History instructors will teach their students that the Civil War was fought to end slavery. They will continue to teach that black slaves were freed by Abraham Lincolns’ signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. These students will believe it. They will think that blacks were freed in 1862 and have had 145 years to become successful and upright citizens of the United States. In this article, we will find that the Civil War was not fought to end slavery. It was a very minor issue between the Confederacy and the Union. I will also look at how systems set in place continued to enslave black Americans. These slave systems existed under other names such as sharecropping, the convict lease system, and “separate but equal” facilities. Today we will study the same history in a new way…the truly freed man’s way.
The American Civil War was the last war fought on U.S. soil and it lasted from 1861-1865. Conventional historical analysis holds that slavery was the sole reason for the bifurcation of the Union and the Confederacy. Honestly, slaves and the system of slavery just wasn’t that important to politicians at the time. A Civil War would cost time, money and manpower, luxuries that the developing United States could not spare at the time. The moral battle to end slavery was fought by intellectuals and religious actors. This was not a battle of the U.S. army and economics.
Readers may be confused as the conventional history lesson will teach that the Civil War was fought to end slavery. A look at the social and political canvas of affairs in the antebellum North and South will provide a more viable and sound explanation for the outbreak of civil war. Southerners expressed upset that a Republican, Abraham Lincoln was voted into the Presidency. An overwhelming majority of southerners did not vote for Lincoln. His inauguration was the ultimate symbol of the South’s non-voice in their government. Southerners were underrepresented in Congress and the entire political scene before the Civil War and hence we stumble upon the most pertinent reason for the Civil War: representation in the Senate, Congress, House etc.
Lincoln was the America’s first Republican President. Upon his election, Lincoln was against “the expansion of slavery” into border states. He was not against the system of slavery at least within a publicly political context to force the abolition of slavery within the Southern states. One can infer that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation as a provocative measure for the South. And it surely did get under Jefferson Davis’ skin. (Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederacy.)
On September 22, 1862, Abraham signed the first section of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in Confederate States south of the Mason Dixon Line. This proclamation was signed during the Civil War after the Confederacy had ceded from the Union. That proclamation freed few if any slaves truly. Of the slaves that were newly “freed”, none of them were equipped, educated, or protected to maintain and exercise their freedom. Frankly, Lincoln freed an illiterate, institutionalized, and socially subordinate group of people. Ex-slaves, now “freemen” were told of their freedom and when the fervor of freedom dwindled away, the burden of freedom set in.
The Civil War was the bloodiest war in American history. Lincoln had arranged for the sanction of supplies to the Confederacy by establishing a ship blockade on the Atlantic ocean that would not allow overseas supplies to come into the South. Suffering loss of men, supplies, and dying from diseases and dysentery, the Union and Confederate army were desperate for resources throughout the war. As plantation owners abandoned their plantations and well to do Southerners fled the fighting, ex-slaves were forced to enter the army and fight for the Confederacy. These soldiers were not treated fairly, were not paid for their efforts, and risked loss of life if they didn’t fight for the Confederacy, the very side that was forcefully pro-slavery.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, all blacks were said to be free and able to lead their own lives. Slaves were still considered to be 3/5 of a person and most of these slaves were unprepared for freedom. Hence, many blacks willfully stayed on their masters estate where they were comfortable for world beyond the estate promised lynchings, beatings, raping, and torture to any negro who dared say he didn’t belong to a master.
Forty Acres and a Mule:
What is now a comical question to account for not being in the best professional standing, blacks will ask or answer one another: “Where’s my forty acres and a mule?” It’s an attempt at comedy to make light of the lies, unfulfilled promises, and unequal footing that blacks were put on in this country that explains the present state of some less fortunate members of the community. Blacks ask one another, “Where’s my forty acres and a mule?” because it was promised to blacks and never delivered to them. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the South was completely ravaged. Plantations, shacks, and crops were destroyed. And, the U.S. had a whole host of freed Negroes with no place to call home. Union General Sherman proposed the Forty Acres and a Mule. In this bill, blacks were promised forty acres of tillable land per family and a mule to begin cropping and starting a life. These forty acres would be found on islands off the coast of South Carolina and on the coast of Georgia. The government also had an excess of mules and could so spare them to farming blacks. The government would protect these lands and the people on them. It was a dream come true for most slaves. Steamships would be available for landowners to sell their goods and buy goods from other places. It was going to be freedom at last. Word of the forty acres and a mule bill spread like wildfire. A year later, the bill was closed. I have yet to find specific numbers of families ever endowed with even an acre never mind their mule. Comically, we still question each other: “What about my forty acres and a mule?” And to that I say: “That’s not coming fool!”
