The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South
Union occupation of parts of the Confederacy during the Civil War forced federal officials to confront questions about the social order that would replace slavery. This volume of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation describes the emergence of free labor in the large plantation areas of the Union-occupied Lower South: lowcountry South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; the Mississippi Valley; and southern Louisiana. It examines the experiences of former slaves as military laborers, as residents of federally sponsored “contraband camps,” as wage laborers on plantations and in towns, and in some instances, as independent farmers and self-employed workers. It portrays the different – and often conflicting – understandings of freedom advanced by the many participants in the wartime evolution of free labor: former slaves and free blacks; former slaveholders; Union military officers and officials in Washington; and Northern planters, ministers and teachers. The war sealed the fate of slavery only to open a contest over the meaning of freedom. This volume documents an important chapter of that contest.
975 pp. Table of contents (pdf) | Index (pdf)
The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South received the Thomas Jefferson Prize of the Society for History in the Federal Government.
Copies of The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South may be purchased from Cambridge University Press online, by telephone (800-872-7423), or by fax (914-937-4712).
Selected Documents from the Volume
- Commander of the South Carolina Expeditionary Corps to the Adjutant General of the Army, December 15, 1861
Left behind on plantations by owners fleeing federal invasion, former slaves on the South Carolina sea islands generally
remained in place and worked for themselves – to the annoyance of a commander of the invading force who had hoped to employ them as military laborers.
- Commander of the 2nd Brigade of the Northern District of the Department of the South to the Department Commander, May 10, 1862
Ordered to furnish men for a regiment of black soldiers being raised without War Department authorization by General David Hunter, a subordinate warned that doing so would both deprive the army of military laborers and hamper efforts to cultivate federally controlled cotton plantations.
- Order by the Commander of a Brigade in the Left Wing, Department of the Gulf, September 1862; and an Order by the Brigade Quartermaster, [September? 1862]
Union officers implemented strict rules to govern the fugitive slaves who had come into their camp near New Orleans, organizing most of the men into squads of military laborers.
- Committee of Chaplains and Surgeons to the Commander of the Department of the Missouri, December 29, 1862
Although by late 1862 the federal government had pledged to protect fugitive slaves and encouraged the employment of those capable of military labor, the promise of protection was often hollow, as three officers at Helena, Arkansas, reported.
- Northern Plantation Manager to the Commander of the Department of the Gulf, January 5, 1863
The manager of a sugar plantation in southern Louisiana cultivated by ex-slave wage workers complained that black soldiers and three of their officers – who were themselves free men of color – were disrupting labor and threatening his life.
- Louisiana Planters to the Commander of the Department of the Gulf, January 14, 1863
Writing to Union General Nathaniel P. Banks, sugar planters lamented the effect of slave flight and Union military occupation on plantation operations.
- Commander of the Guard at Kenner, Louisiana, to the Headquarters of a Brigade in the Department of the Gulf, January 27, 1863
Former slaves employed by the army repairing levees near New Orleans, a Northern officer reported, were working and living in conditions that compared unfavorably to slavery.
- Louisiana Slave to the Commander of the Department of the Gulf, March 4, 
Legally a slave because of southern Louisiana's exemption from the Emancipation Proclamation, Edith Jones of New Orleans offered to pay her mistress a monthly fee to allow her live on her own. When the owner refused and threatened instead to imprison her for safekeeping, Jones sought assistance from the Union commander in the city.
- Commander of the District of Eastern Arkansas to the Commander at Cairo, Illinois, March 11, 1863
Fugitive slaves escaped to Helena, Arkansas, in such numbers that the Union commander in the city deemed it best to transport hundreds of them up the Mississippi River to Cairo, Illinois, and other points North.
- Louisiana Freedmen to the Provost Marshal General of the Department of the Gulf, April 5, 1863, and Statement of the Commander of Camp Hoyt, Louisiana, April 5, 1863
Former slaves living on a plantation in southern Louisiana that had been abandoned by its owner received a Union provost marshal's permission to farm it on their own, only to have another claimant challenge their right to do so. At the freedpeople's request, a federal officer reported on what they had accomplished.
