Slave Reactions to the Civil War

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Slave Reactions to the Civil War

When America's long debate over slavery erupted into warfare in 1861, 40 percent of the South's population was African American. Slaves and free blacks alike quickly formed opinions about the events swirling around them and acted on them according to their circumstances. They did not rest mutely like contested ground beneath the feet of opposing armies. Some, having heard their masters' often-repeated fears that an election victory by Abraham Lincoln would threaten the institution of slavery, immediately began to agitate for their liberty, leading to fears throughout the South of insurrection.

Other blacks were less certain at first about the possible consequences of war for themselves but witnessed the effects on their masters. They watched the spectacle of whites marching away to war and the attendant fear of wives and mothers, people whom the slaves, in many cases, knew intimately; and they saw the grief that exploded when those same soldiers came home mangled, or were sent home dead. Sometimes the slaves joined in the mourning, lamenting the loss of human beings that were a large part of the structure of their daily lives. In other cases, the slaves' reaction was substantially different from that of the bereaved whites. Delia Garlic, speaking of the day her master's two sons joined the army and were seen off by their weeping parents, said, "It made us glad to see dem cry. Dey made us cry so much" (Litwack 1979, p. 8). Others rejoiced at the news when particularly cruel masters were killed in combat. Many slaves were torn. Booker T. Washington would later recall how, as a child on a Virginia plantation, he had listened to his elders pray for freedom and had shared their excitement at the approach of Union forces—yet he was as grief-stricken as anyone else when the master's son, noted for his unusual kindness to the slaves, was killed.

In 1937 one ex-slave recalled seeing soldiers return home injured:

I sho members when de soldiers come home from de war. All de women folks, both black as well as white wuz so glad to see 'em back dat we jus jumped up and hollered 'Oh Lawdy. God bless you.' When you would look around a little, you would see some wid out an arm or maybe dey would be a walkin' wid a cruch or a stick. Den you would cry some wid out lettin' your white folks see you. (Litwack 1979, p. 7)

Confederate apologists would later repeat stories of faithful servants risking their lives to protect their masters and their masters' property. There were in fact many such cases, indicative not so much of a childlike dependence and loyalty on the part of slaves as of the complicated web of relationships that developed out of slavery. Dora Franks overheard her master and mistress discussing the possibility of emancipation, the mistress declaring a willingness to commit suicide rather than give up her servants. "I hate to hear her say dat," Dora reported, "but from dat minute I started prayin' for freedom" (Litwack 1979, p. 21). Many, like Dora, bided their time. Even those who did not directly overhear conversations among their owners learned about their prospects for liberty through the elaborate "grapevine telegraph" that spread news from plantation to plantation at a speed whites could not have believed.

Before the war a prospective fugitive would have to travel hundreds of miles to Canada. Once the war began, freedom lay as close as the nearest Union lines—and sometimes that was very close indeed. Thousands of slaves took their fates in their own hands and ran to the approaching federal troops. General Benjamin Butler refused to turn fugitive slaves back over to their rebellious masters despite the Fugitive Slave Law, arguing that as enemy property they were now contraband. But what was to be done with them? The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 settled the question—slaves from "states in rebellion" were to be freed—and opened the way for blacks to serve in the Union army, taking an even more direct role in the liberation of their fellows.

Many white southerners, having wrapped themselves in the mantle of paternalism, were genuinely shocked and hurt that their servants would choose to abandon them. Others, perhaps less naïve, took steps to prevent their property from escaping, growing ever harsher as the Union lines came near. Leon Litwack, in his 1979 study, points out that slaves who had been trusted most for their intelligence and competence were often the most likely to defect, given the opportunity. Having learned to read, Frederick Douglass began to envy his fellow slaves "for their stupidity." Aware of broader horizons, he yearned for them in a way he could never have done while kept in ignorance. "It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me," he wrote. "There was no getting rid of it" (2001 [1845], p. 40).

Other slaves remained on the plantation even after their masters fled and kept it running in their absence, but hardly out of loyalty to their masters' interests. The planters were shocked when they returned, in many cases, to a workforce that demanded their share of the proceeds—sometimes even of the house. With little leverage now, the masters were forced to negotiate with individuals they had always regarded as mere property. Even more insulting perhaps, in the owners' eyes, was the slaves' increased tendency to just ignore them completely, farm their own plots, and go about life as if they were not there.


Slaves responded to the "Yankee invasion" in diverse ways. Many took advantage of the opportunity to secure their freedom. Others did not.

Marse Frank didn't go to de war, he was too old. So when de Yankees come through dey foun' him at home. When Marse Frank seed de blue coats comin' down de road he run an' got his gun … a bully Yankee snatched the gun away an' told Marse Frank to hold up his hands. Den dey tied his hands and pushed him down to de floor 'side de house and told him dat if he moved a inch dey would shoot him. Den dey went in de house.

I was skeered near to death, but I run in de kitchen and got a butcher knife, and when de Yankees wasn't lookin', I tried to cut de rope and set Marse Frank free. But one of dem blue debils seed me and come runnin'. He say: 'whut you doin', you black brat, you stinkin' little alligator bait!' He snatched the knife from my hand and tole me to stick out my tongue, dat he was gwine to cut it off. I let out a yell and run behind de house.

—Ida Adkins (North Carolina Narratives, p. 10)

The Yankees beat [won] and settled down there and the culled folks flocked down on them and when they got to the Yankee lines they was safe. They went in droves of 25 or 50 to the Yankees and they put 'em to work fightin' for freedom. They fit 'til the war was over and a lot of 'em got kilt. My mother and sister run away to the Yankees and they paid 'em big money to wash for 'em.

—Pierce Harper (Texas Narratives, p. 111)


Works Progress Administration. Born in Slavery: North Carolina Narratives, vol. 11, part 1.

Works Progress Administration. Born in Slavery: Texas Narratives, vol. 16, part 2.

In his study Steven Hahn describes the changing circumstances of slaves during the war: "The rapid circulation of news and rumor, the complex ties of family and kinship, the contests over the deployment of labor, the accumulation of petty property, the customs and institutions of internal authority and discipline—these were the means by which African American slaves tried to give shape to the great struggle over the Union and slavery" (2003, p. 15). Hahn argues that, in fact, this process of adjustment to profound changes went beyond resistance and formed the basis for black political identity.


Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave [1845], eds. John W. Blassingame, John R. McKivigan, and Peter P. Hinks. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

Hahn, Steven. A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South, from Slavery to the Great Migration. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938: South Carolina Narratives, vol. 14, part 1. Washington DC: Author, 2001.

Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Scoville, Joseph Alfred. What Shall Be Done with the Confiscated Negroes?: The Question Discussed and a Policy Proposed in a Letter to Hon. Abraham Lincoln, Gen. Winfield Scott, Hon. William H. Seward … and All Other Patriots. 1862.

                                         Troy D. Smith