April 1861 through December 1862
The initial phase of the Civil War confirmed some of the sunny expectations of the new slaveholder republic’s champions. The conflict’s first major battle occurred on July 21, 1861, pitting two armies of about thirty thousand soldiers apiece against each other some twenty-five miles southwest of Washington. (Confederates named the battle “Manassas” after a nearby railroad junction; the Union called it “Bull Run,” after a stream that ran through the battlefield.) At one point, Union forces seemed on the verge of victory as they pressed against both flanks of the Confederate line; southern soldiers began to retreat in panic. But reinforcements soon arrived, calming those already on the field, enabling them to regroup, and then turning the tide against the Union. With their own right flank now crumbling, federal troops began to fall back—a retreat that turned into a rout as Union soldiers fled from the field in disarray. Pro-Union civilians who had come to watch an easy and entertaining victory now joined the headlong flight back toward the capital’s defenses, adding to the atmosphere of chaos, disaster, and shame.1
Usually sober-minded and cautious, an exhilarated Jefferson Davis told triumphant Confederate soldiers at Manassas that theirs was a “victory great, glorious and complete.” And, he promised, it was “but the beginning” of the successes that the Confederacy would shortly achieve. When he returned to Richmond two days later, an exultant crowd greeted him at the railroad station. The still-elated Davis told his listeners that “we had whipped them this time and we could whip them again as often as they offered us the opportunity.”2 In the late summer of 1862, blue-clad soldiers fared no better in a second battle at Manassas than they had in the first. And those two southern triumphs bookended a dazzling, textbook-brilliant campaign in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson led a small but fleet force of seventeen thousand men that outmarched, outthought, and outfought three Union armies whose combined size was nearly twice as large as his own.
In March 1862, General George B. McClellan loaded the Union’s Army of the Potomac—by far the largest of the various Union armies in the field—onto a fleet of troop-carrying vessels and sent it on a massive strategic flanking maneuver designed to bypass Confederate general Joseph Johnston’s forces and then drive northwest toward Richmond. At first, McClellan made considerable, if painfully slow, progress, at last bringing his army to within six miles of the Confederate capital. It seemed to many at that point, North as well as South, that the war was about to end in Union victory.
But McClellan’s peninsula campaign fell victim to a duo of factors. One was a fortuitous change of leadership on the Confederate side, as a wounded Johnston handed over command to the far more aggressive Robert E. Lee in late May of 1862. The other was McClellan’s signature mix of sluggishness and timidity. Lee’s newly named Army of Northern Virginia launched a series of ferocious assaults during the Seven Days’ battles outside Richmond between June 25 and July 1. Those assaults convinced the jittery McClellan that the enemy army he confronted—though in fact smaller than his own—was, instead, twice as big. He panicked and ordered a hasty retreat from Richmond’s outskirts—a retreat that soon became (in one Union officer’s words) “a regular stampede” toward the protection afforded by the guns of Union ships anchored on the James River.3
Then, in August 1862, two Confederate forces invaded Union-held Kentucky. The southern commanders, Generals Braxton Bragg and E. Kirby Smith, entertained high hopes for that campaign.4 “It is a bold move, offering brilliant results,” they assured Jefferson Davis. “Everything is ripe for success.”5 Just a month later, in September, Robert E. Lee launched a raid across the Potomac into Union-held Maryland for which he had even greater expectations. He would enable the slave state of Maryland to throw off “this foreign yoke” and once again “enjoy the inalienable rights of freemen.” And his presence on Union soil would allow Davis to dictate terms to Lincoln.6
These events produced great consternation and dejection in the North, while strongly buoying Confederate morale. “The spirit of the army is high,” exclaimed the Richmond Dispatch, and its soldiers “exult in a sense of their superiority not only to the Yankees, but to any army that treads the earth.”7 In light of “our many recent triumphs,” Louisianan Katherine Stone anticipated, Confederate victory in the war as a whole “may be near.”8
But other developments during the war’s opening stages portended a much more protracted struggle. Some of them, perhaps even more ominously, revealed the opening of cracks in the House of Dixie’s façade. Confident assurances about solid white unity and enthusiastic black loyalty began to ring somewhat hollow.
A key factor was the strength of the Union war effort. Predictions that the North would simply roll over and play dead badly underestimated popular devotion to the Union there. By firing upon and seizing Fort Sumter, the Confederacy had galvanized the people of the free states into outraged action. That bridged differences in occupation, class, region, and even political outlook and party loyalty. Many who had only recently clamored loudly for compromise with the slave owners in order to preserve the Union now pledged mortal enmity toward a slave-owner regime making war upon that Union.
In New York City, long a stronghold of pro-southern sentiment, thousands of residents thronged Union Square in April 1861 and filled the windows and roofs surrounding it to cheer speeches cursing secessionist traitors and promising to put them down promptly and forcefully. On the day that Sumter surrendered, an alarmed transplanted Georgia banker and Confederate supporter named Gazaway B. Lamar reported to fellow Georgian Howell Cobb that “the people of this city who have professed to sympathise with the South” in the past “have recently changed their expressions to hostility,” including “even many influential Democrats.” The consequences for the South were dire, he thought: “You may calculate that you may have to fight out and fight long too.”9 The New York Times was glad to see that even “the thick insulation which the commercial spirit puts between the conscience and duty” in the city had been unable “to withstand the electric fire of loyal indignation” and the “intense, inspiring sentiment of patriotism.”10
Hundreds of similar meetings took place in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and smaller population centers across the North.11 By the end of the year, more than 640,000 northern men had volunteered for Union service.12
Some economic considerations influenced this fierce northern response to secession. Manufacturers and their employees worried that an adjacent but hostile Confederacy would become an enormous conduit through which cheap British goods would be smuggled into the United States, circumventing U.S. ports and tariffs, and stealing away domestic markets. Northern merchants and shippers feared that Confederates would cut them out of the lucrative transatlantic shipping trade between Europe and the cotton states and turn it over instead to European carriers. Northern creditors feared that southern planters would repudiate their quite substantial debts to them or pay them off in Confederate banknotes of doubtful value. Midwestern farmers trembled especially at having the mouth and lower half of this water link to the oceans—the Mississippi River—fall into the hands of a hostile nation.13
But most northerners resisted secession for other, less economic, more political reasons.
A minority, identifying the coming war as a struggle between the forces of freedom and slavery, hoped to train their muskets on the latter. Andrew Walker, an Illinois schoolteacher, volunteered for action in hopes that his country, finding itself in a life-or-death struggle with slave owners’ armies, would decide to abolish slavery everywhere within its borders.14 “Slavery must die,” vowed Vermont-born corporal Rufus Kinsley, “and if the South insists on being buried in the same grave I shall see in it nothing but the retributive hand of God.”15 For Walker, Kinsley, and others like them, the approaching war already meant the onset of a new (and welcome) revolution.
A much larger number of northern volunteers reacted furiously to secession because it seemed to endanger their own rights, welfare, and security. Disunion would shatter a country and government that most residents of the free states still prized as liberty’s last best hope on an earth dominated by monarchs and aristocrats. That could not be permitted; the stakes were simply too great. As a Columbus, Ohio, newspaper put it a few days after Sumter’s surrender, this conflict would decide “not only … whether we have a government or not, here” but also the fate “of constitutional liberty the world over.” The war would determine “whether a free government shall again spring up in any quarter of the globe.”16
Lincoln himself emphasized this general issue in his July 4, 1861, message to Congress. This conflict, he said, “embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes.”17 Many who volunteered to put down the rebellion appraised the war’s stakes in the same way. Captain Alphonso Barto of the Fifty-Second Illinois regiment explained to his father that in fighting to preserve the Union he was also fighting to prove that “man is capable of self government.”18 “Admit the right of the seceding states to break up the Union at pleasure,” an Ohio private mused, “and how long will it be before the new confederacies created by the first disruption shall be resolved into smaller fragments and the continent become a vast theater of civil war, military license, anarchy, and despotism? Better settle it at whatever cost and settle it forever.”19 These men would fight not to launch a new revolution but to safeguard the gains of the last one.
Roughly a quarter of all those who served in Union armies were born in some other country, especially Ireland and Germany, and had come to the United States in search of greater individual freedom and economic opportunity. Many felt that they had just as big, if not bigger, a stake in the Union’s survival than did the native born. Before the war, most had come to identify with the Democratic Party. Thomas Francis Meagher, a leader of the Irish struggle against English rule, had fled from his homeland in 1852 to resettle in the United States. Nine years later, that staunch Democrat stepped forward to defend the one country that seemed able and willing “to redress and right the wrongs dealt upon disgraced and depressed humanity.” The American republic had offered Irish emigrants opportunities available to them nowhere else. If they did not now fight to sustain that republic, Meagher wrote, “then, any one who speaks to me of Irish liberty is a dreamer and a driveler.”20
Friedrich Kapp was an exiled German revolutionary who headed the New York Republican Party’s German-language unit. He insisted in 1861 that “the American people” were “fighting the same battle in which the European nations are engaged.… The conflict now on the eve of decision in the United States is neither more nor less than one of the manifold phases of the struggle between aristocracy and democracy.”21 Peter Klein, a German-born miner living and working in America, explained the Union cause in similar terms to his father. “The war or rather the rebellion was started by the slave owners,” Klein wrote. Those slave owners were “great lords who have a hundred and more black serfs.” To maintain their grip on those serfs, the American lords now sought “to overthrow the free constitution of the country and set up a government by the nobility.” But, Klein continued, “we, free men and honest workers, we don’t want to put up with that.”22
But while most northern soldiers joined up to preserve the Union and the freedoms it stood for, many—and more and more over time—also recognized that it was slavery and the slaveholders who had endangered the republic that was so dear to them. Philip Smith of the Union’s Eighth Missouri regiment, for example, believed that “the best and noblest government on earth” needed defending in the first place only because “a band of contemptible traitors” was trying to destroy it “merely for the purpose of benefiting themselves on the slave question.”23 In the eyes of northerners like Smith, the so-called Slave Power had struck its most dangerous blow at liberty by trying to break up the national Union.
Jefferson Davis knew better than to take such sentiments lightly. Despite his public predictions of an early victory, he had never shared his associates’ low estimate of the Union’s martial capabilities. Yes, he acknowledged, southern white men were quicker to anger than northerners, readier in everyday life to take offense and respond with violence. But during the Mexican War and then as U.S. secretary of defense, Davis had fought beside, commanded, supervised, and generally taken the measure of both northern and southern soldiers. He now expected that in the coming war, Yankees and Southrons would prove to be evenly matched.24
The first year of the war proved just that, though few Confederate stalwarts were yet willing to face it. One who did was Captain B. E. Stiles, who in April 1862 scoffed at the familiar claim that “the Yankees are cowards.” Nor was that the experience of Captain Shepherd Green Pryor. On the contrary, he told his wife, northern soldiers “fought as boldly as men ever fought and they fight well every time I’ve been in front of them.”25
The unexpected upsurge of war spirit in the free states was only one early intimation of trouble for the slaveholders’ new republic. Major problems also arose within U.S. states where slavery was legal—problems created by the fact that the South’s white population was by no means as united politically as some secessionists had claimed. While four slave states of the upper South had joined the Confederacy, another four (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, which together became known as the “loyal border states”) remained in the Union.
