The Civil War helped free blacks in the Natchez area
by Peter Rinaldi
Natchez surrendered to Union forces in May 1962, blacks and whites were justifiably worried. Hopes were that the worst of the war and its devastation might escape Natchez. What no one knew at the time of the arrival of the federal army and its government, conditions would rapidly and dramatically change for black slaves.
Slaves from plantations near town came into Natchez, both to look at what was happening and to gauge the atmosphere for living in town, escaping from their out-in-the country
white masters to the protection of U.S. soldiers. Like other parts of the South, authorities weren't sure how to handle the arrival of semi-free blacks who had been confined to
their plantations and now were more mobile.
While Natchez itself was pacified against the
Confederates, Confederate forces were still in the Jackson-Vicksburg region, Brookhaven area and eastern Louisiana. The chance of warfare was still great. And many plantation owners
had to make a choice, either sign a loyalty oath to the federal government to stay in business or stick with the Confederate states. Whichever choice they made, it was the wrong choice, as Confederate and Union raiders would seize blacks from plantations "loyal to the other side."
The Emancipation Proclamation
in Jan. 1863 set in stone what blacks would do. Since the Proclamation outlawed slavery in rebel territories, blacks could adopt a pro-Union attitude and get their freedom by coming to town and by working for the federal army. Many were employed as wagon drivers,
construction laborers, boat hands and some served as soldiers. As many as 3,000 blacks were employed by the national government in building expanded fortifications in the Natchez area in 1863. This labor force came directly
from the plantations, much of it without the slave owners' approval.
While blacks came into town, they weren't greeted with open
arms by the locals or the Union soldiers. Relationships weren't kind. Most Union soldiers enlisted, either as volunteers or draftees, to preserve the nation, not free blacks. While the male laborers and their families were put in camps, the men had considerable
freedom to move about, especially during the day. Thefts of food were common as the federal government had underestimated the number of people it would have to feed. Jewelry and household items, like kitchen utensils, disappeared at a fast pace, according
to newspaper reports. Gambling, drinking, fighting and crime increased, with the larger number of people in town.
Vicksburg fell in July 1863 to Union troops and that city became the largest rallying point for black refugees in Mississippi. But nearby Natchez was a near second. Visiting white ministers to Natchez reported many blacks coming to the town from Louisiana plantations, as most of the area west of Natchez was still in Confederate hands. Escape to Natchez meant immediate freedom.
A New Hampshire minister and army colonel, John Eaton Jr. was appointed by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to help the blacks across the state and the region, including parts of Tennessee and
Arkansas. Eaton said, "The Negroes...flocked in vast numbers to the camps of the Yankees...a slave population, springing from bondage, forsaking its local traditions...of old plantation
life, coming garbed in rags, with feet shod or bleeding, individually, families and larger groups, an army of slaves and fugitives, larger than the army itself. Many were perpetually on the defensive and many ready to attack." The federal army and Natchez's white population were ill at ease. Eaton adds that the black men, women and children suffered from disease, or were injured in their escapes and often nearly naked. While some of
these unfortunate behaved well, others did not. Union commanders, their small forces of soldiers and the local benevolent societies were overwhelmed with the influx of people. It was called "the oncoming of cities," by some Union officers. Eaton established
a Department of Freedmen, as a military sub-department of the U.S. Army, to help order the chaos.
Eaton's administrators, following
Grant's orders, set up a number of permanent and temporary camps for blacks, including in Southwest Mississippi, where the Union army needed workers. Eaton also requisitioned army tents, clothing and rations for the
workers. A system evolved where workers were employed in the cotton fields to plant and harvest the crops of plantation owners that had signed a loyalty oath to the federals or on plantations that had been seized by the Union military and national government
from "traitors," and leased out to speculators. These "pro-Union" plantations were subject to Confederate raiding parties, both military and civilian, who would kill the black farm hands, or seize them and carry the victims off to plantations deep in Confederate
country, where they would be forced to be slaves again.
Under Grant's direct order, Eaton established what Grant called "a Negro
paradise," near Davis Bend, along the river, north of Natchez and south of Vicksburg. White speculators, lessees and independent black farmers
were able to take over six plantations on the peninsula, including on land that had belonged to Jefferson Davis and his brother, Joseph. Grant gave troops and a gunboat to protect the project, which kept the Confederate raiders away. The project was an economic
While the national government's policy of leasing plantations to speculators had the advantage of providing blacks with
income, some of the plantations were leased to blacks themselves. The new black lessees reported large profits and paid the national government their rentals, but the speculators did less well. Often the speculators inadequately supervised plowing and overplanting.
But the price of cotton was so high, that most operators, black or white, made a profit. However, many black employees were cheated of their due wages or assessed high fees for the clothing, food and medical care provided by the speculators. Besides planting
and harvesting cotton, blacks also harvested timber and operated sawmills for the federal army's benefit. The Union troops needed wood for wagons, bridges and railroads.
