1776-1865: From Bondage to Holy War
Revolution and Betrayal
The slaves about Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New-York, have as good victuals as many of the English; for they have meat once a day, and milk for breakfast and supper...but alas, all these enjoyments could not satisfy me without liberty! Boston King, Black Loyalist
As revolution began in the thirteen American colonies in the late 1770s, the British were badly outnumbered. In order to drum up recruits, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, offered freedom to Negroes "able and willing to bear arms." His strategy had both tactical and psychological ramifications, as southern planters were terrified of slave revolts.
By 1778, some thirty thousand of the enslaved had joined the English forces in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. They were promised protection--as long as they fought on the side of the British--and their freedom after the war. Most of them worked as laborers, pilots, cooks, and musicians, although some were soldiers. Despite their service, the black Loyalists were betrayed when the British lost the war. Several thousand, mostly those fighting in the north, were evacuated as free men to British ports in England, Florida, and Nova Scotia. In the south and parts of the north, the British left their Negro allies in the hands of the colonial victors. Some blacks managed to escape, but most were resold into slavery, and left to fend for themselves in the new republic.
After the American Revolution, enslaved Africans had many strategies to continue resisting their oppression. From the beginning of the eighteenth century, slave rebellion had been an ever-present concern for whites, and the threat continued well after the defeat of the British. Alongside these spontaneous insurrections were the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794 and the birth of the Second Great Awakening in 1800. These developments provided less violent means to the fight for equality, centered on the cornerstones of faith, spirituality, and humanism.
DID YOU KNOW A man born enslaved became an important leader of the Black Brigade.
Colonel Tye and the Black Brigade
He was born Titus, a black slave, in New Jersey. He escaped, making his way down to Virginia, where he responded to Lord Dunmore's call for soldiers. Colonel Tye, as he renamed himself, gained fame as a leader of New Jersey's Black Brigade, an elite guerilla unit. Once, Tye led a band of white and black troops in a sneak attack against the Patriot militia leader Joseph Murray, who was hated by the British for having executed Loyalists. Tye and his men assassinated him.
In the fall of 1780, Tye led another attack on a hated Patriot leader, Josiah Huddy. Tye was shot through the wrist during this attack and died from infection from the wound. By then, however, he had earned the respect of soldiers on both sides.
DID YOU KNOW Most black soldiers were sold back into slavery.
After the War
Of the tens of thousands of black soldiers who fought with the British, only a few thousand were recorded as having gone to Nova Scotia, London, or Sierra Leone when the war ended. Most of them were sold back into slavery, and spent the rest of their lives working on sugar plantations.
Our Own Congregation: The African Methodist Episcopal Church
If you deny us your name, you cannot seal up the scriptures from us, and deny us a name in heaven. We believe heaven is open to all who worship in spirit and truth. Richard Allen, 1794
In 1794, black Christians in Philadelphia began to form their own churches. These congregations began as the result of an incident at the predominantly white St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, when ushers pulled black worshippers from their knees during prayer. The incident incited the black congregants to walk out of the church. Some of those black congregants decided to form an Episcopal congregation, which they called St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Its leader, Absalom Jones, became the first black Episcopal pastor in the United States.
The rest of the black Philadelphia Methodists, however, found themselves in a bind as they struggled to renegotiate the paternal relationship they had heretofore enjoyed with the white Methodist elders. In an attempt to gain autonomy, a black parishioner named Richard Allen converted a blacksmith's shop into a Methodist church. Bethel Church was dedicated on July 29, 1794 - just twelve days after Jones' Episcopal congregation. The city's presiding Methodist elder, however, wouldn't recognize them. Since Allen wasn't ordained, and the church had no money, they relied on a series of visiting white preachers. In 1799, Allen became a deacon. Although he was finally able to pastor Bethel himself, he remained under the authority of white presiding elders, who had varying levels of tolerance for the idea of a black man running a Methodist-affiliated church.
This matter came to a head on New Year's Eve of 1815, when the black congregation blocked a white Methodist elder from preaching at their church. Four months later, on April 7, black Methodists from four states convened for what became known as the first General Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen was elected and consecrated as the first bishop. Bethel AME Church, which still stands today, had been established.
