General Sherman Interviews the Freedmen Ministers in Savannah Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In late 1864 and early 1865, Union Army general William Tecumseh Sherman led his army on a brutal, destructive march through Georgia and the Carolinas. The aim of the campaign was to economically and psychologically cripple the Confederate States Army. Sherman’s “hard war” tactics succeeded. Southern land and property was devastated, and Southern civilian resolve to continue with what had already been a difficult struggle began to falter. As a side effect of Sherman’s March to Sea, tens of thousands of enslaved African Americans gained their freedom under the enforced tenets of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Freedmen saw Sherman as a liberator, and thousands of refugees attached themselves to his army. Sherman, however, saw this unplanned addition of men as an impediment to his military mission. To discuss possible efforts to detach them from his army, he met with a group of black leaders in Savannah, Georgia. From this meeting arose what became known as the short-lived policy of “forty acres and a mule.”

Summary Overview

In late 1864 and early 1865, Union Army general William Tecumseh Sherman led his army on a brutal, destructive march through Georgia and the Carolinas. The aim of the campaign was to economically and psychologically cripple the Confederate States Army. Sherman’s “hard war” tactics succeeded. Southern land and property was devastated, and Southern civilian resolve to continue with what had already been a difficult struggle began to falter. As a side effect of Sherman’s March to Sea, tens of thousands of enslaved African Americans gained their freedom under the enforced tenets of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Freedmen saw Sherman as a liberator, and thousands of refugees attached themselves to his army. Sherman, however, saw this unplanned addition of men as an impediment to his military mission. To discuss possible efforts to detach them from his army, he met with a group of black leaders in Savannah, Georgia. From this meeting arose what became known as the short-lived policy of “forty acres and a mule.”

Defining Moment

Chattel slavery was a fact of life in the Americas from the first moment that Europeans arrived in the Caribbean in the late 1400s. The colonies of British North America incorporated slavery into their social and economic systems, although the institution always carried greater heft in the agricultural South. In South Carolina, for example, a black majority existed as early as the 1600s. After the United States declared independence in 1776, Northern states began passing laws abolishing slavery. In the early 1800s, Congress barred the transatlantic slave trade. At the same time, the Southern economy was becoming ever more closely tied to the use of slave labor to grow “king cotton,” the economic heart of the regional economy.

By the mid-1800s, sectional divisions over slavery had intensified. Westward expansion made the spread of slavery an ongoing and highly controversial political question. Management of the issue occurred through piecemeal legislative measures that bandaged but did not heal the growing rift. In the Northern states, a shift in public opinion on the moral question of slavery towards abolition took place in the 1850s, setting the North and South at even greater odds. When Republican Abraham Lincoln, an affirmed opponent of the expansion of slavery, was elected as president in 1860, the pressure on the nation became too great to bear. South Carolina led the majority of its fellow slave states in declaring itself independent of the United States in December 1860.

The American Civil War began on April 12, 1861. The demand for soldiers stripped both North and South first of volunteer troops and then of white conscripts. The Union Army was further swelled in some instances by volunteer black regiments. Early Southern military victories proved that the rebellion could not be easily suppressed. In time, Union political leaders expanded the goals of the war from simple reunification to emancipation. By the time General Sherman led his forces on a purposely destructive march across the South, the Emancipation Proclamation had freed the slaves of the Confederacy by decree, if not yet in practice. Sherman’s forces liberated slaves as they crossed Georgia, inflicting serious damage to the state’s economy in the process. With no means to support themselves, these freed peoples attached themselves to Sherman’s forces. By early 1865, the general had determined that he must free his military column of what he saw as civilian hindrances. After taking the city of Savannah, he requested a meeting to discuss the situation with black leaders there.

