Ragged Freedom in Louisiana: “No White men in Louisiana could have done more or better than these Negroes”

Cutting Sugar Cane
Cutting sugar cane in Louisiana [between 1880 and 1897]
By William Henry Jackson, 1843-1942, photographer; Detroit Publishing Co., publisher
Source: Library of Congress; Call Number/Physical Location LC-D418-8133 [P&P]; Reproduction Number LC-DIG-det-4a27003

During the period of 1861-1865, there were two significant over-arching events in the South: first, a war between the United States and the Confederate States; and second, the ongoing destruction of slavery.

When the Civil War began, 90% of all African Americans were enslaved. Enslavement was the default, common condition of a black man, woman, or child. Among all the states (including Border States that remained loyal to the Union), almost 4 million people were held in bondage. The war gave enslaved people the opportunity to be free. But opportunity did not knock on every door, nor did it knock at the same time for all. The “freedom” experience varied over space and time, as scholars like to say.

We sometimes think or imagine that gaining freedom was a glorious event. But in fact, freedom could be ugly. This is one story of ugly freedom.

H. Styles was an Inspector of Plantations in the US Treasury Department. In August of 1863, he visited a sugar plantation that was “situated 82 miles above this City (New Orleans) on the Grand Cailloux, Parish Terrebonne.” This was part of a United States effort to inventory the assets (such as plantations) in former Confederate territory that had been recovered by the US (with an eye to taxing or otherwise using plantation resources for the benefit of the Union).

Inspector Styles discovered that the plantation owner, Dick Robinson, had fled the area in fear of approaching Union forces, taking his able-bodied slaves with him. The remaining slaves, in Styles’ opinion, were “old and crippled” and had been left to starve.

But they didn’t starve. Styles reported:

On the 14th of August, I visited the plantation evacuated by the rebel, Dick Robinson; Some of the hovels are occupied by five or six Negroes in a destitute condition — The dwelling house is abandoned and stripped of the little furniture it contained, one fine piano is in the possession of Mrs. Baker in the town of Houmas —

The old Negroes up here to share the old house of their Master, it is open to the weather and is in a very filthy condition; the miserable hovels occupied by the Negroes are fast going to decay; the Sugarhouse also is in very miserable Condition

The Negroes remaining on the plantation have cultivated small parcels of ground, and made Sufficient Corn and vegetables to supply them; they have Some Cane, I have given them written permission to grind it for their own use —

The Negroes have succeeded beyond rebel Expectations in living without the assistance of white men—

Robinson took all his good or able Negroes to Texas, and left these old and crippled ones to starve— No White men in Louisiana could I have done more or better than these Negroes & day well deserved the reward of their labor (the Crop) and the Encouragement of the Government — one old wagon, two condemned mules — two old ploughs and Six old hoes Comprise the inventory of this joint Stock Company —

The condition of the Negro Cabins, no floors, no chimneys, built of pickets without regard to Comfort or Convenience, and their venerable appearance Confirms the Stories of cruelty related by the old Negroes of Dick Robinson the planter who may annually 600 Hhds (hogs heads) Sugar —​

Styles was so impressed that he suggested the farmers be allowed to keep the proceeds from the sale of their crop, some of which could have been taken as a tax by the government.

For these men and women, this was a ragged freedom. They had not been so much freed, as abandoned and left to perish. But they survived nonetheless, giving testimony to their grit and resourcefulness. They did not wait for a savior; they were the saviors that they had hoped for. This was their corner of the “emancipation” landscape.