperate measures. After several months of intense debate, the Confederate Congress approved a measure that allowed slaves to enlist in the Confederate army. The administration of Confederate president Jefferson Davis added rules which required that slaves be conferred the status of freemen by their owners prior to enlisting; although I have seen some debate as to whether slaves so enlisted were to be temporarily free during their enlistment, versus being  permanently free both during and after their time as soldiers. In any case, it was a way to gain manpower at a time when the Confederacy was critically short of men to fight.

As it turned out, the new policy of enlisting slaves was too little too late. In April of 1865, CSA General in chief Robert E. Lee would surrender his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, and the remaining Confederate forces would follow his example over the next few months. But for a moment, African American soldiers were the great black hope of the white men in grey.

For the Union, meanwhile, hopes had been realized. In July of 1862, the Union Congress passed laws which allowed African Americans to enlist in the military, and gave freedom to slaves who did so. Eventually, some 200,000 black men would join the Union army and navy and they were a key part of the Union war effort.

By March 1865, Union forces that included black soldiers were on the brink of capturing Richmond, Virgina, the capital of the Confederacy. Indeed, on April 3, 1865, members of the USCT would take the lead in capturing the fallen city. With the end of the war so close, president Abraham Lincoln came to the Richmond area from Washington, DC, to see the events unfold.

On Lincoln’s itinerary was a review of the black troops. (A review is basically a military parade. In a military review, soldiers march in a formation that has been practiced through drilling.) As noted by George Washington Williams in HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS, some 25,000 black soldiers, “well drilled, well armed, and well officered, passed in review before the President, General (Ulysses) Grant, and the general officers of the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac.” While noting the irony that Lincoln had initially “protested” against the use of black soldiers early in the war, Williams said that now, “Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops.”

This was the last such review of black troops that Lincoln would see; an assassin’s bullet cut his life short on April 15. But for that one bright moment, the president was presented “one of the most magnificent military spectacles of the civil war.”

From the book HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS IN THE WAR OF THE REBELLION 1861-1865, page 292-293:

On the 28th of January the Lower House of the Confederate Congress had resolved to employ Negroes as soldiers, but on the 7th of February the Senate refused to concur in the action of the House. On the 18th of February General Lee urged his plan of the military employment of Negroes, and on the 20th the Confederate House passed a bill authorizing the employment of two hundred thousand Negroes in the armed service of the Government, but the Senate promptly rejected the measure. The Negro, who had been manifestly and confessedly the cause of the war, was now the hope of both Union and Confederate governments. Fair hands that had been stained with the blood of bondmen, but which were now impotent in disaster, were outstretched to Ethiopia. But “Ethiopia’s hands long stretching mightily had plead with God,” and the cause of the despised Negro had become the cause of humanity and civilization the world over.

But the movement finally received the force of law, as shown in the following, which is the last part of the last Special Order issued from the Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office at Richmond :

“Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office,

” Richmond, April 1, 1865.
“Special Orders No. 78.

“XXIX. Lieutenant John L. Co wardin, Adjutant Nineteenth Battalion Virginia Artillery, is hereby relieved from his present command and will proceed without delay to Halifax County, Virginia, for the purpose of recruiting Negro troops, under the Act of Congress approved March 13th, and General Orders No. 14, Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, current series.”

On the 23d of March the first company of Negro State troops was mustered into the Confederate service, and by a strange coincidence President Lincoln left Washington city to review his Negro soldiers on the James River on the same day. (NOTE: A company is a group of 75-100 soldiers.)

The review was one of the most magnificent military spectacles of the civil war. The weather was fair and the atmosphere pleasant for the moving masses of troops. Twenty-five thousand Negro soldiers, in bright, new uniforms, well drilled, well armed, and well officered, passed in review before the President, General Grant, and the general officers of the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac. The troops were reviewed between General William Birney’s headquarters and Fort Harrison, in full view of the enemy at Fort Gilmer.

The troops marched with company front, with banners flying and bands playing. Nearly every slave State had its representatives in the ranks of this veteran Negro army, while Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, of the Northern States, had regiments in the line. President Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops, against whose employment he had early and earnestly protested. Hundreds of white officers and thousands of white soldiers witnessed the review with keen interest, and were loud in their praise of the splendid soldierly bearing of their Negro comrades in arms.

The entire review was highly satisfactory, and made a deep impression upon the minds of the civil and military chiefs who witnessed it.

President Lincoln: “I will keep my faith… with the black warriors”

Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
A black soldier takes an oath of allegiance to the United States; Abraham Lincoln offers him freedom and a gun.

