The Emancipation Proclamation, Mississippi and letters to the Civil War governor.

If part of the objective of the Emancipation Proclamation (which went into effect on January 1st, 1863) was to disrupt the southern military and economy by displacing slaves from their plantations, is there historical evidence that it worked? Letters to the Governor of Mississippi indicate that the effect was nearly immediate.  In a letter to Mississippi Governor John Pettus, plantation owner Willie Lyons complains as early as the end of February 1863 about the loss from one of his plantations in Bolivar County of some of his enslaved people to the Union Army. The Union Army’s control of the territory around his plantation along the Mississippi River has forced Lyons to relocate his remaining enslaved people to other parts of the state. Some of his enslaved people appear to have been impressed by the Mississippi government for work in a charcoal manufactory. Charcoal is one of the components needed to make gunpowder and iron.

Lyons desperately wants the Governor to release his overseer from militia duty. Willie Lyons believes that the economic survival of his plantations depends upon the management skills of his overseer of enslaved people. Lyons cannot afford to hire a substitute for his overseer, because the Confederate government burned 856 bales of his cotton, to prevent it from falling into Union hands. The loss of his enslaved workers is gravely further stated by Lyons – an entire crop of his cotton rotted in the field because he had no laborers to harvest it in time. The burning of cotton and the inability of planters to harvest crops due to the extraordinary loss of enslaved labor became endemic across Mississippi, This is additionally testified to in this letter from the President of the Board of Police in Tunica to Gov. Pettus from November of 1862. These letters to the Governor reveal the emancipation opportunities provided by the presence of the Union military. One can also infer from Lyon’s letter that self-emancipation of enslaved people is also occurring within the plantations – the enslaved people remaining on the plantations are not completing the harvesting work, and there appears to be no one around (including the owners) to force them to do so.

The emancipation of enslaved people in this area of Bolivar County is also having a profound effect upon how white manpower for soldiers is being contended over between the state and Confederate militaries and governments. In a letter to Governor Pettus, Bolivar County resident William Harris indicates that in June of 1863 many of the enslaved people have been “robbed” from this section of the Mississippi delta. Leaders of the local militia are concerned that provisions and cotton will also be taken. The Mississippi state militia in this county do not want to leave the area on account of the potential further threat of robbery. When these local militia are ordered to join Confederate forces in distant Greenwood, 42 miles to the southeast, they refuse to go and two of the lieutenants are arrested. That same month, Rich Archer reported in a letter to Gov. Pettus that in the area near Grand Gulf, both emancipated people and rogue white citizens are stealing mules, oxen, horses and selling them. The white livestock rustlers included Union soldiers, and Confederate soldiers who were both on furlough and illegal deserters. Rich Archer has lost 160 enslaved persons, the emancipation of which was aided by white people in Grand Gulf.

There is a struggle playing out over where white soldiers are needed the most. White militia units want to stay near their homes, keep control of the enslaved population, see to it that they continue to work the plantations, and protect any precious supplies and commodities that are badly needed in the locale. Conversely, many Confederate and Mississippi military leaders urgently want to employ these home guards to meet the active incursions of Union forces into Mississippi. In June of 1863, when Archer’s letter was written, Vicksburg was under Union siege. Additionally in June, a few thousand intrepid African American soldiers, recruited from emancipated enslaved persons, had successfully repelled a Confederate attack at Milliken’s Bend.[1] The Emancipation Proclamation is having a “domino effect” causing problems to spread between the home front and the warfront.

Another means for enslaved persons to self-emancipate was through contact with bands of military deserters and others who resisted conscription into Confederate and Mississippi militia forces. Southern disaffection with military service increased through a combination of poor treatment in the military, the inability to secure furloughs to attend to problems on the home front, and the high level of coercion that the government exerted in conscripting and retaining soldiers. Numerous small groups of Mississippians hid out in remote areas of their counties. This letter from Howard Wilkinson to Gov. Pettus describes one such group of 300-400 resisters in Pearlington, located just outside New Orleans. Wilkinson complains that a problem that has arisen is that these rebellious groups (within the rebellion) are encouraging and assisting enslaved people to emancipate. The resisters are harboring the runaways and helping them get into Union held areas (likely to New Orleans). Here is yet another way in which the Emancipation Proclamation is severely disrupting the Confederacy. The resistance to the Confederate war effort and the coinciding emancipation of the enslaved in Pearlington is not a widely known episode of Civil War history. Another more well-known pocket of resistance is in Jones County, Mississippi, 120 miles to the northeast. In Jones County, a few of the resisters were enslaved persons, and many of the resisters were farmers without slaves who were in an ongoing local dispute against Confederate supporters who owned slaves.[2]

These letters to the Mississippi governor suggest that the Emancipation Proclamation had an immediate and devastating effect upon Mississippi. It was highly disruptive of social relations between whites and enslaved people, it caused divisive tensions in the deployment of military forces and set the cotton economy into complete disarray.  

[1] Linda Barnickel, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2013).

[2] Victoria Bynum, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).