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Chapter 49: the abandoned lands

Perhaps nothing excited higher hopes in the minds of those who had for years suffered and labored for emancipation, than the provision of law that was to open up the abandoned estates and certain public lands for prompt settlement by the newly emancipated.

Much in vogue at the end of the war was that plan of allotting abandoned lands to freedmen. This course the Government during the latter part of the war, as we have seen, for those lands along the Atlantic coast and in the Mississippi Valley had constantly followed first in legislative and then in executive action. Only about one five-hundredth, however, of the entire amount of land in the States seceding was available; it was all that had ever been held by the United States as abandoned. Had this project been carried out and the negroes generally been so settled on farms, either more land must have been added or the Bureau would only have been able to furnish about an acre to a family.1

The law existing at the inauguration of the Bureau, though imperfect in many respects, could hardly have contemplated such extensive action for the drifting hordes of negroes. There was, however, some public [230] wild land in the South, which might have answered; but undoubtedly the land intended by the law makers was that of those Confederates who had been in arms against the National Government.

Such use, however, of even the small amount which was turned over to the Freedmen's Bureau, was nullified by the President's pardon, granted to those who had abandoned the lands in order to engage in the war; orders of restoration to all such immediately followed the presentation of the executive pardon; this was very soon after I had obtained the control of Bureau matters.

Major William Fowler, who had served most creditably in the One Hundred and Forty-sixth New York Volunteers and later as an assistant adjutant general in the army, was the first officer assigned to the charge of my Land Division. A lawyer by profession, he proved eminently qualified for all matters pertaining to Government lands, however acquired. Fowler's first official answer to my inquiries affords a brief statement of what real property was under control of the Bureau and how it came there. He said that the Act of Congress, approved March 3, 1865, which established the Bureau, intrusted it with the supervision and management of all abandoned lands, i. e., lands taken by the Government while their lawful owner was voluntarily absent from them, engaged in arms, or otherwise in aiding or encouraging the war waged against the United States. Again, that on June 2d the President had ordered all officers of the Government having property of the character specified to turn it over to the Bureau. In compliance with this order, the Secretary of the Treasury on June 27th had issued a circular letter directing his subordinates [231] who had in their possession or under their control any abandoned or confiscable lands, houses, or tenements, to transfer them to some duly authorized officer of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Further, that the President's order being obeyed, the greater portion of abandoned property in the insurrectionary districts held by Treasury agents, came into possession of the Bureau; not only abandoned lands, but all abandoned real property, except such as had been retained by military authority for strictly military purposes.

The accompanying table will give the amount in our hands till near the close of the first year:

States.Amount of property now in posseision amount of Bureau of Rufugees, Freedmen and Abandoned LandsAmount of property returned
Number of Acres of LandNumber of pieces of town property.Number of Acres Land.Number of pieces of town property.
Georgia and South Carolina9,36450,799374,837435,000398384
Kentucky and Tennessee10,17729,07225,88065,129414
Missouri and Arkansas18,73618,73672
North Carolina4,8689,20722,26736,34211250,029287
Mississippi and Louisiana (part)50,75148,52559,2805211,41160
Maryland and Virginia (part)2,2825,0276,49713,806
Total161,331143,219464,040768,5901, 59688,1701,177

By the table we see that we had in December, 1865, already under cultivation 161,331 acres; and that for the use of refugees and freedmen there were 768,590 [232] acres not yet surrendered by operation of the President's pardons; but even that early 88,170 acres and 1,177 pieces of town property had been restored to former owners, thus largely reducing the income of our Bureau from the rents, and making a continued possession of the remainder too uncertain to be of material value.

Under Colonel Eaton's superintendence and management were 13,806 acres. Of this he placed under cultivation as contemplated in the law 2,282 acres, of which 1,300 acres were in Maryland. Wheat, corn, and tobacco were the principal crops. The tenure had already become too doubtful to warrant much allotment to individuals or the giving of leases of any considerable length. Thus the provisions of the law were plainly thwarted by unexpected executive action.