Image © Dave Wiegers Photography, see here. Wiegers has done a number of photos of monuments to Abraham Lincoln. 

President Abraham Lincoln freely and openly admitted that his ultimate goal for the Civil War was to preserve the Union, and not to free the slaves. But he determined that to win the war against the Confederates, emancipation had to be used to gain the support of African Americans, specifically, African American slaves living in the South. And so, based on legislation that was passed by Congress, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

This policy was not popular with everyone in the Union. Lincoln was a member of the Republican Party. Members of the opposition Democratic Party questioned and criticized the use of black men as soldiers. Some suggested that the emancipation policy be scrapped and the slaves returned to their masters; this offer of a “carrot” was intended to convince white southerners to end their rebellion.

But Lincoln was having none of it. In August of 1864, which was a presidential election year, he met at the White House with Alexander W. Randall, a former governor of Wisconsin, and Joseph T. Mills, a Wisconsin judge. Lincoln talked politics and emancipation policy. He derided the Democratic Party for its opposition to emancipation. Per Lincoln, the Democratic Party program could only “result in the dismemberment of the Union.” He referred to the notion of re-enslaving the freedmen to gain white supporters in the South as “conciliation.” This would be disaster, Lincoln said. “Abandon all the posts now possessed by black men, surrender all these advantages to the enemy, & we would be compelled to abandon the war in 3 weeks,” he claimed.

Clearly, Lincoln was keeping aware of the actions of the colored soldiers. He cited the actions of black men at the battles of Port Hudson and Olustee as examples of their service and sacrifice. He pledged that he would not return these “black warriors” to slavery to “conciliate the South.” “I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will,” he said. Lincoln was not about to throw black soldiers under the bus. He would keep his promise that African Americans would be “forever free” no matter what the conditions of war or peace.

But Lincoln did not merely feel his emancipation policy was righteous; he believed it was right strategically.  History would prove, he believed, that the Union could not be restored without it. And in this belief, he was unshaken.

This text is excerpted from the diary of Joseph T. Mills, as noted in Volume 7 of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln:

My own experience has proven to me, that there is no program intended by the Democratic Party but that will result in the dismemberment of the Union. But Genl McClellan[1] is in favor of crushing out the rebellion, & he will probably be the Chicago (Democratic Party convention) candidate (for president in 1864). The slightest acquaintance with arithmetic will prove to any man that the rebel armies cannot be destroyed with Democratic (Party) strategy. It would sacrifice all the white men of the north to do it. There are now between 1 & 200 thousand black men now in the service of the Union. These men will be disbanded, returned to slavery & we will have to fight two nations instead of one.

I have tried it. You cannot conciliate the South, when the mastery & control of millions of blacks makes them sure of ultimate success. You cannot conciliate the South, when you place yourself in such a position, that they see they can achieve their independence. The war Democrat (Democrats who favored war to preserve the Union) depends upon conciliation. He must confine himself to that policy entirely. If he fights at all in such a war as this he must economise life & use all the means which God & nature puts in his power.

Abandon all the posts now possessed by black men surrender all these advantages to the enemy, & we would be compelled to abandon the war in 3 weeks. We have to hold territory. Where are the war democrats to do it. The field was open to them to have enlisted & put down this rebellion by force of arms, by concilliation, long before the present policy was inaugurated.

There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will.

My enemies say I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. It is & will be carried on so long as I am President for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done. Freedom has given us the control of 200 000 able bodied men, born & raised on southern soil. It will give us more yet. Just so much it has sub[t]racted from the strength of our enemies, & instead of alienating the south from us, there are evidences of a fraternal feeling growing up between our own & rebel soldiers.

My enemies condemn my emancipation policy. Let them prove by the history of this war, that we can restore the Union without it.

[1] George B. McClellan had been a high ranking general in the Union army. He was relieved from command by Lincoln for lacking the aggressiveness needed to successfully engage Confederate forces led by Robert E. Lee. In 1864, McClellan was nominated to be the Democratic candidate for president. He lost the election to Lincoln in November of that year.

Self-emancipation during the Civil War: Remembering the Corinth Contraband Camp, MS

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Statue and markers near the entrance to the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

The Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is winding down. In a scant few months, we will observe the 150th anniversary of Confederate general Robert E Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, which signaled the beginning of the end of the Civil War. This is a good moment to reflect on how the War was commemorated these past few years.

One disappointment of the Sesquicentennial, in my opinion, has been the relative lack of attention given to contrabands/runaways/self-emancipated slaves.

