Testimony by the Commissioner for the Organization of Black Troops in Middle and East Tennessee before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission

[Nashville, Tenn.  November 23, 1863]

Testimony of Maj. Geo. L. Stearns.

Q  How do you find things here?

A  Slavery is dead; that is the first thing.  That is what we all begin with here, who know the state of affairs.  The next most distinguishing feature in this country, in relation to slavery & the Gov't is, the manner in which these people are cowed by the force of the Gov't.  Slaveholders of all classes,–the common farmer, the most aristocratic man and the most aristocratic lady–come into this room to talk with me about their slaves, and are the most polite people I ever saw.  I should say the bulk of the people here are not yet exactly satisfied that the slaves are to be free.  Many of them give it up, but there is a lingering hope that by some hocus-pocus things will get back to the old state.  So long as that continues, the master has not made up his mind to hire his slave, & the slave finds that it is very difficult to work for anybody who will pay him.  The great difficulty here has been the injustice of the U.S. Gov't to the slave.  I do not mean to say that it was intentional on the part of anybody; on the contrary, the more I see of it, the more I see it was a political necessity

Q  In what does the injustice consist?

A  One case will suffice for all.  Brig. Gen. Morton, now of the Engineer Corps, was ordered by Gen. Buell, a year ago last July, to superintend the fortifications of Nashville.  It was a very important work; and, as he told me this morning, they collected by impressment and by voluntary offer of service, some three thousand negroes to work on the fortifications.  They were obliged to give them poor food, because they had nothing better; they had no tents, and slept in the open air.  These men lived upon inferior meat & bread,–the refuse, of course, of the army supplies,–& slept on the hill-side at night.  He says they worked well, and through all that were cheerful, although in the fifteen months that they have been employed at that fort–Fort Negley–about 800 have died.  He says he thinks it was necessary, because, by the building of that fort, at that time, the safety of Nashville was secured, and we were enabled to hold Nashville, instead of making a stand at Fort Donelson.

Q  How were they paid?

A  They never have been paid.  Such examples are everywhere.  I know from what I see in this department that they must be everywhere, and they exist from the same cause; and that is, the refusal of the Gov't, at the time, to decide whether the negro or his master should be paid.  They blinked the question here, as they blinked it everywhere.  I want you to understand, that this is all hearsay testimony, and I am not to be called upon to prove it.  I will give you the names of parties familiar with the facts.  [NOTE. See letter of Capt. Morton, at end of Nashville testimony.]1

Q  You say slavery is dead.  Now, the practical question we are concerned in is, to what extent and in what way ought the gov't to interfere to aid the transition.  Ought they to let the problem work out itself, or do something to relieve the suffering incidental to such a condition; and if so, what should they do?

A  It is my impression, that the less gov't interference we can have, the better.  But there seems to me to be two necessities; these complied with, Gov't may leave everything else alone.  First, the necessity of the Gov't for troops.  They must have them, and they can get them in the South cheaper, and with less disturbance to the country than they can anywhere else.

Q  And as good troops?

A  Better.  I should be willing to risk all I have upon making, within six months, better troops in this department, than you can find in the United States army.

Q  You will risk 10,000 of them, well officered, against 10,000 confederates?

A  Confederates or Yankees either.

Q  That is the first necessity.  What is the other?

A. The other is, that in taking these men–the gov't say they want 20,000–there will be a large number of women & their families left, who have attached themselves to these soldiers, and whom these soldiers recognize as their wives and children, whether they are their own children or not.

Q  Before you pass from that, just tell us whether you suppose they would have any objection to being married?

A. On the contrary, there is nothing that would delight them so much as to have the marriage ceremony performed, and particularly in church.  The negro, you know, is very religious.  The value of the negro to us, at this moment, is in his enthusiasm, which far exceeds that of the white; in his cheerfulness, which is to be seen everywhere, North & South, especially under privation; in his capacity to bear hardships, and in his capacity for discipline.  You can discipline colored troops in half the time that you can white.  The negro gives his whole attention to the work, and takes a pride in it.  They want to enlist.  They do not feel themselves to be soldiers, until they get the muskets.  They never feel sure of it, because they have been told so many times that they were enlisting for soldiers, and found themselves laborers.

Q  Do you find that they prefer to be soldiers or laborers?

