Missionaries of Freedom

Some of the best material on emancipation in the Civil War is easily accessible due to the hard work of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project (FSSP) at the University of Maryland, founded by my mentor, Ira Berlin, and headed up for over two decades now by his longtime collaborator, Leslie Rowland. The staff of the project over the years reads like a who’s who of many of the best scholars of African Americans in the 19th century. Collectively, they did a heroic job of sifting federal records at the National Archives for documents relevant to the end of slavery in the United States, many of which have been published and much more remain unpublished in the project files up on the third floor of Francis Scott Key Hall in College Park.

Naturally, the FSSP joined the internet revolution and put some of the best of best documents up on the web, which I have made considerable use in this blog. An especially poignant example from their collection comes from correspondence of the Confederate Army that made it into the federal archives in Record Group 109. It is a letter from Pleas Smith, Adjutant of the 2nd Tennessee Infantry to the Adjutant of the Army of Mississippi and East Louisiana. The letter read:

You will oblige me by sending instructions in reference to the manner of disposing of negroes–runaways–caught by my scouts and not giving correct statement of the names of their owners and residence.  It is difficult by any manner to ascertain where they belong, and the number is increasing beyond convenience.

On yesterday a negro was caught armed and killed two dogs in the attempt to catch him and finally shot himself inflicting a severe wound, after which he stated that he was from Corinth; and that on the night of the 1st inst the negroes (or most of them) were assembled at that place and officers attended making lectures and stating they were free.  The negroes after receiving each a pistol (six shooter) were instructed to go to the vicinity of their respective homes and act as missionaries (or “in the recruiting service.”)  I wish to know how to deal with them when caught.

This account is difficult to accept at face value. The black man in question was captured near Okolona, Mississippi, which is about seventy miles south of Corinth. Corinth, a major railroad hub was, in January 1863, under federal occupation and would remain so until the end of the war. Consequently, it became a magnet for slaves seeking freedom. Yet is seems implausible that federal authorities were handing escaped slaves pistols and sending them back into Confederate territory to encourage other slaves to flee. Neither was this man a black Union soldier. While recruitment of African Americans in the Mississippi Valley under Lorenzo Thomas would get underway in few months, in January 1863, no black soldiers were yet being recruited around Corinth, Mississippi. What seems more likely is that the black man mentioned letter with his own pistol went from Corinth south to spread the news that the city was a sanctuary of freedom. When captured by Confederate forces, he spun a yarn about being part of a group of armed black men spreading the news about freedom among the slaves in Confederate-held territory.

In any case, it was not unusual for African Americans that made it to Union controlled territory during the Civil War sometimes to make the risky trip back home to let family and friends know there was a place within reach where they could be free. Hence, the man mentioned in this letter was one of many missionaries of freedom. Their numbers would grow considerably once the recruitment of black soldiers began in earnest later in 1863. African-American troops would spread the news of freedom among the slaves wherever they went. The film Glory (1989) illustrates this well.


The Confederate Army did not take kindly to these missionaries of freedom. The adjutant of the Army of Mississippi and East Louisiana instructed the commander of the 2nd Tennessee through Pleas, “When you take Negroes with arms evidently coming out from the enemie’s camp proceed at once to hold a drum head court martial and if found guilty hang them upon the spot.

It is not known if the missionary slave with a pistol suffered the hangman’s noose, although it is likely he did. Less offensive slaves met worse fates from the Confederates. The New York Times reported on January 5, 1863, that rebel troops in Tennessee had massacred about twenty unarmed African-American teamsters working for the Union Army. The story read:

The accounts from the battle-field near Murfreesboro reveal a new phase of rebel atrocity in the treatment of their late slaves. Every black teamster, or black follower of the Union camp, captured by the rebels, is immediately shot. No less than twenty were found thus murdered, and lying along the Murfreesboro ‘pike, after the recent rebel raid upon ROSECRANS’ wagon-trains.

This is, undoubtedly, the inauguration of the mode of warfare indicated by the late Proclamation of JEFF. DAVIS. It is not literally within the terms of that document, but is in accordance with its temper, and no very nice discrimination will be observed by the rebels in executing the spirit of the sanguinary orders of their Chief. At Murfreesboro only the negroes found in the National service were butchered. Next we shall hear that whites and blacks, when found together, will be indiscriminately shot, and then will ensue complications Which all Christian people will shudder to contemplate.

It is hard to account for the ruthless spirit that thus butchers a mild and inoffensive race of people, on any other ground than the irredeemable moral callousness produced by the institution of Slavery. The negroes of the present day have served their Southern masters faithfully for years. Their ancestors served the families of the whites faithfully in the generations that are past; and by their labors the blacks of the past and present have built up a great name, wealth and power for the South. Surely, the race is entitled to some gratitude, if not reward, on the score of the past.

But the cruel rebel masters do not see it thus. Their poor slaves desired liberty -nothing more; and when caught in the act of enjoying it, however innocently, the penalty is instant death by a ball through the brain. Surely, God will not prosper a cause so fiendishly cruel.

Yet ruthless cruelty could not stop the missionaries of freedom. Indeed, with the arrival of the Emancipation Proclamation and the mass recruitment of black men as Union soldiers, such violence would only make them more determined and effective. While the lonely missionary of freedom described in the Pleas Smith letter likely died, he would soon be followed by hundreds of thousands more that would over the next two years play a major role in overwhelming the slaveholders’ rebellion.

Sources: 1) http://www.history.umd.edu/Freedmen/PSmith.html; 2) http://www.nytimes.com/1863/01/05/news/rebel-murder-of-blacks.html

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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