Yankee planters

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 7 07:43:15 MDT 2003

 From chapter six ("Negroes on the Brain") of "New Masters : Northern
Planters During the Civil War and Reconstruction" by Lawrence Powell. This
book examines the record of abolitionists who went South to run plantations
on a "free labor" basis.


A few northern planters lost the freedmen's confidence before they had a
chance to win it. Yankees who attempted to get a foothold in the coastal
area of South Carolina and Georgia that General Sherman had set aside for
black occupancy received a different reception from what they expected. The
federal government had reneged on its promise of free land to the
ex-slaves, and under President Johnson's directives and the Freedmen's
Bureau's supervision, the plantations on which thousands of black people
had recently staked out claims were gradually restored to their old owners.
The freedmen were bitterly disappointed, and for good reason. They had been
doing quite well cultivating on their own account, and in some of the
settlements they had even established their own civil governments, "with
Constitution and laws, for the regulation of their entire affairs, with all
the different departments of Schools, Churches, building roads and other
improvements." Their anger was understandable when they were told that they
must either contract with the old owners or evacuate the property. They
were not willing to do either, in any case. Nor did they intend to extend
open arms to the men who the ex-slaveholders believed would bring them to

It seems that the black homesteaders were inclined to interpret literally a
clause in Sherman's original order forbidding whites to enter the territory
without proper authorization. A party of Pennsylvanians who landed on Johns
Island to look over some plantation property for which they were
negotiating met with rough treatment. Although they had obtained the state
Bureau commissioner's permission to make the trip, the freedmen arrested
them anyway as soon as they put ashore and then marched them twelve miles
across the island to see the resident Bureau agent. Before the journey
ended, the interlopers' escort had grown to one hundred and fifty armed and
angry people, full of threats to kill any "cussed white man who cum on Jim
or Jon for take he property." The agent quickly freed the prisoners, though
not without grumbling from the people.

The affair on Johns Island may have been the most spectacular instance of
black resistance to dispossession, but it was not an isolated incident.
Throughout the area of Sherman's land grants came reports that the freedmen
were arming themselves and vowing not to give up their lands. General James
C. Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother, had his hands full trying to
discipline the blacks in his jurisdiction. Before arresting the ringleaders
in the Johns Island affair, he prohibited a black meeting on Wadmelaw
Island, South Carolina, that aimed at preventing white trespassing. The
people on nearby Edisto Island were just as restless. They appointed a
commissioner to represent their case before authorities and declared they
were "at liberty to hold meetings when and where they pleased." In some
cases, Beecher cut rations in order to restore order; at other times, he
used troops to place Yankees in possession of their leased plantations.
Beecher also dismissed a civilian Bureau agent who he said was "largely
instrumental in instructing the freed people to acts of stupid violence."

Military authorities in Georgia faced similar problems. General Davis
Tillson, the Freedmen's Bureau commissioner, had to resort to strong
measures to install some northern planters upon the coast. St. Catherines
and Sapelo Islands were his largest headache. Tunis G. Campbell, a
northern-born black, had received authority to organize self-government
among his charges, and he had thrown himself into the work with commendable
zeal. His headquarters was known as the "Republic of St. Catherines" and
boasted of a bicameral legislature. He had done good work. One citizen of
the republic later testified that Campbell "told the colored people how to
behave and how to live peaceably among themselves." Campbell perhaps did
his job too well, given the political realities at military headquarters.
He raised a standing army and placed armed pickets around the coast to
prevent an invasion of white men. This move brought him to the attention of
the authorities.

