On this date in 1865, just weeks before the final collapse of the Confederacy, a slave named Amy Span was hanged on a sycamore tree before the courthouse of Darlingon, S.C., for anticipating her liberty a little too exuberantly.
Amy Spain’s slave master was Major Albertus C. Spain, a Mexican-American War veteran who owned a large property in Darlington, South Carolina, and had been a member of the South Carolina Secession Convention. Amy was about 17 years old at the time of her death, and was referred to as “mulatto”, with sources noting her light skin. In early 1865, a detachment of the Union Army arrived in Darlington as part of the Carolinas Campaign.Spain reputedly exclaimed “bless the Lord, the Yankees have come!”.Many white residents (including almost all adult men) had deserted the town by that point, and the Union commander allowed slaves to take whatever belongings had been left behind.
But the Union men were not long for the town. It was just a scout party; constrained by strategic objectives, and hindered by swollen early-spring rivers, the main body of Union forces passed Darlington by.
Anticipating an occupation that was not about to occur, Amy recklessly declared herself free and took some of the Spain household’s possessions — the fruit of her own involuntary labor.
A short time later Confederate troops under command of General Joseph Wheeler, re-occupied the town.
Those who had stayed behind during the Union occupation reported that Amy Spain had been the “ringleader” of the looting, and accused her specifically of guiding Union troops to places where valuables had been hidden.Amy Spain was captured and charged with “treason and conduct unbecoming a slave” by a Confederate military tribunal; Major Spain reputedly acted as her defense counsel. She was sentenced to death, and hanged from a sycamore tree in the Darlington town square on March 10, 1865.
The September 30, 1865, edition of Harper’s Weekly gave a somewhat embellished account of Spain’s execution, proclaiming that “her name is now hallowed among the Africans”. The story and its accompanying illustration were reprinted by many Northern newspapers. Harper’s Weekly attributed the greater share of responsibility to Darlington’s residents rather than the Confederate troops, stating that her execution “was acquiesced in and witnessed by most of the citizens of the town”.
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