Land and Labor, 1865
Land and Labor, 1865 examines the transition from slavery to free labor during the tumultuous first months after the Civil War. Letters and testimony by former slaves, former slaveholders, Freedmen's Bureau agents, and others reveal the connection between developments in workplaces across the South and an intensifying political contest over the meaning of freedom and the terms of national reunification. Essays by the editors place the documents in interpretive context and illuminate the major themes.
In the tense and often violent aftermath of emancipation, former slaves seeking to ground their liberty in economic independence came into conflict with former owners determined to keep them dependent and subordinate. Overseeing that conflict were Northern officials with their own notions of freedom, labor, and social order. This volume of Freedom depicts the dramatic events that ensued – the eradication of bondage and the contest over restoring land to ex-Confederates; the introduction of labor contracts and the day-to-day struggles that engulfed the region's plantations, farms, and other workplaces; the achievements of those freedpeople who attained a measure of independence; and rumors of a year-end insurrection in which ex-slaves would seize the land they had been denied and exact revenge for past oppression.
1,073 pp. Table of contents (pdf) | Index (pdf)
Copies of Land and Labor, 1865 may be purchased from the University of North Carolina Press online, by telephone (800-848-6224; from outside the U.S., 919-966-7449), or by fax (800-272-6817; from outside the U.S., 919-962-2704).
Selected Documents from the Volume
- Resolutions Adopted by a Meeting of Virginia Employers, May 31, 1865
Hoping to dictate uniform terms under which former slaves would be employed and thereby prevent the emergence of a competitive labor market, landowners in one Virginia neighborhood proposed to fix wages at subsistence levels and restrict the freedpeople's ability to move about without their former owners' permission.
Contract between an Alabama Planter and Alabama Freedpeople, [June 1, 1865]
The contract between W. C. Penick and his former slaves specified their work obligations in exhaustive detail.
- Chaplain of a South Carolina Black Regiment to the Aide-de-Camp of the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, June 7, 1865, Enclosing Affidavits of Three Georgia Freedmen
After safely reaching Savannah from the interior of Georgia, three freedmen recounted their harrowing escapes from former owners determined to keep them and other ex-slaves locked in bondage.
- Chairman of the Orangeburg, South Carolina, Commission on Contracts to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, June 12, 1865, Enclosing a Speech to the Freedpeople, [June 1865]; and the Commissioner's Reply, June 21, 1865
Addressing mass meetings of ex-slaves, Captain Charles Soule, a young Northern officer, advised them not to expect too much from freedom.
Officer in a Massachusetts Black Regiment to the Headquarters of the Northern District of the Department of the South, June 17, 1865
Charged with arranging labor contracts between rice planters and former slaves – some of whom had been occupying
the plantations on their own during their former owners' wartime absence – a Union officer enumerated the many issues in dispute between landowners and laborers.
South Carolina Planters to the Commander of the Northern District of the Department of the South, June 20, 1865
Having returned to estates they abandoned during the war, planters along the Cooper River asked a Union commander to define their rights as property owners and employers.
Contract between a Georgia Planter and Georgia Freedpeople, July 8, 1865
The contract between McQueen McIntosh and the freedpeople on his plantation not only enumerated the workers' labor obligations, but also prescribed their personal comportment, instituted fines for damaged or stolen tools, and charged the support of all nonworking freedpeople against the laborers' wages.
‣ Mayor and City Commissioners of Wilmington, North Carolina, to the Provisional Governor of North Carolina, July 12, 1865
‣ Commander of the District of Wilmington to the Headquarters of the Department of North Carolina, July 26, 1865
Uneasy municipal authorities in Wilmington regarded public assertiveness by the city's black residents and the presence of black soldiers as portents of insurrection. The district military commander, however, dismissed such fears as groundless.
Ordinance by the Board of Police of Opelousas, Louisiana, as Printed in a New Orleans Newspaper, July 15, 1865
Municipal authorities in Opelousas, Louisiana, responded to the end of slavery by imposing harsh restrictions on former slaves, including a prohibition on residence in the town unless they were at work for a white employer.
- Statement of a North Carolina Employer, July 21, 1865
The employer of a former slave named Sarah described escalating conflict over the spinning with which she was tasked and the “insolence” of her manner. As tempers flared, the employer had called on Sarah's husband to make her behave, but when he refused to do so and also became “insolent,” the employer summoned the county police to remove them from the place.
Statement of Alabama Freedpeople, [July 24, 1865]
Thirteen former slaves signed a statement expressing their willingness to work for their former owner “as heretofore,” with no compensation beyond food and clothing.
Order by the Secretary of War, July 25, 1865
In an important step toward equality before the law, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton nullified military orders that imposed pass systems or “any restraints or punishments” on black people that did not apply to white people as well.
