The Civil War, of course, caused a monumental upheaval in the newly-minted African-American population of freed slaves. The vast majority had remained enslaved until freed by Union troops as they conquered the Southern States, beginning with Tennessee in 1862. When freed, many former slave families followed the armies, camping just outside Army campsites, helping with domestic duties, aiding with transportation and other labor, occasionally spying and providing intelligence about the region and traveling North when possible. Others remained in the vicinity of their former plantations and took up tenant farming after hostilities ended.
Still others had been taking matters into their own hands and made a break for freedom using the legendary “Underground Railroad” to the North, which had existed in some form for decades before the Civil War.
The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th Century slaves of African descent in the United States to escape to free states in the North and Northeast of the country and to Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. The term is also applied to the abolitionists, black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives. Various other routes led to Mexico or overseas. Canada, where slavery was prohibited, was a popular destination, as its long border gave many points of access. Most former slaves who got to Canada settled in Ontario. More than 30,000 people were said to have escaped there via the network during its 20-year peak period,
At its peak, nearly 1,000 slaves per year escaped from slave-holding states using the Underground Railroad – more than 5,000 court cases for escaped slaves were recorded – many fewer than the natural increase of the enslaved population. The resulting economic impact was miniscule, but the psychological influence on slaveholders was immense. Under the original Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, officials from slave-holding States were responsible for the recovery of runaway slaves, but citizens and governments of many “free” States ignored the law, and the Underground Railroad thrived.
With heavy lobbying by Southern politicians, the Compromise of 1850 was passed by Congress after the Mexican-American War. It stipulated a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law; ostensibly, the compromise addressed regional problems by compelling officials of “free” States to assist slave catchers, granting them immunity to operate in “free” States. Because the law required sparse documentation to claim a person was a fugitive, slave catchers also kidnapped free blacks, especially children, and sold them into slavery.
Southern politicians often exaggerated the number of escaped slaves and often blamed these escapes on Northerners interfering with Southern property rights. The law deprived suspected slaves of the right to defend themselves in court, making it difficult to prove free status. In a de facto bribe, judges were paid a higher fee ($10) for a decision that confirmed a suspect as a slave than for one ruling that the suspect was free ($5). Many Northerners who might have ignored slave issues in the South were confronted by local challenges that bound them to support slavery. This was a primary grievance and another proximate cause cited by the Union during the Civil War and, on the other side, the perception that Northern States ignored the fugitive slave law was a major justification for secession.
The Underground Railroad consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, safe houses and personal assistance provided by abolitionist sympathizers. Escaped slaves would move north along the route from one way-station to the next. “Conductors” on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free-born blacks, white abolitionists and former slaves (either escaped or manumitted – legally freed).
To reduce the risk of infiltration, many people associated with the Underground Railroad knew only their part of the operation and not of the whole scheme. “Conductors” led or transported the fugitives from station to station. A conductor sometimes pretended to be a slave in order to enter a plantation. Once a part of the plantation, a conductor would direct the runaways to the North.
Slaves traveled at night, about 10–20 miles to each station. They would stop at the so-called “stations” or “depots” during the day and rest. The stations were often located in barns, under church floors, or in hiding places in caves and hollowed-out riverbanks. While the fugitives rested at one station, a message was sent to the next station to let the station master know the runaways were on their way.
The resting spots where the runaways could sleep and eat were given the code names “stations” and “depots,” which were held by “station masters”. “Stockholders” gave money or supplies for assistance. Using biblical references, fugitives referred to Canada as the “Promised Land” and the Ohio River as the “River Jordan”, which marked the boundary between slave States and “free” States
Although the fugitives sometimes traveled on boat or train, they usually traveled on foot or by wagon in groups of 1–3 slaves. Some groups were considerably larger. Abolitionist Charles Turner Torrey and his colleagues rented horses and wagons and often transported as many as 15 or 20 slaves at a time. Routes were often purposely indirect to confuse pursuers.
