Chapter One


Either they deny the Negro’s humanity and feel no cause to measure his actions against civilized norms; or they protect themselves from their guilt in the Negro’s condition and from their fear that their cooks might poison them, or that their nursemaids might strangle their infant charges, or that their field hands might do them violence, by attributing to them a superhuman capacity for love, kindliness and forgiveness. Nor does this in any way contradict their stereotyped conviction that all Negroes (meaning those with whom they have no contact) are given to the most animal behavior.


ROBERT MURRAY could already sense the change in his “white folks.” As a young slave, dividing his time between running errands and tending the horses, he had been treated tolerably well. “Massa” had been generous in providing food and clothing, “missus” had ignored both law and custom to teach several of the slaves to read, and the slave children had usually found a warm welcome in the Big House. “Been treat us like we’s one de fambly,” Murray recalled. “Jus’ so we treat de white folks ’spectable an’ wu’k ha’hd.” After the election of Abraham Lincoln, however, “it all diffrunt.” The easy familiarity of the master and mistress gave way to suspicious glances, and the slaves were permitted less freedom of movement around the place. When the children ventured up to the Big House, as they had done so often in the past, the master or mistress now barred their way and offered excuses for not inviting them inside. “Don’ go in de Big House no mo’, chillun,” Robert Murray’s mother advised them. “I know whut de trouble. Dey s’pose we all wants ter be free.”2

On the eve of the Civil War, the more than four million slaves and free blacks comprised nearly 40 percent of the population of the South. Although most slaveholders owned less than ten slaves, the majority of slaves worked as field hands on plantation-size units which held more than twenty slaves, and at least a quarter of the slave force lived in units of more than fifty slaves. Even without the added disruption of war, the awesome presence of so many blacks could seldom be ignored. While to the occasional visitor they might blend picturesquely into the landscape and seem almost inseparable from it, native whites were preoccupied with their reality. Oftentimes, in fact, they could talk of little else. Wavering between moods of condescension, suspicion, and hostility, slaveholding families acknowledged by their conversations and daily conduct a relationship with their blacks that was riddled with ambiguity. When the Civil War broke out, with the attendant problems of military invasion and plantations stripped of their white males, that ambiguity would assume worrisome dimensions for some, it would lure others into a false sense of security, and it would drive still more into fits of anguish.

Within easy earshot of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose husband was an extensive planter and political leader in South Carolina, tried in vain to penetrate behind the inscrutable faces of her servants. Why did they not betray some emotion or interest? How could they go about their daily chores seemingly unconcerned that their own destiny might be in the balance but a few miles away? “Not by one word or look can we detect any change in the demeanor of these Negro servants. Lawrence sits at our door, as sleepy and as respectful and as profoundly indifferent. So are they all. They carry it too far. You could not tell that they even hear the awful noise that is going on in the bay, though it is dinning in their ears night and day. And people talk before them as if they were chairs and tables, and they make no sign.” This almost studied indifference obviously troubled Mary Chesnut as much as it might have comforted and reassured her. “Are they stolidly stupid,” she wondered, “or wiser than we are, silent and strong, biding their time?”3

The slaves were no less observant of their “white folks.” Although blacks had always been aware of frailties in their owners, the system of slavery had been based on the acknowledged power of the white man. But the Civil War introduced tensions and tragedies into the lives of masters and mistresses that made them seem less than omnipotent, perhaps even suddenly human in ways blacks had thought impossible. Rarely had slaves perceived their owners so utterly at the mercy of circumstances over which they had no control. Never before had they seemed so vulnerable, so beleaguered, so helpless. Unprecedented in the disruptions, stresses, and trauma it generated among both whites and blacks, the Civil War threatened to undermine traditional relationships and dissolve long-held assumptions and illusions. Even if many slaves evinced a human compassion for masters and mistresses caught in the terrible plight of war, invasion, and death, how long before these same slaves came to recognize that in the very suffering of their “white folks” lay their own freedom and salvation?


DURING THE EARLY MONTHS, neither the whites nor the blacks appeared to grasp fully the nature of this war. The mobilization took on an almost festive air, exposing the slaves to unusual sights and sounds and affording them a welcome diversion from their day-to-day chores. They watched the military drills with fascination, learned the words of the patriotic songs, and stood with whites in the courthouse square to listen to the bombastic and confident speeches. “You’d thought the Confederates goin’ win the War,” John Wright speculated, after hearing Jefferson Davis address an enthusiastic crowd in Montgomery, Alabama. “But I notice Massa Wright look right solemn when we go back home. Don’ believe he ever was sure the South goin’ win.” When the soldiers prepared to leave for the front, the festivities gave way to sobering farewells that made a deep impression on some of the blacks. “Mis’ Polly an’ de ladies got to cryin’,” recalled Sarah Debro, who spent the war years as a young house slave in a North Carolina family. “I was so sad dat I got over in de corner an’ cried too.”4

The patriotic fervor and martial displays suggested a quick and glorious triumph. So confident was a North Carolina planter that he had his son candidly explain the issues to the slaves: “There is a war commenced between the North and the South. If the North whups, you will be as free a man as I is. If the South whups, you will be a slave all your days.” Before leaving, the master jokingly told the slaves that he expected to “whup the North” and be back for dinner. “He went away,” one of his slaves recalled, “and it wuz four long years before he cum back to dinner. De table wuz shore set a long time for him. A lot of de white folks said dey wouldn’t be much war, dey could whup dem so easy. Many of dem never did come back to dinner.”5

Neither white nor black Southerners were unaffected by the physical and emotional demands of the war. Scarcities of food and clothing, for example, imposed hardships on both races. But the slaves and their masters did not share these privations equally; black families could ill afford any reduction in their daily allowances, and they observed with growing bitterness that provisions needed to sustain them were often dispatched to the Army or hoarded for the comfort of their “white folks.” Reduced diets opened the way for all kinds of ailments in weak and undernourished bodies, and yet there was no corresponding reduction in the hours of labor demanded of the slaves or in the diligence with which they were expected to carry out their assigned tasks. Later in the war, depredations committed by both Confederate and Union soldiers nearly exhausted the food supplies in some regions, and many a slave repeated the complaint made by Pauline Grice of Georgia: “De year ’fore surrender, us am short of rations and sometime us hongry.… Dey [the soldiers] done took all de rations and us couldn’t eat de cotton.” Even earlier, the shortage of food had driven slaves to the point of desperation; incidents of theft mounted steadily, some slaves went out on foraging missions (with the tacit consent of their owners), while still others preferred to risk flight to the Yankees rather than experience constant hunger. When asked if the Emancipation Proclamation had prompted his flight to the nearest Union camp, one slave responded, “No, missus, we never hear nothing like it. We’s starvin’, and we come to get somfin’ to eat. Dat’s what we come for.”6

Despite the wartime shortages, slaves were reluctant to surrender the traditional privileges they had wrested from their owners. Any master, for example, who decided to dispense with the usual Saturday-night dances, the annual barbecue, the “big supper” expected after a slave wedding, or the Christmas holiday festivities might find himself unable to command the respect and labor of his slaves. Nor did servants who enjoyed dressing up in their master’s or mistress’s cast-off finery to attend church believe that the Confederacy’s strictures on extravagance and ostentatious display applied to them. But no matter how disagreeable patriotic whites now found these displays, many slaveholders thought it best to tolerate them as a way of maintaining and rewarding loyalty in their blacks. When slaves dressed up in fine clothes, one white woman observed, they became “merry, noisy, loquacious creatures, wholly unconscious of care or anxiety.” Such diversions presumably took their minds off the larger implications of the war and rendered them more content with their position—at least, many whites preferred to think so.7

The extent of the slaves’ exposure to the war varied considerably, with those residing in the threatened and occupied regions obviously bearing the brunt of the disruptions along with the white families they served. In some sections of the South, however, life went on as usual, there were ample provisions, the white men remained at home, the slaves performed their daily routines, and the fighting remained distant. “The War didn’t change nothin’,” Felix Haywood of Texas recalled. “Sometimes you didn’t knowed it was goin’ on. It was the endin’ of it that made the difference.” By sharp contrast, a former Mississippi slave remembered feeling as though “the world was come to the end,” and Emma Hurley, who had been a slave in Georgia, recalled the war years as “the hardest an’ the saddest days” she had ever experienced. “Everybody went ’round like this [she took up her apron and buried her face in it]—they kivered their face with what-somever they had in their hands that would ketch the tears. Sorrow an’ sadness wuz on every side.”8

Even if the issues at stake were sometimes unclear, slaves could only marvel at a war that sent white men off to kill other white men, made a battleground of the southern countryside, and threatened to maim or destroy an entire generation of young free men. Recalling his most vivid impressions of the war, William Rose, who had been a slave in South Carolina, told of a troop train he had seen carrying Confederate soldiers to the front lines.

And they start to sing as they cross de trestle. One pick a banjo, one play de fiddle. They sing and whoop, they laugh; they holler to de people on de ground, and sing out, “Good-bye.” All going down to die.…

De train still rumble by. One gang of soldier on de top been playing card. I see um hold up de card as plain as day, when de luck fall right. They going to face bullet, but yet they play card, and sing and laugh like they in their own house.… All going down to die.

The scenes witnessed by slaves in the aftermath of battles fought near their homes would never be forgotten. Martha Cunningham, who had been raised near Knoxville, Tennessee, recalled walking over hundreds of dead soldiers lying on the ground and listening to the groans of the dying. William Walters and his mother, both of them fugitives from a plantation in Tennessee, watched the wounded being carried to a clearing across the road from where they had sought refuge—“fighting men with arms shot off, legs gone, faces blood smeared—some of them just laying there cussing God and Man with their dying breath!”9

The tales of self-sacrifice and martial heroism that would inspire future generations hardly suggested the savagery, the destructiveness, the terrifying and dehumanizing dimensions of this war. The initial exultation and military pomp had barely ended before the streams of wounded and maimed returned to their homes. Few slaves were immune to the human tragedies that befell the families to whom they belonged. They had known them too well, too intimately not to be affected in some way. “Us wus boys togedder, me en Marse Hampton, en wus jist er bout de same size,” Abram Harris recalled. “Hit sho did hurt me when Marse Hampton got kilt kase I lubed dat white man.” The tragedies that befell the Lipscomb family in South Carolina provoked one of their slaves, Lorenza Ezell, beyond mere compassion to outright anger and a desire for revenge. As he would later remember that reaction:

All four my young massas go to de war, all but Elias. He too old. Smith, he kilt at Manassas Junction. Nathan, he git he finger shot at de first round at Fort Sumter. But when Billy was wounded at Howard Gap in North Carolina and dey brung him home with he jaw split open, I so mad I could have kilt all de Yankees. I say I be happy iffen I could kill me jes’ one Yankee. I hated dem ’cause dey hurt my white people. Billy was disfigure awful when he jaw split and he teeth all shine through he cheek.

The sight of a once powerful white man reduced to an emotional or physical cripple, returning home without a leg or an arm, looking “so ragged an’ onery” as to be barely recognizable, generated some strong and no doubt some mixed emotions in the slaves, as did the spectacle of the whites grieving over a death. That was the first time, Nancy Smith recalled, “I had ever seed our Mist’ess cry. She jus’ walked up and down in de yard a-wringin’ her hands and cryin’. ‘Poor Benny’s been killed,’ she would say over and over.” After witnessing such scenes, another ex-slave recalled, “you would cry some wid out lettin your white folks see you.”10

If the plight of their masters moved some slaves to tears, that was by no means a universal reaction. Grief and the forced separation from loved ones were hardly new experiences in the lives of many slaves. To witness the discomfiture of white men and women suffering the same personal tragedies and disruptions they had inflicted on others might produce ambiguous feelings, at best, or even be a source of immense gratification. Delia Garlic, for example, was working as a field hand on a Louisiana plantation when the war broke out. Born in Virginia, and sold three times, she had been separated from the rest of her family. “Dem days was hell,” she would recall of her bondage.

Babies was snatched from dere mother’s breas’ an’ sold to speculators. Chilluns was separated from sisters an’ brothers an’ never saw each other ag’in. Course dey cry; you think dey not cry when dey was sold lak cattle? … It’s bad to belong to folks dat own you soul an’ body; dat can tie you up to a tree, wid yo’ face to de tree an’ yo’ arms fastened tight aroun’ it; who take a long curlin’ whip an’ cut de blood ever’ lick. Folks a mile away could hear dem awful whippings. Dey was a turrible part of livin’.

The most vivid impression she retained of the war was the day the master’s two sons left for military service and the obvious grief that caused her owners. “When dey went off de Massa an’ missis cried, but it made us glad to see dem cry. Dey made us cry so much.” On the plantation in Alabama where Henry Baker spent his childhood, the news spread quickly through the slave quarters that Jeff Coleman, a local white man who once served on the detested slave patrols, had been killed in the war. “De ‘niggers’ jes shouted en shouted,” Baker recalled, “dey wuz so glad he wuz dead cause he wuz so mean tuh dem.”11

No matter how desperately white families might seek to hide or overcome their anguish and fear in the presence of the slaves, the pretense could not always be sustained. No one, after all, had more experience in reading their faces and discerning their emotions than the slaves with whom they had shared their lives. No one had a shrewder insight into their capacity for self-deception and dissembling. Even as the white South had mobilized for war, some slaves had sensed how a certain anxiety tempered the talk of Confederate invincibility. With each passing month, few slaves could have remained oblivious to the fact that the anticipated quick and easy victory had become instead a prolonged and costly slaughter. Nor could they fail to see with their own eyes how the realities of war had a way of mocking the rhetoric that celebrated its heroism, even robbing their once powerful “white folks” of the last remnants of human dignity. A former Tennessee slave remembered the death of Colonel McNairy, who had vowed to wade in blood before he would allow his family to perform the chores of servants. “He got blown to pieces in one of the first battles he fought in. They wasn’t sure it was him but you know they had special kinds of clothes and they found pieces of his clothes and they thought he was blown to pieces from that.” Bob Jones, who had been raised on a North Carolina plantation, would never forget the day some Confederate soldiers brought home the body of his master’s son who had been killed in action. “I doan ’member whar he wus killed but he had been dead so long dat he had turned dark, an’ Sambo, a little nigger, sez ter me, ‘I thought, Bob, dat I’ud turn white when I went ter heaben but hit ’pears ter me lak de white folkses am gwine ter turn black.’ ”12

Although embellished considerably by postwar writers, those classic wartime scenes which depicted the faithful slaves consoling the “white folks” in their bereavement were by no means rare. With everyone weeping so profusely, white and black alike, and some whites on the verge of hysteria, Louis Cain, a former North Carolina slave, thought it “a wonder we ever did git massa buried.” That blacks should have shared in the grief of the very whites who held them as slaves, in a war fought in large part over their freedom, underscored in so many ways the contradictions and ambivalence that characterized the “peculiar institution.” Many of these same slaves, after all, would later “betray” their owners and welcome the Yankees as liberators. As a young slave on a Virginia plantation, Booker T. Washington listened to the fervent prayers for freedom and shared the excitement with which his people awaited the arrival of the Union Army. Yet the news that “Mars’ Billy” had been killed in the war had profoundly affected these same slaves. “It was no sham sorrow,” Washington would later write, “but real. Some of the slaves had nursed ‘Mars’ Billy’; others had played with him when he was a child. ‘Mars’ Billy’ had begged for mercy in the case of others when the overseer or master was thrashing them. The sorrow in the slave quarter was only second to that in the ‘big house.’ ” When two of the master’s sons subsequently returned home with severe wounds, the slaves were anxious to assist them, some volunteering to sit up through the night to attend them. To Washington, there was nothing strange or contradictory about such behavior; the slaves had simply demonstrated their “kindly and generous nature” and refused to betray a trust. On the plantation in Alabama where she labored under a tyrannical master and mistress, a young black woman who had been separated by sale from three of her own four children grieved over the death of the master’s son. “Marster Ben, deir son, were good, and it used to hurt him to see us ’bused. When de war came Marster Ben went—no, der ole man didn’t go—an’ he were killed dere. When he died, I cried.… He were a kind chile. But de oders, oh, dear.”13

Whatever the degree of empathy slaves could muster for the bereavement of their “white folks,” the uncertainty it introduced into their own lives could hardly be ignored. With the death of her master, Anna Johnson recalled, the mistress went to live with her parents and the plantation was sold “and us wid it.” Pauline Grice remembered that her mistress eventually recovered from the death of her son “but she am de diff’rent woman.” If only as a matter of self-interest, then, slaves were likely to view each new casualty list with considerable trepidation. Rather than unite blacks and whites in a common grief, news of the death of a master or a son might unsettle the remaining family members to the point of violent hysteria, with the slaves as the most accessible and logical targets upon whom they could turn their wrath. No sooner had the two sons of Annie Row’s master enlisted than his behavior became even more volatile. “Marster Charley cuss everything and every body and us watch out and keep out of his way.” The day he received news of the death of one of his sons proved to be particularly memorable:

Missy starts cryin’ and de Marster jumps up and starts cussin’ de War and him picks up de hot poker and say, “Free de nigger, will dey? I free dem.” And he hit my mammy on de neck and she starts moanin’ and cryin’ and draps to de floor. Dere ’twas, de Missy a-mournin’, my mammy a-moanin’ and de Marster a-cussin’ loud as him can. Him takes de gun offen de rack and starts for de field whar de niggers am a-workin’. My sister and I sees that and we’uns starts runnin’ and screamin’, ’cause we’uns has brothers and sisters in de field.

