McHenry County Civil War Round Table
Founded 1997 in Union, Illinois
Two years ago on January 1, 1863, a tall, odd-looking white President, Abraham Lincoln declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be freed" (www.archives.gov). All of us slaves couldn't believe our ears. The Emancipation Proclamation that Mr. Lincoln spoke of confirmed to me that the war was not just about white people's rights but also for securing my freedom and my family's freedom. It is now 1865, the War Between the States, the bloodiest war in United States history is over and the plantation that I slaved on is in ruins, most homes and towns destroyed, railways, roads and bridges are all in shambles. One fourth of the white men of military age in the south were killed and us newly freed African Americans are homeless, penniless, illiterate and unemployed (www.digitalhistory.uh.edu). The President and the radical Republican Congress say they are coming up with a reconstruction plan to rebuild the south and to figure out the best way to reintegrate the southern states into the US and to give us newly freed slaves a new lease on life. In the mean time, we are all just sitting amongst the rubble, waiting, hoping for a reconstruction that will help us start our brand new lives, make a living, get married, learn to read and write and earn money. My dad would love to own some land and I'm just 18 but I would love to become a state representative for my people one day. I guess we will see what happens.
My mom heard from a friend that her son said that us emancipated slaves may have a federal law that says we can vote. That's how I got this idea that I might run for some type of political office. If blacks can vote, then I'm sure they would vote for me. I helped out our preacher on the plantation a lot and he said I have a lot of charisma and am a good speaker. I just need to learn to read and write. Today my sister and I are going to the main center of the city to get some food and clothes. Northerner's on missions to improve the conditions down here are called carpetbaggers (www.ushistory.org). It is great to have these carpetbaggers from the north come to help us and they appear to call themselves the Freedmen's Bureau (www.ushistory.org). We showed up a little late but still got some bread and I got a pair of shoes. A scalawag, a southerner who is helping out the northerner's (www.ushistory.org), took down my name and my sister's name. He said that more northerner's are coming down soon to build a school and would we be interested in attending. Wow, I think even my parents will want to go to the school. I heard the carpetbagger telling his friend he was going to find some land that no one is claiming and plant cotton on it- he's heard there's a lot of money to be made growing cotton. I heard him also say that another friend of his is coming down to run the new Republican government here in Mississippi. These carpetbaggers seem helpful but I also think they seem a little greedy, too for some reason. but as long as we get food, clothes and education, I'm ok with that.
A lot has happened since the first carpetbaggers came to my hometown in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Our beloved President Mr. Lincoln was assassinated and a Mr. Johnson took over the presidency. I guess he is from the south but refused to join the confederacy when all of the succession business started. The newest talk around us freed slaves is about something called the 13th Amendment of the United States. This amendment assures us that we will never be slaves again, ever (www.senate.gov). I've had my reservations about reconstruction but this is definitely one of the best things to come of it. Mississippi had to ratify this amendment in order to get back their representation into the US congress, and they sure didn't want to do it, but they had to (www.ushistory.org). Mississippi and some of the other southern states still don't want us to have many rights even though we are free. They created "black codes" which appear to limit our voting rights, refuse to let us own land and determine where we can and can't work (www.ushistory.org). All we want is a to be a full citizen of the new US but I don't think it is going to happen. I have a friend who escaped years ago from up north come down and stay with me for the summer, trying to get us freed men up to date with what is going on in Congress. He told me that the Republican Congress is furious with the black codes and are trying to pass something called the civil rights act to combat them (www.ushistory.org). They want to send more troops down and try to maintain order in the South. The Congress has voted to split the southern states into five military zones to try to keep the peace down here. There are northern militia men all over and they do seem to help us a little bit for now. But he also has heard of talk that they were creating another Amendment, a 14th one that would be a more permanent solution to the "black codes" enabling everyone to keep their rights and not interfere with our due process of the law (www.americanhistory.about.com). I told him we had a local election here a few months ago and they told my dad he couldn't vote because he couldn't read. I did vote, though, and by the grace of God, a black man named Hiram Revels was elected to the US Senate in 1870 (www.brittanica.com). I've learned to read pretty good since my friend came down and started teaching me. The Freedmen's Bureau was never able to start that school they talked about and southerner's won't let us emancipated slaves into their white schools. They call this segregation. The Bureau did, however, find my uncle's wife in Louisiana, she was sold into a new family years ago and my uncle was heartbroken ever since. My friend is starting a black school here so that will be good for us. He said I should still think about becoming a political figure now that I can read pretty good. I actually started my own church, though, and would like to just continue with that. Through the church, I have organized a fire patrol and a political group where we can all share information about what is going on in the Congress. I actually don't mind having our own, segregated church and schools. I feel like we have more control over what we do when we don't have to be with the whites.
