The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South
As slavery collapsed during the American Civil War, former slaves struggled to secure their liberty, reconstitute their families, and create institutions befitting a free people. But no problem loomed larger than finding a means of support. How would freedpeople feed and clothe themselves? Would they be able to obtain land, draft animals, and tools? Would they or would others benefit from their labor? What, concretely, would freedom mean? This volume of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation examines the emergence of free labor
in the regions of the Upper South that either remained in the
Union or came under federal military control during the war:
tidewater Virginia and North Carolina, the District of Columbia,
middle and east Tennessee, northern Alabama, and the border
states of Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky. It describes the
experiences of former slaves as military laborers, as residents
of federally sponsored “contraband camps,” as wage laborers on
farms and in towns, and, in some instances, as independent
farmers and self-employed workers. It portrays the different – and often
conflicting – understandings of freedom advanced by the
many participants in the wartime evolution of free labor: former
slaveholders, Union military authorities, Northern missionaries,
and the freedpeople themselves.
814 pp. Table of contents (pdf) | Index (pdf)
The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South received the
Founders Award of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society and
the Thomas Jefferson Prize of the Society for History in the
Copies of The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Upper South may be purchased from Cambridge University Press online, by telephone (800-872-7423), or by fax (914-937-4712).
Selected Documents from the Volume
- Order by the Commander of the Department of Virginia, November 1, 1861
General John E. Wool, the Union commander at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, instituted an arrangement in which ex-slave men
employed by the army drew rations and were credited with wages – most of which were not paid to the workers but applied to the support of ex-slave women, children, and aged or disabled men.
- Northern Minister to a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, January 29, 1862
Writing to a U.S. senator from his home state of Massachusetts, an antislavery clergyman in Union-occupied Virginia denounced the army's exaction of forced, uncompensated labor from fugitive slaves and questioned federal policies that upheld slavery.
- Chief Quartermaster of the Department of North Carolina to the Quartermaster General, April 26, 1862; and the Latter's Reply, May 6, 1862
Asked what to do with the fugitive slaves who were “continually coming in” to federal lines in North Carolina, the quartermaster general directed a subordinate to put as many as possible to work for the army.
- Assistant Quartermaster at the Washington, D.C., Depot to the Chief Quartermaster of the Depot, May 1, 1863
In Washington, D.C., the Union war effort relied heavily on black military laborers, including both free men of color and ex-slave “contrabands.” After the government began deducting a $5 monthly tax from the wages of free-black workers, earmarked for the support of dependent former slaves, a quartermaster warned that valuable employees would quit in protest.
- Former Superintendent of the Poor in the Department of North
Carolina to the Chairman of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, May 25, 1863
Vincent Colyer, a Northern missionary who had supervised former slaves in Union-occupied North Carolina in 1862, described how they had assisted federal forces and supported themselves.
- Northern Minister to the Secretary of War, July 11, 1863
When federal authorities in Washington, D.C., could not obtain enough military laborers locally, they ordered the
forcible impressment of black men in coastal Virginia and North Carolina, wrenching hundreds from their homes and families.
- ‣ Assistant Quartermaster at the Washington Depot to the Chief Quartermaster of the Depot, July 31, 1866
‣ Medical Director of the Department of Washington to the Surgeon General, September 4, 1863
In Washington, D.C., where military laborers were in chronically short supply, an officer proposed that many of the menial tasks performed by black men in the city's military hospitals be assigned to convalescing patients, thereby freeing the black men for service at the quartermaster's depot. His enumeration of the black workers' duties, however, unintentionally revealed how vital they were to the hospitals' operations.
- North Carolina Freedmen to the Commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, November 20, 1863
Black men who had been impressed to perform military labor for the Union army addressed an indignant petition to General Benjamin F. Butler.
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- Testimony by the Commissioner for the Organization of Black
Troops in Middle and East Tennessee before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, November 23, 1863
Major George L. Stearns described how the Union army's widespread employment of black men as military laborers and soldiers was undermining slavery in Tennessee, despite its continued legal standing.
- Testimony by a Northern Abolitionist before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, December 24, 1863
Francis W. Bird recounted his tour of the so-called government farms in southeastern Virginia, where former slaves lived and worked on estates seized from Confederate owners and supervised by the federal government.
