Condition of the South at the Close of the War (part one)
Writers of historical fiction, the next few days’ posts are for you. The transcription I’ll be offering, from General James Harrison Wilson‘s memoirs, (Under the Old Flag, 1912), gives the best illumination I have seen of 1860s attitudes on race. If we write about this era, we don’t want our white characters to be supernatural in enlightenment, however much we want our heroes admirable, with fallibilities relatable, and not shameful. The most progressive thinkers of the time were not 21st century thinkers; they could not have drawn on opinions that no one had expressed, and wouldn’t have formed beliefs that were contrary to what scientific and educational experts taught.
Wilson was a native of Shawneetown, Illinois, a cavalry officer, 28 years old in 1865 [an ancestor of mine, Charles Harry Stewart, served in the Illinois cavalry, Company D, 11th regiment]. Wilson defeated Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Battle of Franklin, administered the city of Macon, Georgia during Union occupation, and gave the orders that resulted in the arrest of Jefferson Davis. He later served in Cuba during the Spanish-American war, and China during the Boxer Rebellion.
CONDITION OF THE SOUTH AT THE CLOSE OF THE WAR OF THE REBELLION
A REPORT MADE TO THE WAR DEPARTMENT, Macon, Georgia, November 23, 1865
It has occurred to me that the results of my observation during and since the Rebellion might throw some light upon the various questions growing out of the abolition of slavery, and thereby assist the public in obtaining a clear understanding of the condition of the South at this time. It is important that intelligent men should deal with these questions dispassionately and discuss them without acerbity or prejudice. They are no longer local, but concern the entire nation. The day of strife is past, and the era for free thought has at last dawned upon the South. It is hardly necessary to assure the reader that in view of these facts I shall endeavor to write plainly and say nothing but what is susceptible of proof.
Many of our writers have said, and not a few of our people have believed, that the suppression of the rebellion had settled the negro question, but this is a grave mistake. That question is now fairly open for discussion, and justly claims our serious attention. Upon its practical solution depend the prosperity of the entire South and the welfare of a race. How can the freedmen be best protected in their personal, social, and civil rights, be made a self-sustaining and useful element in society, and be secured in the benefits of their own labor and intelligence, with the privilege of developing both to the utmost of their capabilities? The discussion will involve a statement of the rights of freedmen, the present moral, intellectual, and physical condition of the negroes, the influences which have been at work upon both white and black society, as well as the means necessary to secure simple justice to all persons under the laws of the United States.
An exhaustive discussion of these subjects would require months of minute research and patient industry, and would fill an entire volume; but I shall endeavor to compress into this chapter all that is essential. The rights of freemen under our Government are by no means generally understood in the South; the rights of freedmen, or people of color emancipated by the President’s Proclamation, and the successful enforcement of the latter by the army, have neither been clearly defined nor generally recognized. A part of the difficulty arises from the use of terms regarded as synonymous by Northern people, for purposes of the law, but which in the minds of Southern people have a widely different meaning. Free men are white and were always free; freedmen are blacks, and were once slaves, but by the force of arms are so no longer. This much, and no more, the Southern people as a class admit. In other words, the freedman is “a negro—a two-legged, vertebrate animal, good enough as a machine in his place, but entitled to no consideration out of it, valuable as a slave, but worthless as a freeman, and possessed of no rights which a white man is bound to respect”.
But few Southern men have surrendered their convictions based upon “the Bible right to enslave the descendants of Ham,” or have yielded assent to the constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation. Many say, I have no doubt sincerely, they are glad slavery has ceased to exist, but they see no more plainly today than ten years ago the moral wrong of withholding liberty from a fellow man. The majority do not acknowledge the negro as a fellow man; they are bound to him by no relation except those established for self-interest, and acknowledge no obligation except that which may be mentioned “in the bond”.
