Baptists and the American Civil War: January 12, 1865

Scenes from Savannah 1862Today U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is presented with a note proposing a meeting of “commissioners” from the North and South to explore possible paths to peace. This initiative results in behind-the-scenes diplomacy in the coming weeks.

Also in Washington, D.C. this day, Kentucky Baptist and U.S. Congressman Green Clay Smith delivers a speech in favor of the proposed 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Some congressmen yet insist that the enslavement of blacks is ordained by God. Smith will hear none of it.

…. The Constitution declares that every citizen of the United States shall have equal privileges in every other State. That principle was denied to the whole North by the South unless the man adhered to the sentiments of the South. The very fact that slavery could not be discussed in the South killed it. The very fact that men from the North could not go to the South and speak their real sentiments induced the people of the North to become bitter toward the institution. Now, when this revolution shall have been closed, when this rebellion shall have been put down, my judgment is that that principle of the Constitution will not become fully established until the man from Massachusetts can speak out his true opinions in the State of South Carolina, and the man of Mississippi shall be heard without interruption in Pennsylvania. That is a glorious principle to fight for; and if we can accomplish it, with a united country, with a united people, with a people of one common purpose, we can all say that the war has not been in vain; that we have suffered much, that we have expended much, yet the great principle of the freedom of man has been accomplished by the war.

If slavery is not wrong, then what is wrong? It prevented a man from speaking his sentiments in the South. Go ask the South why they seceded, and the answer will be, to establish slavery. Go travel over this vast country and witness the thousands and thousands of new made graves, and ask what caused them, and the answer will be, slavery. Go ask the taxpayer of this country why he is to day called upon to pay such heavy taxes to support the armies of the Government and to conduct this great war against the rebellion, and the answer comes back to us from every one, slavery is the cause. Why are we wrangling in Congress to-day upon this subject, if slavery is not wrong? Why does the conscientiousness of every man in this country accept as the truth that slavery is wrong?

Meanwhile, tonight U.S. General William Tecumseh Sherman, still in Savannah following his capturing of the city on December 21, meets with twenty African ministers and church officers of the city. Most are Baptists. A retired minister, 67-year old former Baptist pastor Garrison Frazier, a slave until eight years prior, is chosen to speak for the twenty men present. In the presence of the Secretary of War and General Sherman, Frazier provides the following answers to questions posed to him (as transcribed):

Garrison Frazier, being chosen by the persons present to express their common sentiments upon the matters of inquiry, makes answers to inquiries as follows:

First. State what your understanding is in regard to the acts of Congress and President Lincoln’s proclamation touching the condition of the colored people in the rebel States.

Answer. So far as I understand President Lincoln’s proclamation to the rebellious States, it is, that if they would lay down their arms and submit to the laws of the United States before the 1st of January, 1863, all should be well, but if they did not, then all the slaves in the rebel States should be free, henceforth and forever. That is what I understood.

Second. State what you understand by slavery, and the freedom that was to be given by the President’s proclamation.

Answer. Slavery is receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent. The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation is taking us from under the yoke of bondage and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor and take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.

Third. State in what manner you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the Government in maintaining your freedom.

Answer. The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn in and till it by our labor–that is, by the labor of the women, and children, and old men–and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare; and to assist the Government the young men should enlist in the service of the Government, and serve in such manner as they may be wanted. (The rebels told us that they piled them up and made batteries of them, and sold them to Cuba, but we don’t believe that.) We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.

Fourth. State in what manner you would rather live, whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by yourselves?

Answer. I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over, but I do not know that I can answer for my brethren.

(Mr. Lynch says he thinks they should not be separated, but live together. All the other persons present being questioned, one by one, answer that they agree with “Brother Frazier.”)

Fifth. Do you think that there is intelligence enough among the slaves of the South to maintain themselves under the Government of the United States, and the equal protection of its laws, and maintain good and peaceable relations among yourselves and with your neighbors?

Answer. I think there is sufficient intelligence among us to do so.

Sixth. State what is the feeling of the black population of the South toward the Government of the United States; what is the understanding in respect to the present war, its causes and object, and their disposition to aid either side. State fully your views.

