The tentative and ad hoc moves towards a free labor system based on widespread ownership of land by former slaves that had been put in place by the army during the war lurched to a halt after President Andrew Johnson took control of Reconstruction policy. His "Amnesty Proclamation" included provisions for returning land to planters, and in the autumn of 1865, this began to happen on a large scale in the Sea Islands. Nowhere was it more painful than on Edisto Island, where General O.O. Howard, Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau and one of the architects of the land distribution in Port Royal, had to explain to freedpeople that the land they thought was theirs was to be given back to their former masters.
In the report below, written within a few weeks after Howard's speech, an officer reports on unrest and resistance to the restoration of lands on Edisto. It also offers an insight into the terms planters hoped to implement in new labor contracts with their former slaves.
Freedpeople React to the Restoration of Land to their Former Masters
SUMMERVILLE, S.C., Nov. 29th 1865.
General: As I am to leave for Edisto Island in the morning I shall not probably forward Official Monthly report until after Saturday next, and hence take the liberty to represent some matters of interest connected with the islands. It seems that some of the planters whose lands had been restored under the late order. reported to Gen Sickles that they were driven off by the freedpeople. Gen S immediately orders that a Company of white troops be sent there, and the Company was ready last night. Gen Devens telegraphed to me tin P.M. to come down. yesterday which I did. He agreed with me that my troops were the ones to send if any and so I take a company with me.
I have apprehended trouble ever since the Govt determined to rescind the authority to occupy those lands. It is true the War Dept did not, in so many words, approve Gen Shermans order, but it certainly did act upon it, and there is an apparent bad faith in the matter which I am sure the freedpeople will feel. I cannot refrain from expressing grave fears of some collisions on the island, and would gladly delegate the responsibility to any one who could attend to it better. The same difficulty is affecting the Combahee plantations in some instances—I hope to visit that section by Monday next.
Beside this—the old contracts are soon to expire, and there is considerable hitch about new ones. I had a meeting of planters today. They are well disposed, and appreciate the present Emergency. The only thing they are at fault in is the estimate of pay. They can hire no freed people—on the conditions expressed. I did not argue the matter at all, as I simply desired to get their ideas—
The following basis is suggested—
The above is valuable as giving the idea of perhaps thirty or more responsible planters of this vicinity.
They have no money, but they were rich once.
They have room for education—and I am confident that the question of wages will be settled on fairer basis by actual necessity. I should be satisfied with an average of $8 pr month for men--$6 for women and rations—and I believe that ultimately this will be about the figure, though how it is to be paid I am not clear.
However I work through one thing at time & hope for the best
Excuse this hasty note— Very respectfully yr. obt Servt—
James C. Beecher
Source: James C. Beecher to Rufus Saxton, November 29, 1865, Reports of Conditions and Operations, ser. 2929, S.C. Asst. Commr., RG 105, National Archives.
Questions to Consider