Groping for a New Order

Although the process of emancipation in the Civil War was far from over in Autumn 1863, on the ground in parts of the Union-occupied South there was an effort being made at that time to devise its replacement. After all, while evil and immoral, slavery was a way of organizing labor to produce valuable commodities like cotton, rice, tobacco, etc. Even if slavery died the demand for those commodities would not. Some other way of organizing labor to grow them would have to be found.

It was not just a matter of continuing the production of staple commodities. Finding a new way of organizing labor in the South was needed to deal with a long standing and growing humanitarian problem. For two-and-a-half years, slaves had either been coming under Union jurisdiction as federal troops occupied Confederate territory or as slaves escaped to Union-controlled areas in the South. These now effectively free people needed food, shelter, and other necessities. Federal authorities were limited in what they could do, both as practical matter in terms of the resources available to them and out of the fear of creating a population permanently dependent on the government. They could employ some of these “contrabands” as they were called in support of federal operations in the South, but not all or even most. Hence, the obvious answer seemed to be to utilize the remainder, as they had historically, in plantation agriculture, but how, now that slavery was effectively dead or dying in the Union-controlled South?

A variety of whites, Northerners and southern Unionists, some well meaning, other less so, proposed and experimented with new labor systems to replace. All, in one way or another, stemmed from the free labor ideology prevalent in the North before the Civil War. Free labor ideology was a group of beliefs that developed about paid labor in the northern states in opposition to the unpaid slave labor common in antebellum South. One of these beliefs was that free laborers were more efficient and productive than comparable slave laborers. Hence, some northern entrepreneurs were interested in giving free labor a try on southern plantations, convinced they could produce cotton and other staple crops humanely and more profitably than slaveholders.

The New York Times in October 1863, reported on one such experiment in plantation agriculture with free labor, conducted near New Orleans under the control of George C. Brott, a merchant of the city, part of a firm that was a prominent supplier to the Louisiana’s planters. Brott had taken over the plantation of Pierre Adolphe Rost, the Confederacy’s emissary to Spain. The Times correspondent indicated that an Irish-born overseer, named Keenan supervised the black laborers, and that despite two decades of experience in that position prior to the war he was a good choice to supervise the now free laborers because had found even under slavery, “kind … treatment was more effectual in producing a larger amount of work from the same body of men.”

The correspondent continued about Keenan:

He manages the hands very much as he did slaves, but he says that under the impulse of freedom, they produce about one-third more than they did under the old system. The negroes rise at 4 o’clock, and at daylight, which is about 5, go to the fields. At 7 o’clock one hour and a half is given for breakfast, which they sometimes take in their quarters and always cook for themselves the night before, instead of having it cooked and carried to them as before. At noon they have two hours, and stop work at sundown. This is half as much again time as they had under their old master. A weekly task is assigned to each hand — at present the work being wood-cutting, it is a cord a day — some of the hands do their week’s work in four days, and this week they finished in three. In the next two days they cut two cords a day or more, for which they get one dollar a cord on hauling it out, and they are allowed the use of the teams. You will see that they thus produce thirty-three per cent. more than their task.

Hence, the pro-Lincoln Times was eager to describe the system being used on the plantation, which mixed the slave task system of work quotas with wage labor, as a resounding success. The correspondent also described the African Americans on Brott’s plantation as paragons of workers under free labor system: industrious, honest, and frugal–not the lazy, shiftless slaves described by southern planters before the war. He wrote:

They are more contented and happy than they were under the patriarchal institution, though they work a good deal harder. They save their money for a future day, and their savings amount already to a “good bit.” The working hands will make from seventy-five to a hundred dollars apiece; so the overseer tells me, over and above their share of the crop. They support their families and take care of their aged parents. Now this does not look as though they were so utterly shiftless, does it? Again, on Sunday, after the bible had been given them, I went into the midst of the congregation, and, after saying a few words, so as to get them somewhat acquainted with me, commenced a running fire of questions on this very topic. I addressed myself solely to the men, who sat apart from the women. From the conversation that ensued, I am convinced that they do appreciate their responsibilities and duties. They will spend their money as discreetly as white laborers do, and I am inclined to think more so. They will put their savings in the Savings Bank. They will try to be temperate and industrious. Not a theft has been committed on this place, by the negroes belonging to it, Mr. Brott took it! They understand the influence they are to have on future generations, and on the policy of the country, provided they shall succeed in doing well and accumulating property. They are desirous of vindicating themselves, their race, and the system of free labor, and thus laying for their posterity the foundation of a home and a country.

It is debatable whether the New York Times correspondent was making an accurate assessment of the success of the experiment on Brott’s plantation. It also is noteworthy that while the plantation had traditionally grown sugar, Brott’s overseer, Keenan, launched his free labor venture growing cotton, which historically had been grown little in that region of Louisiana, although planters there that dabbled with the crop had proven it could be grown there successfully. The correspondent wrote:

Mr. KEENAN, the overseer, who has much experience in raising cotton, says he expects about 200 bales of cotton, which will equal the finest Red River cotton, and will be worth 400 hogsheads of sugar. It sells now in New-Orleans at between sixty and seventy cents a pound. It is certain that for years cotton will pay better than sugar, and though the crop costs more labor than it does in States further east, owing to the coco, a sort of grass that grows very fast and exhausts the soil, it requires less attention than sugar, and as many influences seem to indicate the gradual abandonment of the sugar business here, the planters of the neighborhood are watching this experiment with the most intense solicitude. It will probably cause a revolution in the labor of the country.

Hence, the correspondent’s conclusion seemed to be that cotton would be more compatible with free labor than sugar. The spread of cotton cultivation in the postwar period suggests this prediction was accurate, although there were other reasons for the spread of cotton after the Civil War occurred for other reasons in addition to its compatibility with free labor. Much else in the organization of postwar labor in the former slave states would be quite different than on Brott’s plantation in October 1863, but there and in the rest of the Union-occupied South, long before the guns fell silent, both whites and blacks were groping for a new economic order, especially as it concerned the organization of labor.

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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1 Response to Groping for a New Order

  1. Brian Kelly says:

    An interesting post, and one that sent me back to William Messner’s much-neglected Freedmen and Ideology of Free Labor: Louisiana, 1862-1865. He emphasizes the shared aim of restoring the plantation economy among Union military officials and southern Louisiana’s cotton and sugar planters–which meant that the army was placed in the situation of “compell[ing] blacks to return to the plantations and to work once again as field hands under the control of their former masters.” At some level then, the army of ‘deliverance’ abetted the restoration of the prewar social order. I think you’re right that avid free labor advocates tended to find what they were looking for in the new system: happy, productive former slaves who would outproduce those driven by the lash previously. It went down well with northern audiences, but never really matched the situation on the ground across the plantation belt. Who in their right mind, and given a choice, rises for work at 4am?

    Last point: John Rodrigue, in his Reconstruction in the Cane Fields, makes precisely the same point you do about the difference between cotton and sugar: even before the outbreak of the war, he suggests, slaves acutely conscious of the vulnerability of the sugar crop at certain times of the growing/harvest season had managed to negotiate terms and conditions with their owners/employers. Uniquely, their ability to impose terms on the sugar masters outlives Redemption as well, until they are crushed, decisively, in a bitter, violent strike in 1887.

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