Allen's leadership extended beyond the walls of the church. He founded the African Masonic Lodge and organized societies to promote education for children of African descent. He vigorously opposed the program of resettling free blacks in Africa. In 1830, shortly before his death, Allen presided over the first Convention of the Colored Men of the United States. Twenty-seven elected delegates from seven states attended. The convention, held at Bethel AME Church, was a harbinger of such organizations as the NAACP and the Urban League.
In the history books, Allen should go down as both the father of the AME Church, and the first national black leader.
DID YOU KNOW The AME Church was outlawed in South Carolina.
An Outlawed Church
When white Methodists discovered that blacks in South Carolina were using their resources to buy the freedom of the enslaved, they closed down the church. This set off a chain of events that led to Denmark Vesey's rebellion.
The Second Great Awakening: Jubilee and Social Change
In June of 1800, on the fourth day of a Presbyterian revival meeting held in south central Kentucky, two traveling Methodist ministers concluded their day of preaching with an emotional exhortation. The crowd responded so enthusiastically that many collapsed, and word spread that the Holy Spirit had visited the meeting.
This revival marked the beginning of a great wave of evangelical outpouring known as the Second Great Awakening. By 1827, revivals were held so frequently that one publication noted, "Revivals, we rejoice to say, are becoming too numerous in our country to admit of being generally mentioned in our Record."
One of the Awakening's most charismatic evangelists was Charles G. Finney, a lawyer-turned-itinerant preacher who held a series of revivals between 1824 and 1837 in New York. Finney brought innovations to the religious revival that became hallmarks of meetings. He addressed God in familiar, informal language, encouraged music and choirs, created the "inquiry room" for seekers and the "anxious bench" for those wrestling with conversion, and advertised his revivals well in advance. This new approach to evangelizing was extremely effective. In 1831 alone, churches recorded 100,000 converts across the nation.
The Second Great Awakening had an enormous effect on American society, changing the way Americans worshiped and preached, inspiring social reform, and converting thousands to Christianity. Its emphasis on equality of spirit, regardless of race, led to alliances between black leaders in northern cities and white abolitionists. African-Americans felt empowered by the egalitarian message of the Awakening and the spirit of the Declaration of Independence to form their own black denominations and churches. The African Methodist Episcopal Church and many independent black Baptist churches were formed during this period.
Black churches, in turn, led the struggle to deliver enslaved brothers and sisters from bondage. That leadership ran the spectrum from those who preached non-violent reform to those who advocated rebellion. The message that moved Africans was not St. Paul on obedience, but the message of "jubilee." As C. Eric Lincoln wrote in The Black Church, "The message of the Invisible Church was, however articulated, 'God wants you free!'"
DID YOU KNOW During the Second Great Awakening, some women became missionaries and preachers.
Women Take to the Pulpit
The Second Great Awakening especially appealed to women. Their greatest strides into the public arena came through their work with the many societies engaged in social reform that grew up during the Second Great Awakening. Many became missionaries and preachers, called to evangelize the nation before Christ's Second Coming. Women preached in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and many black women, such as Jarena Lee and Rebecca Cox Jackson, became itinerant preachers. In both white and black churches, however, women faced great resistance from men who believed that women should not preach the Gospel. "Why should it be forbidden for a woman to preach," asked Jarena Lee, "seeing how the savior died for a woman as well as a man?"
Read Jarena Lee's story at:
DID YOU KNOW In the early 1800s, many blacks became Methodists.
Blacks in the Methodist Church
By 1816, Methodism claimed 42,000 blacks, 30,000 of whom were enslaved in the southern states.
DID YOU KNOW The Second Great Awakening inspired many social movements.
The Rise of Social Movements
By 1816, Methodism claimed 42,000 blacks, 30,000 of whom were enslaved in the southern states.Belief in a benevolent God who promised salvation to all through faith and devotion led to the belief that Christian teaching could resolve social problems. The Second Great Awakening inspired not only the abolitionist movement, but also such crusades as women's rights, temperance, public education, prison reform, philanthropic endeavors, and utopian socialism. Along with individual moral reform, these social reform movements were part of the Second Great Awakening's legacy.
The Emigrationist Movement: A New Home or a Forced Exodus?
