Primary Documents

These excerpts of historic documents are included as background to the reenactment scene in Reconstruction 360. Rather than depicting specific individuals, the characters in the reenactment are composites based on people, issues and events relevant to the theme of land and labor. The reenactment and these documents pertain primarily to the effects of Sherman’s Field Order 15 and its aftermath on freedpeople and white landowners in 1865 and 1866, and reveal the passionate determination of freedpeople to shape the terms of their freedom. The spelling and syntax in these documents are historically accurate.

White Landowner

January 6, 1866
South Carolina Planter to the Commander of the Military District of Charleston

“By order of Capt Ketchum, Mr Swail’s Agent for John’s island, and myself commissioner for the same, and Wadmalaw island accompanied by Mr. Becket, visited the said islands for the purpose of ascertaining the population.
On the 3rd we reached the plantation of the late Dr. Whitridge. A colored man not belonging to the place questions the authority of Mr. Swails and demanded by what right he was on the place. Mr. Swails produced the order of Capt Ketchum whereupon some insolent gibes were made, and Mr Swails showed his pistol, and said also was his authority. We then passed on to other houses, and soon encountered some 30 men 3 of whom were mounted with guns in their hands. Thomas one of the horsemen refused to give his name or any information in regard to the number of his family, and treated the Agent with marked insolence and contempt. Finding the taking of the census utterly impossible we proceeded to the next Plantation.

HAYDEN, R; United, S. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 : Series 3, Volume 2: Land and Labor, 1866-1867. Chapel Hill, NC : The University of North Carolina Press, 2013. (A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867), pg 226


Committee of Freedmen on Edisto Island, South Carolina, to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner

Edisto Island, South Carolina, October 20 or 21, 1865

General It is with painful Hearts that we the committee address you, we Have thorougholy considered the oder which you wishes us to Sighn, we wish we could do so but cannot feel our rights Safe if we do so.
General we want Homestead’s; we were promised Homestead’s by the government, If it does not carry out the promises Its agents made to us, If the government Having concluded to befriend Its late enemies and to neglect to observe the principles of common faith between Its self and us Its allies In the war you said was over, now takes away from them all right to the soil they stand upon save such as they can get by again working for your late and thier all time enemies. -- If the government does so we are left in a more unpleasant condition than our former
    We are at the mercy of those who are combined to prevent us from getting land enough to lay our Fathers bones upon. We Have property in Horses, cattle, carriages, & articles of furniture, but we are landless and Homeless, from the Homes we have lived In In the past we can only do one of three things Step into the public road or the sea or remain on them working as In former time and subject to thire will as then. We can not resist It In any way without being driven out Homeless upon the road.
    You will see this is not the condition of really freemen
    You ask us to forgive the land owners of our Island, You only lost your right arm. In war and might forgive them. The man who tied me to a tree & gave me 39 lashes & who stripped and flogged my mother & my sister & who will not let me stay in His empty Hut except that I will do His planting & be satisfied with His price & who combines with others to keep land away from me well knowing I would not Have anything to do with Him if I Had Land of my own. -- that man, I cannot well forgive. Does it look as If He Has forgiven me, seeing How He tries to keep me in a condition of Helplessness General, we cannot remain Here in such condition and if the government permits them to come back we ask It to Help us to reach land where we shall not be slaves nor be compelled to work for those who would treat us as such
    We Have not been treacherous, we Have not for selfish motives allied to us those who suffered like us from a common enemy & then Haveing gained our purpose left our allies in thier Hands There Is no rights secured to us there Is no law likely to be made which our Hands cannot reach. The state will make laws that we shall not be able to Hold land even if we pay for it Landless, Homeless, Voteless, we can only pray to god & Hope for His help, your influence & assistance With consideration of esteem your Obt Servts
    In behalf of the people

Henry Bram
Ishmael Moultrie
yates Sampson

Hahn, Steven, Steven F. Miller, Susan E. O’Donovan, John C. Rodrigue, and Leslie S. Rowland eds. Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867. ser. 3, vol. 1. Land and Labor, 1865. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008, p. 441


Alice G. Palmer to Harriet R. Palmer, July 20, 1865

I have had my patience tried so much this week by Hagar. If it has all only happened before the wagon left, I would have sent her right back. Last week I sent her out to wash with Maum Liddie. On Monday when I gave her the clothes and told her to go and wash with Maum’s washers again, she said she was not strong enough to do my washing. I declare Hattie I was so provoked I did not know what to do. I asked her what I brought her for. I told her before I left home she was to do my washing and wait on me. She said she could bring water and help fix the rooms but she could not do the washing because she didn't have the strength. She pretends she cannot even throw the mattresses off to beat the feather beds. She is positively not worth the corn she eats. Would have been better off if I had come without a servant for she is only a bother to me. I often feel like giving her a switching.

