Project Description

This page is a running log of my thoughts on this project. As such the ideas presented here are likely to be inchoate, and they will change frequently as my research directions change. Any interpretations ventured should therefore be seen as provisional and dependent on research that is very much in progress.

Feedback is welcome; just click on the discuss tab to leave comments.

Current Focus

My research is currently moving along two parallel, but often intersecting tracks. First, I am writing a book-length Microhistory of Henrietta Wood. I am also interested in what I call below the “Confederate rehearsal for Reconstruction,” with a focus on the phenomenon of Refugeed Slaves forced to relocate to Texas by planters west of the Mississippi.

Henrietta Wood

Wood, whom I first learned about on a tip from Richard Blackett at Vanderbilt, was a free woman of color in Cincinnati who was kidnapped in 1853, eventually sold to Gerard Brandon in Natchez, and taken to Texas during the Civil War. In the 1870s she returned to Cincinnati and filed a federal suit against Zebulon Ward the man who had kidnapped her.

Wood’s fascinating story illuminates key moments and places in mid-nineteenth American century—the border struggles between abolitionists and slaveholders in Ohio and Kentucky, the thriving interstate slave trade at places like Forks of the Road, the uneven process of wartime emancipation in Texas, and legal debates over reparations.

Having determined in the Fall 2015 semester that there is enough archival material about Wood for a full Microhistory, I have begun writing a book about her story. I also presented a piece of the research at 20150508 - Stephanie Camp Conference.

See Wood v. Ward or the henrietta_wood category for more information.

Confederate Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Trans-Mississippi and the Wartime Genesis of Forced Labor, 1862-1876

My interest in Henrietta Wood emerged from a larger project that is still ongoing, which began with research on Refugeed Slaves and Refugees to Texas during the Civil War.

Confederate refugee Kate Stone had only been in Texas for a few weeks in 1863 and she was “already as disgusted as [she] expected to be.” Before fleeing with her mother and sisters from their plantation in northeastern Louisiana, the twenty-year-old Stone had dreaded “being secluded on some remote farm in Texas.” Her impressions of “the far off County of Lamar” had so far confirmed her fears. Texas seemed a distant, “dark corner” of the Confederacy, “far away from all we know and love.”1

Though hardly agreeing with Stone’s nostalgic love for her abandoned home, most modern historians of the Civil War have also seen the interior counties of Texas and western Louisiana as a “far off” corner of the Confederacy. Viewed from the primary military theaters of the eastern and Mississipi River valley, the westernmost parts of the slaveholding South appear to have been “far away” from the primary and familiar stories of wartime dislocation, combat, and slave emancipation. The fact that Texas and northwestern Louisiana escaped Union occupation and remained, after January 1, 1863, safely behind Confederate lines for the rest of the war reinforces their appearance of isolation as “the last stronghold of de facto slavery” in the Confederacy—the exception that serves primarily to prove general rules about the links between the war and emancipation.2

The very isolation of the Trans-Mississippi, however, is precisely what makes it important to study more closely, for here—insulated from significant combat and forced to operate somewhat independently of the Confederate government in Richmond—white Confederates developed their own early answers to the question of how “slave racial capitalism” would survive the end of antebellum slavery as they had known it.3

In this respect, the Trans-Mississippi provides an analogue to the famous Sea Islands of South Carolina, which were quickly occupied by Union forces and removed from battle at the beginning of the war. Union occupation of the Sea Islands set the stage for what Willie Lee Rose famously called a “rehearsal” for the Reconstruction envisioned by free-labor Northern Republicans, Gideonite missionaries, and Union military officials. Conversely, the absence of Union occupation in wartime Texas enabled a behind-the-lines “rehearsal” for the alternative Reconstruction imagined by white planters and future New South industrialists, a Reconstruction in which both legal and extralegal means of racialized control would ensure the continuation of “compulsory labor” even after slavery. As in the Sea Islands, not all of these rehearsals continued to play out once the curtain of Reconstruction was lifted, but they established the storylines, scripts, and settings that allowed new forms of slavery-like exploitation to enter the stage even after emancipation.4

Just as the Sea Island “rehearsal for Reconstruction” illuminated important differences between freedpeople and the various groups of Northerners invested in the “experiment” of free labor, the Confederate rehearsal for Reconstruction featured a variegated cast of characters whose aims and visions of the future did not always perfectly align. The Trans-Mississippi Department was a site of internal conflict between white Refugees to Texas, who brought tens of thousands of Refugeed Slaves to the state during the war; military officials and quartermasters interested in using these and other slaves to support a program of Confederate Slave Impressment and hiring out; local entrepreneurs who hoped to exploit these new groups of enslaved laborers to support private enterprises; and state government officials (particularly in Texas and Louisiana) who attempted to balance the interests of these groups, their slaveholding constitutents, and their own interest in mobilizing black labor to support nascent state-supported industries and public works. Enslaved people, meanwhile, seized opportunities to resist these attempts by white parties to confine and control them in new ways.

No group in the Trans-Mississippi rehearsal for Reconstruction got precisely what it wanted either during the war or in its immediate aftermath. But new forced labor experiments during the war at Confederate fortifications, Salt Works, railroads, and prisons like the Huntsville State Penitentiary left two important legacies for the region after Juneteenth. First, even as large slaveholders’ fortunes dissolved during the war, these enterprises behind the lines enabled slaveholders to secure small amounts of economic, social, and political capital that they used to mount conservative political reactions to the reinstitution of national control. And second, wartime experiments with forced labor laid the legal, political, and social groundwork for several forms of compulsion and coercion that emerged after the war. In short, in the Trans-Mississippi, the war years were not only a seedbed for free labor and slave revolution, but also a seedbed for the forced labor and counterrevolution that also attended Reconstruction.