Colonel Orlando Brown, assistant commissioner for Virginia, had separated his State into districts and subdistricts about the same in extent as those of the President's military department commander, General Schofield. Brown obtained officers by detail from Schofield for superintendents. He had for supervision thirtyfour pieces of town property and 75,653 acres of land. Of this he had directly under cultivation by freedmen 2,625 acres. Under the President's orders he had already by November 30, 1865, returned to former owners 26,730 acres and 310 pieces of town property. In the counties of and near the peninsula of Virginia he had been able to try many experiments with a view to diminish the large accumulations of freedmen unfortunately massed near the harbor. He had secured almost an entire support of these as the result of their own labor during the summer. [233]

A colony of 100 freedmen for Liberia through a colored agent was transferred from Lynchburg, Va., to Baltimore, Md., of which the old and revered Colonization Society took charge. On many of the old Virginia farms which their owners had deserted, Colonel Brown had the freedmen well organized and cheerfully working. They had during this year of trial abundant diversified crops.

Colonel Whittlesey, assistant commissioner for North Carolina, had remained in possession at the time of his first annual report of 112 pieces of town property, and 36,342 acres besides; under cultivation 4,868 acres. The President's pardon caused 50,029 acres and 287 pieces of town property to be restored to returning owners before Brown's report was made.

Concerning the cultivators of land, Colonel Whittlesey said that few contracts were possible for long periods from the want of confidence between employers and employees. The freedmen, as a rule, worked more faithfully for money than for a share of the crops, for which they must wait. Nearly all of the farms transferred by Treasury agents as “abandoned” had already been, under President Johnson's orders, restored to owners. The tenure of these had become too precarious to admit of setting them apart for refugees or freedmen. Many freedmen were renting lands of the owners and efforts were constantly made by Whittlesey to aid them in this praiseworthy course. Whenever he could he secured lots and land to them, where they built houses, that they might not lose what they had expended. The “Trent River settlement,” filled with freedmen, situated near New Berne, N. C., was at this time a well ordered, quiet, healthy town, rivaling New Berne in these respects. [234]

With reference to the land in General Saxton's States, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, I will endeavor to explain the effect of the President's pardons upon my own actions, and the special tasks he assigned to me in connection with the abandoned and other real property. In fact, my own special efforts covered the land question for the southern coast.

In order to establish a definite and uniform policy relative to confiscated and abandoned lands, as commissioner, I issued a circular (July 28th) quoting the law and limiting and regulating the return of the lands to former owners; I authorized assistant commissioners to restore any real property in their possession not abandoned; the cultivators were protected in the ownership of growing crops. on land to be restored, and careful descriptions were required of such land, and monthly records of amounts which remained in the possession of the Government. I further directed the assistant commissioners to select and set apart in orders, with as little delay as possible, as some had been already doing, such confiscated and abandoned property as they deemed necessary for the immediate use for the life and comfort of refugees and freedmen; and we also provided for rental or sale when that was possible. Surely the pardon of the President would not be interpreted to extend to the surrender of abandoned or confiscated property which in strict accordance with the law had been “set apart for refugees and freedmen” or was then in use for the employment and general welfare of all such persons within the lines of national military occupation in insurrectionary States. Did not the law apply to all formerly held as slaves, who had become or would become free? This [235] was the legal status and the humane conclusion. Then naturally I took such action as would protect the bona fide occupants, and expected the United States to indemnify by money or otherwise those Confederates who were pardoned; assuredly we would not succor them by displacing the new settlers who lawfully were holding the land.

