Documents on the Slaves’ Civil War: 8000 Slaves Employed on SC Fortifications in the First 18 Months of the War
When I was in Charleston in the first part of last month, you will recollect I called your attention to the manner in which the negroes we had sent to work on the fortifications were managed. I complained that they were not divided off and assigned to the control or command of practical men acquainted with negroes and how to get work done, and so forth. You observed that you intended to have them divided off and strictly attended to. I know it is almost impossible to have anything done right, particularly if not in the direct line of military duty and service. There has been great irregularity in the manner of executing the requisition for negroes. Parts of neighborhoods have been taken down and others not even notified. The negroes have been retained beyond the time they were taken down for, and this too without giving any notice to their owners or agents. You know that all such things produce great dissatisfaction and complaint. If notice were given in advance, when negroes are absolutely required to remain, as a military necessity, it would be better. We have sent down in all some eight thousand negroes, and this produces in the aggregate much derangement in getting crops, so necessary for winter support. I hope it will not be long now before you can discharge all that belong to the country, and impress those who are in and around the city to finish as the work necessary to get in provisions is not required in and around the city, and there are many necessarily idle all the time in such a place. It strikes me too that, after cool weather, our soldiers could be directed to do much work, such as is done in other armies…. I tried to make a system last spring, by which a corps of negroes could be attached permanently to the army as Spades-men and axe-men, under military discipline and army regulations. I still think it could be done, and it would be far better than to derange agricultural labor in the rural district, by constantly calling for negro labor at times occasionally deeply injurious to raising or gathering of crops.
Governor Frances W. Pickens (South Carolina) to General P. G. T. Beauregard, 5 November 1862
Documents on the Slaves’ Civil War: Growing Resentment towards Slaveholders in the Confederate Ranks
There is at present as far as we can learn, a general feeling of depression among the South Carolina troops, which possibly may eventually develop into a Union sentiment. The feeling the soldiers express is: “We have no negroes to fight for, while the slave-owners have all taken good care to retire to the interior of the State where they can live in safety.” The question is beginning to pass among them, “Why should we stay here to be shot, when those who have caused the war have run away?” This is dangerous talk, and, we are told, officers have great difficulty in maintaining the organization of their Regiments. At least these are stories brought by the negroes who are continually escaping to our lines, and the unanimity of their reports seems to lend the appearance of truth to them. The fact is, the frightful effects of the explosions of the 11-inch shell which some of our gun-boats carry, have produced a great panic among the land forces of South Carolina. Negroes from Charleston report the city in a great fright, the inhabitants making preparation to leave at the sound of the first note of alarm. I hope we may catch old [John] Tyler. It would do me a deal of good to see the traitor sent North to be dealt with properly. There is a strong contrast between the treatment of our prisoners, and that received by the unfortunates who fall into the hands of the “chivalry.”
William Thompson Lusk [HQ, Second Brigade: Beaufort, SC] to Elizabeth Freeman Adams Lusk, 9 Jan 1862, in War Letters of William Thompson Lusk, 113-4
The slave population of this district is very numerous—whilst the white is extremely small. For the purposes of police, there are not left us along the Rivers, men enough in any neighborhood to form a suitable Patrol. The government of the Police Court is the sole authority remaining to us to control the negroes and to keep order. The constant presence and proximity of the enemy exercise an unhappy influence over them and it has been the duty of the Police Court to resort to severe measures, in order to repress their demoralized spirit. In the past three years, eleven have accordingly been sentenced to suffer the extreme penalty of the Law and have been executed, and others have been punished for offenses committed against the peace and good order of the community—a condition of perfect quiet now exists here among us. …the status of the Police Court ought to be sustained, with a view to its dignity and usefulness, or its existence abolished.