Of these, Delaware mattered least. For one thing, slavery had all but dissolved there by now. For another, it was too small in both size and resources to count for much militarily. But the Union’s retention of the other three states delivered a heavy blow to the Confederacy, both morally and practically.
Slavery was alive and well in Missouri, Maryland, and especially Kentucky. Almost one in every ten Missouri residents was enslaved, one in every eight in Maryland, and one in every five in Kentucky. Those who owned slaves were correspondingly numerous. About one in every eight Marylanders and Missourians boasted at least some human property—as did almost one in every four Kentuckians. In parts of each of those states, moreover—in southern Kentucky, in Maryland’s most southerly counties and on its eastern shore, and in southeastern Missouri as well as the counties lining the Missouri River, which runs across the middle of the state from east to west—slavery’s specific gravity was considerably higher than any of these statewide averages suggested. Not a few of these border-state masters and their friends sympathized with the Confederacy. One of these was John C. Breckinridge, vice president of the United States in the late 1850s and later a Confederate general.26
But many other border-state masters rejected secession for economic or political reasons or both. Some had business interests that tied them to the North more strongly than to neighboring slave states. And many considered any attempt to leave the Union not only illegitimate constitutionally but foredoomed militarily.
The arguments that upper South unionists had advanced before the fall of Fort Sumter therefore continued to carry weight even afterward with these border-state masters. They did not abandon slavery; they simply set out to safeguard it by different means. Rather than do so by joining the Confederacy, they would do so from within the Union, fighting to keep Union war policy free of antislavery aims or consequences. Meanwhile, they would strive to pull their hotheaded brethren farther south back into the Union fold.27
The Richmond government publicly insisted that only military force had kept these slaveholding border states in the Union and that their residents’ real loyalties lay with the Confederacy. Symbolizing that claim, the Confederate flag included two stars for Missouri and Kentucky. But that assertion failed the test of events. In February 1861, Missouri’s voters elected a pro-unionist constitutional convention that five months later removed pro-secession state officials.28 In June, Maryland voters sent three unionist representatives to the U.S. Congress.29 And in legislative elections held in June and August, Kentuckians cast their ballots overwhelmingly for unionist, not secessionist, candidates. Most residents of these border states had consciously refused to stand with the rest of the South. Southern masters such as the Edmondstons of North Carolina and the Stones of Louisiana understood this and concluded that those states had betrayed them, their institutions, and their values.30
Hopes for a surge in pro-Confederate sentiment in Kentucky rose when Confederate general Braxton Bragg’s army invaded in the summer of 1862. Bragg, Davis, and many others predicted that Kentuckians would now flock to the Stars and Bars. “I cannot doubt that Kentucky will prove worthy of our love and her own proud traditions,” Davis assured Bragg. In fact, he added, “without the aid of Kentuckians, we could not long occupy the state and should have no sufficient motive for doing so.”31 But the aid that Davis awaited never arrived.32 In October, Bragg left Kentucky unaccompanied by any substantial number of new recruits. “Kentucky’s heart,” Catherine Edmondston sighed, “does not seem to be with us!”33
Disappointment was as great when Robert E. Lee led his massive raid into Maryland in September 1862. On September 5, he congratulated himself for “affording the people of that State an opportunity of liberating themselves.” But just a few days spent there made clear to him that there would be no “general rising of the people on our behalf.”34 Indeed, as Katherine Stone learned, Marylanders showed Lee “but little enthusiasm and few recruits.”35
By standing with the Union, these border states not only dampened the Confederacy’s morale; they also dealt it a weighty military blow. The failure to attract them cost the Confederacy—and simultaneously gave to the Union—great numbers of horses and mules, foodstuffs, manufactured goods, and soldiers. Most white Kentuckians who fought in the war did so under the Stars and Stripes. Among white Marylanders, the proportion was two-thirds; among white Missourians, three-fourths.36
Military geography told a similar story. Union control of Maryland protected—where it could have menaced—the federal government in Washington, D.C., just as it did Pennsylvania. Union control of Kentucky pushed the border between the United States and the Confederacy significantly southward and gave the Union much quicker and easier access to the rivers through which its ships and troops would soon surge into Tennessee and then into Jefferson Davis’s home state of Mississippi.
In early February 1862, combined forces of Union navy and infantry used Kentucky as a staging ground for thrusts farther southward along the river systems that pierced the Confederacy’s northern frontier. One force, jointly commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, took the recently erected Fort Henry (on the Tennessee River) and a week later Fort Donelson (on the Cumberland) and captured some twelve thousand troops there.37
The loss of these two installations and the destruction of a nearby railroad bridge threatened the rest of Confederate forces in the state with encirclement. Recognizing the danger, General Albert Sidney Johnston ordered a hasty retreat far southward. Nashville fell to Union forces on February 25, 1862, and Tennessee governor Isham Harris and the entire state legislature had to flee, reestablishing itself in Memphis.38
In early April 1862, Confederate forces then massed and counterattacked Grant, by then encamped at Shiloh, Tennessee. The assault got off to a promising start, catching Grant’s men, who were not entrenched and were poorly served by pickets, by surprise. But once the Union soldiers managed to rally and regroup, the Confederate offensive sputtered, stalled, and then failed.
When the smoke of this battle cleared, Union forces controlled Kentucky, slivers of northern Alabama and Mississippi, and much of central and western Tennessee—key sources of gunpowder and other war materials—as well as the city of Memphis. Once again driven out of its quarters, the pro-Confederate state legislature now sought refuge in Mississippi, while the governor became an itinerant, attaching himself to General Bragg’s army.
To the west, meanwhile, Union general Samuel R. Curtis scored a victory at the battle of Pea Ridge in northwest Arkansas in early March 1862 over a more numerous Confederate force led by General Earl Van Dorn. Curtis then crossed the state and in July seized the black-belt city of Helena.39
But perhaps the biggest Union prize that season, certainly in symbolic terms, was the seizure in April of New Orleans, by far the Confederacy’s largest city and its principal Gulf port. That achievement reflected the wisdom of a method that Abraham Lincoln would repeatedly urge upon his generals—simultaneous advances on multiple fronts that forced Confederates to stretch their smaller resources to the limit and beyond.40 In this case, Grant’s penetration of Tennessee had led the Confederate high command to transfer northward many soldiers and ships originally based in Louisiana.
That left a flotilla of warships, rams, and assorted support vessels plus two seemingly formidable forts (Jackson and St. Philip) to guard the seaward approach to the Crescent City. Some 1,400 soldiers manned those forts. Home guard units filled with members of the city’s financial and governmental elites garrisoned New Orleans itself.41
After pounding the forts from schooners for nearly a week, Union flag officer David Farragut ordered ships from a navy blockading squadron to run the gauntlet of enemy artillery fire under cover of night on April 24, 1862. The next day saw the ships approach the city itself. As they came into view, members of the home guard turned tail.42 Farragut’s marines hoisted the Stars and Stripes over government offices on the twenty-ninth.
Meanwhile, Forts Jackson and St. Philip, once passed, found themselves surrounded, cut off from their base of supply, and battered by naval artillery barrages front and rear.43 On the night of the twenty-ninth, much of the Fort Jackson garrison—made up largely of foreign-born residents of the city who, as a Confederate officer later put it, were “without any great interests at stake in the ultimate success” of secession—rose in mutiny against their officers. They refused to continue what they considered a fruitless, hopeless resistance. The Confederate commander, seeing no alternative, “let those men go who wished to leave the fort,” at which point (as one of the officers reported) “about one-half of the garrison left immediately.” Of those who remained, “it was soon evident that there was no further fight in the men … that they were completely demoralized and that no faith or reliance could be placed” in them.44 The forts’ surrender and their investment by Union forces permitted the bigger, heavier, and slower troop carriers to ferry the bulk of the eighteen thousand U.S. infantry troops present (commanded by General Benjamin Butler) to the city proper, which they occupied on May 1, 1862.
The fall of the biggest city in the Confederacy shocked Confederate partisans near and far. A stunned Katherine Stone feared that now her “fair Louisiana” lay “powerless at the feet of the enemy.”45 The War Department heard from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that New Orleans’s surrender had “produced fear and alarm” there, too—although it was almost three hundred miles distant.46 The same news left North Carolina planter Catherine Edmondston “deeply dejected, nay humiliated.”47 During the next few months, Union land and naval forces extended their control over the river and its valley from the Gulf of Mexico up to a point just below Vicksburg—in the process demanding and obtaining the surrender of both Baton Rouge and Natchez.
