The Political History of Virginia during the Reconstruction/4

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



The acts of March 2 and 23, 1867, which admitted the freedmen to suffrage, gave rise to one of the most remarkable political contents in history. The mere grant of the ballot to the negroes, however, did not necessitate a break in the relations between masters and men. At first, indeed, it was a question whether the traditional influence of planters over slaves would not continue to prevail, and the colored vote be largely under conservative control. In the early months of 1867 many Southern people hoped for such a result. 1 John Minor Botts, a politician of long experience, declared his opposition to negro suffrage, because he believed that the freedmen would support the Democratic policies. As the white men in the South had not been able to resist the influences of that party, how could the negroes?2

This illusion was quickly dispelled. Doubtless if the freedmen had been left to themselves by their Northern friends, they would have united with their former masters and have voted solidly at their dictation. The negroes would hardly have been able to assert their independence of the white race without outside assistance. But new forces had begun to work upon them. The Union soldiery, the schools taught by radicals, Northern settlers, itinerant politicians all moved the blacks to sever their old connections. But potent as such agencies were, some strong form of organization was necessary to bring about that solid array of the black race against the white which was a feature of the reconstruction. This result came largely through the Freedmen's Bureau and the Union League. By means of the

[1] New York Tribune, March 17, 1867.
[2] Richmond Enquirer, July 8, 1867.

The Freedmen's Bureau and the Union League. p.55

former institution the control of the negroes was taken out of the hands of the planters and given over to Northern officials. The bureau thus existed in the community as a foreign and independent judicial, social, economic and political power. Consequently, by the spring of 1867, it had done much to emancipate the colored race from Southern dominance. But it might have been expected that the blacks would be outgeneraled politically by the astute whites. Yet this did not happen. On the other hand, the freedmen were well organized and incorporated as a body in the Republican party. The radical politicians accomplished this clever feat by means of a political secret society called the Union League.

At the close of the Civil War, the freedmen found themselves confronted by the responsibilities as well as the privileges of freedmen. They were not well prepared for the sudden manumission, and they naturally wished to enjoy this novel liberty. Some of them indeed remained on plantations, but thousands wandered about idly, committing many depredations, or else hastened to the cities and towns.3 Consequently there was a great scarcity of farm laborers, and agriculture suffered. 4 The farmers could not afford to pay good wages and the negroes were unwilling generally to work for little. Moreover, emancipation had unsettled their mmds by promising a new future. It was proper, therefore, that the Federal government, which was responsible for emancipation, should have made some provision for the immediate care of the homeless, propertyless race.

The characteristic institution of the reconstruction, the Freedmen's Bureau, was established in Virginia on June 15, 1865, when the assistant commissioner, Brevet Brigadier-General Orlando Brown, took charge of the freedmen's

[3] Richmond Whig, July 10, 1865. Ex. Docs., 1st session, 39th Congress, No. 72, p. 144.
[4] Alexandria Gazette, August 2, 1865. Fredericksburg New Era, July 6, 1865.

p.56 The Political Reconstruction of Virginia.

affairs in Richmond. The State was now divided into eight districts, with an assistant quartermaster as the superintendent of each; and the districts were in turn divided into sub-districts under the command of military officers.5

The directions of the superintendents instructed them to protect the negroes in their rights as freemen; to see that they were not oppressed; to cultivate friendly relations between the two races; to assist in the organization of schools; to discourage the tendency of the negroes to idle roaming; to urge upon them the importance of making labor contracts; to furnish rations, medicine and medical attention; in a word, to establish a paternal supervision of the colored race. Courts were also established by the bureau to decide all cases concerning negroes in which the penalties did not exceed three months' imprisonment or the fine of a hundred dollars. The whites and negroes were invited to select one representative for each race to assist in conducting this court.