Before the war, Mattie Curtis recalled, her mistress had been “purty good” but the war turned her into “a debil iffen dar eber wus one,” and after hearing of the death of her son she whipped the slaves “till she shore nuff wore out.”14

The temperaments of white slaveholding families fluctuated even more violently than usual, reflecting not only the casualty lists but news of military setbacks, the wartime privations, the reports of slave disaffection, and the familiar problems associated with running a plantation. Every slave was subject to the day-to-day whims of those who owned him, and even the kindest masters and mistresses had their bad days. “Dere was good white folks, sah, as well as bad,” an elderly freedman remarked, after being asked his opinion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “but when they was bad, Lord-a-mercy, you never saw a book, sah, that come up to what slavery was.” If the Civil War could in some instances drive the plantation whites and blacks closer together, revealing a mutual dependency and sympathy, the shocks of war and invasion, coupled with the fears of emancipation, were as likely to bring out the very worst in the human character. “You see,” a Virginia freedman explained, “the masters, soon as they found out they couldn’t keep their slaves, began to treat them about as bad as could be. Then, because I made use of this remark, that I didn’t think we colored folks ought to be blamed for what wasn’t our fault, for we didn’t make the war, and neither did we declare ourselves free,—just because I said that, not in a saucy way, but as I say it to you now, one man put a pistol to my head, and was going to shoot me. I got away from him, and left.”15

The specter of emancipation, along with the increased demands of the war, had a way of dissolving the posture of beneficence on the plantation. Fearful of losing his slaves, a master might work them incessantly, determined to drain everything he could from his suddenly precarious investment. “Massa Jeems cussed and ’bused us niggers more’n ever,” Wes Brady recalled, “but he took sick and died and stepped off to Hell ’bout six months ’fore we got free.” It had been bad enough before the war, Harry Jarvis said of the plantation on which he worked, “but arter de war come, it war wus nor eber. Fin’ly, he [the master] shot at me one day, ’n I reckoned I’d stood it ’bout’s long’s I could, so I tuk to der woods. I lay out dere for three weeks.” Charlie Moses, who had been a slave in Mississippi, remembered only that his master, after spending a year in the Army, returned home “even meaner than before.”16

If a master chose to serve in the war, his absence from the plantation for extended periods of time created a critical vacuum in authority. Although slaves might seek to exploit such a situation to their own advantage, the alteration of power relationships on the plantation did not always redound to their benefit. Unaccustomed to her new responsibilities, the plantation mistress was apt to be even more easily moved to ill temper than the master, possessing neither the patience nor the experience of her husband in dealing on a day-to-day basis with field slaves and work routines. “I tell [you] candidly,” a South Carolina woman wrote her husband in the Confederate Congress, “this attention to farming is up hill work with me. I can give orders first-rate, but when I am not obeyed, I can’t keep my temper.… I am ever ready to give you a helping hand, but I must say I am heartily tired of trying to manage free negroes.” Equally dismayed at the “follies & sins” committed by black servants, a South Carolina widow thought the day might come when they would have to be eliminated “as rats & cockroaches are by all sorts of means whenever they become unbearable.”17

If close contact had led some slaves to identify with the master or mistress, it had afforded others an education in the devious ways of their “white folks” and how even the best-intentioned and kindest of them could be transformed and degraded by the power they wielded. This was no less true of the mistress than the master. The gracious and maternal lady of southern legend, who reputedly tempered the harshness of slavery, was not entirely the figment of chivalrous white imaginations, but from the perspective of many black slaves, abnormal wartime conditions in some instances only exacerbated previously unstable personalities. It seemed to Lulu Wilson that her mistress “studied ’bout meanness” more than her master, and she blamed the blindness in her later life on the snuff her mistress had occasionally rubbed in her eyes as a punishment. With the master away during the war, the mistress’s disposition only worsened. “Wash Hodges was gone away four years and Missus Hodges was meaner’n the devil all the time. Seems like she jus’ hated us worser than ever. She said blabber-mouth niggers done cause a war.”18

Confronted with a mistress who was “a demon, just like her husband,” Esther Easter may not have been unique in the satisfaction she derived from playing one “demon” against the other. Taking advantage of the wartime disruptions and her access to the Big House, she finally found a way to even the score.

While Master Jim is out fighting the Yanks, the Mistress is fiddling round with a neighbor man, Mister Headsmith. I is young then, but I knows enough that Master Jim’s going be mighty mad when he hears about it.

The Mistress didn’t know I knows her secret, and I’m fixing to even up for some of them whippings she put off on me. That’s why I tell Master Jim next time he come home.

“See that crack in the wall?” Master Jim say yes, and I say, “It’s just like the open door when the eyes are close to the wall.” He peek and see into the bedroom.

“That’s how I find out about the Mistress and Mister Headsmith,” I tells him, and I see he’s getting mad.

“What you mean?” And Master Jim grabs me hard by the arm like I was trying to get away.

“I see them in the bed.”

That’s all I say. The Demon’s got him and Master Jim tears out of the room looking for the Mistress. Then I hears loud talking and pretty soon the Mistress is screaming and calling for help …19

To maintain discipline and productivity among an enslaved work force under wartime conditions often required extraordinary efforts, for in the relative absence of white males with horses and firearms, slave restlessness, disaffection, and covert resistance might grow markedly. To a Virginia woman, it seemed like her slaves were trying “to see what amount of thieving they can commit”; to a North Carolina woman, the slaves had become, in her husband’s absence, “awkward, inefficient, and even lazy”; to a Mississippi woman, pleading with the governor to release her overseer from militia duty, the slaves were not even performing half the usual amount of work. The women of the Pettigrew family of South Carolina, finding themselves suddenly in charge of the plantation, fought a losing battle to assert their authority among the slaves. As early as 1862, they confessed their doubts that “things will ever be or seem quite the same again.” Later in the year, Caroline Pettigrew wrote her husband that she could feel no confidence in any of the slaves. “You will find that they have all changed in their manner, not offensive but slack.”20

Not surprisingly, in the master’s absence, the slaves were quick to test the mistress’s authority, seeking to ascertain if she could be more easily outmaneuvered or manipulated than her husband. To those women forced to undergo such trials, the motivation of the slaves seemed perfectly obvious, with some of them relishing every moment of discomfiture evinced by their owners. After being left in charge of a plantation in Texas, Mrs. W. H. Neblett kept her husband informed of the steady deterioration of discipline and the heavy price she was paying in mental anguish. “[T]he black wretches [are] trying all they can, it seems to me, to agrivate me, taking no interest, having no care about the future, neglecting their duty.” Neither her presence nor the harsh treatment meted out by the overseer had produced the desired results. The blacks refused to work, they abused and neglected the stock, they tore down fences and broke plows, and it did little good to give them any orders. “With the prospect of another 4 years war,” she wrote her husband in the spring of 1864, “you may give your negroes away if you wont hire them, and I’ll move into a white settlement and work with my hands.… The negroes care no more for me than if I was an old free darkey and I get so mad sometimes that I think I don’t care sometimes if Myers beats the last one of them to death. I cant stay with them another year alone.”21

Not all the women left in charge of plantations capitulated that easily. When unable to control their slaves, some mistresses called upon the assistance of local authorities or a neighboring planter to mete out punishment. After ordering local police to apprehend and jail a rebellious slave, a South Carolina woman derived considerable personal satisfaction from the way she had handled the matter. “What do you think,” she wrote to her son, “I at last made up my mind to have Caesar punished, after daily provoking & impertinent conduct, … & it was all done so quietly, that the household did not know of it, though I let him stay 2 days in Confinement.” Some women, on the other hand, needed little assistance or instruction in managing their enslaved labor but demonstrated a shrewdness and strength that compared favorably to that of their absent husbands. Refusing to panic or leave matters to the overseer, Ida Dulany, the mistress of a Virginia plantation, quelled a work stoppage by selling some of the slaves, hiring others out, removing a third group to a separate area, and whipping one of the leaders. To make certain that those who remained did their work properly, she visited the fields herself.22

Where overseers were employed, the absence of the master also disrupted the prevailing structure of authority. No longer able to play the overseer against the master, deriving what advantages they could from that division of power, slaves found themselves at the mercy of men who could finally rule them with an unrestrained hand. Andy Anderson, for example, recalled his experience on a cotton plantation in Texas, working for a master, Jack Haley, who was so “kind to his cullud folks” that neighbors referred to them as “de petted niggers.” When the war broke out, Haley enlisted in the Army and hired a man named Delbridge to oversee the plantation.

After dat, de hell start to pop, ’cause de first thing Delbridge do is cut de rations.… He half starve us niggers and he want mo’ work and he start de whippin’s. I guesses he starts to educate ’em. I guess dat Delbridge go to hell when he died, but I don’t see how de debbil could stand him.

Unsuccessful in an escape attempt, Anderson was severely whipped and then sold, but when his old master returned from military service, he promptly admonished and fired the overseer.23

The enhanced authority of the overseer was as likely to disrupt as to secure a plantation. While the master remained away, slaves were even more sensitive to any action by an overseer that appeared to breach the normal limits of his authority. No longer able to appeal their differences with him to the master, the slaves on some plantations took matters into their own hands. After her master left for the war, Ida Henry recalled, the overseer tried to impress the slaves with his new importance and power. He worked them overtime and meted out harsh punishment to anyone who failed to meet his expectations, until “one day de slaves caught him and one held him whilst another knocked him in de head and killed him.” On three large Louisiana plantations, near the mouth of the Red River, the slaves responded to the food shortage and a newly ordered reduction in rations by dividing up among themselves the hogs and poultry. When advised by the absent owner to punish these slaves, the overseers wisely refused on the grounds of personal safety.24

As an incentive to maintain order and maximize production, some masters chose to delegate authority in their absence to the slaves themselves. Andrew Goodman, who had worked on a Texas plantation, recalled not knowing “what the war was ’bout.” But he readily appreciated its impact the day his master assembled the sixty-six slaves and told them of his plans to enlist in the Army, discharge the overseer, and leave the place in Goodman’s hands. The master remained away for four years. Appreciating the confidence placed in them, the slaves left in charge of a plantation—often the same slaves who had been drivers or foremen—generally fulfilled the master’s expectations, and in some instances even exceeded them. “I done the bes’ I could,” a former Alabama slave recalled, “but they was troublous times. We was afraid to talk of the war, ’cose they hung three men for talkin’ of it, jest below here.” With both the master and overseer absent, some slaves exulted in the greater degree of independence they enjoyed. The fact of a black “master,” however, could prove to be a mixed blessing, with some drivers fulfilling their owner’s expectations by maintaining a severe regime. When a former coachman took charge of a plantation in Alabama, one of the slaves recalled, “he made de niggers wuk harder dan Ole Marster did.”25

Neither the expedient of a black driver nor an overseer necessarily resolved the dilemma posed by the absence of the master. To judge by the lamentations that abounded in the journals, diaries, and letters of women left in charge of plantations, many of them simply resigned themselves to an increasingly untenable situation over which they could exert a minimum of influence and authority. “We are doing as best we know,” a Georgia woman sighed, “or as good as we can get the Servants to do; they learn to feel very independent as no white man comes to direct them.” When slaves on a plantation in Texas openly resisted the overseer’s authority, refusing to submit to any whippings, the mistress thought it best to avoid a showdown. Nothing would be gained by whipping the slaves, she wrote her husband, who was absent in the Army, “so I shall say nothing and if they stop work entirely I will try to feel thankful if they let me alone.”26

Nor did the presence of the master necessarily help. The difficulties in maintaining control and discipline pointed up ambiguities that had always suffused plantation relationships. But the apprehensions now voiced by beleaguered owners had even larger implications. The spectacle of a master and his family tormented and rendered helpless in the face of wartime stresses and demands could not help but make a deep impression on the slaves. To what extent they would seek to exploit that vulnerability to their own advantage came increasingly to dominate the conversations of whites.


WITH TENS OF THOUSANDS of white men joining the Confederate Army, leaving their families behind them on isolated plantations and farms, the quality of black response to the Civil War assumed a critical and urgent importance. Few whites could be insensitive to the exposed position in which the presence of so many enslaved blacks placed them. “Last night,” a Georgia woman wrote her son, “I felt the loneliness and isolation of my situation in an unusual degree. Not a white female of my acquaintance nearer than eight or ten miles, and not a white person nearer than the depot!” Amidst several hundred slaves, the mistress of a North Carolina plantation compared herself to “a kind of Anglo-Saxon Robinson Crusoe with Ethiopians only for companions—think of it!” Demonstrating a rare candor, a Confederate soldier from Mississippi, who had left his wife and children “to the care of the niggers,” thought it unlikely that his twenty-five slaves would turn upon them. “They’re ignorant poor creatures, to be sure, but as yet they’re faithful. Any way, I put my trust in God, and I know he’ll watch over the house while I’m away fighting for this good cause.”27

This was hardly the time for self-doubt. Whatever previous experience might have suggested about the fragile nature of the master-slave relationship, an embattled Confederacy, struggling for the very survival of that relationship, preferred to think differently and employed a rhetorical overkill to attain the necessary peace of mind. “A genuine slave owner, born and bred, will not be afraid of Negroes,” Mary Chesnut confided to her diary in November 1861. “Here we are mild as the moonbeams, and as serene; nothing but Negroes around us, white men all gone to the army.” That was the proper spirit of confidence, voiced by a woman who had already confessed failure in her attempts to understand what the slaves thought of the war. Most whites, like Mary Chesnut, no matter what suspicions and forebodings they harbored, chose to put on the best possible face, to demonstrate their own serenity and composure. The alternatives were simply too horrible to contemplate. “We would be practically helpless should the Negroes rise,” the daughter of a prominent Louisiana planter conceded, “since there are so few men left at home. It is only because the Negroes do not want to kill us that we are still alive.”28

Whether to overcome their own anxieties or to silence the skeptics, many whites flaunted pretensions to security. “We have slept all winter with the doors of our house, outside and inside, all unlocked,” a Virginia woman boasted in 1862. All too often, however, the incessant talk and repeated assurances betrayed something less than the confidence whites professed. Edmund Ruffin, for example, an ardent secessionist and defender of slavery, was obsessed with the question of security even as he sought to demonstrate his own unconcern. Almost daring the slaves to defy his expectations, he described in minute detail (albeit within the confines of his diary) the ease with which blacks could enter his room. Nor did he think himself unique in his unconcern. “[I]t may be truly said that every house & family is every night perfectly exposed to any attempt of our slaves to commit robbery or murder. Yet we all feel so secure, & are so free from all suspicion of such danger, that no care is taken for self-protection—& in many cases, as in mine, not even the outer door is locked.”29

To have believed anything less would have been not only impolitic but subversive of the very institution on which the Confederacy claimed to rest. The “corner-stone” of the new government, affirmed Vice-President Alexander Stephens in March 1861, “rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” Wherever he traveled in the South, an English visitor observed in 1861, he found absolute confidence that this subordination would be maintained. To resolve any doubts, a slaveholder might choose to parade some of his more obsequious specimens before the curious visitor, favor them with some humorous and familiar remarks, and then ply them with the obvious questions. In making his response, the slave usually had little difficulty in discerning what was expected of him. “Are you happy?” the slave is asked. “Yas, sar,” he replies without hesitation. “Show how you’re happy,” the slaveholder demands. As if he had acted out this scenario many times before, the slave rubs his stomach and grins with delight, “Yummy! yummy! plenty belly full!” and the satisfied slaveholder turns to the visitor and remarks, “That’s what I call a real happy feelosophical chap. I guess you’ve got a lot in your country can’t pat their stomachs and say, ‘yummy, yummy, plenty belly full!’ ”30

With few exceptions, the southern press expounded this kind of confidence, secure in the belief that “there was never a period in the history of the country when there was more perfect order and quiet among the servile classes.” In the Confederate Congress, a Virginian boasted that the slaves’ loyalty was “never more conspicuous, their obedience never more childlike.” In the eyes of some slaveholders, of course, that observation might have prompted more alarm than relief. Rather than face up to such implications, however, the press and southern leaders made the most out of conspicuous examples of black support for the Confederacy, dutifully parading every such act as additional testimony to the beneficence of slavery and the attachment of slaves to their “white folks.” When a slave became the first subscriber to the Confederate war loan in Port Gibson, Mississippi, for example, the local newspaper exulted: “The feeling at the South can be learned from this little incident. The negroes are ready to fight for their people, and they are ready to give money as well as their lives to the cause of their masters.”31

If slaves deemed it politic to proffer their support and services, particularly in the early stages of the war, free blacks moved with an even greater sense of urgency to protest their loyalty and allay the suspicions of a white society which had always found them to be an anomaly and source of danger. In the decade preceding the outbreak of war, the more than 182,000 free blacks had faced growing harassment, increased surveillance, and demands for still further restrictions on their freedom. To identify with the white community in this time of crisis might hopefully serve to neutralize that opposition and improve their precarious position in southern society. In New Orleans and Charleston, where small colored elites had established churches, schools, and benevolent associations, the efforts to identify with whites were more conspicuous, their aloofness from the slaves was more pronounced, and their patriotic gestures tended to be more strident. In a memorial to the state governor, a group of free Negroes in Charleston, including a number of substantial property holders, could hardly have been more candid about their attachment to the common cause: “In our veins flows the blood of the white race, in some half, in others much more than half white blood, … our attachments are with you, our hopes and safety and protection from you, … our allegiance is due to South Carolina and in her defense, we will offer up our lives, and all that is dear to us.”32

Clearly, the threat of invasion and the depredations of “alien” troops were capable of unifying diverse and conflicting groups in the South. Those free blacks who had managed to accumulate property were no doubt intent on protecting their investments, along with whatever privileges they enjoyed in a slave society. If some slaves and free Negroes later compared support of the Confederacy to the black driver forced to use the lash on his fellow slaves, still others made no apologies. When offering his support, Bowman Seals, a free black from Clayton, Alabama, claimed to understand fully “the quarrel” between the North and the South and how it affected his people. “I make no claim to be adversed to their best interests; but I know enough of Yankees and of their treatment of the starving blacks among them to understand that their war upon the South is prompted by no love of us, but only by envy and hatred, and by an intermeddling and domineering spirit.” If the North should succeed, Seals warned, “disorder and ruin” and “extremist want and misery” would be visited upon all classes and both races.33

Had it not been for the exemplary conduct of “the faithful slave,” some white Southerners doubted that the war could have lasted for more than ten months. Hence the paeans of praise that would be heaped upon those black men and women who had stood with their masters and mistresses, the oratorical tributes to their loyalty, the monuments erected to their memory, and the romantic images and legends that would be elaborated upon to comfort and entertain generations of whites. The proven fidelity of such individuals even permitted slaveholders to indulge themselves with the notion of slaves as part of the extended family. “We never thought of them as slaves,” a Florida woman recalled, “they were ‘ours,’ ‘our own dear black folks.’ ” Underscoring this same theme, a Richmond woman remembered her slaves as “the repositories of our family secrets. They were our confidants in all our trials. They joyed with us and they sorrowed with us; they wept when we wept, and they laughed when we laughed. Often our best friends, they were rarely our worst enemies.” Even where the wartime evidence was at best inconclusive, many whites chose to dwell upon the supportive side of black behavior. When “massa” came home on leave, a Mississippi woman wrote, “no one showed himself [sic] more happy to see him than ‘Mammy’ as she fell upon the floor at his feet hugging and kissing him. ‘My Massa come.’ ‘My Massa come.’ I would be so glad if some of our northern friends could have seen her.”34

