historian, author, film producer

How Slavery Ended in the Civil War

In the Library of Congress’ Cornelius Chase papers there are boxes of carefully collected records of the activities of slave traders out of Richmond, Virginia. Chase was a Quaker and an abolitionist, and he pulled together evidence and materials wherever he could find them of the inhumanity of slavery. There are two remarkable aspects to this collection. The first is just how quickly the slave trade modernized around telegraphs and railroads (a subject for another post).

The second is that slave traders were busy in the South right up through the end of the Civil War. Who would purchase slaves in, say, late 1864, and for what purpose? Surely, with slavery collapsing all around them, white southerners must have thought twice about holding slaves, much less buying slaves. Were they concerned about the war, about the price of slaves? What explains the actions of whites, any one of whom might have been the last person to purchase a slave in the Confederacy?

Historians from Armistead Robinson to Ira Berlin and Barbara Fields have argued that slavery broke down in the war and in many areas black self-liberation meant that slavery was collapsing from within. The focus of this argument has rightly been on the slaves themselves. So many thousands appeared at Fortress Monroe that Union General Benjamin Butler took them in as “contraband” of war in 1861, beginning a process of self-emancipation and enlistment in the Union cause that led to the formation of the U.S. Colored Troops units with over 180,000 black men in uniform by the end of the war. Despite the widespread movement of African Americans in the areas around the Union Army to free themselves, many slaves remained on plantations well out of reach of any Union forces. In Stephen Ash’s brilliant 1865: A Year in the South the Agnew plantation operated largely intact with over fifty slaves on it until early 1865. Union soldiers had yet to appear in the county. This experience was common and explains in part why Union General William Tecumseh Sherman wanted to reach the “interior” (as he called it) of the South with his March to the Sea. Similarly, even in Rockbridge County, Virginia, as late as July 1864, Confederate civilians had never seen a Union soldier. There were vast reaches of the interior South where the war was a distant, if very important, event.

And so the slave trade went on.  Browning & Moore, E. H. Stokes, Betts and Gregory, Dickenson and Hill, and other slave trading partnerships carried on their business in the war. The war clearly had an effect on slaves even before the Emancipation Proclamation. In January 1862 one man wrote a Richmond, Virginia, slave trader that he wanted to sell “a very intelligent negro” about 32 years old who had been “a very useful servant.” He put the slave on the market because “I think he has ideas very prevelant [sic] in this part of the country since the war began which render it a disagreeable task to [unclear] him.”

In the same year E. H. Stokes, a busy slave trader in Richmond, defended himself to the Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon, claiming he had hired a substitute and was exempt from the draft. Besides, he claimed, he ran a 2,000 acre plantation in Lunenburg County that produced surpluses for the Army and, as important, kept slaves under control in the wartime environment: “I have no overseer nor other white persons than myself to manage them [60 slaves]. With my supervision they can be made to support themselves, and raise a considerable surplus for the Army. Left to themselves, they would make nothing of consequence for themselves, nor for any body else. On the contrary they would speedily destroy all my supplies on hand.”

Even if slaves clearly understood what the war meant and that they might have the opportunity to take matters into their own hands, Confederate whites like Stokes saw little prospect for an end to slavery anytime soon. The records of these traders indicate a high volume of buyers and sellers even into 1863 after the Emancipation Proclamation. Southern whites, it seems, assumed there would be some sort of compensation for any eventual plan of emancipation to work, whether war imposed or not. Such views could not have been unreasonable after years of discussion of colonization and debates over many decades about gradual emancipation. The idea of an end to slavery seemed to Southern whites an unthinkable one, except perhaps on terms they might control and determine.

Their own government, the Confederate States of America, built itself around the idea of slaves as property and it was no accident that the U.S. Congress used its Confiscation Acts to provide the opening for emancipation. In July 1864 a frantic telegram, typical of many such wartime queries, came over the wires from Augusta, Georgia, to Richmond, Virginia. The Confederate Quartermaster wanted a ruling from his superiors: if he hired “negro teamsters for the Army of Tennessee would the government be responsible to the owners if they are captured or killed.” The Inspector General rendered a brief reply: “The Govt. will be responsible.” 

Slavery ended in and with the Civil War both because slaves sought their own freedom and because the Union Army demonstrated that the Confederate government could not make good on its promise to protect the property rights whites held in slavery. The formal abolition of slavery laws was carried out in the terms of reconstruction for Southern states. But slavery as an idea vested in property rights persisted among many whites and proved durable, a burning ember stamped upon but still glowing during the long Reconstruction years. The Confederate government was ultimately responsible for those rights and lost them in the war, but the expectations of many Southern whites in the war was that these rights were in a sense inalienable–that they might be taken by force but conceptually they were not lost. That slave traders continued their business unabated, that Confederates demanded compensation from their government for the loss of slaves impressed in the war, and that many of these activities persisted through 1864 and into 1865, indicate that many southern whites could not fully contemplate the end of slavey in the war.