During the War, over a hundred thousand enslaved African Americans escaped their masters and sought refuge from bondage behind Union lines. At the start of the War, Union policy was to return these freedom seekers to their owners; the goal was to maintain the owners’ loyalty to, and support for, the Union cause. That policy unraveled as the Union came to see the slaves as valuable and necessary allies in the war against the Confederate regime.

Over time the Union evolved new policies, under which slaves who escaped their masters would be given asylum, usually in war refugee/labor camps that were in or near army encampments or forts. These places were variously called contraband camps or freedom colonies or freedom villages. The escaped slaves were called ‘contraband’ by northerners, on the basis that they were property that was seized from Confederates. I do not know if the self-emancipators defined themselves using this northerners’ lexicon.

There has been a very good focus during the Sesquicentennial, I think, on the role of African descent soldiers during the War, due in part to the efforts of African American reenactors and living historians. But the black southern soldier was a subset of a larger group of people who escaped bondage. And the story of that larger group hasn’t seen as much attention, as I look back at the spate of events and activities since the Sesquicentennial period began in 2011.

Many of the stories of these former slaves are about families, women and children especially, taking huge risks, and enduring much suffering in the process, to gain their freedom. Even if these families were successful in reaching a contraband camp, they sometimes lived in harsh conditions. Many of their menfolk joined the United States armed forces; by the War’s end, over 135,000 men from Confederate or Union slave states joined the US army, and thousands more joined the navy. With the men gone, black women were forced to care for themselves, their children and the elderly, in places that might seem like war refugee camps today. Groups like the American Missionary Association aided the military in providing educational and other services to the freedmen and women.

We know much about the black men who joined the armed forces because of the records that were kept about their service. But literacy, gender, age (again, many of these former slaves were children) and other factors have resulted in a more spare record of the former slaves at these camps.

This is not to say that the memory of these folks has been completely ignored in the commemorative landscape, that is, the public and non-public spaces which memorialize the past. An exemplary public site for the recognition of the runaways is the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi, near the state border with Tennessee.

End of Slavery Civil War exhibit in Corinth, Mississippi

Statues inside the Civil War Interpretive Center at Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi; featuring an African American Union soldier and a freedwoman taking a class.
Image Source: Photo/Copyright by Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright. Photo is not in the public domain. 

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Statue of freedwoman and child reading a book at the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

The Camp is a National Park Service (NPS) site, and part of the larger Shiloh National Park complex. This is from the NPS description of the site:

As Federal forces occupied major portions of the South, enslaved people escaped from farms and plantations and fled to safety behind Union lines. Once President Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862, the number of freedom seekers increased considerably in Union occupied Corinth.The Corinth Contraband Camp was established by Union General Grenville M. Dodge to accommodate these refugees.

The camp featured numerous homes, a church, school and hospital. The freedmen cultivated and sold cotton and vegetables in a progressive cooperative farm program. By May 1863, the camp was making a clear profit of $4,000 to $5,000 from it enterprises. By August, over 1,000 African American children and adults gained the ability to read through the efforts of various benevolent organizations.

Although the camp had a modest beginning, it became a model camp and allowed for approximately 6,000 ex-slaves to establish their own individual identities. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was implemented, nearly 2,000 of the newly freed men at the Corinth Contraband Camp had their first opportunity to protect their way of life and made up a new regiment in the Union army. Since most of the men came from Alabama, the unit was named the 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops.

In December 1863, the camp was moved to Memphis and the freedmen resided in a more traditional refugee facility for the remainder of the war.

The Corinth Contraband Camp was the first step on the road to freedom and the struggle for equality for thousands of former slaves.Today a portion of the historic Corinth Contraband Camp is preserved to commemorate those who began their journey to freedom there in 1862-1863. This land now hosts a quarter mile walkway which exhibits six life-size bronze sculptures depicting the men, women, and children who inhabited the camp.​

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Statue of United States Colored Troops solider at the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
The 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops, was formed at the Corinth Camp.

Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

One of the wonderful things about the statues in the park is that women are so well represented. The inclusiveness is important, and for visitors, informative and even enlightening.

The Corinth site is in northeast Mississippi, about 60 miles from Jackson, TN, about 100 miles from either Memphis, TN, or Decatur, AL, and about 120 miles from Huntsville, AL. This will make for a great visit for those who want to learn about this important part of Civil War and American history.

How will you observe National Freedom Day?

Considering the arc of American memory, why is it no surprise that few people have heard of National Freedom Day – a day observing the end of slavery in the United States?