If only masters and mistresses had been less insistent about their sense of security and equanimity, they might have been more believable. No matter how many times he heard slaveholders profess confidence in their blacks, William Russell, an English visitor, remained skeptical. After his extensive travels and conversations in the South during the early months of the war, he came away feeling that the very demeanor of the slaves suggested less than contentment with their lot. If these were the happiest creatures on earth, as he had been assured, how was he to explain the “deep dejection” he observed on so many of their faces. On a “model” Louisiana plantation he visited, where “there were abundant evidences that they were well treated,” the slaves “all looked sad, and even the old woman who boasted that she had held her old owner in her arms when he was an infant, did not smile cheerfully.” If these were such docile and passive people, moreover, as he had also been assured, how was he to explain the elaborate police precautions, the increased vigilance, the curfews, the night patrols. “There is something suspicious,” Russell concluded, “in the constant never-ending statement that ‘we are not afraid of our slaves.’ ”35


EVEN AS MANY MASTERS and mistresses struck a pose of confidence and equanimity, few were unaware of the slaves’ demonstrated capacity for evasiveness and dissimulation in the presence of whites. No matter how often slave owners kept reassuring themselves, the doubts and apprehensions were bound to surface. With each passing month, as the issues became clearer and the position of the Confederacy deteriorated, the ambiguities in the slave response would tend to dissolve and the whites who had proclaimed the loudest the faithfulness of their blacks were among those forced to reassess their perceptions in accordance with personal experiences. If the shock of recognition did not come easily for a people who had always claimed an intimate knowledge of the black personality, neither was it altogether unexpected; some whites, in fact, thought they knew their slaves too well to harbor any illusions about the future. “The tenants act pretty well towards us,” a Virginia woman wrote early in 1862, “but that doesn’t prevent our being pretty certain of their intention to stampede when they get a good chance—I, for one, won’t care one straw—but for the expense of having to hire ‘help.’ They are nothing but an ungrateful, discontented lot & I don’t care how soon I get rid of mine.”36

To endure, perhaps even to survive, many slaves had learned from experience to anticipate the white man’s moods and whims, to know his expectations, to placate his fears, to flatter his vanity, and to feed his feelings of superiority. As a slave, Henry Bibb recalled, he had come to realize the folly of openly resisting the white man. “The only weapon of self defence that I could use successfully, was that of deception.” With considerable relish, a former Tennessee slave remembered the death of a particularly cruel mistress. The slaves on the plantation did what was expected of them when one of their “white folks” died; they solemnly filed into the Big House to pay their final respects, covering their faces with their hands as if to hide their tears and stifle their sobs. Once they were outside, however, the slaves made their feelings known to each other. “Old God damn son-of-a-bitch,” one of them murmured, “she gone on down to hell.”37

During the Civil War, when the master’s temperament often experienced violent fluctuations, the slave had even more urgent reason to adhere to the time-tested imperatives: that he never appear to be too well informed, that he remain circumspect in his views, that he mask any feelings of hostility, that he feign stupidity at the right moment, that he “act the nigger” when the situation demanded it and punctuate his responses to whites with the proper comic mannerisms and facial expressions—the shuffling of the feet, the scratching of the head, the grin denoting incomprehension. The black man who invokes the “darky act,” Ralph Ellison has suggested, is not so much “a ‘smart-man-playing-dumb’ as a weak man who knows the nature of his oppressors’ weakness.… [H]is mask of meekness conceals the wisdom of one who has learned the secret of saying the ‘yes’ which accomplishes the expressive ‘no.’ ” Although some slaves may well have internalized the ritual of deference, few whites could know for certain and that was a problem that would plague them throughout the war. “Oh, yes, massa!” a Virginia slave responded in 1863 when asked by a northern clergyman if she had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation, “we all knows about it; only we darsn’t let on. We pretends not to know. I said to my ole massa, ‘What’s this Massa Lincoln is going to do to the poor nigger? I hear he is going to cut ’em up awful bad. How is it, massa?’ I just pretended foolish, sort of.” At the first opportunity, this slave fled to the Union lines.38

When questioned about the Civil War, as with any other subject the slave usually shaped his response to the tone of the question and the requirements of the occasion. He would tell his white listeners what he thought they wanted to hear. In the presence of southern whites, the slave was apt to proclaim his loyalty to the Confederacy (or to his “white folks” and the state in which he lived) in much the same way that he had denied on so many occasions (especially to northern visitors) the desire to be free. “The Yankees will be whipped,” a South Carolina slave recalled assuring his master and mistress repeatedly, even as he prayed and believed otherwise. Whether in the presence of Southerners or Yankees, on the other hand, the slave might find it more politic to seek refuge in a pretense of ignorance or in evasiveness. “Why, you see, master,” an elderly Louisiana slave told a Union reporter in 1863, “ ’taint for an old nigger like me to know anything ’bout politics.” When the reporter pressed him to indicate whether he favored the Confederacy or the Union, the slave maintained his “ineffable smile” for a moment, and then with a mock gravity replied, “I’m on de Lord’s side, and He’ll work out His salvation; bress de Lord.” Framing his response with equal care, an elderly Georgia black told a Union officer who had questioned him about the war, “Well, Sir, what I think about it, is this—it’s mighty distressin’ this war, but it ’pears to me like the right thing couldn’t be done without it.”39

While military fortunes fluctuated with every skirmish and battle, so did the slaves’ responses to the war, with many of them adopting a “wait and see” attitude and refusing to commit themselves irretrievably to either side. In 1862, for example, a correspondent traveling with the Union Army asked a Missouri slave if he favored the Union. “Oh! yes, massa,” he replied, “when you’s about we is.” When asked what he would do if the Confederate troops returned, the slave quickly responded, “[W]e’s good secesh then. Can’t allow de white folks to git head niggers in dat way.” The reporter went away impressed with how this slave perceived his role in the conflict. “These Missouri niggers know a great deal more than the white folks give them credit for, and whether Missouri goes for the confederacy or the Union, her slaves have learned a lesson too much to ever be useful as slaves.… The darkeys understand the whole question and the game played.”40

The evasive stance assumed by slaves reflected not only their perception of reality but an initial confusion about the war and the issues over which it was being fought. How much of the war news a master thought advisable to share with his slaves varied considerably, and in some regions what one observer called “a stratum of ignorance” prevailed. The Georgia slave who in November 1864 had still not heard of the Emancipation Proclamation was by no means unique. “De white folks nebber talk ’fore black men,” he explained; “dey mighty free from dat.” Even if whites chose to be candid with their slaves, they were apt to find that anything they revealed about the war was greeted with suspicion. “I do not speak of the war to them,” Mary Chesnut noted in November 1861; “on that subject, they do not believe a word you say.” Perhaps more whites than blacks ultimately believed the rumors of Yankee atrocities; at least, the direful warnings voiced by slave owners would have little apparent effect on the steady stream of blacks to the Union lines. Nor did the master’s confident talk about the progress of the war necessarily survive slave scrutiny. “I know pappy say dem Yankees gwine win, ’cause dey alius marchin’ to de South, but none de South soldiers marches to de North,” William Davis recalled. “He didn’t say dat to de white folks, but he sho’ say it to us.”41

When the war began to turn against the Confederacy, even slaves with limited access to the news could sense it. In some regions, in fact, slaveholders had their hands full trying to reassure the blacks that the retreating Confederate soldiers were not, as had been rumored, wantonly murdering slaves rather than see them freed. But the attempts to communicate with their slaves on such subjects often became an exercise in futility. “Would I kill you, or let anybody else kill you?” a South Carolina mistress asked her butler. He remained apprehensive. “We know you won’t own up to anything against your side,” he replied. “You never tell us anything that you can help.” The white woman threw up her hands in exasperation, concluding that nothing more was to be expected of a slave who had been “a pampered menial” for twenty years. “His insolence has always been intolerable.”42

That slaves should have doubted what their masters and mistresses told them reflected more than an intuitive skepticism. Despite their relative isolation and the prevailing degree of illiteracy, slaves over the years had devised various methods by which to keep themselves informed, not only of doings in the household but in the outside world. The servants enjoyed the most advantageous position, overhearing the conversations of the white folks while ostensibly preoccupied with their domestic duties, and then passing the information and gossip along to the slave quarters. “No, massa, we’se can’t read, but we’se can listen,” a South Carolina slave explained, after coming over to the Yankees.43

Within the master’s house, numerous slaves formed their initial impressions of the war, why it was being fought, and how it might affect their own lives. Dora Franks, for example, who claimed to have been well treated in the Mississippi household in which she worked, overheard her master and mistress discuss the war: “He say he feared all de slaves ’ud be took away. She say if dat was true she feel lak jumpin’ in de well. I hate to hear her say dat, but from dat minute I started prayin’ for freedom.” From the vantage of the house slave, news about the war sometimes consisted of overhearing angry outbursts and harangues by the whites, punctuated with wild talk about abolitionists seizing the South, Yankees coming to kill “us all,” a war “to free the niggers,” and how the Confederates intended to send “de damn yaller bellied Yankees” reeling back to the North. Despite such bombast, proximity to the conversations of whites usually helped to clarify the war issues and keep the slaves abreast of the military situation.44

When plantation whites became more guarded in their discussions, lest they be overheard, the slaves simply became more resourceful. “[T]he greater the precaution,” a former South Carolina slave recalled, “the alerter became the slaves, the wider they opened their ears and the more eager they became for outside information.” Many slaves would take considerable pride in how they had surreptitiously acquired the war news. “My father and the other boys,” one recalled, “used to crawl under the house an’ lie on the ground to hear massa read the newspaper to missis when they first began to talk about the war.” On the occasion of festivities in the Big House like a dinner party, another slave recalled, he would climb into an oak tree, hide under the long moss, and wait until the master and his guests came out on the veranda for an after-dinner smoke. He would then invariably be treated to a full discussion of the latest war news and a frank appraisal of the military and political situation. An illiterate waiting maid experienced the frustration of hearing her master and mistress spell out certain words they did not want her to hear. This resourceful woman managed to memorize the letters, “an’ as soon as I got away I ran to uncle an’ spelled them over to him, an’ he told me what they meant.” No doubt some masters suspected the diligence with which slaves obtained news of the war but very few of them were able to adopt the tactic used by William Henry Trescot, a prominent South Carolinian. He had taken to sprinkling his conversation with French expressions. “We are using French against Africa,” he explained to a perplexed friend. “We know the black waiters are all ears now, and we want to keep what we have to say dark. We can’t afford to take them in our confidence, you know.” Mary Chesnut, for one, found his explanation, also given in French, to be “exasperating.”45

The local courthouse and post office, favorite meeting places for whites, were obvious and much-exploited sources of information and rumor. Like the body servants and conscripted laborers who brought home news from the front lines, slaves in town on errands for the master found it relatively easy to acquire information and form impressions about the progress of the war. The slaves who picked up the mail for their masters became in some instances couriers to the larger slave community. The post office, Booker T. Washington recalled, was located about three miles from the plantation, and the slave who was sent there lingered about long enough to catch the drift of the conversation of the many whites who gathered there and who invariably exchanged views about recent developments. On his way home, the mail carrier would share what he had heard with other slaves, and in this way, Washington claimed, blacks often heard the news before it reached the Big House. In Forsyth County, Georgia, young Edward Glenn fetched the newspaper for his mistress, and each day Walter Raleigh, the local black preacher, waited for him by the road and read the paper before the slave took it to the house. On the day Glenn would never forget, the preacher threw the newspaper on the ground after reading it, hollered “I’m free as a frog!” and ran away. The slave dutifully took the paper to his mistress, who read it and began to cry. “I didn’t say no more,” Glenn recalled.46

Although most slaves were illiterate, nearly every neighborhood contained at least one or more who had acquired reading and writing skills. Immediately after the war, when freed blacks no longer felt the need to conceal such matters, many a master would learn to his astonishment (often during contract negotiations) that a slave he had assumed to be illiterate had known for some time how to read. While in bondage, however, some slaves thought it impolitic to reveal such skills. Squires Jackson, a Florida slave who had kept his literacy from the whites, recalled how the master walked in upon him unexpectedly while he was reading the newspaper and demanded to know what he was doing. Equal to the moment, Jackson immediately turned the newspaper upside down and declared, “Confederates done won the war.” The master laughed and left the room, and once again a slave had used the “darky act” to extricate himself from a precarious situation.47

Few plantation whites were fully aware of the inventiveness with which their slaves transmitted information to other blacks. Extensive black communication networks, feeding on a variety of sources, sped information from plantation to plantation, county to county, often with remarkable secrecy and accuracy. What slaves called the “grapevine telegraph” frequently employed code words that enabled them to carry on conversations about forbidden subjects in the very presence of their masters and mistresses. Although whites often failed to grasp the mechanics or vocabulary of slave communication, they did come to suspect that their slaves knew more than they revealed. With the outbreak of the war, slaveholders tried to curtail interplantation contacts between blacks, lest such fraternization—which had been generally tolerated—encourage a wide dissemination of news and permit concerted plans for flight to the Union lines. “When I first heard talk about the War,” Mary Grayson recalled, “the slaves were allowed to go and see one another sometimes and often they were sent on errands several miles with a wagon or on a horse, but pretty soon we were all kept at home, and nobody was allowed to come around and talk to us.” Despite these restrictions, she added, “we heard what was going on.”48

Under wartime conditions, suspicions were more easily aroused and previously tolerated slave practices came under much closer scrutiny. Not long after the outbreak of war, for example, a black congregation in Savannah sang with particular fervor a traditional hymn,

Yes, we all shall be free,

Yes, we all shall be free,

Yes, we all shall be free,

When the Lord shall appear.

While the service was still in progress, local police entered the church, arrested those in attendance, and charged that the blacks were plotting freedom, singing “the Lord” instead of “the Yankees” in order to deceive any white observers in the audience. Even earlier, at the time of Lincoln’s election, slaves in Georgetown, South Carolina, were whipped for singing the same song. The black youth who related this incident explained: “Dey tink de Lord mean for say de Yankees.” Whether the police overreacted is less important than the suspicions upon which their actions were based. Since long before the days of Nat Turner, blacks had been suspected of using their religious observances to communicate subversive sentiments. The most innocuous-sounding sermon, the most solemn, traditional hymns, might conceivably contain double meanings that were obvious only to the black parishioners. When they spoke and sang of delivery from bondage and oppression, with Old Testament allusions to Moses and the Hebrew children, the hope clearly lay in this world—“And the God dat lived in Moses’ time is jus’ de same today.” The whites suspected as much, and wartime security demanded greater vigilance, including a more rigid enforcement of the statutes that required a white man’s presence at a religious service conducted by a black.49

Whatever the potential risks, whites persisted in seeking comfort and reassurance in the religious enthusiasm of their slaves and in making it serve their own ends. During the war, participation of house slaves in the white family’s devotion and in prayers for the safe return of the master or his sons helped to reinforce the notion of an extended family bound by affection, faithfulness, and loyalty. Similarly, white clergymen undertook the task of admonishing the slaves to be deferential and loyal to their owners in this time of crisis. Upon visiting the James Davis plantation in Texas, a white preacher explained the issues to the slaves with unmistakable clarity. “Do you wan’ to keep you homes whar you git all to eat, and raise your chillen, or do you wan’ to be free to roam roun’ without a home, like de wil’ animals? If you wan’ to keep you homes you better pray for de South to win.” At least, that was how William Adams, one of his slave parishioners, recalled the sermon. When the preacher then asked those slaves who were willing to pray for the South to raise their hands, everyone did so. “We was skeered not to,” Adams recalled, “but we sho’ didn’ wan’ de South to win.”50

Nearly every white preacher faced a problem of credibility when he addressed the slaves. Not only did they perceive him as an instrument of the white master, capable of twisting the word of God to make it serve the white man’s ends, but what he told them, particularly during the war, had little relevance for their own lives and hopes. With the prospect of emancipation looming larger, many slaves seized every opportunity to address God in their own ways. Charlotte Brooks, a Louisiana slave, bent down between the rows of sugarcane to pray for her liberation. “I knowed God had promised to hear his children when they cry, and he heard us way down here in Egypt.” In Athens, Georgia, Minnie Davis and her mother dutifully attended the services in the First Presbyterian Church, where the slaves sat in the gallery and listened to the white preacher implore the Lord to drive the Yankees back to the North. “My mother said that all the time he was praying out loud like that, she was praying to herself: ‘Oh, Lord, please send the Yankees on and let them set us free.’ ”51

Occupying a delicate position in the slave world, the black preacher and the black plantation exhorter might find themselves forced into compromises and duplicity in order to survive. If whites were present at the services, as the law so often commanded, the preacher or exhorter would have to be doubly cautious about what he told the blacks. The Civil War placed him in a particular dilemma, caught between increased white vigilance and the urge to articulate the uppermost thoughts of his parishioners. His attempts to resolve that conflict severely tested his powers of obfuscation. On the day of fasting and prayer ordered by President Jefferson Davis after a series of Confederate military reverses, whites and slaves gathered at the old Guinea Church in Cumberland County, Virginia. After the whites had said their prayers, seeking to turn the tide of battle, the time came for the blacks to make known their sentiments. The first black speaker, an old deacon, avoided the issue altogether with the simple prayer that “the Lord’s will be done,” which the parishioners could obviously interpret as they wished. But Armstead Berkeley, the pastor of the black Baptist church, when called upon to lead a prayer, pleaded with the Lord to “point the bullets of the old Confederate guns right straight at the hearts of the Yankees; make our men victorious on the battlefield and send them home in health and strength to join their people in peace and prosperity.” That seemed clear enough; the black church deacons, in fact, were said to have reproached the pastor after the meeting for this apparent betrayal of the slaves’ cause. “Don’t worry, children,” the pastor explained, “the Lord knew what I was talking about.” The deacons were reportedly satisfied with the pastor’s explanation. With a far clearer sense of purpose, an old plantation preacher in South Carolina complied with a request to pray for the Confederacy: “Bress, we do pray Thee, our enemies, de wicked Sesech. Gib dem time to ’pent, we do pray Thee, and den we will excuse Thee if Thou takes dem all to glory.”52

