The Civil War waged largely in the South started the most
exciting movement of the Negroes hitherto known. The
invading Union forces drove the masters before them, leaving
the slaves and sometimes poor whites to escape where they
would or to remain in helpless condition to constitute a
problem for the northern army.1 Many poor whites of the
border States went with the Confederacy, not always because
they wanted to enter the war, but to choose what they
considered the lesser of two evils. The slaves soon realized
a community of interests with the Union forces sent, as they
thought, to deliver them from thralldom. At first, it was
difficult to determine a fixed policy for dealing with these
fugitives. To drive them away was an easy matter, but this
did not solve the problem. General Butler's action at
Fortress Monroe in 1861, however, anticipated the policy
finally adopted by the Union forces.2 Hearing that three
fugitive slaves who were received into his lines were to
have been employed in building fortifications for the
Confederate army, he declared them seized as contraband of
war rather than declare them actually free as did General
Fremont3 and General Hunter.4 He then gave them
employment for wages and rations and appropriated to the
support of the unemployed a portion of the earnings of the
laborers. This policy was followed by General Wood, Butler's
successor, and by General Banks in New Orleans.
An elaborate plan for handling such fugitives was carried out by E.S. Pierce and General Rufus Saxton at Port Royal, South Carolina. Seeing the situation in another light, however, General Halleck in charge in the West excluded slaves from the Union lines, at first, as did General Dix in Virginia. But Halleck, in his instructions to General McCullum, February, 1862, ordered him to put contrabands to work to pay for food and clothing.5 Other commanders, like General McCook and General Johnson, permitted the slave hunters to enter their lines and take their slaves upon identification,6 ignoring the confiscation act of August, 1861, which was construed by some as justifying the retention of such refugees. Officers of a different attitude, however, soon began to protest against the returning of fugitive slaves. General Grant, also, while admitting the binding force of General Halleck's order, refused to grant permits to those in search of fugitives seeking asylum within his lines and at the capture of Fort Donelson ordered the retention of all blacks who had been used by the Confederates in building fortifications.7
Lincoln finally urged the necessity for withholding fugitive slaves from the enemy, believing that there could be in it no danger of servile insurrection and that the Confederacy would thereby be weakened.8 As this opinion soon developed into a conviction that official action was necessary, Congress, by Act of March 13, 1862, provided that slaves be protected against the claims of their pursuers. Continuing further in this direction, the Federal Government gradually reached the position of withdrawing Negro labor from the Confederate territory. Finally the United States Government adopted the policy of withholding from the Confederates, slaves received with the understanding that their masters were in rebellion against the United States. With this as a settled policy then, the United States Government had to work out some scheme for the remaking of these fugitives coming into its camps.
In some of these cases the fugitives found themselves among men more hostile to them than their masters were, for many of the Union soldiers of the border States were slaveholders themselves and northern soldiers did not understand that they were fighting to free Negroes. The condition in which they were on arriving, moreover, was a new problem for the army. Some came naked, some in decrepitude, some afflicted with disease, and some wounded in their efforts to escape.9 There were "women in travail, the helplessness of childhood and of old age, the horrors of sickness and of frequent deaths."10 In their crude state few of them had any conception of the significance of liberty, thinking that it meant idleness and freedom from restraint. In consequence of this ignorance there developed such undesirable habits as deceit, theft and licentiousness to aggravate the afflictions of nakedness, famine and disease.11
In the East large numbers of these refugees were concentrated at Washington, Alexandria, Fortress Monroe, Hampton, Craney Island and Fort Norfolk. There were smaller groups of them at Yorktown, Suffolk and Portsmouth.12
Some of them were conducted from these camps into York, Columbia, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and by water to New York and Boston, from which they went to various parts seeking labor. Some collected in groups as in the case of those at Five Points in New York.13 Large numbers of them from Virginia assembled in Washington in 1862 in Duff Green's Row on Capitol Hill where they were organized as a camp, out of which came a contraband school, after being moved to the McClellan Barracks.14 Then there was in the District of Columbia another group known as Freedmen's village on Arlington Heights. It was said that, in 1864, 30,000 to 40,000 Negroes had come from the plantations to the District of Columbia.15 It happened here too as in most cases of this migration that the Negroes were on hand before the officials grappling with many other problems could determine exactly what could or should be done with them. The camps near Washington fortunately became centers for the employment of contrabands in the city. Those repairing to Fortress Monroe were distributed as laborers among the farmers of that vicinity.16
In some of these camps, and especially in those of the West, the refugees were finally sent out to other sections in need of labor, as in the cases of the contrabands assembled with the Union army at first at Grand Junction and later at Memphis.17
There were three types of these camp communities which attracted attention as places for free labor experimentation. These were at Port Royal, on the Mississippi in the neighborhood of Vicksburg, and in Lower Louisiana and Virginia. The first trial of free labor of blacks on a large scale in a slave State was made in Port Royal.18 The experiment was generally successful. By industry, thrift and orderly conduct the Negroes showed their appreciation for their new opportunities. In the Mississippi section invaded by the northern army, General Thomas opened what he called "Infirmary Farms" which he leased to Negroes on certain terms which they usually met successfully. The same plan, however, was not so successful in the Lower Mississippi section.19 The failure in this section was doubtless due to the inferior type of blacks in the lower cotton belt where Negroes had been more brutalized by slavery.
