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Black Religious Leaders Meet with Union Officers during Sherman's March

At eight o'clock on the evening of January 12, 1865, a group of twenty African-American religious leaders gathered in Savannah, Georgia, to meet with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Union Major-General William T. Sherman, who was then in the midst of conquering the southeastern portion of the Confederacy. The question and answer session that took place reflects both questions of military strategy in the waning months of the Civil War and ideas about what the emancipation of nearly four million slaves would mean for southern society. The New York Tribune, a radical Republican newspaper that supported abolition, published the minutes of the meeting a month later.

. . . Garrison Frazier being chosen by the persons present to express their common sentiments upon the matters of inquiry, makes answers to inquiries as follows:

First:  State what your understanding is in regard to the acts of Congress and President Lincoln's [Emancipation] proclamation, touching the condition of the colored people in the Rebel States.


Answer: So far as I understand President Lincoln's proclamation to the Rebellious States, it is, that if they would lay down their arms and submit to the laws of the United States before the first of January, 1863, all should be well; but if they did not, then all the slaves in the Rebel States should be free henceforth and forever.  That is what I understood.

Second: State what you understand by Slavery and the freedom that was to be given by the President's proclamation.

Answer: Slavery is, receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent.  The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.

Third:  State in what manner you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the Government in maintaining your freedom.

Answer:  The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor–that is, by the labor of the women and children and old men; and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare.  And to assist the Government, the young men should enlist in the service of the Government, and serve in such manner as they may be wanted.  (The Rebels told us that they piled them up and made batteries of them, and sold them to Cuba; but we don't believe that.)  We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.

Fourth:  State in what manner you would rather live–whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by yourselves.
Answer:  I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over; but I do not know that I can answer for my brethren.  [Mr. Lynch says he thinks they should not be separated, but live together.  All the other persons present, being questioned one by one, answer that they agree with Brother Frazier.]

Fifth:  Do you think that there is intelligence enough among the slaves of the South to maintain themselves under the Government of the United States and the equal protection of its laws, and maintain good and peaceable relations among yourselves and with your neighbors?

Answer: I think there is sufficient intelligence among us to do so.

Sixth: State what is the feeling of the black population of the South toward the Government of the United States; what is the understanding in respect to the present war . . .

Answer: I think you will find there are thousands that are willing to make any sacrifice to assist the Government of the United States, while there are also many that are not willing to take up arms.  I do not suppose there are a dozen men that are opposed to the Government.  . . . It is my opinion that there is not a man in this city that could be started to help the Rebels one inch, for that would be suicide. . . .If the prayers that have gone up for the Union army could be read out, you would not get through them these two weeks.

Eighth:  If the Rebel leaders were to arm the slaves, what would be its effect?

Answer:  I think they would fight as long as they were before the bayonet, and just as soon as soon as they could get away, they would desert, in my opinion.

Ninth:  What, in your opinion, is the feeling of the colored people about enlisting and serving as soldiers of the United States?...

Answer:  A large number have gone as soldiers to Port Royal [S.C.] to be drilled and put in the service; and I think there are thousands of the young men that would enlist.  There is something about them that perhaps is wrong.  They have suffered so long from the Rebels that they want to shoulder the musket….

Twelfth:  State what is the feeling of the colored people in regard to Gen. Sherman; and how far do they regard his sentiments and actions as friendly to their rights and interests, or otherwise?

Answer:  We looked upon Gen. Sherman prior to his arrival as a man in the Providence of God specially set apart to accomplish this work, and we unanimously feel inexpressible gratitude to him, looking upon him as a man that should be honored for the faithful performance of his duty. . . . His conduct and deportment toward us characterized him as a friend and a gentleman.  We have confidence in Gen. Sherman, and think that what concerns us could not be under better hands. . . .

Source | "Negroes of Savannah," New-York Daily Tribune, 13 February 1865, Consolidated Correspondence File, ser. 225, Central Records, Quartermaster General, Record Group 92, National Archives; from Freedmen and Southern Society Project, http://www.history.umd.edu/Freedmen/savmtg.htm.
Creator | New York Tribune
Item Type | Newspaper/Magazine
Cite This document | New York Tribune, “Black Religious Leaders Meet with Union Officers during Sherman's March,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 22, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/938.

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