Weird History

Chain Gangs Were The South's Answer To Freeing The Slaves 

Justin Andress
Updated April 24, 2019 30.2k views 15 items

For years following the end of the Civil War, men throughout the United States - and the South in particular - were forced to pay their debt to society chained to a string of fellow prisoners and breaking their backs in the hot sun. The brutal realities about chain gangs mark some of the most shameful chapters in the history of the American correctional movement. The day-to-day life of chain gangs in the Southern states was exceptionally unforgiving.

In 1912, the National Committee on Prison Labor decried chain gangs as "the last vestige of the slave system," claiming that hundreds and possibly thousands of prisoners had lost their lives as a result of abuse and malnutrition. Southern chain gang facts chronicle one of the darkest moments in the often sordid timeline of the United States.

What were chain gangs like for prisoners? How did chain gangs work? They were more than a means of passing the time for prisoners and their jailors - simply put, they were terrifying.

Southern Reconstruction Spawned The First Chain Gangs
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Photo: Notwist/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Southern states may have started the Civil War, but they also took the biggest beating. Most of the war was fought in the South in Virginia and Tennessee.

In the years following the Civil War, the South was in ruins. Most of the jails were completely destroyed. Those that weren’t were stuffed to the gills. The post-war chaos was a breeding ground for criminals, and the draconian laws of the Southern states had a way of ensnaring newly freed black men. It was here that the first chain gangs were implemented.

African Americans Made Up The Vast Majority Of Chain Gangs
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Photo: Detroit Publishing Co./Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

African Americans were overwhelmingly sent to work in chain gangs, while white prisoners were sent to serve their terms in jail. One report from 1918 attempted to explain the reasoning behind this decision:

"The absence of white men from the gang has further raised the score there being now no question of separation of the races either at work or in camp. The foreman stated to us that the authorities have decided to work no more whites on the chain gang but to send them to the Penitentiary or allow them to serve their sentences in jail. This is a wise decision."

They Were Touted As Humanitarian Achievements
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Photo: Alan Lomax/Wikipedia/Public Domain

In the toxic environment of the post-Civil War South, the mostly-white authorities thought that chain gangs could kill two birds with one stone. They would relieve overcrowding in the prisons, and would help restore the South’s infrastructure. Of course, the thought of putting a white prisoner in chains and having them work in the blistering sun was "an intolerable inversion of a divinely ordained social hierarchy."

As a result, the authorities put thousands of black men in chains and congratulated themselves for it. One convict labor advocate, Joseph Hyde Pratt, even said, "Life in the convict road camp... is more conducive to maintaining and building up the general health and manhood of the convict than when he is confined behind prison walls."

The Attire Was Intended To Be Humiliating
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Photo: Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In several states, chain gangs were given instantly recognizable black-and-white-striped uniforms. Combined with the uncomfortable chains that bounds them together, this apparel was a constant source of embarrassment.

Quaker humanitarian groups were horrified by the prisoners' response to the clothes. Some said they would rather die than continue working in the chain gang.