Condition of the South at the Close of the War (conclusion)
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 Southern planters must not deceive themselves; they cannot dispense with the freedman. They must depend upon him to cultivate their fields and gather their harvests; but slavery is dead, and they cannot entice him to his labor with the lash. They must give him full wages for full work, protect him in all his rights by equitable and humane laws, educate his children, and lift him morally and intellectually to the dignity of the freeman. They must do better and more than all that. They must cure the vices of bondage, by organizing negro society into families, according to the principles of Christian civilization—families consisting of one man, one wife, and the legitimate offspring thereof, living in “homes”, fixed upon the land, and guarded as jealously by the laws, as the families of white men.
The present communal system must be broken up; no more polygamy, ignored by law, and sanctioned by custom; no more concubinage by purchase or inheritance, under the cover of domestic usage, but plain, simple justice. With all that can be accomplished by the most enlightened legislation, the work of regeneration will progress but slowly, and leave an ample field for the most intelligent missionary labor. This work is not exclusively the business of the South, but demands attention at the hands of the entire nation. Four millions of practical heathens are crying for light; the instruction they have received, although involving the arts of labor, has bonded them body and soul to moral darkness. The religion taught them has been a mockery, because they were compelled to witness the daily violation of its most sacred precepts.
We say the South is mainly concerned in this work, but how much of the patience, labor, and faith, necessary for its success, can be expected from her people? I fear but little. In the aggregate there are many thousand enlightened, humane, and Christian people in the South who would scorn to inflict a wanton wrong upon any human being, who have been kind, indulgent, and sympathizing masters; but it is unfortunately true that even they, as a general rule, doubt the capacity of the negro for mental and moral improvement. The masses look with extreme jealousy at any one who advocates negro schools, and render it impossible for a timid person to teach one, except under military protection.
Yet education is the only means of opening the mind for the reception of moral and social truth, and upon it must rest our only hope of an intellectual regeneration of the entire South, white as well as black. With such a system of laws and education as justice demands, and which the Southern people must be compelled to enact and enforce, the freedman may ultimately become a freeman in mind as well as person. There is, however, a grave obstacle in the way to his complete independence, to which I have not yet adverted. I mean that of obtaining permanent and cheap homesteads, without which the families cannot be organized. This organization, as the social unit, is just as essential as that of the battalion in military matters. General Saxton’s order touching this matter is well enough if it could be enforced; but could the President have been induced to exact, as a condition to pardon, a bond from every rebel holding property to the value of $20,000 or over, that he would give to every respectable and honest freedman, who had previously belonged to him, a life lease to as much land as he and his family could cultivate, a substantial beginning would have been made in the right direction. This class of men own nearly all of the land in the South, and each one of them could find upon his place several negroes who would be good tenants in any country.
To prevent oppression to the owners, it would have been well enough to allow them a fair rate of rent, [while compelling] them to sell to the negro at least forty acres whenever the latter became able to pay for it at its market value. This is, however, impracticable as a government measure, but it contains a suggestion to the planters, the adoption of which may ultimately become a matter of profit to them as well as to the freedmen. No system of philanthropy, whether under the auspices of the Government or benevolent societies, can neglect to consider the influence of this home idea, and experience more than partial success. The planters are in a fair way to realize its significance involuntarily. The negroes at this time throughout the South are refusing to hire themselves for the ensuing year. They entertain the idea that the government intends to divide among them, during Christmas week, the lands, produce, stock, and implements of their old masters. The origin of this notion is not known, though it probably grew from the following remarks so often made to the too-credulous negroes: “We are going to whip these rebels after a while, and then we intend to give you all their property.”
The idea, once started, found ready believers, and may have been strengthened by the advice of military commanders, urging the negroes to continue work, on the promise that they should have a portion of the crop. At all events they are making no contracts. Planters are becoming generally discouraged, and are anxious to rent or sell their lands. Should they fail to do one thing or the other, and fail to make a crop themselves, they will find their land at the end of the year in the forcible possession of tenants that cannot be easily ejected. Thus the negro dream of a division may be realized at no distant day. Some landowners in southwestern Georgia have abandoned their lands or rented them to the negroes on shares, but this has created great excitement. A county meeting has been held and resolutions adopted, the tenor of which is that negroes shall not be permitted to become tenants, that such “privileges and immunities” are dangerous to the white population, and prejudicial to the interests of the blacks!
The spirit of these resolutions is simply infamous. Should it be developed generally, and the President permit the organization of the militia in accordance with the present indications, it would be well for Congress to provide for the increase of the regular army to one hundred and fifty thousand men, for nothing short of that force could possibly maintain public tranquility. The excuses given by the South for this militia movement are poorly grounded. There is no possible danger of a negro outbreak if the negroes are simply let alone. There is not a county in the South in which a sheriff and his deputy cannot enforce any legal process. Whatever may be the moral and intellectual qualities of the negro, he is the most non-combative, patient, and docile of the human race. But if he is not so, the Southern militia will soon reduce him to that condition; and I have no hesitation in saying its organization will result in the systematic infliction of more deliberate, wanton, and unprovoked cruelty upon those unfortunate people than they were ever compelled to undergo in a state of slavery.
One or two years of the old-fashioned “patrol system” will result in the practical re-subjugation of the entire race; neither ballot nor bullet can save them, unless the Government continues the functions of the Freedman’s Bureau, and gives it an organization of ten times its present efficiency in men and administration. It will not do yet to trust State laws or State militia to do the work of that Bureau. It is the only hope of the negro, feeble as it is; it needs more officers, and, instead of abolishing it, Congress should perfect its organization, make it self-supporting if possible, and give it such a code of laws as would secure uniform administration throughout the South. I have no doubt that with the loan of ten or fifteen millions of dollars the Bureau can be so administered as to afford efficient protection to negroes, organize their industry, and found a system of education which shall gradually make the race self-supporting and useful to society at large. The ballot is a poor remedy for ignorance, vice, and prejudice. Even in the hands of the negroes, it could scarcely overwhelm three such dragons, defended by double their numbers. Under the present aspect of affairs it would be anything but kindness to give it to them by national interference.
Aside from the increased jealousy and violence which would be engendered on the part of the whites, and the necessity which would at once arise for the increase of the national armed force to preserve order and repress outbreaks, it is almost certain that a few shrewd men with plenty of money could control every negro vote even in the interest of Southern policy. No ignorant farm negro working for ten dollars per month would fail to sell his vote for two dollars and a whole day’s frolic. Let the Government rather exercise its supreme authority in compelling the States to pass such laws and give such assurances as will secure equal and exact justice for every freedman; and let an enlightened public sentiment constrain the adoption of such a national system of schools as shall qualify every adult of sound mind to exercise the privilege of suffrage.
When education and intelligence have become universal, suffrage may be so regulated as to secure its virtuous and universal enjoyment. On the principles embodied in this paper I confidently believe the negro question, in its economical, moral, intellectual, and social aspects, can be solved. They accord with the genius of our institutions and the principles of justice, and are worthy of a trial. When they shall have been adopted, the South will find free labor profitable, and its own reward in the pleasures of enlightened and humane policy. The war has done much toward giving the Southern people free speech, but they must do much more themselves before they can hope to enjoy free thought. Human slavery has ceased to exist, but mental slavery yet exerts its influence against the best interests of the country. Let them throw off the yoke, submit to the inevitable destinies of the great Republic, abandon sympathy for a dream of the past, and join heart and hand with the North in the glorious work of progress and education. Free press, free speech, free schools, and free pulpits are essential to the propagation of free thought and the perpetuation of free government!
James Harrison Wilson
(2021, Stephanie Foster)