- Memorandum by a Tennessee White Unionist, January 27? 1864
As slavery in Union-controlled Tennessee eroded despite the state's exclusion from the Emancipation Proclamation, many slaveholders chose to negotiate new terms of labor with their nominal slaves rather than risk losing them altogether
- Testimony by a Northern Woman, January? 1864
The wife of a Northern army chaplain recalled the fate of a settlement of black families that located with an officer's
permission near Fort Albany, in northern Virginia close to Washington, D.C., until an order from higher military
authority ousted them.
- Maryland Lighthouse Keeper to a Baltimore Judge, November 6, 1864
Shortly after a new state constitution abolished slavery in Maryland, a unionist observer described the efforts of local citizens to nullify the former slaves' freedom.
- Maryland Black Minister to the Superintendent of the Middle Department Freedman's Bureau, November 11, 1864
A black minister in Baltimore, Maryland, informed a military official that a secessionist family was forcibly retaining black people in bondage, defying the state's recent abolition of slavery.
- Statement of a Maryland Freedwoman, November 14, 1864
Freed by the adoption of a new state constitution that abolished slavery, Jane Kamper contested her former owner's attempt to keep her children under his control by having them apprenticed to him.
- Provost Marshal at Annapolis, Maryland, to the Commander of the Post of Annapolis, November 23, 1864; Enclosing a Letter from the Judges of the Orphans Court of Anne Arundel County to the Provost Marshal, November 22, 1864
Scarcely had slavery ended in Maryland than former slaveowners sought to retain control over the labor of black people by having ex-slave children bound to them as apprentices, often over the objections of the children's parents.
- Affidavit of a Kentucky Black Soldier, December 15, 1864
A black soldier at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, protested the expulsion of his wife and ailing daughter from the camp, where they had taken refuge after being threatened by their owner.
Commander of the 3rd Separate Brigade, 8th Army Corps, to the Headquarters of the Middle Department and 8th Army Corps, December 15, 1864, Enclosing a Circular by the Brigade Commander, December 6, 1864
General Henry H. Lockwood reported how the apprenticeship system in Maryland worked, and to whose benefit.
- Provost Marshal of the 2nd Subdistrict of North Missouri to the
Provost Marshal General of the Department of the Missouri, January 12, 1865
Expecting a state constitutional convention to abolish slavery, some slaveholders in Missouri showed less interest in retaining their slaves than in shedding responsibility for them, a Union officer informed his superior.
Missouri White Farmer or Farm Laborer to a White Farmer, Spring? 1865
A farmer or farm laborer addressed a courteous protest to a neighbor who had introduced a black settler into the area, possibly as a renter or hired hand.
- Tennessee Unionist to the Tennessee Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, August 8, 1865
Left behind when their Confederate owner fled before a Union advance in 1863, slaves on a farm in Tennessee supported themselves independently until near the war's end, when the proprietor's return threatened their hard-won self-sufficiency.
- Maryland White Unionist to the District of Columbia Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner, September 14, 1865, and Affidavit of a Maryland Freedwoman, September 18, 1865
When Derinda Smothers's fourteen-year-old son ran away from their former owner, to whom he had been apprenticed without her consent, the boy was recaptured and punished with a whipping, while Smothers was jailed for encouraging his escape.
- Statement of a Tennessee Freedwoman, February 27, 1866
Months after the war, one of four black women whose work in military hospitals had taken them to Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama recounted their travels before a Freedmen's Bureau official to whom they had applied for assistance in recovering unpaid wages.
- Maryland Black Apprentice to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent at Washington, D.C., April 22, 1867
Apprenticed during the war to a white Marylander who mistreated him, twelve-year-old Carter Holmes fled to Washington, D.C., in hopes of reuniting with his parents.
- Testimony by an Alabama Freedman before the Southern Claims
Commission, July 31, 1872
With slavery in northern Alabama unravelling during 1862, Alfred Scruggs became free in fact if not at law. In postwar testimony, Scruggs described how he and his wife had worked to acquire livestock of their own, only to lose it to federal impressment parties in 1864.