The newly liberated slaves on South Carolina’s Sea Islands faced an ironic challenge to their freedom.
The hasty departure of white landowners from the Sea Islands of South Carolina following the Union victory at Port Royal left the victors with the immediate problem of what to do with the 10,000 slaves who remained behind after the whites had fled–and, more important, what to do with the thousands of acres of verdant cotton fields that now stood free for the taking.
Unfortunately for the newly liberated slaves, who had spent the days immediately following the Battle of Front Royal gleefully vandalizing their masters’ mansions and celebrating what they believed was their ultimate deliverance from servitude, their first taste of freedom was to prove short-lived. Into the power vacuum created by the departure of their former masters rushed a fresh influx of military officers, treasury agents, Northern financiers, schoolteachers, missionaries and do-gooders of all stripes, intent on observing the slaves in their new environment and, in some cases, exploiting their proven ability to plant and harvest cotton in abundantly profitable quantities.
Ironically, the Sea Island slaves’ atypical arrangement with their former owners, who had allowed them to grow vegetables for sale on their own time, had given them a taste of economic–if not physical–freedom that they were unwilling to surrender to a new set of masters, however well-meaning and enlightened those masters might be. To the bondservants, cotton was a “slave crop,” the symbol of some 250 years of forced subjugation. They much preferred to break up the old plantations into small farms on which they could raise corn and potatoes, feed their families and thus attain a level of freedom from all white men, Northern and Southern.
That was not to be an option, however. Economic and political pressure was soon brought to bear on the Sea Islands, and sharp-eyed investors hurried south to snatch up the previously vacated plantations. Leading the land- and labor-rush to the islands was Edward S. Philbrick, assistant superintendent of the Boston & Worcester Railroad, and Edward Atkinson, financial agent for a consortium of six Massachusetts textile firms interested in cornering the market on Sea Island cotton. Atkinson, an ardent abolitionist, opposed slavery not so much for moral reasons as for that peculiar institution’s violation of what he considered “sound principles of political economy.” He hoped to harness the blacks’ labor through the promise of land acquired via “the ordinary workings of our system of land tenure.” Philbrick, in turn, hoped to entice the blacks into becoming paid laborers by “multiply[ing] their simple wants,” and thus stimulating their desire for paid wages, through the establishment of a number of plantation general stores offering a variety of “knick-knacks and household comforts.”
When the Sea Island blacks still proved resistant to such mercenary blandishments, the Department of the Treasury stepped in and sold off the remaining plantations for “nonpayment of taxes.” Despite efforts by some humanitarians to secure preferential treatment for the former slaves, most of the land wound up in the hands of Army officers, government officials and Northern speculators, who continued to press the freedmen to plant new cotton crops to demonstrate to the world–and, most important, to their stockholders–that “the abandonment of slavery did not imply the abandonment of cotton.”
Some cotton was planted, but not enough to suit Philbrick. In 1865, after earning an untold amount of money personally–$20,000 in one year alone–he abruptly divided his plantations into small parcels and sold them to the laborers. Then he went back to Massachusetts, grumbling all the while that the liberated blacks “will not produce as much cotton in this generation as they did five years ago”–in other words, when they were slaves in the literal as well as the figurative sense of the term.
Editor’s note: In this issue, you’ll notice some design and content changes. We have a new “Preservation” department, “Men and Materiel” replaces “Ordnance” and our book reviews are longer. The maps have also been redesigned, and you’ll find other changes in our format. “Dispatches,” our new letters column, provides a forum for reader comments. Let us know what you think!
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War