A  I should say that two-thirds of them would prefer being soldiers to being laborers.

Q  Are they unwilling as soldiers to labor, when labor is called for?

A  Oh, no, they labor cheerfully.

Q  Your opinion is, that in the course of six months, well-drilled, they will become, on the average, at least as good soldiers as whites?

A  Yes; I do not think it admits of a question.

Q  How many colored soldiers have you in this department?

A  We have about the equivalent of three regiments–3000 men.

Q  Are they consolidated in regiments?

A  Yes; they are not scattered any more than the white troops; perhaps not so much as many of the white regiments.

Q  What is to be done with the women and children?  Is it necessary for the gov't to interfere for their protection & comfort?

A  At this time, there are a large number of them who are destitute, because the soldiers and laborers on the fortifications have never been paid.  In view of this destitution of the families, which at one time was pressing upon us very severely, and is still, though I do not think it has been increasing for the last two or three weeks, I wrote a letter to the Governor, to induce him to interfere in the matter, as he has the power to do, but he cannot see the end of it, and is very loath to enter upon it.  I proposed to the Governor to take the Fairview estate, near Gallatin, which contains 1500 acres, probably 1000 arable land and 300 woodland, and lay off 200 lots of two acres each, and put a hut on each lot,–one hut to each family; the lots to be cultivated for their own use.  There will then be a farm of 600 acres left, on which they will work six hours per day in summer and four in winter, leaving them the rest of the time to culvitate their own patches.  They will have a Commissary and Quartermaster to supply their food & clothing, as far as the Gov't can supply them, a Chaplain to educate the children and enforce cleanliness in and about their farms, and a farmer to manage the farm.  The negro is very anxious to know what will become of his family if he enlists, and would be very glad to allot his pay for their support.  If the Gov't pays him $13,00 a month, he can spare $10.00;2 but the money will never reach his family, if they are scattered round the country; but on the plan I propose, they could be reached readily.  Thus we should have 200 families, each receiving $10.00 per month, or $2000 in all.  The details of subsistence, & the supplying of clothing to each family could be adjusted in time.

Q  About what proportion of Tenn. do we now hold?

A. Practically, it is less than half the State.  That is, you are safe inside our picket lines, and are not safe anywhere else.  The State is under our dominion, but you, going out through this State, and your business being known as a Gov't commission, or myself going out, being known as the Commissioner for enlisting colored troops, it would be a question whether your life or mine would be safe.  The guerrillas are everywhere.  I should provide, that the moment any of these families undertook to take care of themselves, they should be permitted to go.  Interfere as little as possible.  If they can make a bargain to work for any farmer on better terms than they can obtain on the plantation, let them do so.  The moment the Gov't lets up the price of labor, by allowing their Quartermasters & their engineers & other officers to employ men at fair rates of wages, that moment you change the whole condition of labor in this department, at least.  Every able-bodied man then brings his price.  The only difficulty in this operation is, you see, that the laborer is transferred to the army, and under the ordinary state of affairs, there is no mode by which his wages can be paid to his family.

Q  You say the Governor has power to provide for the families?

A  Yes, I think so; but you shall judge for yourselves.  [Maj. Stearns here presented extracts from the instructions to Gov. Johnson, which fully confirmed his statement.]3

. . . .

Q  In a general way, in Middle & Eastern Tennessee, do the negro women work on the plantations?

A  Yes, Sir.

Q  Do you think the reverse is true of Ky?

A  I should think it cannot be true, from what I have heard.

Q  You think, then, no further interference is needed on the part of the Gov't than you propose?

A  No; I am certain that is enough.  I think that would be an advantage to the whole country.  The idea is this:  that the moment you bring the supply of labor low, so that the whites will be glad to take any labor rather than work themselves, the question is settled.  The black will then receive good treatment and good pay, because, if he don't, he will say, “I won't work for you.”  That will come, the moment peace is restored to the land.  The moment this rebellion is quelled, and no hope of any other control than that of the United States, and no hope of the restoration of slavery, that moment, they will begin to cast about to see what they shall do; and there will come such a demand for labor, that from that moment the question is settled.

Q  What wages do negroes receive here?