In some cases, these refugees experienced many hardships. It was charged that they were worked hard, badly treated and deprived of all their wages except what was given them for rations and a scanty pittance, wholly insufficient to purchase necessary clothing and provide for their families.20 Not a few of the refugees for these reasons applied for permission to return to their masters and sometimes such permission was granted; for, although under military authority, they were by order of Congress to be considered as freemen. These voluntary slaves, of course, were few and the authorities were not thereby impressed with the thought that Negroes would prefer to be slaves, should they be treated as freemen rather than as brutes.21
It became increasingly difficult, however, to handle this problem. In the first place, it was not an easy matter to find soldiers well disposed to serve the Negroes in any manner whatever and the officers of the army had no desire to force them to render such services since those thus engaged suffered a sort of social ostracism. The same condition obtained in the case of caring for those afflicted with disease, until there was issued a specific regulation placing the contraband sick in charge of the army surgeons.22 What the situation in the Mississippi Valley was during these months has been well described by an observer, saying: "I hope I may never be called on again to witness the horrible scenes I saw in those first days of history of the freedmen in the Mississippi Valley. Assistants were hard to find, especially the kind that would do any good in the camps. A detailed soldier in each camp of a thousand people was the best that could be done and his duties were so onerous that he ended by doing nothing. In reviewing the condition of the people at that time, I am not surprised at the marvelous stories told by visitors who caught an occasional glimpse of the misery and wretchedness in these camps. Our efforts to do anything for these people, as they herded together in masses, when founded on any expectation that they would help themselves, often failed; they had become so completely broken down in spirit, through suffering, that it was almost impossible to arouse them."23
A few sympathetic officers and especially the chaplains undertook to relieve the urgent cases of distress. They could do little, however, to handle all the problems of the unusual situation until they engaged the attention of the higher officers of the army and the federal functionaries in Washington. After some delay this was finally done and special officers were detailed to take charge of the contrabands. The Negroes were assembled in camps and employed according to instructions from the Secretary of War as teamsters, laborers and the like on forts and railroads. Some were put to picking, ginning, baling and removing cotton on plantations abandoned by their masters. General Grant, as early as 1862, was making further use of them as fatigue men in the department of the surgeon-general, the quartermaster and the commissary. He believed then that such Negroes as did well in these more humble positions should be made citizens and soldiers.24 As a matter of fact out of this very suggestion came the policy of arming the Negroes, the first regiment of whom was recruited under orders issued by General Hunter at Port Royal, South Carolina in 1862. As the arming of the slave to participate in this war did not generally please the white people who considered the struggle a war between civilized groups, this policy could not offer general relief to the congested contraband camps.25
A better system of handling the fugitives was finally worked out, however, with a general superintendent at the head of each department, supported by a number of competent assistants. More explicit instructions were given as to the manner of dealing with the situation. It was to be the duty of the superintendent of contrabands, says the order, to organize them into working parties in saving the cotton, as pioneers on railroads and steamboats, and in any way where their services could be made available. Where labor was performed for private individuals they were charged in accordance with the orders of the commander of the department. In case they were directed to save abandoned crops of cotton for the benefit of the United States Government, the officer selling such crops would turn over to the superintendent of contrabands the proceeds of the sale, which together with other earnings were used for clothing and feeding the Negroes. Clothing sent by philanthropic persons to these camps was received and distributed by the superintendent. In no case, however, were Negroes to be forced into the service of the United States Government or to be enticed away from their homes except when it became a military necessity.26
Some order out of the chaos eventually developed, for as John Eaton, one of the workers in the West, reported: "There was no promiscuous intermingling. Families were established by themselves. Every man took care of his own wife and children." "One of the most touching features of our Work," says he, "was the eagerness with which colored men and women availed themselves of the opportunities offered them to legalize unions already formed, some of which had been in existence for a long time."27 "Chaplain A.S. Fiske on one occasion married in about an hour one hundred and nineteen couples at one service, chiefly those who had long lived together." Letters from the Virginia camps and from those of Port Royal indicate that this favorable condition generally obtained.28