Coldness toward secession was not confined to the loyal border states; it cropped up within some states that had joined the Confederacy as well. Anti-secession sentiment before the war had been most vocal and visible in the southern hill country, and it remained so in the war’s first period. A resident of Georgia’s up-country thus warned governor Joseph E. Brown in February 1861 that neither he nor his neighbors intended “to Submit to … Secession.” He hoped the Confederacy would leave him and his “in peace.” But “if not we will try what venture there is in flint and steel.”48 Was it “right that the poor man should be taxed for the support of the war,” another up-country Georgian demanded to know that fall, “when the war was brought about on the slave question”? Was it right that “the poor man’s farm [should be] left uncultivated, and a chance for his wife to be a widow, and his children orphans” while “the slave [was] at home accumulating for the benefit of his master”?49 In the hill country of northern Alabama, farmer James Bell cautioned his son Henry in April 1861 not to be seduced by the rhetoric of the South’s large “Negroholders.” “All they want,” the elder Bell advised, “is to git you pupt up and go fight for there infurnal negroes and after you do there fighting you may kiss there hine parts for o they care.”50
These three men were by no means alone in harboring such sentiments. The jurist and major planter William M. Brooks presided over Alabama’s secession convention. In May 1861 he noted that while some of the non-slaveholding public were showing “a desire to take up arms in defense of their country,” others were displaying “improper and unfounded jealousies” and declaring “that they will ‘fight for no rich man’s slaves.’ ” Some enlistment patterns, Brooks believed, reflected the baleful result. The two volunteer infantry companies raised in his own Perry County “include in their ranks but few of the non-slave-holding working class.”51 A year’s experience led another north Alabama master, Joshua Moore, to similar conclusions. Non-slaveholders “are not going to fight through a long war” to save slavery, he predicted. “They will tire of it and quit.”52
In North Carolina, state legislator Kenneth Rayner saw signs of trouble even in some low-country districts. There, he reported in December 1860, “people who did not own slaves were swearing that they ‘would not lift a finger to protect rich men’s negroes.’ ”53Confirmation came from another prominent low-country figure, Thomas Goode Tucker. The son of a coastal planter, by 1861 Tucker owned slaves and land in three states. With the outbreak of war, Tucker organized a home guard unit in his home district in the Tar Heel State. But he was soon advising his governor of trouble with “a most desperate and lawless group of white men” who had become “too formidable to be punished by the ordinary forms of law & too strong to be expelled by our Home Guard without a most terrible affray.”54
But in North Carolina, too, the strongest resistance to Confederate power came from outside the low country. Basil Armstrong Thomasson lived, farmed, and taught school in the foothills of western North Carolina. Opposed to both bondage and secession, he looked forward to seeing those twin evils die in tandem. By precipitating war, he told his brother with evident satisfaction in April 1861, the South would soon be “killing off her darling institution” as quickly as any abolitionist or Republican “could wish her to.”55
Anti-secession views were no more unusual in North Carolina’s up-country than in Alabama’s. The Tar Heel state’s secessionist governor, John W. Ellis, was reminded of that fact in late May 1861 with a warning from Balis Edney, a rich landowner and attorney in the western hill country’s Henderson County. A captain in a North Carolina infantry regiment, Edney reported not only that enlistment in newly formed companies was lagging but that recruitment attempts were sparking widespread anger. Much of the local population, he reported, was “as deadly hostile to our raiseing volunteers” and, in fact, to “the whole defence of the south” as was “any portion of Pennsylvania.” Edney added that “some of the most respectable of these traitors said in my presence they should take no part” in that defense, that “the south was wrong & corrupt & ought to be subdued.” In fact, Edney claimed, local unionists had already set fire to “houses, & other buildings” of pro-secession residents.56
The level of violence had risen even higher some forty miles north of Edney’s home. In Madison County longtime neighbors faced one another in the streets and exchanged angry cries of “Hurrah for Jeff Davis and the Southern Confederacy!” and “George Washington and the Union!” The pro-secession sheriff then shot the son of a local unionist, whereupon the boy’s father returned fire and killed the sheriff.57
Hostility to the Confederacy also flourished in central North Carolina, especially in eight counties of the piedmont region whose population included a much smaller proportion of slaves (24 percent of the total population) and slaveholders (24 percent of free families) than did the eastern low country (which was 44 percent slave and where 36 percent of free families owned slaves).58 Independent small farmers predominated in the central counties, and they were strongly influenced by Quaker, Moravian, and Wesleyan religious traditions, in all of which antislavery sentiment had long been strong.59
In June 1861, three pro-Confederate residents of the region warned Governor Ellis that “we have Abolitionists and Lincolnites among us” who “say they have as many armed men as we can raise.”60 Ellis’s informants were referring to about five hundred people who came together secretly to form a group known variously as the Heroes of America, or the “Red Strings.” (The second name came from the biblical story of Rahab, a Canaanite woman who aided Israelite spies planning the conquest of her people’s land. In return for her assistance, the Israelites promised to spare Rahab and her family once the fighting began. The invaders would identify her dwelling by the red cords she would place in its window.) The Heroes’ leaders included prominent professionals of various kinds, but rural and urban whites with little or no property evidently supplied most of its support.61
In September 1862, cooling enthusiasm for a war already lasting longer than expected and unhappiness with some of the Richmond government’s policies sent a political “outsider,” Zebulon Vance, to the North Carolina governor’s mansion. A mountain slave owner who had opposed secession until the last minute in 1861, Vance defeated the candidate of the more consistent secessionists by a margin of nearly three to one. Vance and his Conservative Party nonetheless promised full support to the war effort. But non-slaveholding small farmers such as Martha Coltrane looked to him “not to let the confederate congress have the full sway over your State” and to protect the interests of common white cultivators “as strictly as cngress has to the slaveholders.”62 Like Georgia’s up-country-born governor, Joseph E. Brown, Vance would maintain his political position with a delicate balancing act, trying to satisfy disgruntled constituents like Coltrane while also striving to keep his state in the war.
The strongest early blow dealt to the Confederacy from within its claimed borders came in the spring of 1861 from the northwestern counties of Virginia, beyond the Allegheny Mountains. With a population of some 350,000, this region held great strategic value to both sides. In Confederate hands it would expose western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and the Ohio River to attack. It would also cut the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and thereby hinder the movement of Union troops along that major east-west conduit.63
There were slaves and slave owners in this up-country region—and even full-fledged planters—though proportionately far fewer of them than in the eastern low country. But a number of the masters in the area abjured secession, feeling themselves too exposed militarily to an invasion from the north that, moreover, seemed likely to strip them of their slaves.
Most who lived in the western counties were merchants, professionals, and especially small farmers. Some of these people—and, in the most southerly districts, many—cherished values and harbored interests that linked them to the plantation South. But they were decidedly in the minority. Many of the region’s small cultivators had little interest in commerce; those who did more typically traded with people in neighboring free states. Contempt for the haughty planter elite of eastern Virginia was common.
The Old Dominion held a referendum on secession on May 23, 1861, that made clear the political sympathies of the up-country. Statewide, Virginians voted to leave the Union by more than three and a half to one. But in the thirty-five northwestern counties, voters opposed secession by almost as lopsided a margin.64 And they took that stand with strong feelings. “The Union men of Northwestern Virginia are becoming more firm every day,” one of their leaders reported to Lincoln’s secretary of war in May. “They want to see secession put down and the leaders hung.”65 And, he added, they were ready to back up those wishes with action. “We are now enrolling men and drilling every day, collecting such arms as may be had, and manufacturing cartridges, &c.”66
But for all intents and purposes, Virginia had by then already joined the Confederacy—had effectively done so, in fact, as early as April 17, 1861, with the pro-secession vote of the state’s special convention. On May 3, the pro-Confederate governor, John Letcher, ordered local units of the state militia to converge on the key railroad center of Grafton, some twenty-five miles south of the Pennsylvania border. A secessionist native of the up-country, General Thomas J. Jackson (who would acquire the nickname “Stonewall” in the first battle of Bull Run), led a force into Harpers Ferry on the Maryland border and seized a number of coal trains. To the west, former governor Henry A. Wise, one of the state’s most aggressive secessionists, led a force that occupied the town of Charleston, in the strongly unionist Kanawha River valley. Wise’s troops hailed from the state’s distant eastern low country, with members of the western counties’ secessionist minority providing additional support. In many parts of the up-country, the arrival of pro-Confederate militia triggered an exodus of unionists into adjoining parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Confederate forces operating in Virginia’s western counties confronted a number of obstacles. The concentration of secessionist troops in and around Richmond, soon to become the independent South’s national capital, drained forces away from the rest of the state. But the political complexion of the western population was a big military problem, too. A militia major there warned early in May 1861 that “the feeling in nearly all of our counties is very bitter” toward the Confederacy.67 “These people,” General Robert S. Garnett exclaimed, “are thoroughly imbued with an ignorant and bigoted Union sentiment.”68 And General Wise put it most graphically. “The grass of the soil we are defending,” he complained, “is full of … traitors,” and there was nothing passive about their treason. “They invite the enemy, feed him, and he arms and drills them.… A spy is on every hill top, at every cabin.”69
Local militia units that Richmond attempted to mobilize in the western part of the state often proved unreliable. Two regiments around Martinsburg were full of “strong Union men” who were “so obstinate” in asserting their views that state officials soon decided not to arm them.70 In Morgantown, efforts to mobilize a regiment collapsed when the militiamen reportedly “drove the colonel and brigadier-general (secessionists) from the field.”71 General Robert E. Lee, then in command of all pro-Confederate forces in Virginia, learned that secessionists at Harpers Ferry, outnumbered and intimidated by the well-organized unionist population there, were afraid to volunteer for Confederate service—or even to openly avow themselves loyal to Governor Letcher and his government.72General Wise summarized the situation for Lee: “The militia are [good for] nothing for warlike uses here,” and those who were true to the South were “worthless,” and—worse—“there is no telling who is true.”73
At the end of May 1861, General George B. McClellan, then commanding Ohio’s militia forces, sent three thousand troops across the Ohio River to occupy the western Virginia town of Grafton. There his troops found a reception as warm as his enemies had found theirs cold. “The feeling of the people here is most excellent,” McClellan happily reported. “We are welcomed wherever our men go.”74 Rendezvousing with another Union force, McClellan’s troops then proceeded ten to fifteen miles south to Philippi in order to confront eight hundred secessionist recruits raised in that anomalously pro-Confederate town. The Union forces took Philippi with little trouble on June 3, 1861. Other Union troops moved against Charleston, from which Wise withdrew on July 24.75 And as Wise’s force retreated southeastward, between three hundred and five hundred soldiers deserted its ranks.76
Union troops continued their successful advances during the rest of the summer until they had driven Confederate troops out of the trans-Appalachian counties.77 Robert E. Lee directed a series of attempts to retake the region, all of which came to nothing. Most of western Virginia remained in Union hands for the rest of the war. Contrary to some secessionists’ sunny predictions, most of the white population there had proved deaf to the eastern slaveholders’ exhortations and had spurned calls to abandon the Union for their sake. And as pro-federal units consolidated their hold, it became the Confederate sympathizers’ turn to flee or be driven out and to have their property confiscated.78
In the up-country districts of eastern Tennessee, many well-to-do individuals who had been unionists before the war began became committed secessionists afterward. But, as Oliver P. Temple later recalled, “the majority of the people had not gone with them.”79Temple was one of the few local masters who continued to oppose secession even after Lincoln’s call to arms. “I was a slave-owner, as my father and grandfather had been,” he wrote later. “I believed that secession would destroy slavery,” that “secession was only a short cut to emancipation.” Like others of his kind, therefore, he opposed secession not despite being a master but because of it.80 His political allies included entrepreneurs of various kinds who enjoyed strong economic and social ties to the North and believed that a planter-dominated Confederacy would prove hostile to the tariffs and governmental support for economic development and diversification that their particular interests required.81
But as in western Virginia, the great majority of the unionists in eastern Tennessee were slaveless white farmers who held both large planters and their black slaves in contempt. Most of them refused to take orders from a new would-be national government that planters would surely dominate even more thoroughly than they had once controlled governments in Washington. They were certainly not ready to risk their meager possessions, much less their lives, in a war fought on such a new government’s behalf.
For most of these people, Lincoln’s April 1861 call to suppress secession did nothing to increase the Confederacy’s charms. And in June of that year, a referendum revealed a pattern strikingly similar to Virginia’s. In the state as a whole, voters opted to leave the Union by a margin of about two to one. But in the state’s eastern third, about the same proportion was opposed,82 and within a few days unionists there began preparing to secede from secessionist Tennessee and to create a new state of their own.83
That summer and fall, pro-Union and pro-Confederate militia bodies formed and clashed in one locale after another.84 Alarmed, the Confederate Congress declared the property of its internal enemies forfeit and liable to be sold at public auction. But east Tennessee unionists refused to back down.85 They contacted federal troops based in Kentucky and laid plans to coordinate a Union infantry advance with a unionist uprising.
