Prologue Magazine

Slave Emancipation Through the Prism of Archives Records

Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)

By Joseph P. Reidy

Manuscript records at the National Archives cast uneven light on African American history. By their very nature, they illuminate best the times when federal agencies have intervened directly in the lives of black Americans. For the past half century such intervention has been routine, but before 1950 it has been associated with periods of national crisis and war. Their light shines brightest on the struggle to end slavery in the Civil War era.

Publication of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, by the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland has generated a new appreciation for the treasures that lie in the Civil War records.(1) The volumes of Freedom, together with a spate of recent monographs employing Archives records, demonstrate the complexity of the emancipation process. Space limitations preclude a full survey of relevant topics and studies, but even a limited overview suggests the wealth of the findings and the continuing potential for additional insights.

The impact of black military service during the Civil War provides a convenient point of departure.(2) Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation not only declared free the slaves residing in rebellious territory but also opened the United States Army to black men. The records of the War Department's Bureau of Colored Troops richly document the career of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry through its many travails: the ill-advised assault on Fort Wagner, the long campaign against discriminatory pay, and the ordeal of families on the homefront. In stirring letters to the President, Cpl. James A. Gooding demanded to know if "We have done a Soldiers Duty. Why cant we have a Soldiers pay?" Hannah Johnson, whose son served in the Fifty-fourth, urged Lincoln to act "quickly and manfully, and stop this, mean cowardly cruelty" with which the Confederates treated captured black soldiers.(3)

The bulk of records pertaining to black troops concern the more than one hundred regiments of former slaves recruited in the Union-occupied regions of the Confederate states (particularly Virginia, Tennessee, and the Mississippi River valley) and the Union slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. These records demonstrate the deep ties between military service and the struggle for freedom, not just in the abstract but in the actual lives of the soldiers and their families. Joseph J. Harris, a black sergeant from Louisiana, for instance, hoped that a federal brigade operating near his home plantation might take "three or four Hours trubel" to "take a way my Farther & mother & my brothers wife with all their Children."(4) Martha Glover, a Missouri slave, "had nothing but trouble" since her husband enlisted and lamented to him "Oh I wish you had staid with me & not gone till I could go with you for I do nothing but grieve all the time about you." Pvt. Spotswood Rice, another Missourian, aimed to spread grief among unrepentant slaveholders, warning his daughter's mistress that "the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their."(5)

U.S. Army command records complement those of the Bureau of Colored Troops; whereas the latter pertain largely to soldiers, the former illustrate in fine detail the army's encounter with slavery and the slaves' efforts to escape slavery and build a better life. Armstead L. Robinson's pioneering exploration of these bulky yet rewarding collections, his as-yet unpublished dissertation entitled "Day of Jubilo," remains the starting place for understanding how slavery, at first the heart and soul of the Confederacy, eventually became its Achilles' heel and how slaves helped effect this transformation.(6) For Union-occupied areas of the Confederacy, command records are especially insightful into the interaction among former slaves, federal officials, missionaries, and entrepreneurs at "contraband" camps and on leased plantations. Among other things, the documents reveal that black women and children formed a disproportionately large part of the refugee population. Given the varying strategic considerations commanders faced and their own assorted prejudices and foibles, there should be little wonder that wartime models of free labor differed substantially from one region to another and provided suggestive rather than definitive models for the economic reconstruction of the South.(7)

The records of the Freedmen's Bureau, covering the period from 1865 to 1872, have had, if anything, an even more profound impact on understanding emancipation than have the records dating from the war years per se. To a large extent, this richness derives from the fact that the agency's legislative mandate gave it sweeping jurisdiction over freedpeople's affairs in the former Confederate states. With varying degrees of success, former masters lobbied for influence over individual agents and the larger apparatus; nonetheless, freedpeople looked upon the bureau as something of a snug harbor amid stormy seas.

