The Ancestors Speak: A Conversation Between Former Slaves And Union General Sherman

Top: Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln 
Bottom Left: A Negro Congregation, Washington, DC 
Bottom Right:
Top: Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln Bottom Left: A Negro Congregation, Washington, DC Bottom Right: Union Army General, William T. Sherman

In Their Own Words

In January 1865, having laid claim to the coastal lands of Georgia and South Carolina, the Union Army was met by throngs of freed slaves. The war was still raging, the south was “still very defiant” and for Union General Sherman, there was no end in sight. They placed the able-bodied men into military or civilian service and then turned their attention to the care of the elderly, infirmed, women and children. Union Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton called to Savannah 20 members of the negro clergy to inquire of their thoughts about the outcome of the war and the future of their people. In a long interview, the group covered many subjects including their ideas for how they hoped to live in the future.

Garrison Frazier, a 67-year-old Baptist preacher who had been in the ministry for 35 years before he was forced to retire when his health began to fail, was selected to speak on behalf of the assembly. They were a cross section of the community, often regarded as the most reputable members who spoke to and on behalf of thousands of people within their congregations and communities. They ranged in age from 26 to 72, with congregation sizes from zero members to what is even by today’s account, a mega church with 1800 members. The wealth that was quietly controlled by some of the enslavement era churches was also considerable, with a few of the ministries being valued as much as $20,000, more than $280,000 in 2016 dollars. Only one church had European trustees. Half of them had been enslaved until they were freed by the Union Army with the balance either having purchased their freedom or were born free.

The Right of Self-Determination

It is not stated in the interview, but there is evidence that the men had previously discussed the opinions that they intended to represent to the Union and arrived at their shared response by consensus, even respectfully allowing space for the dissenting opinions to voiced. The introductory questions were intended to gauge their comprehension of what was transpiring with respect to the war, the proclamation and the certainty of their prospects for freedom. Freedom from being held as chattel also meant that chattel holders were likewise free from their obligation to make provision for their former property. Secretary Stanton wondered if the men understood that they would be responsible for their own survival going forward. Frazier said:

The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor–that is, by the labor of the women and children and old men; and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare. And to assist the Government, the young men should enlist in the service of the Government, and serve in such manner as they may be wanted.

Most compelling is even though most had spent their entire lives toiling “by irresistible power and not by consent,” they still wanted to work for and purchase the land on which they would settle together after the war. “We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”

The Right to Govern Their Own Communities as American Citizens

They were also clear about how they wanted to live as citizens of the re-United States if the Union was successful in putting down the rebellion. Today, an often-unspoken statement of achievement for the Indigenous and African descendants of colonialism and enslavement is the opportunity to move into a largely European community. To the contrary, their forefathers were strongly opposed to the notion of integration into European society and culture. Recognizing the strength of their unity, all but one rejected the idea of being “scattered among the whites” over the opportunity to live in colonies of their own. The twentieth member of the group of clergymen, James Lynch, 26 was a free-born man from Baltimore, Md. As presiding elder and missionary of the M.E. Church, he had only spent two years in the South. Given the Methodist Episcopal Church’s composition of European and Indigenous and African, bond and free; strong support for the Union and the abolition of enslavement, unlike his older counterparts more hardened by the brutality of southern enslavement, he was likely still optimistic for a genuinely unified nation. His colleagues were not convinced. Frazier responded:

I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over; but I do not know that I can answer for my brethren. [Mr. Lynch says he thinks they should not be separated, but live together. All the other persons present, being questioned one by one, answer that they agree with Brother Frazier.]

When asked of the extent of their civility and level of their intelligence to “maintain themselves under the Government of the United States and the equal protection of its laws, and maintain good and peaceable relations among yourselves and with (their) neighbors, Frazier responded with an uncharacteristically curt one-liner, “I think there is sufficient intelligence among us to do so.”