My circular of instructions did not please President Johnson. Therefore, in order to avoid misunderstandings now constantly arising among the people in regard to abandoned property, particularly after the President had set on foot a systematic method of granting to the former holders a formal pardon, he made me draw up another circular worded better to suit his policy and submit it to him before its issue. But he, still dissatisfied, and with a totally different object in view than mine, had the document redrawn at the White House and instructed me September 12, 1865, to send it out as approved by him, and so with reluctance I did. This document in great part rescinded former land circulars. Besides allowing assistant commissioners to return all land not abandoned, it instructed them to return all abandoned lands to owners who were pardoned by the President, and provided no indemnity whatever for the occupants, refugees, or freedmen, except a right to the growing crops.

In the definition of confiscated estates the words were: “Land will not be regarded as confiscated until it has been condemned and sold by decree of the United States court for the district in which the property may be found, and the title thereto thus vested in the United States.”

On the face of it this approved circular appeared [236] fair and right enough; but with masterly adroitness the President's draft had effectually defeated the intention of all that legislation which used the abandoned estates and the so-called confiscated property; that intention was to give to loyal refugees and freedmen allotments of and titles to land. In Virginia, a considerable amount had been libeled and was about to be sold, when Mr. Stanton considerately suspended the sales, that these lands might be turned over more directly to the Bureau for the benefit of the freedmen. I insisted that these lands, condemned for sale, though not actually sold, were already the property of the Government; therefore, I made objection to the President against the insertion of the word “sold” into the definition of confiscated property; but after reference to the attorney general, the President decided adversely to me and so the word “sold” was inserted in the definition that was published in the order. This was what caused the return to former owners of all property where sales had been suspended and never consummated. It was further strongly recommended by me to the President that all men of property to whom he was offering pardon should be conditioned to provide a small homestead or something equivalent to each head of family of his former slaves; but President Johnson was amused and gave no heed to this recommendation. My heart ached for our beneficiaries, but I became comparatively helpless to offer them any permanent possession.

When the former owner had not as yet been pardoned the burden was after this time put upon my officers to prove that property had ever been voluntarily abandoned by a disloyal owner. I soon saw that very little, if any, had been confiscated by formal [237] court decision; so that wholesale pardons in a brief time completed the restoration of the remainder of our lands; all done for the advantage of the late Confederates and for the disadvantage and displacement of the freedmen. Very many had in good faith occupied and cultivated the farms guaranteed to them by the provision and promise of the United States.

My heart was sad enough when by constraint I sent out that circular letter; it was chagrined when not a month later I received the following orders issued by President Johnson:

Whereas certain tracts of land, situated on the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, at the time for the most part vacant, were set apart by Major General W. T. Sherman's special field order No. 15 for the benefit of refugees and freedmen that had been congregated by the operations of the war, or had been left to take care of themselves by their former owners; and whereas an expectation was thereby created that they would be able to retain possession of said lands; and whereas a large number of the former owners are earnestly soliciting the restoration of the same, and promising to absorb the labor and care for the freedmen:

It is ordered: That Major General Howard, Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, proceed to the several above-named States and endeavor to effect an agreement mutually satisfactory to the freedmen and the land owners, and make report. And in case a mutual satisfactory arrangement can be effected, he is duly empowered and directed to issue such orders as may become necessary, after a full and careful investigation of the interests of the parties concerned.

Why did I not resign? [238] Because I even yet strongly hoped in some way to befriend the freed people.

