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"Sweet Dreams of Freedom": Freedwomen's Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina Leslie A. Schwalm In his memoir of Civil War and Reconstruction, rice planter Charles Manigault offered what he regarded as some of the "leading Characteristicks of The NEGRO, and . .. The Times, through which we have recently passed." For Manigault, those characteristics were exemplified by his former slave Peggy, who offered ample evidence of how emancipation and Confederate defeat had turned Manigault's world upside down. Manigault noted that as the war came to a close, former slaves plundered and destroyed planter homes throughout his lowcountry South Carolina neighborhood. Peggy "seized as Her part of the spoils my wife's Large & handsome Mahogany Bedstead & Mattrass & arranged it in her own Negro House on which she slept for some time" and in which Manigault bitterly imagined she enjoyed "her Sweet Dreams of freedom." Peggy also confiscated from the Manigault residence "some Pink Ribands, & tied in a dozen bows the woolly head of her Daughter, to the admiration of the other Negroes." Lastly, Manigault noted Peggy's response when he, joined by his son and a former overseer (and Confederate officer), came onto the farm and "immediately began to pitch the Negro Effects" into two wagons, intending to evict the freedpeople. Only Peggy ("the lady of the Big Mahogany Bed") tried to intervene: "placing her arms akimbo, said 'She would go off to the Provost Marshal in town & stop our unlawful proceedings with their property in their own homes.' "a Peggy's appropriation of her former mistresses' furniture, her use of contraband ribbons to style her daughter's hair, and her public challenge to Manigault's authority all signaled to Manigault that Peggy was pursuing her freedom with a literal vengeance, or what Manigault described as "recklessness and Ingratitude." In the actions of freedwomen like Peggy, and also in the responses that she and freedwomen like her provoked from former owners and from the civilian and military agents of Reconstruction , lies one of the most underexplored dynamics of the South's transition from slavery to freedom and the subject of this essay: the influence of former slave women's defining acts of freedom on the South's transition to a free labor society. In the last 15 years, historians have produced an impressive body of work reexamining the South's transition from slavery to freedom during and after the Civil War, work that has yielded new information and a © 1997 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 9 No. ι (Spring) 10 Journal of Women's History Spring richer understanding of the complex process, and implications, of American emancipation.2 Yet much of this scholarship, despite its emphasis on the multifaceted involvement of former slaves in shaping the South's transition to a free society, has omitted the actions and experiences of half of the four million who passed from slavery to freedom. Too often the transition from slavery to freedom has been investigated and portrayed as though slave women did not share that experience or failed to contribute to the process; enslaved African-American women like Peggy, it would seem, had little if any specific or general influence on the shape of the path slaves forged which led from slavery to freedom.3 Historians' failure to come to terms with freedwomen's role in the wartime and postbellum South has not been entirely a matter of omission. Despite the dearth of research, many scholars have characterized freedwomen's role in the postbellum conflict as allegedly withdrawing and retreating from the labor force, a conclusion that relies upon the infallibility of contemporary observations by northern and southern whites, and also on census-based estimates of freedwomen's labor-force participation .4 Even with limited evidence, scholars have freely interpreted freedwomen's motivations and expectations based on their alleged withdrawal from the paid workforce. Some posit that freedwomen gladly yielded to the demands of their husbands that they withdraw from agricultural employment, that they voluntarily collaborated with their husbands' postemancipation claims to the privileges and prerogatives of a patriarchally-ordered family and household. Others suggest that freedwomen were imitating white behavior, anxious to claim for themselves the privileges they perceived in elite white...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 9-38
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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