|Part of the Preliminary
Report of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission
June 30, 1863
|The American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission was created in March 1863 by U.S. Secretary of War
Edwin Stanton. It's mission was to investigatie the status of the slaves and former slaves who were
freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Stanton appointed Samuel Gridley Howe, James McKaye,
and Robert Dale Owen as commissioners. George T. Chapman served as secretary. The final
report was released in May 1864.
Congress used many of the American Freedmenâ€™s Inquiry Commissionâ€™s recommendations
when the set up the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lans on March 1, 1864.
SECTION II.--Negroes as refugees.
(South Carolina and Florida.)
What has been stated in the foregoing pages as to the refugees that have crossed our lines from
Eastern Virginia and North Carolina, though true in the main also of South Carolina and Florida
negroes, is to be received with some modification as regards the former slave population of these
two last-named States, especially South Carolina.
This is one of the States in which the system of negro slavery seems to have reached its farthest
development with the least modification from contact with external civilization. There it appears to
have run out nearer to its logical consequences than in any other we have visited. There it has been
darkening in its shades of inhumanity and moral degradation from year to year, exhibiting, more and
more, increased cruelty, a more marked crushing out, in the case of the negro race, of the
humanizing relations of civilized life, and a closer approach, in practice, to a monstrous maxim; the
same which a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, perverting history, alleges to have been the
sentiment of the civilized world when the U.S. Constitution was adopted, and in the spirit of which he
assumes (in virtue of such perversion) that Constitution to have been framed, namely, that "the
negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect ". The evidence before the Commission
shows that half a century ago its phase was much milder than on the day when South Carolina
seceded. It is the uniform testimony of all emancipated South Carolinian slaves above the age of
sixty that their youth was spent under a state of things which, compared to that of the last thirty
years, was merciful and considerate. As a general rule, these old men are more bright and
intelligent than the younger field hands, in many of whom a stolid, sullen despondency attests the
stupefying influence of slave-driving under its more recent phase.
The disintegration of the family relation is one of the most striking and most melancholy indications
of this progress of barbarism. The slave was not permitted to own a family name; instances occurred
in which he was flogged for presuming to use one. He did not eat with his children or with their
mother; "there was no time for that." In portions of this State, at least, a family breakfast or dinner
table was a thing so little known among these people that ever since their enfranchisement it has
been very difficult to break them of the life-long habit that each should clutch the dish containing his
portion and skulk off into a corner, there to devour it in solitude. The entire day, until after sunset,
was spent in the field; the night in huts of a single room, where all ages and both sexes herded
promiscuously. Young girls of fifteen, some of an earlier age, became mothers, not only without
marriage, but often without any pretense of fidelity to which even a slave could give that name. The
church, it is true, interposed her protest; but the master, save in exceptional cases, did not sustain
it, tacitly sanctioning a state of morality under which ties of habitual affection could not assume a
form dangerous or inconvenient to despotic rule.
The men, indeed, frequently asked from their masters the privilege of appropriating to themselves
those of the other sex. Sometimes it was granted, sometimes--when the arrangement was deemed
unprofitable-it was refused. Some cases there were in which a slaveholder, prompted by his own
sense of morality or religion or urged thereto by a pious wife, suffered these connections of his
slaves to have the sanction of religious ceremony. But it is evident that to connect even with such a
quasi-marriage the idea of sacredness or religious duty was inconsistent with that legal policy of the
slave States which forbade to render indissoluble among slaves a relation which to-morrow it might
be for the interest of their owners to break up.
The maternal relation was often as little respected as the marital. On many plantations, where the
system was most thoroughly carried out, pregnancy neither exempted from corporal punishment nor
procured a diminution of the daily task; and it was a matter of occasional occurrence that the woman
was overtaken by the pains of labor in the field, and the child born between the cotton rows.