Most escapes were by individuals or small groups; occasionally, there were mass escapes. The journey was often considered particularly difficult and dangerous for women or children. Children were sometimes hard to keep quiet or were unable to keep up with a group. In addition, female slaves were rarely allowed to leave the plantation, making it harder for them to escape in the same ways that men could.
Although escaping was harder for women, some women did find success in escaping. One of the most famous and successful abductors (people who secretly traveled into slave States to rescue those seeking freedom) was Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave woman herself.
Due to the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth. Southern newspapers of the day were often filled with pages of notices soliciting information about escaped slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return. Federal marshals and professional bounty hunters known as slave-catchers sometimes pursued fugitives as far as the Canadian border.
Fugitives were not the only black people at risk from slave-catchers. With demand for slaves high in the Deep South as cotton was developed, strong, healthy blacks in their prime working and reproductive years were seen and treated as highly valuable commodities. As mentioned above, both former slaves and free blacks were sometimes kidnapped in the North and sold into slavery. “Certificates of freedom,” signed and notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual blacks also known as free papers, could easily be destroyed or stolen, so provided little protection to bearers.
One such victim was Solomon Northup of Saratoga Springs, New York – an American abolitionist and the primary author of the memoir Twelve Years a Slave. A free-born African-American from New York, he was the son of a freed slave and free woman of color. A farmer and violinist, Northup owned land in Hebron, NY. In 1841, he was enticed to Washington, D.C. (where slavery was legal), kidnapped, and sold as a slave. He was shipped to New Orleans, purchased by a planter, and held as a slave for 12 years in the Red River region of Louisiana until he could miraculously get word home and have friends secure his release. The Academy Award winning movie 12 Years a Slave, based on the 1853 autobiographical book of the same name by Northup, best describes the horror of this law.
William Still, often called “The Father of the Underground Railroad”, helped hundreds of slaves to escape (as many as 60 a month), sometimes hiding them in his Philadelphia home. He kept careful records, including short biographies of the people that contained frequent railway metaphors. He maintained correspondence with many of them, often acting as a middleman in communications between escaped slaves and those left behind. He published these accounts in the book The Underground Railroad (1872), a valuable resource for historians to understand how the system worked and a recounting of individual ingenuity in escapes.
According to Still, messages were often encoded so that they could be understood only by those active in the railroad. For example, the following message, “I have sent via at two o’clock four large hams and two small hams”, indicated that four adults and two children were sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. The additional word via indicated that the “passengers” were not sent on the usual train, but rather via Reading, Pennsylvania.
In this case, the authorities were tricked into going to the regular train station in an attempt to intercept the runaways, while Still met them at the correct station and guided them to safety. They eventually escaped either to the North or to Canada, where slavery had been abolished during the 1830s.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in the U. S., many black refugees left Canada to enlist in the Union Army. While some later returned to Canada, many remained in the United States. Thousands of others returned to the American South after the war ended. The desire to reconnect with friends and family was strong, and most were hopeful about the changes emancipation and Reconstruction would bring.
The Reconstruction Era refers to (for our purposes) the transformation of the former Confederate States from 1863 to 1877, as directed by Congress, with the reconstruction of both State and society. Reconstruction played out against an economy in ruin. Over a quarter of Southern white men of military age – the backbone of the South’s white workforce and a staggering casualty rate – died during the war, leaving countless families destitute.
Starting in March 1862, in an effort to forestall Reconstruction by the Radicals in Congress, President Lincoln installed military governors in certain rebellious States under Union military control. Although the States would not be recognized by the Radicals until an undetermined time, installation of military governors kept the administration of Reconstruction under Presidential control, rather than that of the increasingly unsympathetic Radical Congress.
On March 3, 1862, Lincoln installed a loyalist Democrat Senator Andrew Johnson, as Military Governor with the rank of Brigadier General in his home state of Tennessee. He would be elected Vice-President in 1864. From 1863 to 1865, Presidents Lincoln and Andrew Johnson took moderate positions designed to bring the South back to normal as quickly as possible, while the Radical Republicans (as they called themselves) used Congress to block their moderate approaches, impose harsh terms, and upgrade the rights of the freedmen (former slaves).