This unusual problem in spite of additional effort, however, would not readily admit of solution. Benevolent workers of the North, therefore, began to minister to the needs of these unfortunate blacks. They sent considerable sums of money, increasing quantities of clothing and even some of their most devoted men and women to toil among them as social workers and teachers.29 These efforts also took organized form in various parts of the North under the direction of "The Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association, The Tract Society, The American Missionary Association, Pennsylvania Friends Freedmen's Relief Association, Old School Presbyterian Mission, The Reformed Presbyterian Mission, The New England Freedmen's Aid Committee, The New England Freedmen's Aid Society, The New England Freedmen's Mission, The Washington Christian Union, The Universalists of Maine, The New York Freedmen's Relief Association, The Hartford Relief Society, The National Freedmen's Relief Association of the District of Columbia", and finally the "Freedmen's Bureau".30
As an outlet to the congested grouping of Negroes and poor whites in the war camps it was arranged to send a number of them to the loyal States as fast as there presented themselves opportunities for finding homes and employment. Cairo, Illinois, in the West, became the center of such activities extending its ramifications into all parts of the invaded southern territory. Some of the refugees permanently settled in the North, taking up the work abandoned by the northern soldiers who went to war.31 It was soon found necessary to appoint a superintendent of such affairs at Cairo, for there were those who, desiring to lead a straggling life, had to be restrained from crime by military surveillance and regulations requiring labor for self support. Exactly how many whites and blacks were thus aided to reach northern communities cannot be determined but in view of the frequent mention of their movements by travellers the number must have been considerable. In some cases, as in Lawrence, Kansas, there were assembled enough freedmen to constitute a distinct group.32 Speaking of this settlement the editor of the "Alton Telegraph" said in 1862 that although they amounted to many hundreds not one, that he could learn of, had been a public charge. They readily found employment at fair wages, and soon made themselves comfortable.33
There was a little apprehension that the North would be overrun by such blacks. Some had no such fear, however, for the reason that the census did not indicate such a movement. Many slaves were freed in the North prior to 1860, yet with all the emigration from the slave States to the North there were then in all the Northern States but 226,152 free blacks, while there were in the slave States 261,918, an excess of 35,766 in the slave States. Frederick Starr believed that during the Civil War there might be an influx for a few months but it would not continue.34 They would return when sure that they would be free. Starr thought that, if necessary, these refugees might be used in building the much desired Pacific Railroad to divert them from the North.
There was little ground for this apprehension, in fact, if their readjustment and development in the contraband camps could be considered an indication of what the Negroes would eventually do. Taking all things into consideration, most unbiased observers felt that blacks in the camps deserved well of their benefactors.36 According to Levi Coffin, these contrabands were, in 1864, disposed of as follows: "In military services as soldiers, laundresses, cooks, officers' servants and laborers in the various staff departments, 41,150; in cities, on plantations and in freedmen's villages and cared for, 72,500. Of these 62,300 were entirely self-supporting, just as any industrial class anywhere else, as planters, mechanics, barbers, hackmen and draymen, conducting enterprises on their own responsibility or working as hired laborers." The remaining 10,200 received subsistence from the government. 3,000 of these were members of families whose heads were carrying on plantations, and had undertaken cultivation of 4,000 acres of cotton, pledging themselves to pay the government for their subsistence from the first income of the crop. The other 7,200 included the paupers, that is, all Negroes over and under the self-supporting age, the crippled and sick in hospitals. This class, however, instead of being unproductive, had then under cultivation 500 acres of corn, 790 acres of vegetables, and 1,500 acres of cotton, besides working at wood chopping and other industries. There were reported in the aggregate over 100,000 acres of cotton under cultivation, 7,000 acres of which were leased and cultivated by blacks. Some Negroes were managing as many as 300 or 400 acres each.37 Statistics showing exactly how much the numbers of contrabands in the various branches of the service increased are wanting, but in view of the fact that the few thousand soldiers here given increased to about 200,000 before the close of the Civil War, the other numbers must have been considerable, if they all grew the least proportionately.
