91st PA-Texas Freedman's Bureau, report by W E Strong, 1866

W E Strong, report about Texas freedman, 1 January 1866

[source: Serial Set, volume 1273, pages 35-39. Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction. House report number 30, 39th Congress, 1st Session.]
[related file: letter, Gregory to Howard, 9 December 1865, including a description of the journey]

[According to the Galveston Daily News, this was "here universally known to be false and published only for the purpose of enabling the Radicals the better to carry out their policy" ('Radical Misrepresentations in England', Galveston Daily News, 27 April 1866, page 2, column 2).]

WASHINGTON, February 3, 1866.

Brigadier General W. E. Strong appeared and presented the following report on the condition of affairs in the State of Texas:

Washington, D.C., January 1, 1866.

GENERAL: In accordance with instructions received from you early in October last, as contained in Special Orders No. 84, dated at these headquarters, I have the honor respectfully to submit for your information the following report of my action and observation in the State of Texas:

I passed little more than a month in the State, and during that time used every endeavor to ascertain the true condition of the freedmen; what they were doing to support themselves, and what the citizens of Texas, their former masters, were doing for them under the new order of things.

As it was impossible for me to visit every portion of the State without remaining several months, and as the time allowed for my inspection was limited, I decided, after consultation [page 36] with various officers on duty at Galveston and Houston, to travel in the eastern portion of the State on the Trinity river, and between the Trinity and Neches rivers. This section of country is acknowledged by all officers and citizens with whom I conversed to be the very worst portion of the State; and it was thought that more good could be done on this route than any other. I also visited the extreme western portion of the State and several points along the coast between Galveston and the mouth of the Rio Grande.

I travelled with an escort of cavalry furnished by Major General Mower, commanding at Houston, and was accompanied as far as Huntsville by Brigadier General E. M. Gregory, assistant commissioner of this bureau for the State of Texas, and Colonel De Grass, provost marshal general of the district commanded by General Mower, and who, in addition to his military duties, has charge of the freedmen, reporting direct to General Gregory.

At Huntsville General Gregory and myself separated--he swinging to the left and heading towards Mellican, the terminus of the railroad, and I, accompanied by Colonel De Grass, with a portion of the escort, striking out in a due easterly course, crossing the Trinity river at Ryan's ferry. General Gregory and I separated, not on account of any disagreement or misunderstanding, as was reported in New Orleans by a Texas delegation and telegraphed over the country, but simply for the reason that we believed more good could be accomplished by dividing the column.

At the little villages along our line of march the freedmen were collected together from the surrounding country, and as many of the planters as could be induced to attend, and addressed by General Gregory and myself. We explained to them in as simple and clear a manner as possible their rights, privileges and responsibilities, and what the government and country expected of them as freedmen. We told them that they were free, and that they could never be slaves again; that they were free to go and come wherever they pleased, and to work for whomever they thought proper, and to control and use their own wages, and that they had the same right to purchase and own land, horses, mules and farming implements that any white person had; and we advised them, when they had accumulated money enough to buy a piece of land, to invest it in that way. We also advised them to remain at their old homes and hire to their former masters if they had been kindly treated and could obtain fair compensation for their labor; and if not, to look about and made contracts with persons in whom they had confidence, and who would treat them fairly and pay them liberally for their work. We urged upon them the necessity of making contracts for the year 1866 and when once made, that they must observe and fulfil them religiously; and that if any of them broke a contract, through no fault of the employer, they would forfeit their wages, or be compelled to carry out their portion of the agreement. We also disabused their minds of the report that had been circulated very freely among them by corrupt and evil-designed persons as to a general distribution of the property; and impressed upon their minds the fact that there was to be no division of lands, horses, mules, and farming utensils on New Year's day; that the lands were owned by the citizens of Texas, and not by the government; that the United States had nothing whatever to give them; that they had been made free by the action of the government, and that in return for this they must show by their industry and perseverance that they were worthy of freedom.