Lincoln’s last speeches show that he was leaning toward supporting the enfranchisement of freedmen, whereas Johnson was opposed to this. As Confederate States came back under control of the US Army, President Lincoln set up reconstructed governments in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana during the war. He experimented by giving land to former slaves in South Carolina.
By autumn of 1865, the new President, Andrew Johnson, declared the war goals of national unity and the ending of slavery achieved and Reconstruction completed. Thaddeus Stevens, (a member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania and one of the leaders of the Radical Republican faction of the Republican Party during the 1860s) vehemently opposed Johnson’s plans for an abrupt end to Reconstruction, insisting that Reconstruction must seek;
“To revolutionize Southern institutions, habits, and manners … The foundations of their institutions … must be broken up and re-laid, or all our blood and treasure have been spent in vain.”
Northern anger over the assassination of Lincoln and the immense human cost of the war led to vengeful demands for harsh policies. Vice President Johnson had taken a hard line and spoke of hanging rebel Confederates, but when he succeeded Lincoln as President, Johnson took a much softer line, pardoning many Confederate leaders and former Confederates.
“Jefferson Davis was held in prison for two years, but other Confederate leaders were not. There were no treason trials. Only one person – Captain Henry Wirz, the Commandant of the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia where over 13,000, of the 45,000 Union soldiers imprisoned there, died – was executed for war crimes. Johnson’s conservative view of Reconstruction did not include blacks or former slaves involvement in government and he refused to heed Northern concerns when southern state legislatures implemented Black Codes that set the status of the freedmen much lower than that of white citizens
Republicans in Congress, refusing to accept Johnson’s terms, rejected new members of Congress, some of whom had been high Confederate officials a few months before. Johnson broke with the Republicans after vetoing two key bills that supported the Freedman’s Bureau and provided federal civil rights to the Freedmen. Johnson’s interpretations of Lincoln’s policies prevailed until the Congressional elections of 1866 in the North, which enabled the Republican Radicals to take control of policy, remove former Confederates from power and further enfranchise the freedmen.
A Republican coalition came to power in nearly all the southern States and set out to transform the society by setting up a free labor economy, using the U.S. Army and the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau protected the legal rights of freedmen, negotiated labor contracts, and set up schools and even churches for them. Thousands of Northerners came South, as missionaries, teachers, businessmen and politicians; hostile elements called them “Carpetbaggers”. Rebuilding the rundown railroad system was a major strategy, but it collapsed when a nationwide depression (the Panic of 1873) struck the economy.
Blacks in the South were a core element of the Republican Party and their ministers had powerful political roles that were distinctive since they did not depend on white support, in contrast to teachers, politicians, businessmen, and tenant farmers. Historian James D. Anderson argues that the freed slaves were the first Southerners “…to campaign for universal, state-supported public education”. Blacks in the Republican coalition played a critical role in establishing this principle in State constitutions for the first time during congressional Reconstruction.
Some slaves had learned to read from white playmates or work colleagues before formal education was allowed by law; African-Americans started “native schools” before the end of the war; Sabbath schools were another widespread means that freedmen developed to teach literacy. When they gained suffrage, black politicians took this commitment to public education to State constitutional conventions.
After the war, Northern missionaries founded numerous private academies and colleges across the South for freedmen. In addition, every State founded State Colleges for freedmen, such as Alcorn State University in Mississippi. The normal schools and state colleges produced generations of teachers who were integral to the education of African-American children under the segregated system. By the end of the century, the majority of African-Americans were literate.
In the late 19th century, the federal government established land grant legislation to provide funding for higher education across the United States. Learning that blacks were excluded from land grant colleges in the South, in 1890, the federal government [under Republican President Benjamin Harrison – the grandson of the 9th President, William Henry Harrison, insisted that southern States establish black state institutions as land grant colleges to provide for black higher education, in order to continue to receive funds for their already established white schools. Some States classified their black State colleges as land grant institutions.”
