Baptists and the American Civil War: August 2, 1865

Freedmen in Richmond, Virginia.

Freedmen in Richmond, Virginia.

In the post-war months Confederate loyalists of Virginia have typically refused to recognize the legitimacy of the freedoms bestowed upon black citizens through the Emancipation Proclamation. Rather, the state’s elites have systematically gone about the business of ensuring that blacks remain in servitude to whites.

A campaign of intimidation and violence in Richmond, including the utilization of rape of women, is designed to push black citizens out of city limits and into the countryside. The city’s officials and law enforcement personnel have made it clear that black persons who choose to remain in Richmond will live under the dominance of whites. At the same time, the same politicians and other leaders who are persecuting black citizens are assuring United States officials that blacks are being treated fairly in their city.

Against this backdrop, Virginia’s freedmen assemble at a convention in Alexandria and organize themselves in an effort to appeal to the United States government to follow through on promises of freedom.

Former slave and Baptist minister Fields Cook represents Richmond. He is elected as a vice president and is selected to write the convention’s address to the public, solidifying his status as one Richmond’s leading black citizens.

The public address thus declares:

We, the undersigned members of a convention of the colored citizens of the State of Virginia, would respectfully represent that, although we have been held as slaves, and denied all recognition as a constituent of your nationality for almost the entire period of the duration of your government, and that by your permission we have been denied either home or country, and deprived of the dearest rights of human nature; yet when you and our immediate opposers met in deadly conflict upon the field of battle — the one to destroy, and the other to save your government and nationality, we, with scarce an exception, in our inmost souls espoused your cause, and watched, and prayed, and waited, and labored for your success.

In spite of repeated discouragements, we continued to flock to your lines, giving valuable information, guiding your scouting parties and your minor expeditions, digging in your trenches, driving your teams, and in every way lightening the labors of your soldiers; concealing and aiding your soldiers who were escaping from the prison pens of a barbarous foe, and, when reluctantly permitted, we rallied by myriads under your banner, and by the heroism illustrated at Fort Wagner, Port Hudson, Milliken’s Bend and before Petersburgh and Richmond, we demonstrated our capacity to understand the ideas of the contest, and our worthiness to stand side by side with the bravest in fighting it out.

When the contest waxed long, and the result hung doubtfully, you appealed to us for help, and how well we answered in written in the rosters of the two hundred colored troops now enrolled in your service; and as to our undying devotion to your cause, let the uniform acclamation of escaped prisoners, “Whenever we saw a black face, we felt sure of a friend,” answer.

Well, the war is over, the rebellion is “put down,” and we are declared, free! Four-fifths of our enemies are paroled or amnestied, and the other fifth are being pardoned, and the President has, in his efforts at the reconstruction of the civil government of the States, late in rebellion, left us entirely at the mercy of these subjugated but unconverted rebels, in everything save the privilege of bringing us, our wives and little ones, to the auction block. He has, so far as we can understand the tendency and bearing of his action in the case, remitted us for all our civil rights, to men, a majority of whom regard our devotions to your cause and flag as that which decided the contest against them! This we regard as destructive of all we hold dear, and in the name of God, of justice, of humanity, of good faith, of truth and righteousness, we do most solemnly and earnestly protest. Men and brethren, in the hour of your peril you called upon us, and despite all time-honored interpretation of constitutional obligations, we came at your call and you are saved; and now we beg, we pray, we entreat you not to desert us in this the hour of our peril!

We know these men — know them well — and we assure you that, with the majority of them, loyalty is only “lip deep,” and that their professions of loyalty are used as a cover to the cherished design of getting restored to their former relations with the Federal Government, and then, by all sorts of “unfriendly legislation,” to render the freedom you have given us more intolerable than the slavery they intended for us.

We warn you in time that our only safety is in keeping them under Governors of the military persuasion until you have amended the Federal Constitution that it will prohibit the States from making any distinction between citizens on account of race or color. In one word, the only salvation for us besides the military power of the government, is in the possession of the ballot. Give us this, and we will protect ourselves. No class of men relatively as numerous as we were ever oppressed when armed with the ballot. But, ’tis said we are ignorant. Admit it. Yet who denies we know a traitor from a loyal man, a gentleman from a rowdy, a friend from an enemy. The twelve thousand colored votes of the State of New-York sent Gov. SEYMOUR home and REUBEN E. FENTON to Albany. Did not they know whom to vote for?

