39th Congress: Republican majorities in both houses
Terms to know: emancipate
It’s August 1865, and the bloodiest war in American history has been over for only a few months, with President Lincoln assassinated just four months ago.
The entire nation has barely begun to define, let alone understand, what a reunified country will look like, what emancipation means, and how they will create a new chapter in history: a post-Civil War, multiracial democracy.
The South is now occupied by the Army of the United States, and much of it is in ruins. The presence of troops on the ground has allowed President Lincoln to enforce the freedom of Black people in the former Confederacy (even though he had declared them free two years ago in the Emancipation Proclamation).
Tennessee, however, has been under Union control since before 1863, so the Proclamation did not apply there. The Military Governor of Tennessee decided himself to proclaim unconditional freedom for Tennessee’s enslaved people back in October 1864.
The “Freedmen’s Bureau” is the nickname for a new U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands that Congress created in 1865. The bureau is attempting to settle black Southerners on lands confiscated or abandoned from the South’s rebellion. They are also establishing schools for newly freed people, and attempting to provide housing, medicine, and food in the chaos of the ruins of war and a destroyed plantation economy.
People now free from enslavement are quickly exploring all the opportunities that would come with being full citizens of the United States. Truly enjoying liberty means finding some means of economic independence — to obtain a parcel of land or otherwise benefit from their own labor — as Jourdon Anderson made clear in this letter to his former slavemaster in Big Spring, TN.
Like Mr. Anderson, many freedpeople in 1865 are arguing that they are entitled to land in return for their years of unpaid labor. Black southerners understand the value of their own labor. They look to the federal government to extend and enforce their access to land and some means of economic opportunity, like Congress has done recently with Civil War Pensions and the Homestead Act of 1862 to other citizens.
Meanwhile, black Americans are building a new future. Thousands of people have taken to the roads to find work and to reunite their families. In new communities, they construct their own schools and establish their own churches outside white control on the plantation. It is a time of immense promise and hope in America, amid uncertainty.
Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865
To my old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee.
Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here; I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy, — the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson,— and the children — Milly, Jane and Grundy — go to school and are learning well; the teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages has been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the Negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve — and die, if it comes to that — than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant, Jourdon Anderson.
This letter was printed in The Freedmen’s Book, a textbook written and edited by L. Maria Child for the new schools serving freed people. (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1865, p.265–267. Reprint by Arno Press, 1968.)
It is transcribed here by auut studio with its original punctuation.