Humane masters, however, were wont to diminish the task as pregnancy advanced, and commonly
gave three, occasionally four, weeks' exemption from labor after child birth. The mother was usually
permitted to suckle her child during three months only; and the cases were rare in which relaxation
from labor was allowed during that brief period. On the other hand, instances have occurred in
which the more severe drove the negress into the field within forty-eight hours after she became a
mother, there to toil until the day of the next birth.
A noble exception, among others, to such a system of inhumanity, gratefully testified to by the
negroes who enjoyed it, was to be found on the plantation of ex-Governor Aiken, one of the largest
and most influential planters in the State. His habitual clemency, it is said, gave umbrage to many of
his neighbor planters as endangering their authority under a severer rule.
Under such a slave system as this, where humanity is the exception, the iron enters deep into the
soul. Popular songs are the expression of the inner life; and the negro songs of South Carolina are,
with scarcely an exception, plaintive, despondent, and religious. When there mingles a tone of
mournful exultation, it has reference to the future glories of Zion, not to worldly hopes.
If to the above details touching slave life in this State we add the fact that because of the unhealthy
climate of the sea islands off the South Carolina coast (chiefly due, it is said, to causes which may
be removed), the least valuable and intelligent slaves were usually placed there; further, that being
much isolated in small communities these slaves frequently had children of whom the father and
mother were near blood relatives, producing deterioration of the race, it can excite no surprise that
the negroes of South Carolina as a class are inferior to those from more northern States. An
intelligent negro from a northern county of North Carolina, who had there learned the blacksmith's
trade and had been hired to work on a railroad in South Carolina, stated to the Commission that he
never knew what slavery really was until he left his native State. While there he was comparatively
contented. Within a month after he reached South Carolina he determined to risk his life in an
attempt to escape.
Yet the negro of South Carolina may be reached, and, with rare exceptions, he may, in a
comparatively brief period, be in a measure reformed by judicious management. A chief agency in
effecting such reform is the regular payment of wages for work done. Captain Hooper, the acting
superintendent at Port Royal under General Saxton, having charge of some 17,000 refugees,
testifies as follows:
Question. Do these persons work willingly for wages?
Answer. I never knew a case in which a colored man had reasonable security for getting wages,
even moderate wages, that he was not ready to work.
Such cases, however, occur, as other witnesses testify; but the general rule is as Captain Hooper
Mr. Frederick A. Eustis, son of General Eustis, who owned the plantation on Ladies Island, and who
has returned to cultivate that plantation by hired labor, while expressing the opinion that the new
system of labor in South Carolina was too lenient, and that "the negro should have no appeal,
except in cases of extreme cruelty on the part of the superintendent," gave the following testimony
as to the people now working on his own plantation:
I never knew during forty years of plantation life so little sickness. Formerly every man had a fever of
some kind, and now the veriest old cripple, who did nothing under secesh rule, will row a boat three
nights in succession to Edisto, or will pick up the corn about the corn-house. There are twenty
people whom I know were considered worn out and too old to work under the slave system, who are
now working cotton, as well as their two acres of provisions; and their crops look very well. I have an
old woman who has taken six tasks (that is, an acre and a half) of cotton, and last year she would do
But the great school for giving character to the race in this State and elsewhere is military discipline.
Colonel Higginson, commanding a colored regiment [Editor 33 USCT] at Port Royal, was asked:
Question. Do you think that, as preparation for the life of a citizen, the organization of negroes
into military bodies is important?
Answer. I should say, of unspeakable value.
Judge Smith, chairman of tax commissioners for the State of South Carolina, deposes:
Question. What is your idea about enlisting negroes as soldiers?
Answer. It is the best school in the world. If you could have seen the men who now compose the
colored regiments here as they were before, lounging about with a shuffling gait, looking sideways
with suspicious manner, and could have contrasted their appearance then with their present bold,
erect carriage and free bearing, I am sure you would agree with me. It makes men of them at once.
