By Tom Rubillo
By the end of April, 1865, it was clear to everyone in Georgetown County that they faced a new reality. Local slaves had been emancipated by proclamation on February 28. Former owners were ordered to provide 60 days’ rations to each person liberated. Those supplies were running very low.
Those held captive for their entire lives had a choice to make. For many, it was their first opportunity to make any kind of decision about anything. The choice: They could leave familiar people and surroundings for an entirely uncertain future. In the alternative, they could stay put and rely on the good will and good faith of their former owners and masters, such as it might be, in order to survive.
Choosing to stay
Those choosing to stay were encouraged by occupying military authorities to enter into labor contracts with white plantation owners. Those were drafted by lawyers for the landowners. Generally, they offered continued lodging in slave quarters in exchange for work in the fields. They often forbade possession of firearms by workers remaining on the property. Workers were typically responsible to feed and clothe themselves. Wages (whether in cash or a share of the crop) would be paid at harvest time.
Contracts required workers to “behave in a respectful and orderly manner,” to “submit at all times to” the landowner or plantation manager and perform “a reasonable day’s work” (10 hours). Failure to do so was a breach of contract that would result in eviction of the laborer and his family. Accrued wages or crops were forfeit to the landowner as damages. The law having imposed illiteracy on them prior to emancipation, those entering into these lopsided written agreements acknowledged doing so by placing their mark on the signature line.
As might be expected, these arrangements did not always work out well.
When workers in Georgetown County refused to sign contracts handed to them by William Bull Pringle, they were told to leave Pringle’s land. Irate, the workers burned down Pringle’s house and took over the plantation. Federal troops were called in.
At Georgetown’s Keithfield Plantation, a man named Abram quit work and called to his fellows to leave the field. Armed with axes, hoes, rakes and other farm implements, the workers ran the plantation manager off. A man named Sampson threw a hatchet at the fleeing foreman, narrowly missing.
The manager sought help from the occupying army. Two soldiers went back to the plantation with him. The trio was promptly surrounded by the workers and disarmed before being chased from the land.
Former slave owners became increasingly fearful. According to University of South Carolina historian George Rogers, the Pyatt family was forced to move into town for their own safety, leaving everything behind. Rogers also reports that Henry A. Middleton was ordered to town by former slaves and his house burned down. The homes of the Parker and Trapier families were looted and destroyed. George Ford’s family was burned out of their home and had to move in with the Fitzsimmons family. The family of Charles Alston abandoned their plantation after house servants refused to wait on the family, cook their food or wash their clothes.
Choosing to go
When given the choice whether to stay or go, many former slaves chose to leave. “I must go. If I stay here, I’ll never know I am free” is how Patience Johnson explained her decision to her distressed former owner and mistress.
Writing in her dairy on April 22, 1865, Catherine Louisa McLauren of Wedgefield, SC recorded what she saw as General Edward E. Potter’s army passed her home on its way back to Georgetown at war’s end.
“...[A] long train of followers or contrabands continued to pass for several hours, until ten o’clock. The night was dark and rainy, and very pitiful it was, to hear the wailing of the poor little babies and young children who had become separated from their mothers in the general melee. One wagon, loaded with these helpless little creatures broke down and was abandoned in Stateburg. The little ones were kept, and cared for, by a kind woman until released by death or reclaimed by their parents in their return from Georgetown, months after.
Many of these people were so infatuated with the idea of going off with the Yankees that ‘tis said, when they became weary with carrying their babies, they wantonly abandoned them by the roadside. We asked an officer if he did not think it would prove fatal, taking those poor creatures from the healthy upcountry at this season of the year to the malarial swamps of the coast. With a shrug of the shoulders he replied, ‘I suppose a great many of them will die,’ as so the equal proved. Many of them wended their way back to their old homes a few months afterwards and reported numbers of them having fallen victim to fever, small pox and other diseases.”
The choice of many workers to abandon the fields was baffling to many landowners. One South Carolina planters wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune wondering
“If they were content, happy and attached to their master, why did they desert him in the moment of his need and flock to an enemy, whom they did not know, and thus left their perhaps really good masters whom they did know from infancy?”
The choice to leave the plantation proved catastrophic for many. By June, 1865, at least 20,000 people were receiving rations from the newly formed Freedman’s Bureau. By the time it closed in 1872, the Bureau had provided medical care to 175,000 Carolinians and provided to around three million meals to starving people. Tens of thousands died nonetheless. There was a genuine humanitarian crisis. The Federal response to the crisis was woefully inadequate nonetheless. No one had planned in advance for the dramatic changes brought about by war that were taking place.
“It is impossible for me to relate to you in a letter the suffering this horrible war has caused the people of the South” one Sumter resident wrote to a Northern relative in August, 1865.
“Many a family is left without a servant and the ladies of the house are obligated to go into the kitchen and cook meals, and many of them had not much to cook.”
