Tag Archives: Rufus Saxton

April 21, 1865: “… making fair contracts in writing with the people to cultivate the land…” in South Carolina

On April 21, 1865, there were several matters competing for Major-General Quincy Gillmore’s attention. The day before Gillmore received word of Major-General William T. Sherman’s truce with General Joseph E. Johnston, which thus governed operations in the Department of the South.  Also arriving was news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.  The former prompted adjustments to Gillmore’s active field operations.  The latter prompted General Orders No. 48 informing the command of Lincoln’s death.

Gillmore had many active field operations, the most important of which was Brigadier-General Edward Potter’s expedition.  Potter’s instructions were to march to Georgetown or Charleston, as best accommodated the situation.  Sherman’s latest correspondence put on hold a planned follow-on expedition to Augusta, Georgia.  Instead, Gillmore was content to detail Colonel Henry Chipman’s 102nd USCT to guard the railroad bridge over the Santee River, and serve as an advanced force protecting the area north of Charleston.

Gillmore updated instructions for interacting with the civilian population, given the arrival of news.  Colonel Stewart Woodford, Gillmore’s Chief of Staff, provided those in writing to General John Hatch on April 21 (and thus the third person “he” in the instructions):

[Gillmore] directs that our forces in this department cease all further destruction of public and private property. While you are to execute this order literally, still the major-general commanding directs that you suppress every manifestation of rebellious or disloyal feeling within your command. He has learned, unofficially, that there are some expressions of gratification in Charleston at the cruel murder of our late President, and that you summarily arrested the offending parties. He commends this action and desires you to compel a decent and quiet behavior on the part of all residing within your lines.

But that area north of Charleston – specifically that of Charleston County between the Cooper and Wando Rivers in St. Thomas’ Parish – was of keen interest to Gillmore and Hatch.  St. Thomas’, and in general the area north of Charleston, contained several large plantations and thus now had a large recently emancipated population.  Hatch wrote to Gillmore about this two days earlier asking for instructions to deal with the issues arising:

The immense number of negroes flocking into the city threaten us with a pestilence and them with starvation. No adequate steps are taken by General [Rufus] Saxton for their removal and establishment. He complains of want of transportation. Something should be done without delay. I propose to issue a letter to the planters on Cooper and Wando Rivers–in it to state that slavery being extinguished, all who desire to be loyal citizens and to reside on their plantations will be allowed to do so, making fair contracts in writing with the people to cultivate the lands in shares for this season. Those who do so will be encouraged and protected as far as military necessity will allow. I do not care about taking this step without the approval of the general, but I think if something is not done, and that immediately, we will have starvation among the freedmen.

Saxton was at that time charged with managing resettlement of emancipated slaves onto confiscated lands in accordance with Sherman’s Field Order No. 15, as issued in January of that year. But Saxton faced some serious logistical problems, given the limited amount of shipping and other transportation, moving the former slaves to the designated areas.  Furthermore, Saxton was running out of “40 acres” to provide for all those now free, given the spectacular success of Federal operations.

On April 21, Woodford forwarded Gillmore’s response to the crisis Hatch identified:

I am directed by the major-general commanding to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of April 19, 1865. He desires me to inform you that the steamer Canonicus, after having returned from Darien, Ga., will be at the disposal of Brevet Major-General Saxton, and sent to him with the least possible delay. I am furthermore directed to inform you that you are authorized to issue a letter to the planters on Cooper and Wando Rivers, north of Charleston City, for the purpose and according to the tenor mentioned in your communication of the 19th instant. You will be careful not to act upon the question of the settlement of the freedmen within the territorial limits prescribed in General Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15, dated headquarters Military Division of the Mississippi, in the Field, at Savannah, Ga., January 16, 1865, that matter within these limits having been by this order specially placed under General Saxton’s charge.

Thus, the military policy for the moment, given the lack of direction from Washington on the issue, allowed for two systems.  Saxton’s, operating under Sherman’s “40 acres and a mule” policy, continued for the selected confiscated lands, mostly on barrier islands.  And with Gillmore’s consent, Hatch would allow any planter, who took the oath of allegiance, to offer “fair contracts” to freedmen for their labor.  Woodford elaborated on that second system in a message to Saxton, just to make sure nobody’s toes were stepped on:

The major-general commanding directs me to inform you that he has received a letter from Brigadier-General Hatch, commanding the Northern District of the department, in which he states that he proposes to issue a letter to the planters on the Cooper and Wando Rivers, and to state therein that slavery being extinguished, all who desire to be loyal citizens and to reside on their plantations will be allowed to do so, making fair contracts in writing with the people to cultivate the land on shares this season, and that those who do so will be encouraged and protected so far as military necessity will allow.

