Slavery in the South

The most misunderstood aspect of Southern culture leading up to the Civil War was undoubtedly the issue of slavery. The misconception regarding the life of a slave in the South led to a general confusion that caused those who were without the intimate knowledge of plantation life to form erroneous opinions which eventually led to war. Slaves were not "chained to a plow". Northern writers promoted the darker examples of slavery while ignoring an objective realization of slave life. As a result those who perpetuate such notions are not well read or educated on the subject.

The lies surrounding the treatment of slaves was the cause of most of the misunderstanding in the North. An example is Harriet Beecher Stowe's fictional work, Uncle Tom's Cabin, extolling the evils of slavery and the separation of black families, when in fact Southern law provided that masters could not divide slave families or their children under 12 years old. Stowe's fictional account gave license to the stereotypical idea held in the North by a writer who had never set foot upon Southern soil.  Below is a Brady image of two slaves.   

The images of slave beatings often negates the true story. Beatings of slaves were more rare than common. Beatings did occur for runaways, criminals, for those who had killed their masters, or for those who had inflicted bodily injury on whites or fellow blacks. A plantation owner might employ a white overseer who served as a manager but more often than not would hire a black slave driver who acted as a foreman among the slaves. Discipline was applied by these black slave foremen rather than a white overseer. Few could forget the Nate Turner rebellion in 1836. Nate Turner, an educated black man, who could read and write, butchered 70 men, women and children in Virginia. Though Turner and his cohorts had possession of muskets they chose instead to use knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms. They spared no one whom they encountered before being overtaken by local militia.

While slaves were indeed "bondsmen" indebted in servitude to a master there was a wide latitude of freedom given them. Northern writers complain that slaves were only given two meals a day but in truth two meals a day was the normal eating habits for all races across the South. Slaves were allowed their own gardens, they could raise and sell eggs, and many had their own small plot of ground where they could cultivate and sell their own crops, poultry, stock and produce. Many made straw hats and baskets to sell. For those living near the river any objects retrieved from the waterways could be sold, and this was commonplace with the large amount of river traffic with frequent accidents occurring among the steamboats.

Most all work on a Southern plantation was done by the slaves themselves. Slaves were veterinarians, doctors, cooks, butlers, nurses, maids, midwives, brick masons, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, shoemakers, tanners, weavers, tailors, butchers, barbers,  mechanics, mill workers, seamstresses, carpenters and iron workers. Most of the delicate iron balconies in Louisiana's French Quarter was the work of slave labor made on forges from Southern plantations. Slaves with special skills were known as "slaves of significance." Slaves who learned a trade were often "hired out" by their owners to businessmen and were able to keep part of their wages. Many skilled slave carpenters were hired out for up to $40 a month for their services. Many earned enough income that they were able to purchase their freedom. A Maryland slave, born in 1844, remembered that her father was a carpenter whose "services were much in demand. This gave him an opportunity to save money." She spoke with pride, indicating that he did repair and building work for both whites and free blacks and was able to save more than half his income. Many slaves excelled as musicians and were hired out for local festivities and parties and many were rewarded with money for their talents. Their skill and talents provided them by their masters enabled them with a worthwhile and productive occupation once they were freed after the war.

Slaves were given 2 to 4 sets of clothes a year, provided the costs of doctors and paid for hospital care. Pregnant slave women were given time off for childbirth and lighter duties. Elderly slaves no longer able to work were often granted their freedom for a reward for faithful service. Skilled slave's contributions to the Southern culture and economy throughout the antebellum period is easy to document, though difficult to accept due to the bias of political correctness.                             Below is a war vintage image of John Noland                                                              

And, never more telling is shown the slave's faithfulness to their owners than by the slaves along the Missouri-Kansas border during the Civil War. The Confederacy's  most famous guerrilla leader, Colonel William Clarke Quantrill had at least three former slaves serving in his partisan ranger company. One former slave, John Noland, was offered a $10,000 reward for betraying Quantrill but Noland only replied with scorn. Guerrilla Cole Younger's family slave, Suse, was attributed with not only saving Cole's life during the war but saving the family valuables from the frequent raids of Kansas Jayhawkers.                                                           

Paul R. Petersen © Quantrillsguerrillas.com. 2013 "Permission should be requested and agreed to before using this copyrighted essay and or image."


Ref: Charles C. Jones, The Religious Instruction of the Negro, Princeton: O'Harte and Co. 1842, p 241.

Ref: U. B. Phillips, Documents, I, John Lamar to Howell Calb, February 17, 1845, pg 171-172.

Ref: Leslie Howard Owens, This Species of Property - Slave Life and Culture in the Old South, Oxford University Press, 1976.

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