There are hundreds of colored children being educated in this city and will soon outstrip the white children in general knowledge.
Thomas Montgomery to his mother, December 15, 1865
After the requisite number of twenty-seven states of the then thirty-eight states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, Congress, on December 6, 1865, adopted the new law that abolished slavery in America. On December 16, Secretary of State William H. Seward officially proclaimed the ratified amendment to be a new law. But already the effort to free all those who had been enslaved was systematically being curtailed. Shortly after its adoption, in many counties throughout the South blacks walking around without papers could be detained for vagrancy and forced into involuntary servitude as “punishment” in accordance with newly enacted statutes drawn up expressly for that purpose. Within the week after Seward’s announcement, all former slave states adopted such laws and other similarly draconian statutes called Black Codes that restricted the freedmen. While the Southern states pursued readmission into the Union, they enacted laws that limited freedmen to second-class status with no voting rights. Southern plantation owners feared they would lose their land and power in the absence of a coerced labor force. Thus, Black Codes became necessary to preserving the old order. The North was outraged at the proliferation of these new laws for it seemed the South was creating a form of quasi-slavery to negate the result and purpose of the war. Spurred on by mounting resentment to Union military governors and Freedman’s Bureau officials, the Southern states defiantly continued more detailed restrictions of the black man.
Since autumn, most of the old Confederate states had held all-white constitutional conventions, all under the approving eye of Andrew Johnson, who succeeded President Lincoln after his assassination. By the end of the year, most of the Southern states had held elections under the new state laws. Not surprisingly, ex-Confederate leaders won elections for state government positions and for the U.S. Congress. The newly formed legislatures quickly addressed needed public projects, including the creation, for the first time in the South, of a public education system, although the new schools excluded black children. Other laws were passed to limit the freedom of the former slaves that denied voting rights, the freedom to travel, and work in the occupations of their choice. In some states, even their marriages were outside the law.
During the last months of 1865 a rumor spread among freedmen that the federal government was going to grant forty acres and a mule to every ex-slave family on Christmas Day. Although the federal government had confiscated Confederate land and had in certain counties given parcels to freed slaves, it never planned to do this on a massive scale. Nonetheless, blacks expecting their own plots of land heightened the concern of white landowners, who now worried that the freedmen and -women would refuse to return to work on the plantations of their former masters. Meanwhile, the white owners circulated their own rumors that the black population would rise up in rebellion should they not receive the land on Christmas Day. These fears led to the first Black Code, enacted by Mississippi, which proved to be harsh and vindictive. South Carolina followed with its own code. On December 21, four days before Montgomery recognized his fourth Christmas in the army and away from home, the Louisiana assembly enacted its Black Code, which included a restriction of movement and a concerted effort to return former slaves to a servile status.
St. Landry Parish, which neighbored Baton Rouge, where Montgomery’s units were encamped, had its own Black Code that included a prohibition on a black man passing within the limits of the parish without special permit from his employer. African Americans were not permitted to rent or keep a house. Every African American was required to be in the regular service of a white person. No public meeting of African Americans was allowed within the parish after sunset. No African American could preach, exhort, or otherwise declaim to congregations of colored people without special permission from the president of the police jury. No African American who was not in the military could have firearms, nor could he sell, barter, or exchange any articles of merchandise within the parish without permission. Negroes who intermarried with whites were guilty of a felony, punishable by a long prison term. The Louisiana Black Code, enacted in the same city where Montgomery was encamped, was enforced with white violence against black men and attempted to turn the clock backward to the antebellum period. It was within this context—one in which the tide of white supremacy was rising up in clear view—that Captain Montgomery described his uneventful day:
To Mother, Headquarters Co. I, 65th Regiment, USCI, Baton Rouge, December 25
Another Christmas Day is past and it being the fourth I’ve spent in the army and away from home. Were it had been a day of pleasure but not unmixed with pain. There being no religious exercises in any but the Catholic Church, I spent the forenoon with my company in practicing with the ball cartridge, the different modes of firing by file, rank, platoon, and company, to get used to firing as skirmishers. Unfortunately, one of the men shot a cow which came up out of a ravine in a wrong moment. . . . I found the owner of the cow and offered to settle by buying the cow or paying the damages for wounding the animal. My men were in favor of buying the cow which I done, paying $45. Some of the officers I am sorry to say disgraced the day (Christmas) and themselves by becoming beastly intoxicated.