What nobler plan could the great Baptist denomination fall upon, than just this providential movement to effect that which is dear to their hearts, and to the hearts of all Christians - the redemption of Africa! And what a living thing would not their work be, if perchance, they could plant some half dozen compact, intelligent, enterprising villagers of such Christian people, amid the heathen populations of West Africa! Alexander Crummell, The Regeneration of Africa
Although the idea of Africa as a homeland waned as more and more enslaved and free blacks were born in the United States, the idea of Africa as that which makes blacks distinctive remained. During the beginning of the nineteenth century, blacks and whites debated the merits of wholesale emigration to and colonization of the motherland.
In 1816, Robert Finley, a white Presbyterian abolitionist who nevertheless held blacks in low esteem, proposed shipping all freed blacks back to Africa. Congress joined the debate when Speaker of the House Henry Clay urged Finley to stop undermining the colonization proposal, which was seen as the answer to the problem of insurrections caused by free blacks, by calling it an abolitionist cause. "Can there be a nobler cause," Clay said, "than that which, whilst it proposes to rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of its population, contemplates the spreading of the arts of civilized life, and the possible redemption from ignorance and barbarism of a benighted quarter of the globe?"
The AME Church, under Richard Allen, organized protests against the plan and what they feared would be forced emigration of those most committed to the complete abolition of slavery. Nonetheless, Daniel Coker, an AME minister from Baltimore, packed his bags and set off for what would become Liberia, establishing a beachhead for missionary activity there. By 1847, Liberia was an independent country, and would become prominent in the thinking of two towering figures in the history of black Americans who were also men of faith: Alexander Crummell and Edward Blyden.
Crummell, a freeborn New Yorker and an Episcopalian minister, had been a prominent critic of colonization. But after enduring a series of indignities from his fellow Episcopalians, he embarked for Liberia in 1853. By then more than 8,000 African-Americans had settled in Liberia. Using their control of political and educational affairs and their American cultural orientation, they drew lines of caste between themselves and the indigenous people. Crummell, too, held notions of African "crudeness" but also championed "African nationality." He maintained that Africa had been the true cradle of civilization.
Edward Blyden, born in the Dutch West Indies, came to America in 1850 to study for the ministry. Denied the opportunity, he left for Liberia, where he became a Presbyterian missionary agent. Blyden came to discern in blacks a distinctive racial genius that deserved to be preserved and cultivated. Blending his own historical research with the work of other black intellectuals, he argued that slavery had been ordained by Providence to prepare African-Americans for the task of redeeming their ancestral continent.
Martin Delany was to become antebellum America's most famous emigrationist. Born in western Virginia of a free mother and a slave father, Delany grew up in Pennsylvania, where he converted to the AME church. In the late 1840s he joined Frederick Douglass' publication, The North Star. Initially, he opposed colonization, but his faith in his homeland dissipated after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. He then advocated emigration to Central and South America. In 1859, he left the United States and set out to find a place where African-Americans could fully develop their faculties and exercise self-government.
DID YOU KNOW White religious denominations contributed to colonization.
Religion and the American Colonization Society
From 1818 to about 1831, the Quakers supported the American Colonization Society. In 1826, Quakers contributed nearly $5,000 to the cause, and, acting under the advice of Benjamin Lundy and the Colonization Society, fitted out a vessel that sailed from Beaufort, North Carolina with a group of Negroes bound for Haiti.
Other groups in North Carolina also contributed to the support of the American Colonization Society. As early as 1821 the North Carolina Synod reported that three or four congregations had organized societies auxiliary to the American Colonization Society.
DID YOU KNOW Most black soldiers were sold back into slavery.
After the War
Of the tens of thousands of black soldiers who fought with the British, only a few thousand were recorded as having gone to Nova Scotia, London, or Sierra Leone when the war ended. Most of them were sold back into slavery, and spent the rest of their lives working on sugar plantations.
Abolition and the Splintering of the Church
One of the legacies of the Second Great Awakening was the Abolitionist Movement, the coalition of whites and blacks opposed to slavery. To support their cause, they frequently quoted Jesus' statements about treating others with respect and love. White Christians in the south, however, did not view slavery as a sin. Rather, their leaders were able to quote many Biblical passages in support of slavery. The Civil War and the divide over the question of slavery thus began in the nation's churches, a decade before fighting began on the battlefields.
