The Civil War (1861-1865) was caused by the long-standing and bitter national divide over slavery. Pro-slavery factions wanted to preserve slavery in the South and see it expand into new western states, while anti-slavery forces sought to end or abolish this system of human bondage. Such deeply rooted regional and racial tensions did not end with Union victory, and still reverberate today. This lesson explores events in Richmond at the end of the war through an 1866 broadside and two articles from the Richmond Whig.
While attending church services in Richmond on Sunday, April 2, 1865, Confederate president Jefferson Davis was handed a copy of a telegram written by General Robert E. Lee. In his message, Lee reported that his lines around Petersburg had been broken, and that he was forced to abandon his position to save the army. This meant that Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, would fall to federal forces under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant.
That evening, Jefferson Davis and members of the Confederate government fled the city. To prevent the capture of valuable supplies and to delay Grant's pursuit of Lee, Confederate authorities ordered that tobacco factories, munitions warehouses, and railroad bridges be set afire. High winds carried the fire to adjacent buildings, and early on the morning of April 3, much of the city's business district was in flames. By the time the fire was brought under control, 90% of Richmond’s business district had been destroyed.
As the fire raged, Union troops, including units of African American soldiers, entered the city. Crowds of black Richmonders cheered wildly. The Reverend Garland White, chaplain of the 28th United States Colored Troop, wrote, "It appeared to me all the colored people in the world had collected." Many white Richmonders were horror-stricken by these events, especially at the sight of formerly enslaved people embracing the U.S. Army as liberators and rejecting the authority of their former masters. The next day, newly freed men and women crowded around President Abraham Lincoln as he entered the city and walked to the State Capitol and the former White House of the Confederacy.
Following the war and during Reconstruction, black Virginians sought to make meaning of emancipation. They searched for family members who had been separated during slavery, and created a network of mutual-aid societies that provided relief and the opportunity to participate in civic life. They struggled to repeal old laws from slavery times, while also fighting new Black Codes designed to limit their rights and replicate some of the oppressive conditions of slavery. Freedmen formed militia companies and also joined the Republican Party and demanded equal rights. Black people also faced widespread discrimination, resentment, and racist intimidation and violence from white people who refused to accept them as equals.
On January 1, 1866, black Americans across the nation celebrated the third anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. President Lincoln had issued this Executive Order freeing enslaved people in Confederate states in 1863, but its impact was limited. The Emancipation Proclamation did not liberate enslaved people living in slave states loyal to the Union, and the federal government could not enforce emancipation in Confederate territories it did not control. Enslaved individuals gained their freedom at different times between 1863 and 1865: many ran away to cross Union lines, while others had to wait for war’s end.
Black Richmonders embraced April 3, 1865—the day the city surrendered to Union forces—as the date to commemorate their emancipation. Early in 1866, black fraternal organizations and secret societies announced that they were planning a celebration on the first anniversary of Richmond's fall to Union forces. For freedmen and women, the date marked their deliverance from slavery; for many white people, however, it was a humiliating reminder of the Confederacy’s defeat. Richmond newspapers criticized the choice of date in the weeks prior to the event. The organizers initially decided to postpone the celebration, to the relief of many whites, but on April 2, 1866, the broadside in this lesson appeared throughout the city, announcing the next day's celebration.
One source stated that, on April 3, 1866, around 2,000 black people from the Richmond area marched to the State Capitol, although the Richmond Whig reported much smaller numbers. The paraders were arranged by secret society, and they marched in ceremonial garb. At the Capitol, they were joined by about 15,000 spectators. The crowd listened to speeches delivered by both white and black orators. The site selected was especially symbolic, as many black Americans were prohibited from entering the Capitol grounds before emancipation.
The parade was peaceful, but some white employers retaliated by firing black workers who participated in the festivities. the eve of the event, the Second African Baptist Church was burned to the ground. Clearly, this broadside anticipated the possibility of anti-black retaliation. It tried to disOnpel white resentment with the assurance that the parade was not intended “to celebrate the failure of the Southern Confederacy,” but rather the liberation of black people.
A broadside is defined as an unfolded sheet of paper printed with information on one side. Broadsides are often public notices or announcements, and are designed to convey information quickly. In early Virginia, broadsides were posted in courthouses, taverns and other public places; today, they appear on telephone poles, bulletin boards, and abandoned buildings. This broadside appeared on Richmond streets on April 2, 1866. It became part of our collection shortly after.
Black fraternal organizations and secret societies planned this emancipation day celebration. . Although the individuals who headed up the committee are difficult to identify, J. Cocks was probably Joseph Cox, a free-born tobacco factory worker who was also president of the Union Aid Society, one of Virginia's largest secret societies. In the spring of 1867, Cox sat on the petit jury called to hear the case of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis in his trial for treason. (The trial was never held.) C. Harris may have been Cornelius Harris, a shoemaker and lay preacher who remained politically active for several decades following emancipation. Like Cox, Harris was born free and served as delegate to the Republican Party's state convention in April 1867. Both Cox and Harris were radical Republicans. At the convention, Harris advocated for confiscating the land of former Confederates and redistributing it to freedmen.
