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

Confederate Troops
Confederate Troops

Documents on the Slaves’ Civil War: A ‘Demoralized Spirit’ among the Slaves

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


Documents on the Slaves’ Civil War: “My Children Sold as Pocketmoney”

[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.]

Slaves of Rebel Genl Hilton Head, LoC
Handwriting reads “Slaves of the Rebel General Thomas F. Drayton, Hilton Head”

“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

Percival Drayton.jpg
Union Naval Commander Percival Drayton

Documents on the Slaves’ Civil War: Charleston “Ripe for a Rebellion”

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

Documents on the Slaves’ Civil War: “Secret and Widespread Organization” among the Enslaved

[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.]

Negro Teamsters
Black Teamsters Working for the Union Army

…. “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

Documents on the Slaves’ Civil War: Slaves Feign Indifference while Battle at Sumter Rages

Charlestonians Watch from Rooftoops as Fort Sumter is Bombarded in the Harbor

“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)

Documents on the Slaves’ Civil War: An Irish Traveler to Charleston on Slave Disaffection after Sumter, 1861

It was near nightfall before we set foot on the quay of Charleston. The city was indicated by the blaze of lights, and by the continual roll of drums, and the noisy music, and the yelling cheers which rose above its streets. As I walked towards the hotel, the evening drove of negroes, male and female, shuffling through the streets in all haste, in order to escape the patrol and the last peal of the curfew bell, swept by me; and as I passed the guard-house of the police, one of my friends pointed out the armed sentries pacing up and down before the porch, and the gleam of arms in the room inside. Further on, a squad of mounted horsemen, heavily armed, turned up a by street, and with jingling spurs and sabres disappeared in the dust and darkness. That is the horse patrol. They scour the country around the city, and meet at certain places during the night to see if the niggers are all quiet. Ah, Fuscus! these are signs of trouble….

But Fuscus is going to his club; a kindly, pleasant, chatty, card-playing, cocktail-consuming place. He nods proudly to an old white-woolled negro steward or head-waiter a slave as a proof which I cannot accept, with the curfew tolling in my ears, of the excellencies of the domestic institution. (110)

On my way home again, I saw the sentries on their march, the mounted patrols starting on their ride, and other evidences that though the slaves are “the happiest and most contented race in the world” they require to be taken care of like less favored mortals. The city watch-house is filled every night with slaves, who are confined there till reclaimed by their owners, whenever they are found out after nine o clock, P. M., without special passes or permits. (118)

W. H. Russell, My Diary North and South (Boston, 1863)

A Political Discussion
“A Political Discussion”:  Illustrated street scene from post-Civil War Charleston


New Challenges, New Opportunities for Teaching the Civil War & Emancipation

Negro Troops Receive Instructions in the Field
Negro Troops Receive Instructions in the Field
Allen Stringfellow (1963)
DuSable Museum of African American History

On the 1st of February the After Slavery Project, together with the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program hosted a day-long teachers’ workshop on “Teaching the New History of Emancipation” at the College of Charleston. The program included a series of panels on the relationship between slavery and the war, on new online resources for teaching emancipation, and on teaching outside the traditional classroom.  The aim of the workshop was to lay the foundations for ongoing collaboration between college- and university-based research historians and a diverse constituency of high school teachers and curriculum experts, archivists and public historians, site interpreters and National Park Service personnel. Lincoln Prize winning historian Eric Foner gave a keynote based on his recent The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which we will post in the coming days, and the generous support of the Humanities Council South Carolina (HCSC) meant that the organizers were able to partially fund almost 6000 miles of travel for teachers from across the Carolinas and as far north as Virginia.

Panel on ‘The Carolinas in the Vortex of War’
Janette Greenwood (Clark University), LuAnn Jones (US National Park Service), Larry Watson (SC State University), Brian Kelly (Queen’s University Belfast), Bernard E. Powers, Jr. (College of Charleston)

One of the key themes in the first full session, on “The Carolinas in the Vortex of War,” was the varied experience of emancipation across the wartime and post-Civil War South. LuAnn Jones of the National Park Service developed some of the insights present in David Cecelski’s work on coastal North Carolina, where the slaves’ close familiarity with the rivers and coastal inlets transformed them into escape routes akin to the much better-known underground railroad–‘waterways to freedom’. Janette Thomas Greenwood (see our interview with her here) followed with a talk on “Union Occupation and the Disintegration of Slavery,” based on her important work on eastern North Carolina in First Fruits of Freedom.  Bernard E. Powers, Jr., Chair of the African American Studies Program at the College of Charleston and the author of an important study of emancipation and its aftermath in Charleston, spoke about the urban experience of emancipation, and Brian Kelly showed how the chaos and disruptions brought on by the war helped to spread disaffection among the enslaved in “Slave Refugeeing and Disaffection in the Upcountry.”