General Gregory is an earnest and very able speaker, and these meetings, which were usually held at night, and conducted by him in conjunction with religious exercises, I am well satisfied made a lasting impression upon the freedmen, and resulted in much good.

It is not my wish or intention to pass judgment upon the entire State of Texas by what I saw on my inspection tour. I, of course, travelled over but a small portion of the State, and, as I have heretofore remarked, in what is known as the very worst section. In the large cities, such as Galveston, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, there are many most excellent men; men who are anxious and willing to abide by the laws of the country, and who would use all their influence and energy to promote peace and harmony among the freedmen and whites. I found this to be true in several of the larger cities which I visited; it was particularly the case in Houston. I met as fine gentlemen as I have ever seen, and was treated by them, during my visit in the city, with the greatest kindness and courtesy.

That a majority of these gentlemen were sincere in their expressions I am thoroughly convinced; that all of them were I do not believe.

All of the cities above referred to are occupied by United States troops, and held under strict military discipline; and the citizens dare not express themselves in an unfriendly manner towards the United States soldiers and the government, even though they felt inclined to do so. In the interior of the State, one or two hundred miles from the prominent cities, away from the influence of federal troops and federal bayonets, at points where our army has never penetrated, and where the citizens have but little fear of arrest and punishment for crimes committed, I assure you there is a fearful state of things; the freedmen are in a worse condition than they ever were as slaves.

When they were held in bondage they were, as a rule, treated well. Cases of extreme cruelty were very rare. It was for the interest of the master to take care of them, and not to ill treat them; now it is quite different; they have no interest in their welfare, and seem to take every opportunity to vent their rage and hatred upon the blacks. They are frequently beaten unmercifully, and shot down like wild beasts, without any provocation, followed with hounds, and maltreated in every possible way. It is the same old story of cruelty [page 37] only there is more of it in Texas than any southern State that I have visited. I could cite many cases of cruelty that came under my own observation if it were necessary to do so.

The planters generally seemed discouraged, and insisted that the system of free labor would never answer; that the negroes were idle and worthless, and showed no disposition to work, and were wandering about the country utterly demoralized, and were plundering and stealing indiscriminately from the citizens. It was also generally reported by the white people that the freedmen failed wholly to fulfil their contracts, and that when they were needed most to save the cotton crop they would stop their work and leave them, and without any cause whatever.

After a careful investigation, I don't find these charges against the freedmen to be wholly true. The entire crop raised in Texas--cotton, corn, sugar, and what was gathered and saved by the first of December--most assuredly no white man in Texas had anything to do with gathering the crops except, perhaps, to look on and give orders. Who did the work? The freedmen, I am well convinced, had something to do with it, and yet there is a fierce murmur of complaint against them everywhere that they are lazy and insolent, and that there is no hope for a better condition of affairs unless they can be permitted to resort to the overseer, whip and hounds.

Two-thirds of the freedmen in the section of country which I travelled over have never received one cent of wages since they were declared free. A few of them were promised something at the end of the year, but instances of prompt payment of wages are very rare. Not one in ten would have received any compensation for labor performed during the year 1865, had it not been for the vigorous measures resorted to by Colonel DeGrass, provost marshal general of the district of Houston, who sends into the interior, frequently two hundred miles, and arrests the parties who have been guilty of cruelty to the freed people; and where they have violated their contracts with them, compels them to make fair and equitable settlements. Colonel DeGrass has a small command of cavalry under his control, and he keeps it in motion constantly through the country searching for parties who have murdered or maltreated the freedmen. I cannot speak too highly of the course pursued by the colonel. He displays the same earnestness of purpose, and fearlessness in the discharge of his duty, that he ever did in the old army of the Tennessee; and although his life has been threatened by the chivalric citizens of the country, yet he is not deterred by their threats from discharging his duty, as he understands it. He is a true friend of the black people, and will not see them ill used. I know that some of the lessons which he has taught the citizens in the vicinity of Houston will not soon be forgotten.