The Commission bear emphatic testimony, so far as their researches have yet extended, to the
truth of these remarks. The negro has a strong sense of the obligation of law and of the stringency
of any duty legally imposed upon him. The law in the shape of military rule takes for him the place of
his master, with this difference, that he submits to it heartily and cheerfully without any sense of
degradation. The Commission believe that of all present agencies for elevating the character of the
colored race, for cultivating in them self-respect and self-reliance, military training, under judicious
officers, who will treat them firmly and kindly, is at once the most prompt, and the most efficacious. In
this respect the war, if the negro be employed by us as a soldier, becomes a blessing to him,
cheaply bought at any price.
Under proper treatment public opinion among these people sets in in favor of military duty. No
difficulty is anticipated in procuring colored men to enlist, provided those now in the field shall be
regularly paid, and provided the determination of the Government to protect them in all the rights of
the white soldier shall be clearly made known to them; especially if this latter determination shall be
signified to them by the President in his own name.
Our Chief Magistrate would probably be surprised to learn with what reverence, bordering on
superstition, he is regarded by these poor people. Recently at Beaufort a gang of colored men, in
the service of the quartermaster, at work on the wharf, were discussing the qualifications of the
President, his wonderful power, how he had dispersed their masters, and what he would
undoubtedly do hereafter for the colored race, when an aged, white headed negro, a "praise man"
(as the phrase is) amongst them, with all the solemnity and earnestness of an old prophet, broke
What do you know 'bout Massa Linkum? Massa Linkum be ebrewhere. He walk de earth like de Lord.
As to reform in the matter of chastity and marriage, it requires time and patience to bring it about.
Much more than half the cases of personal difficulty requiring intervention among the emancipated
negroes in South Carolina have arisen out of infractions of the marital relation. In this respect there
is a marked difference between South Carolina and North Carolina. Yet, even in the former State the
old habits are speedily yielding to better teaching.
General Saxton deposed:
Question. Were the women under the slave system taught chastity as a religious duty?
Answer. No, sir; they were taught that they must have a child once a year.
Question. Has your observation led you to believe that the refugees pay regard to the marriage
Answer. Yes, sir; whenever it is solemnized, I think that they do.
It is here to be remarked that in the cities there appears to have been a nearer approach to
recognized marriage and to conjugal fidelity than in the country, and that there the church
succeeded better in repressing juvenile incontinence.
As a general rule, however, the religion of the South Carolinian slave was emotional, and did not
necessarily connect itself with the suppression of vicious habits, but rather with church observances.
It produced, indeed, submission, humility, resignation, reliance on Providence, obedience to
masters; but its effect in checking lying, thieving, incontinence, and similar offenses was feeble and
uncertain. A slave has seldom any distinct moral perception that he ought to speak the truth, or to
respect private property in the case of a person he dislikes, but these people are easily reached
through their affections.
Whether because the race is not addicted to intemperance, or that they were here cut off from its
temptation, drunkenness is an almost unknown vice.
Captain Hooper testified:
I never saw a negro drunk, and I heard of but one case, and that was of a man working on a
vessel at Bay Point, who got whisky on board.
There is no disposition in these people to go North. General Saxton offered them papers for that
purpose, but no one availed himself of the offer. They are equally averse to the idea of emigrating
to Africa. These feelings are universal among them. The local attachments of the negro are
eminently strong, and the Southern climate suits him far better than ours. If slavery be re-
established in the insurrectionary States the North will indeed be flooded with fugitives fleeing from
bondage, and the fears of competition in labor sought to be excited in the minds of Northern
workingmen will then have some plausible foundation. But if emancipation be carried out, the stream
of negro emigration will be from the North to the South, not from the South to the Northern States.
The only attraction which the North, with its winters of snow and ice, offers to the negro is that it is
free soil. Let the South once offer the same attraction and the temptation of its genial climate,
coupled with the fact that there the blacks almost equal the whites in number, will be irresistible. A
few years will probably see half the free negro population now residing among us crossing Mason
and Dixon's line to join the emancipated freedmen of the South.
