Slaves as well as freemen rested on the Sabbath. There were times, too, when bad weather or the season of the year relieved the burden of work the field hands shouldered. The peak demand for labor came at the end of the season, at cotton-picking time, when every available hand, whatever his or her normal occupation, was needed in the fields. Indeed the productivity of the cotton plantation was limited more by this bottleneck at the point of picking than by the work rate or efficiency of the slave labor force throughout the year. The Old South had the capacity to grow more cotton than it could pick, and until that problem was solved, there was little incentive to mechanize or modernize the earlier stages of cotton cultivation.

Plantation slaves were classified as full or fractional (half, quarter, etc.) hands, with the old, the younger children, and the expectant and nursing mothers regarded as equivalent to something less than a full field hand. Slaves who were not working in the fields were full-time or part-time domestics, craftspersons, mechanics, gardeners, blacksmiths, carpenters, millers, seamstresses, or general workers. Skilled workers were often important figures in the work of the plantation ad in the life of the slave community. Household staff on some of the grander plantations were sometimes encouraged to give themselves a few airs and graces, but elsewhere the distinction between domestic servants and field slaves was much less clear-cut. A maid in the big house might share a cabi with a field-hand husband and their children. At peak times, domestic slaves were often required to work in the fields.

The organization and supervision of a substantial slave work force demanded considerable managerial skill.

there was often a world of difference between the ideal as expounded in print and the reality as it practiced amid all the vagaries of weather, pestilence, fluctuating prices, and irrepressible humanity of the owner’s slave property. On plantations large enough to justify such a management structure, the master would employ an overseer, usually white but occasionally black, who bore a considerable load of responsibility and shielded the owner from some of the more tedious and unpleasant aspects of slave ownership. The overseer was very much the man in the middle, under pressure from the master and often unpopular with the slaves. Required to maximize the crop while dealing fairly with the slaves, he lived from one insoluble dilemma to the next.