"As Few Able Bodied Men as Possible Will be Allowed to Gather on the Place": Emancipation, Disability, and Dependence in Union-Occupied Louisiana

Friday, January 2, 2015: 1:20 PM
Conference Room J (Sheraton New York)
William Pritchard, University at Buffalo (State University of New York)
My paper considers the ways that gender, age, and disability made the transition to freedom a harrowing experience for many emancipated slaves in Union-occupied Louisiana.  By 1864, the Department of the Gulf’s Bureau of Free Labor faced a significant problem in their attempts to resuscitate south Louisiana’s cash crop economy. Contract labor agreements, occupation government policies, and anti-vagrancy laws worked in concert to prescribe an idealized version of freedom: able-bodied men would remain in the countryside, work on contracts for wages, and support a family of dependents who would only perform minimal agricultural labor. However, during the war and in its immediate aftermath, many former slaves in Union-occupied Louisiana simply could not support themselves or their families through physical toil. As a result, nearly two thousand destitute freedpeople moved to home colonies. Housed on abandoned plantations, the home colonies attempted to serve as a government safety net which would help former slaves who did not easily fit into the occupation government’s designs for an emancipated workforce, such as women and children, the elderly, and those with disabilities.  On the Department’s four home colonies, government officials were supposed to offer the emancipated left out by the transition to free labor a safe, healthful environment while ensuring that they worked as much as they could to avoid  becoming dependent on the federal government for subsistence.  The home colonies never accomplished these goals and were all closed by the 1866.  Instead, residents suffered from malnutrition, poor medical care, and inadequate shelter.