South Carolina Planters to the Commander of the Northern District of the Department of the South

Eastern Branch of Cooper River
[Charleston District, S.C.]. June 20th '65

General,  We are very reluctant to trespass upon your valuable time.  Our apology for doing so must be the necessity of the case.  There is no Gun-Boat on our river now & no officer in authority sufficiently near promptly to aid us with his counsel & protection & to redress our many greivances, increasing daily, more & more.  No alternative is left us, but respectfully to appeal to you at Head Quarters to define our rights that we may govern ourselves accordingly, & that, knowing, we may understand how we may conform strictly to your views & wishes.  The information we desire, we have embodied in the following interrogatories.  We submit them to your consideration with all due respect, & hope you will oblige us by a reply, for the benefit of all concerned.

1st. Is the land, or is it not, our's?–

2nd. Have strange negroes the right to come on our plantations & settle there, without our consent?–  If we order them off & they refuse to go, what is the power we possess to enforce compliance with our wishes?

3d. Have we not the power to send away the idle & dissolute negroes that formerly belonged to us, & who will not work;–hunting all day, depredating on the stock of the country, killing cattle, sheep, hogs–instead of contributing by their personal labour towards making provisions for the next year; thereby setting a bad example to, & are being complained of daily by the better disposed & more industrious people on our plantations?–

4th Have negroes the right to be walking about our plantations with guns or pistols in their hands, claiming a right, because they have been pronounced free, to the stock of their former owners, & in some cases, contending even, for right to the land itself?

5th Have boats, from town, the privilege to land passengers on our plantations without our consent, & to come there, trading for grain &c. with liquor, much to the demoralization of the freedmen?

6th Have negroes, who seldom work, a right to share equally with those who are uniformly at their business?

7th How many hours in each day, are the negroes expected to work?

8th If the negroes rob our barns of provisions, reserved for their especial use, are we expected to furnish another supply?

9th Can we not compel the negroes to work together, as a gang, & when the crop is made, to harvest it & thrash it out, so that an equal division may be made.  This was the understanding generally with the freedmen when they first began to work.

10th. The contract recommended by Gen: Hatch has been submitted by some of our Planters to the negroes working their lands, but they have refused to sign it.1  What are we to do under such circumstances?  We would, also, like to know whether the form of contract furnished by Capt Montell is approved by Gen: Hatch, a doubt being raised in our minds by the fact, that the penalty is only attached to one side for not signing.2  The owner of the land is willing to sign, & has, in many instances done so, why should not the freedman be required to do the same, a penalty to be visited on him, if needs be, for his contumacy?

11th Cannot a communication be established between Strawberry ferry & the city by steamboat, at least, twice a week, by which our grievances & condition of plantations may be reported regularly to the proper authorities, in accordance with Gen: Hatch's order.

[17 signatures]

John B. Irving et al. to Brig: General J. P. Hatch, 20 June 1865, Letters Received, series 2421, Northern District, Department of the South, U.S. Army Continental Commands, Record Group 393 Pt. 2 No. 145, National Archives. Each of the signatures is in a different handwriting, none of which appears to match that of the letter itself. Of the seven signers who provided given names, two were women; the remaining signers used initials. No reply has been found in the letters-sent volumes of the Northern District of the Department of the South.

1. On April 25, 1865, General John P. Hatch, commander of the Northern District of the Department of the South, had ordered landowners to make “[e]quitable contracts in writing” with the freedpeople on their estates and submit them to “the nearest Military or Naval Commander for approval.” Directing that wages be paid “in kind,” Hatch recommended “one-half the crop . . . as fair compensation for the labor, the landlord furnishing subsistence until the crop is gathered.” The crops of landowners who failed to enter into contracts, he warned, “will be considered forfeited for the use of the laborers.” (The order is printed in Land and Labor, 1865, p. 332.)

2. F. M. Montell was the Freedmen's Bureau superintendent in charge of plantations along the Cooper River. The “form of contract” was probably the one incorporated into a circular letter used by General Rufus Saxton, the bureau's assistant commissioner for South Carolina, in appointing subordinate agents. It bound planters to furnish “freed laborers” with rations, quarters, fuel, and medical attendance, as well as wages “to be paid in full before the final disposal of the crop.” The Freedmen's Bureau “prescribes no fixed rates of wages,” Saxton emphasized, “but leaves labor free to compete with other things of positive value in market.” He recommended, however, “as far as possible,” that freedpeople “cultivate the land for a share–one-half of the crop,” and he stipulated that employers who failed to make contracts with their workers “will be required to compensate them in such a manner as shall be satisfactory to the assistant commissioner.” (U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, “Freedmen's Bureau. Letter from the Secretary of War, in Answer to a Resolution of the House of March 8, Transmitting a Report, by the Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau, of All Orders Issued by Him or Any Assistant Commissioner,” House Executive Documents, 39th Cong., 1st sess., No. 70, serial 1256, pp. 89–91.)

Published in Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 97–99.