Although forced at times to play a dual role, the black preacher usually commanded a leading place in the black community. Many former slaves recalled him as a man who had offered them hope for redemption and freedom in this world, even when the prospects seemed most dim. L. J. Coppin, who would later become a prominent cleric in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, remembered with particular admiration Christopher Jones, a Maryland black upon whom the slaves had come to rely not only for religious guidance and inspiration but for his knowledge of wartime developments. “He was not so much for resorting to the prophecies of Daniel for information,” Coppin remarked, “as he was to the newspaper that secretly came weekly to him.” Many of the whites with whom William Russell spoke, in his tour of the South in 1861, understood the power of the black preacher as well as his capacity for mischief. “They ‘do the niggers no good,’ ” he was told, “ ‘they talk about things that are going on elsewhere, and get their minds unsettled.’ ” Some whites in the Ogeechee District of Georgia were themselves so unsettled by a slave preacher who proclaimed the inevitability of a Yankee victory that they covered him with tar and set him afire.53

No matter how closely the master regulated the religious observances of his slaves, he could neither control every aspect of their lives nor filter the information and rumors that eventually reached the slave quarters. When asked if the masters knew anything of “the secret life of the colored people,” Robert Smalls, a former South Carolina slave, would later testify: “No, sir; one life they show their masters and another life they don’t show.” On the larger farms and plantations, where more than half the slaves lived, the social life of the quarters brought together house servants and field hands, artisans and carriage drivers, stableboys and cooks. The news gathered in the Big House that day or in the nearby town or from slaves on a neighboring plantation would be divulged and discussed, often with asides and stories at the expense of the master and mistress. Dilly Yellady’s parents, who had been slaves in North Carolina, told her how “de niggers would git in de slave quarters at night an’ pray fer freedom an’ laf ’bout what de Yankees wus doin’, ’bout Lincoln an’ Grant foolin’ deir marsters so.”54

To attain a greater degree of privacy, the slaves might assemble “down in the hollow” or in the “hush-harbors,” secluded meeting spots away from the Big House where the slaves would employ various devices to absorb the sounds. What transpired at such gatherings appears to have been a mixture of prayer, singing, and candid discussions (often whispered) about subjects that had to be repressed in the presence of the whites. On some plantations, it provided slaves with an opportunity to relieve themselves of the tensions and physical exhaustion that had accumulated over a long day and evening of hard labor. During the war, these gatherings took on even greater importance, serving not only to allow personal release and expression but also to convey and discuss the most recent news about the military situation, the proximity of Union troops, the prospect of emancipation, and the master’s intentions. Traveling in the interior of Virginia, an “unobserved spectator” who happened upon such a gathering heard them pray for the success of the North, and one old woman wept for joy when told that the Yankees were soon coming to set them free. “Oh! good massa Jesus,” she shouted, “let the time be short.” After the white preacher on the Davis plantation in Texas led the slaves in prayers for the Confederacy, he left apparently confident of their faithfulness. That night, however, the slaves met secretly “down in de hollow” and Uncle Mack entertained them with a story.

One time over in Virginny dere was two ole niggers, Uncle Bob and Uncle Tom. Dey was mad at one ’nuther and one day dey decided to have a dinner and bury de hatchet. So dey sat down, and when Uncle Bob wasn’t lookin’ Uncle Tom put some poison in Uncle Bob’s food, but he saw it and when Uncle Tom wasn’t lookin’, Uncle Bob he turned de tray roun’ on Uncle Tom, and he gits de poison food.

Looking out at the assembled group, Uncle Mack concluded: “Dat’s what we slaves is gwine do, jus’ turn de tray roun’ and pray for de North to win.”55

When the wartime experience began to reveal a diversity of slave response and behavior, whites were sometimes too incredulous to concede that they might have overextended themselves in the praise and confidence they had earlier lavished upon “the faithful slave.” Victims of their own self-assurances, they seemed incapable of dealing with reality, refusing to believe that their slaves understood the implications of the war. “The truth is,” Henry W. Ravenel of South Carolina insisted to the very end, “the negroes know but little of the cause & issues of the war.” That assumption would enable Ravenel to blame the Yankee invaders for turning the heads of the blacks, leading them into acts of mischief and betrayal. But the impact of the war was simply too pervasive, and the sources of information too plentiful, to have kept the slaves in total ignorance of its meaning. As early as the election of 1860, in fact, several white observers had noted how slaves were “the most interested and eager listeners” at political gatherings, and numerous blacks recalled how their own masters had voiced fears that the election of Abraham Lincoln would doom slavery.56

Although slaves were reticent about openly revealing their feelings, they found it increasingly difficult to mask them. Even as their muscles remained faithful to the master, raising the crops that were both indispensable for the war effort and necessary for survival in the quarters, their faces and sometimes their words and actions threatened to betray their inner thoughts, particularly when the prospect of emancipation became clearer and the outcome of the war more predictable. The slaves appeared to sense when that turning point had been reached. “Damn the niggers,” a Louisiana planter exclaimed, “they know more about politics than most of the white men. They know everything that happens.” To a newspaper editor in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the progress of the war could be discerned by simply watching the faces of the local blacks: “The spirits of the colored citizens rise and fall with the ebb and flow of this tide of blue devils, and when they are glad as larks, the whites are depressed and go about the streets like mourners.”57

Based upon the information they had pieced together from various sources, slaves not only kept themselves informed of the progress of the war but, more critically, they began to appreciate its implications for their own lives and future. By 1863, at least, the assumption prevailed among vast numbers of slaves (including even those who did not entirely welcome the prospect) that if the Union Army prevailed on the battlefields, the Confederacy and slavery would expire together. They appeared to understand, a Union officer reported, “that it was a war for their liberation; that the cause of the war was their being in slavery, and that the aim and result would be their freedom. Further than that they did not seem to have any idea of it.”58

But that was more than enough to force the white South to consider the most expeditious means by which to maintain its internal security and calm the growing apprehension of its people.


NEVER HAD the slaveholding class permitted verbal expressions of faith in their blacks to blind them to the need for the utmost vigilance in controlling their movements and behavior. In the face of wartime disruptions, such vigilance became all the more imperative, if only to make certain that the loudly voiced self-assurances were neither misplaced nor betrayed. Although the Confederate Congress, like many states, initially exempted from military service one white man for every twenty slaves he supervised, the protest of less favored planters and farmers forced a sharp reduction in such exemptions, thereby shifting much of the burden of wartime surveillance to the citizens’ patrols. Based on their previous experience with these patrols, few if any blacks had any reason to welcome this development.

Made up largely of nonslaveholding whites, many of them eager to vent their own grievances and frustrations on the blacks, the patrols had traditionally undertaken the responsibility for slave control outside the plantations. Aside from checking out rumors of insurrectionary plots, they seized runaways, broke up clandestine slave gatherings, and meted out punishment to blacks found off the plantations without a proper pass. Wherever the patrols operated, even if on an irregular basis, the slaves had come to fear them as legal terrorists who went out of their way to inflict brutalities and humiliation on any black people they encountered. With the outbreak of the war, state and local governments, recognizing the need to maximize police surveillance, moved to strengthen the patrols and to expand their operations. But these attempts came at precisely the moment army service depleted the number of eligible males, including many who had previously performed patrol duty. And as the prospect of controlling blacks sensing liberation diminished, the alarm of local white residents mounted. “I am afraid we will have troublesome times down here,” a Louisiana woman wrote her husband. “[T]he men are patroleing [sic] all the time but the men are so few in the county that they can not do much good.”59

Confronted with the actuality of a Yankee invasion and anxieties about the black response, white Southerners found themselves in an impossible situation. When the governor of Mississippi, for example, ordered the enlistment of still more men to resist the Yankees, he encountered a storm of protest from whites who gave every indication of fearing the slaves as much as the Union Army. An officer in the state militia privately warned the governor of the concern voiced by many of his soldiers: “the question is constantly asked ‘what is to become of my wife & children when left in a land swarming with negroes without a single white man on many plantations to restrain their licentiousness by a little wholesome fear?’ ” The answer came soon enough, as letters poured in on the governor describing the virtual collapse of slave discipline and subordination in several counties. “If there is any more men taken out of this county,” one resident warned, “we may as well give it to the negroes … now we have to patrole every night to keep them down.” Such expressions of concern, coupled with demands that Confederate troops be placed in positions where they might most effectively combat epidemics of slave insubordination, multiplied as the Union Army (and the prospect of slave liberation) drew closer.60

Apprehension mounted, too, over the behavior and loyalty of slaves in the cities and towns. The objects of particular suspicion were those blacks permitted to hire out their time (with the owner receiving a specified rental payment), many of whom lived away from the premises of both the owner and the immediate supervisor and thereby acquired a degree of autonomy denied the rural slave. That autonomy, to believe the complaints of numerous white residents, had produced a dangerous class of people capable of undermining the entire system of racial control and discipline. After the outbreak of war, many planters heeded admonitions to withdraw their slaves from the contaminating influences of urban life; at the same time, newly strengthened state laws and local ordinances were designed to restrict the movement of black residents. Nevertheless, urban slaves capitalized on the shortage of policemen. Reports of theft, arson, and assault periodically revived fears of servile insurrection, and white residents were forced to alter old notions about the security of their homes. “There was a time,” a Florida newspaper reminded its white readers, “when a man might go to sleep and leave his house open with impunity in this city, but we fear that time has passed away.” Although still boasting that he never locked the apartment in which he slept, Edmund Ruffin confided to his diary that he had begun “to use means for defence which I never did before, in keeping loaded guns by my bedside.”61

Despite the conspicuous efforts made by some free Negroes to allay white suspicions, the tensions created by the war eroded their legal position and subjected their daily lives to even closer scrutiny. To minimize the danger posed by this population, local and state authorities prepared to enforce the laws barring their entry into the state and prohibiting manumission by last will and testament; they also ordered free black residents to register and be properly licensed by county officials and threatened to remove any who exercised an “improper or mischievous influence upon slaves.” The ultimate solution, adopted by several states, was to encourage free blacks to select a master and voluntarily enter into slavery. After all, a Savannah newspaper observed, “every day we hear our slaves pronounced the happiest people in the world. Why then this lamentation over putting the free negro in his only proper … condition?” Enforcement of the newly strengthened restrictions on free blacks varied considerably; nevertheless, the control machinery was readily available for those who wished to use it, whether for purposes of harassment or expulsion. And free blacks who might have entertained other notions had now been forcibly reminded that their position in southern society was analogous to that of the slave rather than the white man.62

Although legislation and patrol vigilance might check certain abuses, the swift punishment of troublesome blacks had always been thought to have a more immediate and enduring impact. The exigencies of war made it all the more urgent to maintain that “subjection through fear” long sanctioned by white public opinion and courts. If loyalty and subjugation could be exacted in no other way, plantation whites freely wielded the whip. Any violent altercation between a white person and a slave required no investigation of cause before meting out the appropriate punishment. “Jacob has had to fight with one of Mrs. Pickets Negroes,” a Louisiana woman reported in May 1862, “and the Negro cut him seven times on the head and face. Jake gave him one hundred lashes for evry cut an fifty for the ballance of his misconduct.” If only to preserve the prerogatives of the master class, some whites cautioned against summary justice meted out by a mob, but the overriding concern for internal security took its inevitable toll. Angry mobs did not hesitate to hang blacks accused of collaborating with the enemy, nor did they scruple about employing more brutal forms of punishment.63

Neither extraordinary legislative measures nor increased vigilance proved adequate to the impossible task of wartime slave control, and even the swift and summary punishment of recalcitrant workers hardly allayed growing apprehension over the behavior of the blacks. In some instances, the subjugation achieved by the use of the whip must have seemed less than satisfying to those inflicting the beating. In Nansemond County, Virginia, a slave known as Uncle Toliver had been indiscreet enough to pray aloud for the Yankees. The master’s two sons ordered him to kneel in the barnyard and pray for the Confederacy. But this stubborn old man prayed even louder for a Yankee triumph. With growing exasperation, perhaps even bewilderment, the two sons took turns in whipping him until finally the slave, still murmuring something about the Yankees, collapsed and died. The “triumph” achieved by these two young white men sounded more like the death knell of the system they sought so desperately to maintain.64

Deprived of what they deemed essential protection, often frustrated in their attempts to anticipate black behavior, many anguished whites forgot all that talk about contented and loyal slaves and described a situation fraught with the most terrifying implications. Having heard that the home guard might soon be recalled to combat the Yankee invaders, the mistress of a plantation in the Abbeville district of South Carolina wondered how the remaining whites could possibly survive the internal enemy. “If the men are going, then awful things are coming, and I don’t want to stay. My God, the women and children, it will be murder and ruin. There are many among the black people and they only want a chance.”65 If any additional evidence were needed, the obsession with internal security and, perhaps most ominous, the deployment in some regions of Confederate troops to resist both Yankee invaders and rebellious blacks suggested a white South desperately clinging to the fiction of the docile slave without in any way believing it.


REFUSING TO RESIGN THEMSELVES to the grim prospects of occupation and emancipation, numerous white families chose to remove their slaves to safer grounds. That was an abrupt change in his life that Allen V. Manning would never forget. Leaving the old plantation in Clarke County, Mississippi, Manning and his fellow slaves found themselves heading westward into a country they knew but little about. Several times the caravan halted in some place, while the master hired them out to planters trying to make a crop. Every time the Yankees came closer, he would move them out again until finally they crossed the Sabine River into Texas. That was where Manning’s sister gave birth, and the master promptly named the new girl Texana. When they reached Coryell County, the master decided to settle and plant a crop, satisfied that the Yankees no longer posed an immediate threat to his slave property. And it was here, more than 600 miles from the plantation where he had spent most of his bondage, that Allen Manning would learn one day of his freedom. He never returned to Mississippi.66

The decision made by Allen Manning’s master to run his slaves into Texas reflected the desperation with which numbers of planters sought to avoid the panic that often preceded the arrival of the Yankees and to find a place where they might keep their slave force intact and postpone for as long as possible the need to emancipate them. From the very outset of the war, some planter families anticipated the need for such a refuge and rented or purchased places to which they could move themselves and their slave property at the appropriate time. The first slaves to be relocated were often the most troublesome, those who were thought to have a demoralizing influence on the others and in whom the least amount of confidence could be placed. Louis Manigault, a Georgia rice planter, acting on the advice of his overseer, selected ten slaves he deemed “most likely would cause trouble” and dispatched them to an area “sufficiently remote from all excitement.” A planter friend of Mary Chesnut searched for “a place of safety” to send 200 of his blacks who “had grown to be a nuisance,” while still another South Carolinian, supervising the removal of his mother’s slaves, chose “the primest hands & the most uncertain.”67

Whether because of the threatened disruption of local and family ties or the proximity to freedom, few slaves relished the idea of being removed from the home farm or plantation. Sensing that reluctance, a Tennessee planter tried to ease the pain by sharing the remaining whiskey with his slaves before ordering their departure. Perhaps he had only intended to numb their senses; nevertheless, the act revealed a certain compassion, when compared to the owners who employed various deceptions to prepare their slaves for the arduous trek, telling them about the murderous Yankees and, as one slave recalled, “dat where dey is goin’ de lakes full of syrup and covered with batter cakes, and dey won’t have to work so hard.” Rather than resort to such ruses, the proprietress of a plantation in central Georgia appealed to the faithfulness of her slaves and made removal a virtual test of their loyalty. “I reminded them of their master’s absence; how he had committed his wife and children to their care; how desirous was I to be able to tell him on his return that they deserved his confidence to the last.” All but two of the slaves left with her the next morning.68

Whatever their owners told them, the slaves seemed to know instinctively (if not from the “grapevine”) why they were being sent away, and for some that proved to be sufficient reason to take immediate action to determine their own destinations. Stephen Jordon, who had been a slave in Louisiana, regarded his master as “a good man” but with a highly volatile temper. When slaves in the neighborhood ran off to Union-occupied New Orleans, however, he assured his master that he had no such intention. “I shall never leave you. Those Yankees are too bad, I hear.” But when his master announced plans to remove all the slaves to Texas, Jordon had to reconcile his sense of obligation with his deep yearning for freedom.

Of course I liked Mr. Valsin well enough, but I rather be free than be with him, or be the slave of any body else. So his word about going to Texas rather sunk deep into me, because I was praying for the Yankees to come up our way just as soon as possible. I dreaded going to Texas, because I feared that I would never get free. The same thought was in the mind of every one of the slaves on our place. So two nights before we were to leave for Texas all the slaves on our place had a secret meeting at midnight, when we decided to leave to meet the Yankees. Sure enough, about one o’clock that night every one of us took through the woods to make for the Union line.