Given the breadth of the bureau's charge, there is scarcely a single facet of the Southern black experience that goes unexplored in its holdings. At the same time, the records vary in quantity and quality, both from state to state and over time. To some extent, this variability resulted from fluctuating levels of political hostility to the bureau in both Washington and the states. On the whole, however, the records provide priceless glimpses into the strains of a society in the midst of profound social revolution.

Much of the documentation in the bureau records addresses the emergence of a system of compensated labor following the war. Given the bureau's increasingly limited reach over time, surviving records do not tell the whole tale of the struggle over the new labor system. Nonetheless, they paint a portrait of astonishing richness and complexity.

Historians of the black experience have long taken for granted that freedpeople desired land; like the flame of a candle, this aspiration alternately flickered and flared as political winds changed. Archives records reveal the intensity and longevity of the desire, often in stunning letters and petitions by former slaves to government officials.(8) Freedpeople who had benefitted from the distribution of abandoned land during wartime expressed their own right to the land and the government's obligation to honor its pledges. In a dramatic and heartrending encounter during October 1865, O. O. Howard himself ordered the freedpeople of Edisto Island, South Carolina, to return the land to its former owners in compliance with President Andrew Johnson's wishes. After listening to Howard's case, a committee of freedmen petitioned him and President Johnson for redress. Without his influence & assistance, they informed Howard, "we can only pray to god & Hope for His Help." "In this trying hour," they addressed the President "as A true friend of the poor and Neglected race. for protection and Equal Rights." They begged "that some provisions be made by which Every colored man can purchase land. and Hold it as his own . . . if It be but A few acres."(9) Although this plea fell on deaf ears, freedmen throughout the South agitated again and again for land at opportune moments. And slowly but steadily, they and their descendants accumulated hundreds of thousands of acres between Reconstruction and World War I.

The major corollary to the proposition about the freedpeople's desire for land holds that the government's failure to redistribute Southern land gave rise to a hybrid system of wage labor, tenancy, and sharecropping, with the latter becoming predominant within a generation after the end of the war. Charting the evolution of postbellum labor relations has proven challenging, given the fact that by the end of Reconstruction most contracts were verbal rather than written and that tenants, sharecroppers, and day laborers often worked on the same plantation. The withdrawal of federal oversight from these proceedings, which dated from 1868 when the Freedmen's Bureau ceased most of its operations, in effect impoverished the documentary record of these developments over time.

For the period 1865–1868, however, incomparably detailed documentation can be found by the truckload in bureau records. Especially noteworthy in this regard are the innumerable examples of written contracts and case files of contract disputes. Although these records suggest a degree of standardization of contract terms over time, they demonstrate even more vividly the contingent nature of early postwar labor arrangements. Simply put, employers and employees bargained fiercely with each other over their contractual obligations and prerogatives. If the bargainers did not generally stand on equal footing, neither did their feet get mired in the mud. As one party appeared to gain an advantage, the other would parry. Over time, tenancy and sharecropping did indeed emerge, but not so much as an exploitative tool wielded one-sidedly by landowners as a compromise position between the competing interests of landowners and of freedpeople. To be sure, bureau records sketch the outlines of this compromise process, but their greatest gift lies in recording the range and complexity of the struggle over a new labor system when the outcome was still unclear. Historians of the postbellum South as well as those of the African American experience have yet to exploit these riches fully.(10)

Archives records have proven invaluable in reassessing the political aspects of black Reconstruction in the South. Again, Freedmen's Bureau records offer intricate details regarding political mobilization during the early postwar years, revealing names of politically active individuals and the organizations through which freedpeople pursued political objectives.(11) Surviving records of other federal agencies, including the Adjutant General of the Army (Record Group 94), U.S. Army Continental Commands (Record Group 393), the Department of Justice (Record Group 60), the Comptroller of the Currency (Record Group 101), the U.S. Senate (Record Group 60), and the U.S. House of Representatives (Record Group 233), document other facets of this political mobilization. The records illustrate in rich detail the freedpeople's resistance against physical violence, which ranged from attempted whippings by employers to attempted murders by Klansmen. They also demonstrate the dear price former slaves paid to secure basic constitutional rights.(12)