In early November, perhaps two thousand local guerrillas set out to cut eastern Tennessee off from Confederate forces by burning bridges, disrupting railroad traffic, and cutting telegraph lines.86 “The whole country is now in a state of rebellion,” a Confederate colonel on the scene reported. Indeed, a local secessionist editor informed Richmond, “civil war has broken out at length in east Tennessee.”87
But the regular Union infantry units that might have crowned this uprising with success never arrived. General William Tecumseh Sherman, plagued by doubts and fears about the security of his command in Kentucky, had canceled the original invasion plans. That default allowed seven Confederate regiments to converge without challenge on eastern Tennessee and crush the insurrection.88 Vengeful secessionists then executed four of the unionists, jailed another thousand, and banished others from the region. Thousands went into hiding in nearby hills and mountains or fled northward into Union-held Kentucky.89
The Confederacy retained control of eastern Tennessee until the second half of 1863. But most of the inhabitants remained obviously hostile. When General E. Kirby Smith assumed command of the Confederate military district of East Tennessee in March 1862, he found it “more difficult to operate in than the country of an acknowledged enemy.”90 Confederate major general John P. McGowan, himself an east Tennessean, seemed to confirm Smith’s evaluation when he turned his back on his command in the summer of 1862 and denounced the Confederacy as “a damned stinking cotton oligarchy.”91
So, despite continuing repression of unionists and suspected unionists there, “apprehensions of internal revolt” (as one local secessionist foresaw) continued to haunt Confederate civilian and military officials alike.92 Those apprehensions probably pinned down five to six thousand more Confederate soldiers in the region than would otherwise have been needed.93
Like the border states’ decision to remain in the Union, the revolts against secession in western Virginia and eastern Tennessee gave early notice that the image of a solidly united white South concealed a more complicated reality.
To be sure, western Virginia and eastern Tennessee were not typical. A majority of the citizens of the seceding states remained Confederate patriots throughout the war. A combination of perceived self-interest and regional, religious, and cultural loyalties—including a deep devotion to white supremacy—served as a powerful glue binding them to the slaveholders’ republic. But it is also true that the burdens of conducting and sustaining the Confederate war effort deeply angered and severely tested the commitment even of people who counted themselves staunch supporters of both slavery and secession.
Proslavery writers and politicians had long dismissed as inconsequential their states’ relative lack of financial and industrial power. But the necessity of waging a war, on southern terrain, against a foe with far greater material resources and a much larger population began taking its toll. To conduct, much less to win, that war, the Davis government had to take steps that trod upon the notoriously sensitive toes of outspoken and politically influential slave owners. Some of those measures infringed upon jealously guarded personal prerogatives. Others required members of the southern elite to sacrifice their property and risk their lives.
Many of the regime’s policies also violated political, social, and cultural imperatives and taboos that over the decades had become central to southern white identity. Those entrenched beliefs included the necessity of keeping government small and weak, exalting local and state sovereignty over that of a national government, and keeping black people firmly subordinated and strictly excluded from many spheres of life. Ironically, some of those doctrines, which had long served to safeguard slave society, now impeded its defense.
By the late spring of 1861, the existence, words, and actions of Abraham Lincoln’s government had finally arrayed the great majority of slave owners behind the Confederate cause. But as initial expectations of a short, glorious, and inexpensive war faded and the government’s demands upon them increased, some members of the planter elite began to reassess, recalculate what they were prepared to risk, and rethink earlier pledges of all-out sacrifice.
In the spring of 1862, officials in Richmond began calling upon planters to cut back on the cultivation of cotton in favor of corn and other grains. Many states were soon imposing acreage restrictions on the production of cotton (and tobacco). The purpose was twofold: to increase southern food supplies (endangered especially by the loss of Kentucky and large parts of Tennessee), and to strengthen the Confederate government’s campaign for diplomatic recognition and even active assistance from European governments. The Richmond regime believed that starving the big textile industries of England and France of cotton would force London and Paris to do whatever was necessary to appease the South and bring this troublesome war in the Americas to an end on the Confederacy’s terms.94
Many masters cooperated with calls to curtail cotton production. But some dismissed those calls as gross impertinence and unconstitutional. And in those ranks stood quite a few who counted themselves ardent secessionists. One of them was Georgia’s Robert Toombs, who had served as the Confederacy’s first secretary of state between February and July 1861, when he left office to become a brigadier general.95 Toombs was prepared to grow less cotton and more foodstuffs that season, provided he did that on his own initiative. But, as a zealous defender of the absolute sovereignty of masters over their own land and slave laborers, he bridled at attempts by anyone to tell him “what I may choose to plant on my own estate,” no matter what the reason. In such matters, he would bend the knee neither “to newspapers nor to public meetings nor to legislatures.”96
As Union forces began to penetrate the Mississippi valley in 1862, Confederate leaders called on area masters to burn whatever cotton their slaves had already harvested, lest it fall into Yankee hands and enrich them. In early May, Katherine Stone described her fellow planters’ response. All, she said, were saddened by that call, “but all realize its stern necessity and we have not heard of anyone trying to evade it.” As a result, she wrote proudly, “from every plantation rises the smoke of burning cotton.… All the cotton of the Mississippi Valley from Memphis to New Orleans is going up in smoke.”97
Not quite all, as it turned out. General P.G.T. Beauregard noted in late April 1862 that some “planters along the Mississippi” were “hesitat[ing] to burn cotton.” He therefore ordered the deployment of soldiers on small steamboats along the river who would take into their own hands the job of destroying all cotton “within their reach.”98 Planter James Lusk Alcorn evaded the order to burn his bales, concealing some from both neighbors and Confederate officials in order to secretly sell them to northern buyers. Others in the valley did likewise.99 Even the Confederate president’s brother, Joseph Davis, reportedly hid two hundred cotton bales in a nearby swamp … until his neighbors informed on him and exposed the evasion.100
This kind of conduct, indeed, became sufficiently widespread in the Mississippi valley to reach the ears of Richmonders, prompting the capital’s arch-secessionist Examiner to report on and hotly denounce it. “When it is remembered that the secession movement was inaugurated by the cotton population of the South,” snapped its editor, and “that the Confederate Government is conducted almost exclusively under the auspices of cotton states men … these shameful transactions of mercenary cotton planters on the flats of the Mississippi appear still more strange and reprehensible.”101 Isaac Applewhite, who did not own slaves, complained to the governor of Mississippi of such behavior in July 1862. Here were rich planters complacently ordering their slaves to grow cotton while the soldiers fighting for them and their families went hungry, and the “poor soldiers’ wives are plowing with their own hands to make a subsistence for themselves and children—while their husbands are suffering bleeding and dying for their country” and to “protect the property of these rich misers.”102
A related source of friction stemmed from the army’s need for slave laborers to emplace artillery, build and maintain fortifications and river obstructions, and perform similar tasks. During the war’s first year, most masters seemed not only willing but even eager to lend or rent their slaves to local, state, and national authorities for such purposes. But then their enthusiasm began to wane, more quickly in some places than in others. They increasingly resented the disruption of their production schedules and the loss of their valuable slaves through injury, death, or escape. They also noticed that slaves sent to work for the army often returned with too much dangerous information and were, in general, “demoralized” (a word that, in this context, meant unwilling to follow orders).
Menaced in the fall of 1861 by Union general Benjamin Butler’s force at Fort Monroe on the Virginia peninsula, General John B. Magruder repeatedly begged local slaveholders to send him laborers to strengthen his fortifications. When masters turned a deaf ear to him, the general resorted to force. “Some wealthy men” had “refused to send their slaves,” he informed Richmond, so he had “ordered detachments of Dragoons to bring them.” That, however, only infuriated the masters, who left no stone unturned in their search for some authority that would countermand Magruder’s orders.103
In January 1862, Magruder protested to Richmond once more. “I cannot hire slaves, as I was informed I would be enabled to do,” he reported, and as a result “absolutely necessary” but unfinished fortifications remained “all in a dangerous state.”104 In March, as George B. McClellan prepared his army’s massive seaborne transfer to the peninsula, Magruder encountered the problem yet again. Despite “all my efforts to procure negroes” from nearby masters, he complained, “I have recd but eleven from the Counties in my district.”105 The consequence was to leave a key defensive position (this time around Yorktown) “incomplete in its preparation.”106
So it went, too, in the western war theater, the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. When General Albert Sidney Johnston called for laborers to strengthen the works at Forts Donelson and Henry and around Nashville, masters sent him less than a tenth the number he requested.107 Later, as Johnston prepared for the battle of Shiloh, his emissaries asked masters to rent him slaves to work as cooks and teamsters. They ruefully reported back to him, however, that while “those people have given their sons freely enough,” it was “folly to talk to them about [giving] a negro or a mule.” They “do not seem to be aware,” Johnston concluded, “how valueless would be their negroes were we beaten.”108
On this subject, too, General Robert Toombs displayed similar short-sightedness. In mid-June 1862, a county citizens’ meeting instructed Toombs and some of his neighbors to furnish laborers to reinforce defenses on the Chattahoochee River.109 Outraged, Toombs shot off a defiant telegram. He would “refuse a single hand,” he declared, adding that “my property, as long as I live, shall never be subject to the orders” of such “miscreants.”110 In July, South Carolina planter and politician James Henry Hammond heatedly denounced a requisition from the state government for sixteen of his slaves to bolster fortifications around Charleston. Hammond denounced this attempt to impinge upon his prerogatives as a master as “wrong every way and odious.”111 In coastal North Carolina the following month, Catherine Edmondston labeled as “oppressive” a requisition of five hundred slaves “to work on some defences or other.”112 Five months later, her father flatly refused, on the same grounds, to send slaves to work on fortifications at nearby Weldon.113
The Richmond Examiner found such conduct inexplicable. After all, “the war originated and is carried on in great part for the defence of the slaveholder in his property rights, and the perpetuation of the institution.” Wasn’t that reason enough to expect the master “to be first and foremost in aiding and assisting, by every means in his power, the triumph and success of our arms”?114 Instead, masters increasingly focused on their own short-term interests as property owners, even if that weakened the government and armies created precisely to protect their property. The same grim determination to hold on to their slaves that had fueled secession from the Union was now hobbling the proslavery war effort.
A quick and easy war like the one most staunch secessionists had predicted might have required few soldiers to fight it. But as the actual war grew in length and scale, it demanded more and more of them. The need to increase the size of Confederate armies generated its own antagonisms, between masters and their government and among different social classes. Here, too, the enthusiasm and bravado of the war’s early months increasingly gave way to hesitation, reticence, and the discovery that one’s presence was urgently required someplace other than on the battlefield.
Cold numbers reveal that slaveholders shirked their military duties no more often than any other group of white southerners; they made up at least as large a proportion of the Confederate soldiery as they did of the population at large. But the failure of an individual planter to serve could provoke severe recrimination that exposed among some plebeians a deep-seated, long-brewing resentment of planter wealth, privilege, arrogance, and political power.
Louisianan Katherine Stone of Louisiana observed the results at close quarters. A growing number of non-masters, she recorded, were beginning to complain about being called upon to fight a “rich man’s war.” In early 1862, when one local planter’s son failed to volunteer for the army, “the overseers and that class of men” began “abusing him roundly” for being “a rich man’s son too good to fight the battles of the rich.” The Confederate government, they said, should send “the rich men” to war, since they were the ones “most interested” in it, and allow the rest of the male population to “stay at home.” But many local non-masters were staying at home. Or so, at least, it seemed to Katherine Stone, who specified acidly that in her neighborhood “so few overseers have gone.”115
The Confederate war effort always suffered from a shortage of military manpower. The Union contained more than three times as many military-age white males as did the new slaveholder republic.116 Concerned about the weariness of troops in the field and Grant’s dramatic successes in the western war theater, Jefferson Davis decided in the spring of 1862 that the Confederacy’s survival required a national conscription system. In April, the Confederate Congress adopted a draft law that made all able-bodied white men between eighteen and thirty-five years of age liable to service in Confederate armies. Subsequent emendations to the law would further extend the age limits.