The Right to Pledge Their Allegiance to Support the United States

Nonetheless, the desire to live separate from European citizens, to govern themselves in their own communities and pursue the ideal of freedom that had been afforded to the other community for more than 200 years, did not mean that they were not committed to the foundational principles of the nation. When asked what they believed was the consensus of Indigenous and African descendants of colonialism and enslavement in the south about their level of trust of the United States government, its intent and purpose for responding to the rebellion of southern states’ with war, Frazier declared their unconditional support of the Union.

I think you will find there are thousands that are willing to make any sacrifice to assist the Government of the United States, while there are also many that are not willing to take up arms. I do not suppose there are a dozen men that are opposed to the Government. I understand, as to the war, that the South is the aggressor.

Confident that he was speaking for Indigenous and African descendants of colonialism and enslavement across the nation, Frazier said that one would have been hard pressed to find a single person who would be in support of the Rebel Army, “It is my opinion that there is not a man in this city that could be started to help the Rebels one inch, for that would be suicide.” Their gratitude to the Union army was unquestioned, If the prayers that have gone up for the Union army could be read out, you would not get through them these two weeks.

Their Position on Enslavement

Their critique of the south’s response to the election of Lincoln in 1860 speaks eerily like the democratic critique of a new and decidedly different republican party in 2016.

President Lincoln was elected President by most the United States, which guaranteed him the right of holding the office and exercising that right over the whole United States. The South, without knowing what he would do, rebelled. The war was commenced by the Rebels before he came into office.

In much the same way that modern-day republicans say that is premature to assume what should be expected from a Donald Trump administration given the mandate that his supporters believe that h received from American voters, the civil war preachers believed that the south acted presumptively and forced the union’s hand to reluctantly go to war ― abolition was only a tangential consequence of that action.

The object of the war was not at first to give the slaves their freedom, but the sole object of the war was at first to bring the rebellious States back into the Union and their loyalty to the laws of the United States. Afterward, knowing the value set on the slaves by the Rebels, the President thought that his proclamation would stimulate them to lay down their arms, reduce them to obedience, and help to bring back the Rebel States; and they’re not doing so has now made the freedom of the slaves a part of the war. As resolved as they were in their desire to be free, they had no resolve for vengeance.

When asked what, they believed would happen if a slave were to place in service to the Confederacy the response was, “they would fight as long as they were before the bayonet, and just as soon as soon as they could get away, they would desert.”

Their Commitment to Military and Civilian Service

Thousands were committed to service to the military, per the group. No doubt because of having lived under tyrannical brutality in some cases, many were not yet willing to take up arms and had differing opinions in the way that preferred to serve, but few were unwilling to serve their government.

I think you will find there are thousands that are willing to make any sacrifice to assist the Government of the United States, while there are also many that are not willing to take up arms.

It is on this point that perhaps the first hint of dissenting opinions between the group of clergy and the larger citizenry was slightly exposed. Thousands of young men were perhaps traveling to Port Royal to be drilled and put into service, but they were a little too anxious to get their hands on the weapons and be sent into battle against their former enslavers. “I think there are thousands of the young men that would enlist. There is something about them that perhaps is wrong. They have suffered so long from the Rebels that they want to shoulder the musket,” said Frazier. Others he said, were willing to serve in the Quartermaster’s or Commissary Service. Extremely well versed in legislative policy and strategy, they wanted to be counted for their service and did not believe that compulsory service was necessary when Indigenous and African people were approached with the right messaging.

How the Facts Became the Lore

Secretary Stanton asked General Sherman to leave the room so that he could encourage greater transparency in their opinion of his performance. Except for Lynch, who said that he had not had much interaction with Sherman, the overwhelming response was that he had met them “as a friend and a gentleman,” a sharp departure to what was said about him in a letter he received from Army Chief of Staff, Henry Halleck just three days earlier, saying that he was exhibiting an “almost criminal dislike of the negro.” Despite their praise, Sherman resisted the request to include Indigenous and African descendants in the ranks alongside the European serviceman.

