The Civil War and Reconstruction must have been chaotic and frightening times. The number of people who lost their lives from war or disease included soldiers, civilians, and runaway slaves. Families were pitted against families in conflict that sometimes led to violence. Therefore in terms of emotions running high and conflict causing many lost lives the Civil War and Reconstruction were like the American Revolution. It seems like the South probably felt that they were waging their American Revolution against the North, but in the end they lost the war whereas the 13 colonies won their war against the King of England. From the slaves’ point of view, they also had reasons to think of the time as their American Revolution. I hypothesize that that many slaves won this ‘American Revolution’ and for them the war brought them success.
The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. The document “did not liberate all the slaves . . . it applied to very few” because Lincoln had only the powers as the commander-in-chief of the Union military (Ritchie and Broussard 551). The South Carolina coastal islands of Saint Helena and Port Royal were the exception to that rule because when the Union Navy took a stand during on Sea Islands the white southerners ran away from their land on the island. By September, 1861 no whites were on the islands. South Carolina was one of the southern states where thousands of slaves were freed on the coastal islands, not by a piece of paper, but because the white owners fled. Ten thousand blacks, former slaves were left on the island to experience what some call a “rehearsal for Reconstruction” (Ritchie and Broussard 574).
The Blacks left on the islands were not alone for very long because a variety of people with diverse ideas for progress moved into the area. Union military officers, business investors interested in the cotton crop, and “Gideon’s Band” were all some of the new arrivals (Ritchie and Broussard 574). Gideon’s Band was made up of Northern black and white teachers and others who came to the islands to help teach the newly freed people how to read and take their new position in the world.
Charlotte Forten Grimke was one of the teachers who wrote about her experiences giving lessons to the former slaves and their children. She wrote about her “indignation” towards northerners and southerners who insist that slaves are inferior by nature instead of the fact that they were not given opportunities (Grimke par. 2). The experience of the slaves was even worse than not be allowed to take advantage of schooling because they were forced into the terrible conditions of slavery.
The former slave, Jourdon Anderson, gives a peek into his own conditions as a slave. The Civil War allowed his family to make a new life in the North. He wrote a letter to his former owner because the former master had invited to come back to the South and he could have his old job back. After reading the letter, it is really shocking to understand that even though the plantation owner had shot twice at Jourdon, he thought Jourdon would want to return. A new life for Jourdon and Mandy Anderson’s family in the North included a chance for their daughters Milly and Jane to become educated and to learn “virtuous habits” (Anderson par. 4). Their old life was a frightening prospect for the two young women who would have had to put up with “the violence and wickedness of their young masters” (Anderson par. 4).
Jourdon Anderson’s letter to his former master really exposes the indignities slaves were expected to accept. For example, after 32 years of slavery Anderson figured that he should have been paid “$25 per month” and Mandy worked twenty years and should have been “$2 a week” (Anderson par. 3). The Anderson’s back-pay amounted to “$11,680” (Anderson par.3). Based on those figures and if the former owner was to return the back pay with interest the Anderson’s might think about returning to their former work. Anderson was sceptical and probably mocking his former owner when he wrote that they might consider returning if they were compensated with their back pay plus interest.
The Civil War can be compared to the American Revolution for Blacks in the South Carolina coastal islands and for former slaves who found a good life in the North. On the other hand, Reconstruction brought so much anger from Whites in the South that I do not think it seemed like a successful revolution to most of the Blacks. The southern elite cotton plantation owners had been the law since the colonies were first settled. They must have felt absolute disbelief when they had no power when Reconstruction reached the South. The Democratic and Republican political parties, white politicians, the former slave owners and cotton traders were not accepting the loss of slavery well. They were the main opponents of Reconstruction and they did everything they could to stop Reconstruction; the use of violence was one of their strategies. For example the Ku Klux Klan was organized by the elites and other southern whites; they carried out a “reign of terror” (Ritchie and Broussard 617). The idea that former slaves were being allowed to hold political positions and own businesses made them angry. They were probably frightened too, because they were very worried about the chance that a “black supremacy” would replace their white supremacy in the southern states (Ritchie and Broussard 617).
The difference between the old lives and the new lives of many former slaves can be said be revolutionary. And it can be said that many experienced their own American Revolution with a successful ending due to the Civil War. The people on Saint Helena and Port Royal in the South Carolina Islands had a revolution in their lives once the whites left in fear of the Union Army. We should remember that the Civil War and the Reconstruction were still very difficult for the majority of former slaves, although others were able to celebrate their own American Revolution.
Anderson, Jourdon. (1864). ““There Was Never Any Pay-day For the Negroes”: Jourdon Anderson Demands Wages.” In Lydia Maria Child, The Freedmen’s Book, Boston: Tickenor and Fields.1865. pp. 265–67. n.d. Web 1 July 2015. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6369/
Grimke, Charlotte Forten. “Life on the Islands,” Atlantic Monthly, 13, pp. 587-596. 1864. n.d. Web. 1 July 2015. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6517
“A House Divided, 1840-1861.” Chap.13. In Donald A. Ritchie, and Albert S. Broussard. American History: The Early Years to 1877. NY: Glencoe McGraw-Hill. 2000. pp. 489-535.
“A New Birth of Freedom: The Civil War, 1861-1865.” Chap. 14. In Donald A. Ritchie, and Albert S. Broussard. American History: The Early Years to 1877. NY: Glencoe McGraw-Hill. 2000. pp. 536-625.