Some Confederate notables promptly objected. Starke Hunter, a planter’s son, denounced the law as the work of “military despots.” While “there is no man who is more willing to do his duty than I am,” he assured his wife in May, “I think I am worth more to my family and their interest at home than I would be in the Army.”117 National conscription, Vice President Alexander Stephens objected, violated the most basic principles that had underlain secession and the Confederacy’s creation, including state sovereignty and individual autonomy.118 Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown had turned against the old Union, he declared, “to sustain the rights of the states and prevent the consolidation” of the national government. He was not now willing to see a new national government assert the same kind of unacceptable power over him and his. Indeed, he asserted, “no act of the Government of the United States prior to the secession of Georgia struck a blow at constitutional liberty” as damaging as the new conscription law.119 Brown did more than protest; he also threatened to block implementation of the draft in his state.120 If Jefferson Davis needed troops, Brown (and Stephens and their friends) held, it should solicit “voluntary enlistment.” If he could not obtain enough soldiers that way, he could ask the individual states to come up with more.
But the conscription law of 1862 contained some provisions that seemed designed to anger those of little property even more. The law allowed drafted men to avoid serving if they could find (that is, pay) someone else to muster in their stead, a provision that remained in force until the end of 1863.121 Few beside the wealthy could afford to take that way out. And six months after Congress passed the first draft law, it also voted to exempt one able-bodied male on every plantation containing twenty or more slaves, on the grounds that either planters or supervisors needed to remain in place in order to discipline and control the slave population. In May 1863, it tightened the terms of that exemption, but in February 1864 it extended it to cover farms containing only fifteen slaves.122
Many viewed what they called the “twenty nigger law” as flagrant discrimination against the great non-slaveholding majority. James Phelan, one of Mississippi’s Confederate senators, confidentially advised his friend Jefferson Davis at the end of 1862 that “never did a law meet with more universal odium than the exemption of slave-owners.… Its influence upon the poor is most calamitous, and has awakened a spirit and elicited a discussion” that would surely produce “the most unfortunate results.”123 Another Mississippian protested to his governor in November that “the law now makes the rich man superiour to the poor, forcing the poor [to] the [battle] fields,… showing to the world that the rich is to[o] good to become food for bullets.”124 South Carolina farmer William McNeely wondered what “the poor soldier,” the man who was “trudging suffering and fighting through this war,” was saying about it all. What did that common soldier think, with his “family at home suffering” while his “rich neighbor with his thirty or forty negroes and fine plantations [was] faring sumptuously every day”?125
According to Robert E. Lee’s aide, Colonel Charles Marshall, this measure’s effect was “very injurious” and “severely commented upon in the army.”126 Private Ollin Goddin of the Fifty-First North Carolina regiment poured out his resentment in a letter to Governor Vance. Goddin had “volunteered … to go to fight for his country,” he explained, and to do so had “left a wife with four children” back home. He had done this in part out of reverence for a society in which all whites, rich and poor, partook equally of its rights and benefits. But now, growled Goddin, “the Govt. has made a distinction between the rich man (who had something to fight for) and the poor man who fights for that he never will have.” Goddin had now concluded that in this war “poor soldiers” were “fighting for the ‘rich mans negro.’ ” Ollin Goddin didn’t threaten to leave the ranks. But he and others like him, he warned Vance, were getting “tired of the rich mans war & poor mans fight.”127
Vance himself later acknowledged that Goddin’s claim to speak not only for himself but for many others, too, was well founded. The Confederate draft’s planter exemption, Vance recalled, “produced a decided effect on public sentiment” and was, indeed, “perhaps the severest blow the Confederacy ever received.” It gave potent ammunition to anti-Confederate agitators seeking “to appeal to the non-slaveholding class, and make them believe that the only issue was the protection of slavery, in which they were to be sacrificed for the sole benefit of the masters.”128 Even more fundamentally, it helped undermine a claim critical to widespread support for slavery—the claim that black slavery’s mere existence automatically assured all whites equal rights and privileges.
The class frictions surfacing here became visible around this time to a Union cavalry commander campaigning in northern Virginia. “I find there are two classes of white people in this country—the poor class and the wealthy or aristocratic class,” General Alfred Pleasonton reported in November 1862. “The poor ones are very bitter against the others; charge them with bringing on the war, and are always willing to show where the rich ones have hid their grain, fodder, horses, etc. Many of them tell me it is a great satisfaction to them to see us help ourselves from the rich stores of their neighbors.”129
The Confederate government could in theory have sought to relieve its manpower deficiency in another way. It could have resorted to a measure that other slaveholding regimes had tried when facing a military challenge. It might have armed its own slaves, who represented almost 40 percent of its population.130
The idea was in the air at the outbreak of the war and was not alien to the American tradition. Black soldiers had participated in the American Revolution on both sides. In 1775, the British governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had promised freedom to slaves who would abandon rebellious masters and join the royal army. To counter that move, many patriot state militias, as well as the Continental army itself, also decided to enlist free blacks and slaves into their ranks. Of the slaves who served, most did eventually become free.131
But in 1861–62, most masters—indeed, most southern whites generally—considered the notion of black soldiers absolutely unacceptable. When his overseer raised the idea during the war’s first year, for example, South Carolinian James Chesnut, Sr., had brusquely waved it away. “You can’t trust them—not on our side,” he said.132
The Confederate government early, firmly, and consistently rebuffed all such suggestions. When General Richard S. Ewell urged the Confederate president to enlist slaves right after the first battle of Bull Run, an appalled Jefferson Davis dismissed the idea out of hand. It was “stark madness,” he reportedly exclaimed, that “would revolt and disgust the whole South.”133 Indeed, the Confederacy wanted no black soldiers at all, either slave or free. And it held rigidly to that position until the last few months of the war.
Confederates did that in part, as Secretary of War James A. Seddon explained, because they were fighting to preserve African American slavery and the categorical doctrine of white supremacy and black inferiority that justified it. The innately inferior black male, it held, had little of true manhood about him. He was uniquely suited to dull but arduous labor but utterly unfit for the responsibilities of a free man, citizen, or soldier. Having taken this stance both before “the North and before the world,” the Confederacy could “not allow the employment as armed soldiers of negroes.”134
That racial ideology, moreover, had long ago penetrated deeply into the psyches of southern whites generally. They would therefore look upon the suggestion that they serve alongside black soldiers as demeaning in the extreme. Wholesale desertion by southern whites would surely follow.
Finally, how could a Confederacy founded on such a code of racial inequality and domination ever fully trust the loyalty of any black men in this conflict? What would they do with weapons if given them? At the very least, Confederate leaders feared that any blacks placed in the ranks would (in the words of cabinet member Judah P. Benjamin) desert to the enemy “in mass.”135
These considerations led to banning not only slaves but also free blacks from the soldiery. Any light-skinned free black man who somehow managed to enter the ranks was to be booted back out again if his racial identity was discovered.136 The local, irregular free-black militia units that did exist in New Orleans and Mobile were kept out of regular Confederate service, usually restricted to their own immediate neighborhoods, and permitted to see little if any action. The demands of racial ideology and race control trumped the call even of military necessity.
This consistent refusal even to consider employing black men as soldiers reflected a more general insecurity about the aspirations and loyalties of slaves and the security and stability of the whole “peculiar institution” during the war. During the first half of the century southern masters had constantly assured themselves and others of their slaves’ fundamental contentment. But beneath that confident façade there had always lain profound doubts and fears. The same “Africans” who normally appeared to be as mild and docile as household pets, they believed, could under certain circumstances reveal a savage and violent side. Georgia plantation mistress Gertrude Thomas could thus congratulate herself one day on her slaves’ devotion to her and worry on another day “that we are like the inhabitants at the foot of Vesuvius, remaining perfectly contented” while actually living “among so many dangers.”137
As the prewar political conflict between the North and South sharpened, so did anxieties about the slave loyalty. Masters had long worried that open divisions within the white population about slavery’s rights and wrongs could weaken their control over their unfree laborers, encouraging them both to wish for and to act to obtain their freedom. It was partly to remove slaves from those influences that the South left the Union in 1860–61. But now that political debate among whites had given way to actual warfare among them, and warfare waged on southern soil, those influences seemed closer and more dangerous than ever.
In public, Rev. Charles Colcock Jones dismissed such concerns. After all, he assured a gathering of fellow leaders of the Presbyterian Church’s southern branch (by then known as the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States) in December 1861, “no laboring class in any country has remained throughout its existence more quiet, obedient, and peacefully associated with their superiors than our negro population.”138 As the Confederacy mobilized for war, however, those familiar homilies grew less reassuring, even to Jones. In the days before delivering this soothing message, he and his neighbors strove to retain nearby “such a military force … as will be sufficient to keep our colored population under supervision and control”—more specifically, to discourage attempts “to abandon the plantations and escape to the enemy.”139
Like Jones, Jefferson Davis’s public messages continued to express full confidence in slaves’ loyalty to masters. In private, however, and from the very outset, he confided very different opinions to his wife, Varina. For an independent South simply to keep its slaves in bondage, he worried, it would need to raise and maintain an “immense” standing army, one so big that it would “deplete the resources of the country.”140
Others shared such concerns. Beginning with the lead-up to the 1860 election, southern masters and state and local officials worked to strengthen restrictions on southern blacks, free as well as slave. This escalation of vigilance and discipline continued into the months of secession and the onset of war.141 Officials tightened state and local laws barring slaves from trading with whites or simply traveling alone, by night, across plantation boundaries, or without passes. They also reinforced home guard units and slave patrols. Masters and their neighbors petitioned state and national officials for draft exemptions for men who owned good “Negro dogs” trained to catch runaways and generally keep blacks “in order.”142 The Irish-born journalist William Howard Russell, visiting the newly formed Confederacy in the spring of 1861, detected “something suspicious in the constant never ending statement that ‘we are not afraid of our slaves.’ ” Surely, he noted in his diary, “the curfew and the night patrol in the streets, the prisons and watch-houses, and the police regulations prove that strict supervision, at all events, is needed and necessary.”143
The worries that Russell detected helped shape Jefferson Davis’s hopeless and ultimately self-defeating early attempt to defend the Confederacy’s entire perimeter—“all of the frontier, sea-board and inland”—against Yankee incursion.144 Robert E. Lee’s aide-de-camp, Colonel Charles Marshall, remembered that in his memoirs. Planters like Rev. Jones and his neighbors made very clear to the Confederate government their morbid “fear of the consequences that might result from the influence of Northern troops on the slaves,” including “the horrors of servile insurrection,” wrote Marshall. To guard against those dangers, they insisted, required keeping “a sufficient force” throughout the Confederacy to assure “local protection.”145 Trying to do that, however, spread those forces so thin as to make them incapable of countering large-scale attacks by Union armies almost anywhere—such as at Forts Henry and Donelson on the Confederacy’s northern frontier and at a multitude of points along both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
This anxiety about keeping slaves under control also strengthened the determination of state officials such as Joseph E. Brown and Zebulon Vance to keep local troops close to home in order to guarantee and enforce local security. As early as May 1861, Brown began resisting Richmond’s attempts to centralize control over the Confederate armed forces—specifically objecting to the transfer of state troops to Confederate authority. When Brown finally relented, he did so only on condition that those troops be used for the defense of Georgia alone. Meanwhile, he announced that weapons supplied to Georgia troops could be carried out of that state only with the express permission of the governor.146
About a year later, as the enlistments of many Confederate troops mustered in Georgia were due to expire, Brown called on Richmond to return the soldiers’ arms to him, since they were “the property of the State.” The Davis government refused. So when a ship carrying a different cache of arms, this one bound for Virginia, docked en route at the port of Savannah, Brown ordered the arms seized and used thereafter solely for the defense of Georgia. The Confederate secretary of war complained that if such acts continued “it would be better to abandon at once all attempts to conduct the defense of the country on an organized system.” Brown ignored those words and resolved to repeat the tactic at the next opportunity.147
Southern masters’ conflicted views about what their slaves thought, felt, and intended stemmed from a number of causes. One was uncertainty about just what kind of creatures their slaves really were. Were they a distinct and inferior branch of the human race (and perhaps even a separate subhuman species, as some claimed)? Or were they fully human beings with the same kinds of feelings and aspirations that masters saw within themselves? If the latter, then how could blacks be any more satisfied in chains than their masters would be in their place?
