Testimony by a Northern Abolitionist before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission

[Washington, D.C.?  December 24, 1863]

Testimony of Hon. F. W. Bird

Question  I understand Mr Bird that you have lately had an opportunity of observing the Freedmen in Eastern Virginia and I would like to know the result of your observations.

Answer  I have lately visited the Department of Virginia with a view to a particular examination of the condition of the Freedmen employed upon the Government Farms.  I first visited those near Hampton in charge of Capt. Chas. B. Wilder assistant superintendent of Freedmen.  These freedmen are fugitives partly from the peninsular in the vicinity of Richmond, but, mostly from the neighborhood of Norfolk and Suffolk and the adjacent portions of North Carolina.  They commenced their labors on the farm late in the season and under very great disadvantages.  A large portion of the ground was not ploughed at all until April Whereas the ploughing season in that section commences in January.  They experienced considerable loss also from the failure of the crops, owing to drought.  A large portion of the seed they were obliged to replant from the first planting being so late, and a large portion of the crop imperfectly ripened.  Some of these laborers were of the large number who were herded upon Craney Island in the winter and spring, where very many of them contracted disease unfitting them for active labor.

Q  Were these people men women and children?

A  Yes.  It is also to be borne in mind that very few able bodied men are now employed upon these farms, nearly all of that class having been drawn either into the army or employed in other labor for the Government.  Notwithstanding these drawbacks I think it is safe to say, that on all these farms the laborers have raised crops abundantly sufficient to support themselves and their families until the next harvest.

A portion of the farms are worked “to halves” as it is called, for the Government–the Government furnishing seed agricultural implements and horses and recieving one third or one half of the produce; another portion of the freedmen have managed entirely on their own account.  I did not take accurate statistics of many of the Farms; and I was the less anxious to do this as the Superindents will very soon make reports in full of the results of the season.  The facts in the cases of which I took notes are in entire accordance with the results upon the other farms, so far as I learned.

Here is the case of a farm carried on by Gibberty Davis–an old man 70 or 80 years of age.  His wife is free.  His master is a Captain in the rebel service.  He is the only one remaining on the farm out of a gang of thirty slaves   He has cultivated with the assistance of two boys who are free thirty acres on which they have raised, besides supporting themselves 250 Bushels of corn and 150 pounds of cotton.  They were obliged to replant nearly the whole of the corn.  Mr Davis said he should have had four or five hundred pounds of cotton but for the early frost.  The corn is worth 90 cts pr bushel and the cotton perhaps 60ยข pr pound; showing that he has now more than enough left to support himself and family until the next crop.

Another is the farm of Wm Jones consisting of 400 acres where seventy four slaves were formerly employed, of whom only ten are left.  The master is in the Rebel Army.  They have raised 1000 bushels of shelled corn and 145 Bbls. of Sweet Potatoes.  They all have families and have raised enough to carry them all through the season; and they all said they had lived better than they ever did under their masters.  This last was a Government Farm; the other was not.  These two cases are fair specimens of all that I saw and are I believe fair specimens of the whole.

I found a very bad state of things at what is known as the tobacco drying house where several hundred of the Freedmen last taken from Craney Island were crowded together very closely with nothing to do–all infirm old men and women and children–with great liability to fire, which would almost inevitably prove particularly if occurring in the night, very destructive to life.  They seem to be there from necessity, for the present as the Superintendent has found it impossible to provide huts for them rapidly enough to prevent this crowding.  Capt Wilder is doing every thing in his power to provide huts and to encourage the freedmen in building huts for themselves, for separate livings.  In some cases where the men are employed at a distance by the Government, they gather in villages in large numbers as at Hampton where the ruins of the houses of the First Families of Virginia are now covered with the cabins of their former Slaves, many of them built out of the same material as their masters houses.–  Where it has been practicable they have been assisted in building cabins with a view to giving to each family a seperate allotment of ten acres for their own cultivation.  Their collection in villages has been discouraged except in special cases.

Some five or six miles from Hampton, Capt Wilder has just started a Steam Saw Mill, which has been dumped down in the forest and is set at work in the open air turning out some five thousand feet of boards per day, which are furnished to the freedmen for their cabins.

With the exception of the state of things at the tobacco drying house, the condition of the freedmen of this district is as good as could be expected; wonderfully improved since my visit there a year and a half ago.  This improvement is due to the change of policy in their treatment.  Then they were treated as men who had no rights that white men were bound to respect; now they are beginning to comprehend that if they behave like men, they will be treated like men.  Only one thing is needed and that they crave above all other boons; and that is the right to own the soil.

I also visited several of the farms in the vicinity of Norfolk under the charge of Capt. Orlando Brown, Assistant Superintendent of Freedmen.  Most of these are carried on “to halves” for the Government.

The Poindexter Farm.

This farm is under a white overseer–a native of Norfolk.  He has four men on the farm, all married.  They have raised 730 bushels of shelled corn, forty bushells of sweet potatoes, and have sold about $300 worth of Milk.  The Government furnished seed, utensils and teams.

The Baxter Farm.

I next visited the Baxter Farm, consisting of 3000 acres, which was formerly owned by Oscar F. Baxter, a surgeon in the Federal navy, now a surgeon in the Rebel army.  He had as Jack Herring told us “jam by” (nearly) forty slaves.  I give the results of the labor on this farm, as furnished by the assistant Superintendent.  The place is known as Woodlawn.  The whole number of freedmen on the farm is 70 of whom thirty eight are able bodied.  Three hundred acres have been cultivated and there are now on hand 5090 bushels of corn

Jack Herring, one of Dr Baxter's late slaves, has cultivated, this last season, about thirty acres of this farm.  He has done all the work himself, except what he hired.  He had a little money of his own in the spring and his “boss” when he ran away left him corn enough for seed.  He has raised 500 bushells of shelled corn.  He has bought his team with his own money, and has one cow and twenty pigs.  I was struck with the difference between the results of this poor freedmans labor and those of the Poindexter Farm.  This latter as I have said was managed by a white native of Norfolk; and yet every thing about the place was slovenly and slip-shod.  The overseer seemed hardly able to take care of himself and I have no doubt the men would have done better without him than with him.  Certainly they would have done very much better, if they had had one intelligent negroe for their overseer instead of him.

