Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In the midst of partisan turmoil all eyes turned to the 1860 presidential election, and the Republican nominee -- the "free soil" candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Both Edward McGee and Louis Hughes anxiously awaited the results.
Voice of Louis Hughes: Boss had been reading the papers, when he broke out with the exclamation: "The very idea of electing an old rail splitter to the presidency of the United States! Well, he'll never take his seat."
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The Democratic party had fractured north and south, giving victory to the "rail splitter" from Illinois -- the first time a candidate was elected without carrying a single Southern state.
James Oakes: Remember Lincoln was elected committed to not interfering with slavery anywhere. He was only committed to restricting its expansion. But at that point the slaveholders had become so convinced that the north was taken over by these lunatic abolitionists that that is the way they viewed Abraham Lincoln's election, no matter what Lincoln said.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Even before Lincoln took office, seven Southern states withdrew from the Union. Enslaved people across the south were heartened by the news. For Louis and Matilda the moment held the first ray of hope for freedom. After reuniting with her children, Harriet Jacobs completed her autobiography. As she looked toward an uncertain future, her brother's words weighed heavy on her heart, "woe be to the country where the sun of liberty has to rise up out of the sea of blood." The United States had come apart over slavery. The nation was at the brink of civil war.
Episode four looks at Civil War and Reconstruction through the experiences of South Carolina slave Robert Smalls. It chronicles Smalls' daring escape to freedom, his military service, and his tenure as a congressman after the war. As the events of Smalls' life unfold, the complexities of this period in American history are revealed. The episode shows the transformation of the war from a struggle for union to a battle over slavery. It examines the black contribution to the war effort and traces the gains and losses of newly freed African Americans during Reconstruction. The 13th amendment abolished slavery in 1865, the 14th and 15th amendments guaranteed black civil rights, and the Freedmen's Bureau offered aid to former slaves throughout the 1870s. Yet simultaneously, the formation of militant groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan threatened the future of racial equality and segregation laws began to appear across the country. Slavery's eradication had not brought an end to black oppression.
SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA
Episode 4: "The Challenge of Freedom"
Intro, then the script starts at about 1:58 Lawrence Rowland: The moon was up, the tide was right for the escape of the Planter. It was a dramatic event.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In the early morning of May 13th, 1862 a slave named Robert Smalls led his wife, children and fellow enslaved sailors on a daring escape attempt from the Charleston harbor.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Just one year before, Confederates had captured Fort Sumter, gaining control of the harbor. North and South were now locked in a Civil War -- a war that would become the bloodiest in the nation's history. The conflict had erupted just a few miles from where Robert Smalls and his fellow crewmen were attempting their escape.
Andrew Billingsley: They had a little rowboat and once the families were loaded on to the boat the men took their posts. Smalls dressed like the captain and they set out from the harbor past first Fort Johnson
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: They had to give the appropriate signals and one single mistake would have alerted those who were watching that something was amiss and they would have held up the ship and possibly fired on it, blowing it out of the water.
Lawrence Rowland: Well, because Robert Smalls was a helmsman he knew those things. And he simply demonstrated what the passage code was.
Andrew Billingsley: And after a few seconds, which he said later seemed hours, he got the response pass on Planter. And so he sped on. And then they were approaching Fort Sumter and Smalls said a prayer. "Oh Lord, we entrust ourselves into thy hands. Like thou didst for the Israelites in Egypt, guide us to our promised land of freedom." And some of the men said to him, "let's don't go close to the fort, let's cut a wide berth around it so they won't see us." Smalls said we want them to see us. We don't want them to think we're sneaking around. So they went got close to Fort Sumter.
4:50 (background on Smalls begins)
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1839, just down the coast from Charleston. His mother, Lydia was born enslaved on the McKee Plantation.
Lawrence Rowland: Robert Smalls mother Lydia was a household servant so she was probably more literate and better educated than most of the general slave population in the Sea Islands. She imparted, or at least tried to impart as much as that education to her son as she could.