If all the colored men of that great State could have voted in 1862, HORATIO SEYMOUR would never have left his home, and the brave, noble and chivalrous WADSWORTH would have kept the honor of his State untarnished through those two dark and memorable years. How many colored men voted for MCCLELLAN? How many failed to vote for LINCOLN and JOHNSON, and could every colored man in the land have voted, what countless thousands would have been added to the majorities of the, latter? All we ask is an equal chance with the white traitors varnished and japanned with the oath of amnesty. Can you deny us this, and still keep faith with us? “But,” say some, “the blocks will be overreached by the superior knowledge and cunning of the whites.” Trust us for that. We will never be deceived a second time. “But,” they continue, “the planters and landowners will have them in their power, and dictate the way their votes shall be cast.” We did not know before that we were to be left to the tender mercies of these landed rebels for employment. Verily, we thought the Freedmen’s Bureau was organized and clothed with power to protect us from this very thing, by compelling those for whom we labored to pay us, whether they liked our political opinions or not! In addition, there is something said about assigning freedmen and refugees forty acres of land each, and a chance for pre-emption and purchase when it is confiscated or sold for taxes. The noble and gallant soldier at the head of that bureau said the other day to one of his subordinates, ” If you find a man working the freedmen as slaves, set off his house, garden and yard, take possession of his land, and set the freedmen at work upon it yourself.”

Have the employers of white voters always controlled their votes! Let the history of elections answer. But some of our friends fear we might vote with our former masters. What if we did? Whose business is it? If they legislated according to the old ideas, we would never do it a second time, and if they legislated according to the new ideas, we would vote for them again. Is it against us that we are known to possess a high regard for gentlemen — that like to be with them — that we prefer them to the rude, the vulgar, and the unworthy — (other things being equal) -that we would not vote for traitors, nor drunkards, nor rowdies, nor at the dictation of mitred priest nor rich rumseller? Can the mass of the white voters say as much? Is any one more skeptical now as to our capacity to use well the ballot, than almost all of you were two years ago as to our ability to use the bayonet? And yet how soon were those doubts swept into oblivion, and we affirm that the same course in regard to the ballot — trying it — will be followed by the same result. Only give us the chance, and we promise you, before God and mankind, that, by patient industry, by wise economy, by prudence and uprightness, by intense loyalty, by unremitting zeal in the cause of learning, of culture and intelligence, we will justify and vindicate before heaven and earth the wisdom of your course, and will demonstrate that the right way is the safe way.

In view of the late occurrences, can any of you doubt for a moment our fate, if left to the Legislatures and Governors of these restored States?

Look at Gov. PEIRPOINT, of this State — elected by men of unconditional loyalty, and by all supposed to be loyal to freedom and equal rights. Before he is in Richmond a month, he gives completely over to the “Virginia element,” deserting his former friends, and calls together the Legislature for the purpose of re-enfranchising the rebels of Virginia, and coolly tells them they have nothing to do with negro suffrage! Behold the potency of wine and fine dinners!

When the United States Court set at Norfolk, and the Grand Jury indicted fifty-seven of the leading traitors of Virginia, the District-Attorney, through some strange chicanery, kept twenty of them off the list. He doubtless has his reward in the promise of their votes and influence to place him in Congress.

These are the men who have been regarded as our friends, and if they do such things, what may we expect from those whom you regard as our enemies?

We are “sheep in the midst of wolves,” and nothing but the military arm of the government prevents us and all the truly loyal white men from being driven from the land of our birth. Do not, then, we beseech you, give to one of these “wayward sisters” the rights they abandoned and forfeited when they rebelled, until you have secured our rights by the aforementioned amendment to the constitution.

Let your action in our behalf be thus clear and emphatic, and our respected President, who, we feel confident, desires only to know your will, to act in harmony therewith, will give you his most earnest and cordial cooperation; and the Southern States, through your enlightened and just legislation, will speedily award us our rights. Thus not only will the arms of the rebellion be surrendered, but the ideas also.

The issue is too momentous, the stake is too incalculably great, to admit of delay or quibbles about the constitutionality of the thing.

Good faith, honor, gratitude, justice and right, are the elements of law that are higher than all constitutions or statutes of men’s — exaulting; and you have only in your omnipotence to say “let it be done,” and it will be done.

It is this quibbling and compromising that have ground us to powder in the past, and plunged you into the vortex of civil war; and you by the Living God to deliver us from a repetition of this grinding process, and your children from, the recurrence of your late calamities.

Trusting that you will not be deaf to the appeal herein made, nor unmindful of the warnings which the malignity of the rebels are constantly giving you, and that you will rise to the height of being inst. for the sake of justice, we remain yours for our flag, our country, and humanity.

The contest of wills between South and North over the post-war status of black citizens is only beginning.

Throughout the remainder of the decade Cook remains involved in politics, and in the 1870s becomes a Baptist minister in Alexandria.

Sources: “The Late Convention of Colored Men; ADDRESS TO THE LOYAL CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES AND TO CONGRESS,” New York Times, August 13, 1865 (link);

from Revolution to Reconstruction (link); “Fields Cook, 1817-1897,” Encyclopedia Virginia (link)