Towles, Louise P., ed. A World Turned Upside Down: The Palmers of South Santee. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996, pp. 479-80

Freed Child

Indenture of Apprenticeship, State of North Carolina, Robeson County

This indenture made the 19th day of September A.D. 1865 between James Sinclair, Agent of Bureau Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands for Robeson County, North Carolina of the one part and Mrs. Mary A. Bryant the other part. Witnesseth that the said James Sinclair doth put, place and bind unto the said Mary A. Bryant a colored orphan child named Helen aged fifteen (15) years to live after the manner of an apprentice and servant until the said apprentice shall attain the age of twenty one years during all which time the said apprentice her master faithfully shall serve and his lawful commands every where obey. And the said Mary A. Bryant doth covenant and promise and agree that she will teach and instruct the said apprentice or cause her to be taught and instructed to read and write and that she will constantly provide and fend for said apprentice during the time aforesaid sufficient diet, washing, lodging and apparel fitting for an apprentice and also all other things necessary both in sickness and in health. In witness whereof the parties to these presents have set their hands and seals the day and year above written.
James Sinclair, Agt. Bureau [seal]
Margaret Bryan [seal].

Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of North Carolina
Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865 - 1870
National Archives Microfilm Publication M843 Roll 35 - "Indentures Sept. 1865 - Aug. 1867"

Freedmen’s Bureau Agent

Letter from the Freedmen’s Bureau Acting Assistant Commissioner of the District of Edisto, South Carolina, Major J.E. Cornelius, written on October 23, 1866, to the office of the Freedmen’s Bureau Headquarters:

...I have the honor to report that on the 20th of February 1866 I was placed in charge of Edisto Wadmelaw, Johns, James, Morris, and Folly Islands, SC...containing a population of freedpeople amounting in the aggregate to eight thousand three hundred and seventy-eight persons….The freedmen were under the impression that the lands were all to be given to them and were very jealous of all white visitors, and particularly the former residents of the Islands...they scouted the idea of contracting with the former owners of the land either for wages or for a share of the crop, asserting that they were now free and would work for no one but themselves, and could not understand the relation between capital and labor.

Newspaper Account of a Meeting between Black Religious Leaders and Union Military Authorities[New York, N.Y. February 13, 1865]


On the evening of Thursday, the 12th day of January, 1865, the following persons of African descent met by appointment to hold an interview with Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, and Major-Gen. Sherman, to have a conference upon matters relating to the freedmen of the State of Georgia, to-wit:

One: William J. Campbell, aged 51 years, born in Savannah, slave until 1849, and then liberated by will of his mistress, Mrs. May Maxwell. For ten years pastor of the 1st Baptist Church of Savannah, numbering about 1,800 members. Average congregation, 1,900. The church property belonging to the congregation. Trustees white. Worth $18,000.

Two: John Cox, aged fifty-eight years, born in Savannah; slave until 1849, when he bought his freedom for $1,100. Pastor of the 2d African Baptist Church. In the ministry fifteen years. Congregation 1,222 persons. Church property worth $10,000, belonging to the congregation.

Three: Ulysses L. Houston, aged forty-one years, born in Grahamsville, S.C.; slave until the Union army entered Savannah. Owned by Moses Henderson, Savannah, and pastor of Third African Baptist Church. Congregation numbering 400. Church property worth $5,000; belongs to congregation. In the ministry about eight years.

Four: William Bentley, aged 72 years, born in Savannah, slave until 25 years of age, when his master, John Waters, emancipated him by will. Pastor of Andrew's Chapel, Methodist Episcopal Church–only one of that denomination in Savannah; congregation numbering 360 members; church property worth about $20,000, and is owned by the congregation; been in the ministry about twenty years; a member of Georgia Conference.

Five: Charles Bradwell, aged 40 years, born in Liberty County, Ga.; slave until 1851; emancipated by will of his master, J. L. Bradwell. Local preacher in charge of the Methodist Episcopal congregation (Andrew's Chapel) in the absence of the minister; in the ministry 10 years.

Six: William Gaines, aged 41 years; born in Wills Co., Ga. Slave until the Union forces freed me. Owned by Robert Toombs, formerly United States Senator, and his brother, Gabriel Toombs, local preacher of the M.E. Church (Andrew's Chapel.) In the ministry 16 years.

Seven: James Hill, aged 52 years; born in Bryan Co., Ga. Slave up to the time the Union army came in. Owned by H. F. Willings, of Savannah. In the ministry 16 years.