Woodford added, for clear delineation, that the lands designated by Gillmore for Hatch’s preview were beyond those designated by Field Orders No. 15.

Certainly these two concurrent policies were not the “end state” that would apply to the question of freedmen and lands.  That would take us into a discussion of the post-war period and bring in the Freedmen’s Bureau.  My point in mentioning these orders issued on April 21, 1865 is to call out what would become a major issue during the Reconstruction period, as it was being evolved as part of a military operation.

Step back a bit further for a moment.  One of the considerations when assessing Reconstruction from the historian’s perspective is the nature of how the policies set forth by leaders – be they Lincoln, Johnson, or Grant – were implemented at the ground level.  We can all point to current events where that same factor holds play.  In the case of Reconstruction, much of that policy, at least for the initial phases, was implemented as part of a military operation.  A fascinating military operation, in context with American military operations since World War II, I would add.  Yet, I sense that in our rush to provide a simple description for the period, while rushing off to things like the Gilded Age, Robber Barons, and the run-up to World War I, that appreciation for the military aspects of Reconstruction is lost.

And with Reconstruction having a military component in play, there must be analysis of what could and could not be accomplished… operationally, in military terms.   You know, some of those “reach and grasp” discussions which often boil down to practical application of arithmetic and logistics.  Yes, there is a military history component… a very important military history component… to reconstruction.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, pages 256, 273, 274.)

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.)

Emancipation: The lasting legacy of Sherman’s March

Often when historians offer a “wrap-up” of Sherman’s March to the Sea, there is focus, for good reasons, on this letter to President Abraham Lincoln:

ShermTelegram

It is the numbers – 150 guns and 25,000 bales of cotton – which often get some play as representative of the damage to the Confederate war effort.  Facts are, however, both numbers are incorrect.   The number of guns captured at Savannah alone was upwards of 160 (a total of over 200 captured in the campaign).  The am0unt of cotton captured reached 38,000 bales.  Not mentioned in the message, but often brought up in relation to the campaign, are the over 200 miles of railroad destroyed and an estimated $100 million in damage (in 1864 dollars).

These numbers are stark figures easily illustrating how Sherman’s campaign did much to topple the Confederacy (not the whole way, of course, as that would come in 1865, but the “teetering” was made acute).   And while I do not downplay the damage done, truth is that most of it was recoverable.  Within weeks, the railroad were running, somewhat.  Telegraph lines between Mobile and Richmond were working.  The cotton lost was value on the docks, and not cash in hand.  So another year’s crop could resolve the shortfall.  Perhaps the only items not “recuperated” were the cannons, as the Confederacy’s ability to manufacture such was limited.  Indeed, Georgia rebuilt… and faster than we often give credit.

However, there is something that changed forever in the wake of Sherman’s March.  If you study the Civil War, you should be acquainted with this map showing the distribution of slaves in the South (and if not, shame on you!).

Looking specifically at Georgia, consider the general route of the march in relation to the density of slave populations:

MarchSlavery

Notice how the line of march (and I’ve included Liberty and McIntosh Counties here as those were affected for weeks after the fall of Savannah) crosses some of the counties with the densest slave populations.  In 1860, Georgia had over 460,000 slaves, constituting 44% of the state’s population.  Sherman estimated some 20,000 escaped slaves joined his column by the time it reached Savannah. That figure does not count those who, heeding Sherman’s advice, stayed at home.

There were, as mentioned, some problems with the followers.  And certainly such brought to the fore attitudes of some officers, as we consider events at Ebenezer Creek and other crossing points.  But on whole, the burden created by those following the columns was accepted by those in command – often utilized to the favor of military operations.  The pioneer corps formed from the freed blacks should be credited as an important force enabling the Federals to cross the low-country swamps with relative ease.   And the escaped slaves turned expert guides where the maps were lacking.

And let us also not steer away from Sherman’s personal opinion about the free slaves and in general their race.  But no matter how pointed that was, Sherman was an instrument of policy and complied with orders.  The excess animals from the march were turned over to Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton for use in the contraband camps setup on the barrier islands.  The “mule” in the “Forty acres and a mule” often came from those herds.  We can debate the failures of that program at another time.  But for the moment consider that any limited success of the project was also a function of Sherman’s march.

Sherman’s march, regardless of what its leader may or may not have desired, brought emancipation to a large swath of Georgia.  That, unlike the material damage brought by the Federals, could not be rolled back.  It is, I contend, the real lasting legacy of the march.