Working for Wages
African slaves who escaped their plantations and worked for the Union military earned between six and eighteen dollars a month as carpenters, blacksmiths, drivers, boatmen, and laborers. Others worked as cooks and servants for officers, businessmen, and teachers on the island. They also sold or bartered food and various goods. Many men and women picked cotton for Union agents. But Northern abolitionists' and the government's vision did not always match their workers. Men and women, former African slaves, remained vigilant in protecting their new rights.
The Freedmen's Bureau
Mitchelville survived past the Civil War. In January 1865, the Mayor, Rev. Abraham Mercherson, answered the question "What will they do when the war is over?" He replied: "Go out into the land and make their homes there. Buy 20 acres of land. This Is what should be: once settled on his 20 acres, no one can oppress the negro hereafter. But without land, all the teaching, all the philanthropy, all the Christianity of the world cannot save him from the oppression of his selfish neighbor who holds the means of bread in his own hands." In March 1865, Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau to oversee housing, education, and the employment of freedmen. Over the next five years, Congress adopted amendments
to the Constitution that outlawed slavery, conferred citizenship and the vote to former African slaves. In the Sea Islands many residents remained land owners and politically active.
(top left) Picking cotton on Hilton Head Island, 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
(middle left) "In and about Port Royal," Harper's Weekly Jan., 11, 1862.
(bottom left) Former slaves line up at a Freedmen's Bureau office. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.
(right) Payroll form listing runaway African slaves working for the Union Army in January 1862. The occupation, wages, and owner of each man is listed. Since these men were not free, their wages were returned to their owners following the war. Image of document from South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.