Author Biography

Both Union officials and Southern freedmen took part in the Savannah meeting between General Sherman and the regions black leaders. In addition to General Sherman, the Union side included Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Born in Ohio in 1820, Sherman served in the Seminole War and Mexican-American War in his youth before retiring briefly to civilian life in the 1850s. The eruption of the Civil War had brought him back to the army–and the North–from a position at the Louisiana Military Seminary. He fought as part of the command of General Ulysses S. Grant in the western theater of the conflict, rising in time to become the commanding general of the Union Army in the west. In this role, General Sherman undertook his pivotal march, destroying Confederate property and freeing Southern human chattel. Yet Sherman was no special friend of the people his actions directly aided. Historical evidence instead paints him as a figure morally neutral on the issues of slavery and race relations. Other evidence depicts him as clearly racist toward the black population of the United States. It seems clear that his meeting with black Georgian leaders was motivated by military necessity rather than altruism.

Stanton, in contrast, was a behind-the-scenes force in a number of actions intended to end slavery and support the interests of the freedmen. As secretary of war, Stanton became an advocate of efforts to promote racial equality during the Civil War; he encouraged the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and urged Lincoln to arm Southern slaves so that they might mount an internal resistance to the Confederacy. Stanton and Sherman shared a deep desire to end the war and reunite the United States. They agreed on the necessity of hard-war tactics. Nevertheless, their outlooks on the issues caught up in the Civil War did not mesh well past that simple goal. As the war ended, for example, Stanton rejected the lenient terms of surrender negotiated by Sherman with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. Stanton later became an ally of the Radical Republicans in Congress, who sought to reconstruct the South along lines of political, social, and economic equality of the races, a concept anathema to Sherman’s worldview.

Document Analysis

In January 1865, Secretary Stanton, General Sherman, and a group of twenty African American freedmen identified as being community leaders of Savannah, Georgia, met at Sherman’s request to discuss the situation facing recently freed African Americans in the South. Sherman, then in the midst of his March to the Sea, had liberated tens of thousands of slaves under the Emancipation Proclamation. Sherman was unwilling to use his army to shelter them indefinitely, but leaders in Washington recognized that they had a responsibility to ensure that the people who had at last attained freedom could also establish themselves as self-sufficient members of society. For a number of reasons, the discussion was an unusual one in the context of the time. African Americans–even free blacks in the more moderate North–lacked status as American citizens under an 1857 US Supreme Court decision (Dred Scott v. Sandford). Without citizenship, African Americans had no legal or political rights, including the right to vote, under the laws of the United States. With rare exceptions, white Americans considered their black counterparts to be of inferior social status. Therefore, the leaders called upon by Sherman to discuss ideas about what should be done with the thousands of refugees populating the South lacked even a semblance of political or social equality with the men whom they were being asked to advise.

The Condition of the Freedmen

How could such an unlikely meeting come to be? Centuries of slavery had created notable African American communities, particularly in Southern states with high slave populations, such as Georgia. Despite laws and customs limiting the actions and practices of enslaved African Americans, these communities organized along lines similar to those of all human civilizations; certain people emerged as spokespeople and leaders. Church organizations provided a unifying core. Indeed, of the African American leaders selected by Sherman to participate in the Savannah discussion, many were active ministers and all had connections to African American churches in the area. By the time Sherman and Stanton met these leaders, their need was great. Sherman wanted nothing more than to rid his forces of the freedmen refugees attached to it. Stanton–an advocate of African American advancement–surely wanted to ensure that Sherman’s success in freeing large numbers of slaves would not result in mass starvation. Thus Sherman, at Stanton’s urging, summoned the freedmen detailed in the first portion of the meeting minutes.

The freedmen were a diverse group, encompassing men as young as twenty-six and as old as seventy-two. Some had been born into freedom, and others obtained it in the years preceding the Civil War through owner manumission or through buying their freedom. Only the Emancipation Proclamation freed many others. Most of the Savannah leaders were natives of the city or its immediate environs, with a minority hailing from the Carolinas or even from as far away as the slave state of Maryland. The freedmen selected Garrison Frazier as their main representative. Frazier, a former slave, had successfully purchased his and his wife’s freedom several years earlier and served for many years as a Baptist minister.