What he did offer them however, was Special Field Orders, No. 15, just four days later. Structured and worded much like a standard peace agreement, it stated, The order prevented any white person from being able to reside in the settlement and “the sole and exclusive management of affairs” were “left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority and the acts of Congress.” Like the Headright statutes of the early colonies, any three heads of households could come together and receive 120 acres of land, subdivided between the three households, giving each a “plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front.” Hence, what began as an initiative to settle freed slaves in their own “state” by offering land grants just as had been extended to the original colonists, subject only to the rule of the United States became known as “Sherman’s Reservation”, was over time perverted into a government hand-out concept called “40 acres and a mule,” effectively dispelling the precedent-setting power of the war-time decree.

The Promise of Economic Stability and Military Protection

The right to free commerce to build and stabilize their economy was pledged to the Indigenous and African “state.” Trade would be normalized and protected by the Union government, “to afford the settlers the opportunity to supply their necessary wants, and to sell the products of their land and labor.” In addition to the Indigenous and African people being expected to commit to enlisted service, the United States government also committed to extend to them to same military protections in their ‘state’ as those in which the European descendants lived. The Union military authorities were charged to “afford them protection, until they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.”

As all peace agreements are founded in territory, it was the land that ultimately proved the undoing of Special Field Orders, No. 15. Sherman was well aware that his ability to transfer clear title was limited and that the “possessory” titles that he conveyed would only stand for as long the war endured. Nonetheless, by the end of the war, Indigenous and African descendants of colonialism and enslavement were attempting to rebuild their lives in their new ‘state’ on more than 400,000 acres, in hopes that the United States would finally behave honorably and permit them to remain. Within a year, President Andrew Johnson decisively stripped that number down to 75,000 acres, the remainder of which was located in South Carolina, save 650 acres. It seems such a heartless act that even some former slaveholders spoke against the government. Some of that remaining land is still held by Indigenous and African descendants of colonialism and enslavement today, despite fierce challenges by developers that has continued for more than 60 years.

The Foundation for Integration

Johnson recognized that as land is the foundation for building individual wealth in any developed economy, territory is the foundation for establishing self-determination and prosperity for groups. He acted swiftly to shift that right to those of European descent almost immediately following the death of Abraham Lincoln. Indigenous and African descendants watched the opportunity to build “by our own labor ... to soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare” be snatched away leaving them turn to sharecropping often in return to their former enslavers.

The most historically disenfranchised population in the United States continues to walk a hard line between flourishing and failing.

The foundation for the government’s version of integration was in place. People were forced back out to the plantations from which they had already come scattered among the white population with no land and few resources. In the 20th century, integration was imposed in response to the challenges of the Plessy vs Ferguson decision that was passed nearly 30 years after that very important meeting with General Sherman. Yet it is not the integration that was envisioned by those in attendance. They were not opposed to separate, they wanted equal access opportunity, and their proportionate share of the resources as any other similar territory would receive.

Government imposed integration did result in schools that were no longer separate but unequal, but also the perceived proportionate resources and administration was largely not controlled by Indigenous and African descendants of colonialism and enslavement in their own communities. Messaging for social initiatives like welfare in the late 1960s and early 1970s were promulgated through the women’s rights movement to alleviate poverty of women and children, but was also hardwired to a negative false narrative that has dogged the Indigenous and African community since 1865. The resulting legislation and programs carried the same oppressive, controlling inhibitors against self determination. Similar analyses can be applied to access to equal opportunity in housing, jobs and education. The vision of government imposed integration and unequal citizenship was not the vision of civil war slaves.

Despite these and other obstacles to their success, the most historically disenfranchised population in the United States continues to walk a hard line between flourishing and failing. The hopes of those 20 voices continue to speak through generations demanding the right to self-determination, full equality and access to economic parity.

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