Northern Care of the Freedmen

“The story of the freedmen in wartime is one of gross mismanagement and neglect (on the part of the North). The problem was neither vigilantly foreseen by the government nor dealt with vigorously and promptly by it or by private organizations. The abolitionists who had called so long for emancipation should have foreseen that the mere ending of slavery was far from a solution of the stupendous and many-sided problem of creating…a new social order to meet the exigent new demands. All too often squalor, hunger and disease haunted the (black) refugees, their camps becoming social cancers that were a reproach to the North…Maria Mann, the first woman sent by the US Sanitary Commission as agent in a contraband camp, wrote of appalling conditions and often cruel treatment. Deaths were frequent, disease was universal, and the future so bleak that many of the refugees talked of returning to their slave masters, and some did so.

Writing of the hospital, she said: “I found the poor creatures in…such quarters, void of comfort and decency;—their personal condition so deplorable that any idea of change for the better seems utterly impossible. Many of them seem to come there to die, and they do die very rapidly…the carcasses, filth and decay which 40,000 have scattered over this town, will make the mortality fearful when warm weather comes…So much formality attends red tape, and so few friends have the Negroes among the officials…” Speaking out sharply, Mrs. Mann charged the (US) Army with “barbarities” against the refugees….Malnutrition was evident in nearly every place “where the government has been obliged to support destitute contrabands.” An aide of General Rufus Saxton at Beaufort (South Carolina) reported…”the ill-fed, ill-sheltered, ill-clothed, unmedicined” freedmen were an easy prey of the infectious maladies that swept their poor quarters.”

Washington failed utterly to foresee the widespread flight of slaves within the Union lines, to assess their needs realistically, and to make considered provision for their future. (For) several reasons Congress was unwilling to take farsighted action in behalf of the four million slaves that the war gradually released. In the first place (many Northern Congressman) wished to retard rather than accelerate emancipation. They raised some terrible bogeys: the Negroes would flock northward and flood the labor markets (a fear felt from St. Louis and Cincinnati to Baltimore); they would prove unruly and dangerous; and frightful expenses, necessitating heavy taxes, would be needed to care for the ignorant, helpless and often ailing refugees.

A large part of the Union officers and troops agreed with…conservative attitudes (toward the Negroes). Many had an instinctive dislike of Negroes, and many shared the views of the Democratic Party on slavery. They turned the Negro back with contumely. Dissension on the subject persisted until after the Emancipation Proclamation, and never disappeared.” The (proclamation) did not apply to the thirteen parishes of Louisiana, the forty-eight counties of West(ern) Virginia, or seven counties of Virginia (under Northern occupation). Here, as everywhere, loyal masters had the right to recover slaves up to the final proclamation.

“Oh, you are the man who has all those darkies on his shoulders.” So Grant in the autumn of 1862 addressed Chaplain John Eaton of the 27th Ohio, a 33-year old….whom he had just appointed supervisor of the contrabands crowding into the army camps at LaGrange, Tennessee. As Grant’s troops advanced into northern Mississippi…owners fled their plantations and farms, and slaves thronged into the Yankee camps. The flood of want and misery appalled all observers. It was like the oncoming of cities, wrote Eaton. Many Northern soldiers, quite unused to color, had more bitter prejudices against it than Southerners. But even the benevolent were nonplussed, fearing “the demoralization and infection of the Union soldier and the downfall of the Union cause” if dark hordes swamped the advancing columns.

Eaton found most (Northern) troops reluctant to serve the Negro in any manner, and even parties detailed to guard the contrabands did their work unwillingly. Once Eaton was roughly arrested by a colonel as he gave directions to some wandering Negroes; once his horse, used by a sergeant in foraging for contrabands, was shot by somebody who hoped to kill Eaton himself.”

(The War for the Union: The Organized War 1863-1864, Allan Nevins, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971, pp. 418-428)