Have We Learned Anything from the Sesquicentennial?: the Case of Sherman’s March into Columbia, SC

Image Source: Civil War Harper’s Weekly, April 8, 1865; from here.

We are now in the closing days of the 150th (Sesquicentennial) Anniversary of the American Civil War. By the end of August 1865, the shooting war between the Union and the Confederacy was just about over, and the Reconstruction Period was proceeding in earnest.

I wonder: what have we Americans learned during this four year (the Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865) anniversary period? There have been numerous events during the Sesquicentennial, and I attended a number of them; I learned a lot. But then, I’m something of a Civil War nerd. I wonder how much the public at large got out of it.

On the Internet, I had an exchange recently with someone concerning the reaction of residents in Columbia, South Carolina, to the arrival of Union forces led by General William T. Sherman in February 1865. The person remarked that “there were no people in Columbia welcoming Sherman and his army.”

Some background: General Sherman is, in the minds of many (mostly white southern) people, infamous for his “March to the Sea,” in which his army barreled its way through Georgia, then South Carolina, and eventually North Carolina. Along the way, according to many people, he inflicted a hard-handed brand of war against the Confederacy, including Confederate civilians. Cities such as Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, were given the burnt-earth treatment by Sherman and his men… or at least, that’s what many people believe. Given this “memory” of the war, which was very popular prior to the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, it must certainly be true that nobody in Columbia was happy to see Sherman and his Union army marching through their town.

The thing is, it is NOT true. There were Columbians who were happy to see Sherman. In his 1991 book The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans, which won the Bancroft Prize, historian Charles Royster writes

War had changed Columbia. The city had never been large, numbering about 8,000 people in peacetime; but the war had more than tripled its population. Some people were forced into Columbia: slaveholders moved their human property. The number of black people in Columbia, usually about one third of the population, swelled with the influx of slaves. Some blacks had escaped during the relocation, had hidden in swamps, and where greeting the approaching Federal soldiers with the descriptions of the roads ahead. Blacks in the city felt sure of Sherman’s destination sooner than his own men did. On January 29, a white man who heard them noted: “The niggers sing hallelujah’s for him every day.”

Some of the slaves concentrated in Columbia grew restive, and white people reacted harshly. They set up a whipping post near the market in the Assembly Street. A black man caught smuggling News to Federal prisoners in the city received 100 lashes and a promise that if he repeated the offense, he would be killed. Afterward, he told the prisoners, “Dey may kill dis nigger, but they cain’t make him hate de Yankees.” The daily whippings aroused bitter resentment among young Black men. Some of them called the Market post “Hell” and agreed among themselves to make a hell of the city once the Yankees came.

Royster goes on to note that the slaves had communicated with and helped Federal prisoners held in Columbia before Sherman’s arrival, and gave aid and assistance to the Union soldiers who arrived in the city and the surrounding area. It also appears that some African Americans took advantage of the Union occupation to enact acts of revenge against whites whom they believed had mistreated them.

Also from Royster’s Book:

(sometime after Union soldiers had entered the city, and there had been fires and some looting) …on Main Street, crowded with hurrying people and lit by burning stores, a lieutenant asked an old black man: “What do you think of the night, sir?” The man replied; ‘Wall I’ll tell you what I dinks I dinks de day of Jubilee for me hab come.”​

Many of the African American residents of Columbia were quite happy not just to see Sherman, but also to give him and his men military intelligence and other support.

So, here is what I hoped the Sesquicentennial commemorations might accomplish: the replacement of older and previously “popular” notions about the war with up-to-date and correct understandings. Such as the understanding that African Americans were not merely bystanders during the war, but had their own role to play, and exercised their own agency and independent action during the war.

But, here was someone stating with some conviction that “there were no people in Columbia welcoming Sherman and his army” (emphasis added). For this person, the idea that there might have been black people in Columbia (note that over 55% of South Carolina’s population was of African descent when the war began) who supported the Union (which, after all, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation) never entered his mind.

And that is a concern. It seems that many people still lack an informed, comprehensive view of the Civil War despite a four-year period of attention and events, many of which did focus on the role of African Americans. It’s something we’ll have to continue to work on, until we get it right. And we will.