- General Superintendent of Contrabands in the Department of the Tennessee to the Headquarters of the Department, April 29, 1863
Responding to a questionnaire circulated in early 1863, military superintendents of “contraband camps” in the Mississippi Valley (at Corinth, Mississippi; Lake Providence, Louisiana; Cairo, Illinois; and Memphis, Lagrange, Bolivar, Grand Junction, and Jackson, in western Tennessee) described the gritty reality of life in the settlements and evaluated the former slaves' prospects in freedom.
- Testimony by a South Carolina Freedman before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, June 1863
Testifying before a War Department commission that was investigating the condition and prospects of ex-slaves, Harry McMillan discussed his people's lives in bondage and their aspirations in freedom.
- Inspecting Officer in the District of Northeastern Louisiana to the Headquarters of the District, October 10, 1863
Beginning in 1863, federal officials leased out abandoned cotton plantations along the Mississippi River near Vicksburg, mainly to Northern investors but also to a handful of freedmen judged competent to manage an estate. The lessees agreed to hire former slaves for wages and furnish subsistence to them and their families. But as an inspecting officer reported, raids by Confederate guerrillas, the lessees' cupidity, and other unfavorable circumstances beset the impoverished residents of most of the plantations.
- Commander of the U.S.S. Vermont to the Commander of the South Atlantic Squadron, December 9, 
A U.S. naval officer explained that his ship could not operate without the scores of black men who labored both on board and ashore.
- Staff Assistant of the Superintendent of Freedmen for the State of Arkansas to the Superintendent, February 5, 1864
A Union officer reported upon his visit to a woodyard established by private contractors on the banks of the Mississippi River and a nearby shantytown that was home to 183 former slaves, 96 of whom were described as “infirm & under age.”
- Plantation Regulations by a U.S. Treasury Agent, February 1864 (image, 474K)
A broadside announced the rules governing the employment of black laborers on plantations in Union-occupied Louisiana.
- Provost Marshal of Freedmen in the Department of the Tennessee to the Adjutant General of the Army, June 15, 1864
Colonel Samuel Thomas reported on the condition and prospects of the former slaves cultivating leased plantations along the Mississippi River between Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi. Although most of the freedpeople in that war-torn district were wage workers for Northern lessees, some were renters farming independently.
- Treasury Department Inspector of Plantations to the Superintendent of Plantations in the Treasury Department 5th Special Agency, June 16, 1864
A civilian Treasury Department official in Louisiana charged with supervising “government plantations” – federally controlled estates leased out to investors and cultivated by ex-slave wage workers – complained that black soldiers were undermining his authority and encouraging unrest among the field hands.
- South Carolina Black Minister to the Commander of the Department of the South, August 12, 1864
On behalf of freedpeople in Mitchelville, South Carolina, Abram Mercherson protested that white Union soldiers, on the pretext of recruiting black men, were entering the community at night and wreaking violence on its residents.
- Acting General Superintendent of Contrabands in the South Carolina Sea Islands to the Provost Marshal General of the Department of the South, August 25, 1864
Displeased by former slaves' traveling about, fishing, or doing odd jobs instead of working steadily for a single employer, a newly appointed superintendent of contrabands proposed remedies informed by Northern practices regarding poor relief and vagrancy.
- Meeting between Black Religious Leaders and Union Military Authorities, January 12, 1865
A Northern newspaper reported the proceedings of a remarkable gathering in Savannah, Georgia, in which twenty black ministers and lay leaders met with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General William T. Sherman to consider the future of the thousands of slaves freed by the march of Sherman's army.
- Order by the Commander of the Military Division of the Mississippi, January 16, 1865
Intending chiefly to disencumber his army of the fugitive slaves who had followed its march to Savannah, General William T. Sherman reserved a swath of land along the south Atlantic coast for settlement exclusively by former slaves, promising the settlers “possessory title” to forty-acre tracts.
- Report by a Plantation Lessee in Louisiana, May? 1865 (Image, 624K)
The lessee of a plantation in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, recorded the wages and deductions from wages of 133 freedpeople employed on the place, as well as remarks on their labor performance.
- Testimony of an Arkansas Freedman before the Southern Claims Commission, June 6, 1873
Robert Houston of Arkansas recounted his wartime experiences as a slave on a plantation, a fugitive from
Confederate labor impressment, a laborer on a federal gunboat, an independent woodcutter, and a Union soldier.