Andrew Billingsley: He absorbed from his mother a sense of pride, self worth, dignity -- and he learned from his owner a set of skills. He taught him all sorts of things but he did not teach him to read and write. When Smalls becomes 12 years old instead of sending him out to the fields the owner, McKee, took the boy himself into Charleston and deposited him with his sister-in-law.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Charleston was a whole new world for the young boy. And now, like many of the other enslaved, he found himself hired out by his owner to work in the city.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: In the urban environment it was not unusual someone who owned several slaves to hire the slave's time out to other persons and that would represent a mechanism that would continue to allow the, the owner to reek the profits of the, the slaves labor.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: For the next few years Smalls worked at various jobs around Charleston and learned many new skills. Eventually he found work on the docks.
Andrew Billingsley: By the time he was 15 years old Smalls was captain of the crew on the docks. Most of these men were twice his age. And he earned 15 dollars a month, which belonged to the owner McKee. And whenever he got his 15 dollars McKee gave Smalls one dollar. Well Smalls saves his dollar and he purchased things like tobacco and candy and sold it to the other men on the docks and made more money and he saved it.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: But Smalls was ambitious. He asked McKee if he could hire himself out. Then he would pay McKee fifteen dollars a month, and keep any additional money he earned. McKee agreed.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: This happened frequently, actually, that owners often times allowed their slaves to work for other persons, accumulate wages as a result and to then purchase their freedom. This was a unique opportunity that was afforded especially by urban life. And it was very important for individuals such as Smalls because often times they were also given the opportunity to live away from the people who owned them.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Robert Smalls would soon ask if he could live on his own as well.
Andrew Billingsley: When Smalls turned 17 he fell in love with a young lady named Hannah Jones who was almost twice his age. 29 I believe she was. But they got married
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: McKee gave his permission for them to marry and he also gave the newlyweds permission to live in Charleston.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: But Smalls knew that the few freedoms he now enjoyed existed at the whim of his master. Robert Smalls wanted real freedom.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: With the help of his wife, Smalls studied maritime charts and was promoted. As he made more money, Robert and Hannah began to talk about buying their freedom.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Then everything changed. (9:13, Chapter 2: THE CIVIL WAR)
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The Civil War broke out on Robert Smalls' doorstep.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: For decades, North and South had been dividing between free and slave labor. In 1860, as the country expanded into the west, Southerners wanted the new western territories to be slave states. But most Northerners saw these new territories as places for free white men to work their own small farms. The battle over the future of slavery was destroying the Union.
Jim Horton: By the time of the presidential election of 1860 Southern democrats break off and they are pushing quite strongly towards the possibility of succession and the center of secession during this period is South Carolina.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: With the Democratic Party divided, a free-labor Republican from Illinois was elected president with less than 40 percent of the vote. Abraham Lincoln did not carry a single Southern state.
Jim Horton: Immediately after the election of Abraham Lincoln there are a series of meetings in South Carolina particularly. And before Christmas of 1860 South Carolina announces to the world that it is withdrawing from the United States of America -- it is seceding.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Less than a month after Lincoln took office Fort Sumter fell to the Confederates.
Jim Horton: Abraham Lincoln issues a call for federal troops to put down what he now is referring to as a rebellion. The civil war is underway and, you know, it's like this rock rolling downhill.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: (11:45) In late 1861, the Union regained control of some of the Sea Islands that stretched along the South Carolina coast.
Lawrence Rowland: Robert Smalls could have seen the Union fleet offshore. Throughout the war the Union fleet was visible from Charleston harbor so the sense of the impending possibility for freedom was in the mind of all of the slaves of the low country.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: When the war began, Robert Smalls' ship was called into confederate service and he was forced to continue working on board.
Andrew Billingsley: So for a year he was fighting with the Confederacy against the Union. They laid mines in the harbor, they carried ammunition from one place to another, they carried troops. They were fighting a war. Smalls figured that he was fighting the war on the wrong side. Smalls and his wife had been talking about freedom for a long time. And Smalls began to speak with some of the other black men who were working with him on the ship, they began to talk about how to escape.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator:One night, the enslaved crewmen of the Planter dared meet at Smalls apartment to finalize their escape plans. They went over the scheme in detail.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: They decided that they would in the wee hours of the morning -- they would load the members of their families on the vessel and sail it out then into the harbor and beyond the confederate battle stations, taking a tremendous risk.
