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This Day in Labor History: November 7, 1861

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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.

This is the 198th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Matt McKeon

    Another part of the Port Royal Experiment was the creation of some of the earliest regiments of black soldiers, the First South Carolina Volunteers, The “First South” A minor classic of the Civil War in T.W. Higginson’s “Army Life in a Black Regiment” which describes Higginson’s impressions of his command.

    Great post.

  • Bruce Vail

    The photo illustration you chose is fascinating by itself. It’s clearly been carefully posed. It must be one of the earliest example of the government using photographs for war propaganda. (Or perhaps one of the abolitionist organizations produced the photo?)

    Interesting the way it shows men, women and children all at work together (notice even the dog) with no whites in the photo. Instead we have the black man in uniform as the authority figure. It’s all very well done — except, what’s with the guy with the water bucket on his head?

    • muddy

      It’s a great show of control considering how long they’d have to hold still for the photo in those days. It’s not a bit blurry.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      It’s all very well done — except, what’s with the guy with the water bucket on his head?

      I will assume the simplest explanation is the best: he carried water buckets on his head.

      There’s basically none of that going around lately in our mod-ren society, but when I was a boy tourist in Mexico I remember seeing loads carried on heads.

      • BiloSagdiyev

        P.S. Modern-day equivalent, rarely used.

      • UserGoogol

        Keeping it balanced on your head while taking an old-timey photo is just showing off, really.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          I’m guessing it was a mundane skill.

  • Brett

    It sounds like Reconstruction was ultimately doomed even before it began. Even if Johnson had never become President and Lincoln survived, this was the type of ideology dominating the Republican Party and ex-slaves would have largely ended up in wage/share-cropping positions on mostly white-owned farms. And of course the next time the Democrats took power, they’d undo as much of it as possible.

  • Matt McKeon

    Abolitionist societies used both photographs and objects to publicize the abuses of slavery during the war. The famous photograph of Wilson Chinn, a freedman who had been branded and wearing a spiked iron collar is an example. Soldiers from Massachusetts founded a woman with a similar collar, took the collar off. That object was used in campaigns to support the war effort and build support for abolition.

    The Massachusetts Historical Society has the collar now. Its a brutal looking object. Heavier than you’d think.

    • Bruce Vail

      On further inspection, I’ll bet it was one of the abolitionist societies that produced the photo. It has sort of New England feel to it.

  • AMK

    Didn’t the CSA control mainland South Carolina for the entire war? It seems strange that they would allow this experiment to be run for years just offshore…it’s not like the “sea islands” are really far out to sea.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Transporation may have been a big hassle. There may not have even been bridges. The manpower and boats required may not have been worth it for them. Those are my guesses.

    • Matt McKeon

      The Union Army and Navy grabbed a good slice of the South Carolina coast early in the war, including Beaufort and Hilton Head. The Confederates didn’t have the resources to expel them, and the Union used the area as a base for raids to destroy material and liberate slaves.

    • Bruce Vail

      Some of the coastal areas of Virginia and North Carolina were also seized by the US Army early on and held throughout the war. The Confederates didn’t have the manpower to expel them.

    • Bruce Vail

      Loss of control of these coastal area was a function of the vast superiority of the Union Navy.

      The Confederates could did not build and fit out warships fast enough to keep pace — the Union started out with a huge advantage and also had their own massive new building program going on.

  • Yankee

    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.

    The white people telling the black people what they want, or what they should want worked out about as well as usual, in that suffrage didn’t guarantee economic security, whereas real estate could might have lead to actual as opposed to merely symbolic community membership.

  • Gareth

    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.

    It’s not self-evident to me – for generations the only motivation they had to work was torture, and they never handled money. I’d expect adults to find it very difficult to adjust to a paid labour system.

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