Chapter Six

BOUND FOR “A LAND THEY KNEW NOT”: AFTER SLAVERY, WHAT?

1862 through 1864

As the war raged, the erosion of bondage confronted both camps with a host of problems, practical as well as ideological. The Confederacy’s enemies soon faced a particularly pressing question: What would become of the men, women, and children who had already ceased to be slaves? To put this another way: If the Union had now embarked upon a revolutionary road, where exactly did that road lead? Full and final answers would come only once the war ended. But the press of circumstances demanded at least a provisional reply immediately.

In the spring of 1863, black refugees aboard a Mississippi riverboat sang the words of a recent poem by John Greenleaf Whittier:

Oh, praise an’ tanks De Lord he come

To set de people free;

An’ massa tink it day ob doom,

An’ we ob jubilee.

De Lord dat heap de Red Sea waves,

He jes’ as strong as den;

He say de word: we las’ night slaves,

To-day de Lord’s free men.

˙˙˙˙˙˙˙˙˙˙

Ole massa on his trabbles gone

He lebe de land behind;

De Lord’s breff blow him furder on,

Like corn-shuck in de wind.

We own de hoe, we own de plow,

We own de hands dat hold;

We sell de pig, we sell de cow,

But neber chile be sold.1

That same season, Union nurse Mary Livermore observed three to four hundred black people on another riverboat. “Mothers carried their piquant-faced babies on one arm,” Livermore observed, “and led little woolly-headed toddlers by the other. Old men and women, gray, nearly blind, some of them bent almost double, bore on their heads and backs the small ‘plunder’ they had ‘toted’ from their homes, on the plantation.” They were “subdued, impassive, solemn” but with “hope and courage now and then lighting up their sable faces.” To Livermore, they seemed to be “going forth, like the Israelites, ‘from the land of bondage.’ ” And while, like those biblical Hebrews, they were now going “to a land they knew not … they trusted implicitly in God to guide them.”2

Just where were they headed?

In one sense, that was a simple question. These were freedpeople who were unable or unwilling to remain on the lands where they had lived in servitude. They were now likely bound for “contraband camps” that Union officers and government officials set up in Memphis, La Grange, and Bolivar, Tennessee; Helena, Arkansas; Corinth, Mississippi; Craney Island, North Carolina; Camp Barker, in the national capital district; and elsewhere.3

In a more general sense, though, the future—the destination—of these and other freedpeople was anything but clear. What would become of them now? What would their lives look like under freedom? What would happen to the plantation lands? Or to the plantations’ immensely valuable staple crops? To the former masters themselves? Slavery’s progressive breakdown raised all these questions and others more and more insistently.

Every mass-based revolution is a school of political education and clarification for people caught up in it. This is strikingly true of the Civil War era, where so many had been kept not only disfranchised but enslaved.

Although they had been maintained in a state of near-total illiteracy and had been forbidden to meet and discuss their views freely, black people did not take long to formulate at least preliminary answers to the questions that the new reality was posing.

Those who had already been free before 1861—nationwide, they numbered approximately half a million—discussed the subject most amply and openly, not only in one-on-one conversations but also in newspapers of their own and “Colored People’s Conventions” held before, during, and just after the war.4 But slaves, too, had been discussing these subjects for many years—indirectly in the form of religious words and practice, more explicitly among themselves as the Civil War progressed and the prospect of emancipation brightened, and then openly and in a great outpouring of talk and planning once liberation began. They wanted personal freedom—ownership of their own bodies—but also other rights that freedom entailed. They wanted freedom from physical coercion and abuse. They wanted to learn. They wanted to worship their god freely and in their own way. Not least of all, they needed a new way of earning their daily bread. And they wanted legal recognition of and protection for their families.

Slaves regularly married, but no laws recognized or protected those unions. Masters imposed themselves sexually on black women, married and unmarried alike, and broke up black families at will. At the top of freedpeople’s post-emancipation agenda was the legal consecration of existing marriages and the work of finding and reclaiming family members who had been separated from them.

For those fortunate enough not to have been separated from loved ones under slavery, emancipation meant being able to breathe more easily when contemplating the future. They no longer need fear that some master would tear them away from spouses, parents, or children. Charlie Barbour, enslaved as a child in North Carolina, decades later remembered his first reaction to emancipation. “I wuz glad ter git free,” he recalled, “cause I knows den dat I won’t wake up some mornin’ ter fin’ dat my mammy or some ob de rest of my family am done sold.”5

In wartime South Carolina, the wife of a black Union soldier in the Thirty-Fourth Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, gave birth to a son. She named the boy James, after her husband. But because neither she nor her husband had a last name, the mother created one for little James; she dubbed him James Freeman. The boy’s father warmly approved the choice. “That just suits me,” he told her, for “he is born free—free as the birds, free as the wind, and free as the sun.” “Thank God!” he exclaimed; young James “shall always be a free man.”6