In low-country South Carolina, a planter made the mistake of telling his slaves that he intended to move them into the interior after the crop had been completed; seventy-six of them left the night of his announcement and reached the Union lines. The steady movement of Louisiana planters into Texas and Arkansas was to have included the slaves belonging to John Williams of Assumption Parish; the morning of his intended departure, however, he awakened to discover that twenty-seven of them, including several of the family favorites, were nowhere to be found. “Will you ever have faith in one again?” his daughter thought to ask him. No matter how hard the planter tried to conceal his intentions, the information managed to reach the slave quarters. Only two days after making some discreet inquiries in town about a plantation to rent, John Berkley Grimball, a prominent South Carolina planter, learned that nearly every one of his slaves, including “the best of them,” had disappeared during the previous night—“about 80 of them … men women and children.” He quickly confined most of the remaining slaves to the workhouse in the nearby town until he found another place in the up-country. “This is a terrible blow and has probably ruined me,” he sighed after adding up his losses.69

The wagon trains carrying the planter families and household goods, with the slaves, cattle, and horses trailing behind them, would become a familiar sight in parts of the wartime South. The fall of New Orleans and exposure to Federal raiding parties precipitated the largest exodus, with more than 150,000 slaves sent out of Louisiana and Mississippi, choking the roads and towns leading into Texas. “It look like everybody in the world was going to Texas,” Allen Manning recalled. “When we would be going down the road we would have to walk along the side all the time to let the wagons go past, all loaded with folks going to Texas.” The slaves who made these treks would long recall the crowded roads, the inhospitable towns, the mothers toting the children on their backs, the fathers tending the wagons and livestock, and the many difficult detours that were ordered to avoid Yankee raiding parties. “Dat was de awfullest trip any man ever make!” Charley Williams, a former Louisiana slave, recalled. “We had to hide from everybody until we find out if dey Yankees or Sesesh, and we go along little old back roads and up one mountain and down another, through de woods all de way.” Virginia Newman remembered how “us all walk barefeets and our feets break and run they so sore, and blister for months. It cold and hot sometime and rain and us got no house or no tent.” To compensate for the drudgery of the journey, the slaves invented some appropriate songs and sang them to the slow steps of the oxen pulling the wagons.

Walk, walk, you nigger, walk!

De road am dusty, de road am tough,

Dust in de eye, dust in de tuft;

Dust in de mouth, yous can’t talk—

Walk, you niggers, don’t you balk.

Walk, walk, you nigger, walk!

De road am dusty, de road am rough.

Walk ’til we reach dere, walk or bust—

De road am long, we be dere by and by.

“We’uns don’t sing it many times,” Bill Homer remembered, “ ’til de missy come and sit in de back of de wagon, facin’ we’uns [who were walking], and she begin to beat de slow time and sing wid we’uns. Dat please Missy Mary to sing with us and she laugh and laugh.”70

Although many of the elderly slaves had been left behind on the old plantations, relocation would take its toll in exhaustion, disrupted families, and lives. After two years on the road, the Miles family of Richmond, Virginia, finally reached Franklin, Texas, but not before the master had sold and traded both slaves and livestock along the way, retaining only his personal servants. Elvira Boles, who had been a slave in Mississippi, left her baby buried “somewhere on dat road” to Texas. Louis Love of Louisiana recalled the death of his brother before they reached the Trinity River. A North Carolina planter, who “didn’ want to part with his niggers,” failed to survive the trip to Arkansas, as did three of the slaves. “We buried the slaves there [on the road],” Millie Evans remembered, “but we camped while ol’ master was carried back to North Carolina. When ol’ mistress come back we started on to Arkansas an’ reached here safe but when we got here we foun’ freedom here too.”71

Whether on the road or in the makeshift camps at night, the slaves had ample time to reflect over their situation—the places they had left behind, the breakup of families, the growing distance between themselves and the nearest Union troops, the uncertainty of what lay ahead. Their brooding boded only disastrous results for some slaveholders. Rarely a morning passed without the discovery that still more slaves had fled during the night, perhaps to the Union lines, perhaps even back to the old plantation. The difficulty in controlling their slaves on the road forced some owners to turn back; others simply tried to minimize their losses. With her husband in the Confederate Army, Mary Williams Pugh of Louisiana decided to attach her slaves to those of her parents, and the two families then set out for a month-long trip to Rusk, Texas. The morning they departed, her parents lost twenty-seven slaves. “The first night we camped Sylvester left—the next night at Bayou B. about 25 of Pa’s best hands left & the next day at Berwick Bay nearly all of the women & children started—but this Pa found out in time to catch them all except one man & one woman. Altogether he had lost about sixty of his best men.” Meanwhile, Mary Pugh’s brother had encountered similar losses the first two days on the road and he decided to turn back, “as he was afraid of being left with only women & children.” After these experiences, Mrs. Pugh could only be grateful for the “good behavior” of her own slaves. “[Y]ou have every reason to be proud of them,” she wrote her husband, “as I have told them you would be. They are the talk of every neighborhood they pass through as they are such exceptions to other negroes.”72

The decision to move the slaves, made in the interest of preserving the work force, could thus prove to be costly, and there appeared to be no way to predict accurately how the relocated blacks would respond. When two white men engaged in moving blacks from the South Carolina coast to the up-country made the mistake of laying down their weapons and going to sleep, the slaves seized the guns, shot and killed their escorts, and made off to the Yankees. Still further difficulties awaited masters at the end of these treks, when their slaves discovered something less than the land of milk and honey and the lakes filled with syrup they had been told to expect. Upon arriving in Texas, Van Moore recalled, a fellow slave tasted the water from a lake and spit it out in disgust. “I reckon he thinks dat funny syrup.” If work routines differed from what they had known on the old place, they were not necessarily less arduous. Many owners, in order to sustain themselves, hired out their slaves by the day, week, and month to work in whatever jobs might be available. At the same time, some slaves who had been accustomed to specialized tasks now found themselves little more than common field hands. Bill Homer, for example, had been a coachman on the plantation in Shreveport, Louisiana, but in Caldwell, Texas, he became an ox driver and hoer.73

Rather than finding any relief from the customary problems of management and discipline, slaveholders were apt to discover that the new environment encouraged greater independence in the slaves. Even owners who removed their blacks only a short distance encountered unexpected problems. F. D. Richardson, a Louisiana planter, had moved the bulk of his work force from the Bayside plantation down a bayou and into the woods, in the hope that this more secluded spot would protect them from the Yankees; there he cleared some land, constructed a house and slave cabins, and hired an overseer. Four months later, his slaves pillaged the new place and fled; he subsequently located forty-five of them in nearby Opelousas, “together with six mule carts, two ox carts, one four horse wagon, twenty eight mules, eight yoke of oxen—mares & colts & saddle & buggy horses not to be found. This property I have lost and never expect to see it again.”74

After assessing the various options open to him, John Berkeley Grimball found little reason to be optimistic. “To move or to stay seems to be equally ruinous to my prospects,” he wrote in late February 1862. To compensate himself for the eighty slaves who had fled before he could move them, he sold nearly all his remaining slaves, retaining only the house servants and a few elderly blacks who would look after the old plantation. Like Grimball, a small minority of slave owners, rather than risk the perils of relocation or emancipation, turned to sale as a preferable if not altogether profitable alternative; perhaps as many, while retaining the bulk of their slave force, chose to rid themselves of the security risks, those who had already proven troublesome or whose past conduct raised questions about their dependability in a crisis. Louis Manigault of Georgia had no hesitation in selling a slave he considered “a most dangerous character & bad example to the others.” Of the ten slaves belonging to a Missouri couple, only one had given them grounds for concern: “He used to wait in the house and was a likely boy and very smart. Well he must needs have his freedom—it was two years ago—so he bought a knuckleduster and was for killing my husband; but we found it out and sold him right off. We only got $700 for him, though.” In the absence of any overt act, wartime tensions still had a way of magnifying suspicions. “Sell Tom,” a Florida woman advised her husband about his personal slave, “I am not happy with the thoughts of your being alone with him.… He will never abandon the hope of freedom, and if your life should stand in his way, you are not safe.… I would not have you between him and freedom for the wealth of the world. Tom must go out of our household.”75

The wartime trade in slaves did not always suggest doubts about the future of the institution. In areas where the restricted acreage devoted to cotton, along with the concentration of relocated planters and their slaves, produced a surplus of slave laborers, purchasers were available to capitalize on good bargains. The market value of slaves remained relatively high, compared with prewar rates, but the prices paid for slaves reflected the rapid rate of inflation, the depreciated Confederate currency, and the military fortunes of the Confederacy; the slaves sold in Richmond in early 1865 for $10,000, for example, represented a real (gold) value of not more than $100. The capacity for self-deception proved limitless for those whites who chose to interpret the high prices as demonstrating confidence in the ultimate triumph of the Confederacy or as a firm rejection of the legality of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Most slaveholders, however, retained a sufficient business and political sense to know better. In December 1864, with the outcome of the war nearly decided, Edmund Ruffin, the staunchest Confederate patriot of them all, sold fifteen of his slaves, mostly women and children. His son made no attempt to conceal the reasons: “these were all consumers and likely to be for some time and were sold on account of the expense of keeping and the doubtful tenure of the property.”76

When confidence in the survival of the Confederacy faltered, some slaveholders abandoned any patriotic or paternalistic pretenses and made a final, desperate effort to unload their slaves. “Us was sold on de block,” Wash Wilson recalled, “ ’cause Marse Tom say he gwine git all he done put in us out us, iffen he can ’fore de Yanks take dis country.” Shortly before the shelling of Petersburg, Virginia, began, Fannie Berry remembered, “dey were selling niggers for little nothin’ hardly,” and as late as March 1, 1865, Mary Chesnut noted the “sale” of two slaves in besieged Richmond: a black woman traded for yarn, and a black man sold for a keg of nails. Although most slaveholders chose not to dispose of their property in this manner, they were hardly indifferent to the pecuniary consequences of emancipation. With an eye to the future, masters prepared for the Yankees by affixing a price to each of their slaves. If they could not retain them after the war, they would at least be in a position to claim compensation for their losses.77


THE CONDITIONS CREATED by wartime dangers and necessities had few precedents in southern life or in the long history of slavery. If numerous blacks were removed to safe havens to keep them from the Yankees, still others were impressed into service as military laborers to help repel the Yankee invaders or kept in the fields to grow the crops necessary to feed the Army. Forced to muster every resource at its command, the white South would find itself in the position of debating the increased use of blacks in the military effort, even as fears mounted that blacks might, if given the opportunity, seek to undermine that effort. For the blacks, the situation and the choices were no less paradoxical, as they found themselves called upon to help sustain a war effort which, if successful, would perpetuate their bondage.

Appreciating the critical role of blacks in the economy, the white South, at the very outset of the war, pronounced slavery “a tower of strength” that would assure the ultimate triumph of independence. With enslaved workers providing the necessary labor at home, larger numbers of whites would be available for military service, thereby giving the slave South a decided advantage over the North. “The institution of slavery in the South,” a Montgomery, Alabama, newspaper boasted, “alone enables her to place in the field a force so much larger in proportion to her white population than the North, or indeed than any country which is dependent entirely on free labor.” Frederick Douglass, the leading black abolitionist, conceded as much when he called the black laborer “the key of the situation—the pivot upon which the whole rebellion turns.” Without the immense human resources made available by slavery, he thought it unlikely that the Confederacy could sustain any prolonged military effort. “Arrest that hoe in the hands of the negro,” Douglass advised early in the war, “and you smite rebellion in the very seat of its life.”78

Not only did slaves constitute the mainstay of the agricultural economy—“the very stomach of this rebellion,” said Douglass—but their services as military laborers more than justified the Union Army’s belated decision to treat runaway slaves as “contraband of war.” In the Confederate Army, slaves worked as cooks, teamsters, hospital attendants, musicians, and body servants; elsewhere, slaves were employed in a variety of skilled trades essential to the war effort. They labored in railroad construction and maintenance, in the extraction of raw materials, in the erection of fortifications, and in the manufacture of weapons of war. More than half the workers at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond were blacks, as were nearly three fourths of the employees in the naval ordnance plant at Selma, Alabama.79

Early in the war, when patriotism was at its peak, numerous slaveholders volunteered their blacks without wages (the government furnishing quarters and rations) or contracted (hired) them out to military authorities; at the same time, some free blacks sought to establish their loyalty by offering their services to strengthen defensive works around the cities and towns. When volunteers failed to meet increasing military needs, the Confederate government authorized the impressment of slaves and agreed to compensate the owners (thirty dollars a month and the full value of the slave in case of his death). The new law quickly fell victim to the growing conflict between state and Confederate authorities and failed to supply the necessary laborers. With somewhat greater success, local authorities and military commanders met emergency situations by arbitrarily mobilizing the available black laborers—free and slave alike—in a threatened region and forcing them into service. That was the fate of many blacks in Richmond, for example, as Union troops neared the city.

The negroes were taken unaware on the street, at the market, from the shops, and at every point where they were found doing errands for themselves or their masters and mistresses.… In some cases the impressments agents acted with considerable indiscretion, snatching the negro from the marketing of his master, and leaving the marketing to take care of itself; taking the negro from his perch on the cart and leaving the cart driverless behind.80

The growing reluctance of planters to part with their slaves, even to sustain a war for the preservation of that property, compounded the problem of meeting military labor requisitions. “Have you ever noticed the strange conduct of our people during this war?” a Confederate congressman from Georgia asked. “They give up their sons, husbands, brothers & friends, and often without murmuring, to the army; but let one of their negroes be taken, and what a howl you will hear.” Still another legislator claimed to know a planter with five sons in the Army who resisted attempts to impress his slaves. “The patriotic planters,” he observed, “would willingly put their own flesh and blood into the army, but when you asked them for a negro the matter approached the point of drawing an eye-tooth.”81 Neither waning patriotism nor constitutional scruples explain altogether the resistance of slaveholders to impressment. Although many did protest it as an interference with individual rights and property, the principal objections reflected a fear of pecuniary loss and the consequences of losing control over their slaves. Not only were slave laborers frequently impressed at a crucial time in plantation operations but the work patterns, rigors, and demands of military labor tended to injure their health, sometimes demoralized them, and all too often rendered them almost useless—if not downright dangerous—upon their return to the plantation.

Except for sale or removal, few wartime disruptions imposed greater hardships on the slaves than impressment. Made available to military authorities for a specified period of time, such slaves were invariably overworked, underfed, poorly clothed, brutally treated, exposed to enemy gunfire, and given inadequate medical attention. The deplorable condition and neglect of hospitalized slave military laborers in Richmond, for example, moved a local newspaper to denounce their treatment as “a disgrace to humanity.” Letters poured in on the governor of Virginia from owners requesting that they be compensated for the slaves who had been laboring on fortifications and were lost because of disease, accident, exposure, and neglect. Ordered by local authorities to provide four blacks for the defense of Vicksburg, a Mississippi slaveholder noted their fate in his diary: “They were sent and put into the water up to the breast in the swamp below Vicksburg chop[p]ing trees the Consequence we have lost one by death the others are still ill one kept over there & got sick & we had to send a waggon & bed to bring him home.”82

Even if slaves survived the physical ordeal of military labor, owners expressed concern about their state of mind and the unwholesome moral influences to which they might have been subjected. The information and ideas such slaves imbibed would be transmitted to the other slaves and threatened to undermine proper discipline and control. Nor could slave owners be certain that their impressed blacks would choose to return to the plantation. Proximity to Union lines afforded military laborers numerous opportunities for escape. The fact that some owners dispatched their troublemakers—the least intimidated slaves—made this all the more likely, but even the most carefully selected slaves found the prospect of freedom difficult to resist.83

Rather than flee to the Yankees, some impressed blacks who managed to escape headed for their homes. If they succeeded, they might then plead with their masters not to send them back to the fortifications, and some owners readily sympathized with such pleas. “[T]hey might kill him if they wanted to,” a North Carolina slave told his master, “but … he would never go back to that work.” Numerous slaves shared that aversion to military duty and did what they could to avoid it, often with the connivance of their masters. But for the many who served and survived, it proved to be an indelible experience.

Dat was de worst times dat dis here nigger ever seen an’ de way dem white men drive us niggers, it was something awful. De strap, it was goin’ from Tore day till ’way after night. De niggers, heaps of ’em just fall in dey tracks give out an’ them white men layin’ de strap on dey backs without ceasin’. Dat was zackly way it was wid dem niggers like me what was in de army work. I had to stand it, Boss, till de War was over.84

How a slave reacted to military labor depended to some degree on the kind of bondage he had known at home. Jacob Stroyer, for example, who had been raised on a plantation near Columbia, South Carolina, claimed to have “fared better” on the fortifications than on the plantation. He appreciated the spare time he had (in which he continued his quest for literacy), and he viewed the entire experience as a welcome diversion from the plantation routines. At the same time, he acknowledged the contradictions inherent in his role as a Confederate laborer:

[Although we knew that our work in the Confederate service was against our liberty, yet we were delighted to be in military service. We felt an exalted pride that, having spent a little time at these war points, we had gained some knowledge which would put us beyond our fellow negroes at home on the plantations, while they would increase our pride by crediting us with far more knowledge than it was possible for us to have gained.85

Of the slaves who served the Confederate war effort, none would rank higher in southern legend than the body servant. Accompanying his master (usually a more substantial planter or one of his sons) to military service, he performed the duties of a personal attendant and relieved the master of the more onerous camp chores; he might also be called upon to forage the countryside for food, entertain the soldiers, help care for the wounded, and dig trenches. Stephen Moore, servant to a South Carolina planter, informed his wife that he had been well treated in camp and enjoyed the leisure time available to him. “I have 3 meals of victuals to cook a day & the rest of the time is mine.” Proud of his position, he asked his wife “to take this letter & read it to all my people.… Tell them all I have been on the Battle field.”86

Since they would spend considerable time together and undergo the rigors of camp life and possibly enemy fire, a master took care in selecting the right slave for the position. Usually, the honor—for it was so considered by most—went to a slave who had already proven his fidelity, whose company the master enjoyed, and who could be expected to perform faithfully under the most trying circumstances; in many cases, he had previously served his master as a personal attendant, caring for his clothes, horses, and hounds. “Cyrus is a good boy indeed,” a Georgia officer wrote of his servant, who had demonstrated both faithfulness and competence as a forager and cook.

He has not had the first short word of dispute with a man since he left home. He gives me no trouble at all. Attends well to my horse and things general. I ask him sometimes if he does not want to go home—he replies not without I go. Him, I and Beauregard [the horse] form quite a trio. I will have to have our picture taken all together.