Why did South Carolina Secede from the Union? In Their Own Words: to Protect Their States Rights to Maintain Slavery.

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man (Abraham Lincoln) to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction…

On the 4th day of March next, this party (Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party) will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.
– Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, December 24, 1860

One of the more controversial issues concerning the Civil War is, what was the “cause” of Confederate secession? Why did the slaveholding states feel the need to reject the election of president Abraham Lincoln, and form a separate Confederate nation?

Many say that the central issue of secession was slavery. Others say the central issue was the desire to protect their states rights.

Myself, I don’t think those are mutually exclusive statements. I believe that Confederate secession was about states rights – that is, the states’ rights to maintain slavery.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s let the Southerners tell their own tale.

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. On December 24, 1860, the state issued its Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. This document is South Carolina’s declaration of independence from the Union.

The following text is an excerpt from the document, and a very large excerpt at that. For emphasis, I have bolded the word slave, or other references to slavery, such as labor, which refers to slave labor; and persons. In some cases, I’ve added a parenthetical note, with the abbreviation Ed. (for Editor), to explain a comment which might not be immediately understood by the reader. I make some comments on the text further below.

I think it’s quite clear when you read this: South Carolina politicians believed that the institution of slavery was in peril, and they seceded as a way to protect that institution. Here, in their own words, is South Carolina’s reason for leaving the Union:
Continue reading

Colored Troops enter Charleston, SC; “I’s waited for ye, and prayed for ye, long time… an ye has done come at last”

US Colored Troops enter Charleston
“Marching on!”–The Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Colored Regiment singing John Brown’s March in the streets of Charleston, February 21, 1865
Photo Source: Drawing from Harper’s Weekly, March 1865; image is at the Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-105560 (w film copy neg.) LC-USZ62-117999 (w film copy neg.)

The Record of the Service of the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry – a book about the history of this majority black regiment during the Civil War – tells of an event that was miraculous for the times. It is hard for us, today, to realize how sublime and surreal it was that on February 21, 1865, African American soldiers entered the city of Charleston, South Carolina, liberating the enslaved people there from bondage. It was an event that was unthinkable just several years earlier. But 1865 was the Year of the Unthinkable – and for the enslaved people of Charleston, the Year of Jubilee. And freedom came with the face of black men in blue suits.

For northerners, South Carolina was considered the Cradle of the Confederacy. It was, after all, the first state to secede from the Union; ten other states would follow her lead and combine to form the Confederate States of America. The shooting war between the Union and Confederacy started on April 12, 1861, when Fort Sumter – a United States military fort that protected the entrance to Charleston harbor – was attacked by Confederate forces. The fort surrendered to the Confederates after two days of artillery shelling. Four years of fighting followed; anywhere from 620,000 to 750,000 men died, and that doesn’t include those who were injured or  missing in action. The American Civil War was an American bloodbath.

But African Americans saw South Carolina in a different negative light. At the start of the war, South Carolina was the blackest state in the Union: 57% of its residents were slaves, and another 1.4% were free blacks. Working conditions throughout the state could be harsh, especially in the rice fields along the Atlantic coast. Although the coastal town of Charleston was something of an outlier in this overwhelmingly rural state: it was an urban enclave with a white majority (in 1860, Charleston had a population of 23,000 whites, 14,000 slaves, and 3,200 free blacks). As the state’s major trading center, it was bustling with economic activity, including slave trading businesses that engaged in the sale of property in human beings. This place of white wealth was the site of many black broken hearts.

And if it had been South Carolina’s choice, it would remain that way. In its 1860 secession declaration, the state asserted that “we affirm that these ends for which (the United States) government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.” A new, Confederate nation would remove these threats to their system of bondage, but the war with the Union would have to be won first. A loss to the Union might make the state’s worst nightmares come true.

Over the course of the war, the Union made attempts to capture Charleston and the military forts around it. Most famously, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment – a majority black regiment – was repulsed in its attack on Fort Wagner in July 1863. The unit suffered heavy casualties. Although defeated, their spirited attack and sacrifice was recognized and celebrated throughout the northern states. Many years later, in 1989, the  54th Massachusetts became the focus of a movie named Glory.

