Baptists and the American Civil War: December 9, 1864

sherman_mapUnion General William T. Sherman arrives at Pooler this day, some twelve miles from the port city.

Soon, Savannah will be his.

Twenty miles from Savannah, Sherman’s rear guard, under the command of Major General Jefferson C.Davis, crosses Ebenezer Creek on pontoon bridges. Up to 5000 fugitive slaves, following the Federal army, are told to wait for a signal to cross. When the last Union soldiers clear the bridge, however, Davis orders the pontoons unlashed. Left behind are the fugitive slaves–women, children and old men.

Liberated slaves have been following Sherman’s army since the departure from Atlanta. Throughout the march across Georgia, able-bodied black males, working as laborers, teamsters, cooks and servants have been provided for by the army. Racism, however, is a reality within the ranks of Sherman’s army, with many despising black persons. Former slaves who are able to assist in the work of the army are appreciated by some and tolerated by others. Women, children and old men, however, have become an increasing burden. Expecting the army to feed them, they have nothing to offer in return.

Of the opinion that slavery is a proper role for blacks, Davis has no compassion on former slaves who are of no benefit to the army. The flood-swollen Ebenezer Creek thus becomes Davis’ way of shedding the burden of the unwanted black women, children and old men who have been tagging along for far too long, in his estimation.

As the bridge swings away, the refugees, knowing that Confederate troops are following the Federals, panic. Capture by the Confederates means re-enslavement or death.

When Confederate General Joseph Wheeler and his forces shortly arrive on the scene, many refugees jump into the river and try to swim across, leading to a great number of drownings. Others flee and are quickly rounded up by Wheeler’s forces, either to be executed or re-enslaved.

By virtue of the Baptist faith being most highly represented among slaves of the South, many of the souls lost or re-enslaved this day are Baptists.

The scandalous episode is reported to higher ups in the Union military, and an investigation ensues in the coming weeks. No charges, however, are filed. Davis’ actions are ultimately deemed as military necessity.

The tragic loss at Ebenezer Creek this day dramatically illustrates that racial prejudice remains alive and well even within the ranks of the very soldiers and officers who are prosecuting the war against slavery.

While hundreds of fugitive slaves die this day due to the racism of their Northern benefactors, some white Southern elites are ironically advocating for freedom for slaves who bear arms in the Confederate Army. The question of arming slaves, now hotly debated by the Confederate government, has raised the wrath of many white Baptists of the South. An article in this week’s edition of the South Carolina Confederate Baptist newspaper captures the essence of the quandary.

If slavery is the natural condition of the negro, and therefore best suited to secure his well-being and well-doing, what can be more inconsistent than to offer him freedom, as a reward for his good behavior for services rendered to his master or his country, or to punish a free negro by remanding him to that favored condition. Yet the people of these States have done this very thing. They are doing it, now. A late Richmond paper records the sentence of a court, which inflicts upon a worthless free negro the penalty of bondage. We tell our servants and the world, that we hold them in bondage, because that is their best estate; yet we propose to reward them, by thrusting them out of their fair heritage, and to inflict slavery, as a penalty, upon the vilest culprits among the free of their own color.

For slaves, runaways and freedmen alike, the events and dialogue of this week capture the ambivalent feelings of many white Americans, North and South, toward blacks. Even as freedom for all blacks seems tantalizingly close, many whites have little use for black people who have nothing to offer.

Such seemingly inherent racial prejudice even among Northerners offers hints that the future freedoms provided to blacks may not equal those enjoyed by whites.

Sources: History of the City of Pooler (link); “March to the Sea: Ebenezer Creek,” Georgia Historical Society” (link); Edward M. Churchill, “Betrayal at Ebenezer Creek,” Civil War Times, October 1998 (link); “Our Slaves,” Confederate Baptist, December 7, 1864