The suppressed fear in the North was that blacks would flock to their cities and work for lower wages than white laborers. This would have pleased Northern capital’s understanding of free labor as workers were paid wages, but were responsible for themselves, for food, housing and medical care, when not in the factory. Northern capitalists were assured by abolitionists that the new black farmers would have much disposable income with which to purchase products from Northern manufacturers. It should be kept in mind that after their plantation homes and crops were burned by Northern troops, the black family had no alternative but to follow the invader for scraps of food and menial work. Also, as black men were taken into the US Colored Troops organization, they served under white officers, while Southern units were integrated.
Fears of Negro Immigration
“History will record,” William Bickham wrote from the Peninsula, “the only friends of the Union found by this army in Eastern Virginia [were] Negro slaves.” So eager were the fugitives to do their bit, according to a New York Post correspondent in Louisiana, that when a thousand of them were asked, at one camp, if they would work their old plantations for pay, the show of hands was unanimous.
A good number of conservative orators were frightening laboring audiences [in the North] with the warning that the Negroes were all too willing to work. If set free, the argument ran, they would drift northward and crowd white men out of jobs.
An army correspondent of the Chicago Tribune stepped into the breach with the answer to that . . . [and] assured his readers that the Negroes “did not wish to remove to the cold frigid North. This climate is more genial, and here is their home. Only give them a fair remuneration for their labor, and strike off their shackles, and the good people of Illinois need not trouble themselves at the prospect of Negro immigration.
As a matter of fact, many [Northern] officers and men were genuinely opposed to releasing “contrabands” from camp on practical as well as political or sentimental grounds. Three war correspondents, sweating through the siege of Corinth, Mississippi, in mid-1862, had domestic arrangements typical of many members of the expedition.
They shared the services of Bob and Johnny, two black youths who blacked boots, pressed clothes, cooked, ran errands and more or less gentled their employers’ condition for monthly wages totaling six and twelve dollars.
Charles Coffin and Albert Richardson [of the Boston Journal], at the same locale, made joint use of a tent an “African factotum” who awoke them . . . each morning with a call of “Breakfast ready.” Newspapermen at Ben Butler’s headquarters [were under] the care of a black chef.”
(Reporters for the Union, Bernard Weisberger, Little, Brown and Company, 1953, excerpts pp. 242-244)