Unit One: Giving Meaning to Freedom

Ceremonial copy of the Thirteenth Amendment [signed by Abraham Lincoln and members of Congress], February 1, 1865. Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Ceremonial copy of the Thirteenth Amendment [signed by Abraham Lincoln and members of Congress], February 1, 1865. Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

When the American Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, it was clear that slavery would also end in the United States. Though President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as an executive order in 1863, the federal government could not fully implement freeing the millions of enslaved African Americans in the southern states until the end of the war. Rather than wait, thousands of enslaved women and men responded to the Proclamation by freeing themselves through escape under the cover of war. In December 1865, U.S. Congress was able to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, and what historian David Brion Davis describes as the “inhuman bondage” of slavery was finally illegal in the United States.

After the end of armed conflict, soldiers drawn from the occupying forces of the Union army and agents of the newly organized Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen's Bureau) fanned out across the former Confederacy to enforce emancipation. Though pockets of bondage would persist into the fall of 1866, particularly in more remote areas, legalized bondage gradually dissolved through the efforts of assertive former slaves, sympathetic Union military and government officials, and a victorious nation determined to eliminate the central cause of the violent war now behind them. 

<span>"Freedmen ... New Orleans,"</span>&nbsp;1867, sketch by James E. Taylor in <em>Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper</em>, courtesy of Library of Congress.

"Freedmen ... New Orleans," 1867, sketch by James E. Taylor in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Just as the end of the U.S. Civil War did not mark the immediate end of slavery, emancipation did not automatically fulfill the promises of freedom. Enforcing emancipation would require a determined effort from federal military garrisons and Union officials over months and even years; it would take many more people a good deal longer to work out the precise terms of the freedom that former slaves would now enjoy.

An intense and sometimes deadly conflict over the scope and meaning of black freedom lay at the very heart of the struggle over Reconstruction. David Swain, a former governor of North Carolina who became embroiled in Reconstruction, described this struggle as “a new war,” and with good reason. Undoubtedly, the four million people liberated by the Thirteenth Amendment had the greatest stakes in this contest, with their own expectations and dreams about freedom. Ex-Confederates—and particularlyformer slaveholders—attached themselves to a strikingly different vision of the new post-slavery South, in which pre-war racial and class hierarchies might be preserved. Aspiring political activists and entrepreneurs, soldiers, teachers, and missionaries from the North who viewed the former Confederacy as a place to be subdued, transformed, and revived along free-labor lines brought their own prescriptions for reconstructing the region.

"<span>Scene in Registration office, Macon, Ga,</span>" 1867, sketch by James E. Taylor in <em>Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper</em>, courtesy of Library of Congress.

"Scene in Registration office, Macon, Ga," 1867, sketch by James E. Taylor, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, courtesy of Library of Congress.

"Glimpses at the Freedmen - The Freedmen's Union Industrial School," Richmond, Virginia, sketch by Jas E. Taylor, 22 September 1866, <em>Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper</em>. Image depicts white northern teachers instructing former slaves.

"Glimpses at the Freedmen - The Freedmen's Union Industrial School," Richmond, Virginia, sketch by Jas E. Taylor,  22 September 1866, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, courtesy of Library of Congress. Image depicts white northern teachers instructing former slaves.

Tensions and divisions also occurred within these different race, class, and regional factions. White southerners disagreed, sometimes violently, about the future of their region, its political direction, and the structure of its labor and productive systems. Northerners expressed nearly as many understandings of freedom and free labor as there were people to articulate ideas. Women often projected ideas about freedom that conflicted with men’s. The region’s small core of industrial workers and its larger army of agricultural laborers did not necessarily share the aspirations of northern and southern elites. Former slaves also disagreed, and divisions often appeared among them as black women and men considered what sort of social, political, economic and domestic arrangements should replace the now thoroughly discredited system of slavery.

General agreement form for freedmen and women as laborers on a plantation, 1865, Heyward and Ferguson Family Papers, courtesy of the College of Charleston Libraries.

General agreement form for freedmen and women as laborers on a plantation, 1865, Heyward and Ferguson Family Papers, courtesy of College of Charleston Libraries.

The Unit One: Educational Documents linked to this unit provide just a small sample of the range and complexity of the intense debate that would convulse the nation for decades to come. What was freedom? Who had the right to decide? What was the experience of freedom like for different individuals on a day-to-day basis? These materials can be effectively examined as individual documents, but a deeper understanding about the “new war” unleashed by emancipation is best obtained by approaching the documents together, in the order in which they are listed here. Reading these documents as a series reveals the dynamic quality of this intense debate as it unfolded over time.

Unit One: Educational Documents