The Riggs Family: Forced Labor During the Civil War

Abraham “A.B.” Riggs (1816 -1886) listed 14 enslaved souls in the 1860 census, among them my 4th great-grandmother Harriet Riggs (1820 -1874) and her family. Harriet and her children were enslaved by Abraham Riggs from 1849 – 1865, prior to that by Dicey Nevils-Donaldson-Mikell (as dower slaves) and formerly belonging to Jacob Nevils, my white 5th great-grandfather. Abraham Rigg’s enslaved labor increased by marriage by 9 since the 1850 slave census. Dr. Alvin Jackson, a historian, and director of the Bulloch county-based Willow Hill School Heritage & Renaissance Center, has shared that Harriet may have had another son named “William.” William Riggs does not show up in records connected to Harriet, but a recently added collection of documents to Ancestry reveals an enslaved man named William labored for the Confederacy against his will in Savannah – loaned out by Abraham Riggs to support white supremacy.

I’ve shared previously, Abraham Riggs was a large planter in Statesboro, Georgia, about 55 miles west of Savannah. in 1860, Abraham Riggs land was worth $400, but his personal estate was worth, $13,564 (wealth tied up in slaves that would be over $450,000 today). In 1870 after the war, his personal estate was just $150.

In January 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued and signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring “all persons held as slaves,” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward, shall be free.” The proclamation was anticipated in advance by the black community (free and enslaved) as Lincoln made the promise in the fall over a hundred days earlier and word had spread it was coming. As ambitious as the proclamation was, it meant nothing to the Confederates except further provocation to battle to keep the institution of slavery, and their wealth.

Ever the profiteer of misery, Abraham Riggs sent one of his enslaved, William Riggs, to serve as enslaved labor for the Confederacy in December 1863, just under a year after the proclamation. William worked for just over 3 months. Abraham earned about $80 for William’s toil. Abraham’s recognizable signature can be found on the payroll listing the enslaved and amounts he was paid. Likely he made the transaction during the furlough.

“We, the Subscribers, acknowledge to have received of Captain John McGrady, C.S. the sums set opposite our names respectively, being in full for the service of our Slaves at Savannah, GA during the months of Aug. Sept. oct. Nov. Dec. 1863 having signed duplicate receipts”

US, Confederate Payrolls for Enslaved Labor
US, Confederate Payrolls for Enslaved Labor, source: Ancestry.

Throughout the Civil War, Savannah was well-fortified by Confederate forces. Fort McAllister lay along the Ogeechee River to the South and guarded entry from the South through the Ossabaw area. To the North of the city, Fort Jackson protected just a few miles upstream on the Savannah River. However, the Union army was a constant and ever-present threat. Since 1862, Union forces occupied Fort Pulaski in Tybee just 18 miles south on the Savannah River. The Commander of the South was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, infamous for leading the attack on Fort Sumter that started the war in 1861. He approved the evacuation of Savannah when General Sherman’s fateful march arrived with 62,000 Union soldiers. Several naval battles took place between raiders and ironside vessels in the rivers and seas around Savannah.

source. Harpers Bazaar, “Rebels Evacuating Savannah”.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis toured Savannah in October 1863 and surely admired the fortifications that stolen labor created to buttress white supremacy. He couldn’t realize that a little more than a year later, Fort McAllister would fall ahead of Sherman’s siege of Savannah.

What was life like for William while he was in Savannah those short three and a half months? First, Savannah was a porous city, where Confederates, enslaved blacks, free blacks, Irish and German immigrants, intermixed relatively freely. Union spies traveled through Georgia’s largest port where cotton was exported throughout the war. In fact, Savannah exported over $18 million dollars of cotton in 1860, nearly half a billion in today’s dollars. Rice, lumber, indigo were other common exports. Savannah’s population was about 23K with about 7.5K enslaved souls in 1860 but the number swelled throughout the war with refugees, enslaved forcibly brought into the city to dig trenches and battlements, and of course soldiers. William was in all likelihood, a fish-out-of0water in the city where urban enslaved understood how to navigate the customs, laws, and city life. Blacks worked on riverboats, hotels, grocers, with most at the railyards where the Central Railroad or Savannah, Albany, and Gulf Railroad intersected.

Perhaps William took spiritual refuge in the church? The First African Baptist Church in Savannah pre-dated emancipation and constituted in 1777. The oldest black church in North America was home to free blacks and enslaved, and even whites attended sermons by black pastors. There is evidence that the First African Baptist Church was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

After the war, Abraham Riggs returned to his plantation in Bulloch County where he eventually signed a Reconstruction Oath to the United States in August 1867 in order to participate in a vote to send delegates to the Georgia Constitutional Convention. In all 33 African Americans attended and 137 whites as delegates. At the desk of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Riggs signed contracts with his formerly enslaved to pay them for the labor on his farms. Eventually, the formerly enslaved Riggs became landowners themselves.

What happened to William? It is unclear whether William returned to the Riggs plantation or slipped away to freedom. Or perhaps he died there among the hundreds of enslaved who became sick and ill. His service lasted three months and twelve days, until mid-March, according to the payroll. William Riggs can not be found in the record afterward. We don’t know how old he was when he went to Savannah, nor if he was buried by family. William is a ghost, a cipher in payroll account, and yet, we knew that he was likely loved and missed by the 14 enslaved souls on Abraham Rigg’s plantation. He was lost, but had a life, even if it was a miserable one.

Harriet’s grandson William Henry Riggs was born in 1868 to Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish-Riggs. “Willie” Riggs may have been named for the man who labored against his will in Savannah in defense of slavery. But what a difference a generation makes. My great-great-granduncle William Henry Riggs graduated from Morehouse College and went on to teach young blacks during Reconstruction.

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