Confusion abounded in the still-smoldering South about the precise meaning of “freedom” for blacks. Emancipation took effect haltingly and unevenly in different parts of the conquered Confederacy. As Union armies marched in and out of various localities, many blacks found themselves emancipated and then re-enslaved. Blacks from one Texas county fleeing to the free soil of the liberated county next door were attacked by slave owners as they swam across the river that marked the county line. The next day trees along the riverbank were bent with swinging corpses – a grisly warning to others dreaming of liberty. Other planters resisted emancipation more legalistically, stubbornly protesting that slavery was lawful until state legislatures or the Supreme Court declared otherwise. For many slaves the shackles of slavery were not struck off in a mighty single blow but had to be broken link by link.
Prodded by the bayonets of Yankee armies all masters were eventually forced to recognize their slaves’ freedom. Some blacks initially responded to news of their newly granted freedom with suspicion and uncertainty. Loyalty to the plantation master prompted some slaves to resist the liberating Union armies, while other slaves’ pent up bitterness burst forth violently on the day of liberation. Many newly emancipated slaves, for example, joined Union troops in pillaging their masters’ possessions. Many took new names in place of the ones given by their masters and demanded that whites formally address them as “Mr.” or “Mrs.”
Tens of thousands of emancipated blacks took to the roads, some to test their freedom, others to search for long-lost spouses, parents, and children. Emancipation thus strengthened the black family, and many newly freed men and women formalized “slave marriages” for personal and pragmatic reasons, including the desire to make their children legal heirs. Other blacks left their former masters to work in towns and cities, where existing communities provided protection and mutual assistance.
The church became the focus of the black community life in the years following emancipation. As slaves, blacks had worshiped alongside whites, but now they formed their own churches pastored by their own ministers. Black churches grew robustly. The 150,000 member black Baptist Church of 1850 reached 500,000 by 1870, while the African Methodist Episcopal Church quadrupled in size from 100,000 to 400,000 in the first decade after emancipation. These churches formed the bedrock of black community life, and they soon gave rise to other benevolent, fraternal, and mutual...