Carl Schurz arrived in South Carolina in the middle of July, 1865. He had been sent by new president Andrew Johnson to investigate the condition of the South after the surrender of the Confederate armies and the collapse of the rebel government just two months earlier. He prepared a detailed report for Lincoln’s successor after his return describing what he observed.1
No one knew how Southern whites would react to the end of the war. Would they continue the struggle to create a separate nation? How would they respond to occupation by Union troops or to the freeing of their slaves? 2
After his tour, Schurz believed that the principal problem was not a push by white Southerners to reestablish the Confederacy. It was an unwillingness by whites in the South to grant blacks there the rights of citizens.3
Schurz wrote to President Johnson that while the Confederate surrender had at first overawed Southern white people, by the summer of 1865 a violent opposition to the end of slavery and the Union occupation had taken hold. Schurz told of a Union garrison being closed as Union soldiers demobilized, and he said that soon thereafter two white Union men and two African Americans were murdered.4
Fellow German immigrant General Peter Osterhaus told Schurz that “the state of affairs would be intolerable for all Union men, all recent immigrants from the north, and all negroes, the moment the protection of the United States troops were withdrawn.” 5
Even where Federal troops remained after the first demobilization, violent attacks were taking place. Schurz informed the president that;
there are still localities where it is unsafe for a man wearing the federal uniform or known as an officer of the government to be abroad outside of the immediate reach of our garrisons. The shooting of single soldiers and government couriers was not unfrequently reported while I was in the south.6
Schurz warned the president that a “system of terrorism” was undermining Southern society.7
The South was a region in turmoil. It was experiencing rapid social change and massive internal migrations.8
The end of the war saw many blacks displaced. Some had left the plantations where they had been enslaved to follow the Union army. Others had been moved south by slave owners trying to keep them away from the Union troops. When the war ended, many of these African Americans tried to return home to look for their families, only to find that they too were on the move. Schurz described the setting in motion of a whole race:
Large numbers of colored people left the plantations; many flocked to our military posts and camps to obtain the certainty of their freedom, and others walked away merely for the purpose of leaving the places on which they had been held in slavery, and because they could now go with impunity.9
With emancipation came motion. Slaves had been forcibly kept on plantations for their whole lives. Those who left the plantations could be tortured or killed if caught. With the end of slavery, blacks were free for the first time to travel as they pleased. Many took to the roads to find family members separated by slave sales or war. Others left to try to find better working conditions or to get away from abusive white landowners.
Schurz wrote that plantation owners wanted to force blacks to come back to the plantations to work under conditions similar to slavery. Much of the violence in the South came from white planters seeking to stop the free movement of blacks. According to Schurz a “Georgia planter argue[d] most seriously that one of his negroes had shown himself certainly unfit for freedom because he impudently refused to submit to a whipping.” Many Southern whites told Schurz that they hoped for a restoration of slavery or some other system by which they could compel blacks to work for them. 10
Black people resisted the return of slavery by leaving abusive planters. This could be a dangerous assertion of freedom. Schurz wrote that;
In many instances negroes who walked away from the plantations, or were found upon the roads, were shot or otherwise severely punished, which was calculated to produce the impression among those remaining with their masters that an attempt to escape from slavery would result in certain destruction. A large proportion of the many acts of violence committed is undoubtedly attributable to this motive.11
Some whites hoped to keep blacks in a state of submission through the targeted killings of leaders in the African American community.
