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An Old Story

Rehearsal For Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment

by Willie Lee Rose
Bobbs-Merrill, 442 pp., $6.50

A proper “case study” in history or the social sciences really should not be a “sample” of something; it should be a metaphor of something else. It should have not the abstractness of a construct, but the concreteness of a story; in it, the issues ought to be acted out, if not by ourselves at least by people we know. Willie Lee Rose knows all the people in her story, though it happened a hundred years ago. Some of them she loves; all of them she understands. She tells about them, or rather manages them, with such wonderful circumspection that the whole interlude takes on a life of its own.

The story is about what happened on the Sea Islands of South Carolina during their occupation by Federal troops following the Union naval bombardment of Port Royal in November, 1861. The military, which was to administer the Islands under a certain vagueness of jurisdiction for the remainder of the war, found when it arrived that all the great plantations had been abandoned during the attack; masters and families had fled to the mainland with what few slaves they could persuade or coerce into going with them; most of the slave population, some 10,000, had refused to move. Already, by their looting, foraging, and smashing of cotton gins, they had made something of a shambles.

Within three months—and before the start of the 1862 growing season—a carefully picked civilian contingent known as “Gideon’s Band” had arrived from the North to begin its work. There were fifty-three men and women in the first group, mostly from Massachusetts but some also from New York and Pennsylvania, a regular Peace Corps, as Henry Commager has called them: teachers, doctors, ministers, engineers, all willing and eager to begin. As agents of the Treasury Department, and on subsistence from the government, they would superintend the various abandoned plantations; as missionaries to the Sea Island Negroes, they would teach, minister, distribute supplies, and be paid a small salary by the private associations which had financed and organized their venture. The group was permeated by energy and intelligence. Most of the men were college graduates. All had strong antislavery backgrounds, which had been a prerequisite for their selection.

Despite a relationship between civilian and military that was somewhat ambiguous, the Port Royal experiment could in a hundred small ways be called a success. The shadowy legal status of abandoned slaves was not to be cleared up until 1863, with emancipation, and before that time the intermediate term “contrabands” had to serve. But from the very beginning there seems to have been a working presumption on the part of the Gideonites, the military, and the Negroes themselves, that the latter had somehow become a free people and that slavery, for them, was forever dead. Despite the disruptions that followed the owners’ departure and the many cross-purposes of those charged with picking up the pieces, the Negroes were persuaded to resume work—for wages—and after a fashion the plantations were put back into production. Despite the exasperating distractions of having to fit in lessons between chores and field work, the Negroes of all ages showed a fervent eagerness to learn reading and writing. The Yankee schoolmarms found their teaching a profoundly satisfying adventure. Though the military commanders used techniques of recruitment that were callous, brutal, and occasionally contemptible, the Negroes they brought into the Union army turned out on the whole to be very smart soldiers. The Islanders threw themselves into religious activities with the utmost energy. In matters of personality, the process of shedding slavery sometimes had unpredictable by-products, and the Northerners did not always like what they saw. But they seem to have sensed in a general way that what they were witnessing in the newly delivered Negroes—for all their frequent refusals to behave—was, after all, the process of acquiring adulthood and personal autonomy.

And yet in this paradigm for Reconstruction—this “rehearsal,” as Mrs. Rose calls it—there was at least one gross failure. This was the failure to work out for the Negroes a rational system of landholding. This same failure, it has often been argued, characterized the entire experiment of Southern Reconstruction.

