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Reconstruction in the Cane Field: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana’s Sugar Parishes 1862-1880

Author(s):Rodrigue, John C.
Reviewer(s):Kenzer, Robert C.

Published by EH.NET (October 2001)

John C. Rodrigue, Reconstruction in the Cane Field: From Slavery to Free

Labor in Louisiana’s Sugar Parishes 1862-1880. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana

State University Press, 2001. xiii + 224 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN:

0-8071-2656-x; $19.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8071-2728-0.

Reviewed for EH-NET by Robert C. Kenzer, Department of History, University of


John C. Rodrigue (Department of History, Louisiana State University) focuses

on an exceptional corner of the southern economy during the Civil War and the

decade and a half following the conflict’s conclusion. The sugar industry of

Louisiana was not only unique in national terms since sugar production was

confined largely just to that single state, but more significantly, according

to Rodrigue, because circumstances unique to sugar production created

conditions which would lead its postwar labor system to follow a different

road than the much larger cotton South. The most distinct circumstance was

that sugar production culminated in the highly labor intensive two month

rolling season when the crop was harvested, the cane crushed, the juice

boiled, and the granulation (“striking”) process was completed. During this

critical period the planter class relied heavily on the discipline of its

large labor force.

This book begins by laying the foundation for the wartime and postbellum

situation in Louisiana’s sugar parishes by tracing the major characteristics

of Louisiana’s sugar planter elite and slave labor force. On the eve of the

Civil War Louisiana’s sugar planter elite was composed of 525 owners of at

least 50 slaves who resided in a thirteen-parish area south of Baton Rouge.

This group controlled about two-thirds of the slaves as well as improved

acreage in this area and produced nearly four-fifths of the state’s sugar

crop. Rodrigue points out that this elite’s proximity to New Orleans gave it

a much more cosmopolitan outlook than the general southern planter elite, a

perspective which oriented it towards the Whig party. Further, since its level

of production ranked this elite far below foreign producers, Louisiana’s sugar

planters exerted far less control over the international market for sugar than

did American cotton farmers of “King Cotton.” The most outstanding fact

Rodrigue provides about the slaves who labored under this elite was that among

the productive age group between ages 15 and 59 there were 1.4 males for

every female. He suggests at this early point of the work that this

demographic imbalance would have important long-term implications as “the

preponderance of single, unattached young men would contribute to what

planters viewed as the unstable and transient character of their labor forces

under free labor” (pp. 30-31).

What makes the history of the emancipation of Louisiana’s sugar producing

slaves so interesting is that it took place early in the war with New Orleans’

capture by Union forces in April 1862. Rodrigue devotes an entire chapter to

the process by which a series of Union army commanders attempted to

restructure the system of labor in the sugar area. General Benjamin F. Butler

began this process by establishing guidelines in 1862 by which planters would

pay male laborers monthly cash wages as well as provide them with food,

housing, and medical care. The planter class reacted swiftly by following a

“scorched-earth strategy” to “throw the region into further chaos” and drive

“away the slaves” (p. 38). As a result, sugar production in 1862 stood at only

one-fourth its 1861 level. The next year planters met with General Nathaniel

P. Banks, Butler’s replacement, to obtain his aid in regaining “control over

their workers” (p. 39). While Banks was willing to work with planters whose

political support he needed, Rodrigue observes, they proved unwilling to

“accept anything besides slavery” (p. 40). Banks issued Order 12 that created

a system of share-wage arrangements in which freedmen would be paid monthly

wages. Rodrigue stresses, “Unlike their former masters, ex-slaves did not see

free labor and sugar production as mutually exclusive” (p. 41). Hence, while

they “rejected masterism,” the freedmen “repudiated neither sugar production

nor its plantation regimen” so long as “planters did not think of and treat

them as slaves” (p. 41). Despite these concessions to the freedmen, Banks, by

establishing “the rudiments of a free-labor market” (p. 45) also agreed to the

key provision planters requested — that they be allowed to withhold paying

workers half their wages in reserve until the end of the rolling season.

Hence, by the time the war ended, “Despite the bitterness between them,

planters and freedmen were symbiotically constructing a new order” as both

sides “moved in tandem, grudgingly and reluctantly, but inexorably forward”

(pp. 54-55).