The 1866 Congressional elections turned on the issue of Reconstruction, and produced a sweeping Republican victory in the North. It gave the Republicans enough control of Congress to override Johnson’s vetoes and began what is called “Radical Reconstruction” in 1867. The laws and constitutional amendments that laid the foundation for the most radical phase of Reconstruction were adopted from 1866 to 1871. With the Radicals in control, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts on July 19, 1867. The first Reconstruction Act, authored by Oregon Sen. George H. Williams, a Radical Republican, placed 10 Confederate states under military control, grouping them into five military districts headed by famous Union generals: First Military District: Virginia, under General John Schofield Second Military District: North Carolina and South Carolina, under General Daniel Sickles Third Military District: Georgia, Alabama and Florida, under General John Pope and George Meade Fourth Military District: Arkansas and Mississippi, under General Edward Ord Fifth Military District: Texas and Louisiana, under Generals Philip Sheridan and Winfield Scott Hancock
The army conducted new elections in which the freed slaves could vote, while 10,000 -15,000 whites who had held leading positions under the Confederacy were temporarily denied the vote and were not permitted to run for office (because of their “subversive” conduct during the war). Some 20,000 U.S. troops were deployed to enforce the Act. Tennessee was not made part of a military district (having already been readmitted to the Union), and therefore federal jurisdiction was not necessary.
In ten former Confederate States, coalitions of freedmen, recent black and white arrivals from the North (carpetbaggers), and white Southerners who supported Reconstruction (scalawags) cooperated to form Republican biracial State governments. They introduced various reconstruction programs including: funding public schools, establishing charitable institutions, raising taxes, and offering massive aid to support improved railroad transportation and shipping. They organized to create constitutional conventions. They created new state constitutions to set new directions for southern states.
In 1868, the Republicans unanimously chose Five-star General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant to be the Republican Presidential candidate. Grant won favor with the Radicals after he allowed Edwin M. Stanton, a Radical, to be reinstated as Secretary of War.
As early as 1862, during the Civil War, Grant had appointed the Ohio military chaplain John Eaton to protect and gradually incorporate refugee slaves in west Tennessee and northern Mississippi into the Union War effort, and pay them for their labor. It was the beginning of his vision for the Freedmen’s Bureau. Grant opposed President Johnson by supporting the Reconstruction Acts passed by the Radicals.
Immediately upon Inauguration in March 1869, Grant bolstered Reconstruction by prodding Congress to readmit Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas into the Union, while ensuring their constitutions protected every citizen’s voting rights. Grant met with prominent black leaders for consultation, and signed a bill into law that guaranteed equal rights to both blacks and whites in Washington D.C. In Grant’s two terms he strengthened Washington’s legal capabilities. He worked with Congress to create the Department of Justice and Office of Solicitor General, who prosecuted thousands of Klansmen under the Force Acts. These were a series of four acts passed by Republican Reconstruction supporters in the Congress between May 31, 1870, and March 1, 1875, to protect the constitutional rights guaranteed to blacks by the 14th and 15th Amendments.
The major provisions of the acts authorized federal authorities to enforce penalties upon anyone interfering with the registration, voting, officeholding, or jury service of blacks; provided for federal election supervisors; and empowered the President to use military forces to make summary arrests. Under the Enforcement Act of 1871 (17 Stat. 13) of April 20, 1871, nine South Carolina counties were placed under martial law for defying federal law, in October 1871. This act and earlier statutes resulted in more than 5,000 indictments and 1,250 convictions throughout the South.
Grant sent additional federal troops to nine South Carolina counties to suppress Klan violence in 1871. In 1872, Grant was the first American President to legally recognize an African-American governor, P. B. S. Pinchback of Louisiana. Grant also used military pressure to ensure that African-Americans could maintain their new electoral status; won passage of the 15th Amendment giving African-Americans the right to vote; and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 giving all citizens access to public facilities regardless of race.
To counter vote fraud in the Democratic stronghold of New York City, Grant sent in tens of thousands of armed, uniformed federal marshals and other election officials to regulate the 1870 and subsequent elections. Democrats across the North then mobilized to defend their base and attacked Grant’s entire set of policies. On October 21, 1876 President Grant deployed troops to protect black and white Republican voters in the Presidential election in Petersburg, Virginia.”