I saw freedmen east of the Trinity river who did not know that they were free until I told them. There had been vague rumors circulated among them that they were to be free on Christmas day, and that on New Years there was to be a grand division of the property; that one-half was to be given to the black people. The report circulated so extensively among the freedmen with regard to a division of the property on or about the holidays, and which was believed by many of them, was taught them by the citizens during the war. Public speakers in different portions of the State declared and insisted that the only object the Yankees had in continuing the war was to free the negroes, and that if the southern people were beaten, all the lands and property would be taken from them and given to the blacks, and that the poor white and rich people alike would be enslaved. It is not strange that the freedmen, hearing this matter talked of publicly for four years by men of influence and standing, should finally believe there was some truth in it. Nearly all the freedmen I met preferred to wait till after New Years before making contracts for the year 1866.

In the vicinity of Mount Jordan and Jasper, on the Neches river, and San Augustine, and in all that section of country situated and being between the Neches and Sabine rivers, and as far north as Henderson, I was credibly informed and firmly believe that the freedmen are still held in a state of slavery, and are being treated with the most intense cruelty by their former masters; and I am well satisfied that the freedmen will be kept in ignorance of their true status, and will be forced to work without wages in these isolated distrcts, until troops can be sent to occupy, for a time at least, this portion of the State, and until a few wholesome lessons have been administered to the natives. One campaign of an army through the eastern part of the State, such as was made by General Sherman in South Carolina, would greatly improve the temper and generosity of the people.

The most intense hatred is shown by many of the citizens of the country towards northern men, officers and soldiers of our army, and the United States government. Very many of the ex-confederate officers and soldiers wear their old uniforms, with buttons, insignia of rank, and nearly every man we met in travelling was armed with a knife, seven-shooter, and double barrelled shot-gun. At hotels, and various places where we halted for the night, the gallant cavaliers who claim that they whipped the Yankees in the last battle of the war, and that they are able to do it every day in the year, would collect in groups and talk, in a tone particularly intended for our ears, of the deeds they had performed, and the number of Yankees they had slain, and that if an opportunity ever occurred they were ready and anxious to fight against the United States.

After leaving Huntsville our escort was reduced to twelve men, and a disposition was shown upon one occasion to attack the party; but the Spencer carbines carried by our men rather deterred them from so doing. We were not molested. We were treated, however, on [page 38] the road and in the villages at which we stopped with the most marked discourtesy and contempt. I cannot account for the bitter feeling that seems to exist against soldiers belonging to our army and the government, unless it may be for the reason that they know less about the war, and have seen less of our troops than any other people, and therefore cannot appreciate the power and strength of the government. In other southern States I have been treated with greater courtesy and kindness by officers and soldiers of the confederate army than by any other class of people.

In my judgment, there is but little trouble in getting the freedmen to work if the citizens will treat them with some degree of fairness and honesty, and pay them reasonable wages when they work well, and fulfil their own promises and agreements. They have as yet offered no inducements for the freed people to labor.

I am not surprised that they have refused to make contracts for the present year. They have universally been treated with bad faith, and very few have received any compensation for work performed up to the close of the year 1865.

I cannot blame them for hesitating about making contracts which were to bind them for a year, and with no guarantee that they were to be treated better than when they were slaves. They have received, thus far, for their work, as a class, curses, blows, poor clothing, and poorer food. There are exceptions. I learned the names of a few planters who had done well by the freedmen, and had paid ten dollars per month in specie for first-class field labor, and the other hands in proportion; but seven out of every ten who have paid wages to the freed people, in the vicinity of Houston, have done so over the point of the bayonet in the office of the provost marshal general, rather than go to jail.

General Gregory assured them that their employers would be forced to pay them every farthing that was justly due; and I have learned that, during the month of December many contracts were entered into for the year 1866.

The crop raised and gathered in Texas during the past year is immense, and provisions ought to be very abundant. There is certainly sufficient to feed all classes, white and black, rich and poor, if it could be properly distributed among them. The great difficulty is, the corn and wheat is all in the hands of the wealthy planters, and the poor white people, who did not own land, cannot obtain it for love or money.

