Mississippi: The Past That Has Not Died

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There were other consolations too, as the people of Mississippi struggled to recover. There was relief that the war was over—whatever their original feelings, most Mississippians were heartily sick of destruction. There was also hope that the state could get back into the Union rather painlessly; President Andrew Johnson had decided to carry on Lincoln’s lenient plans for restoration. Best of all, there was the land. Mississippi’s towns might lie in ruins, but her matchless asset was the soil itself. If only cotton could get going again…

But that was the problem. If the key to prosperity was cotton, the key to cotton had always been slaves—and there weren’t any slaves any more. Over 380,000 freedmen aimlessly roamed the state, nearly all of them at loose ends, living where they chose, eating off the federal troops. The fomier owners had no influence. Most Negroes felt this was what freedom meant—no work. And there were plenty of people around the Union Army camps who advised them not to go back to their old masters. There were even rumors that Washington soon would be dividing up the plantations—forty acres and a mule for everyone.

Actually Washington was never more at cross-purposes. President Johnson suffered from being a stales’ rights Democrat from Tennessee, and as his prestige waned so did the chances for his lenient program. The Radical Republicans in Congress were winning control over national policy, but beyond a thirst for revenge, they had no clear-cut plans at all. As late as October, 1865, the Radical leader Thaddctis Stevens was asking his friend Charles Sumner if he knew of any good books on how the Russians freed their serfs.

The Negroes themselves could be of very little help in solving their problems. Over ninety-five per cent were illiterate, in the old days it had been illegal to teach the slaves to read or write, and now they were hopelessly ignorant. Few had any idea of citizenship, law, suffrage, or responsibility. Hauled before a court for stealing a bag of corn, one ex-slave happily camping on Jefferson Davis’ plantation was asked if he wanted a jury trial.

“What’s that?’ was all he could say.

The whites felt cornered and helpless. For years they had done as they wanted with these people, and now the tables were turned. They were generally outnumbered, and in the rich cotton areas the margin seemed appalling—Bolivar County was eighty-seven per cent Xegro; Issaqucna County had 7,000 Negroes, only 600 whites.

But most frightening of all to white Mississippi residents were the Negro troops. When the United States Army’s XVI Corps went home in August, 1865, 9, 122 of the 10,193 Union soldiers still in the state were Negroes. Their mere presence seemed to invite the most hideous trouble. In Jackson, Major Barnes, commanding the 5th U.S. Colored Infantry, urged the local Negroes to defend their rights even to the “click of the pistol and at the point of the bayonet.”

And incidents did happen. William Wilkinson was murdered at Lauderdale Springs by five of his former slaves for selling his plantation—they claimed it was rightfully theirs by Christmas. This sort of bloodshed was rare, but it was enough to set off the whites.

Terror bred fantastic: rumors. The Natchez Courier warned that the county’s Negroes were supposed to rise on New Year’s Day. In Yazoo City the date was Christmas. The Brandon Republican set no date but reported, “They are evidently preparing something and it behooves us to be on the alert and prepare for the worst.” There was nothing to any of these reports, but each rumor hardened the feelings of the whites.

They soon developed a fierce callousness toward the Negro, no matter how harmless he might be. On a quiet Sunday afternoon in Natchez an elderly freedman protested to a small white boy raiding his turnip patch. The boy shot him dead, and that was that. In Vicksburg the Herald complained that the town’s children were hitting innocent bystanders when using their “nigger shooters.”

Nor was it just the specter of Negro supremacy that aroused white Mississippians—Negro equality was just as bad. “God damn your soul, get off this boat!” raged the captain of the Memphis-Vicksburg packet on Christmas morning, 1865. The greeting was directed at a Negro couple who had dared ask for first-class passage. As their luggage was pitched ashore, the captain turned back to his work muttering, “They can’t force their damned nigger equality on me.”

Even when the principle of equality was acknowledged, the practice must have mystified the beneficiaries. “Take off your hat, you black scoundrel, or I’ll cut your throat,” a Mississippi state legislator yelled at his former slave; later he explained, “Sam, you’ve got just the same rights as a white man now, but not a bit better, and if you come into my room again without taking off your hat, I’ll shoot you.”