“Republicans took control of all Southern State governorships and state legislatures, except for Virginia. The Republican coalition elected numerous African-Americans to local, state, and national offices; though they did not dominate any electoral offices, black men as representatives voting in State and federal legislatures marked a drastic social change. At the beginning of 1867, no African-American in the South held political office, but within four years “…about 15 percent of the officeholders in the South were black” – a larger proportion than in 1990 – after 40 years of Democrat control of Congress.
Unlike in 1990 however, in 1860 blacks were the majority of the population in Mississippi and South Carolina, 47% in Louisiana, 45% in Alabama, and 44% in Georgia and Florida, so they did not exercise outsize political power in relation to their proportion of the population. More than one hundred black ministers were elected to state legislatures during Reconstruction, as well as several to Congress and one, Hiram Revels, to the U.S. Senate.
About 137 black officeholders had lived outside the South before the Civil War. Some who had escaped from slavery to the North and had become educated returned to help the South advance in the postwar era. Others were free blacks before the war, who had achieved education and positions of leadership elsewhere. Other African-American men who served were already leaders in their communities, including a number of preachers. As happened in white communities, not all leadership depended upon wealth and literacy.
“In the South, “Conservative” [an appelation totally at odds with the definition of “conservative in contemporary politics] opponents called the Republican regimes corrupt and instigated violence toward freedmen and whites who supported Reconstruction. White paramilitary organizations formed with the political aim of driving out the Republicans. They also disrupted political organizing and terrorized blacks to bar them from the polls. From 1873 to 1877, conservative whites (calling themselves “Redeemers”) regained power in the Southern States. They joined the “Bourbon” (the state drink of Kentucky) wing of the national Democratic Party.
Much of the violence was carried out by members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a fraternal social club founded in late 1865 by six former Confederate officers and inspired by other secret social organizations like the Freemasons. It morphed into a secret racist and terrorist organization beginning in the early 1870s. This led to federal intervention by President Grant in 1871 that suppressed the Klan. President Grant supported Radical Reconstruction to enforce the protection of African-Americans in the South through the use of the Force Acts but was unable to resolve the escalating tensions inside the Republican Party between the Carpetbaggers and the Scalawags. Meanwhile self-styled Southern Conservatives (in close cooperation with the Democrat Party) strongly opposed Republican rule.
Grant’s support from Congress and the nation declined due to politically inspired scandals by the Democrats which were designed to weaken his administration and aid the political resurgence of the Democrats in the North and South. By 1870, most Republicans felt the war goals had been achieved, and they turned their attention to other issues such as economic policies, although Grant was reelected in 1872.
Unfortunately, all of the necessary and appropriate actions Grant successfully took to fulfill Lincoln’s vision of a united America, accessible to all Americans, has been deliberately forgotten by progressive historians in their zeal for social reform by the, now rudderless, liberal/progressives who had lost the abolition cause as a rallying point due to the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of their Northern countrymen in the Civil War.
No person in American history directly accomplished more militarily and legislatively to ensure equal rights for African-Americans and their assimilation into American society than General and President U.S. Grant – a status lost to history through the efforts of the progressive/liberals from Reconstruction days to the present. Perpetuating the myths that he was a drunkard and was, somehow, involved in political scandals during his terms, the PLDC has corrupted history and defiled a truly great American.
Despite all of the factual evidence presented above and because of the efforts of the PLDC, the vast majority of African-Americans today have no idea how central the Republican Party has been to their securing of equal-rights under the law from 1861 – 1966 (Voting Rights Act) and into 21st Century America.
“The Panic of 1873 (a depression) hit the Southern economy hard and disillusioned many Republicans who had gambled financially that railroads would pull the South out of its poverty. The price of cotton fell by half; many small landowners, local merchants and cotton factors [wholesalers] went bankrupt. Sharecropping for black and white farmers became more common as a way to spread the risk of owning land. The old abolitionist element in the North was aging away, or had lost interest, and was not replenished.
