New Masters of the Emancipated Slaves


The first attempt at reconstruction was made by revolutionary Northern missionaries on the Sea Islands near Beaufort, South Carolina in the fall of 1861, and their intent was certainly to "remodel South Carolina along the lines of Massachusetts.” And contrary to popular history, the blue-coated liberator was not often the friend of those he provided with new masters.

Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman
North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission
"The Official Website of the North Carolina WBTS Sesquicentennial"


New Masters of the Emancipated Slaves:

"The colored people always referred to the months following the flight of their masters as the time of "confusion." The Negroes of one plantation explained to [Northern missionary] Susan Walker that they had
"been so confuse, they did not know what to do." Miss Walker told them that it was now the government that they had to obey. The revolution began with considerable destruction of property. The Negroes on many
plantations…broke the cotton gins [and] in other cases they began looting their masters houses and furniture, and activity which the federal soldiers took up enthusiastically.

From the time of the occupation of the islands, the soldiers had been a demoralizing influence on the defenseless Negroes. The very presence of the blue-coated strangers who appropriated everything in sight was in a sense a violation of the manorial feelings of the erstwhile slaves, who regarded their plantations as their homes, if not as their property. The Negroes naturally resented the army’s appropriation of the corn stored for their own winter food supply…and discipline [on plantations] was completely wrecked whenever troops were encamped in the vicinity. The New York Tribune’s correspondent reported that one enterprising and unscrupulous officer was caught in the act of assembling a cargo of Negroes for transportation and sale in Cuba.

With the coming of the [Northern] soldiers and sailors, sheep-stealing became common enough. [One night], a party of soldiers came ashore at the remote Gabriel Capers plantation and held a party that degenerated
into an outrageous drunken brawl. [An investigation found] two men named Mike and Jim were the chief culprits, and that they had killed a cow, beaten up several Negro men, and attempted to rape the women. It was not
an isolated incident.

Nearly all the cotton agents had been remiss in paying the Negroes who had helped them in collecting the cotton….the Negroes had received nothing in cash for their labor until late April, and even then the
payments were made "in part of orders on friends of the cotton agents for goods at exorbitant rates—as molasses for a dollar a gallon—and shoes which are 87 cents a pair at home and three dollars and so on.

Through the month of January [1864], a large part of Sherman’s army passed through Beaufort on the way to resume its march through the mainland of South Carolina. The abuse of the freedmen that had always
occurred whenever new troops came into the island district was vigorously reenacted. Some soldiers cheated the Negroes by selling them horses they did not own, and others behaved "like barbarians, shooting
pigs, chickens and destroying other property."  Negroes who attempted to defend their belongings were "very roughly" handled.

The brotherhood of [Sherman’s Western troops] stopped abruptly, however, at the color line. The Western soldier was appalled by the free manners of the missionaries with the Negroes. The sight of "a beautiful white
woman driving in a wagon with a coal-black Negro man " so shocked one soldier that he subsequently declared he would have shot her on the spot, "if she had been anything to me."  "Sherman and his men," explained Arthur Sumner to a Northern friend, "are impatient of darkies, and annoyed to see them so pampered, petted and spoiled, as they have been here."  [While in Beaufort], Sherman’s men made free use of all property "lying around loose" and burned great quantities of lumber to keep the "movable army" warm.

In the matter of recruiting [black soldiers], General [Rufus] Saxton had assured the [black] people that no man would be taken against his will, but he had been undone by General [David] Hunter in the first place, by
General Quincy Gilmore in the second place, and last by General John G. Foster, who in 1864 resumed wholesale recruiting "of every able-bodied make in the department." The atrocious impressment of [black] boys of fourteen and responsible men with large dependent families, and the shooting down of Negroes who resisted, were all common occurrences. The Negroes who had been enlisted were promised the same pay as other soldiers. They had received it for a time, "but at length it was reduced, and they received but little more than half of what was promised."

(Rehearsal for Reconstruction, The Port Royal Experiment, Willie Lee Rose, Vintage Books, 1964, pp. 63-64, 323-324, 328-329))