The chief object of ambition among the refugees is to own property, especially to possess land, if it
be only a few acres, in their own State. Colonel Higginson testified to his conviction that the effect of
bounty land would be much greater on the colored than on the white soldier. They delight in the idea.
Working for wages, they soon get an idea of accumulating. Savings banks will be popular with them
whenever their confidence is won.
The negro of Florida occupies an intermediate place between the slaves of North Carolina and
those of South Carolina. He is more enterprising and more self-reliant than the latter. As a general
rule, he enlists more willingly and makes an excellent soldier. Many of them were employed as
lumbermen and in other vocations better calculated to call out their intelligence than the
monotonous labor of the cotton-field.
SECTION III.--Negroes as military laborers.
Even under the present faulty or imperfect system of management, the refugee negroes furnish to
the Government in various localities, in the shape of military labor, the full equivalent of the rations
and the wages which they and their wives and children receive. Major-General Dix expressed to the
Commission his opinion that such was at this time the case within his military department, with the
single exception perhaps of a few rations to dependent women and children on Craney Island.
To the same effect is the evidence obtained from Brigadier-General Saxton, Military Governor of the
Department of the South, having about 18,000 refugees under his care. He testifies that, all things
considered, they have been no expense to the Government.
So far, in all the localities visited by the Commission, the demand for able-bodied negroes as
laborers in the military service has greatly exceeded the supply. In many cases the supply has not
met half the demand. During the time Mr. Vincent Colyer was superintendent at New Berne the
standing requisition by Major-General Burnside for colored laborers was for 5,000; and at no time
was Mr. Colyer able to furnish over 2,000. Major-General Dix informed the Commission that he had
never been able to obtain colored laborers enough, and that he had, at the time the Commission
visited him, an order from Washington for 500, which he had been unable to fill.
While the military operations are continued the services of the negro can be made effective in the
prosecution of the war, even as a laborer alone, to a much greater extent than he has been
heretofore employed. An officer now acting as quartermaster in one of the divisions of the Army of
the Potomac expresses, in a letter to the Commission, the opinion that at this time more than 10,000
white soldiers are detailed from the ranks for duty in the quartermaster's and commissary
departments, on fatigue duty at the various headquarters, on pioneer service, &c., and that on
marches, where guards for the trains, parties for cutting roads, building bridges, and similar labor
are required, the number is much greater. If there be included the labor on intrenchments and
fortifications, on garrison duty, in ambulance corps, in hospitals, as guides, and spies, &c., it will, the
Commission believe, be found that one-eighth might be added to the available strength of our
armies by employing negroes in services other than actual warfare. If we estimate our armies at
800,000 men, this would give 100,000 as the number of negroes who might be profitably employed
in the military service, not estimating colored regiments. Nor do we hesitate in expressing the opinion
that the duties referred to would be better performed by them than by white men detailed from the
ranks; for all experienced officers know how difficult it is to obtain labor from soldiers outside of the
ordinary routine of their duties.
In connection with the subject of military labor by refugees, the Commission here state that a
proposal recently laid before the President of the United States by the president of the Metropolitan
Railroad was submitted to this Commission, inviting their opinion upon it. Though important, this is a
matter of detail on which the Commission are not prepared at this time to express an opinion.
The organization of freedmen employed as military laborers into brigades, with badges around their
hats labeled "U. S. service," the men marched regularly to and from work, has been found in
practice to have an excellent effect. It tends to inspire them with self-reliance, and it affords them
SECTION IV.--Negroes as soldiers.
The policy of the Government in organizing on a large scale colored regiments has been so
distinctly announced, and is now being so rapidly reduced to action, that the Commission need do
no more than say in regard to it that all the evidence which has come before them bearing on the
capacity of the negro as a soldier, including the observation in South Carolina and elsewhere, of
negro troops, has confirmed them in the conviction that if the Government can, before the end of
the present year, bring 200,000 or more colored troops into the field to serve during the war, the
result will be alike advantageous to the cause of the Union and to the race to which these troops
belong. Docility, earnestness, the instinct of obedience--these are qualities of the highest value in a
soldier--and these are characteristics, as a general rule, of the colored refugees who enter our lines.
