Of all the former Confederate states, only South Carolina actually established a state government body responsible for providing farms for the landless. The South Carolina Land Commission was built into the Constitution of 1868 and got off the ground in 1869. Its goal was to buy up large plantations from owners who could no longer afford to work them profitably, or could not keep up with the taxes on them now that land was taxed at its full value. The Commission could then break the plantations up into farms that could support a single family. The farms were sold on easy terms to both black and white citizens. Until it was finally shut down in 1890, the Land Commission sold more than 110,000 acres across the state, but it was also plagued by corruption and inefficiency.
The Land Commission's policies and practices embodied the most hopeful vision of the Republican party for what the South could be with large plantations replaced by small farms, and this made it the special target of Democratic critics. In this remarkable pair of letters, however, a group of white Confederate veterans from Greenville County, in South Carolina's upcountry, ask whether they are to be included in the Land Commission's work as well, and C. P. Leslie, the first Land Commissioner, writes a frank reply emphasizing reconciliation, along with a not too subtle dig at Confederate planters.
White Confederate Veterans Appeal to South Carolina's Land Commission
Greenville, S.C., May 17, 1869
Hon. C. P. Leslie, Land Commissioner —
Dear Sir: We respectfully beg leave to submit for your consideration a plain statement, founded upon facts, and with an honesty of purpose ask the attention it merits. In fighting the battles of the South, we thought we were in the right path of duty, and as her sons were needed at the front, did not hesitate to place ourselves firmly in ranks. Consequently, we are now without an arm, a leg, or otherwise maimed for life, have our wives, little ones and widowed mothers to support in our feeble way, and us a Democratic, moneyless, landless set of men, we appeal to you to know if in the distribution of lands in this State, under your supervision, we are to be remembered.
If favored with a reply, it will ever be considered a kind favor and acknowledged with the sincerest respect, by Yours truly,
J. F. Bramlett
Charleston, S.C., June, 1869
GENTLEMEN: Your letter addressed to me at Blackville reached me, after considerable delay, at Charleston.
You say you fought bravely as Confederate soldiers, and thought you were in the path of duty. I doubt not you acted honestly, as I certainly did in contending against you, and I respect you for your courage and your frankness. You say: "Consequently, we are now without an arm, a leg, or otherwise maimed for life, have our wives, little ones and widowed mothers to support in our feeble way, and are a Democratic, moneyless, landless set of men." I sincerely regret this, and I must express surprise that at the close of the war the Confederate owners in your county of large tracts of land, the half of which they never cultivate, did not promptly provide land for each of their soldiers. You were maimed in a cause they called precious, to which you were urged by them with glowing promises of lasting honor and large reward; a cause in which you perilled life in place of them or their sons.
The least that honor, or gratitude suggests to me would be a free gift of a small tract of land to every poor, at least to every disabled, Confederate soldier. But perhaps it is useless to ask or hope for even this easy, proper and cheap recognition of valor in "the lost cause."
And then you say you are "Democratic, landless men." Do you remember that when the bill to provide for the distribution of lands was before the Legislature, every Democrat seeming to scout the idea of helping the common people to lands and homes, voted squarely against the bill at every stage. Surely, as Democrats, neither they nor you can claim anything.
But in general legislation, the Republican party considers not Confederate soldiers, not Democrats, not Republicans, but citizens. In elections we contend for our men and our principles:--the election over, we act in public measures according to our principles--for all the people. The homestead law, the law relating to mechanics' liens, and the law relating to lands were passed for the benefit of all, and particular the workingmen.
Meeting you in this broad Republican spirit, I am ready to consider you not as Democrats nor as Confederate soldiers, but as "landless moneyless men," sincerely desiring to avail yourself of the opportunities now for the first time presented in this State. I am ready to do the best I can for you and for all who are anxious to go upon a little farm, make it their home, and to labor and economize to pay for it. In seeking for such men I shall not be restricted by "race, color, nativity or previous condition."
This year I hope to put a considerable number of families on lands of the State. But this is simply a beginning. Next year, I hope to put a larger number, and the year succeeding a number still larger, and so on until by this means and by other means, every frugal and industrious man, white or colored, in the States, who wants a home enough to work diligently and faithfully for it, has one;--until the Palmetto State is dotted with small, productive farms, her waste places built up, and her cities and villages teem with a busy and thriving population.
In this hope and with this earnest purpose, I am, gentlemen, respectfully and sincerely yours,
C. P. Leslie
Source: Greenville (S.C.) Enterprise, May 19, June 23, 1869.
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