The political ideology expressed in the freedpeople's quest for social and political justice remains surprisingly understudied, despite the wealth of material in the various Archives record groups. A representative petition for citizenship rights serves to illustrate. In January 1865, as the Civil War wound to a close and Tennessee Unionists contemplated the postwar world, black residents of Nashville petitioned the Union Convention assembled in their city. On its surface a straightforward request to abolish slavery and grant former slaves citizenship--with the right to vote and to testify in court--the petition in fact weaves together political, economic, moral, and humanitarian arguments with a sophisticated blend of political philosophy and Christian theology:

We claim to be men belonging to the great human family, descended from one great God, who is the common Father of all, and who bestowed on all races and tribes the priceless right of freedom. Of this right, for no offense of ours, we have long been cruelly deprived, and the common voice of the wise and good of all countries, has remonstrated against our enslavement, as one of the greatest crimes in all history.

We claim freedom, as our natural right, and ask that in harmony and co-operation with the nation at large, you should cut up by the roots the system of slavery, which is not only a wrong to us, but the source of all the evil which at present afflicts the State.

Asserting that "the colored race in this country have always looked upon the United States as the Promised Land of Universal freedom," they acknowledged "the burdens of citizenship" and pledged readiness "to bear them."

This is a democracy—a government of the people. It should aime to make every man, without regard to the color of his skin, the amount of his wealth, or the character of his religious faith, feel personally interested in its welfare. Every man who lives under the Government should feel that it is his property, his treasure, the bulwark and defence of himself and his family, his pearl of great price, which he must preserve, protect, and defend faithfully at all times, on all occasions, in every possible manner.

This is not a Democratic Government if a numerous, law-abiding, industrious, and useful class of citizens, born and bred on the soil, are to be treated as aliens and enemies, as an inferior degraded class, who must have no voice in the Government which they support, protect and defend, with all their heart, soul, mind, and body, both in peace and war.

The Government is based on the teachings of the Bible, which prescribes the same rules of action for all members of the human family, whether their complexion be white, yellow, red or black. God no where in his revealed work, makes an invidious and degrading distinction against his children, because of their color. And happy is that nation which makes the Bible its rule of action, and obeys principle, not prejudice.

The petitioners concluded by pledging "ourselves, and our families, with all that we have on earth" to "the great government of freedom and equal rights." Doubts about their fidelity had no basis, "for neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of the Union."(13)

Historians have only recently begun to examine the gendered dimensions of the struggle for equal rights that petitions such as this articulated. What earlier generations may have perceived as claims for rights in the abstract appear through present-day sensibilities also to claim the "manhood rights" enjoyed by male citizens of the republic. In addition to participation in civic affairs—preeminently by voting—free men provided for and defended their wives and children. Archives records provide rich evidence to document the freedmen's quest for such manhood rights. At the same time, however, they also demonstrate that freedmen and freedwomen grappled with Victorian ideals of manhood and womanhood with a fascinating combination of rigidity and flexibility that both reflected the larger struggle to define a new world of freedom and changed with the demands of that contest over time.(14)

Archives records have also provided important insights into the dynamics of institution-building and leadership development among former slaves during the early postwar years. While never separate from the general struggle for freedom and justice or from the specific challenges of devising a new labor system and establishing citizenship rights, efforts at institution-building also served purposes and followed dynamics of their own. With regard to kinship institutions, for instance, freedpeople placed a high premium on reconstructing families attenuated or destroyed during slavery, and Freedmen's Bureau officials on the whole cooperated.(15) By the same token, efforts to establish schools and churches drew communities together and established broader contacts with sympathetic whites both locally and in distant corners of the North. The records also illustrate how such campaigns drew out opposition, at times from within black communities as well as from hostile whites. And because accumulating and mobilizing capital represented a central feature of most school and church campaigns, Archives records document the links between individual and group savings and community development, a point that the records of the failed Freedman's Savings and Trust Company reveal with special poignancy.(16)