- Tennessee Freedmen to the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for Kentucky, Tennessee, and Northern Alabama, July 27, 1865
Convinced that their newfound liberty was imperiled by hostile former slaveholders and restrictive slave-era laws, freedmen in Lincoln County, Tennessee, sought the appointment of a Freedmen's Bureau agent for their locality and asserted their right to equality before the law.
- Northern Teacher to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, August 4, 1865
Resolutions adopted by freedpeople at an emancipation celebration in northern Virginia affirmed the centrality of land to their future welfare.
- Committee of North Carolina Freedmen to the North Carolina Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, August 7, 1865; and the Latter's Reply, August 16, 1865
Freedmen in eastern North Carolina organized a “Joint Stock” company to raise money with which to purchase land.
- Cases Adjudicated by the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent at Gordonsville, Virginia, August 16–September 13, 1865
A register kept by Captain T. Franklin P. Crandon recorded the cases brought before him and the actions he took.
Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, to the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, August 17, 1865
Former slaves on St. Helena Island had been living as free people ever since the arrival of federal forces in late 1861 and the flight of their owners. A Freedmen's Bureau agent described the local police force they had established for self-protection, the landholdings and other property they had acquired, and the proud position they now assumed in encounters with men and women who had once held them in bondage.
Statement of a Refugeed Mississippi Freedman, August 18, 1865
Jim Mackafee, a slave in Mississippi, was taken by his owner to Virginia during the war, but escaped and became a military laborer for the Union army. After the war, he wanted to rejoin his family in Mississippi but could not afford the passage.
- Statement of a Virginia Freedman, August 24, 1865
Jacob Thomas twice attempted to visit relatives still held as slaves, only to be forcibly driven away.
- Testimony by Two North Carolina Freedwomen against Their Former Owner, [August 1865?]
A former slave and her daughter recounted the brutality they had experienced at the hands of former owners bent on denying their freedom.
‣ Maryland Labor Broker to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, September 4, 1865
‣ Affidavit of a Former Employee of a Maryland Labor Broker, September 25, 1865
Emancipation meant profits for entrepreneurs like Oliver Wood of Baltimore, who recruited freedpeople in areas where work was hard to come by and, for a fee, supplied them to short-handed employers elsewhere. Wood complained that unscrupulous persons were hiring laborers he had procured without paying his commission, but numerous observers – including a former employee – affirmed that Wood, too, engaged in shady dealings.
Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, September 5, 1865
By the summer of 1865, some 40,000 freedpeople had taken up residence on land in coastal South Carolina and Georgia assigned to them under a January order by General William T. Sherman. As ex-Confederate proprietors applied to reclaim the land and dispossess the black settlers, General Rufus Saxton, the Freedmen's Bureau official in charge of the Sherman reserve, implored the bureau's commissioner to honor the promises made to the freedpeople.
Freedmen's Bureau Inspector General for Missouri and Arkansas to the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for Missouri and Arkansas, September 18, 1865
Reporting on an inspection tour in Arkansas, Colonel Dennis H. Williams lauded the success of former slaves who were farming independently on plots leased from the federal government near Helena and on a “home farm” near Pine Bluff inhabited mainly by women, children, and disabled men.
Complaints by North Carolina Freedmen before the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the Southern District of North Carolina, September 19–October 1, 1865
In 1865, many former slaves worked under informal arrangements in which they expected to receive a share of the crop they produced. Cases adjudicated by a Freedmen's Bureau superintendent at Wilmington, North Carolina, illustrated employers' exploitation of such arrangements to deny freedpeople compensation for their labor.
- Commander of U.S. Forces at Columbia, Louisiana, to the
Headquarters of the Western District of Louisiana, September 20, 1865, Enclosing a Labor Contract, [August 1, 1865]
A military commander in Louisiana believed that, in terms of material welfare and conditions of labor, freedpeople in the vicinity of his post were faring as badly or worse than they had as slaves.
Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent at Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the Headquarters of the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for Kentucky and Tennessee, October 6, 1865
In a white-majority area of east Tennessee where former slaveholders had begun to rent land to ex-slaves, poor whites mobilized against the freedpeople, intent on driving them away.
- ‣ Committee of Freedmen on Edisto Island, South Carolina, to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner [October 20 or 21, 1865]; and the Latter's Reply, October 22, 1865
‣ Committee of Freedmen on Edisto Island, South Carolina, to the President, October 28, 1865
In two eloquent petitions, freedpeople voiced outrage at news that the land they had been promised was to be restored to its former owners.
- Tennessee Freedwoman to the Commander of the Department of the Tennessee, October 24, 1865
After benefiting from a lifetime of Mary Gillespy's labor in slavery, her former owner refused to support her in freedom. Elderly, infirm, and with nowhere else to turn, she appealed to federal authorities for assistance.
Arkansas Planter to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent at Memphis, Tennessee, October 25, 1865
On a plantation in Arkansas, a dispute that began with a freedman cursing the overseer escalated into a confrontation in which most of the workers threatened to quit.