Overly pleased with the conduct and company of his body servant, a South Carolina master paid the highest compliment he could conceive: “Why weren’t you white! Why weren’t you white! Why weren’t you white!”87

If the admonitions of some slave owners had been heeded, few of the body servants would have been provided with opportunities for wartime heroism. The usual procedure was to keep them behind the lines, not only to protect their lives but to safeguard the owners’ investments as well. “I hear you are likely to have a big battle soon,” a Virginia slaveholder advised his son, “and I write to tell you not to let Sam go into the fight with you. Keep him in the rear, for that nigger is worth a thousand dollars.” Despite such considerations, the body servant often found himself sharing with his master the ordeal of battle and enemy fire. Like the white soldiers in his camp, he reacted with conduct that ranged from hysteria and flight to feats of incredible bravery. The stories of how he stood steadfast by his master and the instances in which he risked his life to recover the body of his slain master and carted him home for a proper burial would be accorded a prominent place in postwar recollections and tributes.88

The intimacy and affection that bound servant and master in the Army, like that which traditionally bound many house servants to the families residing in the Big House, could not escape the ambivalence that underlay the relationships formed in slavery. While most body servants remained loyal and faithful attendants, earning the laurels accorded them, significant numbers did not; in fact, some body servants calculatingly exploited the trust placed in them to desert to the Yankees at the first opportunity. Katie Darling, who had been a housegirl on a plantation in Texas, recalled how her father ran away from “Massa Bill” while the two men were on their way to the battlefield. “Massa say when he come back from the war, That triflin’ nigger run ’way and jines up with them damn Yankees.” Lieutenant Theodorick W. Montfort, a Georgia farmer and lawyer, considered his body servant, Prince, to be “a most excellent” attendant. “You would be surprised to see how well he can cook & wash & how neatly he can iron & put up clothes. He can do it as well as any woman. I dont think you will want any better cook, washer & Ironer than he is by the time the war is over.” But when the Yankees captured and then interned Lieutenant Montfort, his prize servant seized the opportunity to declare himself free. Not only did some body servants desert to the Yankees but they also provided them with information on the number and location of Confederate batteries; one such informer was subsequently recaptured, handed over to loyal servants for punishment, and reportedly “met a death at their hands more violent than any white person’s anger could have suggested.”89

When Confederate military fortunes declined and rations ran short, most of the body servants had to be sent home to help raise the necessary food supplies. In returning to the plantations, they imparted to their fellow slaves not only war experiences but the conversations they had overheard around the campfires and from captured Yankees about the prospects of a Union victory and emancipation. Although the white South would still accord the body servant a place in the pantheon of Confederate heroes, his conduct had often revealed an ambivalence that the coming of the Yankees would make even more explicit in the occupied South. That conflict between fidelity to the master and the yearning for freedom would manifest itself in numerous ways and deeply trouble both whites and blacks, leaving a bewildered white South to ponder, for example, over the behavior of a body servant who risked his life to carry his wounded master to safety and then remounted the master’s horse and fled to the Yankee lines. Recalling his own experience, Martin Jackson, who had been a slave in Texas, spoke with considerable pride about the company in which he had served, but he made no effort to hide the conflict of loyalties he had felt. “Just what my feelings was about the War, I have never been able to figure out myself. I knew the Yanks were going to win, from the beginning. I wanted them to win and lick us Southerners, but I hoped they was going to do it without wiping out our company.”90

Even as the white South persisted in touting the fidelity, contentment, and docility of its black population, there were limits to how much trust could be reposed in them and to what kinds of services they would be permitted to render. The employment of blacks as military laborers and body servants occasioned no particular alarm, as their duties were consistent with the servile position they occupied in southern society. But the proposal to enlist blacks as regular soldiers proved to be a different matter altogether. In opposing any such move, an Alabama legislator could think of no more effective argument than the example of his own body servant “who had grown up with him from boyhood, who had gone with him to the army and had shared with him, share and share alike, every article of food and clothing,” and yet, inexplicably, “had seized the first opportunity which presented of deserting him, and joining the Yankees.” Nevertheless, the Confederacy would have to confront the issue of slaves as soldiers, particularly after the Yankees began to reap such successes from the experiment.91

After the bombardment of Fort Sumter, free blacks in several towns organized themselves into military companies and offered their services to their respective states. The most notable example proved to be the free colored community of New Orleans, with its strong Creole element and the tradition of having fought under Andrew Jackson in 1815. After announcing early in the war their determination to “take arms at a moment’s notice and fight shoulder to shoulder with other citizens” in defense of the city, two regiments of free colored men, known as the Native Guards, were soon parading the streets with white soldiers. Although formally incorporated into the Louisiana militia, the Native Guards were never called upon for combat duty. The same disinclination to employ black troops appeared elsewhere in the Confederacy. When sixty Richmond free blacks, bearing a Confederate flag, proffered their services as soldiers, the local authorities praised their loyalty and sent them home.92

Whether such volunteers were motivated by opportunism, a genuine patriotism, community coercion, or the prospect of better treatment is difficult to determine. By serving the Confederates, a New Orleans black leader later explained, they had hoped to improve their legal and social position; at the same time, almost in self-defense, they had felt the need to prove their fighting abilities and to learn the use of firearms, thereby raising their esteem among both the whites and their own people. “No matter where I fight,” a New Orleans black later told the Yankees, “I only wish to spend what I have, and fight as long as I can, if only my boy may stand in the street equal to a white boy when the war is over.” This may help to explain the ease with which the Native Guards quickly switched their loyalties after the fall of New Orleans; the colored troops—“the darkest of whom,” said one Union general, “will be about the complexion of the late Mr. [Daniel] Webster”—were subsequently mustered into Federal service and sent into battle against the Confederates at Port Hudson, Louisiana.93

When Colonel James Chesnut’s slaves volunteered in March 1862 “to fight for him if he would arm them,” he professed to believe them. But one person could not make that decision, he told them. “The whole country must agree to it.” Although there had been some proposals early in the war to enlist slaves, usually in the form of appeals from planters in threatened areas for permission to arm their slaves, the wisdom of such a drastic move was never seriously debated by the Confederacy until late in 1063. With the steady deterioration of the military effort, the question suddenly took on a new importance. In the ensuing and often far-reaching debate, the reasons advanced for slave enlistments ranged from the improved moral position of the South in the world community to how it might demoralize the black Yankees. But the most compelling argument, as it had been in the North, was that of military necessity. For some whites, at least, the urgent need to preserve the independence of the South took precedence over the institution upon which it was based, and the system they had initially viewed as the economic strength of the South now loomed as a critical source of military manpower as well. “The element which has been the foundation of wealth should now be made the instrument of our salvation,” a Mississippi slaveholder told his fellow planters. “Arm our slaves.” If the Confederacy failed to utilize this manpower, he warned, “the Yankees will, and the terminal scenes of this struggle … will be the subjugation of the Southern gentleman by his own slaves.” It behooved every patriotic slaveholder, then, to “prepare the negro’s mind for the position he is about to assume, and excite in him that love of country and of home which, I believe, exists strongly in the negro’s breast.” Having reprinted this slaveholder’s appeal, the New Orleans Tribune, a black newspaper established in 1864, could not help but comment on its tragic irony: “The chivalrous Southerners, after bragging so long of their superiority above all other people, are now, in the pangs of agony, stretching their hands for help to those for whose enslavement they are trying to destroy their country.… They have, with their own lips and by their own acts, given the lie to their diabolical purpose.”94

The gravity of the military situation notwithstanding, any proposal to enlist slaves as soldiers was bound to provoke strong opposition. When confronted with the prospect of armed slaves, in fact, many whites all too easily belied their previously expressed confidence in black loyalty and fidelity. “Would they not, with arms in their hands, either desert to the enemy or turn their weapons against us?” a prominent North Carolinian asked. By undertaking this experiment, opponents warned, the South will only have succeeded in introducing into the towns and countryside a veritable Trojan horse. “Are we prepared for this?” a Virginian asked. “To win their freedom with our own independence, to establish in our midst a half or quarter of a million of black freemen, familiar with the arts and discipline of war, and with large military experience!” At best, critics charged, black recruitment would exchange “a profitable laborer for a very unprofitable soldier,” and, at worst, it leveled all distinctions and elevated blacks to equality with whites. If the Confederacy had to resort to such measures, thereby violating all previous practices and teachings, some whites thought it unworthy of survival. “The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution,” General Howell Cobb warned. “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”95

After the military reverses of late 1864, the Confederacy edged still closer to raising a black army. If nothing else, the heavy casualties they were sustaining impressed whites with the need to draw upon their immense reservoir of black manpower. Why condemn to destruction “the flower of our population, the hope of the country,” a Virginia newspaper asked, “rather than mould to our use and make subsidiary to the great ends of independence, the inferior race that has so long acknowledged our guidance and control! Surely, they are good enough for Yankee bullets.” What little was left of slavery, Mary F. Akin wrote her husband in the Confederate Congress, “should be rendered as serviceable as possible and for that reason the negro men ought to be put to fighting and where some of them will be killed. [I]f it is not done there will soon be more negroes than whites in the country and they will be the free race. I want to see them got rid of soon.” Walter Clark, a young Confederate officer, had initially opposed the enlistment of blacks but he now thought the policy deserved full support. “Let Negro fight negro,” he advised. “This is an age of progressive ideas and mighty changes.”96

The arguments grew increasingly bitter and vindictive as the war reached a desperate point. On March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress, with the strong backing of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, finally authorized the enlistment of 300,000 additional troops “irrespective of color.” To allay the fears of many whites, the act stipulated that no state was to enlist more than 25 percent of her able-bodied slave population between the ages of eighteen and forty-five. Within a few days, advertisements appeared in newspapers to urge the recruitment of blacks. In Richmond, a company of blacks in Confederate uniforms paraded in the streets to attract additional volunteers. Among those witnessing the spectacle was John S. Wise, a Confederate officer and the son of a former governor of Virginia. “Ah!” he thought, as he watched the “Confederate darkeys” drill in Capitol Square, “this is but the beginning of the end.”97

Although the law authorizing black recruits avoided the question of emancipation, leaving that decision to the slave owners and the states, the clear implication was that slaves who served in the Confederate Army would be freed at the end of the war. But the promise of freedom as a reward for military service, whether by law or by implication, came too late to impress or deceive most slaves. “I’ll work for Massa Randolph good ’nough,” said a slave belonging to the former Confederate Secretary of War, “but no want to fight for Massa Davis.” Bewildered by the remark, someone asked him how he could stand by idly while the Yankees robbed his master. “I knows nuthing ’bout politics,” the slave replied. But when told that he might win his freedom by enlisting, this same slave suddenly revealed a sound grasp of politics: “We niggers dat fight will be free, course; but you see, massa, if some ob us don’t fight, we all be free, Massa Lincum says.” That same perception of reality had made Colonel James Chesnut’s slaves far less enthusiastic about military service. When the question had first been broached, back in March 1862, they had talked enthusiastically about enlisting and securing their freedom and a bounty. More than two years later, however, with the military and political situation quite different, their tone had changed. “Now they say coolly that they don’t want freedom if they have to fight for it. That means they are pretty sure of having it anyway.”98

Even before the Confederate Congress authorized enlistments, some slaves found ways to communicate their aversion to fighting for their masters. In early 1865, a Richmond newspaper published a letter allegedly written by a black man to the president of the Confederate Senate:

I hope you all will pass the law to arm the negro and the Day you do that We do intend to fight you all and We have made up our minds to do it when ever you all Will give us arms the Yankee is our friends, and you all is our enemy, and give us arms and we will rase war right here, and do you think we would fight again our friends for you all; no, never would I do so.99

When slaves were later questioned by Union soldiers about their willingness to bear arms for the Confederacy, they no doubt told them what they wanted to hear but there is little reason in this instance to suspect the blacks of duplicity. “My master offers me my freedom if I will take up arms,” one slave told an escaped Union prisoner, “but I have a wife and five children, and he does not offer them their freedom, and we have come to the conclusion that there is no use fighting for our masters and our freedom when any children we may have are to be made slaves, and we have thought when we get arms and are allowed to be together in regiments, we can demand freedom for our wives and children, and take it.” The day the Confederacy arms its slaves, a Georgia black assured General Sherman, “dat day de war ends!” Equally explicit, another slave vowed that his people would never have fought the Yankees. “I habe heard de colored folks talk of it. They knowd all about it; dey’ll turn the guns on the Rebs.”100

The Confederacy had anticipated little difficulty in mobilizing slaves for military duty. Nor did the proponents of black enlistments doubt the efficiency with which such soldiers would serve. After all, an Alabama newspaper suggested, “masters and overseers can marshal them for battle by the same authority and habit of obedience with which they are marshalled to labor.” The end of the war, however, rendered such questions academic. Few slaves were ever enlisted, and none of them apparently had the opportunity to fight. Had the Confederacy managed to raise a black army, it would seem unlikely, particularly after 1863, that it could have fought with the same sense of commitment and self-pride that propelled the black troops in the Union Army. When he first heard of the act to recruit blacks for the Confederate Army, a Virginia freedman recalled, he had suddenly found himself unable to restrain his emotions. “They asked me if I would fight for my country. I said, ‘I have no country.’ ”101


WHILE BLACKS WERE RELUCTANT to take up arms to perpetuate the bondage of their people, many were to regret that they had not struck harder for their liberation. If only there had been a massive upheaval, undermining the Confederacy and expediting a Union victory, what wonders that might have achieved for black self-pride. Felix Haywood, a former Texas slave, tried to sort out his thoughts about that failure.

If every mother’s son of a black had thrown ’way his hoe and took up a gun to fight for his own freedom along with the Yankees, the war’d been over before it began. But we didn’t do it. We couldn’t help stick to our masters. We couldn’t no more shoot ’em than we could fly. My father and me used to talk ’bout it. We decided we was too soft and freedom wasn’t goin’ to be much to our good even if we had a education.

Only in retrospect, too, did Robert Falls, who had endured a harsh bondage in North Carolina, regret the essentially submissive role he had played during his more than twenty years as a slave. “If I had my life to live over,” he reflected, “I would die fighting rather than be a slave again.… But in them days, us niggers didnt know no better. All we knowed was work, and hard work. We was learned to say, ‘Yes Sir!’ and scrape down and bow, and to do just exactly what we was told to do, make no difference if we wanted to or not.” His father, in whom he had considerable pride, had symbolized for Falls the virtues and perhaps the futility of the slave rebel’s usually lonely struggle. “Now my father, he was a fighter. He was mean as a bear. He was so bad to fight and so troublesome he was sold four times to my knowing and maybe a heap more times.”102

The extent of black insurrectionary activity during the Civil War remains a subtle question. What is nearly impossible to determine in each instance is whether the reported revolt or plot was actually consummated, whether it existed only in the fevered imaginations of war-weary whites, or, far more commonly, whether “insurrection” simply became a way to define “suspicious activity,” “insubordination,” and organized flight to the Yankees. None of the wartime slave plots and uprisings achieved any spectacular results. But the psychic impact was formidable, each report and rumor reminding the white South of the potential that resided in its black population. The specter of servile insurrection hovered over the debate on enlisting blacks into the Confederate Army and intruded itself on the confidence with which whites periodically congratulated themselves over the docility of their slaves. The many reports that quantities of arms, gunpowder, knives, and hatchets had been found secreted under the floors of slave cabins revived traditional fears, and some planters ordered that hoes, axes, and other implements that might serve as weapons be locked up at night. The sound of fire bells excited still more panic, with the increase in arson attempts ascribed to blacks, particularly after it became known that slave rebels in Mississippi had planned to inaugurate an insurrection by burning the city of Natchez.103

The initial fears stemmed from reports that slaves in certain regions were preparing to wage insurrectionary warfare the moment the white volunteers left for military service or as soon as Yankee troops came into the vicinity. Within months after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, rumors of a black uprising placed Charleston residents on alert, and insurrectionary plots were uncovered in Georgia, Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi.104 In May 1861, a citizens’ committee in Kingston, Georgia, ordered the hanging of a slave after hearing evidence that pointed to “one of the most diabolical schemes ever devised by any fiend to murder the citizens of this county, and take possession of their property.” That same month, Edmund Ruffin reported the discovery of a conspiracy in Virginia which had been organized at “night meetings for pretended religious worship.” But he claimed to be unshaken by the news.

A conspiracy discovered & repressed is better assurance of safety than if no conspiracy had been heard of or suspected. While I deem there is not the least ground for alarm & that this conspiracy, if undiscovered, would have had no dangerous results—still we ought to be always vigilant, & be ready to meet attacks, whether from northern invaders or negro insurgents.

With less equanimity, a white family in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, described the slaves in their neighborhood as “verry bold” and “trying to make up a company to rise.” When overtaken, one of the conspirators “abused his Master to the last and told him that the North was fighting for the Negroes now [and] that he was as free as his Master.” The accused rebel was then bound and left behind while the whites pursued the remaining conspirators. Upon their return, they found that “he had got loos and taken the cords that he was tied with and hung him self.” Not far from this scene, and at nearly the same time, a Louisiana planter, having crawled under a slave cabin, overheard his slaves plotting a revolt.105

Although whites tried to downplay the impact of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln’s preliminary announcement in September 1862 promptly set off a new wave of rumors and reports of insurrection. “It was very weak and ill-arranged,” Emma Holmes of Camden, South Carolina, said of a plot discovered in her district, and several blacks were scheduled to hang. In December, one month before the Proclamation took effect, a Confederate militia unit from Mississippi requested that it be permitted to disband and return home for the Christmas holiday, not for purposes of merriment but to forestall an anticipated slave uprising. “[W]e deem it highly necessary that we should be there for the defense of our families,” a spokesman for the group advised the governor, “as the negroes are making their brags that by the first of January they will be free as we are and a general outbreak is expected about that time.” No doubt this was not the only militia unit which preferred to take its chances with slave rebels rather than Yankee soldiers.106

With emancipation an avowed Union objective, persistent reports circulated that blacks intended to stage a general revolt that would affect every part of the South and begin with the destruction of railroad tracks, telegraph lines, and bridges. Julia LeGrand, a young white woman, heard that the revolt would fall on New Year’s Day 1863, and no place would be safe, not even the Union-occupied New Orleans in which she resided.