The topics of the meeting revolved around race relations and changes wrought by the Civil War that affected the African American populace. Much of the discussion focused on determining the freedmen’s level of knowledge about the policies and events of the Civil War, presumably as a means of assessing African American knowledge of their situation. If the freedmen were poorly informed, Stanton, a man sympathetic to the African American cause, might have felt compelled to disregard their ideas on other matters. Thus, the discussion opens with questions about the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the freedom that it granted to those enslaved by people in rebelling states. (The Emancipation Proclamation, contrary to popular belief, did not free all slaves in the United States, only those contained within the borders of the Confederacy.) As part of their answer, the freedmen quite eloquently describe the difference between slavery and freedom, noting that slavery relies on compulsion by “irresistible power” to require labor from a person, while freedom requests that that same labor be given by consent. The freedmen further suggest that their liberty benefits everyone: they “reap the fruit of [their] own labor” even as they “assist the Government in maintaining their freedom.”

Notable of the freedmen’s answers to this series of questions is the high degree of accuracy and astuteness with which the men assess the historical, economic, and political factors at play in the execution of the Civil War. For example, the group correctly summarizes the tenets of the Emancipation Proclamation and gives a concise assessment of the progression of the Civil War. Although the president did not directly inform the rebellious states that they would be permitted to retain slavery if they gave up their rebellion, for example, the practical effect of a state rejoining the Union before the issuance of the Proclamation was just that. The men within the group had been behind enemy lines for years. By the nature of their background, they were unlikely to enjoy high levels of literacy. Nevertheless, they were well informed of national events. African Americans may have lacked citizenship and political rights, but the answers of the freedmen clearly suggest that they did not lack interest in or knowledge of the government and events of the nation that only reluctantly acknowledged their humanity. They were also willing to lend support to a government that had for many years permitted their enslavement. Having received their freedom under Lincoln, African Americans’ dedication to the United States federal government was, the freedmen stated, very great, even though they understood that the Emancipation Proclamation was a result of the ongoing war and not one of inherent moral righteousness.

The Freedmen’s Wishes

Much of the remainder of the conversation is split into two main sections. The first of these addresses how best African Americans could be organized into free communities, an act that would help ensure their long-term success outside of slavery and in the short term remove the thousands of followers from Sherman’s army. The freedmen suggest a simple plan: they wish to farm to support themselves and their families. By having land, they suggest, they can use the labor that previously served their masters to maintain themselves. Although recently freed slaves obviously had no property of their own, there was a solution to this dilemma. The federal government had, in the past, implemented land redistribution schemes that resold lands confiscated from Confederate supporters to Union investors or area freedmen who could afford to purchase the property. The freedmen state that they “want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it”–that is, they wish to have tenancy to work the land for a period in order to save up the required funds to buy the land outright. This suggestion was indeed one that resonated with the Union leaders, for a scheme along these lines was instituted soon thereafter.

The leaders then ask the Savannah freedmen whether they wish to live in an integrated or segregated society. Frazier answers the question independently, stating that he prefers segregation because “there is a prejudice against us the South that will take years to get over.” Nearly all the others agree with him, with only the freeborn Maryland native Lynch instead arguing for an integrated society, perhaps a reflection of his own roots in the more integrated urban society of Baltimore. This preference on the part of African Americans for segregation as the Civil War came to a close is perhaps surprising to modern readers. Certainly, the threat of racism and discrimination was intense for a people who had been enslaved and subject to great inequity for many centuries. The appeal of living in a society that would not have rejected their humanity, skills, or prospects for achievement merely because of their race must have appealed greatly to people who had experienced nothing but racism throughout their lives. The United States government, too, had previously considered formal policies of segregation. Earlier proposals had been put forth to create reservations not unlike later Native American reservations, but for freedmen in the South. Yet the actual effects of such policies were far from beneficial to African Americans as they faced enduring marginalization and discrimination through legal segregation in years to come.

