After Slavery: Educator Resources

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7. Soldiering Men

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Seven: Gender and the Politics of Freedom in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Enlistment into Lincoln's army transformed black men's worlds. Horizons stretched, circles of acquaintances grew, and knowledge multiplied when the formerly enslaved donned Union blue, took up arms, and eventually for many, marched into battle. Black soldiers experienced much during their terms of service, encountering everything from northern racism (most visibly manifested in grossly unequal pay rates) to schools northern volunteers conducted for soldiers in camp. Black soldiers' contacts with northerners—other soldiers, teachers, officers, clergymen, and the like—also introduced many of them to new ideas about what women and men ought to be and do: as citizens, as producers, and as partners. When enlistments expired and black soldiers turned toward home, they carried those ideas and experiences with them, conveying them in turn to those who had been left behind. As the document below further suggests, some of those returning soldiers put what they had learned in war to political use in freedom.

Soldiering Men

[Edisto Island, S.C.,] June 30, 1867
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For some time past there has been a disposition on part of the Freedmen in some parts of this District 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 Island 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 (against whom they offered no complaint) 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 and 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. 
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Source: James M. Johnston to Lieutenant H. Neide, June 30, 1867; M869 (Records of the Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina), RG 105: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands


Questions to Consider

  1. What does military service mean to the black men of Edisto Island? What kind of rights and responsibilities are acquired by those who serve?

  2. How do men's changing understandings of themselves affect women's place and women's roles in Edisto society?

  3. What can we learn from Johnston's response to the marching about his own understandings about manhood? From the evidence presented here, how do you think Johnston would define a good man?

  4. Johnston links prosperity to the absence of drilling. What do we make of that connection? How does it help us think about the kind of tensions that existed between northern gender assumptions and those shared among the black Edisto Islanders?

  5. Thinking forward, how might the tensions visible in Johnston's critique of black men drilling affect Radical Reconstruction and alliances between black and white Republicans?

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