The Man In The Middle

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Most drivers, however, remained calm. Conservative men by temperament, they were not about to launch a premature, perhaps suicidal, revolution. On the Chesnut plantation, for example, the drivers early expressed enthusiasm for the Confederate side, thus satisfying their master of their loyalty. In 1864, however, they declined an offer to fight for the Confederacy in exchange for freedom because, as Mrs. Chesnut sagely observed, “they are pretty sure of having it anyway.”

Many masters found their drivers “much changed” by emancipation. An embittered Mary Jones of Georgia wrote of the metamorphosis of the driver Cato who headed up a black delegation demanding land: “Cato has been to me a most insolent, indolent, and dishonest man; I have not a shadow of confidence in him, and will not wish to retain him on the place.” The Edmonstons of South Carolina found that with freedom their Henry, for fifteen years the master’s “right hand man,” dropped his “affection and cheerful simplicity” and became “grasping” in his “exorbitant demands” for land. Where they remained as foremen over hired gangs of freedmen, they ingratiated themselves with their charges by easing up on work requirements and stealing for the hands. Much of their authority disappeared with emancipation. When Mrs. R.F.W. Allston visited the plantation of her brother-in-law in April, 1865, she confronted a sullen and insolent group of former slaves who had recently completed their plunder of the plantation provision houses. Mrs. Allston called for Jacob, the head man and sole manager of the estate during the war, and ordered him to give the keys to her. A “huge man” then stepped forward to warn Jacob that if he complied, “blood’ll flow.” Mrs. Allston departed without the keys.

The paternalistic order of the past was rapidly disrupted by impersonal economic forces in the prostrate postwar South. Planters attempted to lock their former slaves into long-term labor contracts, and looked to the drivers to hold the people on the farms. But neither drivers nor slaves would stay under such conditions. Some owners, short of capital, divided their holdings into tenant parcels and installed a black family on each, sharing the crops of each parcel with the tenant after the harvest. There was, however, no room in this arrangement for the driver.

But with the possible exception of the former slave artisans, the former driver was the most qualified freedman to survive on his own. Indeed, for devotees of Horatio Alger, some former drivers provided inspiring, if somewhat scaleddown, models of success. The story of Limus, a former driver on the sea islands of South Carolina, is a case in point. A “black Yankee” in habits and values, the fifty-year-old freedman started with his one-half acre plot and a beatendown horse, and raised vegetables and poultry for the Hilton Head market nearby. He also hunted and fished to supplement his income and his family’s diet. With two wives and two families to support, he could hardly afford to relax. He worked fourteen acres of cotton on abandoned land to the three to six acres of his fellow freedmen. He also purchased a large boat on which he transported passengers and produce to Hilton Head. His prior marketing experience as a driver stood him in good stead as he negotiated contracts with whites and blacks alike, and he established himself as the principal supplier for the Union troops stationed in the area. By practicing ruthless underconsumption and efficient management, he saved almost five hundred dollars in his first year of freedom, money which he plowed back into his enterprises.

Some drivers had received gifts of cash and land during slavery from which they could build their estates in freedom; they were able to exploit old relationships for credit; they had learned marketing skills and how to deal with whites in a cash economy, so that they were not so easily cheated or overawed by whites after the war; they understood every level of farm management and practice; and with the artisans they were the slaves most likely to have imbibed the Protestant work ethic of self-denial and persevering labor. If alert and lucky, they could turn the limited opportunities of freedom to their pecuniary gain, provided they did not alienate their benefactors. Recognizing this continued dependence on white aid, one driver warned his fellow freedmen to ignore carpetbagger blandishments, for the “outsiders” would “start a graveyard” if they persuaded blacks to “sass” whites. Even in freedom the former driver straddled two worlds.