Much industry was shown among these refugees. Under this new system they acquired the idea of ownership, and of the security of wages and learned to see the fundamental difference between freedom and slavery. Some Yankees, however, seeing that they did less work than did laborers in the North, considered them lazy, but the lack of industry was customary in the South and a river should not be expected to rise higher than its source. One of their superintendents said that they worked well without being urged, that there was among them a public opinion against idleness, which answered for discipline, and that those put to work with soldiers labored longer and did the nicer parts. "In natural tact and the faculty of getting a livelihood," says the same writer, "the contrabands are inferior to the Yankees, but quite equal to the mass of southern population."38 The Negroes also showed capacity to organize labor and use capital in the promotion of enterprises. Many of them purchased land and cultivated it to great profit both to the community and to themselves. Others entered the service of the government as mechanics and contractors, from the employment of which some of them realized handsome incomes.
The more important development, however, was that of manhood. This was best observed in their growing consciousness of rights, and their readiness to defend them, even when encroached upon by members of the white race. They quickly learned to appreciate freedom and exhibited evidences of manhood in their desire for the comforts and conveniences of life. They readily purchased articles of furniture within their means, bringing their home equipment up to the standard of that of persons similarly circumstanced. The indisposition to labor was overcome "in a healthy nature by instinct and motives of superior forces, such as love of life, the desire to be clothed and fed, the sense of security derived from provision for the future, the feeling of self-respect, the love of family and children and the convictions of duty."39
These enterprises, begun in doubt, soon ceased to be a bare hope or possibility. They became during the war a fruition and a consummation, in that they produced Negroes "who would work for a living and fight for freedom." They were, therefore, considered "adapted to civil society." They had "shown capacity for knowledge, for free industry, for subordination to law and discipline, for soldierly fortitude, for social and family relations, for religious culture and aspiration. These qualities," said the observer, "when stirred, and sustained by the incitements and rewards of a just society, and combining with the currents of our continental civilization, will, under the guidance of a benevolent Providence which forgets neither them nor us, make them a constantly progressive race; and secure them ever after from the calamity of another enslavement, and ourselves from the worst calamity of being their oppressors."40
It is clear that these smaller numbers of Negroes under favorable conditions could be easily adjusted to a new environment. When, however, all Negroes were declared free there set in a confused migration which was much more of a problem. The first thing the Negro did after realizing that he was free was to roam over the country to put his freedom to a test. To do this, according to many writers, he frequently changed his name, residence, employment and wife, sometimes carrying with him from the plantation the fruits of his own labor. Many of them easily acquired a dog and a gun and were disposed to devote their time to the chase until the assistance in the form of mules and land expected from the government materialized. Their emancipation, therefore, was interpreted not only as freedom from slavery but from responsibility.41 Where they were going they did not know but the towns and cities became very attractive to them.
Speaking of this upheaval in Virginia, Eckenrode says that many of them roamed over the country without restraint.42 "Released from their accustomed bonds," says Hall, "and filled with a pleasing, if not vague, sense of uncontrolled freedom, they flocked to the cities with little hope of obtaining remunerative work. Wagon loads of them were brought in from the country by the soldiers and dumped down to shift for themselves."43 Referring to the proclamation of freedom, in Georgia, Thompson asserts that their most general and universal response was to pick up and leave the home place to go somewhere else, preferably to a town. "The lure of the city was strong to the blacks, appealing to their social natures, to their inherent love for a crowd."44 Davis maintains that thousands of the 70,000 Negroes in Florida crowded into the Federal military camps and into towns upon realizing that they were free.45 According to Ficklen, the exodus of the slaves from the neighboring plantations of Louisiana into Baton Rouge, Carrollton and New Orleans was so great as to strain the resources of the Federal authorities to support them. Ten thousand poured into New Orleans alone.46 Fleming records that upon leaving their homes the blacks collected in gangs at the cross roads, in the villages and towns, especially near the military posts. The towns were filled with crowds of blacks who left their homes with absolutely nothing, "thinking that the government would care for them, or more probably, not thinking at all."47
The portrayal of these writers of this phase of Reconstruction history contains a general truth, but in some cases the picture is overdrawn. The student of history must bear in mind that practically all of our histories of that period are based altogether on the testimony of prejudiced whites and are written from their point of view. Some of these writers have aimed to exaggerate the vagrancy of the blacks to justify the radical procedure of the whites in dealing with it. The Negroes did wander about thoughtlessly, believing that this was the most effective way to enjoy their freedom. But nothing else could be expected from a class who had never felt anything but the heel of oppression. History shows that such vagrancy has always followed the immediate emancipation of a large number of slaves. Many Negroes who flocked to the towns and army camps, moreover, had like their masters and poor whites seen their homes broken up or destroyed by the invading Union armies. Whites who had never learned to work were also roaming and in some cases constituted marauding bands.48