I feel no fear, but many are in great alarm.… Fires are frequent—it is feared that incendiaries are at work. Last night was both cold and windy. The bells rang out and the streets resounded with cries. I awoke from sleep and said, “Perhaps the moment has come.” … Mrs. Norton has a hatchet, a tomahawk, and a vial of some kind of spirits with which she intends to blind all invaders. We have made no preparations, but if the worst happen we will die bravely no doubt.107

Reinforcing the rumors of an impending general insurrection, reports mounted during the last two years of the war of the existence of “underground” organizations among the slaves. An escaped Union prisoner related how he had been assisted by a secret society which included “men whom their masters trusted in important transactions.” In Livingston Parish, Louisiana, a woman informed her husband of “a terrible stir” involving more than a hundred slaves belonging to two planters; the conspirators organized a company, elected officers, stole guns and horses, and were “all ready just as quick as the word was given to go to work.” Local whites put down the uprising, numerous slaves were whipped “very bad,” and five were scheduled to hang.108

If whites tended to blur the distinction between an “insurrection” and an organized escape to the enemy, they often had good reason. In Amite County, Mississippi, some thirty or more armed slaves seized their masters’ horses and “openly with boldness, cheers and shouting” made their way toward Union-occupied Natchez; within fifteen miles of their destination, however, the slaves were overtaken and most of them killed. With far greater success, Elijah Marrs mobilized twenty-seven slaves in Simpsonville, Kentucky, for an escape to the Union lines nearby; they used the local church for a headquarters, elected Marrs their captain, and accumulated an arsenal of “twenty-six war clubs and one old rusty pistol.” Reaching Louisville before their owners, the slaves marched to the recruiting office and enlisted in the Union Army.109

The awesome number of mass punishments meted out to suspected black rebels often reflected nothing more than sheer hysteria. Although some whites thought their worst fears were about to be realized, the fact remains that the slaves failed to execute a major wartime rebellion. That failure was something the postwar white South chose to recall, as did certain black leaders eager to calm post-emancipation fears of a wave of black terror. “We never inaugurated a servile insurrection,” Georgia freedmen would memorialize the legislature in 1866, exaggerating their race’s submission.

We stayed peaceably at our homes, and labored with our usual industry. While you were absent fighting in the field, though we knew our power at the same time, and would frequently speak of it. We knew then it was in our power to rise, fire your houses, burn your barns, railroads, and discommode you in a thousand ways, so much so, that we could have swept the country, like a fearful tornado. But we preferred then as we do now, to wait on God, and trust to the instincts of your humanity.110

With different degrees of emphasis, some observers ascribed the absence of any large-scale servile insurrection to “the habit of patience” that bondage had instilled in black people. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, for example, an abolitionist Union officer commanding a black regiment in the South, often asked himself why “this capacity of daring and endurance” he observed in his soldiers had not kept the South “in a perpetual flame of insurrection.” One answer, he reflected, must lie somewhere “in the peculiar temperament of the races, in their religious faith, and in the habit of patience that centuries had fortified.”111

But the discussions which Colonel Higginson had with his own men revealed that “the habit of patience” explained rather little. Around the campfires, at least, when any of the black soldiers broached the subject of insurrection, they spoke of a lack of information, money, arms, drill, organization, and mutual confidence—“the tradition” that nearly every revolt had been betrayed at the outset. “The shrewder men all said substantially the same thing,” Higginson observed. “What was the use of insurrection, where everything was against them?” To many blacks, in fact, talk of rebellion was simply “fool talk,” a suicidal form of resistance. By mid-1862, the Christian Recorder, a black newspaper in Philadelphia, had lost its patience with those northern whites who envisioned a slave uprising as the death gasp of the Confederacy. When the war first broke out, the editor noted, and the North had expected a quick triumph, the mere hint of a slave rebellion would have aroused nationwide indignation.

Now, that same people want the slaves to rise up and fight for their liberty. Rise against what?—powder, cannon, ball and grape-shot? Not a bit of it. They have got too much good sense. Since you have waited till every man, boy, woman and child in the so-called Southern Confederacy has been armed to the teeth, ’tis folly and mockery for you now to say to the poor, bleeding and downtrodden sons of Africa, “Arise and fight for your liberty!”

The point was well made. From the outset of the war, it had been apparent to many observers, white and black, that the Yankees were as likely to betray a rebellion as some slave informer. The President, anxious to hold the border states in line, had made it clear on numerous occasions that this war was not being waged to provoke servile insurrection. Had there been a slave rebellion, Colonel Higginson conceded, it would surely have divided northern sentiment, “and a large part of our army would have joined with the Southern army to hunt them down.” It was not, then, a black journalist explained, that the slaves were too ill informed to revolt. “They are too well informed and too wise to court destruction at the hands of the combined Northern and Southern armies.”112

The absence of any major slave revolts during the Civil War should in no way obscure the nature and extent of the resistance that accompanied, often in the same person, the more celebrated slave virtues of obedience, fidelity, and patience. Not all slaves waited for freedom to be thrust upon them, nor did pro-Union blacks necessarily confine their activities to secretive prayers and midnight meetings. Where it was possible to expedite the Union cause, there were almost always some slaves and free blacks willing to take the risks. While a few operated as Union spies, still larger numbers provided the Union Army with valuable information about Confederate campsites, troop movements, and morale and guided Union forces when they came into the vicinity. “A negro brought the Yankees from Pineville,” a white South Carolinian noted with dismay, “and piloted them to where our men were camped, taking them completely by surprise, capturing Bright and killing two of his men.” Alarmed at the effective use made of slave informants by the Union Army, Confederate officials urged severe punishment of any blacks found engaged in such activity, and soldiers resorted to various ruses to ferret them out. In Berkeley County, South Carolina, where a black driver had come under suspicion as an informant, Confederate scouts disguised as Yankees went to his cabin, offered to pay him if he could lead them to a reported Confederate camp in the swamps, and then “hung the traitor” when he did so. By early 1864, however, a Confederate officer thought slave activity on behalf of the Union Army had reached the point of “an omnipresent spy system, pointing out our valuable men to the enemy, revealing our positions, purposes, and resources, and yet acting so safely and secretly that there is no means to guard against it.”113

The literature of the Civil War is replete, too, with stories of how slaves and free blacks rendered invaluable assistance to Union soldiers who had escaped from Confederate prisons. Several such prisoners testified that their escape would have been impossible had it not been for the blacks who fed them and guided them to the Union lines. “George has brought us food during the day, and will try to get us a guide to-night,” an escaped Union soldier noted in the diary he kept during his flight. “Sometimes,” another escapee reported, “forty negroes, male and female, would come to us from one plantation, each one bringing something to give, and lay it at our feet, in the aggregate corn bread and potatoes enough to feed a regiment.” Fearing the consequences if they were detected, some slaves proved less helpful, while still others treated the Yankees as enemies and reported escapees to local authorities. One Union soldier who managed to escape from Andersonville recalled an uncooperative black woman who proclaimed her hatred for all white men, Yankees and Confederates alike, and refused to assist him in any way. “She was the only one of the race I ever applied to in vain for assistance.”114

Judged by the reaction it generated, the most spectacular and celebrated exploit of a black man during the Civil War concerned the delivery of a Confederate steamer to the Union Navy. The protagonist in this drama was Robert Smalls, a Charleston slave who had been hired out on the waterfront for several years and had acquired a boatman’s skills. In 1862, impressed into service, Smalls worked as an assistant pilot on the Planter, a cotton steamer converted by the Confederate government into an armed transport. On the night of May 12, 1862, the ship was docked in Charleston with some artillery newly loaded aboard. The officers and white crewmen had gone ashore, leaving Smalls to prepare the vessel for departure the next day. But the black crew, including the families of Robert Smalls and his brother, chose to leave prematurely aboard the Planter, thereby culminating Smalls’s plan to deliver the steamer intact to the Union ships blockading Charleston harbor. “I thought the Planter might be of some use to Uncle Abe,” he remarked afterwards. The North hailed him as a hero, and the government commissioned him an officer in the United States Colored Troops. Smalls returned at the helm of the Planter to witness the United States flag raised over Fort Sumter, and by this time he was well on his way toward becoming a legendary figure among South Carolina blacks. “Smalls ain’t God!” a skeptical black told one of Smalls’s admirers. “That’s true, that’s true,” he replied, “but Smalls’ young yet.” To the white South, the entire episode seemed impossible to grasp. Emma Holmes of Camden, South Carolina, confided her “horrified” reaction to the diary she kept, pronouncing Smalls’s act “most disgraceful” and “one of the boldest and most daring things of the war.”115

Few slaves were in a position to emulate the heroism of Robert Smalls. If they manifested their desire for freedom, it would have to take less spectacular forms. No less dramatic, however, and equally far-reaching, was the decision made by tens of thousands of slaves not to wait for the Yankees but to expedite liberation by fleeing to the Union lines. “We had heard it since last Fall,” an escaped slave told the Yankees in May 1861, “that if Lincoln was elected, you would come down and set us free. And the white-folks used to say so, but they don’t talk so now; the colored people have talked it all over; we heard that if we could get in here [the Union camp] we should be free, or at any rate, we should be among friends.” With the advance of the Union Army, the legendary North Star that had once illuminated the road out of bondage lost its strategic importance; freedom was as close as the nearest Union camp, perhaps only down the road or across a nearby swamp or river. “See how much better off we are now dan we was four years ago,” a successful runaway exulted. “It used to be five hundred miles to git to Canada from Lexington, but now it’s only eighteen miles! Camp Nelson is now our Canada.”116


UNTIL AT LEAST MIDWAY through the war, Federal policy toward slave runaways remained unclear and inconsistent. Although the Lincoln administration endorsed the decision of General Benjamin F. Butler to treat them as “contraband of war,” Union commanders in the field persisted in making their own judgments, with some officers returning fugitives and upholding the legal right of loyal slaveholders to their property. The Fugitive Slave Act remained operative until mid-1864, though only loyal masters (as defined usually by local commanders) could seek to reclaim runaways under its provisions. Federal legislation in 1862, however, barred military personnel from participating in the return of fugitive slaves and decreed that the escaped slaves of disloyal masters would be forever free.117

Whether defined as “contraband of war,” “fugitives,” or “freedmen,” they ceased to be slaves when they reached the Union lines. That was the news the “grapevine telegraph” quickly circulated, thereby swelling the number of slaves seeking out the Yankees. The “exodus” affected some plantations and regions far more severely than others, with those more remote from the war and the advancing Union Army recording the fewest successful escapes. In King William County, northeastern Virginia, nearly half the able-bodied male slaves between the ages of eighteen and forty-five fled in the first two years of the war, and a white resident of northern Virginia thought scarcely any slaves remained in that section of the country—“they have all gone to Canaan, by way of the York River, Chesapeake Bay, and the Potomac.” In North Carolina, a Confederate officer estimated in August 1862 that one million dollars’ worth of slaves were fleeing every week. By 1863, Union-occupied Vicksburg and Natchez had become centers for slave runaways in Mississippi, and that same year thousands of Louisiana slaves entered the Union lines at Baton Rouge and New Orleans. After its capture in early 1862, Fernandina, Florida, served as a haven for fugitives from Georgia and Florida, much as Beaufort did for South Carolina slaves.118

Although some runaways traveled in well-organized and armed contingents, this was largely a spontaneous movement, made up of single persons and groups of families. Slaves would leave the plantations at night, conceal themselves in the woods or swamps during the day, and seek out the nearest Yankee camp or Union-held town. The more fortunate fled in horse carts and ox carts, or even in the master’s buggy, while still others made use of boats, rafts, and canoes and their knowledge of the local waterways. Determined to enter the Union lines at Hilton Head, South Carolina, Jack Flowers hid in the rice swamps during the day and crept along at night until he reached the woods and a nearby river; he then made a basket boat, woven out of reeds cut in the swamp, caulked with cotton picked from the fields, and smeared with pitch from the pine trees, and successfully paddled his way to freedom. With few resources at their command, many refugees had to walk long distances on swollen and bleeding feet, carrying bundles of clothing or children on their shoulders. Two Louisiana families waded six miles across a swamp, spending two days and nights in mud and water to their waists, their children clinging to their backs. Some managed to carry away their few belongings, usually old rags, bedding, and furniture, which were piled onto carts and wagons. Several of the women attired themselves in their mistress’s clothes, and the men occasionally raided the master’s wardrobe before departing. Many, however, left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing: “Well, massa, we’d thought freedom better than clothes, so we left them.”119

To succeed required not only the physical strength to endure the trek but the ingenuity that might be necessary to elude pursuers. They devised various ruses and concoctions by which to throw off the bloodhounds, or simply clung to the swamps and rivers to cover up their tracks. They were known to dress themselves in Confederate uniforms and flee on their masters’ horses. They took advantage of the confusion and panic caused by the movement of troops and the sound of gunfire. Mary Lynn, a forty-five-year-old Virginia field hand, used the Christmas holiday festivities, when her absence for several days would not be noticed, to effect her escape. On some plantations, the slaves derived what initial advantages they could by tying up their master and overseer before fleeing. In Colonel Higginson’s black regiment, a freed slave named Cato related, to the obvious pleasure of his audience, the tale of his escape and how he had used some time-honored strategy to deceive and extract information from a white planter he encountered along the way. Overhearing the story, while standing in the background of the gathering, Higginson noted not only the freedman’s words but how they were received.

“Den I go up to de white man, berry humble, and say, would he please gib ole man a mouthful for eat?

“He say he must hab de valeration ob half a dollar.

“Den I look berry sorry, and turn for go away.

“Den he say I might gib him dat hatchet I had.

“Den I say” (this in a tragic vein) “dat I must hab dat hatchet for defend myself from de dogs!”

(Immense applause, and one appreciating auditor says, chuckling, “Dat was your arms, ole man,” which brings down the house again.)

“Den he say de Yankee pickets was near by, and I must be very keerful.

“Den I say, ‘Good Lord, Mas’r, am dey?’ ”

Commenting on the soldier’s conclusion of the story, Higginson conceded that words alone could hardly capture “the complete dissimulation with which these accents of terror were uttered,—this being precisely the piece of information he wished to obtain.”120

If slavery was really so disagreeable, Mary Chesnut suggested rather smugly in July 1861, “why don’t they all march over the border where they would be received with open arms. It amazes me.” For all of her insights into the “inscrutable” slave, she was in no position to perceive the daring and courage required for a successful escape, the magnitude of the risks, and the certainty of severe punishment for those who failed. “Ah, you know, my bredren,” an elderly runaway told a group of freedmen, “how dey try to keep us from gittin’ to Camp Nelson. Some o’ you hev only jist got from behind; where Massa ask you, ‘Would you like to be free, David?’ O’ course I should; but den, if I say so, dey jist cross my hands, tie ’em up, strip me; den whip me wid the cowhide, till I tell a lie, and say ‘No.’ ” That only a small percentage of slaves chose flight suggests the kinds of obstacles they faced. There were mounted citizens’ patrols, river patrols, and Confederate sentinels that had to be eluded, as well as pursuing bloodhounds (“the detective officers of Slavery’s police,” one freedman called them); some of the boats used by runaways broke apart or overturned, drowning the occupants; and nervous Union guards sometimes mistook escapees for enemy soldiers and shot and killed them. While attempting to escape across a river to the Union lines, a young slave and his mother were fired upon by the master’s son; the mother managed to reach the other bank safely but her son died soon afterwards from bullet wounds. Some years before, her husband and two other sons had been sold, and she was now left to lament her most recent and ironic fate:

My poor baby is shot dead by that young massa I nussed with my own boy. They was both babies together. Missus made me nuss her baby, an’ set her little girl to watch me, for fear I’d give my baby too much, no matter how hard he cried. Many times I wasn’t allowed to take him up, an’ now that same boy has killed mine.

Even if certain and severe punishment awaited apprehended runaways, they might have counted themselves fortunate to be returned to their masters; in numerous instances, mounted slave patrols ran them down with their horses, shot them on the road, or tied them to the horses and dragged them to the nearest jail.121

Although hardly unique to the Civil War, the slave runaway most vividly demonstrated to an already apprehensive white South the breakdown and possible collapse of discipline and control. To many whites, in fact, there was little to distinguish the runaway from the rebel; both threatened to bring down the system, and reports of new desertions invariably fueled talk of subversion, insurrection, and the very death of slavery. “They are traitors who may pilot an enemy into your bedchamber!” the Reverend C. C. Jones of Georgia warned. “They know every road and swamp and creek and plantation in the county, and are the worst of spies. If the absconding is not stopped, the Negro property of the county will be of little value.” This usually reserved churchman, who prided himself on his religious work with the slaves, became so deeply disturbed over the mounting reports of runaways in the neighborhood that he suggested the need to define them as insurrectionists and mete out summary justice. After all, he wrote his son in the Confederate Army, “they declare themselves enemies and at war with owners by going over to the enemy who is seeking both our lives and property.” Responding to his father’s concerns, Charles C. Jones, Jr., who had served as mayor of Savannah before enlisting in the Army, disdained anything that would “savor of mob law” but agreed that defectors who evinced sufficient intelligence and leadership qualities to devise “a matured plan of escape” and to influence others to flee should be treated as armed insurrectionists and executed. “If insensible to every other consideration,” Colonel Jones suggested, “terror must be made to operate upon their minds, and fear prevent what curiosity and desire for Utopian pleasures induce them to attempt.”122

Nearly everyone loyal to the Confederacy conceded that the effectiveness of any system designed to thwart slave desertions rested ultimately on local and individual vigilance. While some whites might choose to debate legal niceties, most of them were concerned only with achieving immediate and conclusive results. Henry A. Middleton, a South Carolina planter, obviously appreciated the dispatch with which Georgetown County had dealt with apprehended runaways.

[O]f the people who went away three men, returned to the plantation of Dr. McGill and carried away their wives—the six were taken together making their way to the enemy. The men were tried yesterday by the provost martials court—they were sentenced to be hung—to day one oclock was fixed for the execution that no executive clemency might intervene … there was a crowd—the blacks were encouraged to be present—the effect will not soon be forgotten.123

On the nearby Allston rice plantation, Stephen (the valet) had defected with his wife and children, and the effect on the other slaves, according to the overseer, had been noticeable: “I Can see since Stephn left a goodeal of obstanetry in Some of the Peopl. Mostly mongst the Woman a goodeal of Quarling and disputeing & teling lies.” That was all the more reason for Adele Petigru Allston, who had become the mistress of the plantation upon the death of her husband, to act firmly in this matter. Unable to apprehend Stephen, she resolved to make an example of his wife’s mother, not so much out of spite as the conviction that parents and relations should be held responsible for the actions of their families. “You know all the circumstances of Stephen’s desertion,” she wrote the local magistrate.