Obeying my instructions I reached Charleston, S. C., October 17, 1865. General Saxton's headquarters were then in that city. I had a conference with him and with many of the land owners concerned. The truth was soon evident to me that nothing effective could be done without consulting the freedmen themselves who were equally interested. Therefore, accompanied by several officers and by Mr. William Whaley, who represented the planters, I went to Edisto Island, and met the freedmen of that vicinity who came together in a large meeting house. The auditorium and the galleries were filled. The rumor preceding my coming had reached the people that I was obliged by the President's orders to restore the lands to the old planters, so that strong evidence of dissatisfaction and sorrow were manifested from every part of the assembly. In the noise and confusion no progress was had till a sweet-voiced negro woman began the hymn “Nobody knows the trouble I feel-Nobody knows but Jesus,” which, joined in by all, had a quieting effect on the audience. Then I endeavored as clearly and gently as I could to explain to them the wishes of the President, as they were made known to me in an interview had with him just before leaving Washington. Those wishes were also substantially embodied in my instructions. My address, however kind in manner I rendered it, met with no apparent favor. They did not hiss, but their eyes flashed unpleasantly, and with one voice they cried, “No, no” Speeches full of feeling and rough eloquence came back in response. One very black man, thick set and strong, cried out from the gallery: “Why, General [239] Howard, why do you take away our lands! You take them from us who are true, always true to the Government I You give them to our all-time enemies! That is not right”

At my request, the assembly chose three of their number, and to them I submitted with explanations the propositions to which the land owners were willing to subscribe. Then I faithfully reiterated to the whole body the conditions of the existing tenure under our President's action, they having no absolute title but simply occupying the homesteads. I urged them to make the best terms they could with the holders of the titles. These simple souls with singular unanimity agreed to leave everything to my decision with reference to restorations to be made, and also the conditions attending them. But their committee after considering all the matters submitted to them said that on no condition would the freedmen work for their late owners as formerly they did under overseers; but if they could rent lands from them, they would consent to all the other arrangements proposed. Some without overseers would work for wages; but the general desire was to rent lands and work them.

At last, to be as fair to all parties as possible, I constituted a board of supervisors in which the Government, the planters, and the freedmen were equally represented. This board was to secure and adjust contracts and settle cases of dispute and controversy. The freedmen and the planter could form contracts for rental or for labor with wages as elsewhere; but before the latter could do so his land must be formally restored. To effect this restoration, there was drawn up for his signature an obligation in which he promised substantially: To leave to the freedmen the existing [240] crop; to let them stay at their present homes so long as the responsible freedmen among them would contract or lease; to take proper steps to make new contracts or leases, with the proviso that freedmen who refused would surrender any right to remain on the estate after two months; the owners also engaged to interpose no objections to the schools; all the obligations to hold for only one year unless renewed.

At the time, I placed in charge of the whole adjustment Captain A. P. Ketchum, One hundred and Twenty-eighth United States Colored Infantry, acting assistant adjutant general, an officer of acknowledged acumen and conscientiousness. He was in this business my representative with power to extend the arrangement above given to all estates embraced in General Sherman's original provision in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Upon our return to Charleston, I sent Mr. Stanton this dispatch:

I met several hundred of the colored people of Edisto Island to-day, and did my utmost to reconcile them to the surrender of their lands to the former owners. They will submit, but with evident sorrow, to the breaking of the promise of General Sherman's order. The greatest aversion is exhibited to making contracts, and they beg and plead for the privilege of renting or buying land on the island. My task is a hard one and I am convinced that something must be done to give these people and others the prospect of homesteads.

Six days later, on October 25th, Mr. Stanton replied, his message reaching me at Mobile, Ala. He telegraphed: “I do not understand that your orders require you to disturb the freedmen in possession at present, but only ascertain whether a just mutual agreement can be made between the pardoned owners and the freedmen; and if we can, then carry it into effect.” [241]

The very rumor of my coming disturbed them. I answered Mr. Stanton that I had set Captain Ketchum to restore lands to the pardoned, provided they signed the obligatory instrument which I have described; that this was as nearly satisfactory to all parties as anything that I could devise. I had given the freedmen a supervising board to guard their interests during the transition.

After the work under the President's instructions extending as far as Mobile had been finished, I returned to Washington November 18th, and submitted an account of the journey to Mr. Stanton. These were my closing words:

It is exceedingly difficult to reconcile the conflicting interests now arising with regard to lands that have been so long in possession of the Government as those along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. I would recommend that the attention of Congress be called to the subject of this report at as early a day as possible, and that these lands or a part of them be purchased by the United States with a view to the rental and subsequent sale to the freedmen.

