Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of South Carolina
Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870.
National Archives Microfilm Publication M869 Roll 34
"Reports of Conditions and Operations"
Office Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen
and Abandoned Lands
Savannah, Ga., September 1, 1865
Bvt. Maj. Genl. R. Saxton
Asst. Comr. So. Car. & Ga.
I have the honor to invite your attention to the condition of affairs in the District to which I have been assigned. The District includes that portion of the State of Georgia which borders the coast from Savannah River to Florida, one hundred and fifty miles, also the Sea Islands within the same limits, and so much of South Carolina as lies in the immediate neighborhood of Savannah.
The Islands are many of them extensive, consisting of rich cotton and corn land, and including some of the best estates of Georgia, while on the mainland bordering the rivers, for many miles are the celebrated rice plantations of the state, the former owners of which ranked highest among the wealthy aristocracy of the sea-coast counties.
Much of the District, as you will remember, and all of it within the neighborhood of Savannah, was laid waste by the Army. So complete was the destitution this occasioned, that thousands of families, white and black, in the city and on the plantation were reduced to a state of poverty, with no means of support. "Confederate" money was worthless and about the only provisions which the Army left was a small quantity of rice stored at Savannah. Though spared the ravages of fire, there is perhaps, no city on the coast, and few in the country the citizens of which were so completely reduced as were those of Savannah, owing principally to the fact that the Army was at the city, and subsisting itself upon that it could get from plantations and counties in the immediate vicinity. Then too, from all sections, come freedmen and poor whites, driven to the city by starvation and cruelty of guerrilla bands that spared neither friend nor foe, and besought the government for food and shelter. Thus a vast multitude of paupers were thrown upon us for support. The municipal authorities assisted to the extent of their ability with the help of relief establishments, but confined their efforts to the city poor.
In January appeared the order of Gen. Sherman announcing a plan for the care of Freedmen. Pursuant to your instructions, I opened an office at Savannah, where the colored people congregated in great numbers. With the utmost eagerness did they apply for passes to the Islands and protected plantations, and with haste, selected their plots of ground for the year's planting. The statement which I shall present at the close of the season, and to which this is preliminary, will include a report of the crops, and will show beyond dispute, that the negro regards the ownership of land as a privilege that ought to be co-existent with his freedom.
On account of fresh and ?numerous arrivals, the ration list continued to increase, and on the rice plantations, where the labor is devoted to the cultivation of rice, rations have still to be issued, to a certain extent. Accurate accounts are kept with the various plantations, and Government hold a lien upon the crop, which will soon be gathered, for the rations furnished.
The authorities of Savannah having relinquished charge of the city poor, which includes about 1500 families, their supply of provisions being exhausted, such of these as are refugees and freedmen, apply for assistance to the Freedmen's Bureau. Unless we help them, hundreds must die from starvation, and I have, therefore, felt it is my duty to issue rations to the really destitute, who have no means of attaining employment.
It may be said of the Freedmen, generally, that they deserve the greatest credit for the manner in which they have conducted themselves under the new order of things. Amid the most annoying provocation they are calm and reasonable. Insult, assault and persecution they receive not only from Secessionists and their former masters, but from United States soldiers, and the manly forbearance they display, is the result not of cowardice, but of a Christian spirit. I have at every opportunity cautioned them against the machinations of their enemies, who are endeavoring to create disturbance and riot for the purpose of casting the blame upon
On the Fourth of July the colored firemen represented that Mr. Casey, the Chief of the Fire Department (heretofore an active secessionist) had forbidden them to parade their engines, although white firemen had permission. I saw Mr. Casey, warned him against making any such distinction, had the guards removed from engine houses, and in the afternoon the Freedmen prevailed. But after proceeding a short distance they were attacked by a brutal crowd, their engine was wrested from them, and they
themselves were compelled to take flight. Such was the opposition which secessionists manifested to the only class of Southerners whose loyalty has been unswerving, and who, as a class, were the only citizens who desired to celebrate the Day.
Next morning their committee called upon me to say that they could no longer submit to this kind of abuse, and unless the military authorities would interfere, they should defend themselves. They were unanimous, deliberate, earnest! --- a power --- no longer servile, no longer slaves. Deeply impressed with the justice of their pleas, I visited the Post Commandant, and requested assistance. He took immediate measures, and by a proper policing of the city has done much to prevent the recurrence of similar scenes. The reflection that nearly half of the population of South Carolina and Georgia are freedmen, the remarkable efforts which those freedmen are making to acquire knowledge, information and wealth, the fact that much of the best blood of the South courses through their veins, their wonderful common sense, business tact, keen perceptives, and my experience of every day convince me that these are a race not to be trifled with. If Government will protect itself, it must protect the freedman, earn his affection and respect, or the Providence that has afflicted us already for our sins, may afflict us again.