Francis L. Parker, President of Police Court of Georgetown District to Governor Andrew G. Magrath, 24 December 1864
[The author of the letter quoted below, Captain Percival Drayton, was a native of Charleston who served as ship commander in the Union naval fleet that captured Port Royal, SC, in November 1861. Remarkably, the Confederate defense at Port Royal was directed by his brother, the lowcountry planter Thomas F. Drayton (see the photo of his emancipated slaves below) of Hilton Head. Lydig M. Hoyt was a prominent New York socialite with whom Captain Drayton corresponded through much of the War. Drayton is writing here from aboard the USS Pawnee at Port Royal on the 24th of March, 1862.
As with all the documents included in the After Slavery website, we have chosen not to edit out racist and denigrating terms (eg 'darkies', 'nigger') that were commonly used by whites at the time, but to retain the language of the original: obviously this should not be read as an endorsement of such language.]
“As we can scarcely expect to hold the South as a conquered people, at least with any comfort, the difficult part of the operation will still remain, even after armies and navies have performed their designated duties. I for one can see no peace while the slavery question remains unsettled, and while any portion of the community consider it a higher and more holy duty, to sell niggers than to have free institutions or civilization, and so far I doubt if our victories have as yet even weakened this belief. I must confess that after what I have seen here, of the horrors of the institution I would be willing to do anything except to destroy the Constitution that the power to do evil to ones fellows which can be and is exercised in many cases here, should within some named time cease, but believe that to make this feasible there must be a great deal more fighting. We meet here as you may suppose, with a good many remarkable cases bearing on the nigger question. One particularly which one of the officers related to me the other day would answer for Greeley. On Doboy Island, near St. Simons and Brunswick, they found one poor old man left, and fearing he might starve an offer was made to take him away, which he refused, as he said he had buried his wife only a little before on that spot, and preferred dying there. Some one asked him but have you had no children, yes massa thirteen but they were all sold for pocketmoney, and now that my wife is dead I am all alone. The officer who related the circumstance says, that the piteous manner in which this was said, so affected his companion and self that for some time neither felt like speaking. We have another fellow at present on board of my ship, who had been living in the bush for a year, because as he says he was so cruelly treated that death was better than being a longer subjectted to it [sic]. And he must be a pretty determined fellow, for he has been shot at, and bears many marks of what he calls nigger dogs. Now I don’t want to take away property enjoyed under the safeguard of the Constitution, but I do say that these horrors should cease by law in the nineteenth century.”
Percival Drayton to Lydig M. Hoyt, March 24, 1862, in Naval Letters from Captain Percival Drayton, 14-15
At Richmond and Wilmington…I found the slaves discontented, but despondingly resigned to their fate. At Charleston I found them morose and savagely brooding over their wrongs. They know and they dread the slaveholder’s power. They are afraid to assail it without first effecting a combination among themselves, which the ordinances of the city, that are strictly enforced, and the fear of a traitor among them, prevent. But if the guards who now keep nightly watch were to be otherwise employed—if the roar of hostile cannon was to be heard by the slaves, or a hostile fleet was seen sailing up the bay of Charleston—then, as surely as God lives, would the sewers of the city be instantly filled with the blood of the slave masters. I have had long and confidential conversations with great numbers of the slaves here, who trusted me because I talked with them, and acted toward them as a friend, and I speak advisedly when I say that they are already ripe for a rebellion, and that South Carolina dares not…secede from this Union of States. Her only hope of safety from wholesale slaughter is THE UNION. Laugh the secessionists to scorn, ye Union-loving sons of the north, for the negroes are prepared to “cement the Federal compact” once more—and really it needs it—with the “blood of despots,” and their own then free blood, too, if the “resistance-to-tyrants” doctrine in practice shall call for the solemn and voluntary sacrifice.
