After emancipation, freedpeople came closest to controlling affairs in places where they enjoyed a clear demographic advantage. In exceptional settings like the South Carolina lowcountry, enslaved African Americans had also worked the area's lucrative rice and cotton plantations on the "task" system for generations. This system was only lightly supervised by whites, so that enslaved people in the lowcountry already enjoyed a degree of autonomy, even under slavery. Their strength and experience was bolstered by Union military occupation in the lowcountry after November 1861, and by General William T. Sherman's Special Order no. 15, which after January 1865 confiscated land along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts for division amongst the freedpeople. In late 1865, President Andrew Johnson overturned Sherman's order and began restoring lands to their former owners, to the outrage of ex-slaves.
Johnson's retreat produced friction between freedpeople and federal authorities, and precipitated a series of armed clashes with the U.S. military, who were previously looked on as liberators by former slaves. The following excerpt from a report submitted by a Freedmen's Bureau agent at Edisto Island conveys a clear sense of the growing tensions.
A Federal Officer Reports that Freedpeople are Organizing Military Companies on the South Carolina Sea Islands
For some time past there has been a disposition on part of the freedmen in some parts of this District [the sea islands below Charleston] to form Military Organizations: regularly enlist their members and most of them for life. All such organizations disbanded without trouble, upon my calling for the leaders and informing them of the consequences of persisting in such a course, except one company formed on Fenwick's Islanda on the plantation of Maj. J Jenkins and co., where one hundred laborers are employed. I visited this company, called together the reputed officers and directed them to disband, and not compel me to impose on them the severity of law. This they positively refused doing: stating they had orders from competent authority requiring them to form such organizations and they would continue to act under their instructions until compelled to disband by force of arms. They acted towards my directions in a very defiant manner; they positively refused to obey the directions of their employers...but complained that any interference on part of the Government with their organizations and drilling, was a retrenchment of their rights and privileges.
Their conduct had completely disorganized labor on that Island, and an utter failure of the crops was imminent. I sent the detachment of my Guard and arrested seven of the principal actors and sent them to Charleston to the Post Commandant, with charges against them. I consider it necessary for the prosperity of this District, that prompt action be taken and an example be made of a few, in order that the contagion does not spread. I have, in every case found that the leaders and prominent actors in these organizations, are men who have served as volunteers in the Federal Army, and their influence is doubly strong: the freedmen look on them as being instructed in the laws of the country: and also possessed of courage and valor to bear them through these undertakings should a trial at arms be necessary to preserve the life of their organizations.
There was a strong desire on part of the Freedmen on Edisto to form parades on the 4th of July, and celebrate the "Declaration of Independence" in grand style, but they courteously came forward and asked if I would permit it, which of course I refused; but informed them I would protect them in the enjoyment of any reasonable recreations, and impressed on them that I was not withholding from them any privilege that I would grant under any consideration to the opposite color; that my object was to preserve and increase harmony between the races, and that I could not grant a privilege to either class, that would be a source of aggravation to the opposite.
They seemed to comprehend my motive readily, and yielded their desire without a murmur: and asked if I would allow them the privilege of holding "Picnics" which I assured them I would not only do, but if the planters refuse them the places of holding, I would intercede and secure it for them...
a Fenwick Island, on the South Edisto River, southwest of Charleston.
Source: Lieutenant James M. Johnston to Lieutenant Horace Neide, 30 June 1867, in RG 105: Records of the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugee and Abandoned Lands, M869: Records of the Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina.
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