Andrew Billingsley: One man said, you know, I'm not afraid of any of this for myself but I'm afraid of what they will do to my wife and family back here if I participate. Smalls was very generous, he said "ok on the condition that you not tell anybody about our secret we'll let you go." So they let the man go. And then he said, "this is very dangerous and we may be captured by the confederates, and if they capture us they will put us to death." So he said to them, "I suggest that in case we are captured we set dynamite to the boiler on the ship and blow it up blowing up ourselves at the same time. Better [he said] to take our lives into our own hands than to turn ourselves over to the confederates." They all agreed.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: On the night of May 13th, 1862, as they often did, the confederate crew went home and left the black crew on board to guard the ship. This night, conditions were right. The Planter had just been loaded with ammunition, more than enough to blow it up if necessary.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: With their families huddled below, the Planter, with Robert Smalls impersonating the captain, approached Fort Sumter. He gave the signal and was allowed to pass.
Andrew Billingsley: And then the century on the Fort Sumter noticed that the boat had sped up and he thought that was funny. So he called to the boat to halt. But by now Smalls was out of the range of the confederate fire and so he didn't stop. But now he was in real trouble because he was headed toward the Union fleet. Although he was sailing toward them to deliver the ship to them they did not know he was coming. So what to do? Well apparently Hannah, his wife, had brought a white bed sheet along. So Smalls orders his men to take down the Confederate flag take down the state of South Carolina flag and put this white bed sheet up on the flagpole which they did.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: The union naval blockade didn't fire on the ship and, ah, did allow it come into it's midst. And was very surprised to see this confederate vessel now in the possession of enslaved African Americans who turned it over to them.
Andrew Billingsley: Smalls stepped up and said to the union ship captain, "I'm Robert Smalls. I brought you the Planter. I thought it might be of some use to uncle Abe." That's how the Planter became a union ship and Smalls became free.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator:(17:00, Ch. 3 “OPPORTUNITY TO FLEE”) Robert Smalls' capture of the Planter was a sensation. It was reported from New York to London.
Lawrence Rowland: Robert Smalls very quickly became a major celebrity. Lots of slaves escaped during the civil war. None of them escaped with as much enterprise or with as much confederate property in their possession as Robert Smalls and the crew of the Planter.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The union navy quickly learned that they were getting much more than just a new ship.
Andrew Billingsley: When Smalls was, um, taken into, um, union custody and debriefed they were overjoyed. They knew that the ship was valuable. As they debriefed Smalls they learned how much he knew about the confederate defenses and that was even more valuable than the ship.
W. Scott Poole: Robert Smalls really challenged the whole theoretical basis of slavery because here was someone who was intelligent enough, who was courageous enough, who was confident enough to engineer, really, this dramatic and extraordinary escape right out from under the noses of the superior race. So there's this feeling that you know there has to be some sort of, of retribution for that. And so the state of South Carolina actually places a, a 50,000 dollar bounty on his head.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The bounty did not frighten Smalls. He was prepared to fight and joined the union navy as a non-commissioned pilot.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: As the war entered its second year, most Southern white men had been called into the army. Many of the enslaved took this opportunity to flee.
W. Marvin Dulaney: It clearly revealed that without the patrol system in the South, which basically dissipated when the war started, there was nothing to restrain them and keep them from running away. And so, as a result, they ran away by the hundreds and then eventually by the thousands.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: As thousands of escaped slaves made it to union lines some field commanders put them to work in non-combat jobs. Unlike the navy, which had a few African-American sailors, the army would not permit blacks to fight.
Ira Berlin: From Lincoln's perceptive, or from the perspective of most Northerners, ah, this is a white man's war for union. This war has nothing to do -- nothing to do with slavery, and it has nothing to do, ah, with black people.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: From the time he took office Lincoln's policy was focused on keeping the four slave-owning Border States in the Union. Lincoln believed that without Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri the north was doomed. "I hope God is on our side," the president told a reporter, "but I must have Kentucky."
Jim Horton: In fact there's this very interesting conversation between Fredrick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in which Fredrick Douglas says that, ah, you know you're fighting this war with, with a strong right hand behind your back. Even though you're concerned about maintaining the loyalty of the Border States the United States would be better off to accept the service of thousands, tens of thousands of African-American troops.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: And by 1862 the relentless movement of fleeing slaves into union lines and their insistent demand to be allowed to fight made the issue unavoidable. In August the federal war department authorized mustering an army of five thousand black men in South Carolina.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Robert Smalls volunteered to help recruit the first South Carolina colored troops. Within the year black regiments were being created all across the union. The response was overwhelming.
