The Death of Slavery in Charleston

One of many Library of Congress photographs of Charleston taken during the spring of 1865.

One of many Library of Congress photographs of Charleston taken during the spring of 1865.

This week we commemorate the 150th anniversary of one of the most significant, transformative events in the history of our city: the death of slavery in Charleston.

On the morning of 18 February 1865, Federal forces entered Charleston uncontested and secured the city. The last of the Confederate soldiers had fled the previous evening, and the city was essentially a smoldering ghost town. As the new day dawned, thousands of hungry slaves awoke to the fulfillment of many generations of prayers. Union soldiers spread throughout the ruined city and quietly spread the word: “You are a slave no longer. You are as free as I am.”

Click here to download a PDF transcription of the description of the events of 18 February 1865, as published in the Charleston Courier, 20 February 1865.

President Lincoln had rhetorically freed all enslaved persons in the rebellious southern states in 1863, of course, but slavery continued in practice in Charleston through the 17th of February 1865. In the years after the Civil War (and yes, our local newspapers used that phrase in 1865), the African-American citizens of South Carolina struggled to overcome years of prejudice and inequality in order to secure their civil rights. That struggle is a fascinating part of our history, to be sure, but there is another, equally engaging part of this story that is too often overlooked. I’m talking about the microhistory of the events immediately after the 18th of February 1865. What was life like for Charleston’s “freedmen” and “freedwomen” in the first hours, days, and weeks after their emancipation from slavery?

If you were writing a story, a novel, or a screenplay about life during the first days of freedom in Charleston in the late winter of 1865, where would you look for informative details? Just like modern times, the newspapers of that era give us the most detailed glimpses of that era. In Charleston, the Courier  transformed from a Confederate newspaper to a Union newspaper in the space of just forty-eight hours. As a result of this rapid political shift, we have eye-witness reports of the events unfolding in war-torn Charleston during those radical changes of February and March of 1865. In addition, northern reporters on the ground in Charleston sent their observations to the New York Times and other papers, which triumphantly celebrated the capture of the city and the progress of the newly freed people.

Immediately after securing the city, Federal forces quickly set about establishing a practical system of municipal administration. That is to say, they established a chain of command to patrol the streets, to remove debris, to shelter the homeless, to feed the hungry, and even to educate the young. Within a matter of days after capturing Charleston, food and clothing were being distributed to the city’s freedmen and to their country brethren who began streaming in from the surrounding countryside. By the 28th of February—just ten days after entering the city—the occupying forces had established a Department of Education and announced the beginning of regular classroom instruction for the black children of Charleston. As if they had been rehearsing for this day for many years, the city’s black community celebrated in the streets, quickly organized their own relief efforts, and began in earnest the hard but glorious work of forging their own destinies.

Click here to download a PDF transcription of the “Freedmens’ Jubilee” held in Charleston on 21 March 1865, as published in the Charleston Courier, 22 March 1865.

I encourage everyone to commemorate the 150th anniversary of this important occasion, and to learn more about the drama that unfolded in our storied streets. If you’d like to hear more details about the first days of freedom in Charleston, please join me for a program titled:

“The Death of Slavery:

Freedom Comes to Charleston”

Wednesday, 18 February 2015 at 6 p.m.

Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.