Excerpt from Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War Covering events from 1866 to 1868; published in 1883; reprinted on Documenting the American South (Web site)
A plantation owner writes about life after slavery
"Our properties will soon be utterly worthless, for no crop can be raised by such labour as this, and no negro will work if he can help it.…"
After the Civil War ended, the South had to start over in many ways. Homes, hospitals, and businesses needed to be rebuilt. Neglected fields needed to be sown (planted) with new seeds. Families that lost a husband or father in battle had to rebuild on their own. African Americans and whites alike had to learn how to make a living in a new economy—one in which African Americans were no longer slaves, but wage-earning employees.
Major stretches of the South were in ruins. In the opening account of The South Since the War, Charleston, South Carolina, was described as "a city of ruins, of desolation, of vacant houses, of widowed women, of rotting wharves [docks], of deserted warehouses, of weed-wild gardens, of miles of grass-grown streets, of acres of pitiful and voiceful barrenness.…" The destruction had not been limited to the battlefield. It spread to the cities and homes that had been occupied by soldiers during the war. A Northern journalist, John Townsend Trowbridge, wrote about a man from Columbia, South Carolina, who said Union troops burned his house after using it as their headquarters. "I owned my own house, my own servants, my own garden, and in one night they reduced me to poverty," the man told Trowbridge, who included the story in his 1866 book, The South: A Tour of Its Battle-fields and Ruined Cities.
Southern whites faced the intimidating task of rebuilding without their most important prewar asset: the cheap labor of four million slaves. The war freed the slaves, and Union troops threatened to seize the land of anybody who continued using the African Americans as slaves. The whites who needed workers would have to hire them. Northern visitor Whitelaw Reid believed many Southerners would end up selling their land, as they did not know how to work the fields without slaves. "I have found no Georgian who, now that his slaves can no longer be made to work for him, expects to work for himself," Reid wrote in his 1866 book, After the War: A Southern Tour.
But many whites clung to their land—often the only asset that had survived the war. They negotiated contracts with their former slaves through the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency created in March 1865 to help African Americans start their new lives after the war (see Chapter 4). Sometimes whites would split the crop with their workers. Other times they would pay them in cash and other supplies. Kate Stone (1842–1907), whose family owned a cotton plantation in northeastern Louisiana, complained that her family could only buy "bare necessities [food] for the table and plainest clothes for the family" because the rest of the profits went to pay their African American workers. "The Negroes demand high wages, from $20 to $25 for men, in addition to the old rations of sugar, rice, tobacco, molasses, and sometimes hams," Stone wrote in her journal in 1867.
Frances Butler Leigh (1838–1910) found the same problems when she and her father, Pierce Butler (1806–1867), returned to their rice and cotton plantations on the Georgia Sea Islands after the war. The fields had not been cultivated in four years. Her house had no furniture. The former slavesagreed to work, but they would have to be paid. Leigh was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and stayed in the North during the war, but she was intensely loyal to the South and she supported slavery. (As she refurnished the plantation house, she hung a portrait of Confederate general Robert E. Lee [1807–1870] over the fireplace.) Her book describes her father's kindness to his slaves, and the slaves' loyalty to her father. At the same time, Leigh believed some free African Americans would not work—or work as hard—as they did as slaves. She wondered how she would make the plantation successful again without forced labor.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War:
- Butler's rice and cotton plantations, among the largest in Georgia, used more than one thousand slaves before the war. After the African Americans were freed, many stayed or returned to Butler's plantation to work—but this time they would have to be treated as paid employees. Leigh feared the African Americans would work just enough to get paid, but not enough to keep her father's plantation running.
- Leigh spent the war years in Philadelphia, so this trip to Georgia was her first glimpse of the devastation from the war. She came home to an empty house with no furniture and little food. This was a common scene in the South, as Union troops took whatever food they could find and chopped up the furniture for their campfires. Looters took anything else of value.
- The war threw women into new roles. Some took charge of the household and even the family business while their husbands or fathers were away at war (duties they kept if the men did not return). Some took jobs in factories or other businesses in order to feed their families. Wealthy women, such as Leigh, had to learn to cook and perform other chores once done by slaves. Former debutantes (girls making their first formal appearances in society) found themselves running plantations.
Excerpt from Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War
The year after the war between the North and the South, I went to the South with my father to look after our property in Georgia to see what could be done with it.