As the national government did a better job of apportioning its black paid labor force and supplies around the district, conditions for blacks improved slightly. By the fall of 1863, only 2,100 persons remained in
the camps in Natchez, whereas more than 4,000 had been there earlier. However, the cabins in the Natchez camps remained poorly constructed,
badly lighted and ventilated, overcrowded and 'infested with disease,' according to locals.
The government and army established
"infirmary farms," with a few of these in Southwest Mississippi. Wives of black soldiers and their children, the aged and the ill were assigned to these special farms and performed lighter labor, if their condition allowed
such work. All were paid for their labor.
Starting in 1863 and continuing to 1864, the U.S. Treasury Department took over the administration
of the plantations and the leasing system. While the military officers and the War Department had been extremely fair in paying black workers decent wages, the Treasury Department tended to work more closely with the white speculators and turned a blind eye
to the wage cheating and abuse of black workers. Corruption increased. Black workers and their families did more poorly than they did earlier in the war.
Confederates soldiers and guerillas staged a resurgence in 1864 in the Natchez area and western Mississippi as a whole. Raids were
more commonplace. Blacks were seized from the pro-Union plantations, with many killed. Houses were burned. And the lessees themselves were hung or shot. Practically all the plantations in the Natchez to Vicksburg area were given up in 1864. And the remaining crops were devastated by an infestation of the army worm, which in some sections, limited production to 25
percent of the usual.
This conflict moved even more blacks into the city limits of Natchez.
The refugees worked as cooks, seamstresses, maids, stable boys, blacksmiths, and in some stores and factories in the area. Many went into the camps. Some found housing with their new employers, packed into shacks or living in ramshackle dependencies, in barns
or the backs of businesses. They mixed with the free black citizens of Natchez, who had numbered 200-250 persons before the war.
Superintendent Eaton and his employees tried to attend to the medical and moral needs of their charges as well. Smallpox prevailed throughout the area. The high mortality rate
of adults left many orphans. A Freedman's Fund, which collected a portion of the paid wages of black workers on federal projects, was used to finance small hospitals, orphanages and schools, as well as providing for clothing and household goods at the camps.
Local benevolent societies were also tasked to help with similar ventures. Black churches were established.
many black marriages during this period. Before the war, plantation owners and state government hadn't recognized black marriages as legal. But the newly conquering federal government did. Thousands of blacks married legally for the first time in the Natchez district. Schools developed rapidly, under the auspices of the Freedmen's Department and the American Missionary Association, with more than 30 schools, 60 teachers and 4,400 students by 1865 in the Natchez to Vicksburg area. These black schools were self-funded, with pupils paying .50 to $1.25 per month for their education.
Throughout this period, there were large numbers of blacks who stayed on the old plantations with their masters. These were the farms in the interior,
away from Natchez or any other town and far from Union soldiers. As the spring of 1865 arrived, many of these blacks were compelled by local ad hoc militias with Confederate sympathies to stay on the plantations as slaves.
The Natchez Courier ran a notice in July 1865, nearly three months after the end of the war, informing plantation owners that it was illegal to tell their blacks that emancipation did not apply to all blacks. Plantation owners still keeping slaves could be jailed, fined and their land seized.
Newspapers around the state,
including Natchez's newspapers, ran editorials saying since freedom had arrived, 'Negroes were not suited to the new free labor system. They would not work without compulsion. The Negro race would soon be extinct.' A
cholera epidemic, killing hundreds in Natchez in 1866, buttressed this view. This opinion, almost religious in nature, was widely held among whites, in part because there were
so many deaths of black civilians during the war and shortly thereafter. Whites saw blacks as a totally dependent race, doomed to failure in the United States. Ideas were floated
about moving blacks to Cuba or Mexico, where they could 'survive and prosper.' Nothing came of this
When the Freedman's Bureau was established in 1865, people thought the economic situation might improve. The U.S.
Army's efforts had made a positive difference. But the new agency proved incredibly ineffective in future years, especially in Mississippi as a whole and in Natchez in particular.
The war period changed the society and the economy for blacks in the Natchez area. After generations under the pre-war plantation system, thousands of blacks fled from the country to the town itself. Many earned wages for the first time in their lives, thanks to employment with the federal government or
the Union Army. Blacks suffered tremendously, more than whites during the war, due to relocation, poor housing, disease, inadequate food, lack of medical care, cheating speculators and raiding Confederate and Union forces. It wasn't an easy time. Nor would
the future be easy. But the period of 1862-1865 was the time during which most blacks in the Natchez area would taste their first bit of freedom, perilous as it was.
Black History Month article source material: J.W. Garner, Reconstruction in Mississippi; Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi,
1865-1890; John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen; and others.