How Would Freed Slaves Support Themselves?

As 1861 drew to a close, many in the North accepted and some even reveled in the fact that wherever Union forces went in the South, slaves flocked to their lines seeking freedom. Yet this phenomenon created a dilemma: how would these people be cared for? This was a problem that Gen. Benjamin Butler, faced with over a thousand escaped slaves at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, had first dealt with the preceding summer. It was one his successor, Gen. John E. Wool, inherited and addressed in the fall, winning praise for his solution from the New York Times. The paper observed in its issue of December 14, 1861:

Gen. WOOL found some thousands of negroes collected about his camp, — some of them abandoned by their masters, others fugitives from them, — all practically enfranchised by the simple presence of a Union army in their neighborhood, — all destitute, without employment or relations of any kind to society and the State.

Gen. BUTLER had styled them contraband of war, — but this did nothing toward providing for their government or welfare. Gen. WOOL found them vagrants, and provided for them accordingly. He directed that they should be set to work, upon system and under supervision: and that their wages should be devoted to their own support and that of the women and children, the sick and disabled who could not work. Whatever they earn, over and above the allowance for their food and clothing, constitutes a fund which is expended by the Quartermaster for the support of the helpless.

In this way the practical sagacity and common sense of the veteran General of our Army has solved a problem which everybody else seems afraid to touch. He leaves the whole question of title in abeyance. Taking these people just as he finds them, he provides, in the most practical and effective manner, for their own welfare, present and prospective, while he protects the Government from being burdened and the camps from being demoralized by their presence. They are trained to work for themselves. They are not allowed to fall into habits of thieving and vagabondage. They are educated to support the young and helpless of their own households. Their labor being far cheaper than that of whites, Government profits by employing them. They are thus prepared for freedom, subjected to authority, and made useful to the country.

Of course, Wool’s solution was not a permanent one, for while it increasingly looked in December 1861 that slaves of disloyal owners escaping into Union lines would be freed eventually, this disposition was by no means certain. Especially, as some prominent voices around that time, such as James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the influential New York Herald, advocated keeping slavery and redistributing the slaves of disloyal owners to loyal slaveholders.

Wool’s plan of paying contraband to work for the Union cause also ignored that the slaves themselves had an opinion on the matter. White northerners first became aware that liberated slaves would not automatically fall in with the plans of federal authorities in Union-occupied Port Royal, South Carolina, in mid-December 1861. Unlike elsewhere, where slaves generally came as supplicants seeking sanctuary within Union lines and were eager to please their benefactors, in Port Royal, while the northern invaders had been greeted with ecstatic joy by slaves, whatever gratitude they felt toward their liberators did not mean they would meekly accept whatever new order the federal army sought to impose. The Port Royal contraband were at home and not supplicants.

Gen. Thomas Sherman, commander of the Union army force at Port Royal complained about the lack of cooperation of the local slaves in a letter, dated December 14, 1861, to the Adjutant General of the U.S. Army, Lorenzo Thomas. Sherman wrote:

All our work which is immense is done by volunteer soldiers and it all drags for the want of a sufficient number of able directors. The negro labor expected to be obtained here is so far almost a failure. They are disinclined to labor and will evidently not work to our satisfaction without those aids to which they have ever been accustomed, viz, the driver and the lash. A sudden change of condition from servitude to apparent freedom is more than their intellects can stand, and this circumstance alone renders it a very serious question what is to be done with the negroes who will hereafter be found on conquered soil.

Sherman elaborated in a longer letter the following day to Adjutant General Thomas. He complained:

For the information of the proper authorities and for fear lest the Government may be disappointed in the amount of labor to be gathered here from the contrabands I have the honor to report that from the hordes of negroes left on the plantations but about 320 have thus far come in and offered their services. Of these the quartermaster has but about sixty able-bodied male hands, the rest being decrepit and women and children. Several of the 320 have run off. Every inducement has been held out to them to come in and labor for wages and money distributed among those who have labored. The reasons for this apparent failure thus far appear to be these:

First. They are naturally slothful and indolent and have always been accustomed to the lash, an aid we do not make use of.

Second. They appear to be so overjoyed with the change of their condition that their minds are unsettled to any plan.

Third. Their present ease and comfort on the plantations as long as their provisions will last will induce most of them to remain there until compelled to seek our lines for subsistence.

Although comparatively few have thus far come in it is therefore probable that in time many will, and if they are to be received and taken care of some provision should be made to cover them. They are a prolific race and it will be found that for every able-bodied male there will be five to six females, children and decrepit. It is really a question for the Government to decide what is to be done with the contrabands.

Thomas Sherman’s description of the Port Royal slaves as “slothful and indolent” was not fair and he contradicted himself in the postscript of his December 15 letter by writing, “Besides those who have come in there are many still on the plantations employed in gathering cotton.” What Sherman did not realize and few northern whites would ever appreciate, but which became clear over the course of the rest of the Civil War, was that the slaves of Port Royal were not opposed to work. Certainly, in the wake of their liberation, some Port Royal slaves took what amounted to an informal vacation–understandable given a lifetime of forced toil. However, if most of the liberated slaves of Port Royal refused to make themselves available to work for Union forces it was not because they opposed the federal army, or were lazy and irresponsible. It was because they wanted to work for themselves on their own land, deciding what crops they would grow and the other circumstances of their work. After a lifetime of forced dependence, they wanted independence by having control over their own means of production. This sentiment would become a recurring theme in many places in the South among recently freed slaves in the months and years that followed.

Sources: 1); 2)

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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