Laura Towne: Union’s Effort to Transition Ex-slaves to Self-sustainability

April 27, 1862/2012
Volume 3, Issue 17 (81 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Laura Towne and the Union’s First Systematic Effort to Transition Ex-Slaves to Self-Sustainability in Occupied Territory

Laura Towne

Laura Towne

On April 27, 1862, abolitionist Laura Towne (1825-1901) of Philadelphia wrote home from St. Helena Island, South Carolina, describing the frustrations of former slaves. They complained that, “The Yankees preach nothing but cotton.” Towne had embarked for the Sea Islands off South Carolina and Georgia to participate in the Port Royal Experiment, the Union’s first systematic effort to transition ex-slaves to self-sustainability in occupied territory.

Organized by the National Freedmen’s Relief Association in conjunction with the U.S. Treasury, the Port Royal Experiment aimed to inculcate work habits, religious morality, and basic literacy skills. In the process, government agents hoped to cash in the islands’ valuable cotton crop to support the Northern war effort. Yet as Towne observed, the former slaves, “can plainly see enough that the proceeds of the cotton will never get into black pockets — judging from past experience.”

There were thousands of former slaves on plantations abandoned after the U.S. Navy invaded the islands in November 1861. Despite efforts of agent Edward L. Pierce to organize black labor efficiently, it is clear from Towne’s commentary that freedmen had their own ideas about how to become self-reliant.

“It is very touching to see the negroes begging Mr. Pierce to let them plant and tend corn and not cotton,” she remarked. “They do not see the use of cotton, but they know that their corn has kept them from starvation, and they are anxious about next year’s crop.”

Laura Towne, who was highly educated and trained in homeopathic medicine, was somewhat anxious herself. While serving as a housekeeper for other Northerners, she waited expectantly for an opportunity to utilize her professional skills in healthcare or teaching. Instead, Pierce was parading Northern women around the plantations, “to cheer and reassure the rather downhearted negroes, or rather the negro women,” she remarked. They believed “a white lady a great safeguard from danger,” giving “them a feeling of security that nothing else does.” Pierce hoped to “make them contented, which they are not now by any means,” she noted.

As Laura Towne reveals, there was a significant gap between Northern concepts of economic efficiency and benevolence and the interests of freed people. By June she would begin teaching, and eventually she operated the successful Penn School on St. Helena for the remainder of the century. The ex-slaves on the islands were fully freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, and some remained on the islands to develop their own productive plantations.

– Submitted by Marilyn S. Blackwell


Holland, Rupert Sargent, ed. The Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1862-1884, (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1912)

Edgar, Walter, ed., The South Carolina Encyclopedia, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. S. v. “The Port Royal Experiment,” by Lawrence S. Rowland

“The Port Royal Experiment”

Union Soldiers Unwelcome in New Orleans

April 29, 1862. Although the federal fleet arrived at New Orleans on April 25 and shelled the city, it was not until April 29, writes historian David Donald, “that the mayor agreed to yield the city, and even then he refused to haul down the Confederate flag. ‘The city is yours by the power of brutal force,’ he wrote [Rear Admiral David Glasgow] Farragut, ‘not by my choice, or consent of its inhabitants. . . . [T]he people of New Orleans, while unable to resist your force, do not . . . transfer allegiance from the government of their choice . . . [T]hey yield obedience which the conqueror is entitled to extort from the conquered.’

“When Union soldiers and sailors went ashore, they were greeted with proposals that ‘the ——- Yankees’ be ‘run up to lamp-posts.’ ‘Some cheered for Jeff Davis, Beauregard, etc., and used the most vile and obscene language toward . . . the good old flag.’ ‘Among the crowd were many women and children, and the women were shaking rebel flags, and being rude and noisy.’

“But in General Benjamin F. Butler, Federal military commander of the city, recalcitrant New Orleans discovered that it had met its equal. When one woman deliberately spat in a Union officer’s face and another from her balcony poured slop on Farragut, Butler ordered that henceforth, if any female should insult in any manner a Union officer or soldier, ‘she should be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.’ Overt resistance ceased. . . .”

– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert


Divided We Fought, David Donald, (1952) p. 94

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1862

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