As early as January 1861 slaves were running away from plantations north of Charleston and along the Savannah River, and the appearance of Federal vessels along the coast encouraged further escapes.
The experience of slavery’s demise varied around the state and followed the progress of the Civil War. Freedom came early and suddenly to Port Royal when on November 7, 1861, Union forces bombarded and occupied the area. Black Carolinians in the vicinity referred to this occasion as the “Day of the Big Gun Shoot,” and during the next several weeks Federal troops seized Beaufort, the rest of Hilton Head, St. Helena, Ladys, and other nearby islands. Most planters fled the Federal troops and attempted to persuade or coerce their slaves to accompany them northward toward Charleston or into the interior, away from the path of the invasion. While many relocated with their owners, a substantial number resisted evacuation; some were killed for their refusal. In the early stages of the war freedom could be fleeting, as Confederates sometimes attempted to recapture fugitives from places where Union control was tentative. In August 1863 forty-one slaves, mainly women and children, were recaptured in such a raid on Barnwell Island. Port Royal was more secure, and for the duration of the war, under Federal authority, former slaves cultivated the deserted plantations. Northern missionaries and teachers came to provide them with education and religious instruction. This Port Royal Experiment was the first major site where black Carolinians experienced the fruits of emancipation, and thousands of fugitives were attracted there.
As early as January 1861 slaves were running away from plantations north of Charleston and along the Savannah River, and the appearance of Federal vessels along the coast encouraged further escapes. In spring and summer 1862 hundreds of fugitives from around Georgetown fled to Federal ships probing adjacent waterways. One of the boldest Union forays along the coast was led by the fugitive slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who worked as a nurse and spy for the Federal cause. On June 2, 1863, she guided three gunboats loaded with troops from the Second South Carolina United States Colored Troops up the Combahee River past deadly torpedoes to locations where fugitives were hiding. Over 750 fugitives were rescued that night alone.
Most of South Carolina remained outside the main theater of battle until the final months of the war. The Union army entered the state in February 1865; Charleston, Columbia, and Georgetown fell, and by late May key interior locations were occupied. Although emancipation had been accomplished months earlier in the lowcountry, in the upstate planters often prevented the slaves from learning that they were free. In Spartanburg District it took a direct order from the Union army in August to compel some planters to inform slaves of their freedom. Whenever Union troops drew near, the slave system fell apart. Slaves sometimes simply disappeared into the Union lines. Whites were caught off guard by such displays of disloyalty and “ingratitude,” which were widespread in 1865. Some freed people were more brazen in the display of their liberty. From Camden, Mary Chestnut wrote of maids who “dressed themselves in their mistresses’ gowns before the owners’ faces and walked off.” Freedmen organized paramilitary units for their own protection and to appropriate the planters’ homes and movable property. Some even physically punished overseers and other white men deemed especially offensive.
Southern whites feared that emancipation would engulf the region in a blood bath as the former slaves sought vengeance against their owners. That is why in early 1865 leading Pee Dee planters petitioned the Union army, in the name of “common humanity & Christian civilization,” for protection against “disorderly & lawless . . . if not savage and barbarous” Negroes with insurrectionary designs. In another case, a planter’s daughter wrote, “what I most fear . . . is not the Yankees, but the negroes, cut off from all help . . . what will become of us?” These fears were greatly exacerbated when black troops were present. Near Charleston another fearful white predicted that the future would be “written in blood . . . if the negro troops are not removed and our own negroes made to submit to the civil laws.” As shorthand for these apprehensions, whites frequently referred to an impending second Santo Domingo. White Carolinians believed that the celebratory atmosphere and the ready availability of liquor made either July Fourth or the days following Christmas the most likely times for insurrection. Their fears proved unfounded.