The abolishment of Provost Courts by General Steadman has had a salutary effect. From what I have seen of these courts, I believe that the complaints against them by Freedmen were not at all unreasonable, and that the interests of the latter were often disregarded by them. The present arrangement, whereby controversies between whites and freedmen are referred to the Bureau, is better for all parties. The negro is better satisfied, even if he obtains an unfavorable decision, for he has a fair hearing before a friendly tribunal that is never forgetful of his necessities, but laboring to educate and defend him, while at the same time it claims equal justice for persons of every color.
In view of many mistaken opinion with regard to the matter of contracts, and the feeling existing between the freedmen and former slaveholders, I deem it my duty to state very frankly, as the result of six months experience at Savannah, among planters of every grade, from the interior, as well as the city, that for some time to come ex-slaveholders will take no interest whatever in the free labor system except to find fault with it, and subject it to ridicule. We shall receive from them little co-operation. They will make contracts, and if possible, make money (self interest will impel them to this), but we shall hear from them continual complaints, that the negroes "won't work," "won't fulfill their agreements," are worthless as free laborers, and these complaints will be made and circulated with the utmost assiduity, whether the negroes are faithful or not. These men have no faith in the system. They prophesy failure when the contract is made, and afterwards with a triumphant "I told you so," announce it's uselessness.
On the Central Rail Road it was said, the negro could not be hired to work, even for fifteen dollars per month, but could make his contract, get his first week's rations, and then abscond. Complaints were poured into the ears of the Commanding General by the Chief Rail Road Contractor. The General communicated with the Bureau, and I agreed to investigate the matter and procure laborers, I discovered that the Rail Road overseer, instead of treating his men as they had a right to be treated, abused them much as if they were slaves and gave to white men $25 for doing the work that black men were required to do for $15.
I had new contracts drawn and ?procured more laborers than the contractor could employ, although he had represented to the General and to numerous citizens that the negroes would not work, and could not be hired to work. Scarcely a week elapsed before some of them returned. They had been abused, cursed and maltreated, and sometimes for two or three days could get scarcely anything to eat. They came for redress, were willing to return, but wished to be protected in their rights. Afterward others came, whose time had expired, but their wages were held back, promised to them but not paid. I am entirely satisfied that the fault on the railroad has been not with the negroes, but with the contractors, and their subordinates, who are tinctured with old prejudices, and do not treat their laborers as free men have a right to be treated. Unless the Southern whites are prepared to change their ways in this particular, distrust of the slaveholder, which is almost universal among the freedmen, will increase.
Complaints crowd upon us from the Interior negroes who have worked upon the crop until it is "laid by," and are entitled to a share of it for their for their services are suddenly driven from the plantation, and thrown upon Government for support. Just enough hands are retained to harvest the crop. The proprietor is insulting and defiant, and living as he does, perhaps, in some back county of the state, not within a hundred miles of United States troops, is in no fear of punishment.
A boy of twelve years old came to my office a few days since, battered and bruised, his flesh lacerated by the cruel blows of his former master, who had driven him off, helpless and hungry, to find food and shelter as best he could. In view of facts like these it is difficult to convince the negro that under any circumstances he will be fairly treated by his former master, and that the rights which that master never before regarded he will now accord to him. Yet it has been my earnest endeavor, so far as possible, to secure harmony and good feeling between all parties, and by every means in my power to encourage the making of contracts. Among those who are fairly disposed the contract system will prove an entire success.
It is of the utmost importance that the Bureau should have one or more offices in every county of Georgia. Planters of the Interior who wish to make agreements with their people, find it very difficult to communicate with us. For this extensive State, with its few cities, its innumerable and extensive farms and immense population of negroes, we require a large force of Agents. There are scarcely enough Military officers in the Department, if we could have the services of all of them for the work in hand. Hence the importance of some further provision, that will enable the Bureau to communicate with those whose interests it has in charge. The work already accomplished, in providing for the sick and suffering, in adjusting innumerable difficulties of ever day occurrences, in restoring the confidence among the laboring classes, and in the education of the masses is having a widespread influence. Yet, because its plans are at variance with the dogma's of slavery, no institution in the land, perhaps, will be more violently assailed than will be the Freedmen's Bureau.