As soon as the Freedmen's Bureau was established the government handed over to it large tracts of land that had been libelled for confiscation or seized upon the ground of abandonment.6 These amounted in all to 96,752 acres. This land was applied to the benefit of the freedmen in various ways; some of it was worked by them on shares; some was cultivated by the government, the freedmen being paid wages; in other cases farms were rented by the blacks or let to them free of charge. By the decision of the President these lands were gradually restored to the owners, 7 so that 40.751 acres had been returned by November 31, 1865. By October 27, 1866, the bureau held only 10,182 1/2 acres, most of which was woodland.

The bureau also supported a great number of negroes on rations. In August, 1865, 178,120 rations were issued to

[5] Senate Documents, 39th Congress, 1st session, No. 27, p. 144, and House Executive Docs., 1st session, 39th Congress, No. 70.
[6] Appleton's Annual Cyclopaedia, 1865, p. 375.
[7] Senate Documents, 39th Congress, ist session, No. 27, p. 145, and Senate Documents, 39th Congress, 2nd session, Vol. I, No. 6, p. 157.

The Freedmen's Bureau and the Union League. p.57

15,779 people; in September, 275,880 rations to 16,298 people; in October, 235,786 rations to 11,622 people. By September, 1866, however, the number of persons fed by governmental charity had fallen to 4,679.<sup8 Some of the supplies were given to destitute whites as well as to negroes.

Schools for the freedmen were established at military posts by various benevolent societies 9with the active aid and cooperation of the Freedmen's Bureau. The Shenandoah Valley was largely furnished with teachers by the Baptist Association. By November 31, 1865, there existed 90 schools with 195 teachers and 11,500 pupils.10

One of the most important functions of the bureau was the regulation of labor contracts for the freedmen. A great general impoverishment oppressed the State and the wages offered, therefore, were necessarily low. In some sections the farmers tended to combine to fix the wage rate. 11 This cooperation acted to the disadvantage of the freedmen, and by General Order No. 8 of the district of the Nottaway, issued on June 22, 1865, public meetings for the purpose of arranging a scale of wages were prohibited. But such combinations among the farmers continued to be one of the alleged grievances of the freedmen for some time. It is easy to understand, however, how difficult it would be for the employers to adjust themselves both to hard times and to new labor conditions.

In every way of life the Freedmen's Bureau affected and influenced the colored population. 12 In some respects it was

[8] Only 2,869 were fed by November 1, 1867. Report of Secretary of War, 40th Congress, 2nd Session, Vol. I, p. 240.
[9] An important one was the American Tract Society.
[10] By March 31, 1867, there were 228 teachers and 15,340 pupils. 25,000 colored children received some instruction.
[11] Senate Docs., 39th Congress, 1st session, No. 27, p. 144. It is said that the rate was fixed at five dollars with rations.
[12] The special correspondent of the Nation in 1865 gives a vivid description of the bureau courts: "In one corner of the empty court-room the sergeant had set up his desk. ... A good many people came in now it was an old farmer who entered; now it was a negro, hat in hand, with a question or a grievance or a request for transportation; now it was a citizen who came in to hear what decision had been made in reference to the case of a friend, or to vouch for the friend's good character." The Nation, 1865, p. 268.

p.58 The Political Reconstruction of Virginia.

a useful and beneficent institution. But, however much good the bureau may have done the negro, it was thoroughly disliked by the white people. It was an alien control of the working population; it intervened between the planter and the laborer, between white and black. It oftentimes saved the freedmen from injustice. It oftentimes gave ear to causeless and silly complaints on the part of the negroes, who were, of course, prone to use its power of protection to the utmost. 13

The work of the Freedmen's Bureau may be generally classified under four heads : ( 1 ) Benevolent. The negroes were given food, clothing, medicine and other necessities, farming implements and even brief land tenures in some places. (2) Protective. The freedmen received protection, both within their courts and without, from any aggression on the part of the whites. The bureau agents also supervised the making of all labor contracts. (3) Educational. Schools were established under the jurisdiction of the bureau. (4) Political. The agents naturally possessed a very great influence over their wards, which was usually exerted in the radical interests. This last activity became important after the negroes were granted suffrage in 1867.

