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SELECTED LETTERS OF SALMON P. CHASE
NEW ORLEANS, LA., March 31, 1863.
DEAR SIR: This letter is a sketch of the policy of the commanding generals of this Department, concerning slaves; of changes of policy and their effect on slavery; and of the present condition of the institution.
On the first occupation of the city, and for some time afterward, the policy (as then understood to be the policy of the government) was adopted of non-interference with slavery, of leaving it entirely to the local laws, and even of returning sometime to their owners, slaves who took refuge in the camps.
This policy changed as the commanding general became more familiar with the institution, with its effect upon the character and morals of the people, and with its vast importance as the real chief cause of the rebellion, and as he began to see that this is not an armed rebellion, but a great social and political revolution; that, sooner or later, the character and habits of the whole people must be reformed by assimilating the two antagonistic forms of labor and society, and by organizing free, compensated and honest labor. I heard Gen. Butler say, " These people act like savages, and slavery has made them so. For generations they have sucked in barbarism with the milk of African nurses."
During the summer the policy first indicated changed still more. Finally, refugee negroes were not returned to loyal or disloyal persons, and the " black code " of Louisiana became virtually a nullity.
In this city a free colored regiment had been held in rebel service under Gov. Moore, and had been highly complimented in his general orders. Gen. Butler, very shrewdly and skillfully taking advantage of this precedent, not only reorganized the regiment in the U. S. service, but enlisted two other colored regiments mostly from men lately slaves, whom he bad pronounced free by laws of war.
Many sugar plantations were deserted by the negroes. The standing crops were bought by enterprising parties, who hired negroes at fair compensation, gathered the cane and made the crop. Every such undertaking was successful. Many plantations were managed in a similar manner on account of the government.
When the Lafourche district was captured, the general regarded the slaves captured as all free, and ordered that they should receive $10 per month pay from any employer.
At the time Gen. Butler gave up the command labor was in a very confused and unsatisfactory state. Considerable
time is required to change slave to free labor and bring order out of chaos. All classes here seemed satisfied that slavery here was gone forever. And even the slave holders with resignation and regret, accepted the new condition of things, and probably would have soon adapted themselves to it.
When Gen. Banks took command, it was known his policy would be conciliatory, and it was soon perceived that it would not be anti-slavery.
of slaveholders at once sprung into new and vigorous life. Great pressure was brought to bear upon Gen. Banks to reorganize labor on the old basis; and he settled on a plan which has since been effected - the printed form of which I sent to you previous to its being made public. This plan is substantially as follows.
Negroes are not to be enticed from plantations. Those already in camp are advised to return, and those who do not return are put to severe labor. When once returned to the plantations, they must remain for one year, and if they leave, are made to go back by military authority. Government on the plantations is to be in conformity with local laws, and the same as has been customary heretofore.
The planter must distribute among his negroes one twentieth of the net profits of the estates, or a very small monthly stipend. In all other respects the relation of master and slave for the time being, is the same as heretofore.
The planters were promised that all negroes enlisted in U. S. army, desiring to return to their plantations on the above conditions, should be allowed to do so. No one, however, has availed himself of the privilege.
plan was by no means entirely satisfactory to the planters who wanted the negroes forcibly returned to the plantations in the first place - but most, if not all of them, have acceded to it, and signed the agreement. It must not be forgotten that the negro need not return to his former plantation, but may choose such as he pleases.
The results of the plan are most beneficial in this respect, that labor is at once restored, and the industrial interests of the country immediately reestablished, and there is a fair prospect of a good crop. A few plantations, as for instance
that of Mr. May, are conducted with free labor, and both whites and blacks employed.
The Federal authority enforces the policy of Gen. Banks with the utmost vigor towards the blacks.
Slavery, abolished by Gen. Butler; I regard as completely re-established. Whether it would have been better for all classes, for the interest of government and the race, to have adopted the slower process of organizing free labor, I leave undetermined, without, however, having any doubt of its feasibility.
former slave holders, and born and bred to regard and treat their slaves simply as property, and whose whole idea of labor is that it must be compulsory, can rarely succeed in hiring their own negroes, or managing them when free. The negro has no confidence in them, and constantly fears a renewal of his bonds. But for a "Yankee" they will work well and for small pay - or for any one in whom they have confidence, and who has no shadow of legal claim on their liberty. When southern slaveholders say a free negro will not work, the statement is partially true. He will not work for them; but for himself, for "Yankees", for "poor white trash", and for anti-slavery men of all kinds, he will work well and faithfully. Such men alone can establish free labor, and reorganize Southern industry.
Of colored troops there are now in this Department, four full regiments, and two companies of (seige) artillery. They compare favorably with any troops in the service, and are rapidly gaining the respect of the rest of the army. The 1st., 3rd. and 4th. regiments "Native Guards", are at Baton Rouge; the 2nd. at Ship Island.
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