The whole country had of course undergone a complete revolution. The changes that a four years' war must bring about in any country would alone have been enough to give a different aspect to everything; but at the South, besides the changes brought about by the war, our slaves had been freed; the white population was conquered, ruined, and disheartened, unable for the moment to see anything but the ruin before as well as behind, too wedded to the fancied prosperity
On Wednesday, when my father returned [to the plantation], he reported that he had found the negroes all on the place, not only those who were there five years ago, but many who were sold three years before that. Seven had worked their way back from the up country. They received him very affectionately, and made an agreement with him to work for one half the crop, which agreement it remained to be seen if they would keep. Owing to our coming so late, only a small crop could be planted, enough to make seed for another year and clear expenses. I was sorry we could do no more, but too thankful that things were as promising as they were. Most of the finest plantations were lying idle for want of hands to work them, so many of the negroes had died; seventeen thousand deaths were recorded by the Freedmen's Bureau alone. Many had been taken to the South-west, and others preferred hanging about the towns, making a few dollars now and then, to working regularly on the plantations; so most people found it impossible to get any labourers, but we had as many as we wanted, and nothing could induce our people to go anywhere else. My father also reported that the house was bare, not a bed nor chair left, and that he had been sleeping on the floor, with a piece of wood for a pillow and a few negro blankets for his covering. This I could hardly do, and as he could attend to nothing but the planting, we agreed that he should devote himself to that, while I looked [for] some furniture. So the day after, armed with five hundred bushels of seed rice, corn, bacon, a straw mattress, and a tub, he started off again for the plantation, leaving me to buy tables and chairs, pots and pans.…
The prospect of getting in the crop did not grow more promising as time went on. The negroes talked a great deal about their desire and intention to work for us, but their idea of work, unaided by the stern law of necessity, is very vague, some of them working only half a day and some even less. I don't think one does a really honest full day's work, and so of course not half the necessary amount is done and I am afraid never will be again, and so our properties will soon be utterly worthless, for no crop can be raised by such labour as this, and no negro will work if he can help it, and is quite satisfied just to scrape along doing an odd job here and there to earn money enough to buy a little food. They are affectionate and often trustworthy and honest, but so hopelessly lazy as to be almost worthless as labourers.
My father was quite encouraged at first, the people seemed so willing to work and said so much about their intention of doing so; but not many days after they started he came in quite disheartened, saying that half the hands had left the fields at one o'clock and the rest by three o'clock, and this just at our busiest time. Half a day's work will keep them from starving, but won't raise a crop. Our contract with them is for half the crop; that is, one half to be divided among them, according to each man's rate of work, we letting them have in the meantime necessary food, clothing, and money for their present wants (as they have not a penny) which is to be deducted from whatever is due to them at the end of the year.
This we found the best arrangement to make with them, for if we paid them wages, the first five dollars they made would have seemed like so large a sum to them, that they would have imagined their fortunes made and refused to work any more. But even this arrangement had its objections, for they told us, when they missed working two or three days a week, that they were losers by it as well as ourselves, half the crop being theirs. But they could not see that this sort of work would not raise any crop at all, and that such should be the result was quite beyond their comprehension. They were quite convinced that if six days' work would raise a whole crop, three days' work would raise half a one, with which they as partners were satisfied, and so it seemed as if we should have to be too.…
I had a pretty hard time of it that first year, owing to my wretched servants, and to the scarcity of provisions of all sorts. The country was absolutely swept; not a chicken, not an egg was left, and for weeks I lived on hominy, rice, and fish, with an occasional bit of venison. The negroes said the Yankees had eaten up everything, and one old woman told me they had refused to pay her for the eggs, but after they had eaten them said they were addled; but I think the people generally had not much to complain of. The only two good servants we had remained with my father at Butler's Island, and mine were all raw field hands, to whom everything was new and strange, and who were really savages. My white maid, watching my sable housemaid one morning th
My cook made all the flour and sugar I gave him (my own allowance of which was very small) into sweet cakes, most of which he ate himself, and when I scolded him, cried. The young man who was with us, dying of consumption, was my chief anxiety, for he was terribly ill, and could not eat the fare I did, and to get anything else was an impossibility. I scoured the island one day in search of chickens, but only succeeded in getting one old cock, of which my wretched cook made such a mess that Mr. J—could not touch it after it was done. I tried my own hand at cooking, but without much success, not knowing really how to cook a potato, besides which the roof of the kitchen leaked badly, and as we had frequent showers, I often had to cook, holding up an umbrella in one hand and stirring with the other.…
This part of the country has suffered more heavily than any other from the war. Hundreds of acres of rice land, which yielded millions before the war, are fast returning to the original swamp from which they were reclaimed with infinite pains and expense, simply because their owners are ruined, their houses burnt to the ground, and their negroes made worthless as labourers. It is very sad to see such wide-spread ruin, and to hear of girls well-educated, and brought up with every luxury, turned adrift as dressmakers, schoolteachers, and even shop girls, in order to keep themselves and their families from starvation. One of Mrs. F—s' nieces paddles her old father over to the plantation every morning herself, and while he is giving his orders in the fields, [she] sits on a heap of straw, making underclothes to sell in Charleston. It is wonderful to see how bravely and cheerfully they do work, knowing as I do how they lived before the war.
