Abandoned Lands and the Plantation Lease System

The Second Confiscation Act, passed by Congress on July 17, 1862, authorized the confiscation of the property of persons in rebellion against the United States. This act allowed the freeing of slaves as contraband of war, and permitted the seizure of all real property. It was the Second Confiscation Act that allowed the plantation lease experiment to be implemented in Phillips County and other places in the Mississippi Valley.

During his spring 1863 campaign through the Mississippi Valley to recruit black men for the Union army, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas decreed that abandoned plantations were subject to lease. The system was designed to lease land directly to Freedmen. No rent was to be charged, only a tax levied per bale of cotton and bushel of corn harvested. In addition, a fixed wage system was defined for laborers. The lease system fell under the control of the Treasury Department.

Some 8,000 acres in Phillips County were confiscated by Union authorities. Most of that land, about 6,000 acres, belonged to the Pillow Plantation. Smaller though substantial acreage belonging to William Sales, Robert Casteel, Thomas William White, I.M. Lamb, and Thomas Maney was also confiscated and leased.

The lease system in Phillips County seems to have been successful. Under the general supervision of Captain A.L. Thayer, over thirty Freedmen leased land and planted cotton. On the average, the Freedmen made $500 profit on each ten acres of land. The success of the lease system drew praise from the government, and some of those employed earned enough money to buy their own land. One observer noted that the farms that were leased by Freedmen did better than those leased by whites. His conclusion was that the former slaves worked better for people of their own race. Perhaps it was simply that the working arrangement was different enough from slavery that Freedmen felt that they were now part of the system rather than being subject to it.

James E. Yeatman, president of the Western Sanitation Commission, toured the Mississippi Valley in the fall of 1863. Yeatman not only visited hospital facilities, he also visited leased plantations and the “home farms,” which were the refuge of the old, young and the infirm. Yeatman and William P. Mellen of the Treasury Department established rules and regulations for the operation of leased plantations. The system was not perfect, but it did set wages and limit the size and number of plantations that a singe individual could lease. Mellen reported to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase in February 1864, that he felt that without adequate military protection the whole enterprise was doomed.

In April 1864, possibly as a result of Mellen’s report, General Napoleon B. Buford, commander of the District of Eastern Arkansas, ordered the construction of two fortifications with blockhouses to be built on the leased plantations. One, sometimes called the Freedmen’s Fort, was built three miles south of town on the Pillow Plantation. The other, called Fort Pinney, was about eleven miles south of town.

General Buford’s works failed to protect Freedmen on the plantations. After the Battle of Big Creek on July 27, 1864, Confederate cavalry under the command of Colonel Archibald Dobbins raided the plantations. The Confederates burned buildings and crops, took livestock and rounded up Freedmen and took them to Confederate-held territory where they were re-enslaved. The Confederate raid damaged the lease system but did not destroy it. Following Dobbins’ raid Special Orders No. 200 [179] dated August 2, 1864, established a board of officers to “report all the facts in this case” and make a report to General Buford. The order also called for those leasing plantations to create a committee to assess their losses and give a report under oath to the military board.

The Confederate raids struck a significant blow to the plantations; people were terrified. In spite of Confederate attempts to disrupt and destroy it, the lease system as established in 1863 continued until March 1865, when The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, assumed responsibility for the system.