Life in the Civil War

American Slavery, Edward Williams Clay, 1841

American Slavery, Edward Williams Clay, 1841

With the outbreak of war, the Confederacy required the utmost cooperation of all her citizens, especially from the sons and daughters of the planter class. The newly formed government did not want hysteria in the countryside and slave owners arming themselves against their own slaves. As a result, evidence of insurrectionary activity was repressed. Despite the protracted efforts of Confederate loyalists to portray only harmony among owner and owned, despite best efforts to rally blacks to the Stars and Bars, we know not all African Americans were devoted servants to Confederate masters, as painted by wartime rhetoric or postwar ideologues.

Equally interesting evidence remains, however, on this question of black loyalty. In New Orleans, Louisiana, Confederate leaders confronted an affluent, articulate, and assimilated free black community. The colored Creoles were in a difficult position when Louisiana left the Union — a people without a country. The mixed-race “mulatto” community emphasized community ties and volunteered to “take arms at a moment’s notice and fight shoulder to shoulder with other citizens.” A local unit of “colored men” even enrolled in the state militia.

Louisiana Native Guard, 1861

Louisiana Native Guard, 1861

African American men who formed companies and offered themselves for military service, however, were greeted with considerable discomfort by the new southern government, ignored and spurned. The Confederacy dared not allow blacks to serve as soldiers. Free blacks who did volunteer were assigned to projects as teamsters on earthworks projects, building fortifications, and other menial support roles. The loyalties of these free blacks volunteers were considerably divided. Most, like the New Orleans Native Guards, feared that if Confederate independence was achieved without their help, they might be returned to slavery. To safeguard status, they pledged themselves to the Confederate cause — perhaps even aware of the emptiness of such a gesture.

From the very earliest days of the war, slaves were caught in a vicious thrall. Many hoped to escape bondage and fled behind enemy lines. The flooding of Union camps with fugitive slaves was an alarming and unanticipated development for federal officers. Confederates who claimed that slaves were loyal to owners because the system of paternalism fostered mutual dependency were repudiated by a steady stream of black desertions. Unfortunately, federal soldiers expressed less than sympathetic attitudes toward blacks in bondage, such as the Union man who balked at the suggestion that he was fighting for blacks’ freedom and retorted: “I ain’t fighting for the damned niggers, I’m fighting for fifteen dollars a month.”

Escaped SlavesMoving to the Union Lines during the Civil War, by Edwin Forbes, 1876.

Escaped SlavesMoving to the Union Lines during the Civil War, by Edwin Forbes, 1876.

Despite such rampant racism among federal troops, African Americans overwhelmingly sided with the Union — indeed, the Native Guards proved their true colors during a federal occupation. When Union forces threatened to overrun New Orleans in the spring of 1862, black troops volunteered to remain behind. They ended up greeting soldiers in blue with jubilation and switching sides effortlessly.

From the earliest days of the war, federal military units employing blacks were organized in South Carolina and Louisiana to capture the runaways and harness their loyalty. Thousands of African Americans were willing to take up arms against the Confederacy. The flood of black volunteers northward from the Confederate states increased dramatically with the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. It was a time of tremendous rejoicing for slaves trapped behind Confederate lines. Most thought of New Year’s Day with sadness, as it was the time when sales were organized and families separated, nicknamed “Heartbreak Day.” But after 1863 the majority of African Americans would celebrate instead of dread this date.

Contraband in Virginia by James F. Gibson, 1862

Contraband in Virginia by James F. Gibson, 1862

The Union at first resisted the use of blacks as soldiers, although these runaways, who were called contrabands were welcomed and employed as teamsters and ditch diggers to man the engineering and quartermasters’ corps. But free blacks persisted and commanders relented, so well over 100,000 black men from Confederate states ran away to join the Union army. By war’s end, nearly 200,000 African Americans had served under the Union flag.

Despite Confederate efforts to stem the tide, the Federals were able to drain plantations of precious manpower and, even more boldly, allow former slaves to return to these plantations as enemy soldiers — an alarming prospect for most planter households. As one former slave soldier reported when he went to see his mistress after the Battle of Nashville, she upbraided him, reminding him of how she nursed him when he was sick, and “‘now, you are fighting me!’ I said, ‘No’m, I ain’t fighting you, I’m fighting to get free.'”

Male Slave Separated From his Family, by Henry L. Stephens, 1863.

Male Slave Separated From his Family, by Henry L. Stephens, 1863.

Slave women and families, left behind by fathers and husbands, could be thrown into precarious situations when planters discovered “treason” and vented their anger on family members who remained in slavery. One wife left behind in Missouri confided: “They are treating me worse and worse every day. Our child cries for you. Send me some money as soon as you can for me and my child are almost naked.” A white commander of a black regiment complained that planters forbade wives and children to see these black men in blue and prevented all communication, especially the flow of wages back to the plantation home. Some African American soldiers, driven to desperation by such treatment, risked all to return and retrieve families, such as Spottswood Rice, who plotted from his hospital bed to rescue his children: “Be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life.” One Kentucky woman spirited her several children away, only to be halted on the road by her master’s son-in-law, “who told me that if I did not go back with him he would shoot me. He drew a pistol on me as he made this threat. I could offer no resistance as he constantly kept the pistol pointed at me.” Forcing her to return to slavery at gunpoint, the man kept her seven-year-old as hostage to ensure that she wouldn’t run away again.

Black family during the Civil War.

Black family during the Civil War.

Black women of the South, like white women, suffered when menfolk went off to war. Jane Welcome wrote a letter complaining to Lincoln: “I wont to know sir if you please wether I can have my son relest from the arme he is all the support I have now his father is dead and his brother was all the help that I had.” The president’s office replied: “The interests of the service will not permit that your request be granted.” But evidence also suggests that many black women willingly bade slave men off to war. Although fearing for soldiers’ safety and dreading repercussions, they saw this occasion as a golden opportunity to secure future freedom. Only 11 percent of the black population within the country was free, and the majority of slaves knew military service was a means of liberation. The masses of African Americans who joined the Union both undermined the Confederate cause and strengthened the fight for emancipation. Blacks in the Union armed forces struck a vital blow to white southern pride, all the while crippling the plantation economy. In the North, persistence on the part of the free black community prodded the federal government into accepting black military potential.

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