After Slavery: Educator Resources

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5. Clashes between White and Black Union Troops in Charleston

"Negro recruits at Charleston," Charleston, South Carolina, April 1865, <em>Harper's Monthly Magazine<em>, </em></em>courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

"Negro recruits at Charleston," April 1865, Harper's Weekly.

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Four: Freedom, Black Soldiers, and the Union Military in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Among southern seaport cities, Charleston, South Carolina, had few equals in terms of its importance to the slave system. In purely economic terms, it was rivaled by New Orleans, perhaps by the antebellum period, but by few others: over two centuries nearly three of every four Africans brought to North America as slaves entered through Charleston harbor, and the ships sailing out of the city were heavily laden with cotton, rice and the other staples that afforded its elite lives of splendor and great wealth. But Charleston's importance was not merely economic: in the decades leading up to the outbreak of civil war, this city also developed a reputation as the intellectual home of militant proslavery thought. Its leading men were at the forefront of the secessionist movement in the late 1850s, and the opening shots of the bloody Civil War were fired in the same harbor into which so many slaves had entered North America.

Charleston's capture by Union forces in mid-February 1865—less than two months before the Confederate surrender—inaugurated a period of strain and upheaval. Freedpeople from the countryside began flocking to the city as a refuge from depredations being carried out against them in rural areas, and the town was briefly placed under the guardianship of the 21st U.S. Colored Troops, a regiment made up largely of locally-recruited former slaves. By the early summer, three-way clashes began to develop between the 21st and white troops brought in to assist in the occupation, and between these white regiments (with a reputation for hostility against blacks) and the city's freed population. Members of one of the New York regiments "insulted the colored people everywhere," one observer noted, "stoned them, knocked them down, and cut them." The following letter was written by a native white Charlestonian, who appears to have been pleased when these tensions culminated in a riot in early July 1865.

Clashes between White and Black Union Troops in Charleston

[July 1865]

[Charleston] is in much too sickly a state to bring anyone to it-already I have heard reports of Yellow Fever. I do not believe it is yet an epidemic but have not the smallest doubt it will be so before the Summer is over. The streets are miserably dirty, and smell most offensively. I heard the other day that 240 persons, white and black, but mostly black, had died in one week...

The City is crowded with negros from the country around-they cannot and will not be kept out by the authorities, they say they are free and have a perfect right to go where they please. One was overheard to say she was a free as a buzzard. In Cordesvillea about two weeks ago some gentlemen were out hunting, and in the course of their hunt, they overtook a party of negros enjoying themselves in the same way. The negros were armed with double barrel guns, and had their pack of dogs. This state of things cannot continue long some change must be made. I could tell you many other instances of their insolence appearance, insubordination and insolence but a letter is not a proper place for it.

They may give us a civil gov: civil rule or what else they please,b but all the black troops and all the negros must be sent out of the city, and those belonging to the plantations must be made to remain there, and until this is done anything will prove utterly unavailing for our peace and quiet. At one time I was opposed to the expelling of all Negros from the City, but now that I know them, I am fully for doing so, except those that may be personally attending on you. A negro is a (blank space) and has not as much gratitude about him as many of the inferior animals-in fact, until this is done our City never will be inhabited by respectable people, or rebuilt. I understand that many persons have come to the city, and after seeing how things go on, have returned in perfect disgust, and declare they will never bring in their families until some change takes place.

...The 127th New York Regiment which has been stationed in the City since the vacuation [sic] first took place, and have in consequence of their antipathy to the negro, tended in a great measure to keep them in order, have been sent home, and six companies of Dureyee's Zouaves (from Savannah) have taken their place[;] between these and ebony's no love whatsoever exists. They had not been in the city eight and forty hours, it is said, before they commenced operations by clearing the East Bay batteries, and in the evening having an encounter in John St. in which the 'freedmen' were decently used up -the Cold. troops (as they are called) and themselves also are no friends-all this is in our favor, and until the negros shall be made to know their places, I say, let it continue.

aCordesville lies about 30 miles north of Charleston.

bHere Deas is responding to rumors that President Andrew Johnson is going to restore civil authority to white Southerners.

Source: Elias H. Deas to Anne Simmons Deas, Elias Harry Deas Papers, Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina at Columbia


Questions to Consider

  1. Why, according to Deas, are freedpeople coming into the city in such large numbers? What are the consequences?

  2. What does the writer find objectionable in the incident that he recounts from Cordesville? What does its rendering suggest about the state of sentiment among whites in Charleston?

  3. Reread the second full paragraph closely, bearing in mind that slavery ended, with the war, three months before this letter was written. Are the measures advocated by Deas compatible with a 'free labor' system? In what ways might we anticipate difficulties among whites in adjusting to the new state of affairs? Was it possible for the federal government both to protect the rights of freedpeople and secure the loyalty of whites like Deas?

  4. How might freedpeople in and around the city of Charleston react to news that rioting had broken out between 'Yankee' soldiers and former slaves? How might these tensions shape their assumptions about northern motives in the war, the dependability of white northerners as allies in emancipation?

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