Many masters also came to recognize that the face that slaves turned toward them differed from their true, inmost selves. Georgia planter and minister Charles Colcock Jones had made that point almost twenty years before the war. “Persons live and die in the midst of Negroes,” he admitted, “and know comparatively little of their real character” because blacks “are one thing before the whites, and another before their own color. Deception towards the former is characteristic of them.… It is a habit—a long established custom that descends from generation to generation.”148
Enslaved people had developed that habit, of course, and passed it on to their children, as a basic form of self-defense. Experience had taught them that too much candor, even with the most apparently kindly of masters and during the most seemingly peaceful of times, could result in severe punishment.
As slaves watched whites’ nerves fray and tempers flare in 1860–61, most grew still more cautious and outwardly impassive than ever. South Carolinian Mary Chesnut marveled in April 1861 that “not by one word or look can we detect any change in the demeanor of these negro servants.” Even as cannons thundered in nearby Charleston Harbor, “dinning in their ears night and day,” and even though whites discussed the war and its meaning in front of them “as if they were chairs and tables,” her servants made “no sign.” Her husband’s valet, Laurence, “sits at our door, as sleepy and as respectful and as profoundly indifferent” as ever. All the others appeared similarly uninterested. But Chesnut found that appearance hard to accept at face value. She suspected it was a performance for her benefit—one the less credible because “they carry it too far.” What, she wondered, if they were not as “stolidly stupid” as their manner suggested but were actually “wiser than we are, silent and strong, biding their time?”149
Seventy-five years ago, the great black historian W.E.B. Du Bois challenged two then-common views of how slaves had responded to the outbreak of the Civil War. The old South’s nostalgic apologists propounded one view, “that the Negro did nothing but faithfully serve his master until emancipation was thrust upon him.” Some of the slaves’ overly romantic latter-day admirers enunciated the other, claiming that the typical slave had “immediately” turned against his or her master and “took his stand with the army of freedom.”
Both views, Du Bois explained, were wide of the mark. Those who talked only of slave “faithfulness” were simply ignoring the voluminous evidence to the contrary. Those who imagined an immediate and united slave rebellion underestimated the obstacles that prevented that from occurring.150 The four million slaves of the American South were not homogeneous in either condition or outlook. They lived in different places and different kinds of places. Most worked in the fields and performed the most arduous of labors. Others were domestic servants. Most lived in rural isolation. Some worked in towns and cities, often with considerably greater skills and freedom of movement. Some lived far from early scenes of combat or sources of fresh information. Others, differently located, more quickly grasped the drift of events. Masters and their governments had kept nearly all slaves illiterate. But a small minority, perhaps one in twenty or twenty-five, had somehow learned to read. And, of course, like any section of humanity, the enslaved population displayed a wide range of personal qualities. Some were quick; others were not. Some were audacious; some were not. Some were physically courageous; others were more cautious. Such varied circumstances and traits produced diverse experiences, outlooks, and actions.
Told incessantly from childhood that they belonged to a distinct race incapable of living in freedom and destined by their god for hard labor and poverty, some came to believe it. Didn’t the evidence of their lives, after all, prove it was true? Weren’t they, in fact, less blessed than whites? Weren’t they radically poorer, uneducated, and less informed than whites? Mustn’t that be the will of God?151
In the minds and hearts of some, furthermore, seemingly contradictory thoughts and feelings uneasily coexisted. Especially privileged slaves and those with comparatively lenient masters could feel gratitude for being spared worse treatment. Personal servants could develop an emotional bond to masters with whom they had grown up.
But that was not the same thing as being reconciled to slavery. An enslaved servant named Martin Jackson struggled with conflicting feelings while accompanying his master with the First Texas Cavalry regiment. “I knew the Yanks were going to win, from the beginning,” he later recalled. And, wishing devoutly to be free, “I wanted them to win and lick us Southerners.” At the same time, though, “I hoped they was going to do it without wiping out our company.”152 Many such men took the first opportunity to seek refuge with Union forces. One was the Mississippi slave named Ike (mentioned in chapter 2) who followed his master, Kit Gilmer, into the Confederate army. When Gilmer was shot in the leg in the fall of 1862, Ike picked him up, put him on a horse, and carried him to safety. But Ike then rode on to find and remain with the nearest Union infantry company.153 James S. Clarke, an Alabama legislator, complained about a servant he had known since childhood. The man had accompanied him into the Confederate army but had then “seized the first opportunity which presented of deserting” him and “joining the Yankees.”154 The number of servants who did the same eventually discouraged masters from bringing body servants with them into the army.155
Other slaves simply accepted that their lot, whatever its rights and wrongs, was fixed and unchangeable. “We didn’t know nothing else but slavery, never thought of nothing else,” a man named Chapman later recalled of his youth in Tennessee. “I just know I belonged to the man who provided for me, and I had to take whatever he give me.”156 If the only alternative was severe physical punishment, then pragmatic accommodation to the reality of slavery made sense. Frederick Douglass remembered thinking that as unhappy as he had been in bondage, he had long assumed that “there was no getting away, and naught remained for me but to make the best of it.”157
Some slaves had long been attending as closely as possible to political news. In 1856, the Republican Party ran its first national campaign, with John C. Frémont as its presidential candidate. As masters snarled about abolitionists seeking control of the federal government, slaves pricked up their ears.
Four years later, during the Lincoln campaign, the level of excitement and boldness in the quarters rose still higher. At “every political speech,” a Georgia editor complained, a “large number of negroes” would gather outside the hall and “managed to linger around and hear what the orators” said.158 In the weeks before the balloting, a vigilance committee in Spartanburg, South Carolina, accused two slaves of “talking about being set free” and accused one of saying that “he would fight if he was obliged to.”159 In Mississippi, a group of eleven slaves tried to escape as a group, furiously fighting off pursuers as they did so; half of them successfully eluded capture. Another band of fugitives in that state reportedly cheered Lincoln’s name as they fled. Officials in Leake County, Mississippi, jailed a group of forty slaves and five whites for allegedly planning an uprising. Meanwhile, suspicious incidents of arson multiplied throughout the South.160
Black southerners watched and listened closely during the secession crisis, trying to ascertain exactly what it all meant for them and how best to make use of the novel and rapidly evolving situation. George E. Stephens observed that process firsthand. A free black northerner, he worked as a cook for the Twenty-Sixth Pennsylvania regiment while sending news dispatches back to the Anglo-African, the most important newspaper of the day published by and for blacks. As that regiment moved through the Chesapeake region in December 1861, Stephens discovered that “the slaves, to a man, are on the alert. They are watching the events of the hour, and … hope lights up their hearts; bright and all-absorbing visions of liberty and freedom crowd upon their mind.”161
Masters did what they could to mislead their slaves about the events unfolding around them. The most common tactic was to paint terrifying word pictures of how northerners would deal with black people. Some bondspeople believed these warnings; most, it seems, did not. Many simply concluded that, whatever the Yankee did or thought, their enemy’s enemy must still be their friend. Young Susie King Taylor’s grandmother instructed her simply to shut her ears to the master’s dishonest stories.162 Harry, a slave foreman on one plantation, remembered his master telling him “dat de Yankees would shoot we, when dey come.” But Harry “knowed he wasn’t tellin’ de truth all de time.” He and most others had heard that “de Yankees was our friends, an’ dat we’d be free when dey come, an’ ’pears like we believe dat.”163
Many slaves had learned to dismiss what their masters told them about the war and its meaning. “On that subject,” Mary Chesnut discovered, “they do not believe a word you say.”164 For one thing, they had for years heard the whites loudly equating Republicans and abolitionists and depicting Republican rule as the overture to general and complete emancipation.165 And it was hard to misrepresent, much less conceal, big events from servants whose duties placed them everywhere. Candid opinions and hard news related over dinner in the big house could quickly find their way into the slave quarters. A young Tennessee slave named Thomas Rutling was just six or seven years old when the war began. His principal duty was to wait on his master’s table. Older slaves on the plantation regularly told Thomas to “listen sharp up at the house” and then relay what he heard there to them. His mistress, fearing as much, regularly turned to the boy and instructed, “Now Tom, you mustn’t repeat a word of this.” And the boy, in turn, “would look mighty obedient,—but—well—in less than half an hour, some way, every slave on the plantation would know what had been said up at massa’s house.”166
This communication network, known as the “grapevine telegraph,” could spread quite widely and helped to keep some slaves almost as well informed about the war as were their masters—and sometimes more so. One Mississippi planter fretted in the spring of 1861 that blacks in his vicinity “all knew of the war and what it was for,” and they believed that “Lincolns troops would be here for the purpose of freeing them all.”167 John J. Cheatham likewise alerted Richmond that “numbers of them” around Athens, Georgia, “believe that Lincoln’s intention is to set them all free.”168
Emboldened by such hopes, Louisiana’s Katherine Stone complained, slaves were becoming slow, or flatly unwilling, to obey orders.169 And some began to reappropriate the fruits of their own labors. Stone learned that the storeroom of her Brokenburn plantation had been robbed, and such thefts continued through the summer of 1861.170 North Carolina plantation mistress Catherine Edmondston sympathized with an acquaintance whose servants “have plundered her shamefully—old servants, too, in whom she had every confidence.”171 In Adams County, Mississippi, whites claimed that some thirty slaves, including some of the more privileged, had been caught planning to massacre local masters and seize their land.172
In the spring of 1861, slaves in both Georgia and South Carolina unnerved their masters by singing versions of a spiritual that promised,
We’ll soon be free,
We’ll soon be free,
We’ll soon be free,
When the Lord will call us home.
