Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Civil War: Rumors of Revolt

As reported in the New York Times Opionator Disunion, "Rumors of Revolt," by Justin Behrend, on 15 September 2011 -- Ever since Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860, rumors of a slave insurrection had been growing along the plantations in the lower Mississippi River Valley. By September 1861, with battles breaking out from Missouri to Virginia and a Union blockade stretching across the Gulf Coast, those rumblings had reached a fever pitch.

On Sept. 16 a group of planters in southwest Mississippi began to arrest slaves for plotting a revolt; within days a “vigilance committee” had formed in the city of Natchez, which would eventually preside over one of the largest insurrectionary scares in the history of American slavery. It would last nearly two years, result in the execution of over 200 slaves and mark a bitter conclusion to the decades of black bondage along the Mississippi River. Far from the early fighting, the Natchez insurrectionary scare demonstrates how the Civil War unsettled the daily lives of slaves and slaveholders.

Slaveholders in Adams County, where Natchez was the county seat, were particularly anxious in the early weeks of the war. They had become very wealthy off the labor of tens of thousands of slaves working on their vast cotton plantations, making the region one of the most affluent in the South. But they also recognized that the region’s demographics, with slaves outnumbering whites by nearly 10 to 1 along the Mississippi River between Vicksburg and Baton Rouge, mirrored the social composition of Saint Domingue on the eve of the Haitian Revolution.

Indeed, memory and myth surrounding Haiti occupied the minds of slaveholders across the South. One Natchez slaveholder, evoking the Caribbean uprising that began 70 years earlier and resulted in the slaughter of thousands of whites as well as the emancipation of French slaves, recalled that “warfare common to half-civilized people, such as burning, robbing, insulting women, and all that kind of thing” seemed imminent in the Natchez district.

In May, citizens of Jefferson County, just north of Adams County, sent four alleged slave insurrectionists to the gallows because, according to the plantation mistress Susan Sillers Darden, they were “talking a great deal about Lincoln freeing the servants.” That same month, across the river in Tensas Parish, La., a planter overheard slaves plotting to rise up on the Fourth of July, in conjunction with “Lincons [sic] troops.” At least two slaves were executed. In June, Kate Stone, a young diarist living on a plantation above Tensas, also noted the importance of Independence Day in the slaves’ talk of insurrection. “They have gotten a confused idea,” she wrote, “of Lincoln’s Congress meeting [on July 4, 1861] and of the war; they think it is all to help them, and they expected for ‘something to turn up.’”

These panicked outbursts were merely a prelude to the major insurrectionary scare that broke several weeks later in Natchez. Already on edge from these neighboring rumblings, large fires in Natchez on Sept. 20 and 22 pushed the residents into an increasing state of alarm. “No one is safe,” confessed Louisa Lovell in a letter to her husband, a Confederate captain, stationed in Virginia. Responding to the fears, a planter-dominated vigilance committee rounded up slaves in the Second Creek neighborhood, where talk of a conspiracy first surfaced. Committee members believed that the slaves schemed not just to “kill their masters,” but to “ravish,” “ride” and “take the ladies for wives.” Ten slaves were hanged on Jacob Surget’s Cherry Grove plantation on Sept. 24.

But this swift retribution did little to assuage the panic. Many more slaves were arrested and subjected to torture in the weeks to come. “All testimony was extracted from the negroes by whipping,” reported one white correspondent. Based on these forced confessions, the vigilance committee believed that the conspiracy had spread from the plantations to the city. James Carter, a slave of a Natchez druggist, who was charged with “getting news from the battles and reading it to other colored people,” described how committee members used the lash to compel him to talk: “They would whip until I fainted and then stop and whip again. Dr. Harper sat by and would feel my pulse and told them when to stop and when to go on.” But Carter told them, “I knew nothing about it.” By the end of October, at least 27 slaves had been executed, another 13 by mid-1862 and, according to a postwar investigation by the abolitionist missionary Laura Haviland, another 168 by the time Union troops arrived in 1863.

Were slaves actually planning a vast insurrection? Or was the conspiracy scare merely the manifestation of white paranoia? It is impossible to know for sure. The nature of conspiracies is such that proof rests in incomplete and secret conversations about a future action that never took place. There is, however, reason to be skeptical. Given the fact that these statements were produced by torture, it is more likely that these confessions reflected slaveholders’ fears, not slaves’ intentions. Moreover, in the history of slavery in the Americas, slaveholders frequently charged slave rebels with committing sexual assaults, but very few instances of rape can be documented.

Postwar testimony from black residents in Natchez further complicates the insurrectionary narrative. In statements before the Southern Claims Commission (a federal agency that compensated loyal citizens for property confiscated by the United States Army), black witnesses spoke about their experiences during the conspiracy scare and disavowed the existence of an insurrectionary plot or any plans for sexual assaulting white women. Instead, their accounts reveal how slaves and free blacks struggled to verify emancipation rumors and debated the risks of overt resistance.

One former slave testified that he stole “the news papers from my Master’s house and had them read to me by Lewis Thompson,” a well-known slave and literate drayman. Others eavesdropped on slaveholders and passed along information that “the Union soldiers were going to gain the day” and that “we would be free.” In the quiet spaces away from snooping whites, they concluded, as one free black man expressed, that “the war was to keep the colored people in slavery.” Discussions about causes of the war led to further discussions about what could be done to help the Union armies. For George Selden and his brother, Burr, both plantation slaves, they determined after many conversations that they would “join the army … when the Union soldiers came.”

For slaveholders, planning to fight with the Union Army versus talk of insurrection may have been a difference without a much of a distinction. According to Laura Haviland’s investigation, the initial scare in September 1861 arose when whites heard slaves “repeating what their master said, that if Lincoln was elected he would free all the slaves.” Marshall Bates, a slave on an Adams County plantation who sought refuge with Union gunboats in 1863, told a somewhat similar story to a New York Times reporter. Early in the war, a fellow slave named Dennis, a bricklayer, was overheard “by some white man to express the wish that they would hurry up the war and bring the time of freedom to the slave.” Dennis was whipped to death for his statement. Over the course of the vigilance committee’s investigation, any talk “in favor of liberty, or of the Yankees … either in conversation or prayer,” wrote Haviland, was enough for slaves or free blacks to be arrested and executed. “A single word indicative of my feelings — known upon the street,” testified Robert W. Fitzhugh, a freeborn carpenter, “would have no doubt caused my death.”

Context, of course, is important: in the early months of the Civil War, no one knew what course the fighting would take, or if rumors of emancipation would be borne out. And while the evidence for a slave insurrectionary plot is thin, white panic was not unfounded, as slaves earnestly prepared for the arrival of federal troops. When they did arrive, six months after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the slaves revolted, but not as planters had imagined. They didn’t kill their masters, rape white women or burn Natchez to the ground. Instead, they ran away by the thousands, enlisted in the Union army and joined the fight for their liberation and the destruction of the Confederacy.  (source: The New York Times)


  1. Jacob Surget did not own Cherry Grove. This error has been compounded repeatedly in print...Probably the result of a French family naming sons James and Jacob (both Jacques in the mother tongue) in the same generation. Cherry Grove went to Jacob's brother James ("The elder"), and by the time of this horrible event, it belonged to Jacob 's very young nephew, James (the "Younger"). Jacob owned the immediately adjacent acreage.


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