What happened next …
Leigh continued to help her father run the plantations until his death in 1867. Then she took over. She grew increasingly frustrated at her inability to control hundreds of African American workers. For example, with the 1868 elections approaching, Leigh told the workers they must finish their duties on the plantation before going to the polls. But her workers took the entire day off—an act Leigh partly blamed on the political organizers who falsely told African Americans they could be fined or sent out of the country if they failed to vote. In another passage, Leigh described how one African American worker burned down the mill and other plantation buildings after a dollar had been taken from his pay "for some neglect in his work." The fire caused $15,000 in damage.
Contrary to Leigh's descriptions of African Americans, Northern visitors such as Whitelaw Reid and Sidney Andrews found ex-slaves hard-working and eager to make a living. Many simply preferred to work for themselves, or under different conditions than the foreman-supervised, gang-labor system they knew as slaves. In his 1866 book The South Since the War, Andrews wrote that he had interviewed hundreds of African Americans but "have yet to find the first one [who] wanted to go back and live with their old masters as slaves."
Like many Southern whites struggling to maintain their plantations after the war, Leigh looked for alternatives to African American labor. She hired Irish immigrants to dig and maintain the irrigation ditches, and described them as "faithful" workers. She brought over a group of workers from England, but fired them after two years because they were "troublesome … constantly drunk, and shirked [avoided] their work so abominably [horribly]." With the spread of railroad lines to the West, Leigh even considered bringing over Chinese workers from California. She also watched for any technological advances, such as more sophisticated plowing equipment, that could reduce her reliance on human labor.
Leigh married an English minister in 1871 and began spending more time in Great Britain, her mother's homeland. She kept the plantation but gave greater responsibilities to her managers to run it in her absence. By 1876, England became her permanent home. She died in 1910 at age 72.
Did you know …
- Once African Americans began getting paid for their work, some dishonest whites opened stores near the plantations to sell goods at inflated (greatly raised) prices. Such store owners took advantage of African Americans who did not know the value of their money. Leigh described several stores in the nearby town of Darien, Georgia, where African Americans were charged three times the actual price of the goods. To offer the African Americans an alternative, Leigh's father opened a store at the plantation that sold goods to African Americans at actual cost.
- Leigh's mother was a famous British actress named Fanny Kemble (1809–1893). She held strong antislavery views and became outraged when she saw how the slaves were treated on Pierce Butler's plantations. The couple divorced in 1849.
- After her father died, Leigh spent weeks going through the plantation ledgers to figure out how much money her father owed each worker. Altogether she paid the workers $6,000, with some of them getting $200 or $300 apiece. Some of the workers used the money to buy 5 or 10 acres of land where they could build their own house and raise their own crops.
Consider the following …
- What would be a fair working agreement between a plantation owner and the freed African Americans working for him after the war? What kind of benefits could he offer to attract good workers and encourage them to work hard?
- What kind of effect did the war have on areas beyond the battlefields, such as cities and plantations?
- How did the war place women in new roles?
For More Information
Anderson, John Q., ed. Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861–1868. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.
Andrews, Sidney. The South Since the War. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004. Also available at Making of America Books. http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa;idno=AAW... (accessed on September 16, 2004).
Leigh, Frances Butler. Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War. London: Richard Bentley & Son, New Burlington Street, 1883. Reprint, Savannah: Library of Georgia, Beehive Foundation, 1992. Also available at Documenting the American South: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries. (accessed on August 7, 2004).
Reid, Whitelaw. After the War: A Southern Tour. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Also available at Making of America Books. http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa;idno=AFJ... (accessed on September 16, 2004).
Trowbridge, John Townsend. The South: A Tour of Its Battle-fields and Ruined Cities. New York: Arno Press, 1969. Also available at Making of America Books. http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa;idno=AFJ... (accessed on September 16, 2004).