Obscuring this story of rehearsal are several historiographical and popular common-places that this project seeks either to bracket or set aside: first, that slavery and slaves behind Confederate lines remained static and undisturbed; and second, that slaveholders in these regions never had to contemplate or confront the potential end of slavery until after mid-1865. Moreover, the best works on the Trans-Mississippi (like kerby1972) or on regional phenomena like refugeeing and slave impressment (such as mccurry2010 and sternhell2012) are interested less in what began during the war than in highlighting what ended. Historiography on wartime events in Texas and western Louisiana tends to intervene primarily in debates about why the Confederacy lost the war or about how the war destroyed slavery, leaving aside the question of what events during the war began and created.

Contemporaries, however, often understood what happened in the Confederate rehearsal for Reconstruction as a frontispiece to a new story—or as the middle chapter of an ongoing one. The war was not just a final bookend to antebellum slavery. One former slave interviewed as part of the Texas WPA Narratives, for example, had a ready answer for anyone who “asks me why the Texas Negroes been kept down so much.” Recalling the extensive number of enslaved people who, like him, had been forced into the state during the war, Allen V. Manning declared that “if they set like I did on the bank at that ferry across the Sabine, and see all that long line of covered wagons, miles and miles of them, crossing that river and going west with all the got left out of the War, it aint hard to understand” how the exploitation of “Texas Negroes” continued in the ways that it did.5

Taking Manning’s vantage point as a cue, this project considers what we might see about the continuities between the Civil War and its aftermath by facing east from the Sabine, instead of west from the Mississippi. From that perspective, perhaps, the Trans-Mississippi looks less like a far-off corner and more like center stage for the origins of forced black labor after emancipation.

Some of my questions at this stage include:

  1. Does the experience of refugeed slaves change the way we think about slavery itself, and if so how?
  2. Did the experience of slaves deep behind Confederate lines serve in any respect as a “rehearsal for Reconstruction,” just as the experience of freepeople deep behind Union lines (Sea Islands) foretold the trajectory of Reconstruction there?
  3. What were the basic mechanics of refugeeing: where did refugeed slaves come from, what did they do when they arrived, and what were the motives of the planters who “ran” slaves into Texas? Are these motives best described as an attempt at “safekeeping,” or were they also attempts at “profit-seeking,” or both?
  4. Were there connections—ideological, political, economic, or otherwise—between the use of forced labor and convict leasing at the Huntsville State Penitentiary or other Confederate prisons during the war and the state’s authorization of convict leasing as part of the Texas Black Codes passed after the war?
  5. How was labor mobilized during the war at Confederate Salt Works and manufacturing establishments like the Texas Iron Works?

For the most recent updates to this work, see Project News or Recent Activity. Earlier descriptions of my project can be found in the history tab of this page.

Confederate State Building in Texas and Louisiana

I presented a paper in Summer 2015 at the Remaking North American Sovereignty conference in Banff, Canada, entitled “Beyond Failure: Rethinking the Afterlives of Confederate State Policies on its Western Frontier.” You can read the full talk, or the abstract below:

For generations of historians, the most important fact about the Confederacy’s experiment in state-building has been that it failed. But the Confederacy’s failure—the way its story ended—has also created a tendency to see its wartime policies primarily in terms of how they contributed to Confederate defeat. Prevailing historiographical trends highlight how state experiments such as slave impressment, draft exemption details, commodity rationing, industrial penitentiaries, and cotton-buying programs failed to meet homefront needs, exposed internal social tensions, revealed contradictions at the heart of Confederate ideology, and thus hastened the state’s collapse.

Focusing particularly on the wartime governments of the Trans-Mississippi states of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, whose circumstances were often quite unique due to their geographical proximity to the Confederacy’s western frontier and the Mexican border, my paper asks a different question: not how did such wartime measures contribute to Confederate failure, but what did individual white Southerners *learn* from such experiments that shaped their responses to the postwar order?  How and to what extent did policies such as slave impressment and convict labor set legal precedents for postwar labor regimes or create political and personal networks that facilitated those regimes?

Crucial to this history is the unique, under-appreciated status of the Trans-Mississippi South as a de facto state of its own during the Civil War. In close contact with allies in the pro-French regime in Mexico on the one hand and, by 1863 isolated from the central Confederate government in Richmond on the other, Confederates west of the Mississippi made their own singular experiments in securing white supremacy without a strong government defending racial slavery. By looking beyond the failure of these policies to save the Confederacy, I argue that we can better see what these policies did succeed in doing and how they contributed to the rapid retrenchment of white power in the Reconstruction South.

My thoughts and research on this aspect of my project are still developing. In the paper I focused on new Confederate state bureaus like the Board of Public Labor and the Texas Military Board, as well as the governorship of Henry W. Allen in Louisiana. I’m particularly interested in steps taking by these trans-Mississippi governments to encourage industry and incorporation in their states during the war, and to experiment with Confederate Slave Impressment and convict leasing as forms of labor mobilization. One possibility for future iterations of this work is to focus on A. J. Ward as an example of someone who built a postwar career on profits earned during the war that were facilitated by state policy.

  1. stone1995, 214, 223.

  2. hahnetal2008, 77. The widespread celebration and notoriety of Juneteenth, which marks the date when Union troops finally did arrive to emancipate Texas slaves, reinforces the dominant historiographical portrait of Texas a place where little changed because of the war until after it was effectively over.

  3. The phrase “slave racial capitalism” comes from johnson2013.

  4. Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (1964; Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).

  5. Quoted on baker1997, p. 58.