He described in the same letter a tour of the Intermediate Colored School he had taken with other officers and that left a profound impression on him. “I went and such a sight I never saw before.” The house was crowded with black children—an estimated “200 scholars were in attendance.” They demonstrated their proficiencies in reading, spelling, arithmetic, geography, and history, “and they completely surprised me at their rapid advancement.” Some of the scholars were under twelve years of age and yet they could name all the countries on the different maps, tell their capitals and the rivers that flowed nearby; also the islands, capes, and lakes. “One little girl almost white spelled a word of 21 syllables, repeating each syllable over and over from first to last. Afterwards, the students demonstrated their skills in declamation, recitation, singing and speeches. The whole thing was a splendid affair and effected good credit on the manager.” The teachers were white ladies from the Northern states. The schoolroom was very tastefully decorated with evergreens, mottoes, and behind the teachers’ desk and on the opposite wall over the American flag was arrayed the word “Excelsior.” On another wall was printed “Freedom and Education,” and on the last, “Lincoln and Books.” Still lower down were three mottoes, “Sobriety,” “Industry,” and “Tomorrow.” “The examination of the Primary Colored School of this city will be by Mr. Tinkner, Supt., and the next day, the refugee white school. I propose attending.”
Montgomery’s experience contrasted with other Negro schools set up by Northerners in southern Louisiana that were routinely burned and razed. White teachers from the North were ostracized and occasionally run out of the community. Yet, he saw a more hopeful scene. “There are hundreds of colored children being educated in this city and will soon outstrip the white children in general knowledge. Our officer who visited the examination was satisfied that the Blacks could be taught and that they were eager to learn.” He closed his Christmas letter in what was becoming the usual manner: “My health is splendid and the weather is warm. Tell Lizzie I have seen William and he is pretty well and sends his love to her. I also send mine to all. Your son, Thomas Montgomery, Capt.”
Federal troops in Louisiana were being pulled out. Montgomery expected that his regiment would soon follow, as he indicated in his letter dated January 2, 1866: “Several regiments have left here having been mustered out. All the rest except ours will follow within ten days. I think our turn will soon come.”
Demobilization, the military operation to return just over one million volunteer soldiers back to civilian life in the wake of the Civil War, was generally well organized and rapidly executed. As of May 1, 1865, just three weeks after the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s command at Appomattox Court House, 1,034,064 volunteer soldiers, both white and black, were slated to be mustered out and discharged. By November 1, 1866, a year and a half later, that number was reduced to 11,043 men, or approximately 1 percent. By November 1865, six months after demobilization began, approximately 801,000 men had been processed. Yet significantly, as impressive as this achievement was, it occurred before the close of hostilities. Edmund Kirby Smith, the last full general of the Confederate army, surrendered arms on June 2, 1865; still, guerrilla bands and irregulars continued skirmishing with remaining federal troops. In those areas of engagement, the war was not yet won. A significant amount of redeployment of federal troops was necessary to accomplish the required garrisoning of conquered areas of the South. Montgomery’s unit was one of these.
Though the morale of Union soldiers yet to demobilize tended to be high, or they had developed the sense that the process was working quite well even while some of them remained for the time at their posts, troops bivouacked within the range of ex-rebel snipers had to feel a unique kind of anxiety: the war is over and I am packed and ready to go home, and still I can be shot. In fact, as the commanding officer of the Eighty-Fourth USCT noted, it was dangerous for a federal official [from the Freedmen’s Bureau] to travel more than eight or ten miles outside the state capital of Louisiana. An officer in Montgomery’s regiment, assigned to provide security for the officials, was himself threatened with assault. “Lieutenant Roberts of my company . . . is in the Freedman’s Bureau looking at the schools. He says his life is often in danger.”
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, known simply as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was created by Congress in March 1865 to as-sist for one year in the transition from slavery to freedom in the South. Run by the War Department, the bureau’s first and most important responsibility included a system of free labor, overseeing some three thousand schools for freepersons, settling disputes and enforcing contracts between white landowners and their black labor force, and securing justice for blacks in state courts. Congress extended the bureau over the veto of President Johnson, who thought it unconstitutional. Southerners were basically opposed to blacks having any rights at all, and the bureau lacked military force to back up its authority as the army had been quickly disbanded and most of the remaining soldiers assigned to the western frontier. Though the bureau would accomplish some of its goals, especially in the field of education, Southern whites commenced a steady effort to frustrate the work, including intimidation and assaults of bureau agents and the sabotage of bureau projects. Agents soon became targets of ex-rebel terrorism.
