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Tag: slavery (page 2 of 2)

Did U.S. Railroads Own Slaves–How Many?

The short answer to this important question is that Southern railroad companies owned many slaves and built most of their lines with enslaved labor. The question, however, has not been fully researched and for years we have known little about this experience or the scale of the railroads’ involvement in slavery. We know that southern slaveholders were the principal stockholders and directors of many railroad companies and that the South moved quickly in the 1830s to build railroads. Southerners built some of the earliest and longest railroads in the nation. By the 1850s southern railroad construction was in full swing, with crews grading thousands of miles of track.

Although historians, such as Allen Trelease, Robert Starobin, and Walter Licht, have acknowledged the presence of slave labor on Southern railroads, we have little sense of its overall dimensions or its relationship to southern expansionism of the 1850s. One historian, Theodore Kornweibel, has recently begun to research in detail the southern railroads’ use of slave labor. Kornweibel found documented evidence for slave labor on over 75 % of southern railroads. He has also estimated that over 10,000 slaves a year were working on the railroads in the South between 1857 and 1865. These figures seem entirely plausible and accurate.

A careful examination of railroad annual reports from the South begins to reveal the scale and diversity of the experience. Most of the slave labor on southern railroads was hired or rented from local slaveholders to grade the tracks. Enslaved women and children were also forced to work on the railroads, running wheelbarrows, moving dirt, cooking, picking up stones, and shoveling. Some skilled slaves, especially blacksmiths, were hired as well on these construction crews. 

But railroads began buying slaves outright in the mid-1850s. Only after the Civil War did these railroads have to reconcile their assets and liabilities to account for the loss of slavery. The Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad President, for example, reported after the Civil War on the railroad’s investment in slaves. “We find from the books,” he explained to the stockholders, “that there has been invested in negroes, in Georgia, the sum of $154,348 and negroes sold amounting to $32,805.25 leaving negro investment $121,542.71.” The investment, he noted, “is now, manifestly, a total loss.”

Railroads, it seems, bought slaves both in large groups and one at a time. The Richmond and Petersburg listed 114 “slaves” on its payroll of 191 employees in 1864. The railroad purchased its first slave in 1856 for $1,070, listing the expense in its annual report as “a negro man purchased.” By 1860 some railroads were buying slaves by the dozens. The Mississippi Central bought 21 slaves in one purchase and 31 in another in 1860. Mississippi Central Railroad, Contract for SlavesIts 1864/65 annual report from the company treasurer listed in the balance sheet on the liabilities side “Account and Bonds of C. S. and cost of Negroes now free  $585,237.” In an action that clearly indicated the intentions of the slaveholding railroads, the Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston directors authorized a large purchase of slaves in 1841. The chairman of the board, Alexander Mazyck, proposed a resolution that the Board “be authorized as soon as the means and credit of the Company will permit, to purchase for the service of the Rail-road, from fifty to sixty male Slaves between the ages of sixteen and thirty.” It was adopted without argument or amendment.

Railroads in the South owned and hired slaves on a scale we have generally forgotten. By the 1860s the Southern railroads were among the largest slaveholding and slave employing entities in the region, as a group they eclipsed the largest individual planters. Recent historical research has begun to uncover just how far the practice extended. The implications of this form of slavery, however, need further examination. We need to know more about the use of slaves by railroads, the jobs they performed, and their experiences.

How Slavery Ended in the Civil War

In the Library of Congress’ Cornelius Chase papers there are boxes of carefully collected records of the activities of slave traders out of Richmond, Virginia. Chase was a Quaker and an abolitionist, and he pulled together evidence and materials wherever he could find them of the inhumanity of slavery. There are two remarkable aspects to this collection. The first is just how quickly the slave trade modernized around telegraphs and railroads (a subject for another post).

The second is that slave traders were busy in the South right up through the end of the Civil War. Who would purchase slaves in, say, late 1864, and for what purpose? Surely, with slavery collapsing all around them, white southerners must have thought twice about holding slaves, much less buying slaves. Were they concerned about the war, about the price of slaves? What explains the actions of whites, any one of whom might have been the last person to purchase a slave in the Confederacy?

