What did surrender and freedom mean to the enslaved?
On the afternoon of April 9, 1865 General Robert E. Lee left the McLean House after he surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant. The Union troops began rejoicing, playing music, cheering, and firing guns in salute, but Grant quickly ended these exuberant celebrations because he wanted to promote Lincoln’s wish for “… malice toward none, charity for all.” Many Confederates reported weeping openly while also being relieved the long, brutal war was over. We do not know Lee’s thoughts, but his actions and the accounts of the men around him variously reported his mood alternating between seething anger, paternal concern for his men, and despondent resignation to his fate.
In his memoirs, Grant wrote “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” That cause, maintaining the “peculiar institution” of slavery, the Confederacy had proclaimed as its “cornerstone” in 1861. One group who witnessed the events around the surrender who have long been invisible in the historical record are the 4600 enslaved people and the hundred or so non-enslaved African Americans who lived in Appomattox County.
One of the few accounts of an enslaved person who was living in Appomattox County at the time of the surrender was from a woman named Fannie Berry, who was interviewed in the 1930s as part of the WPA’s Federal Writer’s Workshop Project. According to the interview Berry witnessed some of the fighting in Appomattox, and at one point before the surrender, a Union soldier asked her for information on the location of the Confederate forces. Berry was fearful of reprisals and initially refused to provide information.
During the fighting that led up to the Confederate surrender, she witnessed African American soldiers who fought in United States Colored Troop (USCT) regiments. She told her interviewer, “The Colored regiment came up behind and when they saw the Colored regiment they [the Confederates] put up the white flag. You remember before this red or bloody flag [Confederate battle flag] was up. Now, do you know why they raised that white flag? Well, honey, that white flag was a token that Lee had surrendered.” The presence of African American soldiers was often demoralizing to Confederate troops and equally empowering to African American civilians who witnessed them in action.
After the surrender Fannie Berry described her reaction and the reaction of the other, now free people around her, “Glory! Glory! Yes, child the Negroes are free, and when they knew that they were free they, Oh! Baby! Began to sing… ‘You are free, you are free’… such rejoicing and shouting, you never heard in your life.”
Tragically, the joy Fannie Berry and her the other emancipated African Americans experience was short lived in Appomattox and across the South. For a year the Freedmen’s Bureau attempted to assist formerly enslaved people in Central Virginia and other areas, but these efforts were met with hostility from the local white populations and little meaningful support from Congress and the public in the North in general.
After being denied access to education and economic opportunities, many African American families left Appomattox. In 1860 just over half the population of Appomattox County was African American, but by the end of the 20th century, that percentage had dropped to less than one in four.
Written by Joe Servis, Teacher at Appomattox County High School
(In the original interview, many of the words were intentionally misspelled by the interviewer in an attempt to record Fannie Berry’s “dialect”; for this article the spelling was corrected to better convey the meaning of Berry’s testimony.)