The planters hold on to their corn, expecting there will be a scarcity in the spring, and that it will then command exorbitant prices; and, further, they fear to sell it to their poor neighbors, thinking, if they get a few bushels ahead, they might possibly hire some of the freedmen. Frequently the poor white people came to us and entreated us to interfere and compel the rich people to sell them corn enough so that their wives and children would not starve. I heard several of them say that they had been in the confederate service through the war, and now that they had lived to get home, the wealthy men, who had been instrumental in sending them to the field, would not assist them when in distress, nor could they purchase corn for one dollar per bushel in specie to keep their families from perishing.

If the freedmen fail in obtaining employment the present year, and if the planters refuse to sell their corn to the poor white people at reasonable rates, there will necessarily be great suffering in many portions of the State.

According to the best statistics I have been able to obtain, there were in the State, at the beginning of the war, about two hundred and seventy-five thousand (275,000) slaves. During the war, and prior to its close, about one hundred and twenty-five thousand (125,000) were sent there from other southern States to keep them out of the way of the United States forces, and for safe-keeping; making a total of about four hundred thousand (400,000) at the time of the surrender of the confederate armies. The great mass of freedmen were owned and still remain on the rich plantations situated on the Sabine, Neches, Trinity, Brazos, and Colorado rivers, and within a distance of 350 or 400 miles from the Gulf coast. There are few freedmen north of Waco, on the Brazos river, or north of Austin, on the Colorado; a few are to be found as high up as Gonzales and Signim, on the Guadalupe, but not west of that river. Western and northwestern Texas is a wild, uncultivated, barren region, and is occupied and held, and has been for years, by the Indians. The Comanches committed depredations in November within fifteen or twenty miles of Waco.

Of the 125,000 freedmen sent to Texas for safe-keeping during the war, from Louisiana, Mississippi, and other States, nearly all of them are anxious to return to their old homes, or at all events to get out of Texas. Thousands of this number have already returned, and there is a constant stream pouring through the interior of the State in an easterly direction, heading towards Louisiana.

The route usually taken by these people is the old San Antonio road, leading from Bastor, on the Colorado, through Caldwell, Madison, Crockett, and from thence running a little north of east to Millan, on the Sabine river, near the Louisiana line. This road is famous as being the first and best route leading across Texas, and all the refugees get on to this road as soon as possible.

I found General Gregory stationed at Galveston, and am satisfied that he is doing everything in his power to regulate the system of labor throughout the State. He has labored with the most untiring industry since he has been in Texas to settle difficulties between whites and freedmen satisfactorily and justly, and has passed a great deal of his time in travelling through the country, correcting abuses, and explaining to the freedmen their true [page 39] status, and what was expected of them by the government. He understands your views and policy well, and will carry out your wishes to the best of his ability and against all opposition. I do not think it possible for any man to hold General Gregory's position in Texas, do justice to the freedmen, and be popular with the people. The general has been particularly unfortunate in not being able to obtain officers to assist him in the work. He is almost entirely alone, having only six or seven subordinates, who are all stationed at the larger cities. In order to correct abuses, and regulate the labor system thoroughly throughout the country, General Gregory should have fifty good officers to assist; and if these could be placed on duty at the principal villages in the interior, for 350 miles north of the coast, and a small force of troops sent with each assistant to enforce law and order, it would be but a short time before a decided improvement would be observed. It is the opinion of every stanch Union man with whom I conversed, and of nearly every officer on duty in the State, that if the United States troops were removed from Texas no northern man, nor any person who had ever expressed any love for northern institutions or for the government of the United States, could remain with safety, and the condition of the freed people would be worse, beyond comparison, than it was before the war, and when they were held in bondage.

I have the honor, general, to remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

WM. E. STRONG, Inspector General

Major General O. O. HOWARD,
Commissioner Bureau Refugees, Freedmen, &c.

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revised 18 Jun 02
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