Brigadier General Fessenden reported that in South Carolina “A spirit of bitterness and persecution manifests itself towards the negroes. They are shot and abused outside the immediate protection of our forces…” Schurz himself saw blacks come into Atlanta with bullet wounds while he was there in August of 1865. Although they were free men now, the blacks had been shot trying to escape from their plantations. According to Schurz, white guerrilla units were terrorizing blacks right outside the city. Schurz wrote that “but a few days previous to my arrival a small squad of men…sent out to serve an order upon a planter, concerning the treatment of freedmen, had been driven back by an armed band of over twenty men, headed by an individual in the uniform of a rebel officer.”12
In the small Alabama city of Selma, the Union officials knew of twelve former slaves murdered for moving from their plantations in the first two months after the war. A Freedman’s Bureau agent informed Schurz that blacks trying to travel off the plantations were the targets of white terror; “There are regular patrols posted on the rivers, who board some of the boats; after the boats leave they hang, shoot, or drown the victims they may find on them, and all those found on the roads or coming down the rivers are almost invariably murdered.”13
Blacks were not only subject to being killed for traveling, they were still being tortured, as they had been under slavery. Even those whites who accepted that slavery was dead did not accept that a black person could refuse an order from a white or talk back to white people. Many thought that whites had a right to physically punish blacks who were “disrespectful.” Schurz described the rapid recourse of whites to beating blacks:
The habit is so inveterate with a great many persons as to render, on the least provocation, the impulse to whip a negro almost irresistible. It will continue to be so until the southern people will have learned, so as never to forget it, that a black man has rights which a white man is bound to respect.14
Schurz also noted the paradox that under slavery the black man had some protection as the valuable property of wealthy whites. Poor whites who harmed a slave could be sued, not by the black man, but by the slave owner. After Emancipation, whites looked upon the “the maiming and killing of colored men” as minor matters with few consequences.15
Schurz also wrote to the President about the beginnings of the infamous Black Codes. These were state and local laws passed in the South in 1865 and 1866 that sought to keep blacks in a state of subjugation. One law Schurz described made it a crime for a black to be found on the highway without a labor contract. This law was designed to keep African Americans from moving from the plantations where they had been held as slaves to look for better paying work. 16
Opelousas, Louisiana passed a law that barred blacks from living in town unless they were under the control of a white man. The law said that; “No negro or freedman shall reside within the limits of the town of Opelousas who is not in the regular service of some white person or former owner.” The law forbade blacks from setting up a small business unless sponsored by a white.17
This map, prepared in conjunction with the book After Appomattox by Greg Downs, shows where Union occupation troops were located a few weeks before Carl Schurz began his trip through the South. The Union army of occupation was at its strongest at the time, and even then was having a hard time controlling white violence against blacks.
Of the new “vagrancy laws” allowing for the arrest of blacks without a labor contract Schurz wrote, they would “not be exactly the re-establishment of slavery in its old form” but “would only be for the worse.” Schurz said that “The negro is not only not permitted to be idle, but he is positively prohibited from working or carrying on a business for himself; he is compelled to be in the “regular service” of a white man.” 18
Any attempt by blacks to organize themselves was met with violence. In Mobile, Alabama, 6,000 blacks held a parade celebrating July 4th. In retaliation two school educating black children were burned down.19
Even where schools were not burned down, they were not supported by whites. Schurz found that the prejudice of whites against educating black children was as strong in 1865 as it had been under slavery. He said that his white interlocutors told him that “learning will spoil the n*gger for work,” and that “negro education will be the ruin of the south.” The opposition to the education of blacks was so intense, Schurz wrote, that even segregated “colored schools can be established and carried on with safety only under the protection of our military forces.”20
Black schools were a particular target of whites. In most of the South, black children were denied any education under slavery. The opening of schools for blacks was a potent symbol of change. This school was burned in Memphis, where Irish immigrants joined native-born whites in attacking African American institutions.
Black churches and schoolhouses were seen as threats to the racial order of the South because they were places where former slaves could learn about the wider world, about their rights as Americans, and could organize themselves to improve their condition. A Union general wrote to Schurz to tell him that in his district:
Threats were made to destroy all school-houses in which colored children were taught, and in two instances they were fired. The same threats were made against all churches in which colored people assembled to worship, and one of them burned. Continued threats of assassination were made against the colored preachers, and one of them is now under special guard…21
Schurz said that one solution to the racial conflicts of the South was increased immigration to the region. 90% of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and the other European counties had gone to the Free States during the 1840s and 1850s. Immigrants did not go to the slave South. Schurz believed that this isolated white Southerners from the spirit of freedom that was sweeping Europe. He wrote that with the end of slavery; “Nothing is more desirable for the south than the importation of new men and new ideas.” In his view:
One of the greatest drawbacks under which the southern people are laboring is, that for fifty years they have been in no sympathetic communion with the progressive ideas of the times…[T]hey adopted and enforced a system of prohibition, as far as those ideas were concerned, which was in conflict with their cherished institution of slavery; and, as almost all the progressive ideas of our days were in conflict with slavery, the prohibition was sweeping.22
Schurz said that “Nothing can, therefore, be more desirable than that the contact between the southern people and the outside world should be as strong and intimate as possible; and in no better way can this end be subserved than by immigration in mass.” The next decade would test whether immigrants could be drawn South to help reconstruct that postwar society. 23
Video: Eric Foner Discusses the Labor Question During Reconstruction
Video: Panel Discussion of Eric Foner’s Book Reconstruction
Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
1. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865); 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); Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs published by Oxford University Press; Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (Uncivil Wars) by Megan Kate Nelson published by University of Georgia Press (2012).
2. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner.
3. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
4. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
5. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
6. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
7. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
8. Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs published by Oxford University Press.
9. Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs published by Oxford University Press.
10. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
11. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
12. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
13. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
14. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
15. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
16. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
17. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
18. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
19. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865) No. 9. STATEMENT OF GENERAL THOMAS KILBY SMITH.New Orleans, September 14, 1865.
20. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
21. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
22. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
23. Report on the Condition of the South by Carl Schurz (1865).
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.