No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States

By Nancy F. Cott | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Laborers for Liberty
1865–1890

Harriet Sigerman

In the closing days of the Civil War, a young Southern woman witnessed the occupation of the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, by Union troops. Her heart sank as she watched the Confederate flag taken down from atop the Capitol and the Stars and Stripes raised in its place. “We knew what that meant!” she recalled years later. “Richmond was in the hands of the Federals. We covered our faces and cried aloud. All through the house was the sound of sobbing.” But one little girl clapped her hands in delight, because the coming of “the Yankees” meant food for the citizens of this desolate city. “Now we’ll get something to eat,” she exclaimed. “I’m going to have pickles and molasses and oranges and cheese and nuts and candy until I have a fit and die.”

In the North, the citizens of Boston rejoiced at the fall of Richmond. This latest victory meant that the war was almost over. Across the city, people swarmed into the streets, jubilantly blowing soap bubbles and snatching up newspapers to read the latest reports from Richmond. In the distance, bells rang and cannons roared to announce the downfall of the Confederate capital. The entire North was awash in celebration. In Washington, D.C., a reporter wrote, “The air seemed to burn with the bright hues of the flag…. Almost by magic, the streets were crowded with hosts of people, talking, laughing, hurrahing and shouting in the fullness of their joy.” Throughout the North, in cities and villages alike, flags snapped crisply atop buildings, bells pealed, homes and buildings were aglow, and torchlight parades turned the night into a brilliant burst of color and light.

For former slaves, the end of the war held a more personal meaning. When asked why she wanted to leave her former master’s South Carolina plantation, Patience, a freed slave, replied, “I must go; if I stay here I’ll never know I’m free.” An elderly African-American woman eagerly left her former owner’s plantation to join a small community of freed people near Greensboro, Georgia, so that she could, in her words, “Joy my freedom!” She and scores of other former slaves fled from plantations that reminded them of the dark, dreadful days of slavery.

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