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  • Gavin Neubauer

The Undying Dream of Freedom: How Black America Once Imagined Reconstruction in Savannah


Aftermath of Sherman’s Campaign in Atlanta, Library of Congress, Hosted digitally by Wikimedia Commons


Atlanta was a smoldering ruin. Sherman had reached the Sea. January of 1865 was a time to reflect on a campaign so destructive it would be considered by historians as the first use of scorched earth war tactics in modern warfare. These new ideas of war expanded the targets from soldiers engaged in battle to the society and infrastructure that supported them. At the heart of this practice of deliberate, extreme destruction was an attempt to crush the spirit of the enemy by making war feel like the end of the world. To witnesses of the burning of Atlanta, it certainly had that effect. 


The New York Times would publish on December 23rd, 1864, a firsthand account of the burning. “Atlanta, Night of the 15th of November. A grand and awful spectacle is presented to the beholder in this beautiful city, now in flames.” It was hard to breathe; “the air is filled with flying, burning cinders; buildings covering over two hundred acres in ruins or in flames.” A political hell had become the embodiment of one. The crown jewel of the first “nation” to attempt to embed slavery in their constitution, Atlanta, was now destroyed. The political veil it had once thrived under bastardized the meaning of natural rights, declaring slavery and racial inferiority as a condition of the world. “In all such territory [of the Confederate States of America] the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists… shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government”. 


From the early days of the Constitution, it was rigorously debated whether slavery should be ingrained and protected in our national code. If “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” seems incompatible with slavery, this was not lost on the founders. John Adams predicted America’s future succinctly in writing, “Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States”.


Sherman now fights indignantly against the false righteousness of the Confederacy, who consequently had to redefine the definitions of freedom and fate set by the Constitution in order to establish a dystopia of indefinite slavery without the possibility of realizing equality. While widespread destruction seems mindless, there was plenty of philosophy and planning around the consequences and aftermath of the Civil War happening in Sherman’s March to the Sea. This culminates in a meeting with African-American denizens of the recently occupied Savannah, Georgia, the final city to surrender in Sherman’s militant streak. Both Major-General Sherman and Secretary of War Stanton met with both free-men and newly liberated freed-men to ponder the future of Black society in the South. For a rare moment, an armistice allowed by the trouncing and evacuation of Confederate forces in Savannah has allowed America to dream again. This time, how could freedom truly be realized and grow roots in the South? Could it supplant White Supremacy? Atlanta sits 250 miles away, derelict and rotting, as avid dreamers of the Black South begin to theorize their future rise. Among them are Robert N. Taylor, aged 51, a slave “to the time the Union Army come,” and James Lynch of Baltimore, 26, an “elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church”. 


Sherman’s March to the Sea, culminating in the capture of Savannah, Georgia. Map by Hal Jespersen.


The Union leaders proceed to ask about the group’s thoughts on the present and future of the divided America. When asked about his understanding of slavery, one man responds (in replies that are unfortunately unattributed), “Slavery is receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent.” Many former enslaved men in the room must have nodded in recognition of the force of this “irresistible power” that had once beaten them down. He digresses to the promises of Lincoln, “The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from the yoke of bondage and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, and take care of ourselves, and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.” 


Sherman and Stanton probe into their vision of “assist[ing] the Government” and “tak[ing] care” of themselves. This is where a new vision of the South begins to take mold. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn in and till it by our labor… 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 any such manner as they may be wanted.” The new dream is to live and thrive on their own property, with the right to do so as any other American citizen while contributing to the public and the republic through service. 


Early questions of integration arise in this conversation as well.  “State in what manner you would rather live, whether scattered among the whites, or in colonies by yourselves.” A weary man from the congregation of freemen demurs integration, “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.” Noted underneath, “Mr. Lynch says he thinks they should not be separated, but live together.” 


When asked about the feelings of the Southern Black population toward the United States, one man delivered the longest statement of the interview, dissecting the motivations of the war, many nuances of which have been lost in the modern understanding of Lincoln and the Union. “President [Lincoln] thought that his proclamation would stimulate them to lay down their arms, reduce them to obedience, and help them bring back the rebel States; and their not doing so has now made the freedom of slaves a part of the war… If the prayers that have gone up for the Union army could be read out, you would not get through them these two weeks.” In the war effort, he says the freed people “would fight as long as they were before the bayonet”.


Imagination convened with strategy as the Union faced a world to redefine from the antebellum South while still facing another three months of war until General Lee’s surrender at Appottomax Court House. At this predecessor meeting to the new era of Reconstruction, hopes were aloft from an always dreaming but politically silenced Black America. It is important not to forget the feelings of this time near the end of the war were full of conviction and new ideas, where we often let accounts like this fade to the modern cynicism of knowing the future of the racist society that gained power after the failure and premature end of Reconstruction.


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