It was not precisely a failure of good will. Most of the characters in this story were animated by high purpose; one finds them generally an attractive lot. Among them we see Edward Pierce (later the friend and biographer of Charles Sumner), who performed miracles of persuasion and organization in bringing the Gideonites together and getting the Government to authorize their work. There was the intrepid Laura Towne, who founded the Penn School (still in existence today) and who would remain as a teacher on the Islands for the rest of her life. There was James Miller McKim of Philadelphia, who organized the Port Royal Relief Committee for collecting food and clothing, and whose daughter Lucy wrote down, and thus preserved, many of the old slave songs from antebellum times. There were Mansfield French, a rather flamboyant evangelist who became chaplain of the famous 54th Massachusetts, and his formidable wife Austa, who wrote an extravagant book about the atrocities of slavery, “a large proportion of them having to do in some way with sex.” There were, in addition, the high-bred mulatto teacher Charlotte Forten; the kindly General Rufus Saxton; and the businesslike Edward Philbrick, a young Bostonian of abolitionist convictions who made a great success—and a good bit of money—out of plantation management. A similar cross-section may be found at work in the movements of today. But for all their apparent good sense, the full implications of the problem were not clear to them. There were basic conflicts, and incompatible versions of the right solution.

Edward Philbrick represents potentially the most interesting conflict. He had all the virtues: he was a good abolitionist and a good nineteenth-century American. He was practical, a man of much technical competence; he had read Olmsted, he had thought things through, and he had a plan. His great idea was that free labor was intrinsically profitable and for that reason superior to slave labor. Here was the basic solvent for all problems flowing from slavery. Liberating the slaves and giving them intelligent direction meant that they would produce more cotton, earn increasingly higher wages, provide a new market for Northern manufactured goods, and eventually acquire the dignity of fully independent Americans. Philbrick’s own experience superintending lands on St. Helena Island lent much plausibility to this.

Yet there were certain catches. The production of Sea Island cotton was a highly complex operation which required extremely close supervision. (It was absolutely necessary to transport large amounts of salt “marsh mud” to the fields in mid-winter to keep up their fertility—a job the Negroes detested more than anything else they had to do.) Turning the Negroes into “free laborers” under these circumstances was an intricate social process that took less than full account of their own motivations. To be sure, there was in Philbrick’s scheme a place for independent Negro landholding. But since Sea Island cotton was the mainstay of that region’s economy, the system of large-scale cultivation would have to continue. This meant that Negro holdings should be as large as possible, while the key factor in the system would still be plantations under white ownership, which would provide the necessary economic leadership and absorb the landless labor force.

The conflict was thus between Philbrick’s own values, those of philanthropy, and those of profit—“profit” in the sense not only of the economy’s general well-being but also the well-being of his own private interests. It happened that when the Treasury put some of the Sea Island lands up for sale in 1863 under the direct tax law, a company which Philbrick helped to form bought up about 8000 acres at less than a dollar an acre. In good faith, Philbrick intended eventually to re-sell most of it to Negroes at somewhere near cost. But during the next year he and his associates made such an excellent thing of it, and “cost” was still so far below the land’s real value, that when he finally did sell it in 1865 his scruples did not prevent him from taking four or five times what he had paid for it.

The other alternative, presumably, was represented by General Saxton. Rufus Saxton was a truly humane man of the most impeccable motives. (He later headed the Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina.) Saxton’s plan was simply to put as many of the Negroes on their own land as he could. His ideal was the small freehold—as many as possible and as cheap as possible. Indeed, so zealous was he in his effort to realize his plan that he actually circumvented Government orders prior to the direct tax sale by encouraging the Negroes to squat anywhere. He reasoned (correctly) that if they were not allowed to do this while awaiting the sale, the extent of available land would be greatly reduced and they would be frustrated in their hope of staying on what they felt was “home” ground.

There was nothing in the Saxton plan, even had he been allowed to carry it out, to prevent a hopeless disruption of the Sea Island economy. In long-staple cotton the technical problems alone, for such a newly established peasantry, would have meant disaster for most of them. To diversify in truck would have suited them better, but that would have broken the system entirely for prime lands in a very special cotton area. (Actually neither Philbrick nor Saxton could foresee that Sea Island cotton culture would deteriorate anyway in the years to come, nor could anyone else.)

