The Northern abolitionists and the African slave met for the first time at Beaufort, South Carolina, and the former came face to face with what Jefferson Davis earlier pondered regarding what to do with the emancipated slave. The planters warned their hands “that the Yankees would treat them as slaves and sell them to Cuba,” a prediction that nearly became true.
Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865
New Masters from New England
“The revolution began with considerable destruction of property. The Negroes on many plantations . . . broke the cotton gins [and] in other cases they began looting their master’s houses and furniture, and activity which the federal soldiers took up enthusiastically . . .
The [Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase’s] correspondence during the months following the fall of Port Royal showed him that the government would gain the support of an ever-increasing segment of the public through sterner war measures: “Wagons, cattle, Horses, Provisions, Negroes not excepted, in short everything useful to our army ought to be appropriated . . . advised one correspondent, who sharply criticized the government for looking “more to a peace through compromise, than to a . . . . victory of arms.”
Certainly [President Lincoln’s] cautious treatment of the issue in his message to Congress offered little encouragement. He threw the problem of defining the new status of the Negroes at Port Royal and others in their situation into the lap of Congress, and then asked that provisions be made to colonize the liberated Negroes “in a climate congenial to them.” Small wonder it was that Chase turned his first attention to contraband cotton rather than to contraband Negroes.
The rapid change in their status was not working to the advantage of many Sea Island Negroes . . . as the [Northern] army had made free use of plantation food stores, leaving many in the slave communities with little to eat. Commodore DuPont reported than numbers of the nearly ten thousand Negroes on the islands were by late winter “almost starving and some naked or nearly so . . .
Having no place to turn, they flocked to the neighborhood of the army camps [where] they were as often treated badly as offered employment and help. The New York Tribune’s correspondent reported that one enterprising and unscrupulous [Northern] officer was caught in the act of assembling a cargo of Negroes for transportation and sale in Cuba, thus giving one example of to bolster the late slave-masters’ prediction.
Something had to be done. If the land should lie fallow and the Negroes idle for long past the middle of February, there would be no cotton in 1862, and the Negroes would have to be supported by the government or charity, thus giving the opponents of emancipation a very good argument.
[Some saw in the Northern oversight of continued cotton production] arrangements the outlines of a typical graft opportunity, to achieve its classic form in the “company store” of a later day . . . and it was “of the utmost importance” that [the Negroes] should be kept busy “at the work which they have been accustomed to do . . . “
[One Northern agent] reported that the Sea Island Negroes knew all the steps involved in the cotton culture and that the great majority of them were ready to work, “with proper inducements.” They needed the help and protection of white men, however, in [his] opinion, and a good system of management. The Negroes were no longer slaves . . . Although they were “as yet in large numbers unprepared for the full privileges of citizens . . . “
(Rehearsal for Reconstruction, The Port Royal Experiment, Willie Lee Rose, Vintage Books, 1964, excerpts, pp. 16; 18-25; 29)