Provost Marshal of Freedmen in the Department of the Tennessee to the Adjutant General of the Army

Vicksburg Miss  June 15th 1864

Genl:  In making out a report of the Provost Marshal business of the Department. I find it almost impossible to get at the figures necessary, as the Assistant Provost Marshals have been so engaged with the duties around them that they have not had time to furnish me with the facts.  Their duties were new to them, and it required all the ability they could bring to bear upon the affairs of their districts to remedy the confusion existing at the time of their appointment.  Their duties were not fully defined, and for some time they were not aware of what they really were.  Planters gave them but little assistance, and often refused to comply with their request.  The planting district under my supervision, extending from Lake Providence. La. to Natchez Miss was divided into eight sub-districts and a Lieutenant assigned to each district as Assistant Provost Marshal.  They entered upon their duties April 15th and have been actively engaged ever since.  By the removal of the troops two of the districts have been abandoned and the Provost Marshals relieved.  Some of the sub-districts are necessarily so large that it is almost impossible for one man to attend to the business; but we have every man engaged that can be spared for the work

The planting region that is in cotton, is a line of plantations near the Mississippi, from Lake Providence to Natchez, seldom over three miles from the river.  Most of them have been leased to Northern men by Agents of the Treasury Department, and are cultivated by freedmen that have come within our lines since our occupation of this country   They are cultivated on the basis of General Orders No. 9. of the Secretary of War, by Adjutant General Thomas.1  I make the following report from the Assistant Provost Marshals Reports, sent to me monthly:

Washington County Miss.

There were a large number of plantations leased in this county. during the spring; but lack of protection has forced all who were loyal, to leave.  There are several thousand acres of cotton planted in this county, but by citizens who are on good terms with the leaders of the bands of rebels which infest the country, or in such small quantities that it does not attract their attention.  The Provost Marshal does not visit the county, as it would be unsafe.  During the spring, large numbers of people were sent to the plantations; but since that time they have nearly all returned, and found employment in safer localities   The freedmen while there, run great risk of being carried off into slavery again; and after their return were unwilling to go to plantations at all for fear of the same result.

Goodrichs Landing, and Millikens Bend.

This district extends from Lake Providence to Vicksburg on the Louisiana side of the river, with a few plantations in Issaquena Co., Miss.  There are fifty-one plantations embraced in this district 30970 acres of cotton planted.  They furnish employment for 4456 hands and have in the aggregate of people 7720.  It will be seen from this, that nearly three-fifths of the freedmen are working hands.  There is a population of 200 white men in the capacity of superintendents clerks &c.  A large portion of this district was cultivated last year, and furnished but few obstacles to the Northern Planter.  There are but few Southern men in the district, and what are left are becoming reconciled to the new order of things, and are joining hands with the new men.  Military protection for this district has been granted and but small loss has been sustained by the planters from the incursion of rebel bands.  This section is one of the finest cotton-growing regions of the South; and from all appearances will prove as fruitful under the free labor exertions of Northern men as it ever did under the lash of the Southern slave driver

A great many cases of difficulties between the employer and employee are constantly referred to the Provost Marshal and keep two men busy hearing the complaints and adjusting their difficulties.  This duty is laborious and requires great firmness on the part of the officer, to use the proper discrimination in the various cases that come before him.  The records in the offices of the Assistant Provost Marshals in this district, show a report of 122 cases that have been brought before them and disposed of.  The amount of fines imposed is large but as it has not all been collected, no report has been received.  For the want of a proper place to confine criminals brought before them there has been some complaint of their leniency; but I am satisfied the interests of all parties have been weighed in their actions.  The planters have complied with “Orders No. 9.”1 and “Regulations for Leasing Abandoned Plantations,”2 and seem to manifest a willingness to comply with every rule or order that is for the good of the government or the freedmen employed by them.  The plantations in this district are large–1000 acres being the average size.  Yet the lessees have not been able to get more than 600 acres planted.  The cotton of this district will compare favorably with that of any along the river; and I believe the hands are as well fed and clothed as laborers elsewhere.  There are a large number of negro lessees in this district who have leased from the Government and are doing well.  The Government is supplying them with food, and doing what can be done under existing orders, to aid them   They are, as a body, industrious, economical and determined in their efforts to sustain themselves