The less fortunate—those who had been forcibly parted from their parents, or children, or both—had always hoped and prayed that they might at least see their loved ones in heaven. Freedom meant that they might yet reunite with them here on earth. Northern missionaries who came to the Union-occupied sea islands spent much of their spare time writing letters for freedpeople seeking word about distant family members.7 Of the thousands of black couples formally wed in Union-occupied Vicksburg during one eight-month period, one in every six had been forcibly separated from each other under slavery and had been able to find and rejoin each other only after liberation.8

Some reunions required armed force to achieve. Near Lynchburg, Virginia, at the end of 1864, a detachment of federal cavalry rode up to the farm of slave owner B. E. Harrison. Among the troopers was a man who had been Harrison’s slave until he managed to escape; his name, like so many, was not recorded. He had been forced to leave his wife and child behind in order to reach Union lines. But that day, with a cavalry saber in his hand, he demanded that Harrison return his family members to him. B. E. Harrison nervously replied that he could not do that; he had already refugeed the woman and child farther away from Union soldiers in order to make their escape more difficult. Hearing this, the husband and father promised Harrison that unless he retrieved and produced his family by the new year, Union soldiers would return and torch every building on the place.9

To sanctify de facto marriages before the law, thousands of freedpeople now turned to military chaplains and northern missionaries. Chaplain John Fisk, who supervised contrabands in west Tennessee, conducted one mass wedding ceremony that legally united 119 couples.10 On the sea islands, northern teacher Elizabeth Hyde Botume was deeply affected by “the eager, expectant look on the faces of the old couples” as they anticipated a “higher and better” form of union than slave masters had permitted them.11

The ceremonies that reconsecrated these unions formed only one part of the revolution in religious life that accompanied emancipation. Before the war, slave owners had controlled organized Christianity and bent it to their own purposes; they used it to endow the bonds of slavery with a divine origin and divine approval. Southern missionary societies had distributed booklets designed, as one pamphlet put it, to prove “from the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, that slavery is not forbidden by the Divine Law.”12White preachers and approved black prayer leaders working under white supervision endlessly spun variations on their favorite passage from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”13

For decades, enslaved Christians had been forced to listen to such injunctions. In Tuskegee, Alabama, Sarah Fitzpatrick remembered, whites would hold their own church service on Sunday morning and conduct a separate one afterward for slaves who lived in the vicinity. Addressing those black Christians, the white minister would “tell ’em to mind deir Marster an b’have deyself an dey’ll go to Hebben when dey die.”14 Rev. Charles Colcock Jones prepared special catechisms for use among slaves. An 1844 version enjoined them to ask, “What did God make you for?” The approved response was, “To make a crop.”15

These efforts to convince black people that their servitude was God’s work and God’s will largely failed. The fact that those who were hammering away on that key were often the same people who profited from their listeners’ captivity did little to affirm their credentials as disinterested messengers of Christ. “Dey come ’round an’ tell us to pray, git ’ligion,” Sarah Fitzpatrick noted, but “dat wuz on Sun’dy, but dey’ed beat de life out’cha de next day ef ya didn’t walk de chalk line.”16

Little more success crowned attempts to contain slaves’ religious practice within the narrow confines prescribed by official Christianity. “Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom,” Booker T. Washington later observed, although the singers were “careful to explain that the ‘freedom’ in these songs referred to the next world.”17 And people who obediently attended and participated in the religious services that whites had staged for them on Sunday morning might later that day or well into the night come together in their quarters or deep in the woods for what they considered the “real meeting.” There, black Christians spoke and sang of their misery in bondage and their desperate hope to one day leave their chains behind.18

The outbreak of war lent new hope to the slaves and new optimism to their prayers. They held secret meetings throughout the war entreating God for their freedom.19 And as prospects of emancipation improved, black people began raising a version of Christianity very different from the sanctioned one up from underground. Booker T. Washington recalled that as freedom peeked above the horizon, “there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night.” And as the confidence of bondspeople grew, “they gradually threw off their masks and were not afraid to let it be known that the freedom in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.”20 Later still, blacks were heard more openly intoning the words,

Oh! Fader Abraham

Go down into Dixie’s Land

Tell Jeff Davis

To let my people go.21

When freedom actually arrived, it sparked a still fuller, broader, full-throated eruption of religious reawakening. On the offshore Atlantic sea islands freedpeople held Sunday “praise meetings” at dawn and additional services before midday.22 In New Orleans in April 1864 they gathered to “praise God for this day of liberty to worship God!” An older man there exulted, “Bless God, my son, we don’t have to keep watch at that door to tell us the patrollers are coming” to punish us “for prayin’ and talkin’ of the love of Jesus.”23

Freedpeople now sought access to portions of the Christian message beyond the passages their masters had deemed safe enough to share with them. An older woman named Tamar wanted to learn to read “because I want to read de Word of de Lord.”24 “Now we is free,” said another, “dar’s heaps o’ tings in dat ole book, we is jes’ sufferin’ tu larn.”25