Congress soon had the situation clearly stated, but pursued its own plan of reconstruction, as did the President his own, regardless of such minor justice as making good to thousands of freedmen that promise of land which was at that time so essential to their maintenance and their independence.

The assistant commissioner for Louisiana was twice changed during the year 1865. General Absalom Baird was by some circumstance delayed from taking charge. I had my adjutant general, Fullerton, sent there to act temporarily as assistant commissioner [242] till Baird's arrival. Louisiana showed for the year 62,528 acres of abandoned land under cultivation by freedmen and 501 pieces had been given back to owners; thus restoration went on. In New Orleans alone there was $800,000 worth. The large number of estates abandoned and supposed to be confiscated in Louisiana, which were turned over to us by the Treasury Department, had happily afforded means of raising considerable revenue, indeed, more than any other State. This revenue was now greatly diminished and soon would be extinguished by our being so obliged to give up possession. There were now in Louisiana four large “home colonies,” where were supported great numbers of the aged and infirm. But these were not fully self-supporting; still, there were good farms connected with each, faithfully worked by freedmen.

The Mississippi assistant commissioner, Colonel Thomas, for 1865, had worked enough farms to raise a sufficient revenue for Bureau purposes within that State. From every part of Mississippi he showed that freedmen desired to have homes of their own; that they were willing enough to work places which they held by rent, or which they felt were secured to them for their use. The freedmen working land assigned them at Davis Bend, De Soto Point, and at Washington near Natchez, had labored hard and did well. At least 10,000 bales of cotton were raised by these colonists. They had gardens and corn enough to furnish food for themselves and for their stock for the year. Thomas wrote: “A more industrious, energetic body of citizens does not exist than can be seen now at the colonies.”

In other parts of Mississippi, Thomas found fine [243] crops of grain; the negroes were at home and working quietly. They had generally contracted with their old masters, and all seemed to have accepted the change from slavery to freedom without a shock. Thomas believed that all that was necessary for peace and prosperity was kind treatment, respect for the laborer's rights, and prompt payment as agreed upon in their contracts.

In Alabama, Texas, Kentucky, and Tennessee there were only small amounts of abandoned land in the possession of the Bureau, and its operations under the Land Division were less in amount than in other directions.

As the year 1865 was drawing to a close, I saw plainly that this work of restoring lands and providing reasonably for the occupants, arranging things properly with the land owners or otherwise, would demand time; so I set forth the facts concerning the lands in my communication to Congress. I wrote that it would require at least a year more from January 1, 1866, to bring to a close the Land Division, whatever disposition might be made of the lands. The faith of the Government having been pledged as to leases and contracts for the coming year, it would be unwise to commit them to any State agencies. Again, I urged that to render any portion of the freedmen able to take advantage of the homestead law in Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, or in other States where there were public lands, aid must be furnished the settlers in the way of transportation, temporary food, and shelter and implements of husbandry. To render this relief offered effective, more time than our present law offered would be essential.

Prior to the President's fuller action in the interest [244] of the land owners, my instructions had been clearly defined, namely, to return estates to those only who could show constant loyalty, past as well as presenta loyalty which could be established by the production of an oath of allegiance, or amnesty, or other evidence. As the Bureau held property by authority of an Act of Congress for certain definite purposes, I had presumed and believed that this tenure would continue until those purposes were accomplished; that such property must be surrendered by us only when it was made evident that our possession and control of it was not proper. But the positive adverse action of President Johnson and the non-action of Congress caused a complete reversal of the Government's generous provision for the late slaves. Thus early officers and agents were constrained to undertake to make bricks without straw.

After years of thinking and observation I am inclined to believe that the restoration of their lands to the planters proved for all their future better for the negroes.

1 Act of July 2, 1864, and Act of March 3, 1865.

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