Answer. I think you will find there is thousands that are willing to make any sacrifice to assist the Government of the United States, while there is also many that are not willing to take up arms. I do not suppose there is a dozen men that is opposed to the Government. I understand as to the war that the South is the aggressor. President Lincoln was elected President by a majority of the United States, which guaranteed him the right of holding the office and exercising that right over the whole United States. The South, without knowing what he would do, rebelled. The war was commenced by the rebels before he came into the office. The object of the war was not, at first, to give the slaves their freedom, but the sole object of the war was, at first, to bring the rebellious States back into the Union and their loyalty to the laws of the United States. Afterward, knowing the value that was set on the slaves by the rebels, the President thought that his proclamation would stimulate them to lay down their arms, reduce them to obedience, and help to bring back the rebel States, and their not doing so has now made the freedom of the slaves a part of the war. It is my opinion that there is not a man in this city that could be started to help, the rebels one inch, for that would be suicide. There was two black men left with the rebels, because they had taken an active part for the rebels, and thought something might befall them if they staid behind, but there is not another man. If the prayers that have gone up for the Union army could be read out you would not get through them these two weeks.

Seventh. State whether the sentiments you now express are those only of the colored people in the city, or do they extend to the colored population through the country, and what are your means of knowing the sentiments of those living in the country.

Answer. I think the sentiments are the same among the colored people of the State. My opinion is formed by personal communication in the course of my ministry, and also from the thousands that followed the Union army, leaving their homes and undergoing suffering. I did not think there would be so many; the number surpassed my expectation.

Eighth. If the rebel leaders were to arm the slaves what would be its effect!

Answer. I think they would fight as long as they were before the bayonet, and just as soon as they could get away they would desert, in my opinion.

Ninth. What, in your opinion, is the feeling of the colored people about enlisting and serving as soldiers of the United States, and what kind of military service do they prefer?

Answer. A large number have gone as soldiers to Port Royal to be drilled and put in the service, and I think there is thousands of the young men that will enlist; there is something about them that, perhaps, is wrong; they have suffered so long from the rebels that they want to meet and have a chance with them in the field. Some of them want to shoulder the musket, others want to go into the quartermaster or the commissary’s service.

Tenth. Do you understand the mode of enlistment of colored persons in the rebel States, by State agents, under the act of Congress! If yea, state what your understanding is.

Answer. My understanding is that colored persons enlisted by State agents are enlisted as substitutes, and give credit to the States, and do not swell the army, because every black man enlisted by a State agent leaves a white man at home; and also, that larger bounties are given or promised by the State agents than are given by the States. The great object should be to push through this rebellion the shortest way, and there seems to be something wanting in the enlistment by State agents, for it don’t strengthen the army, but takes one away for every colored man enlisted.

Eleventh. State what, in your opinion, is the best way to enlist colored men for soldiers.

Answer. I think, sir, that all compulsory operations should be put a stop to. The ministers would talk to them, and the young men would enlist. It is my opinion that it would be far better for the State agents to stay at home, and the enlistments to be made for the United States under the direction of General Sherman.

In the absence of General Sherman the following question was asked:

Twelfth. State what is the feeling of the colored people in regard to General Sherman, and how far do they regard his sentiments and actions as friendly to their rights and interests, or otherwise.

Answer. We looked upon General Sherman, prior to his arrival, as a man, in the providence of God, specially set apart to accomplish this work, and we unanimously felt inexpressible gratitude to him, looking upon him as a man that should be honored for the faithful performance of his duty. Some of us called upon him immediately upon his arrival, and it is probable he did not meet the Secretary with more courtesy than he met us. His conduct and deportment toward us characterized him as a friend and a gentleman. We have confidence in General Sherman, and think that what concerns us could not be under better hands. This is is our opinion now from the short acquaintance and intercourse we have had.

(Mr. Lynch states that, with his limited acquaintance with General Sherman, he is unwilling to express an opinion. All others present declare their agreement with Mr. Frazier about General Sherman.)

From Washington to Savannah, the subject of slavery thus occupies much of public discourse this day and week. White Baptist elites of the South, confident of the righteousness of African slavery, in the pages of Baptist newspapers this week lament the destruction of their homeland and insist that God will yet lead the Confederacy to victory. A Kentucky Baptist speaks forcefully against slavery in the nation’s capital. African Baptists in Savannah invoke God’s providence, blessing and will upon their emancipation from the shackles of slavery, while voicing firm commitment to the Union and evidencing informed awareness of the present currents of race relations and freedom in their city and far beyond.

With the prohibitions against free speech in the South now lifted under Union occupation, the evils of slavery have been fully exposed to the light and truth is marching on.

Sources: Hampton Roads Conference, Encyclopedia Virginia (link); “Hon. Green Clay Smith, of Kentucky, on the proposed amendment of the constitution of the United States, delivered in the House of Representatives, January 12, 1865” (link); “Sherman Meets the Colored Ministers of Savannah,” January 12, 1865 (link)