In 1865 an officer of the Freedmen's Bureau stationed in South Carolina was confounded by the behavior of his black clients. He wrote to his superiors in Washington, D.C., that former slaves from coastal plantations who had been relocated during the Civil War to inland sites "were crazy to get back to their native flats of ague and country fever." Similar reports came in from Mississippi and Louisiana as well.
One South Carolina freedman, after several years of service in the Union Army, did, in fact, return to take charge of a section of the plantation where he had previously lived and worked. Ignoring the protests of Thomas Pinckney, his former owner, he marched back to his old cabin and from its porch, rifle in hand, he declared, "Yes, I gwi wuk right here. I'd like tuh see any man put me outer dis house." Among emancipated slaves, freedom was presumed to go hand in hand with the right to own land, particularly the land they had worked for so many years. In a collective petition to President Andrew Johnson, a group of former slaves living on Edisto Island, South Carolina, clearly made this point when they protested the restoration of plantation lands to their former owners, declaring, "This is our home. We have made these lands what they are." Over and over again, newly emancipated blacks expressed a surprisingly intense connection to their former places of servitude. 1
Some observers dismissed these attachments simply as expressions of homesickness and considered them to be indications of the former slaves' need for white supervision. But for years black people had kept their own mental account books in which they reckoned the value of their uncompensated toil, and, with the North's victory in the Civil War, they tried to take advantage of a fleeting opportunity to obtain what they considered their justly deserved payment. Freedman Bayley Wyat of Yorktown, Virginia, in a speech given in 1865, was most explicit about his people's claims: "We has a right to the land where we are located. For why? I tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; that the reason we have a divine right to the land. . . . And den didn't we clear the land, and raise de crops ob corn, ob cotton, ob tobacco, ob rice, ob sugar, ob everything?"2 Blacks had made similar statements even while still enslaved,