As their words suggested, the determination to openly organize religious life in a new way added to the urgency of another priority—to learn to read, write, and through the written word gain access to a wide world of knowledge and communication. As one northerner recounted, “They had seen the magic of a scrap of writing sent from a master to an overseer, and they were eager to share such power.”26 Tennessee freedman Charles Whiteside long remembered the words with which his master grudgingly informed him that Union decrees had made him free. “Charles, you is a free man they say but Ah tells you now, you is still a slave and if you lives to be a hundred, you’ll STILL be a slave, cause you got no education, and education is what makes a man free!”27 One Louisiana freedman made the same point a few years later: “Leaving learning to your children was better than leaving them a fortune; because if you left them even five hundred dollars, some man having more education than they had would come along and cheat them out of it all.”28

Black parents went to great lengths to found schools and find teachers for their sons and daughters. They recruited some teachers from among the scores of northerners—mostly youthful, well-to-do members of abolitionist and benevolent societies based in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—who now came south to join in the work of social transformation. Some Union soldiers were pressed into duty as well. Missionary societies and free black pastors set up schools in Union-occupied cities and in the surrounding countryside.29

Many of the well-meaning teachers expressed surprise at the alacrity with which their charges took to their letters. “All engaged in teaching the Negros” discovered that black children “can learn to read and write as readily as white children,” a Union captain reported from Norfolk, Virginia.30 Another officer agreed that the children “are smart, bright and quick to learn, and one can scarcely observe any difference in the rate of progress, between them, and so many white children.”31 Visiting one of the schools, a Union general asked a class what to tell his friends in the North about the students there. A young boy piped up, “Massa, tell ’em we is rising.”32 Children like him (as the former slave William Davis recalled) “thought it was so much like the way master’s children used to be treated, that they believed they were getting white.”33

Adults proved as eager to learn as children—eager, in their cases, to make up for lost time. Teaching on an island near Portsmouth, Virginia, Lucy Chase found her students “all very anxious to learn and full of ambition.” In fact, she never before “saw such greedy people for study.”34 A freedwoman told teacher Elizabeth Hyde Botume, “Us ain’t had no school, but us’ll do anything ef you’ll come over an’ larn we.”35

Adult students commonly went to class during the evenings, after their workdays were through.36 But sometimes they attended alongside their children. Botume witnessed one such scene that especially touched her heart. “A man and his wife stood together in a class to read,” she recounted. “Their three children were in the class above them, having conquered words of one syllable. As soon as the parents began to read, the children simultaneously darted to their sides to prompt them.”37

Black Union soldiers commonly spent as much time as they could mastering the basics of literacy. As one chaplain put it, their “cartridge box and spelling book [were] attached to the same belt.”38 Rev. Joseph Warren supervised contraband schools in the Mississippi valley. One day he watched a unit of black infantrymen that found itself stationed near a family of Protestant missionaries. “The soldiers had not been there an hour,” Warren recalled, “when those not on sentry duty had, of their own motion, procured spelling-books, and begged one of the ladies to aid them occasionally; they soon were busily at work on the alphabet.”39 Men like these used their newly acquired skills to write to family members in Union-occupied regions of the South. And “each letter,” Botume noted with satisfaction, “was an improvement upon the one before.”40

As important as religious liberty, literacy, and basic personal (including family) rights were, they did not by themselves provide the foundation for a new way of life for former slaves. They did not provide the means for surviving from day to day.

The towns, cities, and makeshift camps to which many freedpeople had initially journeyed offered no long-term solutions, either. The refugees’ numbers soon exceeded supplies of food, clothing, and housing. Hungry, malnourished, and exposed to the elements, people began to succumb to disease. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, Colonel John Eaton saw “refugees … crowded together, sickly, disheartened, dying on the streets, not a family of them all either well sheltered, clad, or fed; no physicians, no medicines, no hospitals.”41

In an overwhelmingly rural and agricultural country, the great majority of freedpeople would have to build their new lives in the countryside, on the land. But in what capacity would they now till that land? As forcibly driven laborers? As legally free wage earners? As tenants? As owners? Freedpeople would offer their own answers to these questions, but they would not be alone in doing so. Landowning former masters, Union army officers and civilian officials, and even northern businessmen would also have their say. Agreement among them all proved exceedingly rare.

One of the most widespread aspirations among freedpeople was to own the land that they and their ancestors had so long cultivated. They wished to see great plantations divided into small farms for themselves and their neighbors. As early as November 1861, the North’s leading free black newspaper, the New York Anglo-African, asked,

What course could be clearer, what course more politic, what course will so immediately restore the equilibrium of commerce, what course will be so just, so humane, so thoroughly conducive to the public and the national advancement, as that government should immediately bestow these lands upon those freed men who know best how to cultivate them, and will joyfully bring their brawny arms, their willing hearts, and their skilled hands to the glorious labor of cultivating as their own, the lands which they have bought and paid for by their sweat and blood.42

It became abundantly clear that black southerners shared this belief. A federal official reported from the sea islands that “the anxiety of these people to obtain a home in their own right, and feel safe in its possession, is intense.”43 The secretary of war created the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission in March 1863 to investigate the condition of those whom the Emancipation Proclamation had freed.44 It delivered its preliminary report that June: “To own property, especially to possess land, if it be only a few acres, in their own State” was “the chief object of ambition” among the freedpeople.45