The bureau generally obtained a strong hold on the blacks, for its benefits were positive and its functions many-sided, concerning every phase of life. But it could not exist as a permanent institution and partially relinquished authority over the freedmen to the civil officials. The bureau courts were closed on May 10, 1866, and the whole jurisdiction resigned to the State courts, in order that the operation of these courts might be tested while there was opportunity for observation by the bureau agents. The latter were required to be present at trials of freedmen to see that they received justice. The agents reported that in some sections partiality existed on the part of the courts towards the whites. In criminal cases the blacks were given

[13] "Why the Solid South," p. 238.

The Freedmen's Bureau and the Union League. p.59

justice in the main, although with many exceptions. As the magistrates of Elizabeth City, York and Nansemond counties refused to perform their work, the bureau courts were reopened in those counties in July, 1866. The bureau reports stated that the freedmen were willing to work for fair wages. The agents usually drew up contracts for them. The rate of wages was about nine dollars a month and rations, an advance over that of the year 1865. The negroes, like the whites, paid taxes per capita, all males above sixteen years of age being subject to taxation. 14

Concerning the benefit of the Freedmen's Bureau to the community and to the freedmen, there was an absolute conflict of statements. The reports of the agents naturally represented it as a very beneficial institution. Most of the Virginia Republicans, too, supported it; they declared that it protected the freedmen in their rights. On the other hand, the greater part of the white people of Virginia cordially detested it. They represented it as fomenting strife between the races and as supporting a large number of negroes in entire idleness, and, in fact, the management was open to considerable criticism.

It appears that when first instituted the bureau was a benevolent aid society. The freedmen, unaccustomed to responsibility, required some such friendly tutelage. It was then a benefit. But it also seems clear that the bureau degenerated greatly in its last stages, in the attempt to discharge political functions. It then generally became a disturbing instead of a harmonizing influence in the community. But the institution was peculiar and arose out of the needs of the time. Its character depended largely upon the character of the individual agents, for each one exercised a more or less independent authority. In some districts, where men of integrity and sense conducted the affairs of the blacks, the bureau was useful. In other districts, which were managed by incompetent and unworthy

[14] Executive Docs., 39th Congress, 2nd session, vol. 1, No. 6, p. 157.

p.60 The Political Reconstruction of Virginia.

agents, the institution was a positive evil, and unfortunately this was very often the case. It is a question whether the Freedmen's Bureau was justified in interfering in politics to the large extent that it did; at any rate, the interference was unfortunate, and yet circumstances probably made it inevitable, for the prime function of the bureau consisted in furthering the independence of the colored race.

The Freedmen's Bureau awakened some criticism in the North. Thus, Generals Steedman and Fullerton, sent from Washington to observe conditions in the Southern States, brought back a report decidedly adverse to the bureau. According to this report, its general effect was to awaken antagonism between the races. The agents exercised a wide legal jurisdiction, trying cases involving real estate titles, crimes and even divorce. Their decisions were by no means invariably just. 15

The negroes were naturally loyal to the Freedmen's Bureau. It did much for them; in one sense, it liberated them, yet there were a few colored critics. Willis A. Hodges, in a speech before the Virginia constitutional convention on January 3, 1868, declared that abuses were practiced upon the freedmen in certain cases by agents. He stated that provisions and clothing intended for negroes were appropriated by some agents and that the blacks working upon government farms received no pay and suffered from actual privations. 16 But Hodges was not sustained in his charges by his fellow Republicans in the convention. They, in general, thoroughly approved of the Freedmen's Bureau.

The peculiar political institution of the reconstruction was the Union League. This Republican society was formed at the close of the Civil War. It soon included the chief towns in the North, and in 1867, with the extension of suffrage to the negroes, entered the ex-Confederate States. The society had a national organization and local branches;

[15] Richmond Enquirer, May 16, 1866.
[16] Debates of the Convention, p. 163.

