Freed slaves' expectations about land redistribution first became an urgent issue in the Port Royal area. Port Royal Sound, with its principal city of Beaufort, is part of a chain of barrier islands stretching southward from Charleston down the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. The fertile soils of the larger islands were favorable for growing long-staple sea island cotton, which commanded high prices on the world market. When the Union navy captured Port Royal in November 1861, local planters who had become rich from the cotton trade fled inland in a panic. They "refugeed" as many slaves as they could transport with them into the interior but, inevitably, Port Royal area planters left many slaves behind. One Union officer reported from Beaufort that he found freedpeople there "wild with joy and revenge." They had been shot down "like dogs," he wrote, "because they would not go off with their masters."
Fleeing planters owed federal taxes, both the cotton tax and the direct tax, and many of the plantations were seized by the U.S. Treasury and auctioned off. Exactly how they would be sold, and to whom, was a contentious issue. Northern speculators sought to get rich from the land while a few military officials, most notably General Rufus Saxton, insisted that freedpeople should have the lands to farm for themselves.
Saxton was one of the great champions of the rights of freedpeople in the South, including the right to equality with white citizens and the right to land upon which to support themselves. A native of Deerfield, Massachusetts, Saxton was a West Point graduate and had a long career in the army both before and after the Civil War. During the war, he served in Missouri and around Harper's Ferry before being posted to South Carolina in 1862.
Rufus Saxton Argues That Land Should Be Set Aside for Freedpeople
[December 7, 1862]
The prospect is that all the lands on these sea islands, will be bought up by speculators, and in that event, these helpless people may be placed more or less at the mercy of men devoid of principle, and their future well being jeopardized, thus defeating in a great measure the benevolent intention of the Government towards them.
To prevent this, and give the negroes a right in that soil to whose wealth they are destined in the future to contribute so largely, to save them from destitution, to enable them to take care of themselves, and prevent them from ever becoming a burden upon the country, I would most respectfully call your attention to the importance of the immediate passage of an act of Congress, empowering the President to appoint three Commissioners, whose duty it shall be to make allotments of portions of the lands forfeit to the US...to the emancipated negroes...
Source: Rufus Saxton to Edwin Stanton, Rufus B. and S. Willard Saxton Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library
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