March 21, 1865: “Slavery is dead”, “Who owns him?”, “No one” – A “Grand Jubilee for Freedom” in Charleston

On March 20, 1865, and order went out to Lieutenant-Colonel Augustus G. Bennett, commanding the 21st USCT then garrisoning Charleston, South Carolina:

By direction of the colonel commanding the city, you will have your regiment formed in line at 2 p.m. to-morrow to join in the procession of freedom.  Your regiment will have the right, and application is made for 200 colored sailors to have the left of the line.  They will report to you at the green at about 1.30. You will reduce the guards in your district just as much as possible to-morrow, in order that you may turn out as many men as possibly can be spared.

To Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren went the request for “about 200 colored seamen in uniform, with their officers” to report to the Citadel, “for the purpose of joining the procession of freedmen of this city.”

This “procession” labeled a “Jubilee of Freedom” was announced the previous Sunday at the Zion Church, by Colonel Stewart Woodford, commanding the city of Charleston.  Woodford called for those participating to organize at the Citadel’s green, where there was plenty of space. From there the procession would parade downtown.  The procession got underway, despite heavy rains, at around 2 p.m. the afternoon of March 21st. (Ever the sesquicentennialist, I’m timing my post as close to 150 years to the moment at possible.) Leading the procession were several local leaders and military officials, including Major-General Rufus Saxton.

A brief description appeared in the Charleston Courier a few days later:

CharlestonCourier_Mar_23_65_p2_c2

The New York Times correspondent in Charleston described the parade:

At 2 o’clock, the number of people thus assembled reached four thousand, and shortly after that hour, the colored Marshals, who had previously performed the duty assigned them of arranging the school children into companies, and the trade and other organizations into divisions, took their position in the tine, and everything was ready for the start. First in the procession came two colored Marshals on horseback, each wearing badges, and rosettes of red, white and blue. They were followed by an organization of about fifty butchers, who carried their knives at their sides, and in front of them displayed a good-sized porker. Next in order came the Twenty-first Regiment United States Colored troops, Lieut.-Col. Bennett, commanding, preceded by a band. The regiment turned out in nearly full force, and presented a very fine appearance. The music discoursed by the band was very creditable, and added much to the general effect of the whole proceedings.

Following the USCT were groups of school children carrying banners reading “We know no masters but ourselves” and “We know no cast of color.”  Tradesmen followed, dressed in their work clothes and displaying the tools of their respective trades.  Firemen from ten companies – freedmen who’d manned fire companies through the long war years at Charleston – came “dressed in red shirts, with belts around their waists.”  Then the one part of the parade I find most remarkable:

These were followed by a cart drawn by a mule, and containing an auctioneer, who was standing over two women seated on a block, with their children standing about them. A boy was also in the cart, whose office was to ring a bell with all the energy he possessed. The cart bore the announcement: “A number of negroes for sale;” and as it moved along the auctioneer would appeal to the crowd for a bid, making use of the phrases which are usually heard in a negro auction-room. For instance, the bystanders were repeatedly informed that such a one was an excellent cook, or an expert seamstress, or a valuable field-hand, and that some one of the number had run the price up to an extravagant amount — in Confederate money, of course. Attached to the cart was a long rope, tied to which was a number of men and women. Next was a hearse, bearing a coffin, and having the inscriptions: “Slavery is dead;” “Who owns him?” “No one;” “Sumter dug his grave on the 13th of April, 1861.” The hearse was followed by mourners dressed in deep black.

Clearly the irony of place an circumstance were not lost on the freedmen of Charleston.  The correspondent observed, “Whenever the American flag was passed it was honored with shouts, and the waving of handkerchiefs and caps.”

Can you imagine the emotions pouring out that day?  A southern spring like none preceding.   Emancipation had come to Charleston.  The promise of full civil rights seemed to be hovering on the next breeze.

(Citations, other than those linked above, from OR, Series 47, Part II, Serial 99, page 929.)

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