My brother, how long,
My brother, how long,
My brother, how long,
Before we done suffering here?
It won’t be long
It won’t be long
It won’t be long
Before the Lord will call us home.
And this verse was surely the most shocking of all:
We’ll soon be free
We’ll soon be free
We’ll soon be free
When Jesus sets me free
We’ll fight for liberty
We’ll fight for liberty
We’ll fight for liberty
When the Lord will call us home.173
Most slaves initially conducted themselves with greater caution. They well understood that the white population was better armed and organized than ever before—that Confederate cavalry and infantry as well as home guards and other irregular forces were everywhere mobilized, on the alert, and on the move. They understood, in other words, what a northern magazine explained to its readers—namely, that “the very fact of the war, and of the wholesale military organization of the Southern people, have rendered insurrection much less likely to be successful than it ever was.”174
The outbreak of war raised hopes for change, but caution remained essential. As Tennessean Isaac Lane remembered, he and others talked it out and concluded that “the best thing to do was to be friendly & loyal & obedient to massas till freedom come.”175Littleton Barber, owned by a master in the Natchez region, was “determined to get away the first chance that I got.” But until that chance came, Barber “took good care that no white persons heard me say anything” about such plans. The penalty of doing otherwise was plainly visible: The Confederate provost marshal in that county, Alexander K. Farrar, had “hung too many men who just said that they were for the Union.”176 In eastern Virginia, an elderly woman preparing Sunday dinner for her masters in July 1861 could hear the artillery fire on the Manassas battlefield. To each cannon roar she responded quietly, under her breath, “ride on Massa Jesus.”177
Some early professions of Confederate allegiance by southern free blacks also arose from a complicated reality. A few had atypically managed to acquire substantial property and a degree of toleration from their white neighbors. That was far easier for those with light complexions, such as the free black residents of Charleston who had boasted that in their “veins flows the blood of the white race, in some half, in others much more than half white blood.” For them and others like them, declarations of Confederate loyalty expressed an ardent, longtime wish to distinguish and distance themselves from slaves in particular and from those regarded as Africans in general.178
Other free blacks simply assumed that the Confederacy would win the war and hoped that public professions and displays of fidelity would help allay white suspicion and maybe even buy them some personal relief from the heavy legal and practical burdens that most non-white southerners carried. Charles Sauvenet, a captain in Confederate New Orleans’s black militia, later explained himself in just such terms. “If we had not volunteered” to fight for the Confederacy, he said, “they would have forced us into the ranks” anyway, but as distrusted Union sympathizers.179
The approach of war and the proximity of Union troops changed the relationship of forces on the ground and offered some black southerners the chance to discard masks of docile contentment. On March 12, 1861, eight Florida slaves escaped from their masters and appeared at the gates of Fort Pickens, a federal installation off the Florida coast. A similar scene unfolded some two months later at Fort Monroe, perched at the far eastern end of the Virginia peninsula. A token U.S. force had occupied the fort for many years, but the Union garrison grew after Fort Sumter fell, and it began flexing its muscles with forays into the surrounding area. Most local slave owners fled, managing to take with them much of their movable property, including many domestic servants.
Three of the slaves who stayed behind belonged to a local Confederate colonel named Mallory. Colonel Mallory had planned to take them to South Carolina and set them to work in support of the southern war effort. But as secessionist masters began to evacuate the Fort Monroe vicinity, these three bondsmen took advantage of the confusion to elude the colonel, make their way to the fort, and present themselves before its sentries.180 The fort’s new commander, General Benjamin Butler, allowed them to remain and assigned them to a construction crew inside the fort.
When other escapees realized that the Union soldiers had not turned the first three away, they began a general exodus toward what they were soon calling “Freedom Fort.” One morning, sentries found some 60 men, women, and children standing before them. Over the next few days and weeks, additional groups of 20, 30, or 40 appeared. Within a couple of months, they numbered about 900; by the end of 1862, some 3,000.181
At first, such fugitives behaved with hard-learned caution around the blue-coated soldiers, some addressing them as “massa” and becoming alarmed when the soldiers asked the names of their legal owners. At another Union camp, one fugitive, asked whether he desired freedom, replied, “The white man can do what he pleases with us; we are yours now, massa.”182 But as they began to feel more secure, these black men and women made it clear to their hosts both that they wished to be free and that they considered freedom to be theirs by right.
On April 19, 1861, Abraham Lincoln declared a blockade of the Confederacy. Within days Union vessels were capturing enemy ships off the Virginia coast. But to extend the blockade much farther southward, Union squadrons would need fueling and provisioning stations close to the Confederacy’s principal ocean ports.
In August, therefore, Union naval and land forces began to seize key southern harbors and coves and establish beachheads elsewhere along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. In late August, they captured Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, which opened up the enormous Pamlico Sound to the Union navy. In September, they took Ship Island, Mississippi, on the Gulf. In November, Port Royal, South Carolina (the principal deepwater port between Cape Hatteras and Florida), fell, as did a number of the offshore “sea islands.” During the following months Union forces extended their grasp farther up and down the Atlantic coast. They took North Carolina’s Roanoke Island and other ports in that state in February 1862. Union troops captured the important North Carolina town of New Berne in March along with Fernandina, St. Augustine, and Jacksonville, Florida. In April, the Union navy closed the port of Savannah, Georgia.
Each of these successes opened wider the doors to freedom.
At the start of September 1861, residents of the Virginia coast informed the Confederate War Department about “frequent escapes” by their slaves to the enemy, including to enemy vessels along the coast and on the nearby rivers. And the successful flight of some left those slaves who remained behind “restless and discontented,” creating “a great danger of losing a very large number” of the rest.183
So it was, too, along the coast of North Carolina. There Confederate general T. L. Clingman estimated in August 1862 that “Negroes [were] escaping rapidly, probably a million of dollars’ worth weekly in all.”184 Catherine Edmondston heard in October that during the preceding six months at least ten thousand slaves had made their way to the Yankees from the eastern counties of North Carolina. “All our acquaintances have lost their men,” she complained, “many of them their negro women also.” And one man had “lost 97 negroes in one night!”185
During the first week of November 1861, a fleet of almost fifty Union warships and troop-transport steamers commanded by Commodore Samuel F. du Pont carried an infantry force led by General Thomas W. Sherman down to Port Royal Sound, a coastal inlet across from the sea islands. The islands contained some of the richest soil in the South and some of its oldest and wealthiest plantations. Members of the local elite had lustily cheered on South Carolina’s nullification campaign in the early 1830s, and almost thirty years later they and their offspring were giving equally enthusiastic support to secession.186
On the morning of November 7, 1861, as the Union ships neared the sound’s entrance, Confederate batteries on the islands opened fire. The fleet returned fire, pouring artillery shells into the three forts guarding the sound until they lowered their flags in surrender. Sherman’s troops then landed and occupied the forts. Despite Sherman’s public promise not to “harm your citizens, destroy your property, or interfere with any of your lawful rights or your social and local institutions,” many planters promptly beat a retreat to the mainland.187 But they left too hastily to force most of their slaves to go with them. One major planter, John Chaplin, ordered Moses Mitchell, an enslaved carpenter, to get to the Chaplin family’s large flatboat and help man the oars. Hearing this, Moses’s wife, Tyra, told her husband, “You ain’t gonna row no boat to Charleston, you go out dat back door and keep a-going.” And so he did. As Chaplin and his family rowed off to Charleston, Moses, Tyra, and their young son Sam watched them leave. Sam thought the roar of the big guns he heard was thunder. “Son,” his mother told him, “dat ain’t no t’under, dat Yankee come to gib you Freedom.”188
As ships of the Union navy’s blockading fleet probed other inlets along the South Carolina coast, they found that “the whole surrounding country was seized with a perfect panic.” Masters had pulled inland, so that “all the plantations up the river seemed to be deserted except by the negroes, who were seen in great numbers.” When federal vessels neared, they “came down to the shore with bundles in their hands,” evidently “expecting to be taken off” in the ships.189 In the months and years ahead, thousands more risked a dash across the water from the mainland to Union vessels or the sea islands, which became havens for such refugees.190
At the end of October 1862, the wealthy South Carolina rice planter Francis Weston discovered (as a neighbor, Adele Petigru Allston, recorded) that Weston’s “head carpenter and 18 others of his finest, most intelligent and trusted men had taken his family boat … at an early hour after dark and made their escape to the enemy.” In doing that, Allston recognized, the slaves had acted on longings that were “widespread … through the neighborhood.”191
Charles Colcock Jones eventually had to face the same truth. Some of his slaves had begun planning their escape as soon as Union ships appeared off the coast in the spring of 1862. By July, those plans were maturing. Jones at first comforted himself by noting that as yet “not many” had gone. But he could not silence his inmost misgivings. “The temptation of change, the promise of freedom and of pay for labor,” he suspected, “is more than most can stand; and no reliance can be placed certainly upon any.”192 Sure enough, within five days, eight more people owned by Jones’s relatives had escaped, and in the county at large more than fifty had done the same.193
Louis Manigault was managing his father’s rice plantation when Union vessels and soldiers captured Port Royal in November 1861. “Then at once was a change discerned amongst all the Negroes,” Manigault recorded. Along the coast “great numbers” of slaves whose masters had fled inland now began to gather up the belongings of those masters and make their way to the Yankees.
Manigault noted with special bitterness that those who had previously seemed the most loyal and dependable now were among “the first to desert us.” Those included house servants, who “from their constant contact with the family [had] become more conversant with passing events” and were “often the first to have their minds polluted with evil thoughts.” Another of the Manigaults’ “prime hands,” a man named Charles Lucas, had been in charge of the livestock. He escaped in September 1862. It was, Manigault thought, so unfair. “This war,” he resentfully concluded, “has taught us the perfect impossibility of placing the least confidence in any Negro.” It had proved, at least to Manigault’s satisfaction, that “ingratitude” was ingrained in “the African character.” He now anticipated that “sooner or later every negro will leave, or those who remain [will] become so insolent as to force us to shoot them.”194 Virginia planter Colin Clarke predicted in August 1862, “There is not one negro in all the South who will remain faithfull from attachment to their master & mistress—not one.”195
And, indeed, wherever U. S. troops penetrated Confederate territory, the result was much the same. Those who entered western Virginia in the spring of 1861 got active aid from slaves who struck the northerners as not only friendly and helpful but also remarkably well informed about both military and political developments. George L. Wood, a major in the Seventh Ohio regiment, was “deeply impressed with the profound interest the slaves were taking in passing events. That downtrodden race, who had for years suffered every injustice at the hands of their white oppressors, were now the first to assist the Federal commanders. Through darkness and storm, they carried information, and acted as scouts and guides on occasions when it would try the heart and nerve of their white companions.”196
Although it accomplished little militarily, George McClellan’s campaign on the Virginia peninsula in the spring of 1862 profoundly shook plantation society there. In April, Union general Irvin McDowell led an army of thirty thousand men to Fredericksburg, Virginia, in anticipation of linking up with McClellan’s army. When those troops reached her plantation and others, Betty Herndon Maury noted anxiously that “the negroes … are leaving their owners by the hundreds,” and others who remained began to demand payment for their labor.197
The much larger Army of the Potomac wreaked even greater havoc as it moved through eastern Virginia. Almost as soon as the army arrived on the peninsula, slaves began streaming toward it, some of them fresh from work on Confederate fortifications.198Union soldiers passing by three of the Ruffin family’s properties (Marlbourne, Beechwood, and Evelynton) told slaves that they were now free and no longer needed to work for their masters. To Edmund Ruffin’s surprise, “the slaves almost universally readily received these instructions, & availed themselves of the offered privileges.” In early 1862, more than two hundred slaves had worked those fields. By summer’s end, seven out of every ten had fled, including virtually “every able man & every boy above 12.”199 At Marlbourne, where there had previously been “not an indication of disobedience or discontent,” twelve young men and boys suddenly “went off to the enemy.” And the next day, all the remaining slaves refused to labor.