Eight: Glasgon Taylor, aged 72 years, born in Wilkes County, Ga. Slave until the Union army came; owned by A. P. Wetter. Is a local preacher of the M.E. Church (Andrew's Chapel.) In the ministry 35 years.

Nine: Garrison Frazier, aged 67 years, born in Granville County, N.C. Slave until eight years ago, when he bought himself and wife, paying $1,000 in gold and silver. Is an ordained minister in the Baptist Church, but, his health failing, has now charge of no congregation. Has been in the ministry 35 years.

Ten: James Mills, aged 56 years, born in Savannah; free-born, and is a licensed preacher of the first Baptist Church. Has been eight years in the ministry.

Eleven: Abraham Burke, aged 48 years, born in Bryan County, Ga. Slave until 20 years ago, when he bought himself for $800. Has been in the ministry about 10 years.

Twelve: Arthur Wardell, aged 44 years, born in Liberty County, Ga. Slave until freed by the Union army. Owned by A. A. Solomons, Savannah, and is a licensed minister in the Baptist Church. Has been in the ministry 6 years.

Thirteen: Alexander Harris, aged 47 years, born in Savannah; free born. Licensed minister of Third African Baptist Church. Licensed about one month ago.

Fourteen: Andrew Neal, aged 61 years, born in Savannah, slave until the Union army liberated him. Owned by Mr. Wm. Gibbons, and has been deacon in the Third Baptist Church for 10 years.

Fifteen: Jas. Porter, aged 39 years, born in Charleston, South Carolina; free-born, his mother having purchased her freedom. Is lay-reader and president of the board of wardens and vestry of St. Stephen's Protestant Episcopal Colored Church in Savannah. Has been in communion 9 years. The congregation numbers about 200 persons. The church property is worth about $10,000, and is owned by the congregation.

Sixteen: Adolphus Delmotte, aged 28 years, born in Savannah; free born. Is a licensed minister of the Missionary Baptist Church of Milledgeville. Congregation numbering about 300 or 400 persons. Has been in the ministry about two years.

Seventeen: Jacob Godfrey, aged 57 years, born in Marion, S.C. Slave until the Union army freed me; owned by James E. Godfrey–Methodist preacher now in the Rebel army. Is a class-leader and steward of Andrew's Chapel since 1836.

Eighteen: John Johnson, aged 51 years, born in Bryan County, Georgia. Slave up to the time the Union army came here; owned by W. W. Lincoln of Savannah. Is class-leader and treasurer of Andrew's Chapel for sixteen years.

Nineteen: Robt. N. Taylor, aged 51 years, born in Wilkes Co., Ga. Slave to the time the Union army came. Was owned by Augustus P. Welter, Savannah, and is class-leader in Andrew's Chapel for nine years.

Twenty: Jas. Lynch, aged 26 years, born in Baltimore, Md.; free-born. Is presiding elder of the M.E. Church and missionary to the department of the South. Has been seven years in the ministry and two years in the South.

Garrison Frazier being chosen by the persons present to express their common sentiments upon the matters of inquiry, makes answers to inquiries as follows:

First: State what your understanding is in regard to the acts of Congress and President Lincoln's [Emancipation] proclamation, touching the condition of the colored people in the Rebel States.

Answer–So far as I understand President Lincoln's proclamation to the Rebellious States, it is, that if they would lay down their arms and submit to the laws of the United States before the first of January, 1863, all should be well; but if they did not, then all the slaves in the Rebel States should be free henceforth and forever. That is what I understood.

Second–State what you understand by Slavery and the freedom that was to be given by the President's proclamation.

Answer–Slavery is, receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent. The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.Third: State in what manner you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the Government in maintaining your freedom.

Answer: The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor–that is, by the labor of the women and children and old men; and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare. And to assist the Government, the young men should enlist in the service of the Government, and serve in such manner as they may be wanted. (The Rebels told us that they piled them up and made batteries of them, and sold them to Cuba; but we don't believe that.) We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.

Fourth: State in what manner you would rather live–whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by yourselves.

Answer: I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over; but I do not know that I can answer for my brethren. [Mr. Lynch says he thinks they should not be separated, but live together. All the other persons present, being questioned one by one, answer that they agree with Brother Frazier.]11

Fifth: Do you think that there is intelligence enough among the slaves of the South to maintain themselves under the Government of the United States and the equal protection of its laws, and maintain good and peaceable relations among yourselves and with your neighbors?

Answer–I think there is sufficient intelligence among us to do so.

Sixth–State what is the feeling of the black population of the South toward the Government of the United States; what is the understanding in respect to the present war–its causes and object, and their disposition to aid either side. State fully your views.