The peculiar kind of "loyalty" which attains in certain "high circles" of Southern society is singularly exhibited in connection with the matter of abandoned lands. A gentleman of the rebel army applied for the restoration of his plantation. I objected, first, because his property was worth more than $20,000, and he should obtain pardon. He
objected differed from me. I inquired if the property he was asking for was not worth more than that amount. "Oh yes," he said, much more, his that was in possession of the Military authorities by virtue of their having allowed the negroes to plant there, and therefore he could swear conscientiously that he was not worth $20,000 which amounted to saying that the land was his, and yet it was not his. Thus by the shabbiest kind of sophistry did he justify himself in swearing to what was utterly false. Of course I could not entertain his application.
Another gentleman of equal standing contends that there is no such thing as "loyalty" to the Republic, but only to the Emperor, King or Prince, etc., and that being a citizen of the United States his rights are equal with those of any other citizen and the matter of "loyalty" had no business in the connection. Having made careful investigation I discovered in certain cases that parties who had taken the oath had no right to take it, and they were thereupon required to apply for pardon. The very loose ideas of many of these gentlemen have subjected the Government, I believe, to much imposition.
It is declared in certain quarters that, if the negroes are located on lands which the owner was to get possession of, but which the Agent of the Bureau decides he is not entitled to, an
d injunction will be obtained from the state court, which is soon to be in session, against the said Agent, and the Sheriff will be charged with the execution of the order. Should this occur, there will be immediate conflict, for these courts have no right to interfere with a United States officer who may be carrying out the orders of Government.
The Savannah Educational Society has met with remarkable success. Its history has an important bearing, and develops the fact that the Freedmen are dispose to be self reliant in the matter of schools, as in other matters. They understand that the efforts of Government and Benevolent Agencies in their behalf are in the nature of things temporary. They want, when this assistance is withdrawn, to be able to keep themselves, to educate their children.
The Society was founded in December last, by a company of Freedmen, who established the first colored schools of Savannah, and supported them for several months by their own voluntary contributions. All the teachers are colored, and the schools number five hundred scholars. I have visited them repeatedly to learn the capacity of the teachers, and their fitness for the work, and am entirely satisfied with what I have seen. They are intelligent, assiduous, and well qualified. The children are neat in their appearance, exceedingly will behaved, always obedient, and passed a better examination, as I am informed by the late Superintendent of Schools, than any white school in the city. I have established a normal class for the instruction of colored teachers. It is under the charge of an educated gentleman who takes a deep interest in the work, and is doing excellent service. the teachers take hold gladly, and are exceedingly anxious to fit themselves in every particular for the positions they occupy. Their schools have had no vacation, and desire none, yet are largely attended.
As the Freedmen are now unable to increase their contributions, the association desire the schools to be under the immediate care of the Freedmen's Bureau. I earnestly recommend a compliance with this request, and advocate the importance of the normal school system as a work which the Bureau should make its own. The expense will be trifling compared with the result achieved---the raising up from among the Freedmen themselves a class who will be always in their midst, and educated to the business of instructor and teacher.
I urge the young men to begin Mercantile studies and for themselves the higher walks of business life. If allowed the opportunity, they will compete with the first citizens of the State. A Freedman of Savannah by his extensive and successful trade in cotton has already excited the jealousy of some of the largest white operators.
The Military Authorities, having relinquished charge of what was called the "Contraband" Hospital, I assumed the care of it and placed Searg. Augusta in charge. He has greatly improved its condition and will make it a credit to the Bureau. The building is capacious, well located, and can accommodate 500 patients. The Freedmen take a great interest in it, and contribute not only delicacies for the sick, but considerable sums of money. A hundred patients are now being cared for, and our monthly expenses amount to about $300. The Freedmen have volunteered to raise the amount, but I hope we shall not be long compelled to receive this largely of their liberality.
Much excitedness has been occasioned by an action for "Perjury" against five negroes. They were tried before the Provost Judge, convicted, and visited with the meanest sentence the court could inflict---each man to six months imprisonment, $500 fine, and imprisonment until payment of fine. I examined the case, discovered that they were most unjustly convicted, and represented the matter very fully to Genl. Davis, who has very correctly decided to release the parties at once. Thus ends most favorable to the Freedmen a case which has been harped upon for weeks by prominent citizens as evidence of the negro's "perfidy" and the "great impropriety of his testifying against white men"---
The Bureau has every reason to be encouraged not only by what we learn of the Freedmen from everyday's experience, but by what we shall be able to exhibit with regard to them as an agricultural people which will be matter for a future report.
I am General
With great respect
Your Obt. Servant
A. P. Ketchum
Capt. & A. D. V.