Runaways Returned to Plantations—By Yankees in 1864

Wait, what? So says a letter from a Union surgeon, William C. Towle of the 12th Maine, written from Camp Parapet, near Carrolton, Louisiana, on April 4, 1864.

The most of the Negroes who were carried up river from here to work on plantations have returned having runaway as soon as they were at liberty. They will be picked up again soon as the orders are that all colored persons without certificates from their employers all be delivered over to Col. Hanks who will send them to some plantation. This comes rather hard on some of the colored population who were always free but there is no distinction.

So not only were they rounding up (ex)-slaves but free persons of color as well. What was going on here? The Emancipation Proclamation took effect at the beginning of 1863 and applied to all states still “in rebellion,” which certainly included Louisiana. Yet apparently all African-Americans were being treated as effectively enslaved, even those who had not been prior to the Union occupation. The only thing that would save you from being sent up the river to a plantation was a certificate of employment.

There were several things going on here. One was  that after emancipation the towns were flooded with former slaves who had left the plantation but who had no idea how to live in a money economy. They were a burden on the already overtaxed municipal economies and not surprisingly a certain number of them got into trouble.

Another, bigger reason was that the Yankees wanted to grow cotton, to keep the mills of Europe and New England supplied, but mainly because there was a great deal of money to be made growing and selling cotton. They soon realized, however, that they needed labor to do it. The solution was vagrancy laws, which allowed them to arrest anyone without a job and to give them “productive employment.”

Thus the African-Americans were removed to a plantation and “induced” to sign a labor contract which amounted to about $3 a month. In effect this was little better than slavery.  They were forbidden to leave, and this was enforced by Federal provost marshals, who acted effectively as slave patrols. In some cases, where the plantations were still under the control of the original owners and the infrastructure still existed, this worked reasonably well. However it did not work on plantations that had been abandoned, sold for taxes, or leased to speculators from the North who flooded the area after the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, but who soon found that growing cotton was not like growing corn. It required a degree of expertise that they did not have and did not have the inclination to learn. As a result cotton production was disappointing, and the bulk of it continued to come from behind Confederate lines.

I’ve drawn much of the background information for this post from Philip Leigh’s books Trading With The Enemy, which I reviewed earlier, and his new book Southern Reconstruction, which I have received as a review copy but have not yet had a chance to read through.


Review: Trading With The Enemy: The Covert Economy During the Civil War




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One response to “Runaways Returned to Plantations—By Yankees in 1864”

  1. Phil Leigh Avatar

    The infamous black codes in Mississippi and South Carolina were at least partly based upon the wartime cotton growing practices of the U. S. Army and the vagrancy laws of Northern states.

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