[T]the [Emancipation] Proclamation only confirmed what was happening on farms and plantations throughout the South. War, it has been said, is the midwife of revolution, and well before 1863 the disintegration of slavery had begun. As the Union Army occupied territory on the periphery of the Confederacy, first in Virginia, then in Tennessee, Louisiana, and elsewhere, slaves by the thousands headed for the Union lines. Even in the heart of the Confederacy, the conflict undermined the South’s “peculiar institution.” The drain of white men into military service left plantations under the control of planters’ wives and elderly and infirm men, whose authority slaves increasingly felt able to challenge. Reports of “demoralized” and “insubordinate” behavior multiplied throughout the South.
The transformation among the South’s slaves that Foner makes note of is a fascinating one. It is a process during and through which the formerly enslaved, oppressed, and controlled comes to realize the older shackles do not hold any more–and begin to act, drawing upon and utilizing, the new-found freedom that is now dramatically visible and manifest. For long after the shackles have been removed, after the overseer has left, after the whip has been put down, the enslaved continues to fear the older control, the always exercised restraint. He has come to internalize these controls, to enact them for himself with great efficiency. He has, as it were, become his own slave master. He anticipates the lashing even when the lash can no longer be raised and lowered.
But one day, the slave realizes the physical acts and tools that have restrained his freedom and punished him when he resisted their controls can no longer act. In their place are only idle threats, puppets who seek to dominate by borrowing the power of others. Power is gone; only its pale shadow remains. The slave cowers under this shadow for a while, but its insubstantiality is all too easily realized; it can be thrown off, shrugged off. The spell is broken. There is disbelief, a reluctance to admit the nightmare is over. Realization and awakening can take their own time to crystallize, to make real former fantasies. But become real they do.
Sometimes the formerly subjugated rise up suddenly and violently. Sometimes their frustrated energies and ambitions, so long repressed, can only seek, and find, explosive release. Those they turn on can find this anger terrifying and pitiless; they, used to cowering and timidity, find the new insubordination and insolence frightening in its lack of regard for older niceties and norms.
As the Union’s Armies approached then, two fronts advanced: one from the ‘outside,’ one from within. The military front promised defeat of one kind, the crumbling domestic one yet another. The verities it uprooted, the older securities it made fantastic, made it a more threatening and ultimately frightening one. Even if those realizing it took their time about it.
Note: The book excerpted above is an abridgement of Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (Harper Perennial, New York, 2014).