“Freed from slavery! Freed from sin! Bless God and General Grant!”
Poverty and depredation — the ruins of the old south
The women of the south had witnessed everything. The music and parades, and the first great hopes of victory. Sustainable optimism in the first years of war. Long casualty lists, and the return of amputees from the front. Inflation and food shortages. Occupation, defeat, and humiliation.
About 290,000 southern soldiers died in the war. Maybe 200,000 were wounded. In their absence, women had been left to maintain the land, particularly among those who could not afford slaves. Union troops had cut across wide areas of the south, to no small effect. Farms were destroyed, railroads uprooted, and buildings left in rubble. This was most pronounced in South Carolina and Georgia, where Sherman’s army had traversed. Virginia and Mississippi had also been devastated in many places. Philip Sheridan’s troops, for example, had torched much of the fertile Shenandoah Valley in 1864.
Wealth had vanished, for those who’d had it to begin with. Along with the demise of the Confederacy, the financial system collapsed as well. Confederate money was worthless, and so were the banks who had supported it. In most places, society operated at or near the level of a barter economy. Hunger and deprivation were everywhere as the men returned home from the front lines.
People with any connection to the Confederacy were not allowed to form governments in the aftermath. Authority rested in the hands of Federal troops, who were more or less free to appropriate things as they pleased. In rural areas, there was little authority at all. Cotton thieves, horse thieves, and marauders were endemic. Those who claimed some connection to the Union, no matter how tenuous or contrived, were generally granted leniency in the courts.
Free from bondage — the liberation of the slaves
For the black people of the south, 1865 was the hour of deliverance. Even well before the war ended, many had deserted their farms and plantations. A lot of them made their way to the Union lines to join the army or to seek it’s protection. Others had remained with their masters, on their traditional homes. In these cases, when the outcome of slavery was no longer in doubt, the usual procedure was for the slaves to be summoned to a central location for the announcement from their former master.
In either case, there was a great outpouring of joy on the part of the freed slaves, comparable to the joy of any oppressed people on the morning of their revolution. For a group of people whose biblical readings focused so heavily on the tales of Moses, the emancipation was nothing short of a gift from God.
In the days before this emancipation, no black person could travel the southern roads without a signed pass clearly stating their business and their destination. Many slaves had never been more than a mile from their plantations, if that. The first thing many of them did was to take to those roads — wandering, exploring, and generally trying to make use and sense of their newfound freedom.
In that first summer of 1865, many of the freed slaves eventually made their way to the towns of the south. Here they were enticed by the promise of safety, of congregation in mutual aid societies, the hope of finding work outside the realm of picking cotton (or other crops, in those places where cotton wasn’t grown), and by the distribution of federal aid, which was concentrated in the cities. Those freedmen who had been dislocated from their families by the slave trade began that heartbreaking search, hoping that their luck would be better in the cities where the freed people began to congregate.
The freed slaves came to be called “freedmen” in those days. There were great rumors among the freedmen that the Union Army would be distributing land to them in massive quantities. These rumors greatly lifted the spirits of the freedmen, and they hesitated to contract their labor out to the white planters. One story that had much currency was that the great redistribution would be announced on Christmas of New Year’s, and implemented shortly thereafter. Who among the black people couldn’t muster a tinge of great hope and anticipation when such a story was repeated to them?
Hungry days in the south — the fall of 1865
No matter how jubilant the black people were as a result of gaining freedom, and no matter how despondent or indifferent the whites were in the wake of losing their war, there was still the everyday business of survival to attend to.
Planting had been neglected or interrupted in many areas in the spring, due to the colossal dislocations of the war ending, of the slaves being freed, of banditry and neglect, and so on. In many parts of the south, there was also a severe drought in the summer after the war. Harvests were not large, and it soon became apparent that there was great danger of hunger in some places.
One of the most important organizations to combat this threat of starvation was the Freedman’s Bureau. This organization delivered food rations in many of the major cities. It did not just distribute food to former slaves in 1865, but also to many destitute white people who were affected by the crop failures taking place.
Religious organizations also stepped in to give assistance. It was difficult, however, for aid to reach everyone who was hungry. People who lived in the hills, far from the cities and the farms, were the worst affected. Many of these were the poorest class of whites, who suffered through another brutal winter going into 1866, on top of the depredations of the war.
Many great and not-so-great changes took place in the south in the period between 1865 and 1877. Other articles in this series will cover those changes in more detail.
W.E.B. Dubois – “Black Reconstruction in America”
W.E.B. Dubois – “The Souls of Black Folk” (full text online)
Walter Lynwood Fleming – “Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama” (full text online)
African-Americans in New Orleans
Overview of Reconstruction