Historians from Armistead Robinson to Ira Berlin and Barbara Fields have argued that slavery broke down in the war and in many areas black self-liberation meant that slavery was collapsing from within. The focus of this argument has rightly been on the slaves themselves. So many thousands appeared at Fortress Monroe that Union General Benjamin Butler took them in as “contraband” of war in 1861, beginning a process of self-emancipation and enlistment in the Union cause that led to the formation of the U.S. Colored Troops units with over 180,000 black men in uniform by the end of the war. Despite the widespread movement of African Americans in the areas around the Union Army to free themselves, many slaves remained on plantations well out of reach of any Union forces. In Stephen Ash’s brilliant 1865: A Year in the South the Agnew plantation operated largely intact with over fifty slaves on it until early 1865. Union soldiers had yet to appear in the county. This experience was common and explains in part why Union General William Tecumseh Sherman wanted to reach the “interior” (as he called it) of the South with his March to the Sea. Similarly, even in Rockbridge County, Virginia, as late as July 1864, Confederate civilians had never seen a Union soldier. There were vast reaches of the interior South where the war was a distant, if very important, event.

And so the slave trade went on.  Browning & Moore, E. H. Stokes, Betts and Gregory, Dickenson and Hill, and other slave trading partnerships carried on their business in the war. The war clearly had an effect on slaves even before the Emancipation Proclamation. In January 1862 one man wrote a Richmond, Virginia, slave trader that he wanted to sell “a very intelligent negro” about 32 years old who had been “a very useful servant.” He put the slave on the market because “I think he has ideas very prevelant [sic] in this part of the country since the war began which render it a disagreeable task to [unclear] him.”

In the same year E. H. Stokes, a busy slave trader in Richmond, defended himself to the Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon, claiming he had hired a substitute and was exempt from the draft. Besides, he claimed, he ran a 2,000 acre plantation in Lunenburg County that produced surpluses for the Army and, as important, kept slaves under control in the wartime environment: “I have no overseer nor other white persons than myself to manage them [60 slaves]. With my supervision they can be made to support themselves, and raise a considerable surplus for the Army. Left to themselves, they would make nothing of consequence for themselves, nor for any body else. On the contrary they would speedily destroy all my supplies on hand.”

Even if slaves clearly understood what the war meant and that they might have the opportunity to take matters into their own hands, Confederate whites like Stokes saw little prospect for an end to slavery anytime soon. The records of these traders indicate a high volume of buyers and sellers even into 1863 after the Emancipation Proclamation. Southern whites, it seems, assumed there would be some sort of compensation for any eventual plan of emancipation to work, whether war imposed or not. Such views could not have been unreasonable after years of discussion of colonization and debates over many decades about gradual emancipation. The idea of an end to slavery seemed to Southern whites an unthinkable one, except perhaps on terms they might control and determine.

Their own government, the Confederate States of America, built itself around the idea of slaves as property and it was no accident that the U.S. Congress used its Confiscation Acts to provide the opening for emancipation. In July 1864 a frantic telegram, typical of many such wartime queries, came over the wires from Augusta, Georgia, to Richmond, Virginia. The Confederate Quartermaster wanted a ruling from his superiors: if he hired “negro teamsters for the Army of Tennessee would the government be responsible to the owners if they are captured or killed.” The Inspector General rendered a brief reply: “The Govt. will be responsible.” 

Slavery ended in and with the Civil War both because slaves sought their own freedom and because the Union Army demonstrated that the Confederate government could not make good on its promise to protect the property rights whites held in slavery. The formal abolition of slavery laws was carried out in the terms of reconstruction for Southern states. But slavery as an idea vested in property rights persisted among many whites and proved durable, a burning ember stamped upon but still glowing during the long Reconstruction years. The Confederate government was ultimately responsible for those rights and lost them in the war, but the expectations of many Southern whites in the war was that these rights were in a sense inalienable–that they might be taken by force but conceptually they were not lost. That slave traders continued their business unabated, that Confederates demanded compensation from their government for the loss of slaves impressed in the war, and that many of these activities persisted through 1864 and into 1865, indicate that many southern whites could not fully contemplate the end of slavey in the war.

Southern Slavery and Modernity?

When The Railroad Advocate, a trade journal published out of New York, wanted to assess the state of southern railroads in 1855, the editor, Zerah Colburn, sent a special correspondent on a tour of the South. What’s surprising is just how different these reports were from the classic and well-known travel account of Frederick Law Olmstead, A Journey In the Seaboard Slave States (1856). Olmstead’s view was that southern roads were poorly built and inefficiently run, a symbol of wastefulness that he thought characterized much of slavery-based southern society.

