The Ebenezer Creek Massacre, a prelude to ‘40 Acres and a Mule’

Wikipedia Historical marker, erected by the Georgia Historical Society in 2010.

During Black History Month, the MSR will focus on reparations and the history surrounding them.

The Ebenezer Creek Massacre preceded the actual decision to give a group of freed slaves land that was confiscated from the seditious Confederate, in the first and only effort by the U.S, government to give reparations to freedmen.

During the Civil War, many slaves took advantage of the Northern army’s incursions into the South to run away from plantations and declare themselves free. Technically, after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, they were free.

Former slaves who attached themselves to federal army units were referred to as “contraband of war,” contraband because they had been the “property” of Southern plantation owners.

Ironically, after the war, many Confederate slaveowners sought compensation for their loss or as they saw it, stolen “property.”

Thousands would camp outside federal camps as a way of protecting themselves from confederates who would seek to return them to slavery or even kill them. The contrabands proved both valuable and sometimes a nuisance for Union army operations.

Many served as scouts for the Union Army since they knew the lands on which they had been enslaved like the backs of their hands. Many others worked as laborers and were paid wages.

Still, others were seen as a problem for the federal army because those who could not work often begged for food, and the army could not accommodate them because it could barely feed its own troops.

A group of escaped slaves, following a column of General William Tecumseh Sherman advancing on Savannah, Georgia, in his infamous “march to the sea,” became the impetus for the now-famous Field Order Number 15 in which the general granted slaves “40 acres.”

Massacre at Ebenezer Creek

On December 9, 1864, Ebenezer Creek, an area surrounded by woods about 20 miles outside of Savannah, became a death trap for newly freed slaves, with their dreams of finally seeing freedom turned into a nightmarish hell on earth.

Some estimate that as many as 5,000 refugees—made up primarily of women, children, and old men—had been following a column of about 14,000 Union troops of the 14th Corps who were quickly advancing on Savannah as part of the Union Army’s march to the sea.

Confederate horsemen were on the column’s heels, nipping at the rear of the 14th Corps, commanded by Union Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis (not the Confederate president). Davis, it was said, did not like Blacks, and though fighting on the side of the Union, was said to be a proponent of slavery.

When Davis and his troops arrived at the swollen creek, it was about 165 feet wide and 10 feet deep. Davis ordered his engineers to build a temporary pontoon bridge to cross it.

By midnight, the bridge was ready, and Davis’s 14,000 men began their crossing. The freed people anticipated crossing with the soldiers. But Davis ordered his provost marshal to prevent this.

“On the pretense that there was likely to be fighting in front, the negroes were told not to go upon the pontoon-bridge until all the troops and wagons were over: a guard was detailed to enforce the order,” recalled Col. Charles Kerr of the 16th Illinois Cavalry in a speech 20 years after the incident.

Upon his orders, Union engineers cut the bridge loose and drew it up onto the shore, and removed pontoon bridges they had just used to cross Ebenezer Creek. The stranded slaves were left on their own, effectively betrayed by Davis.

Panic set in amongst the freedmen, because they were aware that Confederate cavalry was fast approaching, and some were crushed in the stampede.

Rebel cavalry under Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler rode into the chaotic scene, shooting and slashing the slaves.

Kerr, who would later help raise an outcry over Davis’ decision, described the scene. “Cries of anguish and despair, men, women, and children rushed by the hundreds into the turbid stream, and many were drowned before our eyes. From what we learned afterward of those who remained on land, their fate at the hands of Wheeler’s troops was scarcely to be preferred,” wrote Kerr.

 “As soon as we were over the creek, orders were given to the engineers to take up the pontoons and not let a negro cross. . . . I sat upon my horse then and witnessed a scene the likes of which I pray my eyes may never see again.”

It was reported that several Union soldiers on the eastern bank tried to help, wading in as far as they could to pull in those on floating devices and pushing logs out to the few refugees still swimming.

Some historians contend that the unfortunate events were not a coincidence but part of Davis’ plan to rid himself of the former slaves.

In her book, “Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory,” Anne Sarah Rubin wrote that, “in no way could the deaths be excused as a product of a quick decision.”

Davis was never reprimanded and the former slaves who were not killed by the Confederates that day were captured and returned to slavery.

A public outcry ensued, as the massacre was reported by Union soldiers who witnessed it.

Major James Connolly of Illinois Volunteer Infantry wrote a letter to the Senate Military Commission which was leaked to the press. Connolly wrote in his diary about the event, “I told [Davis’s] staff officers what I thought of such an inhuman, barbarous [act]” and that he was determined to expose it publicly. He wrote a letter to the Senate Military Commission describing what happened which was leaked to the press.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton visited with Sherman to have him explain what happened. Sherman and Stanton met with local Black leaders in Savannah days later on January 12, 1865. Four days later, President Lincoln approved Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15, confiscating over 400,000 acres of coastal property and redistributing it to former slaves in 40-acre tracts.

 The MSR’s focus on reparations will continue in the weeks ahead with a story of how 40 acres and a mule came about, reparations for the Jews and Japanese, and a reflection on the history of the reparations movement in the U.S.