All of this shocked Ruffin, who confessed that “the number, & general spreading of such absconding of slaves” was “far beyond any previous conceptions.” The entire plantation labor force, Ruffin fumed, was “in a state of open & avowed rebellion.”200
Things went no better for Virginia planter John A. Selden, master of the imposing Westover plantation near Williamsburg. From his property, as he noted in early April, one “could hear the cannon very distinctly” as they roared in the fighting around Yorktown, Virginia. Selden’s young slave Robert, apparently encouraged by the proximity of blue-clad soldiers, “gave me insults and ran away,” though not before Selden managed to shoot him in the leg. A month later, as Union troops approached, Selden himself fled, taking with him cattle, two daughters, and seventeen of his approximately sixty slaves. He proudly informed his diary that the slaves who watched him leave the plantation “wept bitterly” as he departed. But he learned later that most of them had before long “gone away with the Yankees.” Nor did those people whom Selden took with him prove immune to freedom’s lure. Within a month, three of them, too, managed to escape his control.201
In the western war theater, between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, the advance of Union forces began to erode slavery’s bonds slowly and unevenly, but before long dramatically and on an even larger scale than in the East. Caught off guard by the speed of the Union advance, some masters took flight here, too. And as in the East, many slaves refused to accompany them.
Fugitives began entering General Grant’s lines as soon as his forces moved into western Kentucky in September 1861.202 As his army continued southward, the refugees’ number grew. Ebenezer Hannaford, an Ohio soldier, saw “unmistakable delight” in the eyes of field laborers who watched him and his comrades march past.203 “At every plantation,” recorded Ohio officer John Beatty, “negroes came flocking to the roadside to see us.” The laborers clapped their hands and stamped their feet in time with the music of the army’s marching band and shouted “hurrah ‘fur de ole flag and de Union.’ ” Some of them accompanied Grant’s army for miles.204 A Wisconsin soldier found it “astonishing how soon the blacks have learned” that “where the army of the Union goes, there slavery ceases forever.”205
Union army chaplain John Eaton, Jr., of the Twenty-Seventh Ohio Infantry Volunteers, marched with Grant’s troops as they pushed southward into Mississippi after their April 1862 victory at Shiloh. As cotton planters fled, he wrote, their laborers “flocked in vast numbers—an army in themselves—to the camps of the Yankees.” It was an arresting sight. “With feet shod or bleeding, individually or in families,” this virtual “army of slaves and fugitives” was “pushing its way irresistibly” forward, in numbers so large it seemed to Eaton “like the oncoming of cities.”206 When Union forces occupied Memphis in June, slaves from the surrounding countryside flocked to the city.207
Robert H. Cartmell was one of those masters who remained on his land when the Yankees marched in. He must sometimes have wished he had not. “To one born and raised in the South & accustomed to keeping the Sons of Ham in their proper place,” he grumbled, the “impudence of these negroes is hard to endure.”208 Jefferson Davis now discovered that his family’s reputation as comparatively mild masters gained them no immunity from slavery’s disintegration. As Union naval forces commanded by David Farragut approached the Davis brothers’ plantations, Joseph Davis fled.209 He tried, but failed, to induce his laborers to accompany him. Most of them melted into the surrounding countryside instead, taking with them articles of the masters’ furniture and clothing.210
Meanwhile, after their conquest of New Orleans in April 1862, Union forces moved out into the southern Louisiana countryside. As they did so, plantation discipline began to collapse there as well. On Woodland plantation in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, one morning, slaves told the overseer (as the latter reported) that “they would not work eny moore unless they got pay for their work.” Most planters in the area soon acceded to the same demand.211 In October 1862, slaves on the Magnolia plantation, about sixty miles southwest of New Orleans, sent their owner a wordless message by erecting a gallows.212 They announced in December (as the overseer informed his employer) “that never having had a chance to keep [Christmas] before, they would avail themselves of the privilege now, they thought.” And with that, they quit work for the day.213 Slaves on another plantation, brandishing firearms, demanded that their owner free them. When he refused, they fired upon him and drove him into his house, where he remained trapped for days.214 One Union commander wrote in alarm to his superiors that “symptoms of servile insurrection are becoming apparent.”215
As masters below New Orleans cowered, Union ships farther north on the Mississippi menaced the area around the Stone family’s plantation, Brokenburn. In June 1862, Amanda Stone, Katherine’s mother, assembled all the male slaves and told them that if federal troops appeared they must “run away and hide.”216 But as Union soldiers moved toward nearby Vicksburg that month, Katherine noted that “the Negroes [were] generally going most willingly” with them, “being promised their freedom by the vandals.”217In late July 1862, Katherine admitted that neither she nor her relatives would “be surprised to hear that all of ours have left in a body any day.”218
In 1860, Virginia planter and political theorist Edmund Ruffin had published a little book designed to spur the slave states to leave the Union. Entitled Anticipations of the Future, to Serve as Lessons for the Present Time, it was a work of political fantasy couched in the form of imagined newspaper dispatches reporting the progress of a successful southern bid for national independence taking place between 1864 and 1870. In Ruffin’s political daydream, all of the independent South’s efforts bore glorious fruit; those of the Union yielded only weeds. Crucial to his triumphalist vision were ties of solidarity binding together all residents of the South. The border states of Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland all promptly joined the secession movement. The slaveless whites of western Virginia likewise proved themselves “sound and true southerners.” Finally, Ruffin offered readers a loving account of “the zealous feelings of patriotism evinced by negro slaves” toward secessionist slaveholders. Although the Union’s leaders in his tale tried to induce southern slaves “to desert their masters and seek freedom in the camp or country of the invaders,” that attempt went badly awry. In his version of events, southern blacks proved “in general, and with few exceptions” to be “more alarmed at, and more fearful of the invading forces than were the masters.” They therefore labored in great numbers and in myriad ways to support the southern war effort. They “enjoy it greatly, and soon become as zealous partizans, and as hostile in feeling to the northern enemy, as any citizens.”219
By the end of the actual war’s second calendar year, the difference between these expectations and the unfolding reality were already marked, as Ruffin himself recognized. Secession had provoked a far stronger reaction in the free states and a much more effective military response than most secessionists had predicted. In the face (and under the pressure) of the resulting war, southern white unity was proving considerably less complete than in Edmund Ruffin’s novel. Four slave states stood by the Union, and their terrain, material resources, and soldiers were now enhancing Washington’s war against the Confederacy. In the western counties of Virginia, most whites had firmly and actively rejected secession, too, and eastern Tennessee had been pulled out of the Union only by forcibly repressing the majority of its white residents.
The great majority of whites in the secessionist states, it is true, had endorsed disunion in 1860–61 and remained staunchly committed to that cause, energetically and effectively backing it up by force of arms. But even here, signs of trouble had appeared. Several policies of the Davis government were generating class resentment among some sectors of the Confederacy’s slaveless white majority. And members of the planter elite were denouncing and resisting Richmond’s infringements on their accustomed rights and privileges. (England and France, meanwhile, had yet to make any significant move on the Confederacy’s behalf.)
But the House of Dixie’s greatest and most severe structural weakness was beginning to show in its foundation—the enslaved third of the Confederate population whose labor drove its economy and undergirded its war effort. Southern masters had bolted from the Union precisely to strengthen their grip on those black workers. Instead, however, secession and the war that it initiated were now enabling thousands of slaves to bolt toward freedom. Their actions, in turn, challenged the Union, its supporters, and its leaders to decide how to respond.
The first eighteen months of war took a toll on chattel slavery but by no means killed it. The great majority of slaves were at this stage still physically distant from Union armies; so long as that remained true, freedom remained for them only a hope.
Even bondspeople close enough to Union lines to seek sanctuary behind them, moreover, confronted daunting obstacles. They would have to part from friends and immediate family without knowing when or if they would ever see them again. And they had good reason to fear that those left behind would feel the wrath of vengeful masters. Those opting for flight, meanwhile, had to evade not only their own masters and overseers but also mounted slave patrols and southern troop detachments and pickets. Nor could people who reached and were accepted into Union-occupied regions ever feel assured of their safety. Rebel counterattacks could and often did recapture individuals, groups, and even whole communities.
When two of Rev. Charles Colcock Jones’s escaped slaves were recaptured, Jones determined to deal with them firmly. He sent them to the hill country to be rented out for hard labor.220 “Some example must be made of this matter,” Jones explained. “If the absconding does not stop, the Negro property of this county will be of little value.” Even worse than their “absconding” was the service too many of them performed for the Yankees. “They know every road and swamp and creek and plantation in the county, and are the worst of spies.… They are traitors who may pilot an enemy into your bedchamber!”221 Edmund Ruffin’s son punished male slaves who had escaped his property and control during the Peninsula campaign by selling off nearly thirty members of their families.222
Many recaptured fugitives would have envied those people their fate. More severe punishments were common, including torture and immediate execution.223 “Within the last 12 months,” a Mississippi provost marshal reported in July 1862, “we have had to hang some 40 [slaves] for plotting an insurrection, and there has been about that number put in irons.”224 When, in the fall of 1862, three South Carolina men who had recently escaped to freedom returned to the Georgetown district to free their wives, Confederate troops recaptured, tried, and hanged them. The execution was staged as a public spectacle to drive home to others the price of such conduct.225
Masters punished lesser acts of insubordination with similar brutality. In the summer of 1862, Patrick Edmondston discovered that some of his slaves had tried to break into his storehouse. He called all the male slaves together and demanded that they produce the one responsible within an hour. When they failed to do so he made them draw straws. The two who drew the shortest straws were promptly whipped. This, he explained to his wife, “makes it the duty of the whole plantation to detect offenders.”226
These deliberate attempts to terrorize had their intended effect. In the minds of many slaves, they reinforced the need for extreme caution and the recognition that the masters, their government, and their army were still very much alive and determined to retain or reassert control. “We was afraid to talk of the war,” as one man later explained, “ ’cose they hung three men for talkin’ of it, jest below here.”227