During the 1840s and 50s, several of America's largest denominations faced internal struggles over the issue of slavery. Even earlier, in 1838, the Presbyterians split over the question. The Baptists maintained a strained peace by carefully avoiding discussion of the topic. But in 1840, an American Baptist Anti-Slavery Convention brought the issue into the open. Southern delegates argued that, while slavery was a calamity and a great evil, it was no sin. The Baptist Board later denied a request by the Alabama Convention that slave owners be eligible to become missionaries. Finally, a Baptist Free Mission Society was formed and "refused 'tainted' Southern money." The southern members withdrew and formed the Southern Baptist Convention, which eventually grew to become the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. The Baptist denomination officially split in 1845, with the North Carolina State Convention "cordially approving" of the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention.
By this time, the United States had developed an obvious North/South divide over slavery, one that was based less on moral arguments than on economic realities. The cotton-based economy of the southern states depended largely on the low-cost labor provided by the slave population. In the industrialized North, however, slavery had become only marginally economic. This split was also reflected in the views of the various Christian denominations with respect to abolition. Many Christians in the southern states saw abolition as a massive threat to their culture and economy.
The split in the Methodist Episcopal Church came in 1844. The immediate cause was a resolution of the General Conference censuring Bishop J. O. Andrew of Georgia, who by marriage came into the possession of slaves. As soon as word of the dissension reached North Carolina, the members of the church in the Raleigh Station met and advised the North Carolina delegates to withdraw from the Conference. "We believe," states the resolution, "an immediate division of the Methodist Episcopal Church is indispensable to the peace, prosperity, and honor of the Southern portion thereof, if not essential to her continued existence…we regard the officious, and unwarranted interference of the Northern portion of the Church with the subject of slavery alone, a sufficient cause for a division of our Church."
The General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church split into two conferences because of these tensions over slavery and the power of the denomination's bishops. Some anti-slavery clergy and laity of the Methodist Episcopal Church left to form the Wesleyan Methodist Church in America. It continues today as the Wesleyan Church. The southern churches organized the Methodist Episcopal Church (South), at a meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. A group of anti-slavery members in Piedmont, North Carolina withdrew from the Methodist Episcopal Church and joined the Wesleyan Methodist Church.
Slavery and race proved to be a divisive factor, leading to the formation of numerous Protestant denominations in the United States. The aftershocks of this splintering of American churches would be felt well into the twentieth century.
DID YOU KNOW Southern Christians used their Bibles to justify slavery.
Biblical Justification of Slavery
Rev. Thornton Stringfellow (1788-1869) pastored Stevensburg Baptist Church in Culpepper County, Virginia and in 1856 published "A Scriptural View" as a source for the Biblical justification of slavery. In brief, he stated that slavery had the sanction of God in the Patriarchal Age (from Abraham to Moses), Christ never prohibited slavery but in fact regulated its duties, and, lastly, slavery provided mercy to the heathens. For many Christians, slavery could not be reconciled with Christianity. Views like Stringfellow's, common in many southern churches, were part of what led so many denominations to split.
For more information on proslavery arguments in the Bible, visit
The Growth of the Abolitionist Movement
The religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes…and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. Frederick Douglass
Through the first half of the nineteenth century, the abolitionist movement grew slowly but surely. There were many different schools of abolitionists, but together they constituted the small minority of Americans who advocated immediate emancipation of the enslaved and equal rights for African-Americans. Most came from the cities and factory towns of the Northeast and Old Northwest, but a significant number came from the upper South. Their ranks included successful businessmen, ministers, and even former slaveholders. Factory workers and skilled craftspeople, who often worked alongside blacks, were especially likely to sign antislavery petitions.
Virtually all members of the abolition movement were deeply religious women and men, convinced that slavery violated divine law. Antislavery evangelicals gave bibles to the enslaved, established integrated churches, and preached against the sin of slavery. A few started utopian communities in the upper South, like Nashoba, founded by Frances Wright near Memphis, Tennessee as an experiment in interracial living. Still others sought to promote the emigration of "free soilers" (those opposing the extension of slavery into new US territories) into the upper South.
The abolitionists argued over how to secure the freedom of the enslaved. Some clung to the theory of gradual emancipation, with compensation to the slaveholders as a last resort, while others advocated the immediate and unconditional liberation of every slave, by force if necessary, and without compensating their owners. Despite these differences, the movement continued to grow and eventually rallied around a landmark court case: Dred Scott v. Sanford.
DID YOU KNOW For many of the enslaved, Haiti served as a beacon of freedom.
