In the 12 years immediately after the end of slavery – a period known as Reconstruction – our nation was handed a rare opportunity for racial reconciliation unlike ever before and, simply put, we blew it. Lost in our 150–year history – going back to the last days of the Civil War – was the desire for racial reconciliation; replaced by the fallout of decades of racism and bigotry that still hovers over this nation like a toxic cloud of radioactive waste.
But there is one particularly dark moment in American history that’s worth taking a closer look. It ultimately led to what is best known as "40 acres and a mule" that was promised to recently freed slaves. That moment also has an amazing connection to everyone living here in Jacksonville, especially north of the St. Johns River.
In order to revisit that moment we have to consider the challenges this nation was facing back then. It was December 9, 1864. Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis and Major General William T. Sherman had moved 62,000 troops across Georgia from Atlanta to Savannah. As the Union army moved across the state of Georgia, they were freeing slaves from their owners and in the process they were picking up an ever-increasing hoard of freed slaves that followed the troops along the way.
Davis had not been able to rid himself of the mass of former slaves following him across the state but the strongest of them proved to be quite useful. They were more than willing to lend their muscle to helping make the roads passable for heavy wagons and by removing obstacles that Rebel troops had put in place. But Davis had grown weary of the black refugees that were following him, especially the women, children, and elderly, who numbered in the thousands. They were not able to help out as much and were seen as a burden.
The solution to the problem that Davis faced presented itself when they came upon Ebenezer Creek some 40 miles northwest of Savannah. His troops built a pontoon bridge to cross the creek that had swollen to a depth of about ten feet. Davis saw this as an opportunity to rid himself of the crowd of refugees that followed him. Once the last of the troops had crossed, claiming it was for their safety because they may come under attack up ahead, Davis held back the crowd of Blacks preventing them from crossing the bridge. He then gave the order to pull up the bridge leaving about 5,000 freed slaves stranded on the other side of the creek with no way to cross and with a Confederate Calvary closing in from behind.
One doesn’t need much of an imagination to visualize what happened next. When the Confederate troops arrived the massacre began. Those that weren’t killed immediately were forced into the freezing cold water of the 165-feet wide Ebenezer Creek. Most drowned immediately and only a handful were able to fight their way across. Those that weren’t killed by the Confederate sword or drowned in the icy waters of the creek were captured and returned to their slave masters.
Map of the 400,000 acre "reserve" on the next page.