After Slavery: Educator Resources

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1. Ex-Confederate Soldiers Terrorizing Union Men and Freedpeople in North Carolina

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Nine: Coercion, Paramilitary Terror, and Resistance in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

In the months immediately following the Confederate surrender, reports emerged from across the South that gangs of demobilized rebel veterans were roaming the interior, pillaging property and harassing freedpeople and white men of Union sympathies. There are no clear patterns to this early post-surrender violence, except perhaps that they occurred most frequently out of the reach of Union garrisons, in places where freedpeople and Union sympathizers were especially vulnerable to physical attack. The challenge of suppressing this early outbreak was complicated by the lenient policy of the Johnson administration in Washington D.C., which turned over the running of the postwar state governments to persons of questionable loyalty, who were in most cases either hostile or completely indifferent to the newly won rights of former slaves.

The following document sheds some light on the brutality that freedpeople confronted in this early period. It attests also to the difficulty that Freedmen's Bureau agents encountered in trying to uphold the rights of former slaves in the face of obstruction from police and local authorities. In very tangible ways, the Johnson-era state governments were working at cross-purposes against those federal authorities charged with introducing a new order in the South. Within a couple of years of this report, white paramilitaries would become better organized and more cohesive, and freedpeople and their allies were compelled to try to match that level of organization in order to secure their rights.

Ex-Confederate Soldiers Terrorizing Union Men and Freedpeople in North Carolina

[Testimony recorded February 21, 1866]
Some eight weeks ago several returned rebel soldiers, from Pitt county, went into the village of Washingtona and commenced shooting and beating Union men. Several assaults were made, and at least one Union man was publicly whipped in the streets, and some negroes were wounded. One of the party was badly wounded by a person whom they attacked. On their return they met on the public highway a negro. They first castrated him and afterwards murdered him in cold blood. These persons a short time afterwards went into the village of Washington and gave themselves up to the civil authorities... but they soon escaped by overpowering the jailer.

An order was issued by General the police of that county to arrest them. General Paine then ordered the chief of police, of Pitt county, to be tried by military commission for neglect of duty. General Paine was soon afterwards relieved from command, to be mustered out of the service, by an order emanating, I presume, from the Secretary of War, but not connected with this matter. I think for some weeks no further action was taken in the matter.

. . . Meanwhile this party continued to commit outrages on freedmen and Union men. I know that several negroes were shot by them, and it is reported to me that a large number were shot and otherwise maltreated by them. On the 25th of December the father of one of these parties, an old man named Kearney, was at the store of Church Perkins, in Pactolus,b Pitt county, and left about two o'clock to go home. About that time in elderly man answering to the description of that man rode up to a plantation called the Ebon place, where two negro boys, ten and twelve years old, were playing in the yard, no other persons being at the plantation. He ordered them to go before him on the road, threatening them with his double-barrelled gun. He took them a quarter of a mile down the road and then one mile direct into a swamp, and there he shot them, killing one instantly and wounding the other. The one who was wounded soon came back, and with his father and the mother of the one who was killed went to Pactolus and reported the matter to the Lieutenant Smith. He went with them and found the body; shortly after that reports were made to the district commander at Newbern that this party was intending to "clean out"... certain northern gentlemen in that vicinity, and a party was sent...consisting of Lieutenant Kenyon, of the twenty-eighth Michigan, and eight mounted men. They succeeded in arresting all but one of this party, but the prisoners escaped the same night. Two nights after, the soldiers returned to the house of this man, Phil Kearney, a man of considerable wealth, and, in endeavoring to make the arrests, Lieutenant Kenyon was shot. The gentleman living next to Kearney's refused to admit Kenyon into his house, although he was in a dying condition. He was brought to my room at Pactolus, and after about four days he died. A party of soldiers are [sic] now at that place attempting to arrest this man . . . .

Q. How many persons do you suppose this gang was composed of?

A. About five. Of the thousand cases of murder, robbery, and maltreatment of freedmen that have come before me, and of the very many cases of similar treatment of Union citizens in North Carolina, have never yet known a single case in which the local authorities or police or citizens made any attempt or exhibited any inclination to redress any of these wrongs or to protect such persons . . .

Q. How did Governor Holden demean himself towards such outrages; did he make any efforts as governor of the State to punish them?

A. I know of no such effort he has made . . .

Q. Have they not been subjects of newspaper comments?

A. Yes, sir; I have known of several instances in which outrages were committed, and in which he exerted his influence with the military authorities to have them passed over.

aWashington lies about 40 miles due north of New Bern along the Pamlico river in Pitt county. Pitt adjoins Beaufort county to its west in east-central North Carolina.
bPactolus lies nine miles east of Greenville in Pitt county.

Source: Testimony of Lt. Col. Dexter H. Clapp, 38th USCT [Freedmen's Bureau Agent, Pitt County, N. C.]; in 39th U. S. Congress, Joint Select Committee Report on Reconstruction, June 1866.


Questions to Consider

  1. Clapp's testimony describes a series of high-profile assaults on freedpeople and Union sympathizers, apparently motivated by resentment at the outcome of the war. Taking into consideration the series of targets and the nature of the attacks, what changes specifically do these white southerners seem to find offensive?

  2. If you were to use the document to try to measure local support for federal Reconstruction of the South, what evidence would you consider and find most relevant?

  3. What is the reaction of local and state authorities to the outrages being carried out against freedpeople and Union sympathizers? How do we explain their attitude?

  4. If incidents like these continue, how might they affect prospects for black freedom in the postwar period?

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