Another point in which these troops when brought under military rule show to advantage, is in their
neatness and care of their persons, uniforms, arms, and equipments, and in the police of their
encampments. Moreover, they are generally skillful cooks and providers, and exhibit much resource
in taking care of themselves in camp. These qualities will be apparent to any one who inspects the
negro regiments under Brigadier-General Wild in North Carolina, or under Colonel Higginson at
Beaufort, or under Colonel Montgomery in Florida.
The spiritual or religious sentiment also strongly characterizes the African race; developed in
somewhat rude phase, it is true, among Southern slaves, especially rude in the cotton States, but
powerful, if appealed to by leaders who share it, as an element of enthusiasm. If the officers of
colored regiments themselves feel, and impart, as they readily may, to their men the feelings that
they are fighting in the cause of God and liberty, there will be no portion of the Army, the
Commission believe, more to be relied on than negro regiments.
But with these people, rather than with a more independent race, success depends upon whether
their leaders are in sympathy with them, have gained their confidence, and can arouse their
For this reason, however important a judicious choice of officers is in all cases, the Commission
consider that more depends upon this in the case of colored regiments than in that of the white
troops. It is probable enough that colored regiments badly officered would be more liable to give way
than badly officered regiments of the more self-reliant white race.
Colonel Higginson testifies:
II think they will depend more upon their officers than white troops, and be more influenced by their
conduct. If their officers are intimidated, they will be; and if their officers stand their ground, so will
they. If they lose their officers the effect will be worse upon them than upon white troops; not
because they are timid, but because they are less accustomed to entire self-reliance. They criticise
their officers very sharply. There is as much difference here in the standing of the various officers
as in any white regiment.
Major-General Butler expressed to the Commission, in this connection, an opinion which they
believe to be correct. He said:
Negroes are gregarious in fright, and in that particular the opposite of the Yankee. If a crowd of
Yankees gets frightened, it is "every one for himself and God for us all." Now, the negroes have
been accustomed to stand in a body against master and overseer. At a sudden alarm they
segregate, they run to each other.
In connection with the value of the negro as a soldier the Commission earnestly invite your attention
to the valuable assistance which our generals in command may obtain in exploring the enemy's
country and detecting his position and plans, by the organization of companies of colored guides in
connection with each army corps. On this subject the Commission herewith submit a separate
report, to which they pray reference.
If, as the Commission recommend, colored troops to the number of 200,000 be brought into the
field, and negroes be employed in our armies in operations other than actual warfare to the extent of
100,000 more, we shall require the military services of 300,000 blacks. This number of able-bodied
men represents a population of about a million and a half, being one-half of all the colored people in
the insurrectionary States. To reach this number there is needed, besides military successes, a
strict enforcement of the orders issued by the Government that all colored refugees be treated with
justice and humanity. By such treatment alone can their confidence be won and strong inducements
held out to others to join us. Upon such treatment depends, in a great measure, how large shall be
the re-enforce-ments to be obtained by our armies at the expense of the enemy. Until a million and a
half of slaves shall have forsaken their masters we shall not have the full military advantage which
we ought to derive from this source. It is evident that it behooves us to hasten such a result and
otherwise to promote the disintegration of the slave-labor system of the South by every means in
If the placing in the field during the war of 200,000 efficient black troops, a measure demanded by
the exigencies of the contest, which was commenced by the South, should ultimately prove to be
one of the chief agencies to prevent the restoration of slavery in the insurrectionary States, such a
condition of things would supply evidence that the very effort to perpetuate an abuse has been the
means under Providence of effecting its eradication. The slave States will have been doomed
themselves to forge a weapon to destroy that system, for the existence and extension of which,
taking up arms, they have deluged a continent with blood.