I should like before leaving this report, to mention the names of several planters who are making extra exertions to make a good field of cotton on liberal principles, dealing honestly with their freedmen laborers; but to any one visiting the field of labor such a planter is easily distinguished, by the fine condition of his cotton, the cleanliness of his plantation and gardens, the cheerfulness of his hands and their willingness to do anything they can for him.

Warren County Miss.

In this county from the Yazoo River to the Big Black there are thirty-three plantations; 11874 acres of cotton under cultivation; 1280 hands employed; and 2396 people in the aggregate.  A large portion of this is by the owners of the land, in connection with Northern men who furnish the supplies.  Vicksburg furnishing a good market for vegetables, a large amount of land is devoted to the culture of such vegetables as can be sold in the market.  There are a large number of colored lessees in this county: but we have no returns from them, and can make no estimate of how much they are cultivating.  This county being upland and very uneven it has not presented so many inducements for the culture of cotton, as the neighboring river bottoms.  Those who have planted in this county have received good protection from the military authorities: as there has been until quite recently, a military post on the Big Black which made the county comparatively safe.  The freedmen are healthy, contented and as a general thing, well treated by the lessees who employ them.

Davis Bend.

This Bend, containing about 8000 acres of land, is securely protected by three companies of soldiers stationed at the neck which connects it with the main land.  There are only two lessees here, who are cultivating about 3000 acres of land.  They employ about 250 hands and have in their quarters fully 1000 people.

A report made to me of one of the lessees that appeared in a former report, I am satisfied was false.  The representations made to me were unjust, and I am glad of this opportunity to do Mr Phelps justice.  His plantation is being as well conducted as any on the Bend, and I am in hopes his labors will be rewarded with success.

Two thousand acres are cultivated by negro lessees, supplied with material by the Government, and under the control of the Superintendent of Freedmen.  The enterprise promises success.  These lessees are as far advanced with their work, are as industrious, and have as good a prospect of succeeding as the white lessees around them

St Joseph

This is a colony located in the bend of Lake St Joseph, about 30 miles below Vicksburg.  It was organized by Professor Winchell and J. A. Hawley, and commenced work about the 1st of March.  They have met serious obstacles from the very beginning, and have had to contend with obstacles that would have disheartened less resolute men.  Their plantations have been raided twice and two of their number murdered under the most brutal circumstances: yet they manifest a determination to face the storm, and carry out their project of raising cotton.  They are more exposed than any other body of cotton planters and farther from help in case of trouble.  They merit great praise for the determined manner in which they have battled for their possessions and deserve success

There are eight plantations under cultivation; 6047 acres planted in cotton, furnishing employment for 666 hands, and a home for 1400 people in the aggregate.  They need more hands in order to succeed; but find trouble in getting them to go, owing to their exposed condition.  They are men of experience and judgment, who have brought correct business principles to bear upon their work.  There would not be a necessity for near as many Provost Marshals, if all the planters came here imbued with the same principles.

Waterproof

At this place there were troops stationed during the months of March and April which led lessees to lease plantations in the vicinity and commence the work of planting.  About the last of April the troops were moved to Vidalia, La., and the planters were left at the mercy of the guerrillas.  Six plantations were leased by Northern men, who bought stock and provisions and commenced work.  Other places in the vicinity were carried on by their owners; but they only planted such an amount of land, as they thought the guerrillas would allow them to cultivate.  After the troops left, the Northern lessees deserted their places and abandoned the enterprise; but not until they had been raided and robbed of everything they had invested.  The Southern men who were at work are still there, and will be allowed to raise enough to support their families.  There is but little cotton planted from this place up to Lake St Joseph, and but few freedmen; what few there are being old men and women who still stay around the old plantation quarters, too harmless to attract the attention of either party.

