Field Slaves: An Overview

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Field Slaves: An Overview

The disappearance of slavery in other parts of the country during the early national period did not inspire southerners to give up their peculiar institution. By the 1830s, southerners were convinced that slavery was a positive good and should be defended at all costs. The planter aristocracy enlisted the support of nonslave-holding whites to help them maintain their unique way of life. After all, masters wanted to maximize the return on their investment in human property. Slave labor was the lifeblood of farms and plantations across the South. The planters' economic system perpetuated the exploitation of black men and women during the antebellum years. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the slaves worked in the arena of cultivating crops. The evidence reveals that approximately three-quarters of the adult slaves worked as field laborers while one-quarter had other duties (Kolchin 1993, p. 105).

Field labor was as strenuous as it was varied. The seasons, regions of the South, and the size of the farms were significant factors in determining the treatment and performance expectations of field slaves. Doubtless, the summer months were the most arduous because of the long days and the increase in the quantity of work that had to be done. The harvesting of crops was an especially busy time on the plantations, which required workdays approaching fifteen hours. Sugar and cotton farmers of Louisiana had a reputation for working their laborers hard. It should be mentioned that hard work and relentless pushing by slave owners were not limited to the states of the Deep South. Frederick Douglass (1817–1895), one of the most notable Americans of the nineteenth century, described his experience as an overworked field slave on a Maryland farm in his autobiography. He wrote: "We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field" (1960, p. 94).

Although it was the preference of planters to avoid night work, the practice was nonetheless widespread throughout the slave kingdom. According to one historian, "slaves rarely escaped it entirely" and working late into the night "was almost universal on sugar plantations during the grinding season, and on cotton plantations when the crop was being picked, ginned, and packed" (Stampp 1989, p. 80). Solomon Northup (b. 1808), a free Negro, who had the misfortune of being kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, remembered toiling at night on many occasions. He recorded for posterity his observations of field laborers. Northup noted that "The hands are required to be in the cotton fields as soon as it is light in the morning … they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they often times labor till the middle of the night" (1968, p. 126).

Planters demanded that their bondmen do a full day's work whether in cotton, tobacco, rice, sugar, hemp, or building fences. Because of excessive expectations, field hands were routinely overworked. Although the slaves were bedeviled by difficult workdays, rest was essential for their survival. Louis Hughes (b. 1832) provided a vivid account of slave life on a cotton plantation in Virginia when he penned his autobiography. He reminisced that "The slaves never had any breakfast, but went to the field at daylight and after working till the sun was well up, all would stop for their morning bite" (1969, pp. 38-39). The main meal of the workday occurred at noon and coincided with a two-hour break for the slaves. It was standard practice for planters to give their slaves Sundays off for their personal use. Although cruelness and harshness were constant elements of the institution, the slaveholding class was not homogeneous. The recollection of Julia Brown, who was a slave on a plantation in Georgia, was that "[s]ome of the white folks was very kind to their slaves" (Yetman 2002, p. 22).

Slave owners frequently complained about the difficulty of managing their bondsmen. The management structure on large plantations often included an overseer and a driver. The overseer had to know when and how to prod the field hands under his control. Furthermore, he had the responsibility of maintaining discipline and administering punishment. The whipping of field slaves for the slightest transgression was a common occurrence in the South. It was clear that the expectation of the overseer was the production of a good crop by his workers. The black driver occupied a precarious position in the hierarchy of the plantation because his loyalties were divided between the master and the slaves. Planters devised various methods of managing their chattels, fully aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each scheme. The gang system and the task system were the most popular, and it was almost certain that a field hand would experience both during his time in bondage.

On many southern plantations, slave women toiled in the fields alongside the men. They picked cotton, plowed, hoed, and cleared new land. The performance threshold for women was usually lower than for men. Masters, however, required their female hands to work with alacrity and skill. The gender roles on the plantations were clearly defined. Historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese concluded that the "overwhelming majority of adult slave women returned from their work in the fields to cook, wash, sew, knit, weave, or do other kinds of work" (1988, p. 177). Regardless of regional variations or diversity of tasks, slave women were unable to escape the brutal nature of plantation life.

The plantation was a complex enterprise consisting of many parts. Foremost among them were the field slaves. The work regimen of the slaves was commonly regulated by the size of the holdings and planter demands. Numerous masters believed that their workforce could only be productive by the imposition of strict supervision. No amount of control, however, could completely suppress the rebellious spirit of the slaves. Full-blown insurrections combined with individual acts of resistance served as constant reminders of the slaves' dissatisfaction with their condition of bondage. Looking through the telescope of retrospect, the field slaves appreciated their liberation at the hands of Union soldiers.


Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, [1845], ed. Benjamin Quarles. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Hughes, Louis. Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom; the Institution of Slavery as Seen on the Plantation and in the Home of the Planter; Autobiography of Louis Hughes [1897]. Reprint, Miami: Mnemosyne, 1969.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619–1877. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years A Slave: A Slave Narrative of Solomon Northup [1853]. Eds. Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Yetman, Norman R., ed. When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002.

                                 Leonne M. Hudson