A  They can readily get a dollar a day for ordinary work.  It is, of the greatest importance that all these men, when employed by the Gov't, should be regularly paid.  If payment is delayed, they have no faith in the ultimate intentions of the Gov't.  The Gov't is losing, here in the immediate vicinity of Nashville, not less than a million of dollars, by the loss of necessary labor, which by paying promptly, they might have obtained.  The principal officer of engineers, Brig. Genl Morton, said to me that he could profitably employ 10000 more negroes, if he had them, on the works from Fort Donelson to Murfreesboro'.

One feature in the slave system of Tennessee should be borne in mind, and that is, that the chief value of the negroes is in rearing young negroes for the Southern market.

The important element in the civilization of the negro is good wages, regularly paid.  He knows well enough what he wants, and he knows how to get what he wants, if he has fair pay and his liberty   He knows, too, what he should avoid, and has a very fair perception of self-interest, and considerable sagacity.  I am speaking of the negroes of Tennessee.

It seems to me of great importance that in all the Federal courts, the evidence of the negro should be taken just as that of the white man is.  [Query–Do the Federal Courts follow the State laws in this respect?]4

It is a mistake to suppose that the reports which appear in the Northern papers of cruelties exercised towards the negroes in the extreme South are untrue.  Those who have witnessed them testify to this fact.  I have often been assured that the planters here in Tennessee have sometimes to watch their daughters to keep them from intercourse with the negroes.  This, though of course exceptional, is yet common enough to be a source of uneasiness to parents.

Numerous applications have been made to me by planters in the vicinity of Nashville, especially during the last month, to take their slaves by force, as they say they have become a nuisance to them, and they want me to make soldiers of them.  These applications have come from men & women from both farmers and mechanics.  Many of them wished their slaves taken, whether they got compensation or not.  About forty have been offered to me in the last month.

There are striking examples of ability occasionally met with among slaves.  I know a slave at Mrs. Acklands, near Nashville, a slave who manages the hot-houses and green-houses there, and I have never seen any in the North managed with more judgment.  I know another, who is a blacksmith, who has earned for his mistress an average of a thousand dollars a year for fifteen or twenty years.  He continued to work for her after the insurrection, but having accidentally hurt himself, and wishing to have some medicine, he sent to his mistress and asked for it.  She refused to give it to him, telling him he might buy it himself; upon which he resolved that instead of working for her, he would work for himself.  He is now doing so, and in the regular receipt of five dollars a day.  His mistress came to me recently and urged me to take this negro by force; but not desiring to take these men by force, I declined to do so.

I find that the prejudice of color fades away before negro recruiting, whereever it is tried.  I believe the enlisting of the negro as a soldier will do more to elevate the negro character than any other influence–more, probably, than all other influences combined.  I think that, in the end, the two races will harmonize, and my opinion is that the black man will elevate himself faster than the Southern white, especially that class called the poor whites of the South.  Before the war, there were no negro schools here; but now there are ten or twelve such schools established in this city, and all of them supported by blacks.  The average attendance in these schools is 800.

. . . .

Excerpts from testimony of Maj. Geo. L. Stearns before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, [23 Nov. 1863], filed with O-328 1863, Letters Received, series 12, Adjutant General's Office, Record Group 94, National Archives.

1. Brackets in manuscript. For the letter in question, see The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South, pp. 421–22.

2. At the time, black soldiers were in fact paid only $10 per month, minus $3 for clothing, whereas white privates received $13, plus clothing. (See The Black Military Experience, chap. 7.)

3. Brackets in manuscript. The instructions to Andrew Johnson, military governor of Tennessee, were presumably those issued by the Secretary of War in April 1863, which directed Johnson, among other things, to “take in charge” the slaves of disloyal owners “and provide for their useful employment and subsistence,” to “take measures to secure employment and reasonable compensation for the labor of all others [slaves] of whatever age or sex,” to take possession of abandoned property and use it “as you deem proper,” and to lease out abandoned plantations. (U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compendium of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. [Washington, 1880–1901], series 3, vol. 3, pp. 122–23.)

4. Brackets in manuscript. Federal courts did indeed follow state laws respecting the competency of witnesses, which meant, in all Southern states and many Northern ones, that black witnesses could not testify in cases to which white people were party. In July 1864, however, Congress forbade the exclusion of witnesses from federal courts on account of color. (U.S., Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America, vol. 12 [Boston, 1863], pp. 588–89, and vol. 13 [Boston, 1866], p. 351.)

Published in The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South, pp. 415–21.