They did not expect to receive those lands as charity, out of sympathy for their neediness. They believed, as one northerner found, “that they have a sort of right to live upon their own plantations.”46 It seemed a matter of simple justice—of long overdue compensation. “My master has had me ever since I was seven years old and never gave me nothing,” one young man told a visiting northern writer. “I worked for him twelve years, and I think something is due me.”47

Some, then and later, and in the North as well as the South, reacted with horror to such suggestions. The very idea, they objected, threatened the onset of “a war on property.”48

Of course, calls for breaking up and dividing the plantations looked not to the abolition of property as such but to its more equal distribution—to make it available to a larger number of people. Landless white farmers and even urban workers had similarly been urging this kind of thing for decades under the heading of “land reform.”49

In proposing their own version of the time-honored goal of land redistribution, some freedpeople invoked another idea with a long history. It held that only those who were not economically dependent upon others for a livelihood—who could feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and their families with the use of their own property—could be considered truly free and safely granted all the rights of citizens. Many of the country’s founding fathers—including Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and James Madison—subscribed to such a view.50 Thomas Jefferson famously called independent farmers “the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people,” precisely because they were free of the “dependence” that “begets subservience.”51

Almost four score years later, freedpeople and their advocates warned that even the fullest formal legal freedom for black southerners would be meaningless if they were denied the economic independence and security that owning land promised. Without soil of their own, they would be forced to work for the white landowners, often their former masters, who would turn control over their subsistence into a whip with which to compel freedpeople to do their bidding. “Gib us our own land,” freedmen told a Union naval officer later, “and we take care of ourselves; but widout land de ole massas can hire us or starve us, as dey please.”52

An extension of this argument warned of the dangers to the American republic as a whole of leaving the most fertile soil of the South in the hands of disloyal great landowners. Dividing those lands among the freedpeople was the only sure way to secure the Union’s victory and establish a truly democratic republican society in the South. Break the economic power of the old slaveholding aristocracy and plant in its place a loyal, small-holding peasantry, urged the New Orleans Tribune, which was now published by free blacks there. “Let us create a new class of landholders who shall be interested in the permanent establishment of a new and truly republican system—the prize for which we are now fighting.”53

Some black laborers went beyond such words to action. Even as war raged around them, they began farming the land of rebel slave masters who had fled when Union armies approached, generally raising food crops, especially corn and potatoes, for their own subsistence. They did so in Virginia (including on the Arlington estate of Robert E. Lee), along the coast of North Carolina, on the sea islands,54 as well as along Georgia’s Savannah River,55 in southern Louisiana, and in various parts of the Mississippi valley.56

Some departing masters, attempting to make the best of their situation, tried to enlist slaves who stayed behind as their trustees, promising them all or part of whatever crops they raised if they would safeguard the masters’ interests. When Joseph Davis abandoned the Hurricane and Brierfield plantations in Davis Bend, Mississippi, most of the black servants and laborers began to cultivate the lands, nominally on behalf of the Confederate president and his brother, but in practice for themselves and their families.57

More often, black people took possession of the land in open defiance of the masters. So it was on Katherine Stone’s Brokenburn plantation, where servants and laborers established control as soon as the whites left.58 In southeast Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, one group of slaves reportedly drove the overseer off the plantation and swore “they will not allow any white man to put his foot on it.” On another plantation, the laborers made themselves “masters of the place,” and the overseer found himself “entirely at their mercy.”59 A few parishes to the west, sugar planters complained in January 1863 that “negroes led astray by designing persons” were now insisting that “the plantations & everything on them belong to them.”60

The “designing persons” complained of included Union soldiers, both black and white.61 During the Vicksburg campaign, federal troops who raided the countryside around Jackson informed slaves that they were free and gave them guns to protect that freedom. Black men and women promptly laid claim to the farm implements and began marking off the land with a plow line, the better to divide it among themselves.62 After a battle in southern Virginia that induced most local masters to evacuate, a Union soldier approached West Turner and asked the young man whether his master whipped him. Turner replied, “Yessir, boss, gimme thirty and nine any ole time.” The soldier then advised Turner to take for himself one acre for every stroke suffered and an extra acre as a bonus. “So,” Turner later explained, “I measure off best I could forty acres of dat corn field an’ staked it out.”63

Some abolitionists, Union officers, Republican officials, and reform-minded northern civilians who went south during the war to work with the contrabands also raised hopes that the plantation lands would soon be divided among the former slaves. “If we want a lasting peace,” argued the radical Ohio congressman James A. Garfield, “if we want to put down this rebellion so that it shall stay forever put down … we must take away the platform on which slavery stands—the great landed estates of the armed rebels of the South.”64 James McKaye, who chaired the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission, emphasized the political importance of breaking up the plantations. “You can never have in any country a democratic society … where the land all belongs to a few people,” McKaye warned. He pointed to France as a positive example of a revolution that had destroyed an aristocracy and given land to the toilers.65 The commission as a whole called on the federal government to help freedpeople buy lands by using moneys received from selling cotton and other property confiscated from Confederate masters.66 The American Anti-Slavery Society endorsed that view in mid-1863.67 “All that is needed to establish a loyal and prosperous community,” agreed radical Massachusetts Republican Francis W. Bird, “is that the men and women who have watered the soil with their tears and blood, should be allowed to own it.”68

