Freedmen's Bureau Officer in Mississippi to the Headquarters of the Mississippi Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner

Vicksburg, Miss., April 9″, 1866.

Sir   In compliance with provisions of Par 3 Special Orders No 33 current series from your office, directing me to proceed to Friars Point Miss “and examine into the condition of the surrounding districts as per letter of instructions”1 I have the honor to submit the following report of my observations.

On my arrival at Friars Point I immediately obtained an audience with the officers of the Probate Court of Coahoma County,–then in session at that place–, who, on being informed as to the object of my visit, offered me their assistance in ascertaining the condition of the Freedmen, and also gave me information in their possession regarding the same.

Friars Point being the County seat for Coahoma County, is therefore a favorable place for information as to the condition of the Freedmen in the surrounding districts.

I therefore made every effort to inform the citizens and Freedmen of the rural districts of my presence, in order that any special or aggravated cases might be reported to me.  I was obliged to do this, in consequence of the extreme dificulty in traveling about, in consequence of the over-flow of the Miss River:  When cases were reported to me requiring a visit or other action, I made an effort to visit their locality.

I visited one plantation owned by James A. Peace. and suprintended by one Mr Hogan.  On this plantation I found some dissatisfaction existing among the hands, which appeared to have arrisen in consequence of Mr Hogan (who was formerly an overseer) being employed to suprintend the work on the plantation.  I made inquiries regarding the treatment of the hands, by Mr Hogan, and found no complaints whatever; the only objections was that he was an old overseer:  The Freedmen have an idea that overseers are no longer allowed.  I had the hands assembled and reviewed their contracts, and made them a few remarks, showing them their duty in faithfully observing their obligations, also the importance of their obedience to, and showing respect for whoever their employer chose to employ as their suprintendent, so long as no injustice or cruelty is practiced towards them.

I approved their contracts,–which allows them one third of the entire crop, agricultural impliments furnished–, after which they all seemed to be well satisfied and promised to go to work again; which I find since by inquiry they have done.  Measles is making havoc among the children on this plantation; although they are well provided with medical attention.

I visited other plantations in the vicinity and found them generally at work and getting along smoothly with the exception of delay in getting the hands out in the morning early enough to satisfy; and an occasional case of intolerable impudence in consequence thereof.

So far as I could ascertain, the citizens are desirous to offer libiral contracts to the Freedmen, and treat them kindly,–for the present at least–, in order to secure a crop.

I found some cases of violating contracts on the part of the Freedmen, caused as far as I could ascertain by the impression that seems to prevade the minds of Freedmen in that locality that if they can once get to Memphis they can live much easier.

I intercepted four hands from one plantation who were on their way to Memphis, without any definite idea regarding their prospects, other than the idea that “once in Memphis and they are all right”: I directed them to return to their plantation and I would visit them.

I found some misunderstanding existing between one or two of them, and the suprintendent (who by the way appeared to be a very illiterate man, and apparently with little knowledge of governing men except by the lash:) And when the hands expressed a little dissatisfaction he would tell them to leave and if they came back again he would shoot them.

The four hands mentioned had worked three months and by leaving would loose their pay, and their employers valuable hands in an important time when hands are scarce

I therefore directed the hands to go to work until their employers (who are away: Northern men,) should return and adjust their dificulty.  I also advised the suprintendent not to render any further decisions of the kind but refer them to the employers for such action as would be right.

I find, that where one or more Freedman becomes dissatisfied others are very liable to sympathize with him, and in case one leaves, others will follow and thereby forfeit all their dues; and sometimes report their employer for refusing to pay them.

I find the citizens very little inclined to resort to civil law in cases involving jurisdiction over the negro; In fact many of them do not appear to understand that civil law is operative in their cases, but that the Freedmens Bureau should exercise entire control over them.

In some cases dificulty is occasioned by some Freedmen killing and appropriating to their own use, hogs, and fowls, the property of their employers: several cases of this kind were reported to me.

While I have made due allowance for prejudice and former notions regarding the colored man, I find in some cases, cause for complaint on the part of the planter in consequence of Freedmen failing to faithfully perform their obligations.  Sometimes they feign sickness, and loose a great deal of time unnecessarily in other ways; this too in cases where they are the most liberally contracted with.

I heard of no case of cruelty, and only one case of whipping, and that a minor who had been impudent to the suprintendent; this case was reported by the father of the child.