Well, it is now 1871, and the reconstruction of the new United States has shifted to growing the southern economy and the focus is turning away from helping us freed blacks (www.mrlocke.com). Ulysses S. Grant, our newest President, did pass another Amendment, though, the 15th. This was supposed to assure us African American's that we had a vote (www.prospect.org). But no one really seems to be enforcing this down here and there are even hate groups forming all over making sure we do not have any of the rights that are stated in the constitution. All the states are back in the union now, we are truly a united nation. Many of us blacks are working on rebuilding railroads and towns, so there is some work here now. My dad has become a sharecropper (www.mrlocke.com), he has a little bit of land that he ends up paying most of his earnings to the farm that he is renting the land from. He thought he could save a little bit of money but the crops are not good every year so just when he catches up, he ends up losing money on a bad crop year and it all just starts again. The new president was a war hero and he really does not know how to run the government. President Grant has had several scandals, bribery and fraud under his term (www.history.com). The power in Congress is shifting toward the Democrats since the southern voters all have a say now. My church has grown and we are just trying to keep our heads above ground while the nation appears to be going back to the way it was before the war, the only difference being is that we are free now.
The Panic of 1873 caused many investors to try to get their money back from all the reconstruction investments but the banks could not pay them back and we are in a financial depression (www.mrlocke.com). Now the people of the north are really growing indifferent to any of our problems down here in the south. They've realized that you cannot get the southern whites to change their minds about us and they don't want to invest any more time and effort into helping us. They seem to feel bad about it but don't have the time or money to fix it. We are basically on our own. The Republicans were desperate to get rid of President Grant and all his problems and made a deal with the southern congressmen to allow a Mr. Hayes to become president if we pulled all of the troops out of the south (www.mrlocke.com). That basically will seal our fate…with no military to back us, the freed slaves are just that…freed slaves and nothing else. None of the Amendments are being enforced and we are being threatened more and more every day. My church has been set on fire twice in the last 6 months because they know we hold political meetings here too. Those original radical Republicans assumed we could protect ourselves and ensure our civil rights by participating in the government but that never happened. They never gave us land, we have never been able to become actual land owners and now the south is determined to limit this even more with "home rule" laws allowing them to run the state without federal intervention (www.tdl.org). I don't think those radical Republican's realized the deep-seated racism that never allowed any of their laws and ideas become truly effective. Still, we do have the 13th Amendment which means we are not slaves anymore. We also have the 14th and 15th Amendments which are supposed to give us protective rights and voting rights but the south is doing everything to not recognize those laws. I guess another positive thing that came out of the reconstruction is that I have my own church and we have lots of volunteer groups to help out our community and most of us are somewhat literate now. Even though there were some benefits, I do feel, however, that the reconstruction plans were a huge failure. It's not enough to just be free. In order to truly be free, you have to also have equal rights with the other people you share your world with. I just wonder how long it will take, if ever, for us to actually become true and real citizens of this union. I hope I live to see it. Or maybe my kids will see it? Or maybe not.
Lincoln, Abraham. "The Emancipation Proclamation."·US National Archives and Records Administration. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/>.
McCaleb, Edwin. "Digital History."·Digital History. Gilder Lehrman Institute, 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. <http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=404>.
"Presidential Reconstruction."·Ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association, 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. <http://www.ushistory.org/us/35a.asp>.
"Senate Historical Office."·U.S. Senate:. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. <http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/CivilWarAmendments.htm>.
Kelly, Martin. "What Is the Fourteenth Amendment and What Does It Mean?"About.com Education. N.p., 16 Dec. 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. <http://americanhistory.about.com/od/usconstitution/a/14th-Amendment-Summary.htm>.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Hiram R. Revels."·Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. <http://www.britannica.com/biography/Hiram-R-Revels>.
"Americans Book."·Americans Book. McDougal Littel, 2008. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. <http://www.mrlocke.com/US_History/book_files/4.4_pg184_189.pdf>.
Bouie, Jamelle. "America's Fatigue in the Fight Against Racism."·The American Prospect. N.p., 25 June 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. <http://prospect.org/article/americas-fatigue-fight-against-racism>.
History.com Staff. "Ulysses S. Grant."·History.com. A&E Television Networks, 01 Jan. 2009. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. <http://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/ulysses-s-grant>.
"The End of Reconstruction."·The End of Reconstruction. Texas Digital Library, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. <http://tdl.org/txlor-dspace/bitstream/handle/2249.3/709/08_end_recon.htm?sequence=5>.
"Thoughts of an Emancipated Slave 1865-1877"
Prairie Ridge High School
McHenry County Civil War Round Table
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