In Washington, Congress enacted a series of laws that seemed to point in the same direction. The Second Confiscation Act of 1862 gave Abraham Lincoln the formal right not only to appropriate the slaves of disloyal owners but also to seize their other property and then use or sell it “for the support of the army of the United States.” But at Lincoln’s insistence, Congress specified that upon the death of such expropriated rebels, all property (other than slaves) that had been seized from them would be returned to their heirs.69For that reason, and because of the very cumbersome judicial process that the law specified, it ultimately affected very little land at all.70

Another set of laws proved more potent. In August 1861, Congress had levied a tax upon all states to help support the war effort. In June 1862, Congress followed up with the Direct Tax Act to facilitate collecting the impost in the secessionist states. As subsequently amended, this second law imposed tax liabilities on individual landowners and empowered the federal government to seize and sell the property of those who failed to pay them. Prospective buyers (specified as “loyal citizens” and soldiers) could purchase seized lands by putting down a quarter of the sale price and then paying the rest over three years. By late 1862, the machinery necessary to implement the law was in place in South Carolina and Florida.

But if the freedpeople had their hearts set on owning plantation lands, the government seemed more interested in using those lands to cultivate cotton that could then be sold to help pay the costs of the war. To that end, Union officials on the sea islands initially ran abandoned plantations as government-owned enterprises, employing some sixteen thousand former slaves as paid laborers, permitting them to raise provision crops for their families on designated parts of the plantations.71

Direct government administration of those lands was always intended as a temporary arrangement; they were eventually to be transferred into the hands of private owners. Some influential figures on the scene, civilian as well as military, thought that those owners should include the people who had previously tilled the land as slaves. One of them was abolitionist-minded General Rufus Saxton, the military governor of the sea islands. He believed that “simple justice” demanded that the Union “parcel out the fertile lands of these islands among the different families in lots large enough for their subsistence” and “with their rights of property secure.”72

Many of the teachers, social reformers, and religious missionaries who appeared on the islands in the army’s wake agreed with him.73 A Methodist minister named Mansfield French arrived on the sea islands as a representative of the New York–based American Missionary Society. Enslaved laborers, Rev. French held, “had made [the land] what it was,” so “it belonged to them, and them only.”74

But few of those who made policy in Washington took such opinions very seriously. William Tecumseh Sherman enunciated the more common view: “The negro on his becoming free, has no right to the property of his former owner.”75 Freedpeople would obtain land only if they could pay for it.

In early March 1863, the federal government set about selling off some 16,500 acres of confiscated land on the sea islands.76 A small group of freedpeople managed to scrape together and pool enough money to buy a fraction of that soil—perhaps one in every eight acres sold.77 But their acquisitions were dwarfed by the large-scale purchases of major northern investors, such as the New England businessman Edward S. Philbrick.

Philbrick had arrived in the sea islands in 1862 and initially served as a superintendent of government plantations.78 He looked forward to bringing plantation lands “within the reach of private Enterprise” and to proving thereby that even without whips and shackles “blacks are capable of becoming a useful laboring class”—to prove, in fact, as Philbrick’s general agent put it, that such “paid labor is more profitable to the Landowner than slave labor.”79

The freedpeople’s advocates, dismayed at the money men’s initial success, pressed the federal government to help black families obtain a larger share of the land. Abraham Lincoln and his associates responded with ambivalence.

The Union president’s first impulse was sympathetic. He directed Treasury officials on the sea islands in September 1863 to set aside about a quarter of the next levy of land earmarked for sale. Those acres would be divided into smaller tracts and sold to selected black household heads, those who, “by their good conduct, meritorious services or exemplary character, will be examples of moral propriety and industry to those of the same race.”80 Additional prodding induced Lincoln to go still further in December, granting to “any loyal person” who physically occupied or had occupied any of the lands in question the right to “pre-empt” (that is, to claim a priority right to purchase) between twenty and forty acres of the land at a price lower than would be charged for other sections.81

News of this directive elated the islands’ freedpeople. With General Saxton’s encouragement, they eagerly set about staking claims to the land they expected would soon be theirs.82

But even as they did that, northern investors and allied federal tax agents worked to derail the preemption option—blocking its implementation on the ground while they vigorously lobbied against it in Washington.83 While claiming to fear that speculators would somehow use preemption to deprive freedpeople of land, they also complained that the policy “out radicals all the radicalism … ever heard of in agrarian history.”84

Opponents of the preemption policy enjoyed a number of advantages. One was the government’s need for revenues to help finance the war—revenues that would prove smaller if confiscated land were given or sold cheaply to freedmen rather than sold at auction at whatever price they could fetch. Another factor was the New England textile industry’s hunger for cotton. Many freedpeople now seemed unwilling to plant that crop, identifying it too strongly with slavery. If the lands were given to them, where would owners of northern textile factories obtain the raw material they depended upon to produce their goods?

