Chain Gangs, South and North, During and Before the Civil War

The Wikipedia article on chain gangs* claims they began in the U. S. just after the Civil War. But that’s not the case. The chain gang was in use to punish convicts and reap the rewards of their labor long before the war began. And, again contrary to what the Wikipedia article implies, chain gangs were not just a Southern institution. They were employed both in the North and as far west as California.

* Here’s a link to the archive.org copy of the Wikipedia chain gang article as it existed at the time of this writing.

The chain gang in Virginia in 1860 and 1863

My attention was first drawn to the question of chain gangs in this country when I ran across the following article in the Richmond (VA) Daily Dispatch for August 14, 1863:

The Chain Gang

is being employed in cleaning the street gutters and improving grades. Superintendent Wicks seems to manage the prisoners by kindness and firmness, and has but little trouble with them. Many of the negroes are old offenders, and behave themselves with propriety, knowing the mode of punishment resorted to with refractory subjects.

The first thing that struck me about this article is the oxymoronic idea that people who were under the double whammy of being both black and incarcerated in a slave-holding society were receiving treatment that was kind as well as firm.

It seems that perhaps the firmness outweighed the kindness. The article makes it clear that prisoners had every reason to fear the punishment they could expect if they got out of line.

It’s also clear that service on the chain gang was a penance that was, in the public mind at least, reserved for blacks and not whites. The Dispatch seems to take for granted that readers would understand that the prisoners Supt. Wicks was managing on the chain gang were “negroes.” Apparently, no whites need apply.

Contrary to Wikipedia’s claim, the Dispatch article shows that the chain gang was already a well established institution in the Southern states by the mid-point of the Civil War.

1941 Oglethorpe County, GA Chain gang convicts and guard-Jack Delano 02 B

A Georgia chain gang in 1941

In fact, a little more research revealed that chain gangs were in use well before the war began. The Dispatch of December 13, 1860 carries another reference to the chain gang doing street repairs in Richmond.

The Chain Gang

are doing good service in repairing 4th street. The Mayor might probably employ many of the vagrants now in jail, by putting them to work.

That reference to “vagrants” raises the possibility that whites did serve on chain gangs. And perhaps some did. However, it was blacks, whether slave or free, who were most subject to being jailed for vagrancy.

It wasn’t just in the South that the chain gang was a favored means of both controlling prisoners and benefitting from their forced labor.

The chain gang in Ohio in 1859

The Journal of the Senate of the State of Ohio For The First Session of the Fifty-Fourth General Assembly, Volume 56, 1860, carries an entry about the pardoning of one Thomas Hughes, convicted of petit larceny. Hughes was sentenced in February of 1859 to six months at hard labor. But after he had served part of his term, county officials recommended that he be pardoned:

“on the ground that his offense was not of an aggravated character; that his health was likely to be seriously impaired if confined during the whole term; and that the punishment already suffered–forty-five days imprisonment before trial, and near four months hard labor upon the Hamilton county chain-gang–was a sufficient punishment for his offense.”

After an apparently strenuous term on the chain gang, Hughes got his pardon.

The chain gang in California in 1838 and 1850

In 1865 Theodore Henry Hittell published The General Laws of the State of California, from 1850 to 1864, Inclusive, Volume 1. The book includes the following reference:

Chain gang 01This appears to establish that chain gangs were in use in California (not yet a state) in 1850. I hesitate to affirm that only because I’m not sure whether the “Chain Gang” title for the section was in the original act, or was added as a descriptive title in the 1865 book.

The same caveat applies to the following reference published in 1890 in the book, History of California: 1848-1859 by Hubert Howe Bancroft, et al:

Chain gang 02Finally, the book General Vallejo and the Advent of the Americans: A Biography published in 1995 by Alan Rosenus gives the story of a man who was sentenced to eight months on a California chain gang in 1838 for killing cattle. Again, I’m not sure this reference establishes that the term “chain gang” was in use in 1838, rather than being a descriptive term employed by the author of the 1995 volume. But certainly the concept of requiring prisoners to labor on public works was current at the time.

VIDEO: Sam Cooke singing “Chain Gang”

There’s more to be discovered about chain gangs in the U. S.

These few facts about the use of chain gangs in the U. S. prior to the Civil War are the result of doing just a little research to refute the erroneous Wikipedia article. [See Wikipedia Can Be Unreliable: Known Errors Not Corrected]. I’m sure a comprehensive search could give a much fuller picture of when and how chain gangs were employed.

Maybe I’ll get around to that someday.

Ron Franklin

© 2016 Ronald E. Franklin

Photo credit: Jack Delano via Library of Congress

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