But the Union would finally have its day. In January 1865, Union forces led by General William Sherman entered South Carolina from Georgia, and the Confederates could not give them much opposition. In February 1865, Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard ordered that Charleston be evacuated, although many residents remained thereafter. On February 15, the mayor of Charleston surrendered the city to Union General Alexander Schimmelfennig. This was followed by a procession of nearby Union troops into the city, which was headed by regiments of black troops.

The 55th Massachusetts Infantry and 21st United States Colored Infantry regiments led the way. The 21st USCI, formerly known as the 3rd and 4th Regiments of the South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (African Descent), included former slaves from the South Caroline Low Country, not too far away. The significance and symbolism of their actions – that they were black men who were freeing black people from slavery – was neither lost on them, nor on the enslaved people they liberated. Jubilee was indeed at hand.

The Record of the Service of the Fifty-fifth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which charts the history of the regiment, recounted the arrival of black troops into Charleston. It was an event, they said, that would live in memory forever:

…after a short delay to await the return of foraging parties, the line of march was resumed for (the town of) Mount Pleasant, opposite Charleston… the Fifty-fifth was the first body of troops to enter the town after its evacuation. Words would fail to describe the scene which those who witnessed it will never forget, — the welcome given to a regiment of colored troops by their people redeemed from slavery, As shouts, prayers, and blessings resounded on every side, all felt that the hardships and dangers of the siege were fully repaid. The few white inhabitants left in the town were either alarmed or indignant, and generally remained in their houses; but the colored people turned out en masse. Assiduously had they been taught to regard the ” Yanks ” as their enemies ; carefully had every channel of information been closed against them : but all to no purpose.

“Bress de Lord,” said an old, gray-haired woman, with streaming eyes, and hands clasped and raised toward heaven, “bress de Lord, I’s waited for ye, and prayed for ye, long time, and I knowed you’d come, an ye has done come at last;” and she expressed the feelings of all…

Daylight was fading when the line was formed to march through the city to a camping ground on Charleston Neck. Before the march commenced, three rousing cheers were given by the men of the Fifty-fifth, and given with a will. They were then told that the only restriction placed on them in passing through the city, would be to keep in the ranks, and that they might shout and sing as they chose.

Few people were on the wharf when the troops landed, or in the street when the line was formed; but the streets, on the route through the city, were crowded with the colored population. Cheers, blessings, prayers, and songs were heard on every side. Men and women crowded to shake hands with men and officers, Many of them talked earnestly and understandingly of the past and present. The white population remained within their houses, but curiosity led even them to peep through the blinds at the ‘black Yankees.”

On through the streets of the rebel city passed the column, on through the chief seat of that slave power, tottering to its fall. Its walls rung to the chorus of manly voices singing “John Brown,” ” Babylon is falling,” and the “Battle-Cry of Freedom”; while, at intervals, the national airs, long unheard there, were played by the regimental band. The glory and the triumph of this hour may be imagined, but can never be described. It was one of those occasions which happen but once in a lifetime, to be lived over in memory for ever.

He died for his master’s country

Claim receipt for compensation to a slave owner, Peter Gaillard Stoney of South Carolina, for the loss of his slave Toby. Toby died while building military fortifications in the Charleston area.
Source: railsplitter.com, a site for the sale of Civil War era collectibles. See here, item number 894. This document had an estimated value of $200-300.

When the Civil War began, some Confederates opined that slavery would be a source of strength for their putative nation. Slaves would perform the drudgery type work that every country at war must have done; and white men could be dedicated to combat and garrison duty. Thus, even if negroes could not take arms for the Confederacy, they could be useful by providing valuable labor.

Slaves were used in various capacities. Many were employed building fortifications to protect positions within the CSA from attack by the Union. Working on these fortifications could be hazardous, due to heat, exhaustion, disease, accidents, or other perils. Some owners resisted this use of their slaves precisely because the work conditions could be so dangerous to their slave property.

In 1864, a slave known as Toby paid the ultimate price for his duty to his master and his master’s cause. He died while building fortifications in South Carolina. The monetary compensation for the loss – $1900 – indicates that Toby was considered a valuable slave. The payment went to the owner, who might have felt the loss of a slave – perhaps someone considered a loyal slave – on different levels. It is unclear if Toby’s family received a share of the monies.

