Rehearsal for Reconstruction

This award-winning book by the late professor Willie Lee Rose, published in 1964, looks at the Port Royal Experiment at the Sea Islands in South Carolina. In the book’s introduction, Professor C. Vann Woodward writes the Port Royal Experiment “was in effect a dress rehearsal for Reconstruction acted out on the stage neatly defined by the Sea Islands of South Carolina. It offers a rare opportunity to review the vast spectacle in miniature and see it in its germinal phase. It began not long ago after the war started, seven months after the fall of Fort Sumter and developed far behind Confederate lines while the war thundered away on the mainland in Virginia and along the Mississippi, hundreds of miles away. The stage was cleared for the experiment by the United States Navy on November 7, 1861, long remembered by the slaves as ‘the day of the big gun-shoot.’ Under the command of Commodore S. F. Du Pont, a fleet sailed into Port Royal Sound, opened a bombardment, quickly reduced the defending batteries, an on the following day landed troops to occupy the islands. As soon as Commodore Du Pont’s guns ceased fire, the slaveowners and planters, as well as the entire white population, hurriedly loaded a few possessions and a few house servants on flatboats, set fire to piles of cotton bales, and sailed away to the mainland. Behind them they left their mansions, meals cooking on stoves, along with their slaves and virtually all their possessions. When the troops arrived in Beaufort, the only town of consequence, they discovered only one white man, and he was too drunk to move. Some ten thousand slaves, more than eighty percent of the island population in 1860, remained behind, some to loot the mansion houses and all to welcome the invaders and to determine–gradually and painfully–whether they came as liberators or as a new set of masters. … Into this island limbo between the old and the new sailed ‘Gideon’s Ban.’ The steamer Atlantic landed them at Beaufort in March 1862. A ban of fifty-three missionaries, the Gideonites were mainly young antislavery people, about half of them from Boston and its vicinity and half from New York. They were the first of several hundred who came to the Sea Islands before the end of the war. They were divided along sectarian lines, and time was to prove them divided over the nature of their mission. But they were united in their opposition to slavery and in their determination to give shape to liberation and guidance and help to the liberated.” [pp. xi-xii]

Port Royal would become an experiment testing the hypothesis that free labor is more efficient and more productive than enslaved labor. Professor Woodward tells us, “The Port Royal Experiment became not only a proving ground for the freedmen, but also a training and recruiting ground for personnel of the postwar Reconstruction.” [p. xiv] Beginning with a short history of the Sea Islands, Professor Rose writes, “In time large holdings, staple crops, and Negro slavery became the characteristic economic features of the islands. By 1861 nearly 83 per cent of the total population comprised Negro slaves, who lived and worked under a harsh slave code that still bore the impress of its early origin in the West Indies.” [p. 9]

The idea behind the Port Royal Experiment was to raise cotton and sell it in the loyal states while proving free labor beats enslaved labor. The problem was, the formerly enslaved people looked on cotton as a slave crop and they wanted to raise subsistence crops. Another monkey wrench was the stationing of soldiers in the area. “From the time of the occupation of the islands, the soldiers had been a demoralizing influence on the defenseless Negroes. The very presence of the blue-coated strangers who appropriated everything in sight was in a sense a violation of the manorial feelings of the erstwhile slaves, who regarded their plantations as their homes, if not as their property. … The Negroes naturally resented the army’s appropriation of the corn stored for their own winter food supply. On plantations where the Negro foremen, or ‘drivers,’ as they were called, had attempted to maintain a vestige of order, the discipline was completely wrecked whenever troops were encamped in the vicinity.” [p. 64]

The “Gideon’s Band” may have been abolitionists who were confident free labor was better than enslaved labor, but they were not immune to the racial prejudices of the time, and they were not immune to the temptation to exploit the freedmen. “Strangely enough, from the standpoint of the ‘evangels of civilization,’ the most troublesome mistake the soldiers had made was that of spreading among the Negroes the idea that they were absolutely free–free to do just as they pleased. With few exceptions, the missionaries were cautious in speaking to the Negroes about a point that the government had not made clear. Only the most doctrinaire abolitionist could regard a premature advertisement of their freedom as ‘a good thing.’ If the Negroes were to demonstrate that free labor was cheaper than slave labor, they would have to be organized and put to work on the old staple. Distrusting their powers of persuasion, the novice planters welcomed the assistance of a little authority at the start. In some cases the soldiers specifically set the Negroes against their new friends.” [p. 65]