You know that his wife is Mary’s daughter and she is the third of her children who have gone off.… It is too many instances in her family for me to suppose she is ignorant of their plans and designs. She has been always a highly favoured servant, and all her family have been placed in positions of confidence and trust. I think this last case should be visited in some degree on her.

At the same time, Adele Allston informed Jesse Belflowers, the overseer, of her decision to remove Mary and James (Stephen’s father) to “some place of confinement” in the interior of the state and hold them there “as hostages for the conduct of their children.” If by making an example of these individuals, she had thought to instill proper subordination in the remaining slaves, subsequent events on the Allston plantations, particularly with the coming of the Yankees, would prove less than reassuring.124

What compounded the problem of control was the difficulty of anticipating defections; every slave owner would have to make his own determination and act accordingly. Anxious about retaining his house servant and cook, a Georgia planter put heavy iron shackles on her feet while she worked and locked her in the cornhouse at night. In the Mississippi River region, a Union officer who returned from a raid with two hundred slaves reported having found twenty-five of them chained in a cane brake. On the plantation in Virginia where Susie Burns labored, any slave contemplating an escape during the war years needed to elude the vigilant eye and drunken wrath of the master. “Used to set in his big chair on de porch wid a jug of whiskey by his side drinkin’ an’ watchin’ de quarters to see that didn’t none of his slaves start slippin’ away.” More commonly, a slave owner made an example of runaways who were apprehended and returned to the plantation. If not immediately sold, they were liable to be whipped, chained at night, put to work on Confederate fortifications, or removed for safekeeping to non-threatened areas. After thwarting an attempted escape, the son of a South Carolina planter sold two of the leaders in Charleston and punished the others “by whips and hand-cuffing,” making certain that they were chained and watched at night. But some planters, acting as though their tenure as slave owners might be short-lived, were so unnerved by defections that they vented all of their frustrations on those they could apprehend. “W’en de Union soldiers wur near us,” a freedwoman named Affy recalled, “some o’ de young han’s run off to git to de Union folks, an’ massa ketch dem an’ hang dem to a tree, an’ shoot dem; he t’ink no more’n to shoot de culled people right down.… But t’ank God, I got away, an’ him won’t git me agin.”125

Even in the face of danger and repeated failures, the slaves persisted in their attempts to reach the Union lines. Having been thwarted in their initial attempt to escape from a plantation near Savannah, a seventy-year-old black woman and her husband immediately made plans to try again. While the plantation whites were meting out punishment to her husband, she collected their twenty-two children and grandchildren in a nearby marsh. After drifting some forty miles down the river in a dilapidated flatboat, the family was rescued by a Union gunboat. “My God!” she exclaimed as they came aboard, “are we free?” Her husband subsequently made good on his second escape attempt. No less persistent was a Maryland servant who tried to join others in a mass escape despite the fact that his hands and feet had been amputated some years before because of severe frostbite. “Well, I got him back and had him tied up,” the owner told a visiting Englishman, “for I thought he must be mad. But it was no use, he got away again, and walked to Washington.” How, asked the curious visitor, could he have managed such a remarkable deed? The answer no doubt must have seemed equally incredible.

Oh, he just stumped along. He was always a right smart nigger, and he could do many things after he lost his limbs. He could attend to the cooking and sew with his teeth very well, and could get on a horse and ride as easy as look. He was always a remarkably strong nigger. Why, even after he lost his hands, he could kill a man, almost, with a blow of one of his knobs.

The persistence of some black runaways came at the expense of their white pursuers. After overtaking his slave in a swamp, a South Carolina master found himself engaged in a fierce struggle. He managed to shoot the slave in the arm, shattering it badly. Knowing what awaited him if captured, the fugitive grimly fought on, unhorsed his master, and then beat him “until he was senseless.”126

Rather than flee to the Yankees, numerous slaves responded to particular provocations, as they had before the war, by decamping for the nearby woods or swamps, where they might hide out for extensive periods of time. After all, even the much-hunted Nat Turner had managed to elude his pursuers for nearly eight weeks. Near the end of the war, Anna Miller recalled, “my sis and nigger Horace runs off. Dey don’ go far, and stays in de dugout. Ev’ry night dey’d sneak in and git ’lasses and milk and what food dey could. My sis had a baby and she nuss it ev’ry night when she comes. Dey runs off to keep from gettin’ a whuppin’.” Far more dangerous were the colonies of runaways that formed in some areas, from which slaves would forage the countryside for provisions. While searching for runaways, a group of whites in South Carolina found such a settlement in a nearby swamp, “well provided with meal, cooking utensils, blankets, etc.,” as well as twelve guns and an ax. In Surry County, Virginia, a scouting party investigated a similar runaway camp but never lived to report their findings; the fugitives killed them.127

Assumptions about slave contentment, docility, or indifference prepared few whites for the extent of the runaway problem. “Unlettered reason or the mere inarticulate decision of instinct brought them to us,” thought one Union officer, while a white resident of Natchez deemed it little wonder “that they long to throw aside their chains and ‘live like white people’ as they say.” The slaves themselves had little difficulty in explaining why they had fled. Reflecting upon their escapes, exchanging stories across the campfires in the contraband villages, answering the queries of Union officers and reporters, they usually talked about the oppressiveness of enslavement, the difficulties of carrying out plantation duties while freedom was so close at hand, and the determination to liberate themselves rather than wait for the Yankees.

Massa wanted we niggers to go ’way with him, but we want come to Yankees ’cause he treat us too bad. We hear you come down ’long time ago. Massa said de Yankees would take de niggers and sell us in Cuba, and want us to fight, but we talk it over, and agreed to come to de Yankees. When Massa ran away he shot one man’ lip off, who refused to follow him. I want to be free. I know freemen have to work—can’t live without work. Dere’s great difference between free and slave. When you free you work and de money b’long to yourself.128

Fearing imminent removal or sale, some slaves chose to escape. The moment her master ordered all the house servants into wagons, a Virginia slave went into hiding. Thomas Pritchard, a carpenter, disappeared while the master and a slave broker were discussing the terms of his sale. Some slaves had heard rumors that they were about to be conscripted for military service or put to work on Confederate fortifications. “They’s jest takin’ me, sir,” Tom Jackson of Virginia explained, “an’ I run off.” Some were eager to locate their families or join the slaves from their plantation who had already escaped. “All of our friends were ober here,” a runaway explained. Isaac Tatnall, who had been hired out, fled when his master refused to pay him his share of the wages. “Last month,” Tatnall remarked, “master took him all, but he lost by dat, cause dis month I runned away, and he’s lost $1,880.”129

The uncontrolled rage of their masters, often for no easily ascertainable reason other than the imminent loss of the war, hastened the departure of many slaves. “They does it to spite us,” a runaway woman testified, “ ’cause you come here. Dey spites us now ’cause de Yankees come.” This woman had just escaped with two of her children, leaving behind her eldest son whom the master had just “licked” almost to death because he suspected him of wanting to join the Yankees. Stories of recent beatings ran through the testimony of numerous newly arrived refugees. “Master whipped me two or three weeks ago,” a freedwoman declared, “because I let the cows from the bog road into the yard. Struck me and knocked me down with his fist. Left Monday night, and walked all the way. I am free; come here to be protected; was not safe to stay.” On the morning of his escape, a Georgia slave noted, he had been promised a whipping, but “when de time came dis chile was about five miles from dar, and he nebber stopped until las night.” Among the slaves who fled after harsh treatment were those who felt compelled to contain their anger rather than risk the consequences of direct retaliation. “They didn’t do something and run,” a former slave suggested. “They run before they did it, ’cause they knew that if they struck a white man there wasn’t going to be a nigger.”130

Although specific provocations helped to sustain the steady movement toward the Union lines, the overriding consideration remained the prospect of freedom and the pride that a slave took in expediting his or her own liberation. “I wants to be free,” a South Carolina runaway kept repeating. “I came in from the plantation and don’t want to go back; I don’t want to go back; I don’t want to be a slave again.” The intensity of this feeling even induced elderly slaves to make the perilous trek, refusing to postpone any longer that dream that had eluded them for a lifetime. “Ise eighty-eight year old,” one refugee told the Yankees. “Too ole for come? Mas’r joking. Neber too ole for leave de land o’ bondage.” Near Vicksburg, where slaves had been deserting in substantial numbers, a planter went out to the quarters and asked the “patriarch” among his slaves, “Uncle Si, I don’t suppose you are going off to those hateful Yankees, too, are you?” “O no, marster,” he replied, “I’se gwine to stay right here with you.” When the planter visited the quarters the next morning, he found that every one of his slaves had left that night, including Uncle Si and his wife. Searching the nearby woods for them, he came across Uncle Si, bending over the prostrate body of his wife, weeping. The planter wondered why he had subjected her to such a difficult and now fatal journey. “I couldn’t help it, marster,” the old man replied; “but then, you see, she died free.”131

Whether or not a slave chose to desert his master did not necessarily reflect a personal history of brutal treatment. Alex Huggins, who ran away in 1863 at the age of twelve, recalled no complaints about the way his master and mistress had treated him: “Twa’nt anythin’ wrong about home that made me run away. I’d heard so much talk ’bout freedom I reckon I jus’ wanted to try it, an’ I thought I had to get away from home to have it.” The verbal exchange that took place in late 1861 between a Union soldier and a runaway revealed as vividly what many whites would find so difficult to understand and forgive in their slaves.

“How were you treated, Robert?”

“Pretty well, sar.”

“Did your master give you enough to eat and clothe you comfortably?”

“Pretty well, till dis year. Massa hab no money to spend dis year. Don’t get many clothes dis year.”

“If you had a good master, I suppose you were contented?”

“No, sar.”

“Why not, if you had enough to eat and clothes to wear?”

“Cause I want to be free.”132


NEITHER THE NUMBER of reported “insurrections” nor an accurate count of the runaways could adequately measure slave resistance and disaffection during the final years of the “peculiar institution.” Equally significant for slaveholders were the kinds of rumors that circulated, the fears that were generated, the outbreaks of “insolence” and “insubordination” which could drive individual families and entire communities to the brink of hysteria, and the various ways in which enslaved blacks—consciously or otherwise—brought anguish and frustration to those who claimed to own them.

Even before the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves perceived on the faces of their “white folks” a growing uneasiness and resignation. The certainty of Confederate victory seemed far less pronounced, the patriotic oratory less believable, and there crept into the conversations of white men and women the apprehension that life as they had known it might never survive this war. No matter how desperately slaveholding families wanted to believe in the faithfulness of their blacks, and despite the patriotic and loyal models they could display and would forever venerate, there persisted an undercurrent of suspicion and fear that could never be successfully repressed and that surfaced with every rumor of an uprising, every case of insubordination, and every report of an escape. “The runaways are numerous and bold,” Kate Stone confided to her diary. “We live on a mine that the Negroes are suspected of an intention to spring on the fourth of next month. The information may be true or false, but they are being well watched in every section where there are any suspects. Our faith is in God.”133

Nor were the fears of white men and women entirely illusory; they could on occasion assume a terrible reality. The war was not even a year old when Mary Chesnut heard that her cousin—Betsey Witherspoon of Society Hill—had been found dead in her bed, although she had been “quite well” the previous night. Two days later, the frightening news reached Mary Chesnut that her cousin had met a violent death. “I broke down; horror and amazement was too much for me. Poor cousin Betsey Witherspoon was murdered! She did not die peacefully in her bed, as we supposed, but was murdered by her own people, her Negroes.” With the arrest of two house servants, the details began to emerge. On the day of the murder, Mrs. Witherspoon’s son (who resided nearby) had charged several of his mother’s slaves with misusing and breaking some of the household china while giving a party in their mistress’s absence, and he promised to return the next day to give them a severe thrashing. Although Mrs. Witherspoon had interceded on their behalf, thinking it “too late to begin discipline now,” that news had not reached the slaves, one of whom allegedly told the others: “Mars’ John more than apt to do what he say he will do, but you all follow what I say and he’ll have something else to think of beside stealing and breaking glass and china. If ole Marster was alive now, what would he say to talk of whipping us!” That night, the slaves methodically carried out the murder, smothering Betsey Witherspoon so as to make it appear like a natural death.

News of the murder forced Mary Chesnut to reexamine many of her previous assumptions about the “placid, docile, kind and obedient” slaves she had known. “Hitherto I have never thought of being afraid of Negroes. I had never injured any of them; why should they want to hurt me? Two thirds of my religion consists in trying to be good to Negroes, because they are so in our power, and it would be so easy to be the other thing.” But as of this day, she confessed, “I feel that the ground is cut away from under my feet. Why should they treat me any better than they have done Cousin Betsey Witherspoon?” While Mary Chesnut and her sister, Kate Williams, sat up late that night and discussed the murder, Kate’s maid (“a strong-built, mulatto woman … so clever she can do anything”) dragged a mattress into the room and insisted that she spend the night with her mistress. “You ought not to stay in a room by yourself these times,” she told her. “Missis, as I have a soul to be saved, I will keep you safe. I will guard you.” When the maid left for more bedding, Kate turned to her sister and exclaimed, “For the life of me, I cannot make up my mind. Does she mean to take care of me, or to murder me?” Unable to sleep, whether because of the murder or the maid’s presence, or both, Kate went into her sister’s bedroom, and the two women tried to comfort each other, both of them haunted by “the thought of those black hands strangling and smothering Mrs. Witherspoon’s grey head under the counterpane.” One month later, the details of the murder remained as vivid in Mary Chesnut’s mind as if it had occurred the day before. “That innocent old lady and her grey hair moved them not a jot. Fancy how we feel. I am sure I will never sleep again without this nightmare of horror haunting me.… If they want to kill us, they can do it when they please, they are noiseless as panthers.” And yet, she confided to her diary, although “we ought to be grateful that anyone of us is alive, … nobody is afraid of their own Negroes, I find everyone, like myself, ready to trust their own yard. I would go down on the plantation tomorrow and stay there even if there were no white person in twenty miles. My Molly and all the rest I believe would keep me as safe as I should be in the Tower of London.”

But as she had feared, the specter of Mrs. Witherspoon’s death remained with them, manifesting itself in different ways at different times. There was the day, for example, when Mary Chesnut’s mother-in-law had “bored” her with incessant talk about “the transcendant virtues of her colored household”; that night, the woman suddenly warned everyone at the dinner table not to touch their soup: “It is bitter. There is something wrong about it!” The family tried to calm her and continued with their meal, while the black waiters “looked on without change of face.” Kate whispered to her sister, “It is cousin Betsey’s fate. She is watching every trifle, and is terrified.” Afterwards, Kate told Mary of a Dr. Keith, “one of the kindest of men and masters,” who had discovered one day that his slaves were slowly trying to poison him and had thrown a cup of tainted tea in the face of a suspected servant; the next morning, the doctor was found with his throat cut. “Mrs. Witherspoon’s death,” Mary Chesnut noted, “has clearly driven us all wild.” On Christmas Day 1861, she duly recorded that the slaves charged with the murder of her cousin had been hanged. That same day, the servants rushed in with cries of “Merry Christmas” and “Christmas Gift.” “I covered my face and wept.”

Despite the confidence she still reposed in her own servants, Mary Chesnut began to entertain doubts about what she might expect of them in the future. Nearly a year after Mrs. Witherspoon’s death, with all the terror that had generated, she found herself reading a book about the Sepoy Mutiny in India, in which the Bengal Army had turned upon its British officers.

Who knows what similar horrors may lie in wait for us? When I saw the siege of Lucknow in that little theatre at Washington, what a thrill of terror ran through me as those yellow and black brutes came jumping over the parapets! Their faces were like so many of the same sort at home. To be sure, John Brown had failed to fire their hearts here, and they saw no cause to rise and burn and murder us all, like the women and children were treated in the Indian Mutiny. But how long would they resist the seductive and irresistible call: “Rise, kill, and be free!”134

It was precisely an incident like the Witherspoon murder, no matter how isolated, no matter how exceptional within the full record of slave behavior, that prompted white men and women, while publicly praising the exemplary behavior of their blacks, to reflect upon the combustible and unpredictable nature of a society in which the most devoted, the most pampered, the most humble slaves could strike terror and fear into a family whose confidence they commanded. Despite the accumulating evidence of betrayal, most slaveholders might have readily agreed that the faithful slave still constituted the vast majority of the black population; they could, as one Virginian did, dismiss any other thought from their minds.

Were not the negroes perfectly content and happy? Had I not often talked to them on the subject? Had not every one of them told me repeatedly that they loved “old Marster” better than anybody in the world, and would not have freedom if he offered it to them? Of course they had,—many and many a time. And that settled it.

But how could anyone be certain that the exception was not on his own plantation or in his own household? That was the essential problem, and it had plagued the white South for generations. Far more terrifying than Nat Turner and his “deluded and drunken handful of followers,” a Virginia legislator declared in 1832, was “the suspicion eternally attached to the slave himself, the suspicion that a Nat Turner might be in every family, that the same bloody deed could be acted over at any time and in any place, that the materials for it were spread through the land and always ready for a like explosion.” That was no less true in 1861 than it had been thirty years before.135

And there appeared to be no way to resolve this dilemma. Many a master was driven to sleepless nights in his attempt to penetrate behind the masks of his blacks, attaching significance to nearly every movement or word, and perhaps even more significance to their silence or apparent indifference. The meekest, the most passive, the most submissive slaves could unsettle a household. The very appearance of fidelity was sometimes suspect. “They carry it too far,” Mary Chesnut had written of her servants on the first day of the war. Not until nearly two years later did she begin to discern changes in them, and even then only in her father’s butler. Although he remained “inscrutably silent” about the war, she sensed a difference. “I taught him to read as soon as I could read myself, perched on his knife board; but he won’t look at me now. He looks over my head, he scents freedom in the air.… He is the first Negro that I have felt a change in.”136

The approach of the Union Army would raise new concerns for white families but the traditional fears remained paramount. “I am afraid of the lawless Yankee soldiers,” a Virginia woman confessed, “but that is nothing to my fear of the negroes if they should rise against us.”137

Slaves were no less apprehensive, and their concern was by no means limited to what they might expect from an invading army made up largely of whites. The Civil War would not last forever, a Texas slave advised his son, but “our forever was going to be spent living among the Southerners, after they got licked.”138

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