Slaves' Work and Daily Lives
The Confederacy's use of hired slave laborers extended one of the key developments in Virginia's economy during the late antebellum era. Slave hiring was already an established facet of Virginia's antebellum industries, and male slaves comprised a large portion of the workforces in iron factories and on railroad lines. During the war, private employers like the Tredegar ironworks of Richmond, railroad lines, salt works, and iron forges, all of which sustained the Confederate war effort, hired increasing numbers of slave laborers as their white employees left for the army. Owners also leased their slaves to individual officers within the Confederate army or larger departments like the Confederate Medical Department, which hired hundreds of male and female slaves to work as nurses, cooks, and laundresses in army hospitals. The war increased the importance of slaves with industrial skills in the upper South's hiring market; the demand for hired field hands also increased as white men joined the Confederate army.
Slaveholders in Virginia and across the South anticipated that a slave uprising would accompany the start of the war and, accordingly, tightened plantation discipline in the spring and summer of 1861. As increasing numbers of white men left home for the Confederate army, however, and the dreaded slave rebellion never materialized, white Virginians loosened their grip on their slaves. Slave patrols dwindled out of existence in some areas. Plantation discipline relaxed considerably as slaves sensed and exploited their mistresses' weakness in the absence of male authority figures. While few slaves stopped working entirely, many refused to grow cash crops without new incentives.
Some of Virginia's Protestant churches severely constricted slaves' freedom of worship, denying slaves the right to join churches without their masters' permission, meet independently to hear slave preachers, or discipline their own congregations. Other churches, after an initial period of heightened alarm, expanded their enslaved congregants' freedom of worship. In April 1863, for example, the First Baptist Church of Charlottesville voted to grant its black members partial independence, allowing them to worship separately in the church basement (before eventually moving to a separate building) and choose their own pastor and deacons. Black congregants in some of Virginia's other churches gained more limited versions of this independence over the course of the war. White church leaders who granted their black members this freedom had no intention, however, of undermining the institution of slavery itself.
Finally, the wartime increase in slave hiring brought numerous disruptions to slaves' family lives. Enslaved men impressed to work on fortifications or hired to Confederate officers and industrial employers usually left their wives and children behind, placing a heavier work burden on enslaved women. Climbing prices for slaves in both the hiring and long-distance sale markets increased the likelihood that families would be separated. Other aspects of the war brought additional disruptions of family life. In particular, slaves forced to abandon their homes with refugee masters and mistresses left behind friends and relatives who lived on neighboring plantations.
Virginia's Slaves Seize Their Freedom
Not every Union general approved of Butler's "contraband of war" argument, but it won favor with the United States Congress, which confirmed Butler's position in August 1861. The First Confiscation Act authorized Union authorities to capture any property the Confederates were actively using to assist their war effort. Slaves who worked for the Confederate armies in any capacity were explicitly included in this legislation. Congress expanded its definition of "contraband of war" in the Second Confiscation Act of July 1862. Recognizing that all slaves working for Confederate masters aided the Confederate war effort, regardless of their specific wartime tasks, Congress authorized Union personnel to capture all property belonging to Confederates. The Second Confiscation Act specifically declared that any slaves owned by men or women who favored the Confederacy were "forever free of their servitude."
Historians often call the relationship between runaway slaves and the United States government's movement toward emancipation the "self-emancipation thesis." The self-emancipation thesis, which originated in the 1930s in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois and Bell Irvin Wiley, suggests that slaves who ran away to the Union army during the first two years of the Civil War forced military and civilian officials to take steps toward emancipation. Certainly, runaway slaves' presence in nearly every Union encampment forced the U.S. Congress and President Lincoln to formulate a uniform policy, although emancipation was not an inevitable choice. The slaves who ran to Union lines early in the war did so under only a hope of freedom, not a definite expectation. Because men were more likely to escape, meanwhile, enslaved women and children suffered the brunt of their mistresses' wrath.
Documents circulating between the governor's office and the Confederate army near
the end of the war illustrated how successful Virginia's slaves were in achieving
freedom through escape. Late in March 1865, Governor William "Extra Billy" Smith sent General Robert E. Lee a list enumerating
all black men, slave or free,
within the state of Virginia. This list relied on returns from both the county
courts and the state
Losses in some areas exceeded even that 61 percent. Despite massive influxes of refugees from the countryside, Richmond and Henrico County lost 70 percent of their adult male slaves by March 1865; Rappahannock County, which spent much of the war behind Union lines, lost 72 percent. Even the tobacco-producing counties along the border with North Carolina, one of the more sheltered regions of Virginia, lost nearly 50 percent of their adult male slaves in the last two years of the war. In a state like Virginia, which saw repeated incursions of Union forces in almost every area of the state, self-emancipation was a realistic option for many slaves. Virginia's enslaved men and women thus repeatedly seized their opportunities to gain freedom throughout the Civil War.
May 27, 1861 - Union general Benjamin F. Butler, the commander at Fort Monroe, announces that he will not return fugitive slaves to bondage. Fort Monroe becomes known as "Freedom's Fortress," and a steady stream of "contraband" offered wages, food, and shelter, begins work for the Union army.
August 6, 1861 - With the First Confiscation Act, the U.S. Congress sustains Fort Monroe commander Benjamin F. Butler's "contraband of war" decision. It declares that any slave used for military purposes against the United States can be confiscated.
July 17, 1862 - With the Second Confiscation Act, the U.S. Congress recognizes that all slaves working for Confederate masters aid the Confederate war effort, regardless of their specific tasks. The act authorizes the slaves' confiscation, declaring them "forever free of their servitude."
September 22, 1862 - President Abraham Lincoln issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
December 15, 1862 - President Abraham Lincoln receives the West Virginia statehood bill and requests that his cabinet review the legislation and make recommendations. Lincoln's cabinet ultimately splits three to three over the legislation.
April 20, 1863 - The March 16 petition by black congregants of Charlottesville's First Baptist Church to establish the Charlottesville African Church is accepted by white church leaders.
January 31, 1865 - The U.S. Congress passes the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by a vote of 119 to 56. The amendment abolishes slavery.
March 4, 1865 - The Confederate Congress votes to arm African American men as Confederate soldiers.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Martinez, J. A. Slavery during the Civil War. (2015, October 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Slavery_During_the_Civil_War.
- MLA Citation:
Martinez, Jaime Amanda. "Slavery during the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 27 Oct. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 29, 2010 | Last modified: October 27, 2015
Contributed by Jaime Amanda Martinez, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She received a PhD from the University of Virginia in 2008 and is currently revising her dissertation on Confederate slave impressment for future publication.