Toby, of course, could not have died for his country… he had no country. As a slave, he was no more a citizen of the Confederacy than a horse or a mule. It was his role as a human beast of burden that would position him for his deadly enterprise, such as it was.

Toby’s death underscores the fact that many more people died during the war, directly because of the war, than are counted on military death rolls. And no doubt other men, black or white, Confederate or Union, died under similar conditions. These are the uncounted casualties of the Civil War.

Andy Hall of the website Dead Confederates has identified the slave owner as Peter Gaillard Stoney (1809-1884) of St. James, Goose Creek Parish, Charleston District of South Carolina. Stoney had 120 slaves according to the 1860 U.S. Census. The Stoneys’ home was Medway Plantation, that still stands.

This is a photo from the Medway Plantation. The date is unknown, but this was probably taken sometime after the end of the Civil War. The structure in the photo appears to be one of the former slave quarters. Perhaps Toby’s friends and family, or Toby himself, resided here.

Former slave quarters(?), Medway Plantation, South Carolina; probably post Civil War.
Source: South Carolina Library, Digital Collections, Berkeley County Photograph Collection, Accession no. 1001.15, Folder 1001 Berkeley (1-22), housed at South Caroliniana Library

New Year’s Day, 1863: Emancipation Barbecue

“’Emancipation Day in South Carolina’—The Color-Sergeant of the 1st South Carolina (Colored) Volunteers Addressingg the Reiment, After Having Been Presented with the Stars and Stripes at Smith’s Plantation, Port Royal Island, January 1.—From a Sketch by our Special Artist.—See Page 275.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 24, 1863, 276

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Many negroes throughout the country celebrated. In South Carolina, they had a barbecue. This is from an 1863 NY Times article titled INTERESTING FROM PORT ROYAL.: A Jubilee Among the Negroes on the First– The President’s Emancipation Proclamation–How the Soldiers Enjoyed the Dar–Cultivations of the Plantations, &c. The dateline is Port Royal, SC, Jan 2, 1983. This excerpt indicates that the slaves were as cautious and circumspect as they were celebratory:

Yesterday, the first day of the new year, 1863, was an important day to the negroes here, and one of which they will long retain the remembrance as the first dawn of freedom. Upon that day President LINCOLN’S Proclamation of freedom to the negroes went into effect, and in view of this Gen. SAXTON, the Military Governor of South Carolina, issued the following:


In accordance, as I believe, with the will of our Heavenly Father, and by direction of your great and good friend, whose name you are all familiar with, ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States, and Commander-in-Chief of the army and navy, on the 1st day of January, 1863, you will be declared “forever free.”

When, in the course of human events, there comes a day which is destined to be an everlasting beacon-light, marking a joyful era in the progress of a nation and the hopes of a people, it seems to be fitting the occasion that it should not pass unnoticed by those whose hopes it comes to brighten and to bless. Such a day to you is January 1, 1863. I therefore call upon all the colored people in this department to assemble on that day at the headquarters of the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, there to hear the President’s Proclamation read, and to indulge in such other manifestations of joy as may be called forth by the occasion. It is your duty to carry this good news to your brethren who are still in Slavery. Let all your voices, like merry bells, join loud and clear in the grand chorus of liberty — “We are free,” “We are free,” — until listening, you shall hear its echoes coming back from every cabin in the land — “We are free,” “We are free.”

R. SAXTON, Brig.-Gen. and Military Governor.

In obedience to this call, some 3,000 negroes — men, women and children — assembled at Camp Saxton, the camp of the First South Carolina Volunteers, near Beaufort, to celebrate the day with a barbecue.

The negroes were accommodated at rudely constructed tables, upon which were ranged rows of tin-ware, and were served by the officers of the regiment. The contrabands went right in for enjoyment, and their faces were soon glistening with grease and happiness. Some of them were provident, and what meat they could not eat they crammed into their pockets. They all seemed to enjoy themselves hugely, and evidently enjoyed the roast beef more than the oratory. They understood it better.