The Freedmen's Bureau and the Union League. p.61

and deputies were sent from the different States to the central council." " The league was organized as an aid to the effective carrying out of the humane objects and purposes of those in the North who believed that the ballot in the hands of the negro would be preferable to bullets in the muskets of a standing army, which would have been necessary for an indefinite period in many sections of the South." 18 The Union League was a secret society, to which few but negroes and the white leaders had access. The club always met at night and the chief exercises consisted in the political education of the freedmen. " It was a system of night school in which they were instructed in the privileges of citizenship and the duties they owed to the party which had made them free and given them exercise of suffrage." 19 The services were conducted in total darkness. The members formed a circle inclosing the candidates for admission and moved around with shuffling gait, while from the corner of the room came the lugubrious sound of clanking chains. 20Lights were then brought in and the blacks received further instruction as to their po- litical duties.21The great strength of this secret society system lay in the fact that the white radicals could teach their doctrines to the freedmen without the counteracting effects of contradiction and argument, which they must have met if they had attempted to conduct their campaign solely from the stump. Besides the negroes were bound to a uniform course of action by oaths and by the example of a closely organized association. 22Consequently the Union League exerted an immense influence over the colored race. This became evident in the election of 1867, when the conservative whites, in spite of all their efforts and the ties of old association, were able to influence only 638 blacks

[17] Letter of General Edgar Allen in the author's possession. General Allen was the grand deputy for Virginia.
[18] Letter of General Allen.
[19] Letter of General Allen.
[20] Ibid. The negroes often came fifteen or twenty miles to attend these meetings.
[21] Enquirer, November, 13, 1867.
[22] Enquirer, October 31, 1867.

p.62 The Political Reconstruction of Virginia.

to vote against the convention out of a total colored vote of 93,145.

The power of the Union League differed considerably in the various States. The League had a masterly organization in Virginia and held the blacks well in hand for several years. In Louisiana it seems not to have been so strong; at least it did not occupy as conspicuous a place in the public attention as in some other States. 23 In South Carolina the League was particularly powerful. The Klu Klux Klan directed its attacks against it. According to the testimony of Governor Robert K. Scott, in the contest case of Hoge vs. Reed, Republicans who were killed were usually leaders of the Union League. 24 The graduated system of league government placed a great power in the hands of a few white men. Thus a witness in the contest case of Reed vs. Simpson, the secretary of the Union League, was also a deputy, which gave him the supervision of the eight clubs in Anderson county, South Carolina. 25 Consequently the Klu Klux Klan, in striking at the carpet-bagger leaders, undermined the whole system of negro supremacy; and the outrages it perpetrated had much to do in the destruction of the league in certain States. In other States the decadence of the institution was effected by more peaceful means. In Virginia many planters adopted the plan of discharging laborers who were members of the Union League. A still more potent cause of destruction was the schism in the Republican party in 1869, whereby the unity of the league was seriously disturbed. It seems to have gone to pieces after 1870. While the lifetime of the League was thus

[23] Ms. Docs., 41st, 42nd Congress.
[24] House Ms. Docs., 1st session, 41st Congress,. Hoge vs. Reed, p.42. A witness testified that one B. F. Randolph organized the Union League in South Carolina, for which offense he was killed. Hoge vs. Reed, p.34.
[25] House Misc. Docs., 1st session, 41st Congress, Reed vs. Simpson, p.53
[26] Contested Elections, 1875-6, 1st session, 44th Congress, Platt vs. Goode. The League apparently was not in existence in Virginia in 1875.

The Freedmen's Bureau and the Union League. p.63

short, its activities were very great and its influence appeared to threaten the supremacy of the white race. The society was singularly adapted to the character of the freedmen, and the men who organized and managed it were often acute and masterful politicians. The Union League threatened to place the negro race in permanent power in several States; consequently the whites made it the point of attack, and when they succeeded in breaking it down, they had mastered one of the chief issues in the contest for supremacy. The effect of the Union League in Virginia was to completely separate, politically, the black race from the white.