After Slavery: Educator Resources

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4. Former Freedmen's Bureau Official Rufus B. Saxton on Freedpeople's Desire to Acquire Arms

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.

Following the war, federal military and civilian authorities encountered bitter resentment and, at times, open resistance from white southerners who complained of their 'meddling' in race and labor relations. The following document, transcribed less than a year after the war's end, shows that Congressional Republicans already felt compelled to respond to demands to disband the Freedmen's Bureau and withdraw troops from the region. Here the former Bureau Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, General Rufus B. Saxton,a warns that complying with these demands would have a devastating effect on the prospects for black freedom. He calls particular attention to organized attempts by white 'Regulators' to disarm blacks, and testifies that freedpeople themselves are anxious to obtain arms.

Former Freedmen's Bureau Official Rufus B. Saxton on Freedpeople's Desire to Acquire Arms

[Testimony recorded February 21, 1866]
Q. How do you think [South Carolina whites] will manage [freedpeople] if the federal troops are withdrawn, and the Freedmen's Bureau is withdrawn?

A. I think it will be the purpose of their former masters to reduce them as near to a condition of slaves as it will be possible to do; that they would deprive them by severe legislation of most of the rights of freedmen. I think that the black codes that have passed the legislature of the State are a sufficient indication of the truth of what I say...

Q. Are you aware that the blacks have arms to any considerable extent in South Carolina?

A. I believe that a great many of them have arms, and I know it to be their earnest desire to procure them.b

Q. While you were in command there has any request been made to you to disarm the blacks?

A. I cannot say that any direct request has been made to me to disarm them; it would not be my duty to disarm them, as I was not the military commander, but I have had men come to my office and complain that the negroes had arms, and I also heard that bands of men called Regulators, consisting of those who were lately in the rebel service, were going around the country disarming negroes. I can further state that they desired me to sanction a form of [employment] contract which would deprive the colored men of their arms, which I refused to do. The subject was so the welfare of the freedmen that I issued a circular on the subject...c I will further add, that I believe it to be the settled purpose of the white people of South Carolina to be armed and thoroughly organized, and to have the whole black population thoroughly disarmed and defenceless; I believe that is the settled policy.

Q. What would be the probably effect of such an effort to disarm the blacks?

A. It would subject them to the severest oppression, and leave their condition no better than before they were emancipated, and in many respect worse than it was before.

aIt was widely believed that Saxton was removed from his position by President Andrew Johnson at the insistence of prominent South Carolina conservatives, who regarded his support for freedpeople's rights as intolerable.

bWhile none of those who testified before the Congressional committee disputed the desire of blacks to obtain arms, some disagreed with Saxton's assertion that "a great many" freedpeople had weapons in their possession. Others stressed that most of the arms owned by freedpeople were antiquated "musket[s] and fowling piece[s]" mainly used "for the destruction of vermin and game." [J. W. Alvord Testimony, p. 246].

cThe circular, which asserted the freedpeople's constitutional "right to keep and bear arms," was never issued, having failed to meet the approval of the military commander.

Source: Testimony of Rufus B. Saxton, in 39th U.S. Congress, Joint Select Committee Report on Reconstruction, June 1866


Questions to Consider

  1. In Saxton's view, what do the state's "Black Codes" reveal about the intentions of South Carolina whites towards the freedpeople? Is his conclusion reasonable?

  2. Saxton testifies that some planters are going so far as to include provisions against blacks obtaining arms in their annual employment contracts. Is this compatible with a 'free labor' system? Why might conservatives be especially concerned to deny arms to the freed population?

  3. If the aim of the whites' "thorough" organization is to subject freedpeople to renewed oppression, as Saxton asserts, what are the options available to federal authorities? By what means can they ensure that freedpeople are able to freely exercise their new rights?

  4. Assuming that freedpeople were at least partially successful in procuring arms, what might be the reaction of the white 'Regulators' to such a development? How might you expect the federal authorities to react to widespread possession of arms among freedpeople?

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