But yes, there is a National Freedom Day. It commemorates the date (February 1, 1865) that Abraham Lincoln signed a joint resolution of the US Congress which proposed the 13th amendment to the Constitution, to abolish slavery in the United States. The amendment was ratified by the required number of states in December 1865. National Freedom Day was proclaimed a national day of observance by President Harry Truman in January 1949:

Whereas, near the end of the tragic conflict between the Northern and Southern States, the Congress adopted a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution which would outlaw slavery in the United States and in every place subject to its jurisdiction; and

Whereas the resolution was signed by President Lincoln on February 1, 1865, and thereafter led to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution; and

Whereas that Amendment is a corner stone in the foundation of our American traditions, and the signing of the resolution is a landmark in the Nation’s effort to fulfill the principles of freedom and justice proclaimed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution; and

Whereas, by a joint resolution approved June 30, 1948 (62 Stat. 1150), the Congress authorized the President to proclaim the first day of February of each year as National Freedom Day in commemoration of the signing of the resolution of February 1, 1865; and

Whereas the Government and people of the United States wholeheartedly support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, which declares that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”:

Now, Therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate February 1, 1949, and each succeeding February 1, as national Freedom Day; and I call upon the people of the United States to pause on that day in solemn contemplation of the glorious blessings of freedom which we humbly and thankfully enjoy.

Truman proclaims National Freedom Day copy
Image source: “A beacon to oppressed peoples everywhere”: Major Richard R. Wright Sr., National Freedom Day, and the Rhetoric of Freedom in the 1940s,” by Mitch Kachun. See also the Library of Congress’s America’s Story from America’s Library website.

National Freedom Day is one of many conflicting, and to some, conflicted celebrations of the end of slavery in the United States. Perhaps the most prominent day designated for commemorating emancipation and abolition is Juneteenth (June 19th), which is celebrated in Texas and several other states. But National Freedom Day is the first and only day that the federal government has established for a nationwide observance of slavery’s end. Continue reading

“You yield your children, why not your servants?”: the Confederacy seeks slave laborers along the Mississippi

Slave labor needed for the Confederacy
Poster (called a ‘broadside’) asking slave-owners west of the Mississippi River to hire their slaves out to the Confederacy: “The negro men our enemy would arm against us, can be well employed as teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers.”
Source: National Archives, War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Title #17439_2008_001_PR.  Click here for larger image.

Slave labor was a key part of the Confederate war effort against the Union military during the American Civil War. Almost immediately, slaves were employed to provide labor to the Confederate military. If slaves could be used to do all the dirty work required to keep up the new Confederate nation and support the armed services – work such as digging ditches or building fortifications – then white men could be dedicated to combat and related duties.

For that to work, though, slave holders needed to allow the Confederate military to use their slaves. And many slaveholders didn’t want to do that. It was quite common for slaves to be hired out by their masters to work outside their homes. But providing labor to the military was another story. Owners feared that slaves would get sick, injured, or even die while doing strenuous work under hazardous conditions. Owners were also afraid that slaves might exploit their situation to find ways to escape.

So it was that in September 1863, Confederate major J. F. Minter, a Chief Quartermaster in the Trans-Mississippi Department, issued the above poster (called a ‘broadside’) which pleaded with slaveholders to hire their slaves out to the army. (The Trans-Mississippi Department managed military operations to the west of the Mississippi River, in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.) The slaves would be employed as “teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers.” Note that, Minter does not ask for slaves who will become or act as soldiers. Until the very end of the war, slaves could not enlist in the Confederate army.

Major Minter offered another reason for slaves to be hired out to the Confederate military. The Union was then engaged in a plan to confiscate and liberate slaves, so they could be laborers or even soldiers for the Union cause. Minter suggested that by hiring slaves out to the Confederacy, their loss to the enemy could be avoided.

Minter’s fears turned out to be justified. Over 95,000 black men from the Confederate States, a large portion of whom were once enslaved, joined the Union military. Louisiana alone provided 24,000 men to the Union army, the most of any state, Confederate or Union.

What did the slaves make of Minter’s request for their labor? Major Minter’s broadside doesn’t address that question. His comment that the people must “sacrifice freely… (to) remain freemen” did not include bondsmen as part of “the people.” Slaves were simply a resource to be used by one side or the other. And Minter’s job was to make that labor safe and useful for the Confederate cause. But as the war continued, the bondsmen would show that they were not just tools of the Union or the Confederacy, but rather, agents of their own liberation. Minter didn’t say it and perhaps didn’t see it; but in time, this truth would be inescapable.