McGill and Randle
Joseph McGill (Slave Dwelling Project) and Lisa Randle (Magnolia Plantation)

The second session emphasized the value of non-textual resources for teaching emancipation. Amy Kirschke, a professor of Art History at UNC Wilmington, led with a presentation on “Visualizing Emancipation through Art.”  Joseph McGill, whose Slave Dwelling Project has expanded in recent years across the South and beyond, shared his experiences in visiting slave cabins alongside students of all ages, and spoke about the importance of these sites for engaging young learners. Lisa Randle directs education and outreach at Magnolia Plantation: she told a captivating story about the layers of history uncovered in tracing the history of former plantations, and about the uphill struggle that freedpeople’s descendants endured in trying to hold on to land acquired after emancipation. A third panel introduced a range of more traditional classroom materials for teaching emancipation: Kerry Taylor of The Citadel College spoke about the enduring value of the WPA Slave Narratives for oral histories of slavery and its disintegration, but also highlighted some of their problems, noting especially  the segregated context in which the original interviews were carried out and the reluctance of black Southerners to speak freely. Dwana Waugh introduced some of the digital resources made available from the Avery Research Center in recent years, and John White from the Lowcountry Digital Library spoke about the After Slavery Project and some of the other exciting developments at LDL. The highlight of the afternoon was Eric Foner’s keynote on “Lincoln and Emancipation,” introduced by Professor Powers, and which we will post on this blog in the coming days.

Foner and Harell-Roye
Historian Eric Foner and Shelia Harrell-Roye
of the Avery Research Center

The Charleston workshop was a good start, but its real aim was to jump start an ongoing collaboration between research historians and high school educators, and in the weeks since we have been working to build on those relationships through a series of local meetings with high school teachers in North and South Carolina. At present we are working to put together a series of lesson plans that align with the K-12 state history standards, and will be digging out some of the most compelling documents in our archives to produce the very best, high-quality online teaching resources available in either state on slave emancipation and its aftermath. We’re excited about the possibilities, and hope that any of our readers who are engaged in teaching or teaching administration will stay tuned and, if possible, get involved in this important work as it proceeds.

Thomas C. Holt, “Slave and Citizen: Rethinking Emancipation in the 21st Century”

As promised, a link to Thomas C. Holt’s Wiles Symposium keynote, presented at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast. Holt is James Westfall Thompson Professor of American and African American History at the University of Chicago, and the author and co-author of a number of seminal studies of slave emancipation in the US and the wider Atlantic World.  His talk here forms the basis of the lead chapter in a collection forthcoming from the University Press of Florida, After Slavery: Race, Labor and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South.

New Reconstruction Collection forthcoming from the After Slavery Project

Bruce Baker and Brian Kelly are in the final stages of bringing an edited collection of essays,  After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, to print. After a long prehistory the book should be available in August 2013.

AS Book Cover

This collection emerges from two events put together by the After Slavery Project. In October 2008, a dozen leading scholars of Reconstruction gathered at Queen’s University Belfast for the ninth Wiles Colloquium. Over three fairly intensive days, the group discussed pre-circulated papers, several of which appear in the book. Thomas C. Holt gave a brilliant keynote lecture at Belfast’s historic Linen Hall Library. We will be making available the video version of that keynote on this blog in the near future, and the print version now makes up the first chapter in the forthcoming collection. Crossing the Atlantic, in March 2010 we sponsored–alongside the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program, the SC African American Historical Alliance, The Citadel and others–the largest academic conference ever on the history of Reconstruction, gathering together several more outstanding papers for the volume. And to top it all off, the book includes an afterword by Eric Foner: those of you who heard his talk in Charleston recently, or who have read his prize-winning The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, will want to have a read.

Charleston Conf Poster
Poster from the March 2010 conference in Charleston

Here’s the tantalizing blurb from the back cover:

“Is there really anything new to say about Reconstruction? The excellent contributions to this volume make it clear that the answer is a resounding yes. Collectively these essays allow us to rethink the meanings of state and citizenship in the Reconstruction South, a deeply necessary task and a laudable advance on the existing historiography.”               –Alex Lichtenstein, Indiana University

The contributors to this volume range from the most senior scholars in the field—Thomas Holt and Eric Foner—to those who are at the start of their careers and will be shaping our understanding of Reconstruction for decades to come. Here is a list of the authors and their essays:

  • Introduction
    Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly
  • 1. Slave and Citizen in the Modern World: Rethinking Emancipation in the Twenty-first Century
    Thomas C. Holt
  • 2. “Erroneous and Incongruous Notions of Liberty”: Urban Unrest and the Origins of Radical Reconstruction in New Orleans, 1865-1868
    James Illingworth
  • 3. “Surrounded on All Sides by an Armed and Brutal Mob”: Newspapers, Politics, and Law in the Ogeechee Insurrection, 1868-1869
    Jonathan M. Bryant
  • 4. “It Looks Much Like Abandoned Land”: Property and the Politics of Loyalty in Reconstruction Mississippi
    Erik Mathisen
  • 5. Anarchy at the Circumference: Statelessness and the Reconstruction of Authority in Emancipation North Carolina
    Gregory P. Downs
  • 6. “The Negroes Are No Longer Slaves”: Free Black Families, Free Labor, and Racial Violence in Post-Emancipation Kentucky
    J. Michael Rhyne
  • 7. Ex-Slaveholders and the Ku Klux Klan: Exploring the Motivations of Terrorist Violence
    Michael W. Fitzgerald
  • 8. Drovers, Distillers, and Democrats: Economic and Political Change in Northern Greenville County, 1865-1878
    Bruce E. Baker
  • 9. Mapping Freedom’s Terrain: The Political and Productive Landscapes of Wilmington, North Carolina
    Susan Eva O’Donovan
  • 10. Class, Factionalism, and the Radical Retreat: Black Laborers and the Republican Party in South Carolina, 1865-1900
    Brian Kelly
  • Afterword by Eric Foner