Haiti, a Beacon of Freedom
From the time it gained its independence in 1804, Haiti was a beacon of freedom for the enslaved, and a symbol of unspoken terror for slaveholders. Slaves under the French system in Haiti, fed up with the brutality of their masters, plotted a successful revolt. They killed their masters, hid in the hills, and, when Napoleon sent his army to restore order, wore them down over the course of a prolonged guerilla campaign.
The Haitian Revolution led to an influx of mixed-race Catholics to Louisiana and to the eastern shore of Maryland, and to the renewed suppression of independent black worship services.
DID YOU KNOW Many white southerners countered the abolitionist movement by spreading pro-slavery propaganda.
Pro-Slavery Propaganda in the South
To combat abolitionist literature, white southern writers distributed a flood of pro-slavery propaganda. According to these articles, most of the enslaved were content with their easy life. Supposedly, they worked only until noon, dressed and ate better than most poor whites, and enjoyed job security that would be envied by most northern factory workers. Many people in the North were taken in by these fictions, and as a result abolitionists were often harassed by hostile mobs.
The Dred Scott Case: Polarization of the Nation
The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical…If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others. Frederick Douglass, 1857
In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, a decision that galvanized a budding Republican Party, polarized a young nation, and set the stage for the Civil War. For black Americans, the decision radically undermined their legal rights and their faith that God was leading the country toward a true interpretation of American democracy.
The questions raised in the Dred Scott case spoke to a nation divided - divided religiously, geographically, economically, politically, and racially. At the center of that division stood Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had lived in two states that had outlawed slavery: Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory.
America had become a patchwork of free and slave lands. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had established Missouri as a slave state, but otherwise limited the extension of slavery in the west; no territories above the southern border of Missouri could be admitted to the Union as slave states. That meant that from Illinois to Iowa, each new state that joined the Union sparked a debate about preserving the balance between free and slave states.
Born into slavery in 1799, Scott was illiterate and nearly penniless when he and his wife Harriet first brought their case to the St. Louis Circuit Court in 1846. Like his parents, Scott had been the property of Peter Blow, a prominent Virginian. Scott moved from Virginia to Missouri with the Blow family. There he was sold to a military surgeon, Dr. John Emerson, in 1830. For the next twelve years, Scott traveled the mid-west with Dr. Emerson, moving between Missouri, Illinois, and the Wisconsin Territory. During that time, Dred Scott, his wife Harriet, and daughters Lizzie and Eliza, lived enslaved in a land that outlawed slavery.
In 1846, three years after the death of Dr. Emerson and the transfer of ownership to Emerson's widow Irene, Dred and Harriet Scott filed what would become the first of several landmark suits seeking their freedom. The Scotts lost their first trial, held in 1847, on a technicality - Scott could not prove Emerson's widow was their official owner. The Missouri Supreme Court called for a retrial. In 1850, a jury found in Scott's favor, based on the time he and Harriet had spent living in free territories. It seemed that Dred and Harriet Scott were freed. But their freedom was short-lived.
Two years later, the Missouri State Supreme Court overruled the decision and enslaved them again. The legal wrangling continued when, in 1853, Scott filed suit in the U.S. Federal Court, this time naming John Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother - and executor of Dr. Emerson's estate - as the defendant. Once more Scott's request for freedom was turned down. With nowhere else to turn, Scott and his lawyers appealed to the highest court in the land: the U.S. Supreme Court.
The opinion handed down on March 6, 1857, by Chief Justice Roger Taney was sweeping in its pro-slavery findings. Seven of the nine justices found that Dred Scott should remain enslaved. Taney's opinion argued that Scott, as an enslaved person, was not a citizen and thereby had no grounds to bring suit in federal court. As he put it, blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."
In the end, Dred Scott and his family did win their freedom. Emerson's widow remarried to a northerner, Calvin Chaffee, who was staunchly anti-slavery. In deference to her new husband's wishes, Mrs. Emerson sold the Scotts to the Blow family, their original masters. The Blow family had supported Scott both emotionally and financially throughout the lengthy ordeal, and in May 1857 they gave Scott and his family their freedom. A scant sixteen months later, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis. His epitaph reads: "Dred Scott: Subject of the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1857 which denied citizenship to the Negro, voided the Missouri Compromise, became one of the events that resulted in Civil War."
DID YOU KNOW Walk on Faith, not by Sight.
