Working the Freedmen to Death
Contrary to the myth that slaves were liberated rather than taken away from plantations to deny the South farm workers, Northern army officers in blue impressed them for hard labor and rarely if ever paid them. A middle-Tennessean put it this way, the “Negroes will run to [the Yankees] from good homes of kind masters & bear more oppression than they ever knew before, get no pay & yet love the Yankee for his meanness.”
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Working the Freedmen to Death
“Blacks were especially mistreated during the first eighteen months of Union rule [in occupied Tennessee], when Confederate forces threatened the city [of Nashville] most seriously and before [Andrew] Johnson’s policy toward slavery in Tennessee had been clarified. The most pressing need of the occupation forces was the construction of defensive works around the perimeter of the city, and enterprise which required large amounts of labor. Under the guise of military necessity, [Northern] army officials often ruthlessly impressed blacks to work on the fortifications.
The first impressment took place in August 1862, when [General Don Carlos] Buell’s chief of staff directed the post commander “to call in regular form upon slave owners for hands to work, and put as many on the works as can be employed.” The call went out for one thousand slaves . . .”, while the length of service and the manner and terms of payment were to be determined at the pleasure of the government.
The second impressments in October 1862 was more general in nature. Nashville’s commanding officer ordered the city patrols to “impress into service every Negro you can find in the Streets of this City who cannot prove that he is owned by any person loyal to the government of the United States and residing in and about the City.” Military patrols simply began arresting as many black men as they could.
A third major impressment took place in August and September of 1863 when Union authorities needed twenty-five hundred men to work on the Nashville and Northwestern Railroad, which was being built under Johnson’s direction. By now the military had developed sophisticated impressment techniques.
For instance, patrols would wait until Sunday morning and then raid the crowded black churches. And the troopers did not hesitate to use violence and threats. During one church raid, they shot and killed a black man and threatened others with a similar fate if they tried to escape.
This inhumane treatment the forced laborers received from the army only compounded the brutality of their impressments. Between August 1862 and April 1863, the amount due blacks [and their owners] for work on the fortifications was $85,858.50, but of this sum only $13,648 was paid.
Furthermore, although the army employed fewer than three thousand black men during this time, between six and eight hundred of them died — an extraordinary mortality rate caused by inadequate shelter and insufficient diet provided by the army. The only kindness the army seems to have exhibited was to provide free coffins for those who died during their ordeal.”
(Treason Must Be Made Odious, Peter Maslowski, KTO Press, 1978, pp. 99-101)