Nell Irvin Painter: Wherever it's possible you have masses of men volunteering for the army. It's people all over the north coming to Massachusetts to volunteer for the Massachusetts 54th and 55th -- in South Carolina for the first colored infantry.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Now officially allowed to fight, they had to fight not only the confederate army, they had to fight within the union ranks as well. Racism was rampant. At first, black soldiers received only half pay. But still they came.
Ira Berlin: It's important to understand that from the beginning of the war black people have a commitment to their own freedom and determination to seize what they see as a critical opening, ah, which will change their lives and the change the lives of their descendants forever.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The influx of new soldiers was having an impact, but Lincoln wanted to choke the Southern resistance. Despite opposition within the Republican Party, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863. It sent shock waves through the South.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Although the Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebel state that were beyond the control of the union army, to African Americans it meant freedom was on the horizon.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: Those enslaved people who heard about the Proclamation -- often times they placed the broadest possible interpretation on it. And, and even if, and even if the literal words did not apply to them because of geographical limitations they applied the Proclamation to themselves.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: All over the South, African Americans took up the cause of freedom. Even soldiers who had already freed themselves by making it to the union lines gathered to hear the words read aloud.
Voice of Reverend French: ...shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The call for freedom had been sounded.
Jim Horton: By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation (24:00) Abraham Lincoln was able to change the war from simply a war to keep the union together, a war to crush a rebellion -- into a holy war, a fight for freedom.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: For African Americans, it was the dawn of a new day.
Music: [Let Freedom Ring!]
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: But the war was far from over. (24:50)
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In the North, anger over the Proclamation caused enlistments by white men to fall off. The federal government responded with an unpopular draft.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: As the 1864 election neared, Lincoln feared defeat because of the Proclamation. But union victories in Virginia and the capture of Atlanta transformed the national mood. The President won with 55 percent of the vote.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Then on April 9, 1865, with his army down to less than 8,000 men, Confederate General Robert E Lee surrendered. The war was almost over.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Five days after the surrender, exactly four years to the day after the civil war had begun, a celebration was held at Fort Sumter to raise the American flag once again over the fort.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: And there was tremendous rejoicing on that day as throngs of people gathered and journeyed out to, to Fort Sumter.
Lawrence Rowland: (26:00) By the time that celebration in Charleston harbor occurred Robert Smalls fought in 17 battles in which he risked his life for the union cause. So he was a military hero, ah, at the end of the war. And when this occurred he was one of the celebrities who was included in the ceremony.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: This celebration was terribly consequential because what it did was to confirm that the war was over with, and that this was a new day -- a new day in South Carolina and a new day throughout the length and breath of the South.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: All over the country African Americans rejoiced.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: But their joy would not last. That same night, Abraham Lincoln was shot in a Washington theatre. Within hours the great emancipator was dead.
Andrew Billingsley: Smalls said he cried like a baby and prayed "Lord have mercy on us all."
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The country wondered, "what now."
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Lincoln hadn't finalized his plans to reintegrate the Union, but with the South in shambles, the region needed reconstruction.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Every level of society had to be rebuilt. (great photos)
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Now free, African Americans were faced with many challenges, but their greatest challenge was freedom itself.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: African Americans, although greatly desirous of, of freedom were not really sure what exactly would be entailed by that concept.
Nell Irvin Painter: In a world built on slavery -- to say you are not enslaved anymore, what does it mean? Who's free? Does that mean you're gonna become white person? Ah, does that mean you're gonna be able to own property?
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: It's an abstract kind of a concept that really could only be determined by what people did.
Jim Horton:(29:00, Ch 4 “LOST FRIENDS”) And if you read accounts of life in the South in the immediate aftermath of the war what you, what you will read over and over again is about large numbers of African Americans who are traveling the roads. It's very interesting because the former slaveholders say that these people are just wandering around aimlessly. They weren't wandering around aimlessly they were looking for friends and relatives that had been sold away.