After the Dred Scott Decision
"Walk on Faith, not by Sight." Those were Frederick Douglass' words to black audiences in the wake of the Dred Scott decision. The Civil War was five years away. Black Americans saw themselves without hope, and slavery seemed to be spreading into the West. Northern black leaders, increasingly desperate, struggled with how to proceed: to immigrate (to Africa? To Mexico? To Haiti? To Canada?); to stay in America; to join the Republican Party; or even to organize some kind of third political party movement.
In the South, slave owners were told to keep their slaves away from political meetings, to keep them ignorant of the widening debate. There is not much evidence that that worked, and much to indicate that the enslaved were aware of the debate heating up over their futures.
The Civil War: Fighting in a White Man's War
They believe that now is the time appointed by God for their deliverance; and, under the heroic incitement of this faith, I believe them capable of showing a courage and persistency of purpose which must, in the end, extort both victory and admiration. Major General David Hunter
"This is a white man's war" was the oft-repeated refrain during the first two years of the Civil War, as blacks were told over and over again to stay out of it. Throughout this period, President Lincoln steadfastly refused to enlist men of African descent. He was attempting to preserve the Union without dealing with the question of slavery, and he did not want to alienate the border slave states that remained in the Union.
African-Americans saw the matter differently. In their providential interpretation, the Civil War was like the parting of the Red Sea, flooding North and South with bloodshed - a punishment for permitting the sin of slavery to persist for so long. President Lincoln and his Republican Party were seen as the fulfillment of God's promise to free His people. Black Americans saw their role in the conflict as that of a chosen people, chosen like the Jews in Egypt to be the saviors of the human race, to lead America to a full realization of its democratic principles. Fighting in the Civil War meant serving as a soldier in God's Army. The most persistent advocate of arming blacks was the outspoken abolitionist Frederick Douglass. "Colored men," he complained, "were good enough to fight under Washington, but they are not good enough to fight under McClellan." He further stated that "liberty won only by white men would lose half of its luster."
The first organization of blacks took place in Cincinnati, Ohio, a pro-slavery city in which prejudice was cruelly manifested. The Black Brigade was organized but , due to the irate attitude of the White citizens, was forced to disband shortly thereafter. The proprietor of the place selected as the recruiting station was forced to remove the American flag. The proprietor of another meeting place was told by the police, "We want you damned niggers to keep out of this; this is a white man's war."
Thousands of fugitive slaves flooded the Union lines wherever federal forces penetrated new areas in the south. Without a general governmental policy, many commanders tried to send the fugitives back to their masters, forbade them to enter Union lines, or permitted masters and their agents to enter Union lines to retrieve their property.
When fugitive slaves took refuge within the federal lines near Fortress Monroe, Virginia, General Benjamin F. Butler learned that they had been utilized in building Confederate fortification. He declared them "contrabands of war," a phrase that stuck, and put them to work building fortification for wages. He further stated that he was not obligated to return property to a foreign government. By the end of 1861, large numbers of ex-slaves were constructing Union fortifications, and working as teamsters, cooks, and carpenters. In some units they served as spies and scouts.
General David Hunter, Commander of the Department of the South, issued an Emancipation Proclamation freeing all of the enslaved in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida in May 1862. The act was repudiated by the Lincoln administration. Shortly thereafter, General Hunter, without permission, began recruiting ex-slaves from the Sea Islands area for formation of the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. The regiment attracted much attention and helped prepare the country to accept black troops.
During the summer and into the fall of 1862, President Lincoln gradually and steadily altered his view of the war and issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September. Possible motives were centered on forestalling European intervention on the side of the Confederacy; attempting to undermine the southern economy; reasserting control over the Republican Party; and furnishing a prelude to the enlistment of black combat troops. In late August, the War Department, in a radical policy shift, officially sanctioned the recruitment of blacks with a policy statement: "All slaves admitted into military service, together with their wives and children, are declared forever free."
The United States Colored Troops participated in 449 engagements, of which 39 were major battles. The most active units in the South and West were the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry (79th USCI) with 14 engagements, and the 1st Mississippi Cavalry (3rd USCC) with 10 engagements. The contributions of these African-American units were crucial to saving the Union.
(Adapted from an article by Bennie McRae. Copyright 1995. LWF Publications. Reprinted from the April, 1995 edition of Lest We Forget.)
DID YOU KNOW Blacks also fought in the Confederacy.