Natchez Miss.

This district extends from Marengo to Ashley, in Concordia Parish, La., on both sides of the river.  On the Mississippi side there is but little done, as there is not protection sufficient outside the city limits, to insure planters in making investments.  There are a number of freedmen on nearly every plantation in the district, whether it be abandoned or not; as they manage to raise a little garden, and live on what may be left by their former masters.

In Concordia Parish. La. along the Mississippi river from Marengo to Ashley, there is a tier of 34 plantations with 22590 acres of cotton under cultivation.  They furnish employment for 2390 freedmen, with a population of 4312 people.  The freedmen of this district are mostly made up of the original hands that have worked the plantations they are on, for years.  This fact makes them work better and more contentedly, as they have the little community commonly known as “fellow servants” all together, as they have lived for years

Planters have not enough freedmen to cultivate what they have planted; and as the competition for hands increases, wages for their work go up, and actually settle the troublesome question of what wages shall be paid.  A planter must pay well and punctually, or he will not get laborers to do his work

Early in the spring preparations were made for planting extensively; but the vigilance of the guerrillas has confined them to the narrow limits of what the military authorities can protect.  The desolating influences of a large army, that have made a perfect waste of most of the cotton country above here, did not reach this district.  The plantations are some of the finest in the South, being in fine order at the beginning of the year.  Dwelling houses, negro quarters, fences, steam gins and saw-mills–all in good repair and ready for use.

Several raids have been made, and a large number of mules, horses and wagons carried off, besides valuable material that will cripple the planters losing it very much.  During the week ending June 15th nine steam gins have been burned in the lower end of the district by the guerrillas, who seem to be determined to do what they can to thwart the project of raising cotton.  Perhaps one-half of the plantations being worked in this district are not abandoned, but have been leased from the owners who have some share in the crop.  The cotton was planted early, looks well, and as a general thing has been well cultivated.  The combination of Yankee skill, and Southern experience will work a great improvement in raising cotton in this Valley.

Recapitulation

Number of plantations 162; number of acres of cotton in the whole district under my supervision 74.981; number of hands employed, 9.192; number of freed people living on the plantations. in the aggregate, 17319; number of white men engaged as superintendents, clerks, &c., 397.

Number of freedmen lessees, 180; acres in cultivation 5,870; hands employed exclusive of lessees. 380; people supported by lessees including hands employed, 1.280.  This does not include many small pieces of ground being cultivated by one or two freedmen, who have no claim to their lands, except to occupy what they find abandoned, for their own use.

The above estimates of land under cultivation are made from the old calculation of the number of acres in the plantations that are being worked   The constant changing of hands would make some variation from the above calculation; but the statement is as near correct as it is possible for me to get it.

Conclusion.

I find that the planters have not executed the form of contract between themselves and their hands. prescribed by this office, and by Orders No. 9, of the Secretary of War,3 owing to the fact that they have had to change hands several times since they commenced work; and the labor of making these contracts has been so great, that my office has not had time to execute the part assigned to it, of furnishing the blanks and visiting the plantations to see the contracts executed.  To remedy this as far as practicable, my Assistant Provost Marshals are required to visit every plantation in their districts once a week, and examine into the condition of the people and hear all complaints that may be made of neglect or failure of either party to fulfill his part of what is understood to be the regulation.  The duty is arduous and perplexing.  Nearly every form of complaint comes before them; and as far as I have received reports, the decisions of the Provost Marshals have been satisfactory to all parties.  The wages of the freedmen for half the time worked have been paid up to June 1st, which gives satisfaction to all, except a few who are not contented in any position, and who, through stupidity, or a desire to be finding fault, complain of the wages not being paid, and tell hard stories of their treatment, which are not founded on facts.  I find a desire among a considerable portion of the hands to change about; and to justify their desire, they invent stories, which if taken by themselves, would reflect upon the planters, and lead to the belief that serious abuses existed among them.  I do not think this is the case.  As a general thing, I find the planters as upright and just a body of men as can be found anywhere.  I will venture the assertion that they will compare favorably with any body of business men of the same number.  With a few exceptions they have treated their hands justly and humanely in all the transactions that have come to light and seem to do all they can to inculcate manliness and self-reliance on their laborers, rendering their labor dignified and respectable   That the laborer is going to receive a large amount of money for his year's work is not claimed by any one.  I cannot see how this would help him in gaining the place that some enthusiastic people would have him hurried into immediately.  The best we can do is, to place his labor on an equal footing with white labor, and neither endow him with a fortune, nor open up his road to jump at once to ease or affluence, that he does not know how to use or enjoy.  Guard him against imposition, give him his just dues at the end of each month, and if there is one able to carry on business for himself so construct rules as to assist him, and let him work his way up.  Our country has enough to bear without undertaking the enormous task of starting out each freedman with a competency for the rest of his life.  They are free but they must labor for the food they eat. and the clothes they wear.  Capital does now, and will for some time to come carry on great enterprises; and a large portion of the human family, both white and black, must labor for this capital at regulated wages, without any direct interest in the result of the enterprise.