It is no uncommon thing for them to denounce abolitionism as bitterly as they did before the war. I have known of one case in which a minister of the Gospel, thoroughly identified with the Rebellion, was charged by members of his church with the advocacy of miscegenation, because in a sermon upon practical Christianity he announced the Bible doctrine of the unity of the human family! The sentiment which underlies these facts is not universal, but it is the popular and positive one, which opposes liberal views, and which, conjoined with ignorance and prejudice, prevents substantial progress, and keeps from the people a knowledge of what constitutes the rights and duties of freemen. It is no exaggeration to say that no Southern newspaper has yet dared to divest itself of prejudice and discuss that subject truthfully, fearlessly, and persistently, and but few have adverted to it in any other than a tone of expedient submission to national dictation.
There is no such thing yet as a free press in the South, nor can there be till free thought becomes habitual. The feeble and timid efforts of a newspaper in the city of Macon to conduct itself in advocacy of “the restoration of the civil order, and the existence of the national unity under the Constitution and the laws,” subjected its editor to so much insult and contumely that he was compelled to appeal to military authority for protection. No public man of importance in this region, unless I except Mr. James Johnson of Columbus, has had the nerve to tell his people the plain, unvarnished truth, or to show them clearly their relations to the general Government and what would be required of them. His speeches were regarded as too radical on the points touching freedmen, and have not been published; or, if published at all, have been changed to suit the popular temper.
No organic law has yet been framed in the South which secures to the negroes the simplest rights of freemen, no bill of rights which declares that they shall not be punished for crimes, except upon legal conviction thereof, or that enables them to sue and be sued, acquire and convey title to property, and testify in courts. Without further enumeration, it may be clearly seen that no Southern state has yet framed a constitution strictly republican in form—since none has yet provided for the security of those rights justly regarded by freemen as inalienable, and without which, security for life, liberty, and happiness is impossible. Under the orders of military authority and in the process of reconstruction, civil courts have been allowed to resume their functions with instructions to administer the laws as they existed previous to January 1, 1861, except that in no case shall there be discrimination in reference to color.
But in the face of this clear principle of justice the commanding officer of this district was today compelled to arrest two justices of the peace for refusing, while in the execution of their office as an inferior court, to receive the testimony of negro men in a case touching the rights of property between a white and a black man, although both sides desired to introduce such testimony and both had more than one witness to prove the same fact. The justices gave as a reason for action “that the laws of Georgia in force previous to January 1, 1861, prohibit the use of negro testimony; they did not know any other law had been established, and did not intend to do wrong or violate military orders.” The difficulty is that they did not intend to do right, for, admitting the truth of their excuses, they had failed to inform themselves of the law settled by the war and to become acquainted with the points which the President had declared “no longer debatable”.
The fact is the moral appreciation of those points is dead, and hence public sentiment fails to compel officers of the law to properly inform themselves. I doubt if there are ten in all Georgia—and one State is a fair sample of the whole South—below the grade of superior judge, who understand the common law of evidence, or who can perceive, through the aid of their own unassisted understanding, the wrong which may be inflicted upon the negroes by the exclusion of their testimony from the courts of justice. It needs no argument to prove that this right under the law is essential to the preservation of life and liberty, as well as for the protection of property, labor, and the sanctity of the marriage relations. To deprive a citizen of it, in the most enlightened community and under the best laws, leaves him a sport to the vice, cunning, and superior strength of every man who may chance to assail him.
But there are other rights not less essential to the existence of our form of government and not less vital to the public welfare than the one just alluded to for the preservation of personal liberty. In a government based upon the intelligence of the people, in which slavery cannot exist, it is the duty of the legislature to enact such laws as shall enable every man to make the most he can of his intelligence as well as of his labor. It is just as much the duty of the law to render it possible for him to buy education for his children as to buy bread and clothing for them. And precisely upon this point the greatest opposition will be encountered by the freedmen.
James Harrison Wilson
(2021, Stephanie Foster)