The language used to refer to African Americans may be outdated by today’s standards, but Professor Rose does an excellent job in giving us the full picture of the Port Royal Experiment. She even tells about the corruption some people engaged in, as well as the naiveite of others, including Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. “Chase had been waiting for an automatic clearing of conflicts that he though would follow the completion of Reynolds’ assignment. [Lieutenant Colonel William H. Reynolds of the 1st Rhode Island Artillery, who ‘came to Secretary Chase with a letter from a family friend. William Sprague, the popular young governor of Rhode Island, thought Reynolds was the man Chase should send to South Carolina to collect the abandoned cotton.’ [p. 19] With Chase’s influence, Reynolds would become the US agent in Beaufort, South Carolina to collect ‘contraband cotton.’] It was nearly finished. Bales and bales of rebel cotton, topped off by the elegant furniture of the fugitive owners, the books of the Beaufort Library, and all other ‘movables,’ had proceeded northward in overloaded steamers, gaining for the agents a fat 5 per cent commission on all property thus ‘saved’ and at the same time opening a ‘cotton fund’ that would provide a financial basis for carrying forward the plans of the supporters of the Port Royal experiment. As their work was finished the agents departed, but Chase was to have no end of trouble with them. He ended by having to sanction payment of exorbitant and unreasonable fees to the agents, and there was more than a hint of outright fraud. Surprised by his sudden dismissal, Reynolds was caught short by 10 per cent in his accounts, and the circumstances were highly suspicious. The significant footnote to the affair was that Chase had gained ono insight into the man who had so heartily recommended Reynolds for his job. For before many months were out, the Governor of Rhode Island–by now Chase’s son-in-law–and Reynolds had joined several other disreputable partners and had used their connection with the naïve Secretary to promote an illegal private trade in guns and cotton with Confederate agents. It was treason, by almost any definition.” [p. 143]

A number of Civil War stories intersect at Port. One of these is the story of African American soldiers. In March of 1862 David Hunter took command of the Department of the South, which contained Port Royal. “On April 13, about two weeks after his arrival in the Department, Hunter clarified the standing of certain ‘contrabands’ in the district he occupied by simply declaring them free men. This move drew little comment, for it was overshadowed by a more exciting development of the previous day–the successful assault on Fort Pulaski, the old Federal stronghold at the mouth of the Savannah River. Hunter’s next step was also relatively quiet. Interpreting his orders to organize Negroes within his command into ‘squads, companies, or otherwise.’ as actual authorization to raise Negro troops, he set about recruiting among the plantations. He inquired of the superintendents about the numbers of likely prospects and sent out James Cashman, probably the first Negro recruiter, to encourage enlistment.” [pp. 144-145]

Hunter then decided to make a controversial move. “Abruptly, on May 9, he issued a short proclamation declaring all the slaves of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida free men, on the grounds that these states were under martial law and that ‘slavery and martial law in a free country are altogether incompatible.’ The jubilation among the missionaries was boundless. It had not subsided before Hunter issued another short order. All able-bodied male Negroes between the ages of eighteen and forty-five who were capable of bearing arms were to be sent to Hilton Head at once. Hunter’s orders left no room for discretion on the part of superintendents and no time for preparing the Negroes for the ‘draft.’ In fact, the general enjoined strictest secrecy until the morning of May 12, so that the Negroes could not take warning and run away. Early in the morning of that day several companies of soldiers moved rapidly over the islands, bringing consternation and fear to all plantations and outright panic to most.” [p. 146]

Neoconfederates will take this nugget and use it to lie about recruiting the USCT, magnifying the incident to claim most, if not all, USCT were forced into service. Scratch a neoconfederate and you will usually find a racist liar. But let’s look at the facts that we know. “During the course of the day, five hundred men were taken to Hilton Head, where, according to Hunter’s plan, they were to be held for a few weeks, instructed in army life and drill, and assured that they would afterward be free to go home if they still wished to do so. Pierce hotly protested the summary action, directly to Hunter and by letter to Chase. He pointed out what the reduction in manpower in the fields would do to the crops, described the misery that the action had caused, and voiced his fear that the damaged confidence of the Negroes in the good intentions of the Northerners might never be repaired. The only concession Hunter would make, however, was to return the plowmen and foremen; the government did not intervene to disband the unit. Neither did it acknowledge this first nucleus of a black regiment. In the government view, the organization simply did not exist.” [p. 147] Eventually the First and Second South Carolina Volunteers would be formed, and there is no way even a significant number of them had been involuntarily enlisted.

Professor Rose bases her study on primary sources and what at the time was the latest scholarship. She does an outstanding job in putting together the story of this enterprise. She takes the story all the way into Reconstruction, when the fugitive whites returned to the area. Eventually they would have their property restored to the, and the African Americans would be displaced from land they had made productive by their labor.

This is an important story from the Civil War, one that needs to be understood by all serious students of the war, and Professor Rose has done an admirable job in bringing it to us. I can highly recommend it.

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