Baptists and the American Civil War: November 9, 1864

SlaveryToday in Georgia Union General William T. Sherman, preparing for his march across Georgia to the port city of Savannah, issues Special Field Orders No. 120.

The orders declare that the army “will forage liberally on the country during the march,” including “corn or forage of any kind, meat of any kind, vegetables, corn-meal, or whatever is needed by the command” without entering “the dwellings of the inhabitants, or commit[ing] any trespass.” However, “should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.”

Many white elites of the South, however, are more worried about retaining control over their slaves than they are the endangered crops and goods of the common folk. A commentary in today’s issue of the South Carolina Confederate Baptist reflects such priorities.

If the people of the United States had consulted history and not their prejudices, they would not have been so confident of finding allies in our slaves. We prepared an article on “the fidelity of slaves,” and Mr. DeBow used it, in a speech in Washington, before they plunged into this war. But they heeded not the testimony of history, and were so demented as to believe that Lincoln‘s Proclamation would produce a universal stampede. But what has been the result? We are happy to give the testimony of an able English writer, in the Church and State Review.

“If there were, then, a point on which all, whether here or in the United States, had confidently reckoned, it was on the hostility of the slaves to their masters. How, indeed, should it be otherwise? Were one tithe of the statements currently reported of their condition but founded upon truth, this hostility was as inevitable as oppression and cruel wrong could make it. Yet what has the event shown? The armies of the North have marched and countermarched over many hundred miles of Southern soil; but the negroes, instead of welcoming them, have, for the most part, fled at their approach. The proclamation of freedom has been boldly reprinted in Southern newspapers, and openly circulated from white to black and from black to white throughout the Confederacy, but not a plantation has risen to claim the boon. The planters have fearlessly entrusted their dearest interests to their slaves, whose vengeance they were supposed so abjectly to dread. The negroes, thirsting to wash out in their masters’ blood the memory of their wrongs, have tilled the fields, and watched over his home and tended his wife and little ones while he was far away fighting against the friends who were to set them free. Is all this natural–is it even credible? If the relation of master and slave in the Southern States were really as we have deemed it, is the negro nature so angelic–nay, so Divine–as to repay such evil with such good? We would gladly think it, even at the cost of an enforced tribute of admiration for a system that could nurture such a frame of mind. But we know it is not so; that it is not our deduction, but our premises, that have been at fault. The position of the slave is not as we have pictured it. He is not a struggling and down-trodden serf, writhing under the lash of a cruel task-master, stretching chained hands to heaven in agonized prayers for deliverance. Rather he is a simple-hearted, docile, affectionate child; impatient often, like other children, of constraint, and yet more impatient of work; needing guidance and even correction and conscious of his need; capable, no doubt, of being trained to a higher and noble life; but, for the present at least, best and happiest, and, in truth, most contented as he is.”

For many decades white Southerners have lied to themselves in labeling Africans as children who, happy and contented as slaves, are inherently faithful to their masters. Yet now, with hundreds of thousands having already escaped to freedom behind Union lines, and remaining slaves constrained only by the fear of punishment or even death by command of their masters should they attempt to run away, the lies are blatantly preposterous.

The South’s restricting of freedom to whites only is, in short, quickly fading away. Freedom for all is spreading ever more rapidly throughout the South, as Sherman’s march will soon be the latest evidence.

Sources: “William T. Sherman, Special Field Orders No. 120, November 9, 1864” (link); “Our Slaves,” Confederate Baptist, November 9, 1864