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This Day in Labor History: January 16, 1865

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On January 16, 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, granting coastal plantation properties from Savannah, Georgia to the St. John’s River in Florida to ex-slaves. Extending thirty miles from the coast, this had the potential to reshape southern labor relations as much as the end of slavery. However, northern belief in private property rights and agricultural capitalism eventually doomed this project.

Slaves freed themselves. This is the single most important fact we need to know about the Civil War. Whenever possible, they walked off the plantations, fleeing toward Union lines. Even if they could not do this, they took all sorts of unprecedented liberties during the war, even burning down plantation houses. Southern whites believed their own propaganda about slave loyalty and could not believe their people would turn on them. But slaves wanted to be free. It was their actions that moved a very nervous Abraham Lincoln to emancipation.

When William Tecumseh Sherman marched through Georgia in 1864, destroying the heart of the Slave Power, he knew slaves would follow his forces. They poured toward Sherman’s lines. Sherman himself had little interest in black welfare; a racial conservative, he found his status among the slaves as a Moses bemusing. Some of his soldiers committed atrocities against the freed slaves. But wanting to crush the treason of the slaveholding South, Sherman sought to help the slaves, if for no other reason to get them to stop following his army, slowing them down and forcing him to feed them at the same time his own forces were foraging off the land. He met with black leaders on the South Carolina and Georgia coast and asked what they wanted. Their leader, a 67-year old Baptist minister named Garrison Frazier, replied, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land and turn it and till it by our own labor.” So, on January 16, 1865, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which granted 40-acre plots of land to African-Americans and the use of an Army mule in the coastal areas of those states. The idea of 40 acres and a mule became a powerful demand for freed slaves because it meant control over their labor and their independence from whites.

Slaves wanted their masters’ lands confiscated and redistributed to work as subsistence plots. In March 1865, now freed slaves took over the Keithfield rice plantation in South Carolina. During the next year 150 people worked it on their own. When the owner returned in early 1866, she asked her neighbor Frances Parker to help her recapture it. Parker had executed escaped slaves during the war. He hired a former slave driver named Dennis Hazel to be the new overseer. When the ex-slaves saw Parker and Hazel, they erupted in a bloody riot. Led by the plantation’s women, they threatened to kill the interlopers. The freed people beat them with their working tools and then attacked a soldier accompanying them. A former slave named Becky hit Parker in the right eye with a club, causing blood to gush across his face. Finally, they dove into the river to escape. Former slaves would fight to the death to control their land and labor.

But despite Sherman’s plan, the U.S. military had already developed different ideas. On November 7, 1861, the U.S. Army occupied the South Carolina Sea Islands, rich cotton land laced with wealthy plantations that Confederate elites fled from because they could not be defended. 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. By January 1862, the government worked with the black population to grow cotton for the army for $1 for every 400 pounds they harvested while philanthropists recruited northern teachers to come and work with the freedmen. The army ended the slave system of gang labor, gave workers garden plots for themselves, and provided a variety of incentives for the workers. The freedpeople hoped to own their own land. But the U.S. Treasury officials running the revived plantations saw potential profit paying black workers low wages. In 1863, Lincoln instituted a plan to sell some abandoned Confederate lands in the Sea Islands. Although most of the ex-slaves could not afford the price of $1.25 per acre, they pooled resources to buy about 2,000 acres of land. Northern whites also bought the land, creating new plantations for themselves worked by paid laborers. Other military leaders instituted similar labor regimes on land their forces occupied, such as General Benjamin Butler’s use of black field hands to grow sugar for wages. Yet northern whites who leased the plantations routinely stole African-Americans’ wages, an omen of the struggles the freed slaves would face after the Civil War ended.

The period of Reconstruction, lasting from 1865 to 1877, would determine the fate of the emancipated slaves and the new labor system to replace slavery. Southern whites immediately sought to reinstitute a system as close to slavery as possible. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated five days after the war ended by a southern sympathizer from Maryland, the Tennesseean Andrew Johnson ascended to the Oval Office. A white supremacist replacing Lincoln is one of the greatest tragedies in American history. Johnson opposed the Confederacy but he also fervently opposed black rights. This gave the former slaveholders the initiative to reestablish their control over their former laborers. When Johnson reversed Sherman’s Special Order No. 15—the promise of 40 acres and a mule—and the army took back the land distributed to ex-slaves. On the plantations, former owners sought to either force workers back into total subservience, kick them out, or murder them. Ex-slave Henry Adams, remembering the postwar days near Shreveport, Louisiana, reported “over two thousand colored people killed trying to get away, after the white people told us we were free.” Another in Mississippi wrote “Some are being knocked down for saying they are free, while a great many are being worked just as they ust to be when Slaves, without any compensation.”

The unwillingness of the North to redistribute land demonstrates the indifference to black demands widespread among whites. Reconstruction and the unwillingness of the nation to do anything to protect the newly freed slaves, leading them into economic despondency and sharecropping becoming the labor norm happened in part because northern whites believed black people should work on plantations for white people growing cotton and other big export crops. They just believed those workers should be paid a small wage. This helped ensure long-term exploitation of black labor that continues today, with economic opportunities and total wealth still showing severe racial disparities.

I took much of this post from my forthcoming book A History of America in Ten Strikes, to be published by The New Press in September. Chapter Two focuses on slave self-emancipation and the slave general strike, as described by W.E.B. DuBois. In fact, the initial Amazon page is now up; although it only shows the Kindle edition here, it will be available in hardback and I think in paper as well. The more copies you buy, the more graves I can go visit.

This is the 254th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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