As indicated in a number of previous issues of Civil War Emancipation, many whites in the North as well as the South, including Abraham Lincoln, worried that once freed former slaves would embark on a bloody orgy of vengeance. This was why many white Southerners felt secession was the only course open to them after Lincoln’s election, a President they believed was dedicated to emancipation. Likewise, this fear explains Lincoln’s futile efforts through much of the war to arrange for freed slaves’ emigration outside the United States. The specters of Haiti, Nat Turner, and John Brown created a pall of fear that does much to explain the harsh actions of some whites toward African Americans during in the Civil War.
Certainly not all white Americans shared those fears, especially among abolitionists (although it was not totally absent with them either). The public in the early months of the Civil War looked for evidence of how the slaves would act when no longer under the control of their owners. For many the real test came in late 1861, when Union forces occupied Port Royal, South Carolina. The first great exodus to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, this sentiment held, had not been a good test of the slaves’ intentions since they fled there individually or in small groups, and once at the fort became totally dependent on Union authorities. In Port Royal, however, Union forces ventured into a land where African Americans were the overwhelming majority of the population and their culture was still quite Africanized to the point many spoke Gullah, a dialect unintelligible to standard English speakers. Hence, if any group of slaves, freed from their owners’ discipline, would rise up in barbaric African violence, went the racist conventional wisdom of mid-nineteenth century America, it was those of the Sea Islands.
Yet nothing of the sort happened. While the Port Royal slaves might be unwilling to work for the northern invaders en mass, they greeted the arrival of Union forces with great joy, remained peaceful, and when given the proper incentives proved quite cooperative as an unnamed correspondent of Harper’s Weekly reported in the December 21, 1861 issue. He wrote:
We have made use of the contraband in so many different employments, that I find it necessary to send to you a series of sketches to illustrate his value. Upon our landing at Hilton Head a lack of good oarsmen was found seriously to deter our rapid progress in landing. Soon the negroes flocked in, and I assure you that I have seen few better oarsmen. Captain Fuller at once manned his little Whitehall boat with them, dressing them in the man-of-war style, which is exceedingly picturesque. Again, in landing, the slope of the shore being very gradual, it was found necessary to have some one to back off the passengers; at once the contrabands filled the need. They are invaluable as foragers, bringing in the different fruits, game, etc.
Their head-quarters are directly back of those formerly occupied by Gen. Wright, of which you had a sketch; here are congregated a small village of these happy mortals, jolly ever, and willing to work.
Uncle Sam, a fine specimen of the African race, is the overseer of General Drayton’s plantation, and one of the best-natured boys that we have. He is the general forager for the mess, and is never back in woods without an abundant return.
Of the real condition of the slaves a correspondent of the Times says: “The efforts of the masters to carry off the slaves have been in nearly every case abortive. No love for masters, no fear of their cruelty, no apprehension of the Yankees has been sufficient to alarm the blacks. They all look upon us as friends; and where they do not come within our lines, say that all that restrains them is the dislike of leaving their families and the ‘tings’—their little property. They have a cat-like clinging to their old quarters, and do not generally manifest any desire to quit them. When they have fled in large numbers, it has been always toward our lines, but so far as I can learn it has been because of the efforts of their masters to take them off. This they resist, but they manifest no peculiarly vindictive spirit. They complain of bad treatment, but I can not learn that they display any desire to revenge themselves. They chuckle, indeed, with infinite glee over Southern disasters; they tell of the lies they told their former owners, of their pretenses to love them, of their forced obedience; they believe in the power of the Unionists to overthrow the Southern rule; they are willing to act as guides or scouts (occasionally), to work; to give all information; and the more intelligent they are the readier to aid us. But unless provoked by the foolish attempts of the rebels to carry them off, I doubt whether they will attempt any injury to the persons of the whites. The plundering indeed presages evil, but if the rebels set the example by firing their own cotton-houses, they need not be surprised to find it imitated. If they persist in their attempts at forcibly restraining the slaves and in firing at them, the worst consequences are likely to follow.”
Some writers from Port Royal have stated that the negroes will not work, but that when work is offered them they will fly to the woods. This is indignantly denied by other writers, and by several officers of the expedition, who state that the contrabands work willingly and ably. It would not be surprising if poor Sambo, after a dozen generations of slavery, should want to celebrate his sudden emancipation by a brief holiday.
So as Christmas approached in late 1861, the slaves of Port Royal, South Carolina, showed no signs of the violence feared by whites across the United States. While they were not eager to return to a regimented existence even for their liberators, they were generally friendly, and above all, just glad to be finally free.