The one major group of Archives records just now in the early stages of exploration are the pension records of black Civil War veterans and their eligible dependents. The one major disadvantage of these records is their bulk, but their numerous advantages provide an effective counterweight. Apart from the chronological range of many of the files—the best span several decades and two or more generations (including the veteran's own)—the affidavits, depositions, letters, and memorabilia document an unpredictably broad range of personal, family, and community history. Though consistently best at revealing the medical, residential, occupational, and family histories of the veterans, the files also trace networks of relatives, neighbors, workmates, and former comrades; describe churches and fraternal and benevolent societies in hard-to-replicate detail; and illustrate the ongoing struggles against the legacy of slavery into the twentieth century.

The scholarship of the past generation has demonstrated that the records at the National Archives offer infinite possibilities for understanding the African American experience during the late nineteenth century. Though daunting in volume, the records can be worked to advantage. Given the willingness of the past generation's social historians to delve into research projects from which their predecessors shied away, better maps to the hidden treasures exist now than at any time in the past. In such circumstances, Archives records will surely continue to be a source of fresh interpretation well into the next century.



1. The project began in 1976 under the direction of Ira Berlin; since 1992 Leslie S. Rowland has served as director. The Freedom series consists of: Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., The Black Military Experience (1982); Berlin et al., eds., The Destruction of Slavery (1985); Berlin et al., eds., The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South (1990); and Berlin et al., eds., The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South (1993). For a one-volume compilation of these documents, see Ira Berlin et al., Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War (1992). The project owes lasting debts to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and to the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding and to Herbert G. Gutman and especially Sara D. Jackson for inspiration and guidance.

2. There is a history yet to be extracted from U.S. Navy records (Record Groups 24 and 45) regarding the experience of black sailors in the Civil War and the navy's role in the destruction of slavery. For the past five years I and a number of graduate students at Howard University have been investigating the topic in partnership with the Department of the Navy and the National Park Service through the support of the Department of Defense Legacy Cultural Resources Program. The best published survey of the subject is David L. Valuska, The Afro-American in the Union Navy: 1861–1865 (1993).

3. Cpl. James Henry Gooding to Abraham Lincoln, Sept. 28, 1863, enclosed in [Harper & Brothers] to [Abraham Lincoln], Oct. 12, 1863, H-133 1863; and Hannah Johnson to Hon. Mr. Lincoln, July 31, 1863, J-17 1863, Letters Received, series 360, Colored Troops Division, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917, Record Group 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter, records in the National Archives will be cited as RG ___, NARA). For printed versions of these letters, see Berlin et al., Free At Last, pp. 461–463, 450–451, respectively.

4. Sgt. Joseph J. Harris to Gen. Ullman,Dec. 27, 1864, D. Ullmann Papers, Generals' Papers & Books, series 159, RG 94, NARA; see also Berlin et al., Free At Last, p. 496.

5. Martha to My Dear Husband [Richard Glover], Dec. 30, 1863, enclosed in Brig. Gen. Wm. A. Pile to Maj. O. D. Greene, Feb. 11, 1864, P-91 1864; Spotswood Rice to Kittey Diggs, [Sept. 3, 1864], enclosed in F. W. Diggs to Gen. Rosecrans, Sept. 10, 1864, D-296 1864, Letters Received, series 2593, Department of the Missouri, Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, RG 393 Pt. 1, NARA; see also Berlin et al., Free At Last, pp. 464 and 481–482, respectively. For excellent monographs that rely on Archives records, see Louis S. Gerteis, From Contraband to Freedman: records, see Louis S. Gerteis, Federal Policy toward Southern Blacks, 1861–1865 (1973); C. Peter Ripley, Slaves and Freedmen in Civil War Louisiana (1976); Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century (1985); and John Cimprich, Slavery's End in Tennessee (1986).