The Wise Farm.

I also visited the place known as “Rolleston” which was occupied by Gen Wise for two years before the Rebellion.  The results of the season on this farm are given from the figures furnished by the Assistant Superintendent.–  The whole number of freed people on the farm of all ages, is 61.  Of these the number of able bodied men is five stout boys and men over 15, four. Boys under fifteen, five. Able bodied women, fifteen. Girls under fifteen who work occasionally, seven. Leaving the number aged and young unfit to work, twenty five.–  Two hundred and fifty acres of land were cultivated.  The amount of produce sent off or on hand was, potatoes 100 Barrells, corn 2100 bushels.

It should be observed to the credit of the experiment, how small the proportion of able-bodied men is to the non-producers on these farms, to the infirm and the women and children, whom they have had to support.  With the exception of Herrings place one half of the crops on these farms belongs to the Government; and in all cases so far as I could understand this half more than pays for all the materials furnished by the Government

Another fact must be borne in mind, that all the teams used on these farms, in both districts, are condemned horses.  Capt. Brown is doing his best to furnish all the freedmen with huts and cabins of their own.  He has been very much embarrassed by the want of land which was safe from Guerrillas, and by the want of houses for the freedmen.  He has now several hundred built and is well prepared to commence operations early in the ensueing season.  The same difficulty was experienced here as on the other side, in consequence of the late planting; but they are now already commencing their ploughing, and unless something extraordinary happens, will show much better results another year.

I was very much struck with the view from the mansion house on the Baxter Farm.  Stretching around the outskirts of the farm for a mile or more are the huts of the freedmen at a distance of ten or twenty rods apart; the plan being for each family to have an allotment of its own of ten acres thus laying the foundation of an industrious and self supporting peasantry who at the same time will be able to work for the owner of the central farm.  All that is needed to establish there a truly loyal and prosperous community is that the men and women who have watered the soil with their tears and blood, should be allowed to own it when they have earned it by their own labor.  They regard it a great boon that they are allowed to own their share of the crops,  the boon will be infinitely greater when they are allowed to own the soil.

The schools in both districts are represented to be in a very flourishing condition.  I visited only those in Norfolk, and am entirely safe in saying from my own experience in the management of schools and from the testimony of teachers that they have made at least as great progress as white children could have made in the same condition of life and under simular discouraging circumstances.

Q  How far do these people show a disposition to re-establish their old family relations?

A  Their opinions of conjugal fidelity are very loose.

Q  How is it in regard to parental instincts?

A  The fathers I should think are indifferent–much more so than the mothers.  I am not prepared to state very positively from my own enquiries except from those I made of the superintendents and teachers.  They all say, that the men are very much inclined when they get tired of their wives to change them and think it is hard if they cannot.

Q  How far do the Government Superintendents rely upon the intelligence of the negroes to direct their farming operations, in comparison with what they would if they were employing Irish or other laborers?

A  I think quite as much, particularly where they find slaves on the farms where they have lived.

Q  Do they trust them with the care of cattle, seeds, tools &c?

A  I think so entirely.  I heard no complaints of dishonesty or untrustworthiness.

Q  How far do these men show any thrift or economy in the management of what they get–their rations, seeds, tools, and things of that kind?

A  I dont think that question can be answered intelligently because the crops have not been sold yet and the proceeds have not been placed in the freedmen's hands.  They have just had their living out of their farms and are waiting for the reports of the Assistant Supt. soon to be made up, when there will be a division of the produce.

Q  From what you have seen of these people, how far do you think they would succeed in taking care of themselves if not placed under white supervision, but put on the land, and aided in the outset with seeds and tools?

A  That is a hard question to answer.  I don't see why a great many of them would not do as well as Gibberty Davis or Jack Herring has done.

Q  Would they be inclined to try that experiment?

A  A portion of them would have confidence enough to do it–perhaps as large a portion as would be the case among the poor whites but the majority, perhaps, would rather work under superintendence.

Q  How far are they thrifty with what little money they do get?

A  I only know from the testimony of the superintendents, that they are thrifty and economical, and save their money and deposit it.

Q  Are they apt to spend money in drink?

A  No.

Q  Do you find any instances of quarrelling among them?

A  No, they don't seem to need any police.

Q  Are any of them trusted with arms?

A  They have on the Baxter Farm a squad of men who drill an hour a day.  It was found that the Government being short of troops, was unable to protect them from guerillas, and a few weeks ago, Capt Brown organized this squad and placed twenty five muskets in their hands.  I saw them drill.  They are very proud of a musket and will do better service in taking care of guerillas than white soldiers.  Capt. Brown says he would altogether prefer for a scouting party to hunt for guerillas, black soldiers to white.

Q  On the whole from what you saw what is the inference as to the capacity and disposition of these men to support themselves, and assume their places as citizens of the country?

. . .1

Testimony of Hon. F. W. Bird before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, [24 Dec. 1863], filed with O-328 1863, Letters Received, series 12, Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives. Topical labels in the margin are omitted.

1. Subsequent page or pages missing.

Published in The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South, pp. 177–82, and in Free at Last, pp. 279–86.