On November 7, 1861, the U.S. Army occupied the South Carolina sea islands. Suddenly having to deal with the existence of thousands of slaves with no masters, the military engaged in what became known as the Port Royal Experiment. This precursor to Reconstruction is an important moment in American history, one that proved to skeptical whites that blacks would work without slavery and one that demonstrated the very real limits even for abolitionists in thinking about the post-slavery future in the South.
It’s a little hard to imagine the debates about black work in 1861. The idea that African-Americans were inherently lesser than whites was so ingrained, it was a real and open question in the North whether black people would work without white supervision. In part, this is what the Port Royal Experiment was about. What would black people do on the cotton farms without their masters? Moreover, the North really needed the cotton. It’s own textile factories had suddenly lost their raw supplies when the Civil War began and the U.S. had lost one of its leading export products to Britain, which Lincoln desperately hoped to keep out of the war. So a series of factors came together in South Carolina to create the need to figure out what a post-slave economy might look like.
By January 1862, the military was working with the black population to grow cotton for the army instead of for the slaveholders. General Thomas Sherman sent a request to the north for teachers to come and work with the slaves. The official beginning of the Port Royal Experiment was that April, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase appointed Boston attorney Edward Pierce to organize a relief effort and training program for the slaves that would include hospitals and schools and programs to allow the slaves to buy land and farm for themselves. By May, 53 missionaries and educators were on their way to South Carolina. The ex-slaves were employed in growing cotton for the wage of $1 for every 400 pounds they harvested. Edward Philbrick led the labor plan. He ended the slave system of gang labor, gave workers garden plots for themselves, and provided a variety of incentives for the workers. Ultimately, men like Philbrick wanted to implement the free labor ideology at the heart of the Republican Party in the South and teach it to the ex-slaves. As the government took over more plantations during the war, it began to implement Philbrick’s plan through its confiscated lands.
In 1863, President Lincoln built on this program by allowing for the limited confiscation of Confederate plantations and the division of the land among the slaves. Limited to 40,000 acres of abandoned plantations, most of the impact took place in the sea islands. The land was sold for $1.25 an acre. Although most African-Americans could not afford anything near this price, local freed slaves bought about 2000 acres of land with the money they could scrape together. Northern whites could also buy the land and did so, creating new plantations for themselves worked by paid laborers. The freed slaves also founded their first free town in South Carolina, Mitchelville, on Hilton Head Island. By 1865, it had 1500 residents. Largely these residents wanted to live away from white people, whether from the North or the South. They wanted freedom, autonomy, and independence to make their own decisions about life and work.
The government’s role in redistributing the land and taking care of the ex-slaves was, like much in the Civil War, deeply contradictory and filled with bureaucratic chaos. The soldiers under Sherman and the civilians sent down by Chase clashed constantly. The soldiers routinely beat and raped the slaves, stealing their food and their land. All of this outraged the missionaries and of course the freed slaves, but little was done, despite the official complaints. Congress never clarified what exactly should happen in the sea islands. Chase’s military men cared about getting the cotton in any way possible while his civilians wanted to teach citizenship to the ex-slaves. No cohesive plan ever developed and thus the success of the experiment was compromised from the beginning. The cotton did come, but not to the extent that it had before the war, in no small part because a lot of the ex-slaves did not want to grow cotton. A boll weevil epidemic also took a major toll on the crop. Philbrick himself believed the experiment a failure because the ex-slaves did not do precisely as he wanted them to do. He ended up selling off the plantation he had bought to the residents in small plots.
The Port Royal Experiment was tremendously successful in one way–it demonstrated to skeptical northerners that black people would work for themselves. Again, I recognize that this seems obviously self-evident but that was not the case in the early 1860s. Unfortunately by 1865, support for the redistribution of Confederate land to the ex-slaves had become very low throughout the North. Even among most Republicans and abolitionists, the sanctity of private property would be more important than economic redistribution. The suffrage became the key for abolitionists to lock in black rights, despite the fact that the first thing the ex-slaves wanted was access to land.
As for the land already redistributed in 1863, Andrew Johnson ordered it given back to the original white landowners in 1865, even after William Tecumseh Sherman had extended it through Field Order No. 15. The Port Royal Experiment came to a sad end. But not all of the land was claimed by the ex-owners and black landowning remained significant in the area well into the 20th century.
In the late 1930s, Sam Mitchell, one of the last remaining living people who lived through this told a Federal Writers Project interviewer, “I think slavery is just a murdering of the people. I think freedom been a great gift. I like my master and I guess he was as good to his slave as he could be, but I rather be free.”
The most complete historical discussion of the Port Royal Experiment is Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, which I recommend.
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