November 14, 1862: Contrabands were better off slaves?

A group of "contrabands"

The Richmond Daily Dispatch indulges in a little schadenfreude over the condition of the poor contrabands, who of course were better off as slaves. The correspondent in Cairo seems to find it perverse that the freedmen he talks to don’t want to leave their families to go work somewhere, and he also inflates “old granny’s” plea to go home to be a general desire to return to the joys of bondage. He goes on to ridicule people who have never been allowed even to learn to read because they find it astounding that one of their boys could learn to be a doctor. Furthermore, it is a sign of lack of intelligence to him that men who have never received pay for work don’t know what the going rate for a hired laborer should be. Turns out I’m just as stupid as the “menagerie,” since I don’t actually know whether $5 a month or $20 a month was high, low, or what for the time and place. Of course, unlike the poor contrabands, I can Google it.

Here’s a report on wages in the 19th century US. In the table on p. 453, the 1860 average monthly farm wages in Southern states range from $10.57 to $17. So I’m not sure what the guy’s problem was. Maybe laborers did a lot better in Illinois, but the recently arrived contrabands could hardly be expected to know that.

The negro as a Freeman

The condition of the “contrabands,” wherever they have collected during the war, appears to be the same — and sad enough it is. A correspondent of the Indianapolis State Journal, writing from Cairo, gives this account of the negroes, (or menagerie, as he says,) there collected:

While waiting this morning for a boat I concluded to go to the menagerie — a real show, the animals of which are partly caged and partly lying around loose in and about the old barracks over on the bank of the Mississippi. Such a sight! Old men and older women, heads as white as wool and more kinky — babies, from a week old all the way up till too big to be babies, all half clad and distressingly dirty — it is the elephant we got in the raffle, and now what to do with it is the question. More than two thousand of these wretched beings have been sent here by military authority to prevent starvation. These are “captives of war,” most of them having been abandoned by their former masters, in and about Corinth, Inka, and Bolivar. Some are from Curtis’s operations.

They have fallen into our hands in spite of our military policy to preserve the status of slavery, and their numbers are daily increasing. There is a great demand in this State for men to gather the corn and cut the winter weeds — so great that Northern Illinois is complaining that the farmers in Southern Illinois gabble up all the best as fast as they come. Men are here every day for hands.

Wishing to get into the notions of the darkies, I passed among them as an Illinois farmer, my army hat answering a capital purpose in the game. I proposed to hire a man. “Dun no, sah. Where you want me to go ! What you gim ‘ee !” Going up to the dirtiest woman I saw, I proposed to her. “Can’t go sah. ! Is got four babies !””But dar’s old granny, I can’t leave her.””Why, can’t you go, too, granny !””O, master, I’s in hopes some days it will please do good Lord to give me back to old master.” I tried a dozen or more, and found underlying the hopes of most of them was an ultimate return to their native land. The one refrain was–

“Oh, carry me back !”

Their local attachment is unconquerable, and they seem utterly unreconciled to separating the families. An over sanguine friend of mine, a physician, spoke to me the other day to procure a suitable boy for him, who, after serving a reasonable time as a hostler, could be put to the science of physicing. I concluded to get the boy here; but you ought to have seen the whites of their eyes and their ivory when I suggested studying to be a doctor. The bursting of a bombshell I would hardly have produced greater consternation.

The facts here and the facts everywhere bid us look the subject fairly in the face. Until the time comes when these can return to their homes in peace and freedom, they must be managed here, and to do this some system of apprenticeship must be adopted. These creatures have neither the intelligence nor the integrity necessary to contracting wisely for their own labor. One man asked $15 per month the year round, another $20, and another $5.

And yet philanthropists — so called — desire to turn free, and thus deprive them of their natural protection and shelter, four millions of just such beings, bringing desolation upon both whites and blacks.

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