Chapter 3 seeks to explain why the sugar region did not develop a system of

sharecropping and tenancy like the cotton South. Rodrigue argues that what

differentiated this region from the cotton South was that “certain factors

inherent in growing cane, converting its juice into sugar, and marketing the

crop all militated against sharecropping and tenancy” (p. 75). The

“coordination between the field and mill during the rolling season” and the

“collective process of cane, created obstacles difficult to surmount.”

Further, the significant variation in quality of cane as well as a variety of

complex marketing issues precluded dividing the crop. But for Rodrigue, the

ultimate factor which impeded a system of sharecropping from emerging was the

“ingrained conservatism” of the planter elite which led them to “[c]onsidering

sugar production an indivisible process, they regarded growing cane and

converting its juice into sugar as inseparable” (pp. 75-76). What made the

situation in sugar production so unusual for the South was that sugar planters

would be forced to pay the price for their decision as their laborers earned

nearly twice as much in annual gross earnings than southern black

sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

In 1867 the relationship between sugar planters and workers changed

dramatically when Congress mandated black suffrage. Rodrigue convincingly

explains that while suffrage was a critical issue throughout the South, there

were “consequences specific to the sugar region” where “black grassroots

political activity” would be more successful in a labor environment where

“freedmen who lived and worked together could unite in moments of crisis” (p.

78). Surely planters were sensitive to this fact as they “quickly pinpointed

the link between agricultural struggle and freedmen’s political power” (p.

81). The one shortcoming of this chapter, however, is that because so many

other scholars have written on the political situation in Louisiana during

this period, Rodrigue does not feel the need to provide a fuller narrative.

Instead, he devotes ten pages (pp. 84-94) to tracing how planters adjusted to

the new labor system. Perhaps it would have been more fruitful to describe how

the Republican Party at the state and local level addressed the labor issue

in meetings, speeches, and platforms. In other words, was it just that the

sugar region’s environment encouraged a vigorous political community or was

there a clear tie between the desires of black laborers and the party with

which they were aligned?

Chapter 5 traces the slow recovery of the sugar industry after the war.

Indeed, it would not be until 1894 that Louisiana sugar production reached its

1861 level. Between 1860 and 1875 the share of Louisiana-grown sugar consumed

in the United States declined from about one-fourth to just under one-tenth.

While per capita sugar consumption in the nation rose dramatically, the demand

was largely met by foreign producers as world wide production of beet and cane

sugar doubled between 1860 and 1880; concurrently Louisiana’s world wide

share of sugar production fell from 5.9 to 2.9%. Though their market share

declined considerably, Louisiana sugar planters continued to control most of

the assets in the southern part of their state. They maintained this control

despite experiencing a much higher turnover rate than Mississippi River cotton

planters. During the immediate postwar years a four parish sample indicates

that only about one-third of the 1880 sugar planters had held their planter

status before the war compared to more than half of Mississippi cotton farmers

(Table 7, p. 109). Rodrigue’s detailed analysis of the postwar planter elite

concludes that despite the fact that northerners “never dominated the

industry,” that by “infusing new ideas and capital . . . they were in the

vanguard of its modernization during the late nineteenth century” (p. 112)

“With an unstable labor situation and a changing world sugar market cutting at

their economic well-being,” Rodrigue finds, “forward-thinking planters

started looking to technology as their salvation” (p. 116). Sources of

productivity changes from 1877 to 1901 (Table 13, p. 117) show that “output

for field operations decreased while output for milling operations rose

significantly.” The most critical shift was the replacement of pan kettles

with vacuum pans in the “boiling” process (Tables 14 and 15, pp. 118-119).

Rodrigue concludes, “Technological improvements accorded planters an indirect

solution to the labor problem, but the labor problem did not, of and by

itself, inevitably cause the sugar industry’s modernization” (p. 118).

Chapters 6 and 7 analyze the sugar labor force’s development during the 1870s.

Rodrigue begins by emphasizing, “Planters and managers recognized that the

best way to secure reliable workers was to hire men with families” (p. 123).

While he makes a convincing case for this recognition, there is some

expectation that he will tie this observation back to Chapter 1 when he noted

the skewed adult male population among slaves. However, this link is never

drawn. Indeed, though the book features extensive statistical, economic and

political analysis in its twenty tables, it is much thinner on demography.

