WRITTEN AT THE TIME OF THE CIVIL WAR
Edited by Elizabeth Ware Pearson
COPYRIGHT 1906 BY ELIZABETH WARE PEARSON
With Commodore Dupont's capture, on November 7, 1861, of two earth forts which the rebels had recently thrown up at Hilton Head and Bay Point, South Carolina, the Sea Island region became Union territory. The planters and their families having fled precipitately, the United States Government found itself in possession of almost everything that had been theirs, the two chief items being the largest cotton crop ever yet raised there, nearly ready for exporting, and several hundred demoralized, destitute slaves, the number of whom was daily being increased by refugees and returned fugitives. The negroes were plainly a burdensome problem, the cotton a valuable piece of property. The first thing to do was obvious, and fortunately the same "cotton-agents" who were despatched by the authorities at Washington to collect and ship the property were able, by employing negroes for the purpose, to make a beginning towards solving the problem.
In another month the next step was taken; the Secretary of the Treasury sent down Edward L. Pierce, of Milton, Massachusetts, as a special agent charged with the duty of getting under way some method of managing the negroes and starting a cotton crop for 1862. Mr. Pierce, who the summer before had had charge of the contrabands at Fortress Monroe, did his work quickly and well, and his suggestions for organization were promptly adopted and put into practice by the Government. Meanwhile he had written to "benevolent persons in Boston," setting forth the instant need of the negroes for clothing and for teachers, meaning by the term "teachers" quite as much superintendents of labor as instructors in the rudiments of learning. The response to this appeal was immediate. An "Educational Commission for Freedmen" was organized in Boston, New York and Philadelphia were quick to follow, and on March 3, 1862, there set sail from New York for Port Royal a party of men and women who were almost without exception inspired purely by the desire to help those who had been slaves. Government made them an allowance of transportation, subsistence, and quarters; and, since few could afford to give their services, the Commissions paid them salaries of from $25 to $50 a month.
There was a good deal of courage in what these people did. The climate of the Sea Islands is unwholesome; the rebels were more than likely, from across the narrow Coosaw River, to invade the territory held by Northern troops; it was not improbable that the negroes might refuse utterly to work; it was not impossible that they might wreak vengeance for their wrongs on every white man who should try to control them. Furthermore, as a rule these men and women knew little of any kind of agriculture, and still less of the local conditions under which they were to do their work, or of the people with whom they were to deal. They had, in fact, no other guides to action than enthusiasm and good sense, and of the latter, in particular, they carried widely differing amounts. Some, who went supplied with too little of either, were back in their Northern homes before summer was under way; the majority, making what they could of the means, or lack of means, at their disposal, had within the same period of time got about thirty-eight hundred laborers at steady work on fifteen thousand acres of corn, potatoes, and cotton. For the first time in our history educated Northern men had taken charge of the Southern negro, had learned to know his nature, his status, his history, first-hand, in the cabin and the field. And though subsequently other Southern territory was put into the hands of Northern men and women to manage in much the same fashion, it was not in the nature of things that these conditions should ever be exactly reproduced. The question whether or not the freedman would work without the incentive of the lash was settled once for all by the "Port Royal Experiment."
Of the many thousand letters that must have been written by these people to their Northern homes, those of one small group only are represented by the extracts here printed. The writers were New Englanders and ardent anti-slavery people; W. C. G. and C. P. W. were Harvard men just out of college, H. W. was a sister of the latter. A few of the later letters were written by two other Massachusetts men, T. E. R., a Yale graduate of 1859, and F. H., who remained on the islands longer than the three just mentioned. All five are still living. Richard Soule, Jr., now dead for many years was an older man, a teacher, a person of great loveliness of character and justice of mind. The principal figure in the letters, Edward S. Philbrick of Brookline, who died in 1889, was in one sense the principal figure in the Sea Island situation. He began by