Condition of the South at the Close of the War (part four)
We continue with General James Harrison Wilson‘s accounting to the U.S. government, at the close of the Civil War, of the difficulties in bringing the south to reconciliation, both with its nation, and its newly expanded free population. (Blacks were given citizenship under the 14th amendment, ratified 1868.) Again, the work gives the best illumination I have seen of 1860s attitudes on race, among whites who wanted to do right, in accord with what they believed was the proper character of the United States, and what they believed was the will of God. The times we’re living through show us how far we’ve progressed.
CONDITION OF THE SOUTH AT THE CLOSE OF THE WAR OF THE REBELLION
A REPORT MADE TO THE WAR DEPARTMENT, Macon, Georgia, November 23, 1865
The results of the war should suggest the bare possibility to the Southern people that they do not fully understand “the question”, and are not likely to, so long as they view it only in the light of their own experience. It is true that the freedmen are not models of industry, frankness, honesty, or discretion. As a class they may be deceitful, idle, inclined to theft, and pitiably ignorant. They have no conception of the nature of a contract, or its obligations, and but limited ideas of duty to each other and their employers. Nor is this the worst.
Professor Draper, in his “Thoughts on American Civil Policy”, says, in the full blaze of this enlightened age, that the civilized world will scarcely believe that a State recognizing and practicing polygamy should be allowed to exist in the very heart of the great Republic. But the “civilized world” does not know half the truth, and will find it hard to believe that one-third of the entire population of the Southern States, one-seventh of that of the United States, were born out of lawful wedlock; and yet this is so!
Strange as it may seem, there has never been a legally solemnized marriage among the entire black population while in a state of slavery. No slave State ever permitted such a thing, or made the slightest provision for it. To be sure, many piously inclined masters were accustomed to compel their servants to be married by a clergyman, either white or black, most commonly the latter; but these marriages were a mere semblance and a mockery of that holy sacrament. They had no stability in law, and but little in custom, and could be dissolved at the will of the master, or the whim of either party. The value of negro property was too great to permit either the men or women to live unmarried, so that as fast as they reached the adult age they were paired off. The negro man, where it was practicable, always had a wife on his master’s place, but in many cases they selected from the neighboring plantation, so that they could have the privilege, usually granted, of visiting their wives Saturday night and getting back home to work late on Monday. I have heard of several cases in which the men had three wives, living on different plantations, and am told that this was no uncommon occurrence.
The common practice is not that of open polygamy, but the negroes themselves compel the men to wait for the new wife till the old one is abandoned, and, in some cases, if the master discovers a man has a wife at home and one elsewhere, he compels the relinquishment of one or the other. But there is no such thing known as a marriage among negroes which might not be severed either by caprice, removal, sale, or the will of the master. The result of the system is that such a thing as virtue among the blacks is unknown. The greatest difficulty experienced in dealing with the negroes and their late masters arises from this extraordinary state of affairs. It is no uncommon thing for the negro men to find themselves charged with more than one family, and, in order to relieve themselves of their burdens, compelled to go to another neighborhood. This fact, together with the general desire they have to prove their freedom by getting out of the reach of their old masters, accounts for the daily complaint among the planters that they have nobody left upon their places but women and children. “The men have all gone, and if they would take their families I wouldn’t care.”
Yet very intelligent men and women tell us, in view of these facts, and with the perfect assurance of its truth: “Negroes have no idea of the duty of parents to each other, or to their children; they are naturally loose and lascivious in disposition, and cannot be made to care for their children, or live in lawful wedlock.” This may not be entirely true, but it would seem to a dispassionate person, with a system such as I have described, to be entirely false. Let us look still further at this subject, for herein lies the greatest crime of slavery, since it debases not only the negro race, but poisons the society of the whites throughout the whole South. Among the four millions of negroes released from slavery, there is not a single family organized under the operations of the Southern code in accordance with the principles of Christian civilization!
The legislators and thinking men of the South, unless they are blind, may see enough in this astounding fact to incite in them the gravest fears for the future of their country. The Southern people have gathered golden harvests for many years, careless of the fact that in doing so they have scattered seeds more fatal than dragons’ teeth. The system of slavery in its mildest form is the legitimate origin of every vicious habit and form of immorality with which the freedmen are afflicted. Living in cabins clustered about the overseer’s or master’s house, they had no care but to draw their rations, and go to the fields at the sound of the horn. They looked to the master for everything they were accustomed to receive, and are, therefore, improvident and lazy; they were paid nothing but scanty “board and clothes” for their labor, and are therefore “inclined to steal”; they had no inducements to tell the truth and do right, and are therefore “deceitful”; they were not allowed the privileges of education—it was a penal offense in most Southern States to teach them to read—and they were therefore “ignorant”; their rights as men and women, as husbands and wives, as parents and children, were neither taught nor protected by law; they are, therefore, given to the practice of adultery and the neglect of their offspring.
A white man and his wife, with three or four legitimate children, and a hundred negro servants, do not constitute a family in accordance with the principles of our religion and race. In such a patriarchal or oriental assemblage, every servant, instead of looking to his own parents for enlightened instruction and guidance, looks to the master, but in vain, for he is frequently the creature of vice, ignorance, and cupidity, either of which transmits its own influence, like the error of an algebraic equation, with an increasing ratio the further it goes. Where no “home” exists we do not expect home virtues.
And when not a man of a whole race owns his own cabin or a foot of land, the difficulties of regeneration may be partly imagined. The South may claim that it is not to blame for the negro’s condition, and urge that it is the natural result of the means necessarily adopted to protect slavery from the attack of abolitionists; but for purposes of reform it is a matter of little importance who may be culpable, or by what means the negroes were brought to their present condition. The vital question is, how shall their condition be ameliorated? A variety of opinions have been given to the country. General Cox recommends colonization; but that, however good in itself, is impracticable, and I doubt its efficacy. The Government can neither afford the expense, nor with justice compel the negroes to accept such a questionable solution of their troubles. Southern men say: “We will push them to the wall; they must work as freedmen, and we are unwilling to have them about, but we will get along with them as well as we can till we can obtain a supply of European immigrants.”
This is neither good policy nor very likely to succeed. Immigrants will not settle in the South to compete with negro labor, nor will they consent to pay high prices for land when they can obtain it in the West for almost nothing, and become at once as respectable and prosperous as their neighbors. The South is essentially a planting country, and not adapted to small farming; and should immigration set toward it, it will be gradual and increase but slowly.
Enterprising Yankees, who can take the test oath, practice the professions, and induce negroes to work for fair wages, will be the first to go South. In fact, they have already invaded every part of that region, and are making arrangements to cultivate cotton plantations extensively. If they are ordinarily successful, they will replace ill-natured and improvident planters rather than the blacks. Vine and fruit growers and artisans may also find immediate inducements to go South. But the negroes are already there, settled upon the land, adapted for the climate, and willing to work for those who will treat them justly; and they must work, or both classes will starve.
James Harrison Wilson
(2021, Stephanie Foster)