Nevertheless, the work skillfully uses the records of the “Uncle Sam”

Plantation in St. James Parish from 1865 to 1878 to find that on average 25.2

percent of the regular workers were new each year. Further, during the rolling

season there often was as much as a tripling in the number of workers on

plantations. While many of these additional workers were family members, a

large share were “young, single men with no familial” (p. 126) tie to the

existing labor force who were attracted by the high wages offered during this

critical part of the year. Indeed, Rodrigue identifies a significant share of

the work force in the sugar region as task laborers — “jobbers” — who

performed such essential short-term tasks as maintaining ditches and roads,

repairing levees, and chopping wood for cash wages. Other workers would hire

themselves on a daily or monthly basis before determining if they would want

to remain on a particular plantation. Some planters even allowed squatters on

their swampland or unimproved acreage so long as these workers agreed to drain

or improve these holdings. Despite this work force diversity, the one

universal aspect of the emerging labor force in the region Rodrigue identifies

was the planters’ failure, compared to the cotton South, to establish a

sharecropping system. The mobility of the workforce and the intense

competition of planters to attract and maintain workers through the rolling

season created a “vicious circle that planters could not break” (p. 133). All

attempts to attract additional black workers from Virginia, or Chinese, or

European immigrants failed. Indeed, conditions were so favorable for the sugar

workers that by the end of the 1870s they were able to gain weekly

compensation during the rolling season and they now only had one-third of

their wages withheld by the planter each month rather than half until the

rolling season ended. Further, because they received wages on a fairly

constant basis, sugar workers, unlike their counterparts in cotton, did not

have to buy commodities on credit under the crop lien system.

The book concludes by examining the impact of Redemption on black economic

opportunity. In doing so it questions the notion that the tariff and sugar

planters’ political leanings might explain why “the Republican Party and black

political rights endured in the sugar region” (p. 174) beyond the end of

Reconstruction. Rodrigue determines that “southern Louisiana’s distinct

political character was rooted in the process of sugar production as well as

in the resulting modes of labor organization.” That black sugar workers

“exercised political power when many in the cotton South no longer did so

underscores how black grassroots political mobilization and the labor

arrangements that sugar production engendered continued to reinforce each

other well after Reconstruction” (p. 74). By comparing the sugar region to the

cotton producing Natchez District of the state — both of which contained

black majorities — he finds that in the latter area the Democrat’s gained

firm control by the late 1870s using “systematic intimidation and fraud” where

in the sugar region the “persistence of black and Republican politics” was the

result of the “realities of sugar production” (p. 176). Sugar planters simply

refused to risk causing an exodus of their labor force by manipulating

elections that were held at the identical time of the year when they needed

every hand available for the rolling season. Further, “sugar plantations’

centralized routine enabled freedmen to sustain a unity that their

counterparts in the cotton South, dispersed as they were throughout the

countryside, could not match.” The working units and residential system of

sugar workers “allowed freedmen to mobilize collectively for self-defense and

to keep potential defectors in line. The cohesion that sugar workers achieved

through their labor afforded them a measure of control over their collective

destiny” (pp. 176-177).

Though it falls beyond the chronological scope of Rodrigue’s work, the

Epilogue examines the Thibodaux Massacre in late November 1887 to explain how

this event “brought to a head twenty-five years of conflict” between the sugar

planters and their workers. While previous labor strikes in 1874 and 1880 in

the sugar region had ended peacefully, the combination of the role of outside

agitation in the form of the Knights of Labor, the potential of ten thousand

strikers leaving their jobs and, most importantly, the scheduling of the

strike at the outset of the rolling season, caused planters to believe “they

had no choice” (p. 190) but to fight back even if breaking the strike

necessitated killing dozens of workers. “The massacre,” Rodrigue concludes,

represents “an epilogue to the story of emancipation and a prologue to the

saga of Jim Crow and the white lynch mob” (p. 191).

While the story of wartime and postbellum black sugar workers in Louisiana is

exceptional in the wider perspective of the economy of the South during this

era, Rodrigue’s work supports the notion that by studying exceptions we often

gain a fuller understanding of the factors that shape the rule. In this case

the internal dynamics of the mode of production and particularly the critical

period of the rolling season permitted sugar workers to hold a card in the

labor market that most southern blacks were never dealt. In conclusion, not

only does Rodrigue tell a fascinating story, but he also skillfully crafts its

presentation. For example, when observing the sugar region’s unique political

situation after Redemption, he contends, “The sugar region thus remained a

Republican oasis, but only within a Democratic desert” (p. 177).

Robert C. Kenzer is William Binford Vest Professor of History at the

University of Richmond. The author of Enterprising Southerners: Black

Economic Success in North Carolina, 1865-1915 (1997), he currently is

researching the life course of southern Civil War widows.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century