Emancipation, Slavery, and Violence in the Wake of Lee’s Surrender

The following is a guest blog post by Caroline E. Janney, author of Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee’s Army after Appomattox. In this dramatic new history of the weeks and months after Appomattox, Caroline E. Janney reveals that Lee’s surrender was less an ending than the start of an interregnum marked by military and political uncertainty, legal and logistical confusion, and continued outbursts of violence. Janney takes readers from the deliberations of government and military authorities to the ground-level experiences of common soldiers. 

Happy belated Book Birthday to Ends of War, officially on sale now!

One hundred and fifty-nine years ago, on September 22, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary emancipation proclamation. The final proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, freeing enslaved people in the portions of the Confederacy not controlled by United States troops. But as Black men and women as well as historians have long understood, the Emancipation Proclamation was but one piece of the process of emancipation – a process that would extend well beyond the surrender of Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

Emancipation had not been one of the terms of  surrender and had not yet been secured by the Thirteenth Amendment’s ratification. While most slave owners bitterly conceded they were no longer entitled to control the flesh of other humans, at least some Confederate soldiers remained intent on protecting their property. Only days after the surrender, cavalry adjutant Robert Hubard of Buckingham County, Virginia, attempted to hide both horses and “3 or 4 Negroes” from occupying Union troops. Maj. Henry Kyd Douglas, still fuming that his “boy, Buck,” had absconded from Appomattox with his horse and personal baggage, later wrote that his first purpose upon leaving the surrender field was “to go in search of my man and my properties.” Even in defeat, these men failed to acknowledge the Emancipation Proclamation. For them it had been a moot point.

While Confederate soldiers sought to protect their human property, the presence of United States Colored Troops served as a stark reminder of both slavery’s demise and the rise of a new social order for white southerners. The greatest nightmare of white southerners, slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike, had long been that of a slave uprising. For many Confederates, the USCT represented just this: armed Black men sent into the South with northern sanction to kill white men, a fear that had escalated after Confederates surrendered their weapons. Paroled Confederates clearly felt the reversal of antebellum power. Upon reaching Petersburg on April 17, chaplain William Wiatt asserted he had been “grossly insulted by a Negro soldier.” The next day at City Point, he was again “insulted again by a Negro soldier.” Such was not the deference white men expected from African Americans.

While some of Lee’s men complained about Black soldiers, others later claimed to have responded with deadly force. When Pvt. Hartwell Koon of Finegan’s Florida Brigade accused a USCT sentinel of kicking him while the parolees awaited an ocean transport at City Point, tensions quickly escalated. Another Floridian struck the Black soldier in retaliation before an officer, who had been allowed to retain his sidearms per the surrender terms, ran his sword clear through the Black guard. Such actions might have been overlooked by Confederate authorities, but the paroled soldiers realized that in a post-Appomattox world, they could be charged with war crimes by the U.S. government. They hurried back to a nearby ship to avoid getting caught, but escaping without penalty must have emboldened the band of Floridians. Still waiting for their ship to depart City Point on April 17, they ventured ashore, where they learned of Lincoln’s assassination. Seeing the rebels amid the mourning services, several African Americans minced no words, cursing the parolees “in a very vile language.” Again, the Floridians claimed to respond with deadly violence, David L. Geer of the 5th Florida recalling years later that “some of the boys strung up those coons on the pickets that made the fence around the park.” Evading punishment once more, they climbed aboard the U.S. transport Wilmington on April 22, bound for Savannah.

On its face, Geer’s account seems improbable. Even if the Confederate soldiers were armed, the enlisted men would not have been, whereas the Black soldier would have had a gun. Moreover, it is unlikely that such brutalities would not have been noticed by white Union soldiers. If Geer fabricated the account decades later, that is significant in itself. 

But evidence does exist of Confederate soldiers murdering Union soldiers. From Richmond in late April, Thomas Morris Chester reported that “rebel officers continue to strut about in the uniform in which they delighted to murder Union soldiers, in a spirit which is almost beyond the degree of loyal forbearance.” There were likewise several cases of white southerners tried by military commissions in the spring of 1865 for assaulting and murdering Black soldiers. 

Given the centrality of violence to slavery, it is little wonder that defeated white southern men resorted to deadly force in response to what they perceived as the slightest provocation from Black men who now held positions of authority—and guns. Yet these violent encounters also underscored the degree to which wartime atrocities by Confederates against the USCT continued after April 9, 1865.

Caroline E. Janney is the John L. Nau III Professor in the History of the American Civil War and Director of the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia.