HISTORY: Emancipation

This newly-uncovered image of Underground Railroad hero Harriet Tubman from the late 1860s was in an album that sold last month at auction in New York City for $161,000. Image is courtesy Swann Auction Galleries, an auction house.


Excerpted from the S.C. Encyclopedia  |   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.

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.

— Excerpted from an entry by Bernard E. Powers Jr..  This entry hasn’t been updated since 2006.  To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia, published in 2006 by USC Press. (Information used by permission.) 


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