After the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, rich slave-owning planters rushed to the newly-owned fertile lands on the banks of the Mississippi River to build extravagant plantations. Sometime during the 1820s, a rich lawyer named Joseph Emory Davis was a prime example of this, as he found a soil-rich peninsula where he began new adventures as a cotton planter. Davis soon named his claim the “Hurricane Plantation”, but business boomed and he soon owned nearly all of the Peninsula, which he named as a whole Davis Bend. Although there are claims that Davis treated his slaves more favorably than most, he nonetheless was an owner of human beings and not a small number of them. In 1860, Davis reportedly owned 365 slaves, one of nine planters in the state who owned over 300. As he was one of the most wealthy people in the state due to the hard work of slaves, Davis sided with the Confederacy to preserve his way of life. Though, he did not seem to have much of a choice due to the fact that his younger brother, Jefferson Davis, was the President of the Confederate States of America. The latter Davis was also given ownership to slaves and land on the peninsula but did not stay there.
Davis Bend Gets New Ownership
As Union troops pushed down the Mississippi River led by rising star Ulysses S. Grant, they soon gained a crucial strategic chokepoint in Vicksburg. Being now only 25 miles South of enemy forces, Davis and his wife, Eliza, fled to Alabama leaving the slaves to fend for themselves. Ironically for Davis, his workforce that spanned 300-deep strived without him, as they broke into the main house, dividing up goods for themselves and kept the plantation operational, allowing them to be self-sustained. One man who was especially diligent in revamping the plantation was Benjamin Montgomery, who became a large piece in establishing it into a growing utopia.
By the time General Grant received word of Davis Bend, he realized it could be an example to all; proof that Black men and women could survive and contribute on equal levels to whites. He told his armies to leave the land as a paradise for freedmen, and it was leased to them as it would be to any other citizen. Showing their abilities, an infirmary, schoolhouse, and church were built by the growing town very quickly. The community also continued cotton production, but under their rules, bringing in $16,000 in profit “proving to skeptics that freed people can be fully productive, self-supporting members of society.”
The Lasting Impact
Davis Bend became a case study that showed slaves were as capable as the exploitative planters were, and thus showed some Northerners they fought on the right side of history (although some continued to be deeply ignorant). Many slaves from the Davis Bend area were allowed to join the Union army due to the Emancipation Proclamation, helping bring the defeat of slavery in the United States. On June 7th, 1863, a thousand troops defending Miliken’s Bend, located just outside of the peninsula, managed to fend off a Texas regiment double their size in a savage battle, leaving Southerner’s confused and Northerners delighted. When the news reached one Southern Belle she responded that it was “hard to believe that Southern soldiers — Texans at that — have been whipped by a mongrel crew of … Black Yankees. There must have been some mistake”. This is one example of how freed slaves began their collective mission for citizenship and equality. In the end, Davis Bend allowed these freedmen to prove themselves and make history, all on the land of those who despised them most. Can you imagine how the Davis family reacted when they heard the news?
Chernow, Ron. Grant. Penguin Press, 2017.
Keegan, John. The American Civil War. Pimlico Press, 2009.
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