October 1862: Slavery went by another name

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Even after being freed from slavery, Louisiana's African Americans were forced to work on Unionist plantations (Library of Congress).

When the Civil War began, thousands of slaves ran away from their masters and sought freedom inside Union lines. Soon after Union Gen. Benjamin F. Butler took command of New Orleans in May 1862, the city became crowded with such runaways. As a result, some Louisiana planters quickly took the oath of allegiance in an attempt to regain their slave property. Butler refused to return the slaves to their owners, but his resources were quickly stretched thin trying to provide them housing, food, and medical care.

Then, in typical Butler fashion, the general hatched a plan to solve the problem. Since the runaways needed jobs to survive and the loyal planters needed laborers, Butler decided to return the slaves to the plantations to work under strict guidelines.

In October 1862, Butler allowed Unionist planters in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes to use runaway and freed slaves to work their fields-but in return they had to pay the laborers a wage. The plan was declared a success and Butler's replacement, Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, later expanded the program up the Mississippi River when Union forces captured Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

The U.S. Treasury Department was responsible for administering abandoned lands, and it helped administer the new labor system. Unionists were allowed to lease plantations that had been abandoned by Rebels and even buy plantations that were sold at auction for nonpayment of property taxes. When the program first began, most of the laborers were slaves. But even after the Union state government abolished slavery in 1864, the freedmen were still forced to toil on the plantations.

Those involved in the plantation lease system had to sign binding contracts drawn up by General Banks. The black laborers worked ten hours a day (with Sundays off) for $10 a month for adult men and lesser amounts for women and children. The planters were required to provide adequate food, clothing, housing, and medical care, but they also deducted $3 per month from the laborers' wages to pay for clothing. Although planters were forbidden to flog their workers, they could have U.S. military personnel whip those who refused to work. Armed guards also protected the planters and patrolled the neighborhood to make sure the workers stayed on the plantations.

Gen. Lorenzo Thomas supervised the labor program in Louisiana's northeastern river parishes. He gave black men the choice of enlisting in the U.S. Army, hiring out as military laborers, or signing labor contracts with leased plantations. Black women and other family members had no choice but to work for the planters. Under Thomas, wages were dropped to $7 per month for men and $5 for women, with some money being deducted for clothing and medical care.

At the program's peak, 50,000 freedmen were working on 1,500 Louisiana plantations run by the U.S. government or Unionists. It did not take long before everyone became disenchanted with the system, largely because the black laborers' notion of "freedom" differed from that of Northern officials and Unionist planters. When slavery was abolished, the freedmen expected to receive their own land that they could work without white supervision or restrictions. The Unionists, on the other hand, believed the freedmen should continue to labor on the plantations in return for a wage. When officials failed to provide land to the freedmen, the former slaves balked at staying on the plantations, which led planters to complain that the freedmen were lazy and would only work when whipped.

To the black laborers, the plantation lease system differed little from slavery. Just like their old masters, the Unionist planters provided bare subsistence level care and resorted to the whip to keep them in the field. True freedom was nonexistent because the laborers were left to starve if they did not participate, and once they signed a contract they could not leave the plantation without the owner's permission. Adding to the laborers' concerns was the fact that Confederate cavalry and guerrillas frequently raided the isolated plantations and killed or carried off freedmen.

Today, it is difficult to judge the effectiveness of the plantation lease system. Some believe it was an important first step in transforming Louisiana's African Americans from slaves to wage laborers. Others argue that it was simply slavery by another name and was just a tool the cynical Yankees used to win support from the state's white Unionists. Whatever the case, the plantation lease system was one of the Civil War's more controversial programs.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.