On some of the plantations the Freedmen are in the habit of carrying pistols, and bowie knives, both in the field and while about their quarters; and in some cases when they quarrel among themselves they use their weapons freely: although no case was reported to me in which parties had been wounded   One case of this kind occurred on one of Gen'l N B Forrest's plantations; which originated in consequence of one Freedman whipping a child of another Freedman, whereupon one drew a knife on the other, and in turn the other discharged his revolver three times at the former but without serious results; the pistol shots penatrated the residence of the suprintendent whose wife bearly escaped being shot.  Both parties were arraigned before me and acknowledged their guilt: I gave them some advice and received their promise that they would faithfully conduct themselves in a proper manner hereafter.

General N B Forrest's plantation, the last I visited, and on which is employed the greatest number of hands of any place I visited I will speak of particularly inasmuch as influences exercised over them, extends in some degree over Freedmen on the neighbouring plantations.

General Forrest works about 140 hands on two plantations, contracted with by the month, for the year 1866.  His contracts range higher than any others I found: for 1″ class hands he pays $20. per month and subsists them, deducting actual costs for dependents.

While I was there he rearranged his contracts and disposed of a few hard cases by transferring them to another planter near Friars Point; So that he has now a large force and in excelent condition. All well clothed and looking healthy with the exception of some cases of Small Pox.  The hands in this neighbourhood were most of them brought from Georgia, especially those on Forrests' place.  There has been several cases of Small Pox, but it is beleived to be disappearing under his precaution in establishing a seperate hospital for all such cases

Before rearranging his contracts I had the Freedmen assembled and spoke to them in regard to their duties, their condition and their rights: And expressed my aprobation of the new contracts which they then signed & are manifestly well satisfied

I examined his accounts with his hands at his own request and found that almost every one of them are in his debt from $25. to $90. for clothing and articles which they needed.  He informed me, as also did others in the neighbourhood that when the Freedmen arrived there from Georgia, many of the children were entirely destitute of clothing and some of the men and weomen were nearly so; consequently they were furnished with many articles they needed in advance.

I found a sentiment here existing among the hands against a white man for suprintendent: Some of the best hands told me “they would not have a suprintendent to direct them as they knew how to do work as well as any white man”.

There has been some cases of insubordination on all three of the Generals plantations: but more especially on the one in the control of Mr Diffenbacker, from Iowa, late an officer in the Union Vol Army from whom I obtained the following information:

For several weeks past there was a spirit of insubordination manisfested among some of the Freedmen employed by Diffenbacker in opposition to his efforts to get them to work a proper number of hours each day agreeable with the rules adopted by him in the management of the labor on his plantation:  This insubordinate manifestation was assisted and encouraged by a leading character employed on the home plantation of General Forrest, by the name of Tom Edwards.  Mr Diffenbacker had occasion to be absent on business in Memphis leaving the management of his place in the hands of Mr Tann (a partner of Mr D– also a late Union officer)   during this time some of the Freedmen became impudent, and refused to work or obey Mr Tann, whereupon he threatened to tie one of them up by the thumbs   At this they nearly all quit work, and some one of them went over to the other place and got their chief (Tom Edwards) and some of his followers, who came back armed with a Spencer rifle and other war-like weapons, and joined in the moovement.

They then formed a procession and went to the residence of Mr Diffenbacker and demanded to see him:  Mrs Diffenbacker informed them that her husband had not yet returned, & told them they must go away, and go about their work.  They then commenced cursing and threatning, marching back & forth by the door, telling what they would do if Mr Diffenbacker was there:  After a while they dispersed without further disturbance

It appears that Edwards was displeased with Mr Diffenbacker for something which occurred while he was on the other place with reference to his (Edwards) abusing his wife; which he is reported to have been adicted to; And had threatened to shoot Mr Diffenbacker for interfering.

This was the only case of positive insubordination which was reported to me.  Four of the participants went away when they heard a request had been made for an officer of the Bureau to visit the place.

In brief I may say the Freedmen are getting along remarkably well and are usually at work and well satisfied with their contracts, which are in most cases very liberal, if they are duly honored by justice when the crops are divided

Wherever the Freedmen are submissive and perform the labor they contract to do in good faith, they are,–so far as I was able to ascertain–, treated with kindness and dealt justly with by the citizens.

