Union General Carl Schurz began his inspection tour of the South just a month after the last Confederate forces surrendered. Schurz, a German refugee, embarked on one of the most comprehensive tours of the post-war South that occurred in the summer of 1865. As he was traveling, the lands he visited showed the devastation of war and the flux of a changing racial reality. Paroled Confederate soldiers were still returning home, freed slaves were searching for family members sold off before emancipation, and formerly Confederate states were without effective governance. Schurz would meet with Southerners both prominent and of low birth, Unionists, Confederates, Federal soldiers, and blacks.1
Confederate soldiers returned home defeated to cities and towns ravaged by war. These buildings in Richmond were burned when retreating Confederates set fire to warehouses in the city during the last week of the war in Virginia. The fires soon engulfed whole city blocks.
The genesis of this remarkable trip lay in a letter Schurz wrote to the newly inaugurated President Andrew Johnson. Johnson had assumed the highest office in the land when Abraham Lincoln died on April 15. 2
President Johnson had issued an amnesty for former Confederates and a plan for reconstructing the Southern states that Schurz opposed. Called the North Carolina Reconstruction Proclamation, it would allow those Confederates taking a loyalty oath to create a new government for that state. It essentially restored the right to vote to the vast majority of white Confederate veterans, but it did not give the right to vote to the freed slaves who had supported the Union government. Schurz worried that a government elected only by white men would claim to accept the end of slavery “in point of form,” to appease Northerners, “but would spare no effort to preserve as much as possible of its substance.”3
Columbia, South Carolina, was the capital of the first state to secede from the Union. It was a particular target of anger for Sherman’s army during its march through the Carolinas in 1863 and 1864. When South Carolina’s governor refused to surrender the city to the approaching Union army, order in the city broke down. Fires ignited by retreating Confederates were soon joined by fires set by Union troops.
Schurz met soon afterwards with President Johnson. Instead of criticizing Schurz’s position, he said that he “was very doubtful and even anxious” about whether whites in states like South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi would accept the changes in race relations mandated by the end of slavery. Johnson told Schurz that:
He wished to see those States restored to their constitutional relations with the General Government as quickly as possible, but he did not know whether it could be done with safety to the Union men and to the emancipated slaves. He therefore requested me to visit those States for the purpose of reporting to him whatever information I could gather as to the existing condition of things, and of suggesting to him such measures as my observations might lead me to believe advisable.4
Southern transportation infrastructure was a particular target of destruction for Union soldiers. The railroad depot in Charleston was burned.
Carl Schurz was not flattered by the request. He had been at war for two years and he may not have wanted to spend more time away from his family. Nor did it make sense to him to send a single individual on such a sensitive fact-finding mission. Then there was the issue of personal health and comfort. Schurz wrote later that “I must also confess that the prospect of spending two or three months of the hottest season of the year in the Gulf States was by no means alluring. But I should not have minded that had not the whole affair struck me as somewhat strange.”5
Schurz sailed from Washington to South Carolina.. His information gathering began while he was still on board the steamer heading south. He had a conversation with a well-to-do Southern planter who, he said, introduced him to the sentiments of the Southern upper class towards the freed slaves. Schurz described his informant as “a handsome young man, something over thirty.” He had been an officer in the Confederate army since the start of the Civil War. The Southerner said that before the war he had owned ninety slaves. Schurz said that the man wondered at the uncertainty of the post-war world. He had been rich, the Confederate said.
But what was he now? He supposed his plantation, having been in Sherman’s track, was all devastated, his buildings ruined, and his slaves gone. Some of them, he hoped, would come back to him after his return, because he had always treated his slaves well, never having lost any except one, and him by “congestive fever.” But what could he do after all this ruination? There was a tone of resigned helplessness in his speech. Wondered how his land could be worked now that slavery was ended.6
Private homes were not immune from damage and destruction during the war. This mansion was in Atlanta.
Schurz suggested that the planter “make fair contracts with [the free blacks] and set them to work as free laborers.” Schurz recalled that:
This remark stirred him. He became animated. There was even a slight flurry of excitement in his voice. What? Contracts with those n*ggers? It would never work. Yes, he had heard of that emancipation business. He knew that was the intention. But — and here he approached me with an air of confidentiality as if to coax my secret, true opinion out of me — now, really, did I think that this was a settled thing? Now, he could tell me that n*ggers would not work unless compelled to.7
When emancipation came, many slaves abandoned their slave cabins to live off the plantations.
Schurz told the Southerner that Emancipation was an accomplished fact and that there would be no return to slavery. Schurz advised that “the Southern people would have to try the introduction of free labor.” The planter refused to believe it. 8
Not all of the destruction was caused by soldiers. Because so many men were away at war, cities were often without sufficient firemen. The 1861 Great Fire burned large parts of Charleston, South Carolina, including the Pinkney Mansion. The cause of the fire has not been determined.
With an accurate prediction of the future, the planter reminded Schurz that free labor would only remain in place as long as “the Federal soldiers were at hand.” He asked Schurz rhetorically “would not the troops soon be withdrawn? And would not the people of the Southern States…soon be left to manage their own affairs?” 9
The reassertion of white control over black labor would be contested by former slaves, the Freedman’s Bureau, and Federal soldiers, but eventually the foresight of Schurz’s Southern acquaintance was borne out.
Videos: Eric Foner Talks About Reconstruction
Historian Eric Foner delivered a series of lectures on the post-war period. These have been collected into an on-line course. What follows are three snippets of the lectures dealing with the different conceptions of emancipation by former slaves and former slave owners in 1865.
Acknowledgement: Several colleagues at Civil War Talk helped me find pictures of ruined buildings. Their screenames are CheathamHill, 7th Mississippi Infantry, Al Mackey, kepi, JPK Huson, nitrofd, 18thVirginia, ErnieMac, RobertP, chubachus, southern blue, Championhilz. I appreciate the time they took to show me their pictures.
1. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner; After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War by Gregory P. Downs (2015); A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Steven Hahn (2005); The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917); Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
2. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 150-154.
3. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 150-154.
4. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 157-159.
5. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 157-159.
6. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 159—162.
7. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 159—162.
8. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 159—162.
9. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz Volume 3 by Carl Schurz, edited by Frederick Bancroft and William Dunning published by Doubleday (1917) p. 159—162.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.