Opponents of special consideration for the freedpeople also had deeper, ideological sources of support. Only a handful of Republican leaders seemed anxious to revolutionize the South’s agrarian system by confiscating and dividing plantation lands.85 Lincoln himself had earlier expressed strong qualms about such an enterprise. The broad powers granted him by the Second Confiscation Act had left him plainly uneasy. He doubted that such powers could be exercised fairly; still hoping to avoid antagonizing white southerners any more than was necessary, he also cautioned that “the severest justice may not always be the best policy.”86 He did sign the Direct Tax Act, but he displayed little enthusiasm for or urgency in implementing it.87

By February 1864, opponents of preemption had persuaded Treasury secretary Salmon P. Chase to kill that provision.88 As a result, while some black families did manage to purchase homesteads that year, investors such as Philbrick were able to snap up more than two-thirds of the sixty thousand acres put up for sale.89

Some freedpeople initially thought Philbrick was purchasing land as their custodian and that he intended to eventually resell it to them at the same below-market price per acre that he himself had paid.90 But he soon disabused them of those expectations. If and when he were to resell, Philbrick declared, he would do so only at “full price.”91 Moreover, he pontificated, “No race of men on God’s earth ever acquired the right to the soil on which they stand without more vigorous exertions than these people have made.” To allow them to receive land so easily would only encourage them in their “idleness and unthrifty habits.”92 For their own good, they had to learn that they must pay for whatever they got.

Freedpeople showed little appreciation for such paternal concern for their welfare and reeducation. Watching lands they had worked so long, so arduously, and in return for so little pass into the hands of strangers filled them, as Rev. French noted, with an “almost unbearable” sadness and bitterness.93 “Why did Government sell all our Masters Land’s to Mr Philbrick for so trifling a sume?” asked a petition from St. Helena Island.94 Another freedman beseeched a white teacher (in the Gullah dialect of the islands) to “speak to Linkum” and “tell him for we po’ folks” that they were thankful to him and to God for their freedom, but also that “we wants land—dis bery land dat is rich wid de sweat ob we face and de blood ob we back.”95 Some freedpeople protested against government policy more angrily, in one case reportedly threatening to shoot one of the new landowners.96

A second experiment in restarting plantation agriculture took place at Davis Bend, Mississippi, the home of Jefferson and Joseph Davis’s plantations and others. When federal forces arrived there during the Vicksburg campaign, they found about a thousand black residents already in possession of and farming those lands.97 Ulysses S. Grant and Admiral David Dixon Porter allowed them to continue doing so. Grant promised that the area would “become a Negro paradise.”98

It soon developed, however, that his vision of paradise had no room for independent black farmers. Grant claimed the Bend’s estates for the U.S. government; associations formed by former slaves would be permitted only to lease the land.99 In 1864, northern investors and professedly unionist local planters succeeded in obtaining or regaining title to some of those properties and hired freedpeople to work on them in return for subsistence wages.100 Colonel John Eaton, superintendent of freedpeople in the valley, resisted this trend, persuading the Union army’s district commander to decree that after January 1, 1865, the whole of Davis Bend would be “exclusively devoted to the colonization, residence, and support of the Freedmen.”101 In practice, this meant that black people would occupy the great bulk of the land (about five thousand acres in all). But they would do so, once again, not as owners but as renters.102

The great majority of slaves liberated by the last months of 1864 lived in other parts of the Mississippi valley, where their prospects of acquiring land of their own grew steadily dimmer. In southern Louisiana—in the cotton and sugar parishes that the U.S. War Department designated as the Department of the Gulf—General Benjamin Butler had in 1862 pioneered the system that would eventually prevail throughout the valley.

The Union army began confiscating some of the South’s biggest plantations after the conquest of New Orleans and the flight of some secessionist masters in April 1862. On other estates, a large group of planters stayed in place when U.S. troops arrived. Some of those planters professed to be unionists; others did not.

Though slaves there were not technically free—since this part of the valley had come under Union control before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect—they were effectively free as a result of the severe toll that the war had taken on bondage. Resident planters called on the federal government for aid in controlling their workers. “We are ready to give up the name of ‘slavery,’ we care nothing about the name,” one planter reportedly explained. “But we must have certain control over these men.”103

Wanting to satisfy elite white unionists and to reconcile even conquered secessionists to restored U.S. rule, General Butler agreed to compel black laborers to work the planters’ fields in return for low wages, food, and some assistance for the sick and aged.