Slavery’s demise brought numerous celebrations. Thousands of freedmen converged on Camp Saxton, near Beaufort, to hear the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Unlike certain Union-controlled locations that were exempted from its provisions, none of South Carolina was excluded. In a program of prayers, speeches, and hymns, the pinnacle was reached when freedmen spontaneously began singing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” In mid-March black Charlestonians organized a massive parade in which the mock corpse of slavery was displayed prominently on a hearse as joyous marchers wound their way through the streets of the city. In the last year of the war, Charleston’s Washington Race Course was used as a prison for Union soldiers, and 257 perished from disease and exposure and were buried in unmarked graves there. Recognizing the sacrifice of these soldiers, in April 1865 black churchmen landscaped the burial site, marked the graves, and surrounded the area with a fence; on the archway above the entrance the words “Martyrs of the Race Course” were written. On May 1, black Charlestonians organized a procession and ceremony to consecrate this cemetery. Approximately 2,800 black children led the procession and scattered flowers on the graves as they passed. They were followed by the Patriotic Association of Colored Men and other organizations, black soldiers, and individual black and white citizens. Speeches were given, patriotic songs such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “John Brown’s Body” were sung, and the site was dedicated by the prayers of black ministers. A reporter from the New York Tribune recorded the day’s events as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.” By celebrating their emancipation and the lives sacrificed to achieve it, black Charlestonians thus established what many believe to have been America’s first Decoration Day, eventually called Memorial Day.
Emancipation initiated an unprecedented era of mobility for black Carolinians. Slaveholders described the freed peoples’ “aimless wanderings” as evidence of their idleness, but the reality was much different. Of those who deserted their owners, many eventually returned to work on a free-labor basis. Others desired to test their freedom by seeking new employers and occupations. Rural whites tried to thwart this show of initiative. In Edgefield District in 1866, a former Confederate officer organized “Regulators” to threaten and even murder freed people who attempted to leave their former owners. Some freed people migrated to cities seeking safety, to find relatives separated by sale or the exigencies of war, and for the amenities more frequently available there.
Cities witnessed great changes in race relations because blacks and whites experienced a variety of regular contacts and the freedmen vigorously asserted their rights. They ventured boldly into previously interdicted zones such as public parks and conveyances. Urban workers such as Charleston’s longshoremen by 1867 organized themselves into associations to demand higher wages. Schools could be most easily and efficiently organized in cities, and freedmen’s aid societies assisted in their creation. Prohibited by law from an education before the war, in its aftermath black Carolinians of all ages enthusiastically unraveled the mysteries of reading and writing as symbol and substance of their new freedom. Desiring to take control of their religious lives, black Carolinians left the white churches they attended while enslaved and established new ones. Before the war there were 46,640 blacks attending Southern Methodist churches in the state, but by 1876 only 421 were left as freed people affiliated with the African Methodists and northern Methodists. Black Baptists and Presbyterians joined northern branches of these denominations. The scope of change in cities engendered confidence among urban freed people that alarmed the rural whites who observed them. One incredulous white man from Pendleton who journeyed to the capital concluded: “No Negro is improved by a visit to Columbia . . . & a visit to Charleston is his certain destruction.”
Most black Carolinians resided in the countryside, and their major problem was that emancipation occurred without substantial redistribution of land. Therefore, sharecropping developed on Midlands and upstate cotton lands, where tenants typically worked a fifty-acre plot for between one-third and three-quarters of the crop. On rice lands workers were paid wages or rented plots in exchange for working two days each week for the landowners. Women played an especially important role in the transformation of agricultural labor. As emancipation redefined the familial roles of black women, they frequently reduced the amount of labor they were willing to do outside the home. This was especially apparent on Georgetown rice plantations, where from 1866 to 1868 the number of female full hands declined thirty-five percent.
More than a single event, emancipation was a process that only began with physical freedom. The countless decisions black Carolinians made to transform their lives produced an immediate impact during the Civil War. However, the full implications of emancipation for politics, race, and labor relations were not fully apparent in 1865 and dramatically shaped South Carolina’s history over the next decade.
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Roark, James L. Masters without Slaves: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Norton, 1977.
Rose, Willie Lee. Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. 1964. Reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.
Schwalm, Leslie A. A Hard Fight for We: Women’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997. Weiner, Marlin F. Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina,
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