But Colburn’s correspondent reported a different story. On the Seaboard and Roanoke, a road Olmstead traveled too, he found it “well managed” and “well constructed.” The locomotives were built by the nation’s finest manufacturer, the shops were equipped with “the best tools.” The entire enterprise was impressive. On the North Carolina Central, a road over 200 miles long and without a grade exceeding 50 feet and laid with the best 60 pound iron rails available, he discovered “one of the best constructed [roads] in the country” running locomotives from the very best manufacturers. Indeed, they were the most “beautiful machines in the country.”

When he arrived in Savannah, Georgia, moreover, the railroad station there stunned and surprised him. “To say that Savannah, Georgia, is likely to have the most complete and elegant railroad station in the country (besides being one of the very largest) may be a matter of some surprise to northern and western railroad men.” The building was 800 feet long and 63 feet wide, designed in a modern style and rivaled only by a few stations in the nation, the ones in Boston and Baltimore. The road was equipped with engines exhibited at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition. The yards included 6 parallel tracks, with over three miles of railroad, a remarkably large and extensive facility. The shops held the best work benches and lathes in the business, “the best we’ve seen.”

All of these railroads were both worked and made possible by slave labor. According to Colburn’s journal, Southern railroads had achieved through slavery an extraordinary level of quality construction at half the cost of northern and western railroads. And the low cost of construction through the use of slaves prompted “astonishment in more northern communities.” There was much to admire about these southern efficiencies, Colburn wrote: no contractors scamming the roads for high profits, no inflated costs and padding of contracts, no secretive promoters keeping the public at arms length while they engineered a boondoggle.

In 1855 then the South’s railroads appeared the envy of the nation, built at a level of efficiency no northern line could manage and equipped at the very highest levels of quality. Although Olmstead was critical of southern trains, the rates of delay and inconvenience were not so different from travel in the North.

Historian Mark Smith (Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the Antebellum South, University of North Carolina Press, 1997) has examined the ways that slaveholders adopted modern technology and time keeping techniques for their bound labor. In every respect Smith argues that the South was adapting these devices at the same rates and with the same effects as the North.

So, we need to revise our view of the South as a place resistant to modernity because in many ways it makes it too easy to dismiss the antebellum South as doomed to extinction or incompatible with modern America. The South wanted modern progress, was complicit in it, and embraced it. That it did so with slavery at the core of its economic and social structure should give us pause. Slavery probably would not have died out on its own in the South, at least not because of modernity and its progress in the form of railroads, telegraphs, and cities.

Although we must consider more evidence than Colburn’s The Railroad Advocate and recognize the biases of these pro-railroad development journals, we should at least understand that southern modernity appeared quite differently to Americans in 1855. When the best engines in the world were outfitted on Southern lines, when the longest tunnels in the world were excavated with slave labor, when the greatest and most modern architectural designs were drafted for Southern railroad stations, few observers probably missed their significance for the way the white South understood itself. We should try to recover this lost sensibility of the South’s commitment to modernity, because among other reasons it will make us see the Civil War, when it did come, in a different light.

“Killing Time” in the Civil War

If you pick up a Civil War newspaper, you might run into this rather modern-sounding phrase: to “kill time.” At what point did this notion enter common usage? What did it mean? Did Civil War soldiers “kill time” and what did they mean? Certainly, in the Civil War soldiers entered a massive bureaucratic machine in which they often found themselves adrift, with little to do, waiting for a movement, a march, even a skirmish or a battle to relieve the doldrums of army life. Diaries and letters were themselves efforts to pass the time.

Henry David Thoreau used the phrase in perhaps one of his most well-known passages from Walden (1854): “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” Thoreau was outraged that people enslaved themselves to money, and he despised what happened “when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” He ridiculed the average “teamster on the highway” with his worries about his cargo and the inevitable trade-off between time and money along the route. These petty concerns, Thoreau thought, could never lead to “self emancipation.” Instead, they were the markers of a form of self-created prison. Thoreau’s use of the words “kill time” here, however, was sly. He meant certainly that the teamster and the “ladies of the land weaving toilet cushions” were wasting time in these thoughtless pursuits. Yet, Thoreau knew the phrase also meant passing time in leisure or play.