Sharecropping-The new slavery
Sharecropping became the euphemism for slavery in the South after the Civil War. Plantation owners didn’t even have to coerce slaves to sign off on completely unfair contracts because the freed blacks had little to no education. On these contracts, blacks signed their name with an “X”. If the sharecropper couldn’t sign his/her name, it is obvious that the loquacious text of sharecropping contracts would have been completely over their heads. These contracts would bind blacks to a plot of land on the plantation estate for several years. Blacks would have to pay for their own supplies and repairs on property. Since blacks had no source of income at the end of slavery, the masters provided these materials and figured this number into the duration of years that blacks would have to work in order to pay off their debt to the master. Supplies broke, animals died, crops might not have been so fruitful and all this factored into the time spent on a plantation working off one’s debt. If the black sharecropper was lucky enough, s/he would have produced enough to get themselves something to eat but very little beyond that. Beatings were said to be outlawed when slavery came to end but it was still rampant as personal accounts show. Reconstruction is called the 2nd Civil War and sharecropping dare I say was the newer and more socially acceptable form of slavery.
The Convict-Lease System:
Blacks that were not sharecroppers, and even some that were, didn’t fully escape the grips of oppression in the South. Southern states had grown accustomed to cheap labor and would not forfeit it so soon. Hence, there was the creation of a convict-lease system. Penitentiaries were unable to pay for the boarding and housing of convicts in post Civil War America and large companies were unwilling to pay exorbitant (or fair) workers wages. The solution to each problem was the hand of the other. Prisons put prisoners to work and leased their labor to companies who paid very little for the amount of labor they were receiving. The government saw an immense profit from this labor.
Recruiting cheap labor for this effort was not difficult at all. Slapping a sentence of ten years for burglary without a weapon and minor infractions made prisons swell with cheap black convict labor within a year. Fredrick Douglass wrote about the convict lease with extreme disdain. He made a great point that blacks were not welcomed in educational or Christian facilities because they were black. They were not given opportunities to advance their education or excel professionally. Hence, they found comfort in the gambling houses on the riversides where sometimes shady practices took place. But, there was no other place for them in society. Douglass continued to say the judges and juries were all white and black men didn’t stand a chance of lessening a sentence or getting a fair trial. (Same state of affairs in present day.) Douglass continued to describe the squalor that “convicts” lived in.
Referencing a particular prison in Coal Creek, TN, Douglass wrote that the prisoners had no access to clean water, couldn’t shower after being covered in grime from the mines, and were locked, chained, and beaten if they didn’t complete a full days work of mining 2-4 tons of coal per day. Out of 5o convicts, 8 were strapped to a board and beat with a strap daily. These blacks did not live a free society. They were wrongfully accused, innocent and then proved guilty, were not given due process, and sentenced to work for the state. There is no aroma of freedom there. The state of affairs of women in the convict-lease system is something that nightmares are made of. Accounts hold women having to perform “criminal intimacy” with guards and chefs in order to procure food for themselves. Children were born in captivity of these women’s bodies. It’s safe to assume that guards would not let convicts breed and create a child. Most of these children were probably illegitimately prison guards babies. Imagine working in six feet of water, with less than 1/4 of the oxygen level required for human beings to survive while your full term? That’s unthinkable. These women were not free. The convicts who weren’t of the 10% monthly mortality rate, risked their lives to escape. I shutter to think what happened to the ones who didn’t escape and had to return to the penitentiary.The last convict-lease system was abolished in Alabama in 1928.
So it is clear that because the Civil War ended in 1865, blacks did not enjoy their civil liberties until well into the 20th century. Blacks were freer to move, breathe, have equal access to public buildings, and the rite to a non-sabotaged vote by 1964. In my opinion, when an ENTIRE race of people is allowed to vote for the man in the White House in a country where he pays taxes, he is free. It may be very leftist but I’m guilty as charged. When blacks were free to vote and determine the individual who makes political decisions on their behalf, they were free. The right to vote was so important to black Americans. The Voting Rights Act was renewed for 25 more years by George Bush in 2006. Isn’t that funny how close to losing a civil liberty we are? The Voting Right Act has to be signed every 25 years. Other documents like the Bill of Rights and Constitution don’t have to be resigned. But a bill ensuring equal opportunity to voting does. I’m curious, if it has to be renewed, is it a genuine freedom that blacks enjoy?
Other Posts by Eryn on Black History Month: