Charleston’s Festivals of Freedom

Welcome back to the History Behind the Story Series!  Since Southern Rain was first published, I have been writing a series of articles which give you the background on the events that happened in my books or the historical choices I made when writing them.  There were ten articles in total for Southern Rain, five for Northern Fire, and the following is the first of the four articles that will dig into the history behind Charleston Tides.  Note that there are usually a few spoilers which pertain to the historical aspects of the books. Okay, here we go!

History Behind the Story #1: Charleston’s Festivals of Freedom

THE HISTORY: When I was researching the history of the South in the days and months following the conclusion of the armed hostilities of the Civil War, it seemed like most information pertained to the military or government.  For the ordinary men and women who were either piecing back together lives or starting totally new lives, I fell back on the research which spoke comprehensively about the insurgent movements that got underway really quickly after everyone laid down their weapons.  I originally depicted a lynching in Charleston, knowing that this was something that happened repeatedly in the city in the years after the war.  I was wary of making it seem as though just because slavery had ended peace and equality had been established as well.

Then my sister went to graduate school for Public History at the College of Charleston.  I got a call from her while we were in the revision process of Charleston Tides, and she said, “You’re never going to believe it.”  What she had found was a little-known but huge moment of empowerment for the newly freed men and women of Charleston.  Most of the following history comes from research gleaned from a book called Denmark Vesey’s Garden.

Basically, from February 18, 1865 when Charleston fell until roughly a year later constituted what is known as the Year of Jubilee in Charleston.  A flag raising ceremony at Fort Sumter (a heavily symbolic place) with formerly enslaved people, abolitionists, and military personnel present kicked off a series of great festivals of freedom in which Charleston’s newly freed community celebrated their freedom again and again.  I don’t want to give the impression that this type of open, public celebration was happening all over the South, because it wasn’t.  However, this was possible in Charleston for several reasons.  First, Charleston’s newly freed contingent made up a majority of its population.  The Union military presence was heavy in Charleston. In addition, Charleston was the archetype city for slavery, so when anything involving slavery was happening, the eyes of the country were upon Charleston.

So what exactly was happening during these festivals?  They were elaborate.  There were parades, public speeches, demonstrations, and commemorations. Famous abolitionists often travelled to Charleston to participate. Ten thousand people gathered for one parade at the Citadel Green, the cite of the South Carolina Military Academy’s former parade ground (again, highly symbolic).  It was a massive procession, more than two miles long, even going down the Battery (where fictional Ravenel House is located). There were dignitaries, military personnel, tradesmen, fire companies, freed schoolchildren who were newly enrolled in schools, and many other formerly enslaved people. 

The scene I depicted of the mock slave auction during a parade in Charleston Tides also happened. This demonstration was a satirical statement highlighting the breathtaking barbarity of something that was, in fact, taking place not long before the festivals. The idea was, “Look at these normal, intelligent, capable humans who were sold like cattle just a few months ago.” As I depicted in the book, this reenactment did induce trauma in some women, for whom the memory of losing their children was still too fresh to make satire bearable.

As noted in Charleston Tides, there was indeed a banner carried that read, “We know no masters but ourselves.”  To us, this seems like a normal expression of human rights, but think about how revolutionary this was given the freshness of slavery’s downfall!  Some of the processions included more funereal elements, such as a mock wake to the institution of slavery, or a hearse carrying a coffin labeled “slavery.”  There was singing of songs that were considered very controversial at the time. There was also a float which carried young Black women representing each of the slave states.  They wore white dresses and, if the depictions are correct, also crowns, these choices being a political statement of purity and status. 

There were lots of ways that the newly freed people of Charleston expressed their freedom and political stances.  One was in the building of the Martyrs of the Race Course Cemetery, which I also discuss in Charleston Tides.  This was an effort by the freed community to give a proper burial to the 257 Union prisoners of war who were buried in unmarked graves after dying at the prison camp which had been held at Charleston’s Washington Race Course.  I am always hesitant to glorify people, armies, or causes in my books because history is simply too fraught and complicated to allow exaltation to be entirely truthful.  But I felt that depicting this outpouring of support wasn’t glorification for several reasons.

While this was an act of tribute, there were many nuanced reasons the freed community singlehandedly raised all of the money, made all of the plans, and did all of the work in order to make this cemetery happen.  One was that during the time that thousands of men were imprisoned in pitiful conditions at the camp, it was Charleston’s Black community which brought them relief in the form of food, bandages, and medicine, and some risked their lives to do so.  I would imagine that bonds had been created in the process.  In addition, creating the cemetery was a political expression, an alignment with a very personal cause, an expression of support for one side of the war, and another statement that slavery was dead.

Ten thousand people turned out for the dedication of the cemetery on May 1.  Then, it was called “Decoration Day,” but it started a tradition that we know today as Memorial Day.

There had been the strictest of hierarchies before the war. But in the year after the war, the social order in Charleston was turned on its head.  The Union military presence, including United States Colored Troops (USCT), was strong.  Newly freed citizens were now the ones standing guard with guns outside of buildings. White Charlestonians were shut out of the dedication ceremony for the cemetery.  They might find themselves shoved off the sidewalk.   They were held to a strict nightly curfew, once a practice applied to slaves.  There were insults made on the streets, and people who had once held ultimate power were forced by the turning tables to take it lying down, so to speak.  Many were baffled, having been thoroughly inculcated in the belief that the enslaved community had been content and even fond of their masters.  You read genuine confusion in some of the writings from the time, something which shows how thoroughly cultural conditioning can instill ideas that aren’t necessarily grounded in reality.

Ultimately, after several discussions with people in-the-know, I decided to take out the lynching scene I had depicted because in this specific place, in this specific year, it seemed unlikely.[1]  Charleston would, not too much later, become the scene of various tragedies, including lynching.  But for this one year, I do believe that there was a significant power shift, and I think those are as important to discuss as oppression when recounting race history.

The following link is the article which ran in the New-York Daily Tribune on April 4, 1865, from which I believe much of the research in Denmark Vesey’s Garden was pulled.

“A Jubilee of Freedom”: Freed Slaves March in Charleston, South Carolina, March, 1865 (gmu.edu)

PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: When Charleston fell, various Union troops poured into the city over the course of the next couple of weeks, many of them USCT.  One Black sergeant, John H.W.N. Collins of the 54th Massachusetts, reported, “I saw an old colored woman with a crutch—for she could not walk without one, having served all her life in bondage—who, on seeing us, got so happy that she threw down her crutch, and shouted that the year of Jubilee had come.”  This is a very moving description, depicting sheer joy.  I don’t know if this woman coined “the Year of Jubilee,” a Biblical expression, to apply to this situation or if that was how the enslaved community had referred for many years to the year that would be their liberation.  I love the snapshot into this woman’s life.  She strikes me as someone who had been actively anticipating liberation.  I wonder if she might have been an activist or an encourager within her community.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: As I read about the Year of Jubilee, I received the impression that the newly freed men and women of Charleston were there to claim their equality, their freedom, even their political enfranchisement.  You can sense the tides of change in the air, the feeling that anything was possible.  There was no Jim Crow yet, the KKK was in its infancy, and the military and government seemed to be on the side of the freedmen.  One article said that “the promise for a bright future was at its zenith in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.”[2] This makes me wonder…  If a few things had been tweaked, if a few politicians had followed through and made better decisions…could America have fast-forwarded a hundred years in terms of equality?  Maybe this is outlandish, but it doesn’t really seem so when you look closely at the days and months right after the war.  What do you think? Do you think things are inevitable in history, or is every decision important?

ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Sorry that it’s a drawing rather than a photograph! I believe this ran in a newspaper which recounted the events of one of the parades some time after the fact.  This depicts the USCT marching as they sing “John Brown’s Body,” a highly controversial song at the time!  Notice the schoolchildren in the foreground, as well as the burned out shells of Charleston’s buildings in the background.

Photo Credit: Charleston County Public Library, ccpl.org.

Stop by next time for a peek into the fame of Civil War officers!

SOURCES:

Butler, Nic, “The History of Emancipation Day in Charleston,” Charleston County Public Library Website, The History of Emancipation Day in Charleston | Charleston County Public Library (ccpl.org), June 19, 2020.

Kytle, Ethan J. and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, The New Press, (New York: April 3, 2018).

Kytle, Ethan J. and Blain Roberts, “When Freedom Came to Charleston,” The New York Times Opinionator Blog, When Freedom Came to Charleston – The New York Times (nytimes.com), February 19, 2015.


[1] Of course, I’m not saying that by any means it was impossible.  I could not find specific instances, but the failure to find specific instances doesn’t mean that it absolutely never happened, as we have discussed in previous posts.

[2] “The History of Emancipation Day in Charleston.”