Black freedom took four years of civil war and 750,000 deaths to win but was nearly lost before it was even constitutionally enshrined. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery was ratified 150 years ago and proclaimed on December 18. But between passage in January 1865 and ratification ten months later, the seeming imperative to have black people in the South producing cotton again led white northerners to turn away from bringing slavery to a true end, the amendment notwithstanding. And that was an opening ex-Confederates seized, taking by foul means what they had failed to win on the battlefield. Reconstruction’s fatal flaw in 1865 was in sacrificing victory for the sake of economic recovery.
When Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery, freedom looked bountiful. General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order 15, issued just weeks earlier, promised “respectable” heads of African-descended families forty acres of confiscated southern land and a mule to work it. Although the land subject to the order was just a thin strip of seacoast in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, news of Sherman’s proclamation electrified African Americans, hinting as it did at reparations for slavery and rewards for loyalty to black Unionists who helped win the war.
In March 1865, President Abraham Lincoln struck a conciliatory tone with a prostrated Confederacy, calling for peace with “malice toward none, with charity for all,” in hopes of rebuilding the republic with ex-Confederates’ help. But a return to slavery was off the table, he contended, the institution being offensive to God, who “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Abolitionist and former bondsman Frederick Douglass endorsed Lincoln’s words as “a sacred effort.”
Military surrender followed. In April and May, the eastern armies of the Confederacy stacked their arms, and emancipation seemed an accomplished fact. But the Andrew Johnson administration showed clemency to rank-and-file rebels, offering amnesty to all but the Confederate leadership, which amounted to permission to form white supremacist state governments within the new Union. In southern state capitals, Confederate officers returned, some in rebel uniforms, and set up governments by, of, and for themselves. As South Carolina’s provisional governor Benjamin Perry explained, “This is a white man’s government and intended for white men only” in that majority black state.
South Carolina did ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, in November 1865, but it also declared that Congress had no power to enforce its provisions. Instead, legislators added a warning “that any attempt by Congress to legislate on the political status of the former slaves or their civil relations would be contrary to the Constitution.” Alabama followed suit three weeks later, declaring, “that it does not confer upon Congress the power to legislate upon the political status of freedmen in this state.” Black civil rights were a state matter, legislators insisted. Former slaves would get nothing but freedom. Eager to accomplish political reunification, Secretary of State William H. Seward failed to comment on such signing statements. Meanwhile, President Johnson rescinded Sherman’s Special Field Order 15 and with it the principle of redistributing ex-Confederate property.
Yet freedpeople kept faith in Jubilee. Many self-emancipated African Americans had earned high wages in a tight wartime market. They formed mutual aid associations allocating land, seed, farm animals, and credit. “It has been practically demonstrated that the freed-men were able to manage by themselves cane and cotton plantations,” cheered a Louisiana report in the summer of 1865. Freed people gathered in places like Edgefield, Tennessee, and Houston, Texas, to meet with leaders of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the government’s eyes and ears in the defeated Confederacy.
But former slaveholders stacked the labor market against freedpeople, insisting that only a system that mimicked slavery could salvage production and lead an economic recovery. And their object won some northern support. “If the rebellion has exploded the idea that American cotton is the autocrat of the world’s policy,” a New York newspaper correspondent contended in July, “it has also established the fact that American cotton is King of the cotton world.” That was an overstatement. Indian production had more than doubled during the Civil War. Egypt produced three and a half times the cotton after the war than before the war. And Brazil’s output was nearly four times its prewar total. But the great hope of southern U.S. recovery was still pinned to the staple. “A well-organized free-labor system may be made in time as efficient and productive as the forced-labor system of the past,” the New York writer argued, but the benefits of free labor coupled with black civil rights were secondary to the abiding faith in a cotton-led recovery, however brutal its achievement.
In the Deep South that was a new twist on an old strategy: for the fifty years before the Civil War the cotton states had responded to each economic crisis by forcing black people to make more white lint. The economic lifeline of a devastated South seemed to be made of cotton, and that path to recovery gave war-weary Northerners powerful reasons to look the other way when ex-Confederates exploited black workers.
Cotton states dug in their heels further as the months went by, passing what were effectively re-enslavement schemes. South Carolina and Mississippi passed so-called Black Codes designed to force African Americans back into servitude on their former owners’ terms. The codes banned black land ownership in cotton districts, denied black political participation, and criminalized black unemployment. Mississippi’s Vagrancy Act, for example, punished idleness and vice, which it defined so broadly that any misstep could bring a charge. Fines of up to $100 equated to $19,200 in income value today. Convictions could result in an offender being auctioned off for a term, forced to work in a chain gang, or suffering the removal and forced labor of their children. Lest black workers try to move, Mississippi also passed the Enticement Act, which forbade luring a worker away from an employer with the promise of higher wages.
Many African Americans found themselves forced to work for hostile employers without even the formality of a conviction. “The bewildered and terrified freedmen know not what to do – to leave is death,” reported a Freedmen’s Bureau agent in southwestern Alabama in July 1865, “to remain is to suffer the increased burden imposed upon them by the cruel taskmaster, whose only interest is their labor, wrung from them by every device an inhuman ingenuity can devise; hence the lash and murder is resorted to to intimidate those whom fear of an awful death alone cause to remain.” Insurgents spread terror among freed-people, and even sojourners seeking lost family members were murdered with impunity.
Across the South, black workers’ bargaining power evaporated. One labor contract bound a female worker in Louisiana “to labor diligently,” for her former owner, and in her words, to “conduct myself as when I was owned by him as a SLAVE.” By harvest time in the summer and fall of 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau had one arm pulling African Americans into freedom and one pushing them back into slavery. It investigated cases of violence and maltreatment. But it also enforced contracts, even punitive ones. And cotton production rebounded from wartime lows, reaching 2 million bales in 1866. That was only about two-fifths the 1860 total but seemed to support the course of holding black workers to labor in the fields.
As the sesquicentennial of key events in postwar Reconstruction arrive, it should be noted that the landscape of opportunity for African Americans already had been severely constricted in the year of Jubilee. After touring the Deep South during the summer of 1865, General Carl Schurz warned “it is of the highest importance that the people lately in rebellion be not permitted to build up another ‘peculiar institution’ whose spirit is in conflict with the fundamental principles of our political system.” But as the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified that December, organized white southern terrorist organizations were already becoming an ugly appendage to state coercion. Freedpeople protested. And when the 39th Congress met in December, Republicans faced a monumental task of arresting the process, refusing to seat ex-Confederate representatives and asserting what African Americans already knew: the verdict of the war was being overturned by those who felt no need to be reconstructed.