Answer–I think you will find there are thousands that are willing to make any sacrifice to assist the Government of the United States, while there are also many that are not willing to take up arms. I do not suppose there are a dozen men that are opposed to the Government. I understand, as to the war, that the South is the aggressor. President Lincoln was elected President by a majority of the United States, which guaranteed him the right of holding the office and exercising that right over the whole United States. The South, without knowing what he would do, rebelled. The war was commenced by the Rebels before he came into office. The object of the war was not at first to give the slaves their freedom, but the sole object of the war was at first to bring the rebellious States back into the Union and their loyalty to the laws of the United States. Afterward, knowing the value set on the slaves by the Rebels, the President thought that his proclamation would stimulate them to lay down their arms, reduce them to obedience, and help to bring back the Rebel States; and their not doing so has now made the freedom of the slaves a part of the war. It is my opinion that there is not a man in this city that could be started to help the Rebels one inch, for that would be suicide. There were two black men left with the Rebels because they had taken an active part for the Rebels, and thought something might befall them if they stayed behind; but there is not another man. If the prayers that have gone up for the Union army could be read out, you would not get through them these two weeks.

Seventh: State whether the sentiments you now express are those only of the colored people in the city; or do they extend to the colored population through the country? and what are your means of knowing the sentiments of those living in the country?

Answer: I think the sentiments are the same among the colored people of the State. My opinion is formed by personal communication in the course of my ministry, and also from the thousands that followed the Union army, leaving their homes and undergoing suffering. I did not think there would be so many; the number surpassed my expectation.

Eighth: If the Rebel leaders were to arm the slaves, what would be its effect?

Answer: I think they would fight as long as they were before the bayonet, and just as soon as soon as they could get away, they would desert, in my opinion.

Ninth: What, in your opinion, is the feeling of the colored people about enlisting and serving as soldiers of the United States? and what kind of military service do they prefer?

Answer: A large number have gone as soldiers to Port Royal [S.C.] to be drilled and put in the service; and I think there are thousands of the young men that would enlist. There is something about them that perhaps is wrong. They have suffered so long from the Rebels that they want to shoulder the musket. Others want to go into the Quartermaster's or Commissary's service.

Tenth: Do you understand the mode of enlistments of colored persons in the Rebel States by State agents under the Act of Congress?2 If yea, state what your understanding is.

Answer: My understanding is, that colored persons enlisted by State agents are enlisted as substitutes, and give credit to the States, and do not swell the army, because every black man enlisted by a State agent leaves a white man at home; and, also, that larger bounties are given or promised by State agents than are given by the States. The great object should be to push through this Rebellion the shortest way, and there seems to be something wanting in the enlistment by State agents, for it don't strengthen the army, but takes one away for every colored man enlisted.

Eleventh: State what, in your opinion, is the best way to enlist colored men for soldiers.

Answer: I think, sir, that all compulsory operations should be put a stop to. The ministers would talk to them, and the young men would enlist. It is my opinion that it would be far better for the State agents to stay at home, and the enlistments to be made for the United States under the direction of Gen. Sherman.

In the absence of Gen. Sherman, the following question was asked:

Twelfth: State what is the feeling of the colored people in regard to Gen. Sherman; and how far do they regard his sentiments and actions as friendly to their rights and interests, or otherwise?

Answer: We looked upon Gen. Sherman prior to his arrival as a man in the Providence of God specially set apart to accomplish this work, and we unanimously feel inexpressible gratitude to him, looking upon him as a man that should be honored for the faithful performance of his duty. Some of us called upon him immediately upon his arrival, and it is probable he would not meet the Secretary with more courtesy than he met us. His conduct and deportment toward us characterized him as a friend and a gentleman. We have confidence in Gen. Sherman, and think that what concerns us could not be under better hands. This is our opinion now from the short acquaintance and interest we have had. (Mr. Lynch states that with his limited acquaintance with Gen. Sherman, he is unwilling to express an opinion. All others present declare their agreement with Mr. Frazier about Gen. Sherman.)

Some conversation upon general subjects relating to Gen. Sherman's march then ensued, of which no note was taken.

Clipping from New-York Daily Tribune, [13 Feb. 1865], “Negroes of Savannah,” Consolidated Correspondence File, series 225, Central Records, Quartermaster General, Record Group 92, National Archives.
1Brackets in the original
2.The act, adopted on July 4, 1864, permitted agents from Northern states to recruit soldiers among black men in the Confederate states, crediting them against the draft quotas of the Northern states. (U.S., Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations, vol. 13 [Boston, 1866], pp. 379–81.)