When General Nathaniel P. Banks replaced Butler in command at the end of 1862, he inherited and continued the basic elements of his predecessor’s labor program. And as Union power spread through more of Louisiana, so did that system.104

In fact, Banks proved even more eager to please the planters than his predecessor. In early 1863, he ordered freedpeople to perform “continuous and faithful service” and to do so with “respectful deportment, correct discipline and perfect subordination.” The army would consign any workers who left their employers to compulsory labor on the public works.105 Banks imposed pay rates that were extremely low—even lower than Butler’s. Enterprising planters found ways to recoup even those paltry wages, setting up forerunners of company stores that charged physically isolated laborers exorbitant prices for the goods they needed. Meanwhile, more than a few Union army provost marshals averted their eyes when planters used corporal punishment to enforce their will on laborers.106

The harsh conditions of black life under Banks’s system appalled many northerners in and out of government, who condemned the general for his unseemly devotion to the ex-masters’ interests. Stung, Banks retreated somewhat in early 1864, easing the terms of freedpeople’s employment, notably by raising wages and reducing the length of the workday. While freedpeople were still required to remain on the plantations for the duration of year-long contracts, Banks increased their liberty to choose the employers with whom they contracted. When planters protested even these changes, Louisiana’s new military governor courted their compliance by promising them a large say in naming the local officials who would enforce discipline upon the field workers.107

As the Union army brought more and more of the Mississippi valley under its control in 1863, the Butler-Banks system was extended northward into western Tennessee, northeastern Louisiana, and Mississippi, in the process covering some of the South’s biggest cotton plantations and adding more than seventy thousand freedpeople to the fifty thousand it already controlled.108

Only a small fraction of those people were permitted to lease any of the confiscated land—notably around Helena, Arkansas; Vicksburg, Mississippi; northeastern Louisiana’s Lake Providence; and Norfolk, Virginia.109 And of those few who managed to do that, most could afford to rent only small parcels.110 As a result, of all valley properties in the hands of pro-Union individuals in 1864, only about 7 percent were occupied by black people.111

The great bulk of the acreage had gone instead to northern whites, such as New York lawyer George B. Field, who leased it in large tracts in order to grow cotton by employing recently emancipated slaves.112 Field—much like Edward Philbrick on the South Carolina sea islands—was eager to demonstrate that “free negro labor under good management can be made a source of profit to the employer.”113 In the spring of 1863, U.S. adjutant general Lorenzo Thomas assisted the entrepreneurial Field by appointing him to the commission empowered to award plantation leases in the Mississippi valley.114

The motives of these northern leaseholders, as Colonel Eaton later noted, were “primarily commercial and involved patriotism or humanity only as secondary and incidental considerations.” They were determined “to make money, whether the Union cause—not to mention the Negro—suffered by their operations or not.” Afflicted with this “money-making fever,” the lessees cut wages or withheld them entirely, ignored contractual obligations to provide employees with housing and food, and often hired overseers from the slavery era to supervise the freedpeople’s labor.115

Indiana-born general John P. Hawkins, then commanding the Union’s military district of northeastern Louisiana, complained in October 1863 that most of the lessees “cared nothing how much flesh they worked off of the negro provided it was converted into good cotton.” As a result of their growing power, he said, “the Adventurer, the Gambler and the Projector have control over the interests of thousands of helpless human beings.”116

Hopes that freedpeople might yet possess the land suffered an even stronger blow when Abraham Lincoln unveiled his plans for reintegrating conquered sections of the Confederacy into the United States. To bring the war swiftly to an end, he sought to make rejoining the Union as palatable as possible to members of the southern elite.

This goal helped shape Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction” of December 1863, which aimed to encourage the creation in occupied portions of the Confederacy of new state governments that would resume their place within the Union. To hasten the creation of such governments, Lincoln required them only to recognize the end of slavery and grant freedpeople access to public education. If individual Confederate masters went along with this plan and promised their future loyalty to the United States, most would receive “a full pardon … with restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves.” Only those land parcels already sold to others would be excluded from this promise of restitution.117 In February 1864, Lincoln’s acting attorney general, Titian J. Coffey, reaffirmed that promise.118

Sales, leases, and the return of lands to recently secessionist owners left the vast majority of blacks in Union-occupied parts of the Confederacy working the soil not as property owners or even as renters but as poorly paid employees of wealthy whites.119

Some freedpeople refused to go along—refused any longer to labor for others on lands they considered rightfully their own. Others made it clear that if circumstances compelled them to do that, they intended at least to influence the terms of that labor. They would not submit docilely and in all things to their employers’ will.120 On the sea islands, for example, some who worked on Edward Philbrick’s plantation stubbornly raised corn for their own consumption where they were told instead to grow cotton for their employer. One man, upbraided for misusing Philbrick’s land, angrily retorted, “Man! Don’t talk about Mr. Philbrick lan’. Mr. Philbrick no right to the lan’. ”121