6. Armstead Louis Robinson, "Day of Jubilo: Civil War and the Demise of Slavery in the Mississippi Valley, 1861–1865," (Ph.D. diss., University of Rochester, 1977). See also his "The Difference Freedom Made: The Emancipation of Afro-Americans," in The State of Afro-American History: Past, Present, and Future, ed. Darlene Clark Hine (1986), pp. 51–74; and "'Plans Dat Comed from God': Institutional Building and the Emergence of Black Leadership in Reconstruction Memphis," in Toward a New South? Studies in Post-Civil War Southern Communities, ed. Orville Vernon Burton and Robert C. McMath, Jr. (1982), pp. 71–102.

7. For fuller consideration of these matters, see Berlin et al., eds., Destruction of Slavery; Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South; and Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South.

8. See Edward Magdol, A Right to the Land: Essays on the Freedmen's Community (1977); Claude F. Oubre, Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Landownership (1978); and especially Julie Saville, The Work of Reconstruction: From Slave to Wage Laborer in South Carolina, 1860–1870 (1994).

9. Henry Bram et al. to Maj. Gen. O. O. Howard, [Oct. 28?, 1865], and Henry Bram et al. to the President of these United States, Oct. 28, 1865, B-53 1865 and P-27 1865, Letters Received (series 15), Washington Headquarters, RG 105, NARA. These letters (and related documents) are published in Ira Berlin et al., "The Terrain of Freedom: The Struggle over the Meaning of Freedom in the U.S. South," History Workshop 22 (Autumn 1986): 127129. 10. Future volumes in the Freedom series will specifically address the evolution of a postbellum labor system. For the results of my encounter with a representative slice of this material, see Joseph P. Reidy, From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South: Central Georgia, 1800–1880 (1992).

11. For representative compilations of research into local black leadership during Reconstruction, see Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988), chaps. 7-8; and Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction (1993). For more specific studies that draw on Freedmen's Bureau and other Archives records, see Robinson, "'Plans Dat Comed from God'"; Thomas C. Holt, Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction (1977); and Edmund L. Drago, Black Politicians and Reconstruction in Georgia (1982).

12. See especially Donald G. Nieman, To Set the Law in Motion: The Freedmen's Bureau and the Legal Rights of Blacks, 1865–1868 (1979).

13. Unidentified newspaper clipping of Andrew Tait et al. to the Union Convention of Tennessee, Jan. 9, 1865, enclosed in Col. R. D. Mussey to Capt. C. P. Brown, Jan. 23, 1865, Letters Received, ser. 925, Department of the Cumberland, RG 393 Pt. 1, NARA; see also Free At Last, pp. 497–505.

14. Pioneering explorations of this topic include Laura Frances Edwards, "The Politics of Manhood and Womanhood: Reconstruction in Granville County, North Carolina," (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1991); Laura F. Edwards, "Sexual Violence, Gender, Reconstruction, and the Extension of Patriarchy in Granville County, North Carolina," North Carolina Historical Review 68 (July 1991): 237–260; Elsa Barkley Brown, "Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom," Public Culture 7 (Fall 1994): 107–146; and Leslie A. Schwalm, "A Hard Fight for We": Women's Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina (forthcoming).

15. See Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1770–1925 (1976); Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (1979); Rebecca J. Scott, "The Battle over the Child: Child Apprenticeship and the Freedmen's Bureau in North Carolina," Prologue: Journal of the National Archives 10 (Summer 1978): 101–113; and Ira Berlin, Steven F. Miller, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., "Afro-American Families in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom," Radical History Review 42 (1988): 89–121. As recent studies of the bureau have made clear, agents' willingness to reunite families sold apart during slavery did not necessarily translate into a commitment to keep black families intact. Agents often acquiesced, for example, in apprenticing "orphan" or minor children to former masters against the competing claims for custody of family members, and they consistently forbade husbands and wives who were employed by different employers to break labor contracts in the interest of co-residence.

16. In addition to Carl R. Osthaus's insightful history of the bank, Freemen, Philanthropy, and Fraud: A History of the Freedman's Savings Bank (1976), see the remarkable work of reconstructing the life histories of depositors in the Richmond, Virginia, branch of the bank that appears in Peter J. Rachleff, Black Labor in the South: Richmond, Virginia, 1865–1890 (1984).


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.