Despite some of its successes, the bureau was headed to even more troubled water. White supremacists had taken aim against it. But the very nature of the bureau—namely, federal “intrusion” into state affairs—proved controversial. Jealous of African Americans’ prerogatives of self-government, white Southerners maintained toward the bureau an attitude ranging from indifference to hostility, ignoring or taking lightly bureau suggestions that lawmakers not enact discriminatory laws against African Americans. When agents of the bureau interfered with the policies of state governments, they were not always safe from the wrath even of the federal government. Historian John Hope Franklin gives as an example the assistant commissioner for Louisiana, Thomas W. Conway, who had found himself in “deep water” with state officials by September 1865, and was summarily removed by Washington because of the lobbying of Governor J. Madison Wells. President Johnson did what he could to frustrate the bureau’s work.
And he felt supported, not just by Southerners, but by slivers of the Northern population as well, winning support from conservative business interests. Eric Foner notes that the mass meeting at New York’s Cooper Institute to endorse Johnson’s veto to extend the tenure of the bureau attracted some of the city’s most prominent bankers and merchants, who criticized the bureau for interfering with plantation discipline essential for the revival of cotton production. But even more insidious, throughout the region, though much less obstreperous, was a spreading sense of Northern apathy to bureau difficulties. While most had taken to the cause to free all men as inspired by their martyred president, and at least retained a passing if not complaisant interest in the welfare of freedmen and -women in the face of mounting white supremacy, for many, awareness of the events in the Old Confederacy masked the persistent notion white Northerners had of Negro inferiority. Foner notes that not only was racism deeply embedded in Northern as well as Southern public life, but, as Frederick Douglass observed, “no political idea” was “more deeply rooted in the minds of men of all sections of the country [than] the right of each state to control its own local affairs.” Even among Lincoln Republicans, it was the basis on which they later viewed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which banned discrimination in public places, with skepticism, defeated the provision that banned school segregation, and turned an eye away from the proliferation of Jim Crow laws and lynchings in the Deep South: all fundamentally were “local affairs.” Senator Morton Wilkinson of Minnesota would be one such example when during the 1870s he attacked President Grant for keeping federal troops in Louisiana despite the outrages of the white supremacists.
But in the winter of 1866, the die was cast. Within such an enabling climate, so soon after the war ended, vengeance and desperation honed the resolve of ex-Confederate soldiers to continue the fight. They had, of course, lost the war; but they had also lost everything at home, “trusting to the hospitality of the people for food.” All they had was the color of their skin to find any sense of purpose and honor. In contrast, Union soldiers who were not deployed to hot spots had come to have relative confidence in how they would be demobilized, for those coordinating the process had taken pains to provide good transportation and food on their return home. This circumstance may well explain why Montgomery’s letter seemed airy and more casual. “I suppose you have had very cold weather. The weather here has been delightfully warm in fact.” Then showing the eye of a future land salesman, he wrote, “Many of the officers are looking after the land to buy or rent. Hundreds of plantations can be purchased or rented cheap. I have no particular desire to stay down here among Rebels and contraband chattel although I believe I can make five times more money that I would at the North. I would rather spend a few years at a good school or enter business.”
In fact, a number of Union officers stayed in the South after purchasing plantations, and they experienced considerable hostility. A lieutenant colonel of the Eightieth USCI reported that there was “very little change” around Alexandria, in central Louisiana. “Union men whether of northern or southern birth are living in extreme jeopardy of their lives,” and he mentioned “extremely bitter feeling against Henry Frisbie,” former colonel of the Ninety-Second USCI, who ran a plantation some twenty miles from Alexandria. “The only ground . . . for this hostility,” wrote the lieutenant colonel, ”is the fact that Col. F. treats his [black] laborers decently, and accords to them the common rights of humanity.” Largely due to frequent threats, Frisbie armed his plantation hands that spring. Hundreds of former Union officers shared his experiences. Some thirty-five miles northeast of Vicksburg, Morris Yeomans’s plantation was home to fifty veterans of his former regiment, the Seventieth USCI. Surrounded by “those who have not ceased to be our constant and unrelenting foes,” Yeomans’s men were necessarily “thoroughly armed,” as he reported the murders of seven freedmen in his neighborhood since the beginning of the year.
Yet, within this charged climate, in viewing another black school, Montgomery saw only progress. “The pupils [in another Freedmen Bureau’s school] are the enlisted men of this regiment who are learning as fast as any white children I ever saw. The colored people are becoming a power in this land, and are more respected in their rights as citizens by the sensible people here then they are by their would-be friends at the North.”
Montgomery finished his letter home as usual, “I hope Elizabeth is well and that you agree better together. William is about the same. Nothing very bad is the matter with him, I think.”