From the American Social History Project: “In May 1863, Louisiana black regiments fought with great gallantry and almost reckless disregard for their own lives in the assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana. The bravery of these troops, which previously had been doubted by many northern commanders, was soon extolled in the pages of the illustrated press.”
Image Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1863, by artist Francis H. Schell; image from Dickinson College’s ‘House Divided’ site.

{In March 1865, the Confederates States allowed slaves to enlist in the Confederate army. This is one of a series of posts that looks at the Road to Slave Enlistment in the Confederacy.}

Confederate General Robert E. Lee, near the end of the Civil War: Enlist and emancipate the slaves; we can manage the ‘evil consequences’

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Confederate general Robert E. Lee: “I think, therefore, we must decide whether slavery shall be extinguished by our enemies and the slaves be used against us, or use them ourselves.”
Source: Image of Robert E. Lee; Julian Vannerson, photographer; from Wikipedia Commons; from an image at the Library of Congress, reproduction numbers LC-DIG-cwpb-04402, LC-B8172-0001

Desperate times require desperate measures. And in January of 1865, Robert E. Lee, the general in chief of the Confederate States of America, was desperate.

The Confederates were losing the bloody American Civil War against the United States, AKA the Union. By January 1865, the Union controlled the Mississippi River and large swaths of land to the river’s east and west; the December 1864 Battle of Nashville had beaten the largest remaining Confederate forces west of the Appalachian Mountains; Union General William Sherman had completed his almost unimpeded march through Georgia, and was heading for South Carolina; and the Confederacy’s position in Virginia was being made tenuous by pressure from the forces of Union general Ulysses Grant and a lack of manpower.

Given their circumstances, Confederates began to debate a fundamental shift in political and military policy: the use of slaves as soldiers in the Confederate army, along with emancipation for those who served. Andrew Hunter, a Virginia politician, wrote to General Robert E. Lee to get his opinion on the controversy. Lee responded: slaves should be employed as soldiers “without delay.”

It’s not like Lee preferred to make this radical shift in policy. He maintained that the “relation of master and slave” was “the best that can exist between the white and black races.” But he argued that the use of slaves as soldiers would “increase our military strength and enable us to relieve our white population to some extent.” And even more, it might counteract the horrifying prospect that slaves, having been promised freedom by the Emancipation Proclamation, would continue to take arms for the Union, and destroy slavery on the Union’s terms and/or the slaves’ terms in the event of Confederate defeat.

Lee went even further in his policy proposal: he recommended a plan of “gradual and general emancipation” that would eventually free all the slaves, not just soldiers and their families. After all, the Emancipation Proclamation offered to immediately free all the slaves; Confederates needed to come close to that offer, he reasoned, to ensure the “efficiency and fidelity” of the slaves in their new roles as soldiers. Yes, freedom for the slaves might mean hardship for whites, but Union victory would be even worse. Better to give freedom to the slaves and defeat the Union, than to have the Union give the slaves freedom and defeat the Confederacy in the process. Lee believed that if employing slaves as soldiers “ends in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races.” Lee did not detail what “means” would be devised to manage the “evil consequences” of freedom for the bondsmen.

This is an excerpt from General Lee’s January 11, 1865, letter to Andrew Hunter (from The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Series 4 – Volume 3, page 1012-13):

Dear Sir:

Considering the relation of master and slave, controlled by humane laws and influenced by Christianity and an enlightened public sentiment, as the best that can exist between the white and black races while intermingled as at present in this country, I would deprecate any sudden disturbance of that relation unless it be necessary to avert a greater calamity to both. I should therefore prefer to rely upon our white population to preserve the ratio between our forces and those of the enemy, which experience has shown to be safe. But in view of the preparations of our enemies, it is our duty to provide for continued war and not for a battle or a campaign, and I fear that we cannot accomplish this without overtaxing the capacity of our white population.

Should the war continue under the existing circumstances, the enemy may in course of time penetrate our country and get access to a large part of our negro population. It is his avowed policy to convert the able-bodied men among them into soldiers, and to emancipate all… Many have already been obtained in Virginia, and should the fortune of war expose more of her territory, the enemy would gain a large accession to his strength. His progress will thus add to his numbers, and at the same time destroy slavery in a manner most pernicious to the welfare of our people. Their negroes will be used to hold them in subjection, leaving the remaining force of the enemy free to extend his conquest. Whatever may be the effect of our employing negro troops, it cannot be as mischievous as this. If it end in subverting slavery it will be accomplished by ourselves, and we can devise the means of alleviating the evil consequences to both races. Continue reading