I find the Freedmen very incredulous with their employers; more especially so if they were formerly slave owners, or Southern men

The crime of poligamy, adultery, and indiscriminate sexual intercourse exists among the Freedmen to an alarming extent; to which may be attributed the cause of a very large proportion of the cases of dissatisfaction, and violations of contracts.  I found one case of this kind where one man had been driven away from a plantation by another Freedman arrising from a case of adultery.  I found no efforts put forth on the part of the whites to prevent these evils:  They affirm that if the Freedmen are admonished they are very sure to offer impudence, and refuse to work as much time as they might consequently they are allowed to suit their own pleasure about taking to themselves wifes, and leaving them at their choice; also violating law and order in other particulars regarding the subject.

I find the rites of Matrimony among them, seldom ever solemnized or legalized; but whenever they choose, they call themselves married and live togeather until they take a notion to seperate, frequently leaving children without any protection.

A case of this kind was brought before my notice on Mr B F Johnsons plantation near Swan Lake

Wife whipping and beating is practiced among the Freedmen very considerably: And is believed by many of them to be their special prerogative.

In regard to the law apprenticing minors, I find it has been for some time inoperative in consequence,–as Judge George informed me–, of a misunderstanding existing between the local officers and the Atty General of the State in regard to the intent of the law; but that the work would now go on again.2  There are a number of cases which need immediate action.

Having reported the facts as they were presented to me, I beg leave in conclusion to add as my opinion, that while there are many who would be willing to assist the Freedmen in their new and improved condition; there are others who might not scruple to oppress, and defraud the colored people to any extent wire it were not for the very existence, and presence of the Freedmens Bureau, sustained as it has heretofore been in its executive authority.

I append herewith the statements “verbatim et literatim” of persons regarding the killing of a colored man (named Tom Edwards) by General N B Forrest on the plantation of the latter, March 31″ 1866

In addition to the statements herewith appended, the sentiment among the Freedmen and others appears to be against the conduct of the man Edwards who was killed   They unanimously represent him as having been a bad, disorderly man.

Before taking the statements of the colored persons, I administered the usual oath to them, and spoke to them in relation to the value and sancity of the same

After committing the deed, General Forrest delivered himself up to the civil authorities.  I have the honor to be Sir Very Resp'f'ly Your obt servant

Geo. W. Corliss.

1″ Lieut. Geo. W. Corliss to Lieut Stuart Eldridge, 9 Apr. 1866, C-30 1866, Registered Letters Received, series 2052, MS Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives. On letterhead of the assistant commissioner's office. Enclosed are five statements and one letter concerning the killing of the freedman Tom Edwards by Nathan B. Forrest, who had been a Confederate general.

1. The order and the letter of instructions were both dated March 21, 1866. The letter directed the officer to “examine so far as you may be able the condition of the Freedmen in the counties of Bolivar. Coahoma & Tunica ascertaining the disposition of the citizens and the civil authorities both by conversation with them and the Freedmen.” He was to “investigate and take evidence” regarding “[a]ny special or aggravated cases of abuse or injustice” and to pay particular attention to “the execution of the law apprenticing Freedmen and the contract system.” (Special Orders No 33, Bureau Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. Office Assistant Commissioner for Mississippi, 21 Mar. 1866, vol. 33, pp. 49–50, Special Orders & Property Orders Issued, series 2057, MS Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives; Lt. Stuart Eldridge to Lieut G W. Corliss, 21 Mar. 1866, vol. 16, pp. 444–45, Press Copies of Letters Sent, series 2045, MS Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.)

2. A law enacted the previous November required the binding out as apprentices of black children under the age of eighteen who were orphans or whose parents lacked the means to support them, giving the former owners of ex-slave children the preference over other would-be masters and mistresses. (An Act to Be Entitled “An Act to Regulate the Relation of Master and Apprentice, as Relates to Freedmen, Free Negroes, and Mulattoes,” 22 Nov. 1865, Laws of the State of Mississippi, Passed at a Regular Session of the Mississippi Legislature, Held in the City of Jackson, October, November and December, 1865 [Jackson, Miss., 1866], pp. 86–90.) The “misunderstanding” about the law's intent was addressed in an opinion of March 12, 1866, by the state's attorney general that is described in Land and Labor, 1866–1867, pp. 579–80n.

Published in Land and Labor, 1866–1867, pp. 407–12.