Former slave owner Malvina Gist wrote that she wished she had learned to cook rather than how to play the piano. “A practical knowledge of the preparation of food products would stand me in better stead at this juncture,” she confessed.
Catherine Louisa McLauren reported that her “culinary efforts were confined to baking ‘Hoe cakes’ which invariably broke in half in our attempts to turn them.
“Well do I remember the first time I milked a cow, my pride at my success being as great as that of the famous maid of the green gown; but alas! It’s downfall was great, for just as my pail was nearly full, one blow from old Blossom’s heel sent it over.”
While supplies were disrupted, it appears that at least basic foods found their way up the food chain. Malnutrition is better than famine; hunger beats starvation.
By the summer of 1865, a flood of former soldiers, drifters, and renegades of all stripes and colors “swarmed like locusts” and pillaged plantations throughout the low country. Former slave Ellen Godfrey summed up the situation this way: “Great God, have a mercy! ... people had to steal for something to eat.”
A rumor spread that the looting had been encouraged by the Federal garrison in Georgetown. In response, a “home guard” was formed to put an end to thievery. In September 1865, this vigilante posse caught up with a group of marauders near Sutton’s Church and killed the lot.
One of the members of this “home guard” was Vernon E. Lifrage. He lived to be 102 years old and is thought to have been the last Confederate veteran in South Carolina. Lifrage provided details of these events in 1936, after all the other members of this post-war “home guard” had died. The entire posse had been made up of former Confederate soldiers, mostly from neighboring Williamsburg County. They had each sworn to secrecy about the killings, fearing they would be executed if their role in the multiple lynchings became known to occupying Federal troops.
In response to disorder throughout South Carolina, ante-bellum legislators assembled and adopted a series of repressive laws later known as “Black Codes.”
A new Constitution was passed in 1865, only months after the Civil War ended. It failed to grant the right to vote to people of color. It included racial qualifications for public office, excluding all but white men. Among the laws then adopted were ones aimed at strictly controlling those being set free, restricting their movements, and binding them to the land. They included ones saying that:
* “No person of color shall migrate into and reside in this state unless, within 20 days after his arrival within the same, he shall enter into a bond with two freeholders as sureties.”
* Servants could “not be absent from the premises without the permission of the master.”
* Servants were required to assist “in the defense of his own person, family, premises or property” of their “master.”
* Persons of color could not work as “an artisan, mechanic, or shopkeeper” without first obtaining a license from a judge of the district court. Licenses cost $100.00 or more.
In addition, many Southern States adopted strict gun controls, effectively disarming newly freed slaves.
The Federal reaction
The reaction in Washington to adoption of Black Codes was quick. Congress abolished Southern legislatures and declared martial law throughout the South. People of color men were enfranchised. The period known as “Reconstruction” began.
New State Constitutions were promptly written and new State governments formed throughout the South, all under the auspices of the Republican Party of the by then, martyred Abraham Lincoln. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified. They (13) outlawed all involuntary servitude except for punishment when convicted of a crime. (14) guaranteed due process of law (“fundamental fairness”), guaranteed all the privileges and immunities of law to all, and extended the equal protection of the law to everyone, and (15) extended the right to vote to everyone without regard to any prior condition of servitude.
At war’s end, 60 percent of South Carolina’s population was of African descent. In Georgetown, this census statistic hovered around nine to one, black to white. Once they acquired the right to do so, the newly emancipated registered to vote in droves. Their numbers were so overwhelming, these newly registered Republicans took control of state and local governments. Those times will be detailed in a later episode of this series.
Georgetown struggles with its new reality.
Among the Reconstruction era election outcomes that followed were the selection of Joseph Hayne Rainey to represent Georgetown, first to the State Senate in Columbia and later to the United States House of Representatives.
Rainey was a free mulatto in Charleston at the outbreak of the Civil War. He worked there as a barber. Conscripted to serve on a Confederate blockade runner, he jumped ship in Bermuda and sat out the war there. An educated, handsome, intelligent and engaging person, he stepped into the breach at a critical time in the nation’s history. It was a very critical time for Georgetown too. He performed the tasks for which he was selected most admirably. Somebody needs to write a good biography.
Nationally, Rainey’s most important contribution was his advocacy for a compromise that would assure continued land ownership by Southern whites while, at the same time, protecting the civil and voting rights of all — that all people treat one another as they would be treated themselves.
Southern whites got what they bargained for and retained ownership of their lands. While “land poor” for generations, some white families in Georgetown enjoy great prosperity today thanks to Rainey’s efforts.
Sadly, the guarantee of equal rights for all would be broken by the U.S. Supreme Court within a generation when it declared these earliest civil rights acts championed by Rainey to be unconstitutional. Civil rights — No! civilization took quite a beating in the generations that followed.