One of the terrors of the planting system has been the guerrillas, who lurked in swamps and canebrakes near the river, ready at any moment to pounce upon the planter, and destroy the fruits of his labor.  The loss of life has not been great, as I find that there have been only eleven Northern, and seven Southern men killed while engaged in cultivating plantations since Jan'y 1st 1864.

The planting season this year has been very dry.  The oldest planters claim that it is an exception.  Planters were late in getting arrangements made to start their plantations, owing to the different changes in the policy of the Government about leasing them.  Great dissatisfaction existed in the beginning, and many went home disgusted with their efforts to obtain information as to the course that was to be pursued by the Government.  Expectations were encouraged at one time, that there would be protection furnished; but military operations might demand the withdrawal of the troops, and the planters would be left at the mercy of the rebels.  Most of the plantations were entirely destitute of everything except buildings and many were without these in adequate numbers to shelter their laborers.  Forage, mules, provisions and tools must come from the North, and be brought through all the tortuous routine of trade regulations.  Planters commenced planting cotton about the 1st of April and continued to the 1st of June.  The largest amount of seed went into the ground the last week of April. and the 1st week of May.  The ground was very dry during the months of April and May. making it almost impossible to prepare it for the seed.  Seed planted during this dry weather did not come up very well; and what did come up remained at a stand still for some time after peering through the ground.  Planters all replanted, and some even commenced anew, and put in a new crop about the last of May.  The continued rains during the first part of June have brought this planting up, and it looks well.  All have a good stand of cotton, although very uneven in height.  It was difficult to get good seed, as all that could be procured was two years old, and had been subject to the wet weather which had rotted and made it unfit for use.  At this time, (June 20th) most of the cotton has been worked over once.  The lack of hands is being severely felt.  There is not a plantation but what could take more hands, and actually needs more, to cultivate the crops properly.  As a whole, the planters gained nothing by planting early crops this season.  While they were losing for lack of rain to bring their cotton out of the ground they were gaining in being sure that the floods in the Mississippi would not sweep through the breaks in the levee and destroy their crops   This must be a serious drawback the next season, if the levee is not repaired.  I have the honor to be. Your obedient Servant

Saml Thomas

Col. Saml Thomas to Brig. Genl. L. Thomas, 15 June 1864, T-8 1864, Letters Received by Adjutant General L. Thomas, series 363, Colored Troops Division, Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives. Colonel Thomas, commander of the 64th USCI, served simultaneously as provost marshal of freedmen in the Department of the Tennessee and as superintendent of freedmen in the District of Vicksburg; his letter is headed “Office Supt & Provost Marshal Freedmen.”

1. The order is printed in The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South, pp. 802–8.

2. The regulations are printed in The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South, pp. 774–78.

3. The order is printed in The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South, pp. 802–8.

Published in The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South, pp. 834–42, and in Free at Last, pp. 294–305.