The second major portion of the conversation focused on African American involvement with the Union and Confederate military. The freedmen firmly rejected the notion that enslaved African Americans would willingly fight for the Confederacy–the Confederacy did not in fact allow black soldiers into its army until later in 1865 due to internal resistance over the idea. The freedmen equally asserted that African Americans would willingly fight for the Union forces. This disparity is only logical. Although most in both the Union and the Confederacy accepted that any black soldier who fought for the Confederacy would likely need to be granted freedom as a result, it is hard to imagine that even those desperately longing for freedom would be enthusiastic volunteers in an army fighting for the right to keep others in their position in bondage. A Confederate victory aided by slaves would only perpetuate the institution. In contrast, the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation had put the Union firmly on the side of liberty. With only a slight prodding from the ministers in their communities, African American men would willingly enlist in the Union cause. As the freedmen explained, many young men “have suffered so long from the Rebels that they want to shoulder the musket” against those oppressors.

Sherman’s Attitude

The conversation next turned to the opinions of the African American populace about Sherman, who left the room for the duration of this part of the discussion. Stanton had valid reason to wonder about the black leaders’ opinion of Sherman, whose stance on racial issues had been an apparent mass of contradictions. Sherman, a man of his time and society, was a firm and unquestioning believer in the natural superiority of whites over blacks. Although Sherman was certainly astute enough to recognize that political and cultural pressures were consigning the institution of slavery to history, he had expressed disgust with the antislavery or pro–African American rights views of both family members and political or military acquaintances in the past. His Northern ties made him a Union man during the Civil War, but Sherman approached the conflict as one supporting the authority of the federal government over the rebellious Confederacy, not one with a primary aim of spreading political and social rights for African Americans, enslaved or free. He refused to command African American soldiers even after Union laws changed to permit black Americans to enlist in the military, explaining that he neither believed black soldiers to be the equal of white soldiers in battle nor expected his existing troops, many of whom shared Sherman’s racist outlook, to accept African Americans into their ranks. President Abraham Lincoln reminded Sherman that he, too, was subject to the laws of the United States, yet Sherman still resisted accepting black soldiers into his army, allowing African Americans only in supporting roles as camp laborers in much the same way that the Confederate Army employed black slaves. The general’s personal views on African Americans were no secret.

Equally, Stanton and the allied congressional Radical Republicans did not wholeheartedly approve of Sherman’s policies or beliefs. Writing in his memoirs, Sherman included a letter from a commander in the Union capital that informed him of accusations of his mistreatment of the African Americans freed by his march. According to this letter, Sherman had physically detached a large contingent of African American camp followers from his trail by driving them away and cutting down the bridges behind them; a Confederate cavalry then massacred the refugees. The letter asserts that Sherman must surely have undertaken this action in order to ease military operations and not as a result of any intentional ill will toward the refugees, and the general obviously agreed with this assessment or he would not have included what he said had been previously confidential correspondence in his personal memoirs. Stanton, Sherman acknowledged, was more than likely among the group who spoke poorly of Sherman over incidents such as these.

Yet Sherman’s military victories significantly benefited the same Southern African Americans whom he personally did not like or respect as a group, and Sherman was fully aware of this fact. As the head of the western portion of the Union Army, Sherman oversaw the march across Georgia that enforced the Emancipation Proclamation by military might. Nine of the twenty freedmen gathered for the conversation had themselves been freed from bondage only with the arrival of the Union Army. In his memoirs, Sherman pointed to his army’s success in securing liberty for so many freedmen, dismissing the idea that he was hostile to African Americans simply because he had refused to “[load] down my army by other hundreds of thousands of poor negroes” (Sherman 247). From Sherman’s somewhat paternalistic perspective, he had helped deliver a great gift to the South’s new freedmen, and his actions therefore were above reproach. Whether this position was truly valid is much more debatable, and the fact that Stanton bothered to ask the question suggests that he was far from confident in Sherman’s treatment of African Americans and their reception to that treatment.