Both Cox and Harris were literate. The misspelling of Cox's name suggests that he was not directly involved in writing and publishing the broadside. Notice that the authors chose to spell the word "coloured" with a "u."
Transcripts of two articles from the Richmond Whig:
The Third of April and the Freedman
The rumor that the freedmen of this city and vicinity contemplated celebrating the third of April by a procession, music, and speeches, in commemoration of their deliverance from servitude, has been the cause of considerable feeling and remark among our citizens. The associations connected with that day of terror, which not only witnessed the humiliation of the white population, but the burning of one third of the city, would have made that day an ill-chosen occasion for a jubilee by the colored inhabitants. If not so intended, it would have looked like exultation over their late masters, and would have begotten ill-feelings, and perhaps have led to consequences of an unpleasant nature. We are pleased, therefore, to learn that it has been determined not to have the contemplated celebration; or at least, to defer it to another occasion. Whether this more judicious after-thought was the result of advice from the military officers here, of old citizens in whom the freedmen have confidence, or of their own uninfluenced volition, it is an evidence of good judgment, proper feeling and correct taste, which will be appreciated by the whole community. The negroes born and raised in Virginia understand and appreciate the feelings and characters of the whites, and when not misled and imposed upon by strangers, will set discreetly and with a due regard to all the proprieties, in nine cases out of ten. Bad advice from designing and evil-disposed persons, who do not understand and do not appreciate the relations that subsist between them and the whites, is the danger to which they are most exposed. Fortunately, the colored people have much shrewdness in discriminating character, and in judging between gold and pinchbeck. They can tell a gentleman and a true man almost at a glance. They were, for some time after the great and sudden change in their condition, bewildered, almost distraught. They saw new faces at every turn, and heard from almost every tongue condemnation of their late masters. Their new acquaintances were so warm in their professions of love that they would have deceived wiser men than the negroes. Besides, it seemed unnatural and ungrateful not to listen to and trust those who had made them free. Super-added to this was a vague expectation and fear that the Southern people wanted to re-enslave them and would avail of the first opportunity that offered to do so. They have now had time to collect their wits, to cast about them, to observe men and events, to learn who are their true friends and who are not, and to consider their real interests. They have found out that they upon whom they can most implicitly rely are those among whom they were raised; and they consider carefully before they take any advice that would hazard a misunderstanding with them. It is fortunate for them that they have learned this lesson, for so long as they remain here—and they are likely to close their lives they began them—their prosperity, comfort, respectability, their very bread and meat, depend upon the continued good feeling of the whites. Those who advise them to affect equality, to assume airs, to disregard former relations, or in any way to outrage the feelings of whites, may pretend to be their friends but they are, in fact, their worst enemies.
We are glad therefore, that they have had the good sense to abandon their much talked of 3rd of April celebration. It could not have been otherwise than distasteful to the whole white community. There are other reasons besides, why such a celebration should not take place now. A gathering and procession of thousands and tens of thousands of negroes, enlivened by music, marching under banners, and excited by contact and sympathy, might, without any such purpose originally, by the slightest provocation, such as the ridicule of a thoughtless and mischievous boy, or an accidental fight between a white and colored boy, lose their self-control, presume upon their numbers, and be betrayed into excesses that would entail upon them consequences too fearful to be hazarded at all, much less for merely an unnecessary display.
In every point of view, they have acted wisely in concluding not to have their celebration. They will be just as free without it as with it, and far more comfortable.
Negro Celebration on the Third of April
The interest and importance of the negro celebration of the third of April were chiefly derived from unpleasant possibilities, which it was feared, might result from it. It passed off, happily, without any such results, for which our thanks are not due to the authority that risked so much to accomplish so little, but to the conservatism of our population and the admirable police arrangements that were made and so efficiently carried out.
We observe that the Northern papers, those especially in the interest of the Radicals, publish the most extravagant accounts of the numbers engaged in the celebration. They say that seven or eight thousand negroes were in the procession, and that twenty-five thousand were on the streets. If this affair is of importance enough to be mentioned, it should be correctly represented. Those accustomed to estimate numbers agree in the opinion that the number in the procession ranged from five to eight hundred. Our own opinion is that it was nearer the former than the latter. It certainly did not exceed the latter. The streets were undoubtedly thronged with negroes who would have been in the streets if there had been no procession, for the day was a holiday. They were not properly a part of the pageant. It is due to the negroes to say that by far the greater number objected to the demonstration as unnecessary and improper. Nearly all who live by their labor continued at their work. The only part they took in the observances was to jeer awkward but gaudily emblazoned marshals as they careened past them, looking as if they would burst with self-importance. The well raised negro has a keen sense of the ridiculous, and a great contempt for those of his own color who put on airs. The loud and hearty guffaw was heard from the sidewalks whenever any uncommon display of vanity was made. As far as we could judge, most of those in the procession were the common order of negroes, or young bucks who wanted to show themselves off in their finery, or the hangers-on upon the Freedmen's Bureau. The "colored aristocracy" looked with disdain upon the whole proceeding.
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