Yesterday's blog raised the question of conflict between those who saw abandoned South Carolina plantation slaves as free labor to provide cheap cotton for northern markets and those who saw the same plantations as fertile ground for proving that slaves could be educated to full citizenship. The question of which goal was more important fills the pages of The Road to Frogmore. Here's a preview of an early clash:
The Gideonites did not take long to realize that the cotton agents were at the root of many of their troubles. At the Oaks Plantation, Reynolds had installed a Mr. Whiting to oversee the cotton operations on the 500-acre plantation. When Pierce chose to establish his headquarters there, he and Whiting split the house between them. The Oaks, built in the late 1850s, featured a four-over-four floor plan, with the back rooms extending further to the sides, thus forming wings or a “T” shape house. A central hall with a staircase on either side made it possible for two households to share the building. And since the cookhouse and other out-buildings were separate from the main structure, each household could function independently with its own set of house servants.
But there the illusion of equality stopped. Whiting had arrived first, and he plundered the house of its best furniture and conveniences to make a comfortable residence for himself and his wife, leaving only the bare necessities for the Gideonites. At intervals, he also commandeered the front portico as a company store, at which the slaves working his cotton fields could exchange the scrip with which he paid them for items of food and clothing. The Gideonites could only watch in frustration as they saw the fieldhands being charged exorbitant prices for items they could have furnished more cheaply.
. . . .
Pierce blamed Colonel William Nobles, Reynolds’ assistant, for much of the massive corruption that accompanied the cotton-dealing policies. His evidence came from an informant, James Adrian Suydam, who ran one of the company stores. Pierce confronted him one day, hoping to find an acceptable explanation for the activities that had aroused his suspicions. Suydam proved anxious to talk, but his revelations were even more disturbing than Pierce had suspected.
“The cotton agents are all going back on their promises to pay the fieldhands,” he admitted. “There’s such a push to get that old cotton out and the fields replanted that drivers have been promising the ex-slaves almost anything to get them to work. They’re told that once the work is done, they’ll be paid a real salary, based on how many acres they’ve worked or how many hours they’ve put in. But when it comes time for payday, they don’t get more than a quarter of that amount in real coins.”
. . . .
Edward Pierce was now determined to take action and wrote a scathingly accusatory letter to General Hunter. On May 7th, Pierce traveled down to Hilton Head to complain in person to the military officials since the government failed to act on the matter. As he stepped onto the dock at Hilton Head, Nobles came rushing at him and began to punch him. Pierce fell to the ground under the onslaught, as Nobles shouted that Pierce was trying to run him out of the country like a dog. Soldiers managed to break up the fight, but not before Pierce had received a severe beating. The military police hustled Nobles onto the first ship headed north with orders from the commanding officer on Hilton Head that he not be allowed to return to the islands.
That one firing, however, did not solve the conflict of interest. Pierce recovered from his injuries under the skillful hands of Laura Towne, who managed to treat his wounds and listen to his frustrations at the same time. She worried about the scars the beating would leave. Not physical scars — those would heal with time. Laura was more concerned with the mental ones. She could sense that much of Pierce’s drive and enthusiasm had been dampened by the realization that the coetton agents were actively opposing the goals he had set for his teachers and managers.