Blacks in the Confederate Army
Between three and six thousand blacks fought on the side of the Confederacy. They fought for a variety of reasons - loyalty to their masters; a desire to be on the winning side; even out of a sense that the southerners were better than the northerners when it came to dealing with the black race.
Some were like Richard Henry Boyd, who served his master as a Confederate body servant during the war. His owner was killed, and Boyd returned to the Texas plantation with one of his master's injured sons. He died, and eventually Boyd left the plantation and became a Baptist minister. He believed in self-initiative and, as a missionary and entrepreneur, founded the National Baptist Publishing Board and built many church institutions.
A Foretaste of Freedom
We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own. Garrison Frazier, January 12, 1865, in answer to questions from General Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton
It began during the winter of 1865. As the Union Army marched through Georgia, a shadow army of former slaves, freed, but jobless and homeless, followed. By some accounts they numbered up to 4,000. The Union soldiers used some of them as laborers but had no way to feed or clothe the vast majority. They were known as "contraband."
As the soldiers approached Savannah, they prepared to cross Ebenezer Creek. The Union commander placed his pontoon bridge down, and marched his army across. The freedmen following also started across, but then the Union commander ordered the bridge pulled up, causing some of the freedmen to drown.
Word of this was carried back to Washington via the newspapers, and President Lincoln sent Edwin Stanton down to investigate. Sherman expressed annoyance at the logistical problem the freedmen posed, and asked, "What do these Negroes want?" Stanton told Sherman to ask them himself.
Sherman requested a meeting, and the local churches sent twenty black men - lay and clergy - to meet with him at the home of a local merchant. The black men, some former slaves, some not, elected Garrison Frazier, a Baptist minister, as their leader. Frazier had been a slave for sixty years, and was a minister in a Baptist church where both free and slave blacks worshipped. He had bought his freedom just as the war started. Now, here he was, a 68-year old man, facing a General of the Union Army.
Sherman began by testing Frazier's mettle. He asked whether Frazier understood the reason for the war. He answered clearly in the affirmative. When asked whether they preferred to live separately or among whites, Frazier replied, "I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us that would not permit for our peace, prosperity, and harmony." He and his fellows understood that salvation lay in owning their own land and having independence.
Four days later, Sherman issued Field Order, No. 15. It stated: "The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States." Sherman ordered Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton to distribute to the head of each black family "not more than forty acres of tillable land" and to give the freedmen any animals no longer useful to the army. It was this order that generated the slogan "forty acres and a mule".
The pastor of Bryan Baptist Church in Savannah took one thousand black families and tried to homestead Skidaway Island, one of the Sea Islands, in an attempt to create a black-owned state under black control. His effort was short-lived, as the terms of the land distribution remained ambiguous. Was the government giving the freedpeople the acreage outright, or leasing it? Regardless, by June 1865, approximately 40,000 ex-slaves had settled on about 400,000 acres of land in the designated area.
But that September, after Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson, a Tennessean sympathetic to the South, pardoned former Confederates. He ordered the land the freedmen were homesteading restored to their owners. Riots ensued as federal troops forcibly evacuated blacks from land they thought they had earned rightfully with the fruit of their unpaid labor. For African-Americans, it was the first bitter taste of the Promised Land of freedom.
DID YOU KNOW No one actually promised "40 Acres and a Mule."
40 Acres and a Mule
In the meeting between the ministers, Sherman, and Stanton, no one mentioned an exact amount of acreage the freedpeople would get. However, when special Field Orders 15 was released four days later, it mentioned "not more than forty acres." In addition, Sherman ordered that the freedpeople be given whatever animals the Union Army had which were of no further use. Although the order wasn't specific, clearly the freedpeople who attended, and blacks all over the South, felt that a specific promise had been made.
DID YOU KNOW Congress created the Freedman's Bureau to help with the emancipation process.
The Freedman's Bureau
Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in March of 1865. Known as the Freedmen's Bureau, it was to provide temporary relief and education to the enslaved caught in the throes of the emancipation process. That legislation authorized the bureau to lease "not more than forty acres" of abandoned or confiscated lands to the freedmen, with an option to "purchase the land and receive such titles thereto as the United States can convey."
Although the Freedmen's Bureau was charged with helping the former slaves, its efficacy varied from state to state. Often, one officer was responsible for covering vast swaths of land, and had no power to arrest southern renegades who sought to put black people "back in their place."