In comparison with the number of negroes here this assemblage was not large. The fact is, that most of the negroes do not understand the meaning of this jubilee; they do not realize the occasion; the future is all obscure and uncertain and they would wait before giving way to too much joy. Some of them, too, I am inclined to think, looked upon the whole affair with a shade of suspicion, and preferred to stay away.

Trivia: Sumter’s Law and the “Black Currency”

Most of us know from American history class that the shooting war between the United States and the Confederate States started at Ft. Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Here’s some trivia about the man who gave Ft. Sumter its name.

Thomas Sumter (1734–1832), nicknamed the “Carolina Gamecock,” was a Revolutionary War hero and a member of the US Congress. As noted in wikipedia:

Portrait of American Revolutionary War militia...

Thomas Sumter by Rembrandt Peale, via Wikipedia

In February 1776, Sumter was elected Lieutenant Colonel of the Second Regiment of the South Carolina Line of which he was later appointed Colonel. He subsequently was appointed Brigadier General of the South Carolina militia, a post he held until the end of the war. He participated in several battles in the early months of the war, including the campaign to prevent an invasion of Georgia. Perhaps his greatest military achievement was his partisan campaigning that contributed to the decision by Lord Cornwallis to leave the Carolinas for Virginia, where Cornwallis met his fate at Yorktown in October 1781.

He acquired the nickname “The Carolina Gamecock” for his fierce fighting tactics, regardless of his size. A British General commented that Sumter “fought like a gamecock,” and Cornwallis paid him the finest tribute when he described the Gamecock as his greatest plague.

After the Revolution, Sumter served South Carolina as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives… (and) was elected a U. S. Senator…

“Gamecock” is one of the several traditional nicknames for a native of South Carolina. The University of South Carolina’s official nickname is the “Fighting Gamecocks,” though since 1903 the teams have been simply known as the “Gamecocks.”

Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor was named for Sumter after the War of 1812.

What I’ve found interesting is the enlistment bonus policy that Sumter used to attract men in South Carolina to fight for the Patriot cause. As Michael Lee Lanning notes in his book African Americans in the Revolutionary War,

Although neither South Carolina nor Georgia permitted black enlistment, both states did allow slaves to be used as bounties to induce white volunteers. In April 1781, Gen Thomas Sumter of South Carolina offered slaves to any white man volunteering for ten months of service. New recruits were to receive one grown, healthy slave, while those with prior service could receive up to four blacks for reenlisting.

In February 1782 the South Carolina legislature formalized “Sumter’s Law.” In addition to promising a healthy slave between the ages of ten and forty to any white who enlisted, the legislature ruled that recruiters were to receive a bonus of one slave for every twenty-five whites enlisted during a two-month period.Since neither Sumter nor the South Carolina legislature had any slaves of their own to barter for enlistments, they honored the bounty with slaves captured or confiscated from Loyalists (to the British).

Georgia broadened the scale of the use of slaves as enlistment bonuses. The state rewarded white soldiers with slaves for their part in successful battles, paid public officials with slaves, and used slaves as tender in exchange for military provisions and supplies. Again, the source of this “black currency” was the plantations of the Loyalists.

How ironic that the “black currency” used to wage the Revolutionary War would be the spark that led to the Civil War.

FYI, Virginia also used slaves as an enlistment bonus – see here.

Secession in South Carolina: Celebrate or Commemorate?

“One group held a gala ball to celebrate the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union. Another contingent rallied in opposition to that ball. South Carolina is a state that is divided on how we should remember this undeniably historic event.”

So begins a discussion on South Carolina’s public affairs program Connections about whether to celebrate or commemorate South Carolina’s secession from the United States in 1860. Program host P. A. Bennett talks it over with Michael A. Allen, a public historian and member of the National Park Service; Jannie Harriot, co-chair of the African American Historical Alliance of South Carolina, executive director of the South Carolina African American Heritage Foundation; and Dr. Lonnie Randolf, president of the SC State Conference of the NAACP.

It’s nice to see a discussion that includes somebody from the National Park Service, given the NPS’ role in developing the interpretation and presentation of the War on government owned and managed sites.

Click here or on the graphic below to see the video for the program.