The main problem, however, was almost insoluble; nor was it altogether a matter of race. The deepest values of the entire culture, involving confiscation and the rights of property on the one hand, and special economic privilege on the other, created inhibitions so intense and pressures so irresistible that no “Saxton plan” or anything like it could be regarded as a thinkable alternative in a general liquidation of the Civil War. With the best will in the world it stood not a chance.

True, the war had been in most senses a revolutionary one; oceans of blood had been spent in it; millions of men had been released from bondage. But in at least one sense it bore no resemblance to the revolutions of modern times. Though there had been war measures that involved confiscation of property, confiscation as a principle was never a feature of the Union commitment, and this was, in the last analysis, well understood on both sides. Had it been otherwise, there would have been a very different war, differently waged, ending in a very different manner; and if the North had still won, an entire economic class would have been smashed and an entire society profoundly altered. Cleaner and better, perhaps—but this society was not willing to do it.

Inhibitions against the granting of special privilege, though rather more subtle, had, and still have, roots equally deep—especially when not camouflaged by custom or where no widely plausible economic benefit can be claimed for it. Economically the best that American society was prepared to do for the Southern Negroes after the war was sharecropping and labor contracts; the imperative was to get them all back to work as quickly as possible on almost any terms short of slavery. General Sherman’s effort—also on the Sea Islands—to settle them in “possessory titles” was swept away immediately with the Government’s pardoning policy; although President Johnson’s policies met great opposition on nearly all other grounds, this never became a major public issue. A fair number of Sea Island Negroes actually did acquire land, but they did so under the limited “tax sale” fiction rather than under general confiscation. Nor were the public lands a serious alternative. Those remaining throughout the South were of poor quality, and in any event a program of settlement and clearing would have required a capital base and a public commitment that were nowhere in sight.

In reflecting upon this dreary impasse and extending its implications to the present, one may neglect momentarily the bad instincts of a capitalist culture and focus only on its good ones. Even the great abolitionist Wendell Phillips could dismiss a large part of the Port Royal experiment as “mere charity.” Always at stake, then and now, are an entire society’s feelings about how success ought to be achieved and rewarded, and the intricate ways in which those feelings may be threatened and disrupted. We argue with perfect justice that the Negro has been systematically cut out of middle-class opportunities in higher learning, the skilled trades, the professions, small business. But when someone purposes, say, reserving for Negroes half the apprenticeships in the printing or the building trades—a special program for enabling Negroes to buy small businesses—a temporary suspension of normal admission standards in the city colleges, or in teaching positions, or in government jobs, or in professional training—what then? The resistances are from high and low; they are subtle as well as crude; there is no way to draw the line between men of good will and bad. Special privilege must, somehow, be plausibly defined as something else, or no one gets anything.

But in Mrs. Rose’s disturbing and beautifully told story there were areas where possibilities did exist—where resistances were less virulent and inhibitions not quite so great. One of these was education; the other political activity. The Gideonite school system may not have been the finest the South has ever seen, but it was the first of its sort and had profound long-term consequences. As for the exercise of political power, historians may well argue that the Republican party gave Negroes the vote when it should have given them land—that political power without economic power was meaningless. But that is not where I would close the debate, nor would I agree that restoring the vote is not the clearest single priority of today. During the Seventies and after, the South Carolina school system was heavily dependent on Negro votes. And at Port Royal, where the experiment of Reconstruction began, there developed a level of political participation and leadership that was independent and highly aggressive. It persisted well after the end of Reconstruction.

As white supremacists in the South Carolina constitutional convention of 1895 were preparing to do away with the Negro’s political rights once and for all, the last gasp of protest came from one Robert Smalls, who had once been a slave and who had, after the war, become something of a political boss among his own people. He was listened to with respect. In this convention there were six Negro members, and all but one of them—including Smalls—came from Beaufort District in the Sea Islands. The experiment had, after all, made a little difference.

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