One hundred and fifty years ago today the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry entered Charleston, South Carolina. Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle offer a vivid description of this moment in the latest New York Times Disunion column. It’s an incredibly powerful scene and one that is beautifully captured in the pages of Harpers Weekly.
Funny, but in all of the historical tours that I have taken with history teachers and student groups, I have never heard this scene referenced. How is it that such a joyous scene that celebrates freedom, located at the very core of the slaveholding South, is not fully embraced? The truth is that from a certain perspective this scene is just a little unsettling. From the vantage point of 1861 these men were never meant to be. The men, women and children welcoming them to their home and celebrating their freedom was not a foregone conclusion just a few years previous. As we all know, the war could have ended without anything in this scene coming to pass.
What we have here is a moment of peace and celebration at the center of a hurricane.
Few could have anticipated the challenges of managing roughly 4 million newly freed Americans in the Southern states. In Charleston and throughout South Carolina the black population outnumbered whites. The men in the 55th likely had some sense of the immediate postwar confusion that came with freedom. From April to August, the 55th was stationed in Orangeburg County near Columbia.
Among other things the regiment helped to negotiate and enforce work contracts between former masters and slaves. Based on reports this proved to be incredibly difficult, in part, because the very men who were charged with maintaining order were themselves catalysts for violent acts by those who viewed armed black men as a threat and as a reminder of defeat to the former slaves who desired to carry out acts of vengeance or simply hoped to live out their own visions of freedom under their protection.
In June 1865 a public announcement from military authorities was released to the freemen of Orangeburg:
You have heard many stories about your condition as freemen. You do not know what to believe: you are talking too much; waiting too much; asking for too much. If you can find out the truth about this matter, you will settle down quietly to your work. Listen, then, and try to understand just how you are situated.
Eventually, white South Carolinians enforced their own “truth.”
While we tend to see the disputed election of 1876 as the end of Reconstruction, following a brief period of black political action, it is likely that the men who liberated Charleston caught the earliest signs of Redemption and Jim Crow with the echoes of celebration still ringing in their ears.