Sherman’s Bootstraps

Nkrumah History 0 Comments

Fact #21 of 28



The emancipation of the enslaved African in the final throws of the Civil War was nothing like you see in the movies. In movies, we are often presented with a clear hero and a clear villain. The hero’s goal is always clear, his motivations are often noble, even if his means are misguided, he means well.
Well, history rarely provides a clear hero or villain. This is especially true in times of war. Men of war don’t fit so comfortably as only good or bad. War changes men, rarely for the better. For men that are mostly good, war tends to make them worse. Because war is, by its nature, inhumane, so are most men who are successful in its endeavors.

Although General William Tecumseh Sherman might’ve been the leading emancipator of the Negro, he was certainly not a friend of the Negro. In fact, he despised them. Sherman lived much of his adult life in the South where he himself had owned slaves. And like most slave owners at the time, Sherman believed that enslaved Africans actually wanted to be slaves. Sherman said himself in 1862, “not one nigger in ten wants to run off.” So imagine how uneasy it made Sherman to come upon Plantation after Plantation throughout the south and be greeted by cheering Negroes eager for freedom. The sight of this was deeply upsetting to him because each time it undermined what he so strongly believed to be fundamentally true about the enslaved African and his condition. As these enslaved Africans showed that they did in fact long for freedom they were failing to meet his expectations according to how Sherman defined himself.

As I have said before about Identity, whenever we find evidence that is irreconcilable with the expectations of our own identity we have a tendency to react in one of three ways; we accept the evidence and reexamine the validity of our identity, we deny or rationalize away the evidence, or we try to remove the evidence altogether. Sadly, Sherman often opted for the third choice.

In December of 1864 Sherman and his men came upon the deep and fast-moving creeks of the Ogeechee and Ebenezer near Savannah and crossed it by laying portable pontoon bridges. However, once his men had crossed he ordered his men to pull up the bridges, trapping hundreds of enslaved African refugees who had been encouraged to follow him, alone, unarmed and at the complete mercy of the vengeful confederate cavalry they had just defeated. Many terrified men, women and children threw themselves into the icy water in their desperation to escape, many drowned trying to cross while the others left at the banks were mercilessly killed right in front of Sherman’s eyes by the pursuing Confederates who gleefully extracted their revenge on the enemy that they could. (Hughes & Whitney, Jefferson Davis in Blue: The Life of Sherman’s Relentless Warrior, 2006)

This is but one of many instances where following Sherman and his men as they laid waste throughout the South often had dire consequences for the enslaved Africans that were following their emancipator.

One of his men once shot a black man who was sleeping on the side of the road cursing, “Take that you damned nigger and see if you’ll sleep again while I have to march!” (McPherson, Negro’s Civil War, 1864)

In another example to consider, “One Yankee would come along an’ give us sumptin’ Fannie Dunn recalled, ” an’ another would come on behind him an’ take it. Dats de way dey done. Another give a mother a ham of meat but another soldier then come right on behind him an’ took it away from her.” (Rawick, American Slave: Composite Autobiography, vol. 14, parts 1 and 2, 270-71)

Stories of Sherman’s brutality often preceded him as he travelled through the South. Masters fearing their slaves abandoning them readily shared these stories of Sherman with their slaves. Even still, as the days of Slavery were finally coming to an end, enslaved Africans made it clear that they preferred “death by Yanks than longer to live with their cruel masters, in slavery.” And sadly, death at the hands of Union troops was not at all uncommon.

Sherman eventually came to accept emancipation as a war measure but never changed his views towards the enslaved Africans he was emancipating.

Because war is, by its nature, inhumane, so are most men who are successful in its endeavors.Nkrumah Steward
Once Robert E. Lee had surrendered, Jefferson Davis had been arrested, and the war had finally concluded, sentiments towards freedpeople in the North soured quickly. Remember, they were only emancipated as a tactic of war. Now that the war is over, what are we supposed to do with 200,000 largely illiterate, homeless, field laborers profoundly ignorant of the workings of the world, and with no means whatsoever to provide for themselves? Suddenly they were a burden on society that no one was prepared to deal with.
Charles Whiteside recalled what his bitter master yelled at him as he was being emancipated by union troops, “Charles, you is a free man they say but Ah tells you now, you is still a slave and if you lives to be a hundred, you will STILL be a slave, cause you got no education, and education is what makes a man free!”

Driven by hunger and a need to feed their families some slaves actually went back to their former Masters asking to return to their work because at least there on the plantation they could eat. Little did they know that forces had already been placed in motion so that there wouldn’t be plantations to return to.

The voices in the North that had so loudly championed freeing the enslaved African saw that very same African now as a potential obstacle to their own business aspirations.

Stories began to circulate from well-meaning teachers who had travelled South to try to teach these freedpeople how to read and write “black children can learn to read and write as readily as white children,” or as a Union officer observed, “black children are smart, bright and quick to learn, and one can scarcely observe any difference in the rate of progress, between them, and so many white children” Northern investors anxious to make a fortune from the confiscated lands of the South rushed to change the narrative that was starting. (Berlin, 1993)

While Abolitionists argued that Blacks should be allowed a chance to own the lands that they had worked on for no compensation for generations, Northern investors keen on getting their hands on all of that prime real estate used all of their money and lobbying powers in Washington to make sure that any idea of “giving” anything to these enslaved Africans got no further than that. Almost overnight you start hearing that adage about “pulling one’s self up from their bootstraps”. Sherman himself was even on record as saying, “The Negro has no right to the property of his former owner. Freedpeople should only obtain land if they can pay for it.”

You’re joking, right? Pay for the land? With what money? You do know I was a slave, right? Like an actual slave. Not some “figurative” slave like you hear millionaire professional athletes referring to themselves as today when a team refuses to trade them off so they can have a chance to play for a franchise that wants to “win”. I wish I could’ve asked Sherman with what money. Since he was a slave-owner himself, I am curious how much money he pay his slaves?

Northern investors began making mass purchases of land when the Federal Government started selling off confiscated property. Although abolitionists were trying to push the federal government to help these freedpeople gain a measure of these confiscated lands, Abraham Lincoln and his administration only responded with ambivalence.

To be continued…

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