In connection with the probabilities of our obtaining the above number of colored troops, it is the
duty of the Commission to report the fact that in too many cases, not injustice only, but robbery and
other crimes have been committed against fugitives on first entering our lines. As an example, the
assistant superintendent at Suffolk, Va., informed the Commission that instances had come to his
knowledge of pickets who sometimes kept refugees until their masters came for them, and
sometimes sent them back, pocketing the reward. The examples, however, of this offense were not
numerous. He stated further that "in hundreds of cases" the refugees had been robbed by the
pickets, chiefly of money, but occasionally of other articles. Valuable horses, too, and other property
were taken from them by the quartermaster without remuneration to the refugees who brought them
The robbery and kidnapings by pickets occurred in the above cases, as doubtless in others it does,
in spite of the efforts of the provost-marshal to prevent it.
The practical effect of such crimes, of which the report soon penetrates into rebeldom, is, as
regards the military service, the same as if white Union soldiers were habitually robbed by these
pickets or were from time to time seized by them and delivered over as prisoners to the enemy. Until
such outrages are effectually suppressed it is unreasonable to expect that disaffected slaves should
desert their masters in numbers to incur the double risk of running the gauntlet, first through the
enemy's pickets and then through our own. And this the rather, inasmuch as, from the relations they
have hitherto borne to white men and from the manner in which they have been treated by them,
they naturally suspect the good intentions of our race toward theirs.
The above seems to the Commission so grave in its consequences as to justify a general order on
the subject by the War Department.
As regards homes, wagons, and similar property brought within our lines by fugitives, it is proper, of
course, that it be taken by the quartermaster when needed for the public service. But in such cases
it should be paid for as other property taken from loyal men is paid for, either to the refugee, if he
makes no demand on the Government for support for himself or for his family, or to the freedmen's
fund in the hands of the superintendent, in cases in which the refugee or his family apply for rations
or other governmental aid. The capture and carrying off of such property weakens the enemy, and
we ought not to discourage the practice by depriving the captors of the legitimate reward for the risk
There is no legal reason why the conscription law should not apply to fugitives from labor as it does
to white citizens. We have already, probably, placed in the field since the rebellion broke out a
million and a quarter of white soldiers, nearly a third of our adult population between the ages of
eighteen and forty-five. The investigations of the Commission, however, lead them to believe that if
men of the proper stamp are selected as negro superintendents, these can and will procure the
voluntary enlistment of a much larger proportion of able-bodied refugees than this. The more
intelligent among these people not only feel that it is their duty to fight for their own freedom, but by
proper appeal many of them can be made to understand that only by proving their manhood as
soldiers, only through a baptism of blood, can they bring about such a change in public opinion as
will insure for their race, from the present generation in this country, common respect and decent
treatment in their social relations with whites.
In practice, it has been found that by judicious treatment it is not difficult to create among these
people a state of public opinion such that every able-bodied man among them who refuses to enter
the public service when required is tabooed by the rest, and falls into general contempt as a mean,
despicable fellow. This was especially the case at New Berne as reported to the Commission by Mr.
Vincent Colyer, formerly superintendent there. And the Commission believe it may be relied on in
almost every case in which the superintendent has succeeded in awakening the sympathy and
winning the confidence of those under his care.
In all cases, therefore, the Commission think that every expedient (short of bounties, which they do
not recommend) should be employed to induce volunteering by freedmen before resorting to
conscription or other coercive measures. Such measures, though for a time they may fill the ranks,
are calculated to arrest that exodus from rebeldom of freedmen there held as slaves upon which we
must depend to keep up the supply of colored recruits.
The Commission understand it to be your policy that to all colored soldiers of the United States shall
be extended the same protection as to other U.S. troops, when taken prisoners by the enemy, as
well as under all other circumstances. They cannot too strongly express their conviction that such a
policy is demanded alike by justice and expediency, and that pains should be taken to make it
officially and widely known.