White employers complained endlessly of the bold spirit of self-assertion that seemed to have gripped their employees. The upheavals of the war had broken the life-and-death power that Mississippi valley landowners had previously exercised over black labor and awakened the laborers to new possibilities. When the northern teacher Elizabeth Hyde Botume talked with black refugees in Savannah at the end of 1863, she found them confident “that emancipation had lifted them out of old conditions into new relations with their fellow beings.” They were “no longer chattels,” but had “rights and privileges like their neighbors.”122 Their experiences had also given them a new sense of their own potential collective power. Union provost marshal John W. Ela reported in mid-1863 that former slaves would “not endure the same treatment, the same customs, and rules—the same language—that they have heretofore quietly submitted to.” They had gained “a spirit of independence,” he wrote.123

At first their demands were mostly defensive ones. They would not tolerate whipping or any other physical punishment from the landowners. They would not permit employers to harm family members or intervene in their family lives.124 But over time, freedpeople became bolder and readier to act in concert to advance their common interests. Now, Ela noted, “the negroes band together, and lay down their own rules, as to when, and how long they will work etc. etc. and the Overseer loses all control over them.”125They refused to work under such overseers in gangs as so many had been forced to do in the old South.126 In general, they refused to work as intensively as they had under slavery. They wanted the same right to move about freely that white people enjoyed, and they began to insist on a shorter workweek and a shorter working day than had previously been imposed upon them. They wanted better food, shelter, and clothing. Families, furthermore, should have the right to withdraw women from the fields so they might work in their homes and care for their children.127 Children, too, must be relieved of field duty so that they could help their mothers or attend school.128

Planters generally found this situation intolerable. No “people on the face of the earth of their rank in civilization,” the transplanted northerner Edward Philbrick grumbled, were “so independent as they are.”129 Louisianan William J. Minor wrote in November 1863 that “a man had as well be in pergatory as attempt to work a Sugar plantation under existing circumstances.”130

To planters who had so recently owned their laborers outright, even low wages were an unjust imposition.131 Having to negotiate with blacks about such things was agony. Stephen Duncan, who had boasted fifteen plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi and some two thousand slaves, certainly saw it that way. That he was a genuine unionist—had always considered secession a major mistake—made it no easier for this ex-master to stomach the new relations. He had “at last paid off all the Negroes,” he wrote in January 1864, “& a more unpleasant, disgusting business I never have attended to.”132

Being denied the use of whips and other instruments of labor discipline added insult to injury. One Louisiana planter typically dismissed as ridiculous the idea that black workers could be made to labor “without coercion, & without that fear of punishment which is essential to stimulate the idle and correct the vicious.”133

Fundamentally disbelieving in any labor system where workers were fully free—and deeply frustrated with their first attempts to bend freedpeople to their will—former masters strove hard to reimpose some form of legal controls over former slaves. Louisiana sugar planters urged General Banks to give them “such power & authority as will enable us to preserve order & compel the negroes to work.” To do that, they added, “some coercion is absolutely necessary.”134 The War Department’s special inspector reported at the end of 1863 that “no small portion” of the Mississippi valley masters “entertained a lingering hope that they would be able to restore the old system”—that is, outright slavery—“if not in form, in substance.”135

Lincoln’s December 1863 amnesty proclamation nodded toward and encouraged such hopes, promising that “as a temporary arrangement” Washington would allow new, loyal southern state governments to pass special laws governing this “laboring, landless, and homeless class”—laws that would presumably deprive members of that class of many rights that white workers took for granted.136

The inclusion of that language was not accidental. Lincoln had used similar words a month earlier when instructing General Banks about how to reconstruct state government in Louisiana.137 Secretary Chase had counseled dropping words like those. The government’s reconstruction plans, Chase emphasized, should include “no suggestion … of any apprenticeship of the freedpeople or other special legislation for them” and contain “no, even apparent sanction of legislation which may be easily perverted into virtual re-enslavement.”138

Lincoln either ignored or rejected Chase’s plea. As he made plain in a letter written soon afterward, he would personally prefer to see black workers treated “precisely as I would treat the same number of free white people in the same relation and condition.” But he hoped that his “acquiescence” in what southern landholders considered such a “vital matter” would leave “the deeply afflicted [white] people in those States … more ready” to renounce secession and rejoin the Union.139 General Lorenzo Thomas observed with approval that “history does not exhibit” a clemency policy more lenient than the one that the Union was offering the secessionist planter “at a moment when, by his own acts, the very soil was washed from beneath his feet.”140

In response to the generous terms offered, a number of rebel planters in the Mississippi valley did begin in 1864 to make their peace with the reality of restored Union rule. They requested and received pardons and (sometimes in alliance with northern investors) regained title to their estates.141 Plantation-leasing commissioner George B. Field was soon congratulating himself on bringing together “loyal Northern men upon harmonious terms with the owners of the soil,” thereby forming the perfect partnerships “by which negro labor may be at once applied to the peaceful pursuit of agriculture.”142 Before the year had fairly begun, in fact, the federal government had already returned to their original owners two of every three of the Mississippi valley plantations that it had previously seized and leased out.143

Abraham Lincoln thus displayed little interest in fundamentally changing the pattern of land ownership in the rebellious slave states. But he remained committed to uprooting slavery, and before long he would further broaden and deepen that commitment.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!