General Tillson dismissed Campbell early in 1866, for reasons that are not
entirely clear. But they probably had something to do with the complaints
of Yankee planters who had been trying to find a lodgment on the islands
under Campbell's regency. At any rate, the two northerners whom Tillson
placed on Sapelo Island pretty much had their own way. One freedman who
witnessed the transition later claimed that the Yankees stole "everything
the colored man made, and . . . this stealing and outrage was done by the
direction of Gen'l Tilson [sic]." The commissioner was nearly as obliging
to the two newcomers who succeeded Campbell on St. Catherines Island. He
consolidated the freedmen's land grants that he did recognize at one end of
the island, in order to allow the northerners to work an unbroken unit of
land. By May of 1866 most of the Georgia Sea Islands were "under the
control of northern men." General Tillson got high marks for quietly
helping Yankees "to get a foothold on the Coast." Already New Englanders
were envisioning the day when "it will become the fashion to take a winter
trip to St. Simon's for a deer hunt, rather than a summer tour to the
Adirondacks or Moosehead Lake.'' It was rather a sadending for an
interesting experiment. The freedmen drew the appropriate conclusion. As
one ex-slaveholder in the low country observed, "They find the Yankee only
a speculator and they have no confidence in anyone."

As every close student of Reconstruction knows, northerners at Port Royal
had discovered two years earlier how the freedmen could react to the
breaking of promises. The failure of the federal government to carry out
its preemption scheme, which would have applied the western homesteading
principle to the tax lands on the islands, had a predictable effect on the
ex-slaves. The blacks "had all set their minds on owning for themselves and
swore they'd never work for a white man." On some plantations bought or
leased by Yankees in the winter of 1863-64, the people simply refused "to
have anything to do with the new proprietors." With the help of friendly
military authorities, they forced a commission merchant from Albany, New
York, to relinquish the leases he had acquired to thirteen plantations. The
freedmen's anger even recoiled against their old friends. Edward Philbrick
now had trouble asserting his right to land that a year earlier his workers
had been glad he had bought. A few freedmen informed him that they would
work the land for themselves, even though he had already dismissed one gang
for similar tactics a short while before. On the Cherry Hill place, the
hands coolly told Philbrick and William Waters, his new lessee, that "the
plantation belonged to them by right, that they were born & brought up on
the land, that their masters had run away and left them in possession of
the land, and no white man, except their old master, had a right to take
the land from them." From this point onward, as Willie Lee Rose tells us,
things were never the same again on the South Carolina Sea Islands.

The freedmen did not have to be told that in an agricultural republic there
was no surer guarantee of independence than the ownership of land. An
ex-slave in the Mississippi Valley put the case clearly: "What's de use of
being free if you don't own land enough to be buried in? Might juss as well
stay slave all you' days." The instincts of black people after emancipation
were in the direction of greater independence and more autonomy for
themselves and their families, and the newcomers would have to reckon with
this fact of life continually. If the freedmen could not possess land of
their own, they would at least see to it that the conditions of their
existence conformed to their ideas of how the plantation should now
function. And they meant to have a say in what those new realities would be.

Northern planters with ambitions for reforming plantation agriculture were
usually among the first to learn of the spirit in the freedmen's quarters.
The hands generally resisted efforts to modify their work routine unless it
involved abandoning the gang system altogether. They were tenacious in
sticking to old ways of doing things, Harriet Beecher Stowe thought, "even
when one would have thought another course easier and wiser." She had no
luck in trying to change their diet. Charles Stearns's remonstrances
against eating pork (he disliked the smell of hogs about the place) were
received coldly by the people. He could not persuade them to accept a
double ration of beans and rice in its stead. Attempts to introduce new
machinery were also expensive failures. The loss or destruction of valuable
equipment dampened the reform ardor. Before long, some Yankees were
concluding that the lighter and cheaper agricultural utensils of the old
order had certain advantages that they had never seen before. This
resistance of the hands to change commonly evoked complaints of "negro
conservatism," of an unreasonable commitment to "old ideas, old customs,
old ways of performing labor, and especially old sins." The charge was
probably correct, for laboring people the world over have an instinctive
affection for order and predictability. Even so, something else was
involved in the freedmen's reluctance to embrace such changes in routine.
Not even the survival of the old slavery-bred habit of rebelliousness can
account for their reluctance to accept change. What the ex-slaves seemed to
be saying was that reform initiatives of this kind should properly
originate in the quarters, not in the Big House. Henry Lee Higginson came
close to the heart of the matter: "Now they cannot be induced to talk, to
ask questions. They will listen but not heed much from a white man." The
freedmen had too much else on their minds to be bothered with the advice of
even well-intentioned friends.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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