- White Tennessean to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the Subdistrict of Memphis, Tennessee, October 30, 1865
Fearing that armed and unruly freedpeople were planning to forcibly seize the property of white landowners, a resident of west Tennesssee implored federal authorities to take preventive measures.
Provost Marshal of Jefferson and Orleans Parishes (Right Bank), Louisiana, to the Headquarters of the Louisiana Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, November 7, 1865
In the parishes near New Orleans, where plantations had been cultivated by ex-slave laborers under federal auspices during the war, emancipation was a well-established fact by 1865. But the transition to free labor was complicated by former Confederates' resistance to the new order, by freedpeople's dislike of yearlong contracts, and by the attractions of urban life.
- Statement of a Mississippi Freedman, November 21, 1865
Two freedmen preparing to cultivate land they had rented were warned by white neighbors that their presence was not welcome.
- Georgia Freedmen to the Freedmen's Bureau Subassistant Commissioner at Savannah, Georgia, November 28, 1865
Amid hard-fought negotiations over labor contracts for the coming year, ex-slaves in coastal Georgia indignantly rejected offers that failed to provide for nonworking members of the laborers' families.
Freedmen's Bureau Subassistant Commissioner for the District of East Texas to the Texas Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, November 30, 1865
In parts of Texas that were distant from federal forces, nominally free people remained in bondage months after the Confederate surrender.
South Carolina Planter to the Commander of the Department of South Carolina, [early December, 1865]
Decrying the subversive influence of black soldiers, a planter in Beaufort District, South Carolina, offered a litany of complaints about the work and deportment of former slaves and asked that white soldiers be sent to head off an uprising.
- Mississippi Freedpeople to the Governor of Mississippi, December 3, 1865
Avowing their willingness to labor and denying any intention of rising in insurrection, freedpeople denounced the repressive laws recently enacted by the state legislature.
- Mississippi Freedman to His Wife in Virginia, December 4, 1865
Having agreed to work a parcel of his former owner's land on shares, Moses Scott hoped to secure the assistance of his wife and children, from whom he had been separated.
- South Carolina Freedman to the South Carolina Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, December 8, 1865
When planters on Wadmalaw Island attempted to reclaim estates that were being cultivated by former slaves, the freedpeople resisted. If the owners would not sell them the land, Shadrack Seabrook declared, they preferred to leave the state rather than remain as hired laborers.
Proceedings of a Meeting of Virginia Freedpeople, December 12, 1865
Presenting themselves as respectable, churchgoing people, former slaves in Middlesex County, Virginia, protested that their employers were turning them off without pay and sought the assistance of the Freedmen's Bureau in securing to them what was “right and Just befor God and the citizen world.”
‣ South Carolina Planters to an Adjutant of the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, December 14, 1865
‣ Aide-de-Camp of the Commander of the Military District of Charleston to the District Headquarters, December 22, 1865
After President Andrew Johnson ordered the restoration to former owners of land in coastal South Carolina and Georgia that had been set apart for former slaves, planters began returning to their old estates. They had to reckon, however, with ex-slaves who had worked the land as free people, viewed it as rightfully theirs, and had no intention of becoming wage laborers. On James Island, freedpeople took up arms to repel a visit by planters seeking to persuade them to sign labor contracts.
- Broadside by the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Superintendent at Shreveport, Louisiana, December 16, 1865
Dismissing rumors that freedpeople would receive land from the federal government at the end of the year, a Freedmen's Bureau agent warned those who had not yet entered into labor contracts for 1866 to do so immediately.
White Floridians to the Provisional Governor of Florida, December 23, 1865; and Florida Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Superintendent of Education to the Florida Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, December 26, 1865
Alarmed by rumors that an “immense” number of freedpeople planned to assemble on Christmas Day, with evil intent, white Floridians sought military intervention. A Freedmen's Bureau official sent to learn the meeting's purpose reported on his investigation.
South Carolina Freedmen to the Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner, January 17, 1866
During hard-fought negotiations over labor contracts for 1866, freedmen in South Carolina's Georgetown District disputed allegations that former slaves were unwilling to work. What they were not willing to do, they insisted, was work under the oppressive terms employers were offering.
Affidavit of a Georgia Freedwoman, March 14, 1866
A freedwoman recounted a May 1865 confrontation in which a former slave named Epson Phillips asserted to his former owner's face that he was as free as he was and would defend himself against attack – a declaration the former owner could not abide.
South Carolina Freedwoman to an Unidentified Military Officer, November 18, 1866
Lavinah Malby and her co-workers had been promised a share of the crop as compensation for their labor in 1865. Having received nothing by late 1866, she appealed to the Freedmen's Bureau.
North Carolina Freedman to the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Superintendent of the Subdistrict of Weldon, North Carolina, May 16, 1867
Nearly twenty months after his wife and teenaged sons had been evicted without pay from the farm on which they had worked in 1865, Wilson Maggett sought assistance from the Freedmen's Bureau in recovering the compensation they were due.