James Redpath, The Roving Editor: or, Talks with Slaves in the Southern States, 52-3
[The following is an excerpt from Life in Dixie's Land: Or, South in Secession Time, a memoir penned by James Roberts Gilmore, who wrote under the pseudonym Edmund Kirke. The conversation which he claims to have had with two slaves near Georgetown, SC in the immediate runup to the outbreak of the Civil War is rendered by him 'in dialect'--a form of representation commonly used by whites, and one that almost always reinforced denigrating stereotypes about black intelligence. Here, however, Kirke combines an exaggerated dialect with a sympathetic assessment of the slaves' alertness to the issues coming to head in the impending war. As with all the documents included in the After Slavery website, we have chosen not to edit out racist and denigrating terms (eg 'darkies', 'nigger') that were commonly used by whites at the time, but to retain the language of the original: obviously this should not be read as an endorsement of such language.
The setting in which the conversation takes place is as follows: Kirke is being transported by wagon into the SC interior by the driver 'Scipio', a slave on the plantation where Kirke spent the previous night; on the road, they meet up by chance with another slave teamster, Jim. Kirke's reconstruction of the conversation that ensues offers a rare glimpse into the seriousness with which the slaves approach the new possibilities being opened up by the war. While it is difficult to verify his conclusion that a "secret and widespread organization" existed among slaves in the South Carolina lowcountry, his observations render that conclusion plausible.]
…. “Jim, this is Scip,” I said, seeing the darkies took no notice of each other.
“How’d d’ye do, Scipio?” said Jim extending his hand to him. A look of singular intelligence passed over the faces of the two negroes as their hands met; it vanished in an instant, and was so slight that none but a close observer would have detected it, but some words that Scip had previously let drop had put me on the alert, and I felt sure it had a hidden significance.
[later, after Jim has departed]
“Scip, did you know Jim before?” I asked.
“Hab seed him afore, massa, but neber know’d him.”
“How is it that you have lived in Georgetown five years, and have not known him?”
“I cud hab know’d him, massa, good many time, ef I’d liked, but darkies hab to be careful.”
“Careful of what?”
“Careful ob who dey knows; good many bad niggas ‘bout.”
P’shaw, Scip, you’re ‘coming de possum;’ there (73) isn’t a better nigger than Jim in all South Carolina. I know him well.”
“…. Come, Scip, you’ve played this game long enough. Tell me, now, what that look you gave each other when you shook hands meant…. If I should guess, ‘twould be that it meant mischief.”
“It don’t mean mischief, sar,” said the darky, with a tone and air that would not have disgraced a cabinet officer; “it meant only Right and Justice.”
“It means that there is some secret understanding between you.” (74)
“I told you, massa,” he replied… “dat de blacks am all Freemasons. I gabe Jim de grip, and he know’d me…..”
“Why did he call you Scipio? I called you Scip.”
Oh! de darkies all do dat. Nobody but de white folks call me Scip. I can’t say no more, massa; I SHUD BREAK DE OATH EF I DID.”
“You have said enough to satisfy me that there is a secret league among the blacks, and that you are a leader in it….”
[Kirke's assessment of southern slaves]: The great mass of them are but a little above the brutes in their habits and instincts; but a large body are fully on a par, except in mere book-education, with their white masters.
From this conversation, together with others…I became acquainted with the fact, that there exists among the blacks a secret and wide-spread organization of a Masonic character, having its grip, pass-word, and oath [with] various grades of leaders, who are competent and earnest men, and its ultimate object is FREEDOM. (75)
The knowledge of the real state of political affairs which the negroes have acquired through this organization is astonishingly accurate; their leaders possess every essential of leadership—except, it may be, military skill, and they are fully able to cope with the whites.
The negro who I called Scipio, on the day before he or I knew of that event which set all South Carolina ablaze, foretold to me the breaking out of this war in Charleston harbor, and as confidently predicted that it would result in the freedom of the slaves! (77)
Kirke, Life in Dixie’s Land, 73-7
“Not by one word or look can we detect any change in the demeanor of these negro servants. Lawrence sits at our door, sleepy and respectful, and profoundly indifferent. So are they all, but they carry it too far. You could not tell that they even heard the awful roar going on in the bay, though it has been dinning in their ears night and day. People talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. They make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid? or wiser than we are; silent and strong, biding their time?”
Diary of Mary Boykin Chestnut, 13 April 1861 (38)