Rainey’s accomplishments were not confined to the halls of Congress. Among other things, it engaged in one of the first sit-in demonstrations in a Richmond restaurant that refused to serve people of color. He did the same at a Washington pub frequented by Congressmen that tried to charge him five times more than his colleagues for a beer. He refused to ride as a second class passenger on trains. He spoke forcefully against the brutality of the emerging Ku Klux Klan. Of equal importance, locally, Rainey’s cool head and commanding presence helped save Georgetown from self-destruction.
When Rainey was elected to Congress, William H. Jones replaced him in the South Carolina Senate.
At the same time Rainey and Jones held office, James A. Bowley occupied the seat of the Georgetown District in the South Carolina House of Representatives. Bowley was a carpetbagger from Maryland who arrived in Georgetown after the war. He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1872. His reputation was not good.
As often happens among politicians, egos clashed, all for reasons which remain cloudy in the historical record. What is known is that Jones and Bowley led different political factions. One had the support of townspeople, black, white and mulatto. The other was the champion of black folks who still worked in the fields. Undercurrents of suspicion, fear, resentment and, in many cases, mutual abhorrence circulated among each of Georgetown’s three principal racial groups. No effort is made here to explain further. Racism is never rational, whether black, white or any color, tone or hue in between.
Seeking reelection. Bowley called a meeting of supporters at the Georgetown County Courthouse at the corner of Screven and Prince streets. Jones sent some of his supporters to break up the meeting. A fight broke out. Many were injured. Some were arrested. Remaining Jones supporters went in search of Bowley, presumably to do him harm. They did not find him. Tempers cooled.
The next afternoon, trouble began brewing again. Word of the attack by Jones had spread through the countryside during the night and morning. The talk was inflammatory. Bowley supporters armed themselves with axes, pitchforks and the like and came to town. That evening, “[t]he quiet slumbers of our citizens were disturbed by the shooting of muskets and pistols in the northern part of town. The shooting continued from about half past 12 until nearly daylight” is how the newspaper described events.
Jones’s townhouse had been attacked by snipers. The house was riddled with more than 200 bullet holes. “Inside, books, beds and sofas were perforated with the balls, and picture frames, windows, glasses, etc. were smashed to pieces,” the news account continued. A man named Harrison was struck in the head.
The disorder terrified everyone. At the request of local authorities, the Governor dispatched the State militia to Georgetown. A U.S. Navy cutter sailed from Charleston. The militia arrived first and restored order. Bowley was arrested and charged with shooting at Jones’s house. A crowd of Jones supporters gathered at the jail in an effort to lynch Bowley.
The Navy’s cutter arrived from Charleston and fired several shots over the town. That got everyone’s attention. Bowley was escorted from the jail to the ship through a crowd of hostile Jones supporters. He was later taken to Charleston.
Choosing law and order over chaos
Once Bowley was gone, everyone gathered in front of the courthouse. Military commanders addressed the crowd. They scolded the rioters. The crowd was not pleased. Joseph Rainey spoke last. He started off by assuring the crowd that “no combination of circumstances could ever again place them into slavery.” Nonetheless, he warned, “Many of the privileges of freedom might be taken away if the people of the whole county found that [Georgetown’s black community] abused rights conferred upon them.”
In Rainey’s view, the newly emancipated were “on trial before the world” and it depended upon the manner of their conduct whether some of the rights they then enjoyed would be curtailed or not. He concluded by saying that those who “expected to hold on to the rights and privileges which the law had conferred must obey the law.”
People paid attention. The crowd dispersed.
An uneasy peace was restored. Within a month, local whites reorganized the Georgetown Rifle Guards. It was made up almost entirely of Civil War veterans who would not be reluctant to aim and fire a weapon. The Georgetown Times boasted that the Guards were “a dangerous and formidable foe to contend with. The powerful and unerring Remington and the rapid and deadly Winchester are a host in themselves while those glittering bayonets do not look as though they could improve on close acquaintance.” So armed, whites felt less insecure, or, at least, hoped they would. They also expressed relief that occupying military forces would protect them from insurrection.
Meanwhile, people of good faith got together and formed the Committee on Safety. The effort was led by Congressman Rainey (a mulatto), William D. Morgan (a white man who would later become Georgetown’s first and finest mayor) and James Brownfield, a respected member of the black community, among others. Together they produced and published a joint resolution. It read, it part,
“We, the citizens of the town of Georgetown, disregarding questions of color or politics, believing the welfare of the races to be identical, and that we are bound together by a common destiny, and that what destroys the prosperity of one injures the other, resolve to work for peace, justice and racial harmony.”
The Committee’s work remains unfinished.
Tom Rubillo used to practice law, but is now retired. He has held public office, taught government, ethics and law at area colleges and has published several books. The episodes written in connection with this project will be, at its conclusion, available in one volume, or at least that is his best laid plan.
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