There was, moreover, an actual drain of laborers to the lower and more productive lands in Mississippi and Louisiana.49 This developed later into a more considerable movement toward the Southwest just after the Civil War, the exodus being from South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. Here was the pioneering spirit, a going to the land of more economic opportunities. This slow movement continued from about 1865 to 1875, when the development of the numerous railway systems gave rise to land speculators who induced whites and blacks to go west and southwest. It was a migration of individuals, but it was reported that as many as 35,000 Negroes were then persuaded to leave South Carolina and Georgia for Arkansas and Texas.50
The usual charge that the Negro is naturally migratory is not true. This impression is often received by persons who hear of the thousands of Negroes who move from one place to another from year to year because of the desire to improve their unhappy condition. In this there is no tendency to migrate but an urgent need to escape undesirable conditions. In fact, one of the American Negroes' greatest shortcomings is that they are not sufficiently pioneering. Statistics show that the whites have more inclination to move from State to State than the Negro. To prove this assertion,51 Professor William O. Scroggs has shown that, in 1910, 16.6 per cent of the Negroes had moved to some other State than that in which they were born, while during the same period 22.4 per cent of the whites had done the same.52
The South, however, was not disposed to look at the vagrancy of the ex-slaves so philosophically. That section had been devastated by war and to rebuild these waste places reliable labor was necessary. Legislatures of the slave States, therefore, immediately after the close of the war, granted the Negro nominal freedom but enacted measures of vagrancy and labor so as to reduce the Negro again almost to the status of a slave. White magistrates were given wide discretion in adjudging Negroes vagrants.53 Negroes had to sign contracts to work. If without what was considered a just cause the Negro left the employ of a planter, the former could be arrested and forced to work and in some sections with ball and chain. If the employer did not care to take him back he could be hired out by the county or confined in jail. Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina had further drastic features. By local ordinance in Louisiana every Negro had to be in the service of some white person, and by special laws of South Carolina and Mississippi the Negro became subject to a master almost in the same sense in which he was prior to emancipation.54 These laws, of course, convinced the government of the United States that the South had not yet decided to let slavery go and for that reason military rule and Congressional Reconstruction followed. In this respect the South did itself a great injury, for many of the provisions of the black codes, especially the vagrancy laws, were unnecessary. Most Negroes soon realized that freedom did not mean relief from responsibility and they quickly settled down to work after a rather protracted and exciting holiday.55
During the last year of and immediately after the Civil War there set in another movement, not of a large number of Negroes but of the intelligent class who had during years of residence in the North enjoyed such advantages of contact and education as to make them desirable and useful as leaders in the Reconstruction of the South and the remaking of the race. In their tirades against the Carpet-bag politicians who handled the Reconstruction situation so much to the dissatisfaction of the southern whites, historians often forget to mention also that a large number of the Negro leaders who participated in that drama were also natives or residents of Northern States.
Three motives impelled these blacks to go South. Some had found northern communities so hostile as to impede their progress, many wanted to rejoin relatives from whom they had been separated by their flight from the land of slavery, and others were moved by the spirit of adventure to enter a new field ripe with all sorts of opportunities. This movement, together with that of migration to large urban communities, largely accounts for the depopulation and the consequent decline of certain colored communities in the North after 1865.
Some of the Negroes who returned to the South became men of national prominence. William J. Simmons, who prior to the Civil War was carried from South Carolina to Pennsylvania, returned to do religious and educational work in Kentucky. Bishop James W. Hood, of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, went from Connecticut to North Carolina to engage in similar work. Honorable R.T. Greener, the first Negro graduate of Harvard, went from Philadelphia to teach in the District of Columbia and later to be a professor in the University of South Carolina. F.L. Cardoza, educated at the University of Edinburgh, returned to South Carolina and became State Treasurer. R.B. Elliot, born in Boston and educated in England, settled in South Carolina from which he was sent to Congress.
John M. Langston was taken to Ohio and educated but came back to Virginia his native State from which he was elected to Congress. J.T. White left Indiana to enter politics in Arkansas, becoming State Senator and later commissioner of public works and internal improvements. Judge Mifflin Wister Gibbs, a native of Philadelphia, purposely settled in Arkansas where he served as city judge and Register of United States Land Office. T. Morris Chester, of Pittsburgh, finally made his way to Louisiana where he served with distinction as a lawyer and held the position of Brigadier-General in charge of the Louisiana State Guards under the Kellogg government. Joseph Carter Corbin, who was taken from Virginia to be educated at Chillicothe, Ohio, went later to Arkansas where he served as chief clerk in the post office at Little Rock and later as State Superintendent of Schools. Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, who moved north for education and opportunity, returned to enter politics in Louisiana, which honored him with several important positions among which was that of Acting Governor.
A Century of Negro Migration, March 31, 1918