Emancipation at Gunpoint

Harvard University Press
6 min readSep 6, 2019

By Gregory P. Downs

On April 8, 1865, after four years of civil war, General Robert E. Lee wrote to General Ulysses S. Grant asking for peace. Peace was beyond his authority to negotiate, Grant replied, but surrender terms he would discuss. As Gregory Downs reveals in After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War, a gripping history of post–Civil War America, Grant’s distinction proved prophetic, for peace would elude the South for years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. This groundbreaking study of the post-surrender occupation makes clear that its purpose was to crush slavery and to create meaningful civil and political rights for freed people in the face of rebels’ bold resistance.

But reliance on military occupation posed its own dilemmas. In areas beyond Army control, the Ku Klux Klan and other violent insurgencies created near-anarchy. Voters in the North also could not stomach an expensive and demoralizing occupation. Under those pressures, by 1871, the Civil War came to its legal end. The wartime after Appomattox disrupted planter power and established important rights, but the dawn of legal peacetime heralded the return of rebel power, not a sustainable peace. Here is a brief excerpt from the book looking at efforts to enforce the end of slavery.

Slavery needed to be killed because it had not died. Although it is natural to think of the Emancipation Proclamation as the end of slavery, its impact was limited to slaves who could reach U.S. forces. While the Thirteenth Amendment passed Congress in early 1865, it had not yet been ratified by a sufficient number of states to join it to the Constitution. Therefore, slavery endured on the ground well after the end of fighting. Of the nearly 4 million slaves in the United States in 1860, the vast majority were still held in bondage as the Confederate armies surrendered. Historians estimate that 474,000 former slaves were federally sponsored free laborers as soldiers, camp residents, or farm-workers on government-run plantations. The Freedmen and Southern Society Project suggests that about 125,000 of these ex-slaves lived in the Mississippi valley, 98,000 in southern Louisiana, 48,000 on the Atlantic coast, 74,000 in tidewater Virginia and North Carolina, 40,000 in the Washington, D.C., area, about 37,000 in middle and eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama, and about 52,000 in the border states. In the winter of 1864–1865, the border states of Missouri, Maryland, and West Virginia eliminated slavery; this freed perhaps another 185,000 people, not counting black soldiers already enlisted from those states. Andrew Johnson’s Tennessee government likewise ended slavery in early 1865, freeing perhaps 200,000 more people. While Arkansas’s and Louisiana’s loyal governments abolished slavery, they had at best limited control over large sections of their states, and their laws freed relatively few people. Soldiers found people held in slavery there deep into the summer. The number of slaves who reached the North or who were actually freed by Arkansas or Louisiana is unknown, but we might estimate that perhaps 1 million of the nation’s 4 million slaves had been actually freed by Appomattox. Of the rest, somewhat less than 200,000 remained in unencumbered legal slavery in the loyal states of Kentucky and Delaware. The remaining 2.75 million slaves were largely scattered across the Confederacy’s vast interior, in regions that the U.S. Army either had not reached or had quickly passed through. The persistence of slavery reminds us of slavery’s resilience. Although scholars once presumed — like many 1850s Republicans — that slavery was weak, unprofitable, and backward, we now know what many officers discovered in 1865. Slavery was profitable, efficient, and powerful, embedded within a modernizing world, not a relic of the past. Slavery would not simply die; it would have to be killed.

For weeks and months after surrender, soldiers confronted slavery in areas that had not yet been occupied by U.S. troops. When German-born Colonel Charles Bentzoni reached eastern Arkansas with his 56th U.S. Colored Infantry, he found “slavery everywhere.” The planters “understand that slavery will remain in some form or other.” In a series of exasperated letters, Bentzoni captured slavery’s tenacious survival against both state laws and army policies. Unless “slavery is broken up by the strong arm of the Government,” he wrote, “it will continue to exist in its worst forms all law and proclamations to the contrary.” In isolated Eastport, Mississippi, one hundred miles from other outposts, a general believed that proclamations could not lead to “the actual immediate emancipation of a large mass of plantation slaves.” The end of slavery depended on force. As late as September, Arkansas’s Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner reported that “there are large portions of Arkansas where the freedmen are still treated as Slaves, the former slave owners in some cases proclaiming that ‘Slavery has not been abolished by any competent authority.’ ” Not until November did an Arkansas soldier who discovered two slave girls explain the situation as an anomaly; before that the endurance of slavery was simply a fact of life.

From many other parts of the South, soldiers discovered the difference between announcing the end of slavery and actually destroying the institution. In South Carolina, Sherman’s mighty army of invasion had blasted through the coastal region and Columbia, but as late as July 1865 “the authority of the United States” had “not yet permeated every part of the interior.” Major General Quincy Adams Gillmore thought that “in remote sections the relation of master and slave does, in some cases, practically exist.” While inspecting South Carolina, Carl Schurz found that “the people adhere not only to their former opinions, but to a certain extent also their former practices.” Around Winnsboro, South Carolina, people tried to “hold the negro in a state of slavery until the arrival of our troops put an end to it.” In far-off Texas, former masters worked to ensure that “slavery in some form will continue to exist” by murdering the blacks who tried to leave. As late as October, one observer noted, slave owners “still claim and control them as property, and in two or three instances have recently bought and sold them as in former years.”

Although slavery had collapsed in some regions of the South under the force of the war, planters worked quickly to restore it. They acted from their desire to protect their economic system but also from their broader belief that slavery was at the center of their way of life, even of their religious faith. To abandon slavery would mean something worse than losing a war; it would mean losing an entire culture. Some relied upon brute force to create the expectation that slavery endured. Describing the situation in Virginia after surrender, former slave Peter Randolph wrote that “some of the masters were very reluctant in giving up their servants, and tried to defraud and rob them out of their freedom, and many of the slaves had to run away from their masters to be free.” The scars on the backs of slaves, like the sliced ears of slaves attacked in Mississippi and Alabama, were meant to mark them as still enslaved.

But planters’ hopes for salvaging slavery depended upon the resumption of peacetime. If the rebel states were restored to civil government, as Sherman’s armistice promised, their political leaders would likely reject the Thirteenth Amendment and stop soldiers from intervening. Soon, they believed, they would be able to sue for their property in federal courts. Throughout the summer, officers and agents in Alabama complained that planters declared that the “ceasing of hostilities had made void the Emancipation proclamation.” Months after Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, Alabama planters openly said that “they prefer gradual emancipation,” as if the issue had not yet been decided. Many believed that slavery could be “restored in full sway in 18 months.” From Jackson, one Mississippian wrote that “the troops should not be removed until the FACT, that the negro is free, is recognized and respected. For rest assured that this truth stands fast — Slavery is not yet broken up.”