Baptists and the American Civil War: June 12, 1865

freedmens_schoolToday in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. General William T. Sherman and his wife attend a Sanitary Commission fair, demonstrating their support for the organization that has done so much in support of soldiers. Many American (Northern) Baptists also support the Commission.

Southward in Virginia a new black Baptist church is founded, the Bethlehem Baptist Church of Fredericksburg. It is one of many black churches established this month as throughout the South freedmen exercise their liberties by separating from the white-led Baptist churches they had for so long been forced to attend.

In the Deep South town of Orangeburg, South Carolina, Captain Charles C. Soule, a war veteran (44th and 55th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantries) and bookseller by profession is now working among freedom and seeking to help foster reconciliation among the races. Today he issues a letter to the freedmen of Orangeburg District, a missive that discusses new realities concerning work as free individuals.

To the Freed People of Orangeburg District.

You have heard many stories about your condition as freemen.  You do not know what to believe: you are talking too much; waiting too much; asking for too much.  If you can find out the truth about this matter, you will settle down quietly to your work.  Listen, then, and try to understand just how you are situated.

You are now free, but you must know that the only difference you can feel yet, between slavery and freedom, is that neither you nor your children can be bought or sold.  You may have a harder time this year than you have ever had before; it will be the price you pay for your freedom.  You will have to work hard, and get very little to eat, and very few clothes to wear.  If you get through this year alive and well, you should be thankful.  Do not expect to save up anything, or to have much corn or provisions ahead at the end of the year.  You must not ask for more pay than free people get at the North.  There, a field hand is paid in money, but has to spend all his pay every week, in buying food and clothes for his family. and in paying rent for his house.  You cannot be paid in money,–for there is no good money in the District,–nothing but Confederate paper.  Then, what can you be paid with?  Why, with food, with clothes, with the free use of your little houses and lots.  You do not own a cent’s worth except yourselves.  The plantation you live on is not yours, nor the houses, nor the cattle, mules and horses; the seed you planted with was not yours, and the ploughs and hoes do not belong to you.  Now you must get something to eat and something to wear, and houses to live in.  How can you get these things?  By hard work–and nothing else, and it will be a good thing for you if you get them until next year, for yourselves and for your families.  You must remember that your children, your old people, and the cripples, belong to you to support now, and all that is given to them is so much pay to you for your work.  If you ask for anything more; if you ask for a half of the crop, or even a third, you ask too much; you wish to get more than you could get if you had been free all your lives.  Do not ask for Saturday either:  free people everywhere else work Saturday, and you have no more right to the day than they have.  If your employer is willing to give you part of the day, or to set a task that you can finish early, be thankful for the kindness, but do not think it is something you must have.  When you work, work hard.  Begin early–at sunrise, and do not take more than two hours at noon.  Do not think, because you are free you can choose your own kind of work.  Every man must work under orders.  The soldiers, who are free, work under officers, the officers under the general, and the general under the president.  There must be a head man everywhere, and on a plantation the head man, who gives all the orders, is the owner of the place.  Whatever he tells you to do you must do at once, and cheerfully.  Never give him a cross word or an impudent answer.  If the work is hard, do not stop to talk about it, but do it first and rest afterwards.  If you are told to go into the field and hoe, see who can go first and lead the row.  If you are told to build a fence, build it better than any fence you know of.  If you are told to drive the carriage Sunday, or to mind the cattle, do it, for necessary work must be done even on the Sabbath.  Whatever the order is, try and obey it without a word.

There are different kinds of work.  One man is a doctor, another is a minister, another a soldier.  One black man may be a field hand, one a blacksmith, one a carpenter, and still another a house-servant.  Every man has his own place, his own trade that he was brought up to, and he must stick to it.  The house-servants must not want to go into the field, nor the field hands into the house.  If a man works, no matter in what business, he is doing well.  The only shame is to be idle and lazy.

You do not understand why some of the white people who used to own you, do not have to work in the field.  It is because they are rich.  If every man were poor, and worked in his own field, there would be no big farms, and very little cotton or corn raised to sell; there would be no money, and nothing to buy.  Some people must be rich, to pay the others, and they have the right to do no work except to look out after their property.  It is so everywhere, and perhaps by hard work some of you may by-and-by become rich yourselves

Remember that all your working time belongs to the man who hires you:  therefore you must not leave work without his leave not even to nurse a child, or to go and visit a wife or husband.  When you wish to go off the place, get a pass as you used to, and then you will run no danger of being taken up by our soldiers.  If you leave work for a day, or if you are sick, you cannot expect to be paid for what you do not do; and the man who hires you must pay less at the end of the year.

Do not think of leaving the plantation where you belong.  If you try to go to Charleston, or any other city, you will find no work to do, and nothing to eat.  You will starve, or fall sick and die.  Stay where you are, in your own homes, even if you are suffering.  There is no better place for you anywhere else.

You will want to know what to do when a husband and wife live on different places.  Of course they ought to be together, but this year, they have their crops planted on their own places, and they must stay to work them.  At the end of the year they can live together.  Until then they must see each other only once in a while.

In every set of men there are some bad men and some fools; who have to be looked after and punished when they go wrong.  The Government will punish grown people now, and punish them severely, if they steal, lie idle, or hang around a man’s place when he does not want them there, or if they are impudent.  You ought to be civil to one another, and to the man you work for.  Watch folks who have always been free, and you will see that the best people are the most civil.

The children have to be punished more than those who are grown up, for they are full of mischief.  Fathers and mothers should punish their own children, but if they happen to be off, or if a child is caught stealing or behaving badly about the big house, the owner of the plantation must switch him, just as he should his own children.

Do not grumble if you cannot get as much pay on your place as some one else, for on one place they have more children than on others, on one place the land is poor, on another it is rich; on one place, Sherman took everything, on another, perhaps, almost everything was left safe.  One man can afford to pay more than another.  Do not grumble, either, because, the meat is gone or the salt hard to get.  Make the best of everything, and if there is anything which you think is wrong, or hard to bear, try to reason it out:  if you cannot, ask leave to send one man to town to see an officer.  Never stop work on any account, for the whole crop must be raised and got in, or we shall starve.  The old men, and the men who mean to do right, must agree to keep order on every plantation.  When they see a hand getting lazy or shiftless, they must talk to him, and if talk will do no good, they must take him to the owner of the plantation.

In short, do just about as the good men among you have always done.  Remember that even if you are badly off, no one can buy or sell you:  remember that if you help yourselves, GOD will help you, and trust hopefully that next year and the year after will bring some new blessing to you.

Within these sobering words is a message that the future of freedman will not be easy.

Sources: “General Sherman’s Blog, June 12, 1865” (link); “Church History,” Bethlehem Baptist Church (link); “Charles Carroll Soule” (link); Charles C. Soule, “To The Freed People of Orangeburg District,” June 12, 1865″ (link)