The American Civil War has left us with some great songs. However, there was another musical tradition present before, during, and after the war. Its plaintive, stark beauty only grew stronger as its people, suddenly thrust from slavery to freedom, struggled to find their places in the newly united nation 150 years ago this month.
The world certainly had been shook down and spun around for black Southern Americans 150 years ago this month, whether in uniform or as civilians.
The US Colored Troops
All Confederate troops demobilized as soon as they were surrendered and given their paroles. US soldiers demobilized in the order in which they signed up, with 800,000 of them leaving military service between April and November 1865. Since African-American troops had begun to serve years after the war’s beginning, this timing meant that many white units demobilized before they did.
Thus, by autumn a full third of occupying US forces in the South were black, with the expected negative responses and social pressures from white locals, including requests from Virginia for removal of all USCT units.
There was also uncertain support for African American soldiers from Washington politicians. General Grant had already transferred the XXV Corps, made up of USCT units, from Virginia to the Rio Grande as part of his overall strategy of maintaining a strong force there under General Sheridan to discourage Confederate regrouping in Mexico under support of the French-supported government there.
He knew the fighting worth of black Americans, but in that contentious political climate, where even Northern states were preparing to pass public referenda against giving African Americans the vote, it was becoming clear to many decision-makers that the future for colored Army units was out on the Western frontier.
Yes, another thing I’ve learned while looking at American history through this Civil War/Reconstruction timeline series is that African American history always has the shadows of racism – in addition to all the obvious examples – present at even the brightest moments. Today’s kids are taught about the “buffalo soldiers,” and that’s great, but it is still much less well known (at least in the white tradition I grew up in from the 1950s onward) how all those soldiers ended up in the West in the first place.
What to do with former Confederates?
At this time, so soon after the cease-fire, Grant thoroughly supported President Andrew Johnson, just as he had Lincoln, but radical congressional Republicans were becoming more and more dissatisfied with Johnson’s pardons of many higher-echelon Confederates (although Jefferson Davis was still imprisoned under harsh conditions in Fort Monroe, Johnson would eventually tell Mrs. Davis, when she came to ask for his pardon – Davis ultimately was offered one but refused it – that he was willing to give one but had to wait for time to pass to “mollify the public” ).
These US Congress members, led by Senators Carl Schurz (Missouri), Charles Sumner (Massachusetts), Benjamin Wade (Ohio), and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Pennsylvania), wanted Confederates to be punished. They were also concerned that Johnson was not pursuing black suffrage in his reconstruction policies. However, since Congress would not convene until December, and the president definitely wasn’t going to call a special session, there was little they could do.
The radical DC politicians could only compile reports of attacks on Southern blacks and urge General Grant, who was probably the second most powerful American of the day, to do something about it.
Black entrepreneurship and trouble on the horizon
When they did demobilize, USCT soldiers faced many of the same challenges as white soldiers did in adjusting to civilian life in a war-torn land, in addition to racism. However, they also had community support and a strong business tradition.
Per source 14, there had been two types of black entrepreneurs before the war. Free blacks, although marginalized in a white-dominated society, had always worked in every part of the business community, including merchandising, real estate, manufacturing, construction, transportation, and mining.
Slaves couldn’t go into business for themselves, or course, and they didn’t patronize black businesses significantly since any money they got was saved up to buy freedom for themselves or for relatives (over 40% of Ohio’s slaves did this, for example, in 1839). However, they had practical training in many fields, including crafts, service, and manual labor, that gave them an advantage over white job-seekers after the war, particularly white blue-collar newcomers in the South. Former slaves who had been given decision-making authority over their owner’s business also brought executive experience into the new market. And of course, education and industrial training were ongoing, often organized by Northern whites.
Basically, as long as it kept its head down and didn’t become successful enough to trigger retaliation from local whites (shadow time), the black American business community, north and south, thrived. It welcomed demobilized soldiers and helped them make the transition to civilian life.
However, seeds for future trouble were being sown now, 150 years ago today. In Memphis, for example, incoming white Irish immigrants were being given railroad labor jobs that had traditionally been held by blacks, and resentment was building on both sides.
Now let’s look at the timeline for September, 1865.
September 5: Mexico’s French-backed ruler accepts the Shelby Expedition not as representatives of the Confederacy but as immigrants and he grants them territory for two colonies. Most former Confederates accept the offer; as one of them says, “Go back? To what?”
September 6: General Grant tells Sheridan to reduce his forces on the Rio Grande to a minimum except in Texas. (3)
September 7: In an executive order, President Johnson suspends the legal requirement that “all officers of the Treasury Department. military officers, and all others in the service of the United States … turn over to the authorized officers of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands all funds collected by tax or otherwise for the benefit of refugees or freedmen, or accruing from abandoned lands or property set apart for their use.”
September 8: Grant supports intervention in Mexico, telling the president that “nonintervention in Mexican affairs will lead to an expensive and bloody war.” (3)
September 12: The Freedmen’s Bureau issues Circular No. 15, restoring property to many former Southern owners. Squatters, including freedmen, who had settled on the land, which was formerly considered abandoned, are evicted unless they can show a legal land title (most can’t).
It’s a great country, but you can’t live in it for nothing.
— Will Rogers
(3) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.
(4) Up From Slavery. Booker T. Washington
(5) The Papers of Jefferson Davis, timeline. Rice University.
(6) Reconstruction Timeline. Mount Holyoke College.
(7) The American Presidency Project – Presidential Documents.
(8) Andrew Johnson Timeline. National Park Service.
(9) Georgia History Timeline/Chronology 1865.
(10) Nathan Bedford Forrest. Jack Hurst. Knopf. New York. 1993.
(11) Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction. Paul H. Bergeron. University of Tennessee. Knoxville. 2011
(12) Andrew Johnson: A Life in Pursuit of the Right Course 1808-1875 Fay Warrington Brabson. Seeman. Durham, NC. 1972
(13) Toward A New South? Studies in Post-Civil War Southern Communities. Edited by Orville Vernon Burton and Robert C. McMath, Jr. Greenwood Press. Westport. 1982.
(14) Entrepreneurship and Self-Help among Black Americans: A Reconsideration of Race and Economics. John Sibley Butler. SUNY Press. 2005
(15) The Civil War: A Narrative, volume 3, chapter 8. Shelby Foote. Random House, New York. 1974
(16) U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth. Joan Waugh. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. 2009