Many carpetbaggers returned to the North or joined the Redeemers. Blacks had an increased voice in the Republican Party, but across the South it was divided by internal bickering and was rapidly losing its cohesion. Many local black leaders started emphasizing individual economic progress in cooperation with white elites, rather than racial political progress in opposition to them [a modern conservative attitude that foreshadowed Booker T. Washington] and a choice repeated after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 in the eventual fallout from President Lyndon Johnson’s failed “Great Society” legislation of the late 20th Century – consider all of the black elites today who have gotten “theirs” and have left their black brothers and sisters behind.
Nationally, President Grant was blamed by the popular press for the depression; the Republican Party lost 96 seats in all parts of the country in the 1874 elections. That blame was certainly misplaced, at best. In fact, the panic was precipitated primarily by the decision of the fledgling German Empire to cease minting silver thaler coins in 1871 causing a drop in demand and downward pressure on the value of silver; this had a deleterious effect in the USA, where much of the world’s silver supply was then mined. As a result, the Coinage Act of 1873 was introduced and this changed the United States silver policy. Before the Act, the United States had backed its currency with both gold and silver, and it minted both types of coins. Out of necessity, the Act moved the United States to a ‘de facto’ gold standard.
The Act had the immediate effect of depressing silver prices. This hurt Western mining interests, who labeled the Act “The Crime of ’73.” Fortunately, its effect was offset by the introduction of a silver trade dollar for use in Asia, and by the discovery of large new silver deposits at Virginia City, Nevada, resulting in new investment in mining activity. But the coinage law did reduce the domestic money supply, which raised interest rates, thereby hurting farmers and anyone else who carried speculative heavy debt loads.
So, in September 1873, the US economy entered a crisis. This followed a period of post-Civil War economic over-expansion that arose from the Northern railroad boom and it came at the end of a series of economic setbacks: the Black Friday panic of 1869, the Chicago fire of 1871, the outbreak of equine influenza in 1872 – none of which was caused by the Grant administration – and finally, the demonetization of silver in 1873 under Grant’s signature.
In September 1873, Jay Cooke & Company, a major component of the United States banking establishment (Cooke had financed the Union war effort during the Civil War to the tune of almost $1.5 billion) found itself unable to market several million dollars in Northern Pacific Railway bonds. Cooke’s firm, like many others, had invested heavily in the railroads. At a time when investment banks were anxious for more capital for their enterprises, President Ulysses S. Grant’s monetary policy of contracting the money supply to slow speculation made matters worse for those already overextended in debt. While businesses were expanding, the money they needed to finance that growth was becoming scarcer [thereby driving up the cost of money].
Cooke and other entrepreneurs had planned to build the second transcontinental railroad, called the Northern Pacific Railway. Cooke’s firm provided the financing, and ground was broken near Duluth, Minnesota, for the line on February 15, 1870. But just as Cooke was about to swing a $300 million government loan in September 1873, reports circulated that his firm’s credit had become nearly worthless. On September 18, the firm declared bankruptcy.
The failure of the Jay Cooke bank, followed quickly by that of Henry Clews, set off a chain reaction of bank failures and temporarily closed the New York stock exchange. Factories began to lay off workers as the United States slipped into depression. The effects of the panic were quickly felt in New York, and more slowly in Chicago, Virginia City, Nevada, and San Francisco. The New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days starting September 20. By November 1873 some 55 of the nation’s railroads had failed, and another 60 went bankrupt by the first anniversary of the crisis. Construction of new rail lines, formerly one of the backbones of the economy, plummeted from 7500 miles of track in 1872 to just 1600 miles in 1875. Eighteen thousand businesses failed between 1873 and 1875. Unemployment peaked in 1878 at 8.25% [compared to nearly 25% during the Great Depression in 1933]. Building construction was halted, wages were cut, real estate values fell and corporate profits vanished.
Jay Cooke turned to silver mining after the failure, became wealthy again and had repaid all of his debts by 1880.
Next time: Jim Crow