The freedmen of Savannah spoke highly of Sherman to Stanton when asked, asserting that he was “a man in the Providence of God” charged with freeing the slaves, an assessment that subtly compares Sherman with the biblical figure of Moses, who legendarily led the Jews from captivity in Egypt. They also lauded the general’s personal conduct, noting that “it is probable he would not meet the Secretary [Stanton] with more courtesy than he met us,” based on their early meetings with him. Some historians, however, have questioned whether this praise was truly the freedmen’s thoughts or an effort to tell Stanton and, by association, Sherman, the answer that he wanted to hear (Fellman 164). Indeed, Lynch again refused to add his voice to the overall chorus of praise, and even the freedmen’s strong statement was somewhat qualified by the comment that it was “our opinion now from the short acquaintance and interest we have had.” Throughout his career, Sherman longed for respect and popularity. His discussion of the Savannah conversation in his memoirs focuses almost entirely on this last question of Stanton’s, suggesting that the issue was one around which he felt the need to defend his record to foster that respect and popularity among the American public.

In all, the unlikely conversation between highly influential Union leaders and local African American freedman in Savannah was a notable one. It provided a rare opportunity for black leaders to express their wishes and views on their role in the post–Civil War South. Although the freedmen made no especially shocking requests given the situation in which they found themselves, the mere interest by the government in listening to the ideas of ordinary, nonvoting African Americans was in itself a remarkable action. That the government representatives did listen to and value the freedmen’s input is clear, because the conversation directly informed military orders issued by General Sherman soon thereafter–orders that married the interests of the general with the advancement of African Americans. This uneasy alliance characterized many of the changes to the racial balance of power in the United States during and immediately after the Civil War.

Essential Themes

In their discussion with General Sherman and Secretary Stanton, the free ministers of Savannah set forth a number of basic desires on the part of black Americans that remained among the key goals of that group and their supporters for many decades to come. They sought acceptance as contributing members of society, as willing soldiers, self-supporting farmers, and dedicated citizens. They also sought the ability to control property, to provide for their families, and to overcome the racism made endemic by years of slavery. Of these points, Sherman and Stanton most directly acted upon the wish for land separate from that controlled by white Southerners. Just days after the Savannah meeting, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, a military order commanding that a great deal of property controlled by rebel Southern landowners be confiscated and given to freed African American tenants for resettlement as farmers. The later addition of surplus military animals to aid in farming lent this resettlement program its popular designation of “forty acres and a mule.” Over the ensuing months, some 40,000 freed slaves were granted parcels in this territory. However, in early 1866, President Andrew Johnson rescinded Sherman’s order and restored the land to its original owners. The quest for land ownership would become one of the most basic struggles of Southern African Americans for many years to come. Without land, most former slaves and their descendents became sharecroppers or tenant farmers in conditions of economic and political repression that were little better than slavery. Nearly 150 years later, the promise of forty acres and a mule remained a key argument in the legal and political efforts by some African Americans to obtain reparations for slavery from the federal government.

Unspoken but apparent is a wish on the part of the freedmen to be simply treated as fully capable human beings. For centuries, white Europeans and Americans had dismissed black Africans and their descendents as inherently incapable of the same intellectual, emotional, and moral depths as white people. The same Thomas Jefferson who wrote of the equality of all people in the Declaration of Independence, for example, voiced doubts that black people could in fact be equal with their white counterparts. Yet the Savannah ministers display a keen understanding of the realities of the war, and a desire on the part of their people to have equality of opportunity in order to support themselves and their families. Although Reconstruction brought about efforts to ensure this equality of opportunity, discriminatory policies in the years following 1877 wiped out much of this progress. Whether all contemporary Americans enjoy equality of opportunity remains a topic of political and social controversy.

  • Fellman, Michael. Citizen Sherman: A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman. New York: Random, 1995. Print.
  • Lewin, Tamar. “Calls for Slavery Restitution Getting Louder.” New York Times. New York Times, 4 June 2001. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.
  • McPherson, James M. “The Ballot and Land for the Freedmen, 1861–1865.” Reconstruction: An Anthology of Revisionist Writings. Ed. Kenneth M. Stampp and Leon F. Litwick. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. 132–55. Print.
  • Sherman, William Tecumseh. Memoirs of William T. Sherman. 2nd ed. New York: Appleton, 1889. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Berlin, Ira., et al., eds. Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863–1877. New York: Harper, 1990. Print.
  • ---. Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print.
  • Oubre, Claude F. Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Land Ownership. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1978. Print.
Categories: History