The phrase crops up in the newspapers even earlier, mainly in articles concerning the railroads or the leisure trips and vacation spots of the upper middle class. One of these places was Saratoga, New York, but there were others in the South, such as Warm Springs, Virginia. At these places of rest and recuperation, to “take the springs” was to literally soak in the great mineral baths there but also to meet people in the upper echelons of society and to have high conversation, dine well, walk, and get moderate outdoor exercise, all activities aimed at restoring the health of the body and mind. Nineteenth-century Americans considered such restorative times even more necessary in the world of cities and railroads, which seemed to them to break down and degrade the human body and mind.By 1860 the railroad, in fact, had given more and more people access to these somewhat exclusive resorts. At Saratoga The New York Times special correspondent reported that “those who are here do not represent so remarkably as heretofore the distinction of American society.” (July 23, 1860) What did they do at the springs? Read the newspapers, especially the advertisements, look into the latest fashions, and visit the railroad depot every day to see who might have come. They also “kill time” playing billiards or bowling. Only the relatively wealthy could actually afford to spend time in this manner.

But in the Civil War the phrase came to have a different significance as an expression of ironic detachment from the reality of war. Soldiers of all classes, not just the wealthy elite but enlisted men, began to kill time, at camp by playing games, cards, or other diversions. Although the idiom occurred somewhat infrequently, The New York Times reprinted a letter that used it and gives an indication of its wartime significance. The letter came from a Union captain who was a prisoner of war held in Charleston, South Carolina. The prison was terrible and his men and comrades were dying every week. Summer was coming, and he dreaded the hot season, the disease it would inevitably bring. One of their amusements was to sell to Confederates some trinkets and rings, literally whatever they had on them when captured. They called this the “bone business.” And this captain claimed that he had retired from that business and taken up a new diversion: “I ‘kill time’ now by writing.” (March 9, 1862)

If prisoners killed time by writing, soldiers killed time by killing. Basing his novel on interviews and close reading of veterans’ statements, Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage depicted the compression and warping of time that came to soldiers on the battlefield.The expression also applied to any engagement not necessarily part of a major campaign, any kind of side or peripheral activity. The Chicago Tribune reported in early 1863 that Union forces took a break from trying to capture Vicksburg and “while killing time at Napoleon . . . amused themselves” by steaming up the Arkansas River to capture a Confederate fort at Arkansas Post. They took 5,000 prisoners. But the little battle was anything but easy or bloodless, as Union forces took over a thousand casualties in direct attacks on Confederate entrenched rifle pits. The Arkansas Post expedition, led by Major General John McClernand, diverted the Union Army from its main task of dislodging Vicksburg for a while and seemed to some a waste of time and resources.

During the Civil War, the subject of who should be able to kill time became especially relevant in the South as slavery collapsed and Northern commanders attempted to convert the region to free labor. In Louisiana General Nathaniel Banks instituted a contract labor system on cotton plantations, but the results according to some observers were a failure because former slaves killed time rather than worked for their former masters.According to a correspondent for The New York Times in New Orleans, slavery had ended but the Banks experiment with free labor was a disaster. The “crying evil” was the “incorrigable [sic] indolence of the negroes, and with it the lack of power to make the niggers work.” (October 30, 1864) This summary assessment came almost word-for-word from the lips of southern planters, who all of a sudden appeared even to some Northern Republicans as wise and correct in their forceful control of black labor.

The issue of freedom was whether black southerners could control their own time. The New York Times reported that between January 1864 and October 1864 black men on the Louisiana plantations had literally “lost ten hundred and ninety days” by “killing time.” Worse, the black women too had lost time, more than the men. Given what we know now about the role of enslaved women in plantation agriculture’s success across the South, the importance of black women withdrawing their time in 1864 becomes even more significant.

Emancipation, the self emancipation Thoreau wrote about, came down to freeing oneself from the constraints of seeing time as a commodity. To live with the acute awareness of the present was to step outside of time. The time that surrounded the moment of emancipation or that came with battlefield engagement were remarkably similar in their effects on former slaves and common soldiers. Killing time, which had been the somewhat exclusive luxury of the wealthy in the 1850s, was transformed in the Civil War as more Americans participated in time set apart from commercial value. Whether this emancipation would last and what effects it would have were unclear in 1865, only the aftermath of the war would tell.