The “Reconstruction Era” following the Civil War spanned 1865-1876; it was a brief period in which formerly enslaved Black people won some political, social and economic rights in the South. But the former slaveocracy regained state power and enforced economic and political oppression once again.
The March to the Sea, which began in Atlanta in November 1864, was pivotal in the Civil War in crushing the Southern slaveocracy’s plantation system. At the march’s conclusion the following month, 60,000 mostly Black Union Army soldiers, along with an equal number of newly emancipated Black people and war refugees, arrived in Savannah, Georgia. All those who had marched 275 miles across Georgia had destroyed by root and branch the plantation system in the state.
In January 1865, the Savannah Colloquy was held, at which representatives of the city’s Black community answered questions about their future from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Union General William T. Sherman. Garrison Frazier, a minister who was formerly enslaved, explained: “The best way we can take care of ourselves is to have land and turn it and till it by our labor — and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare.”
During the same month, Gen. Sherman issued Field Order 15, setting aside the southeastern coast from Charleston, South Carolina, across coastal Georgia to the Saint Johns River in northern Florida and for 30 miles inland, including the Sea Islands, for the exclusive settlement of newly emancipated Black people. This region was placed under a Black-run government. It was settled by 40,000 Black people, who each received 40 acres of farmland.
These two momentous events opened up the demand for land as reparations to Black people for hundreds of years of enslavement and discrimination. Today, reparations are still owed to Black people for the past years of enslavement and continuing racist discrimination in all areas of economic, social and political life.
Most of the land which Black workers gained during Reconstruction was eventually taken away by former plantation owners. The historical claim for reparations, as yet unfulfilled, still runs through the current struggles and organizing for justice by Black people.
Marx’s solidarity with fight for freedom
On Nov. 29, 1864, a solidarity address was sent to the National Labor Union in the U.S. by the newly organized First International (International Workingmen’s Association). The statement, written by Karl Marx, pointed to the role of the British working class in preventing England from entering the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy.
Marx wrote that the successful war “against slavery has indeed inaugurated a new era in the annals of the working class.” A new contingent of 4 million emancipated Black workers was now in struggle, joining the international working class!
Perhaps the most advanced location of this unfolding revolution was in the South Carolina Lowcountry, then known as “Carolina’s Gold Coast,” and the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. It was greatly aided by the participation of Black troops. Labor in the disease-infected swamps of the Lowcountry was “simple drudgery in its meanest form,” done mostly by newly freed Black people.
Many spoke the Gullah language, and they had a distinct African culture. Rice field hands were highly skilled and worked under a task system, in which the newly emancipated workers could complete work by the afternoon and then had the autonomy to work in their own home gardens.
Rice growing in the Lowcountry in the so-called “golden age of the antebellum South” had been controlled by a rich aristocracy of families: the Manigaults, Izards, Allstons and Heywards. The Civil War shattered the golden age of their rice kingdom; the Sea Islands were occupied by federal troops early in the Civil War. Union Army raids destroyed buildings, machinery, implements and irrigation systems. Freed people liberated many of their owners’ possessions.
By the end of 1865, reactionary President Andrew Johnson halted Reconstruction for a time. He reversed the Freedmen’s Bureau policy, pardoned the landowners and authorized the return of “their” lands. But Black people in the Lowcountry had no intention of giving up their claims to the land. They rejected the authority of the former landowners to retake the land and directly supervise their labor.
In the early 1870s, some Lowcountry planters succeeded in regaining control of thousands of acres of land employing hundreds of Black workers. The bosses had imposed a check system, whereby checks compensating the workers were only redeemable at plantation-owned company stores.
Black workers strike!
In May of 1876, workers along the Combahee and Ashepoo Rivers struck against a wage cut from 50 cents to 40 cents a day and demanded a raise to 75 cents a day, depending on the condition of the land. The strike spread to many plantations.
Hundreds of Black workers marched through the rice district with horns and drums. Some were armed with clubs, urging plantation workers to leave the fields. The workers’ response was overwhelming; by the end of May, they had won their demand for a wage of 50 cents a day, and many were being paid in cash.
Opposing South Carolina Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlin, a Reconstruction supporter, was former Confederate General Wade Hampton, who had been one of the largest holders of land and enslaved people in the South. Closely allied with racist “rifle club” members, his campaign sought “regime change” to return to rule by large plantation owners.
On Aug. 18, 1876, a second round of strikes began on the plantations of J.B. Bissel and trial judge Henry Fuller. The workers demanded $1 to $1.50 a day for harvest labor, payable in cash.
Fuller brought in the Green Pond rifle club heavily armed members to restore order, and he got 10 strike leaders arrested. But a crowd of Black workers soon appeared and drove the judge, sheriff and rifle club members to seek refuge in a threshing mill.
Strike leaders supported, acquitted
Black Congress member Robert Smalls, a Reconstruction leader, was in the area where the strikers held their ground. When he came to Fuller’s mill, he found 300 Black workers threatening to attack 40 armed whites. Smalls negotiated a compromise which was agreeable to the strikers. The rifle club members were allowed to depart, avoiding violence. All 10 detained strike leaders were acquitted, due to Smalls’ support and the presence of a crowd of Black workers outside the courthouse in Beaufort, South Carolina.
In September 1876, Hampton invaded the Lowcountry, accompanied by 600 rifle club members. However, he was heckled and forced to retreat. He later returned with 3,000 armed men and gave his speech uninterrupted. When he reached Beaufort, Hampton was surrounded by Black people whose animosity he felt every step of the way.
With the coming to power of the Hampton regime through a questionable election, there was little possibility of collective action by rural Black workers. In South Carolina, sheriffs and the state militia were employed for the benefit of the big landowners to crush the ongoing organizing and resistance by Black agricultural workers.
But due to the strikes and struggles during Reconstruction, as well as the collapse of the rice plantations, Black ownership of the land persisted for years. Even in 1910, almost 60% of the farms in Beaufort and Charleston counties was owned by Black people. Black workers in struggle during revolts against enslavement and in the Civil War and Reconstruction played an enormous role in the founding of the U.S. labor movement.
Jim McMahan’s great grandfather, John Evans, proudly participated in the March to the Sea, alongside Black Union Army soldiers.
Sources: James Allen, “Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy”; Eric Foner, “Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and its Legacy”