Sunday, July 6, 2014

They Were Sharp Bargainers

This time last year I delivered a paper at the National Underground Railroad Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas titled--They Were Sharp Bargainers. For several years now, I have worked to put together a radically different view of African Americans during the Civil War, based on the idea that many blacks were busy finding ways not just to stay alive but to make money. I am closer and closer each day to having a well-substantiated argument.

Unknown artist
Recently, I came across the Southern Claims Commission file of Cato Govan, an elderly African American who was a former slave of Mrs. Govan of Marshall County, Mississippi. Govan's file is extensive, containing both his own testimony and that of more than one witness. Cato Govan lived at the Govan homestead during the war. Unlike other slaves and freedpeople I've studied, who left the plantation for the contraband camp, Govan stayed in Holly Springs for the duration of the war. His testimony provides a clear picture of the wartime landscape, surprising us with the fact that a man like himself could navigate the journey to Memphis via wagon and approval of the U.S. government. Govan's statement is seconded by others. It becomes obvious that he chose to stay in Mississippi because there was money to be made still off cotton agriculture, and he knew how to make it. Govan's statement reminds me of something Charles Sydnor wrote: a black would rather drive his master's cotton to Memphis than to "labor with the hoe gang in the field."

There were many jobs or "occupations" on a plantation, and that of teamster was one of them. It seems very likely that Cato Govan had been hauling cotton for many years; he knew the value of mules--he bought his first pair in Holly Springs off a fellow colored. When he learned they had been stolen, he had to give them up, but somehow he had money to buy more. The government would commandeer Govan's property more than once, but it seems he always found a way to purchase the mules he needed to keep a cotton transport business going. He stated,

I hauled cotton to Memphis. I commenced hauling cotton the year after the Yankees took Memphis, and continued to haul cotton until the close of the war. I got through the rebel lines by traveling at night. Sometimes the federals occupied all the way to Memphis. I never brought anything out without a permit. I never hauled for anybody but myself. I mean I always drove my own team, but I hauled cotton. for any who would pay my price. At first I got $60 per bale, and afterwards $50 per bale freight. I could haul two bales. I could go to Memphis in a day and a night. It is fifty miles. It took the same time to come back. I got the privilege of going in and coming out of the lines-I never was delayed any by them.

Govan added that he had a pass from the government and that as the commanders at Memphis changed he received new passes. Though we know little of it, what Govan's statement recovers is a wartime system in which blacks not in the service and not residing within the camps could nevertheless find employment of sorts with the federal government. It certainly had gotten into the business of growing and selling cotton and of buying it also from those planters, who had signed the loyalty oath. Someone had to deliver the cotton, someone had to gin an bale it prior. Janet Sharp Hermann's relaying of the story of the Montgomerys of Davis Bend indicates not only how deeply involved in the cotton trade blacks continued to be during the war but that they wished to control as much of the process as possible. Blacks knew the whole cotton business, as well as how to make money from its parts. Theirs was knowledge valued during slavery and during the war.

I marvel at Govan's language. "I never hauled for anybody but myself...I always drove my own team...I hauled for any who would pay my price." Govan stated that he was afraid of whites, yet he knew how to bargain. He knew how to demand and get his price. His agency is clear and remarkable. In his sixth decade, he has been a slave most of his life, and yet, ironically, he possesses of a sense of a right to property. Even while still on Mrs. Govan's plantation--from which she is herself absent--he has property, his own team, and, in this way, he has developed a sense of independence. He hauled the cotton of others, but he did so with his own team, to his own profit, not to theirs.

I have faith that the evidence is out there, right around the corner that John Eaton, Jr.'s multitude of teamsters, members of the Invalid Corps, were much like Govan, middle aged men who knew how to make money both before the war and during. There is little doubt that they did not begin teamstering in 1863 or that they hadn't already seen the Memphis cotton market. There is little doubt that they were not sharp bargainers.

*Note: the embedded painting is from my personal collection