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NPS History E-LibraryScene in Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg, Maryland

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Black Soldiers



While whites on both sides tried to keep the issues of slavery and race in the background, black people refused to cooperate. Instead of remaining passive, they assumed an active role in their own welfare and compelled the Union and Confederate governments to respond to their conduct. Thus, through their own behavior they forced the issues of slavery and race to the forefront in the war.

The process began on a peaceful night in May 1861 in coastal Virginia. Three slaves, whom their masters had hired out to the Confederate government, slipped out of camp, commandeered a canoe, and paddled their way to the safety of Union Fort Monroe. The following morning, the Confederates noticed that the bondsmen and a canoe were missing and correctly assumed they had headed for Yankee lines. Under a flag of truce, a Confederate officer sailed to Fort Monroe to retrieve the runaways. The Federals received him, and in a short while he stood before the post commander, Brigadier General Benjamin Butler. A bald man with dark eyes and a dark mustache, Butler had earned a reputation as a shrewd politician and a crafty courtroom lawyer before the war.

When the Rebel officer sought a return of the chattels based on the U.S. Fugitive Slave Law, Butler cleverly pointed out that since the state of Virginia had seceded from the Union, its citizens could not benefit from federal laws. Furthermore, argued Butler, since the Rebels had employed the slaves on a Confederate military fortifications project, they were subject to confiscation as contraband of war, according to international law. He refused to surrender the bondsmen. Then, in a decision made with little thought but one fraught with repercussions, he offered to pay the three ex-slaves to build a bakery for the Union troops there.

In one bold swoop. Butler had not only hired bondsmen to work for the Union army, he had also established a policy that, in effect, freed slaves. The general then dutifully notified the secretary of war of his actions with his justifications, and the War Department endorsed them. Several months later. Congress declared its agreement with Butler's decisions when it codified the practice through the passage of the First Confiscation Act. The law authorized Federal officials to seize Confederate property, including slaves, that was used in aid of the rebellion.

Yet Butler's decision had ramifications well beyond the First Confiscation Act. Certainly he had forced the government to formulate a policy on "contrabands." But at the same time he raised some serious questions that inevitably broadened the ruling of the secretary of war and expanded the intent of Congress. Some male slaves who had labored on Confederate military projects had also fled to his lines with women and children. "What shall be done with them?," he wondered. "What is their state and condition?"

By empowering military authorities to confiscate slaves who worked for the Confederate army, the Federal government also had obliged military commanders to deal with a host of unusual and difficult cases of runaway slaves. Should they return family members of legitimate "contraband of war"? What constituted aiding the rebellion? If a slave grew foodstuffs that the master sold to the Confederate government, should the officer in charge confiscate the slave? In instances when a slave labored for an avowed secessionist but did not work specifically on military projects, should they seize the bondsman? What should officers do if they knew the owner planned to hire the slave to the Confederate military or had done so previously but was not doing so at the present time? Each time that officers on the scene resolved those matters on humanitarian grounds, they widened the breach that Congress had created in the First Confiscation Act. They also took the nation one step closer to complete emancipation.


And by permitting Butler to hire black men for military projects, the War Department paved the way for their employment in a variety of military duties. From the construction of a bakery, to the erection of fortifications, to work as teamsters and stevedores, black men filled combat support positions that soldiers normally handled, which in turn freed more troops to perform their primary function, subduing the Rebels.

As the Union army penetrated deeper into Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and elsewhere, new problems developed. Huge numbers of black refugees fled to Union lines. Some sought protection from the ravages of war; most, however, hoped that this was the "War for Freedom," as one bondswoman described it. They arrived in wagons, on horseback, and on foot, individually and in clusters. Many came merely with the tattered clothing on their backs. Only the most fortunate were able to salvage their personal possessions.

Beatings, whippings, mutilation, and sometimes murder awaited the unlucky runaways who were caught.

For slaves, flight to the Federals was a risky proposition. Beatings, whippings, mutilation, and sometimes murder awaited the unlucky runaways who were caught. At times, entire families escaped to Union lines. Often, though, the risks were so high that bondsmen had to leave loved ones behind in order to reach Federal forces. Nonetheless, on they came. By the war's end, estimates of between 500,000 and 700,000 chattels escaped to the Yankees.

The mass exodus overwhelmed army officers. At first, most Federal troops returned all runaways who were not employed on Confederate military projects to their masters. The official object of the war was to save the Union, not to destroy slavery, and high-ranking officers obeyed the letter of the First Confiscation Act. But for many Northerners in and out of uniform, the situation was not that simple. Some soldiers abhorred the notion of sending anyone back into slavery, while others perceived the job of retrieving runaway slaves as nuisance work. They could better use their time waging war. By early 1862, the War Department deemed the practice so distasteful that it prohibited the use of Federal troops in the retrieval of runaway slaves.


This mass migration had an immense effect on the Confederate economy. Conservative estimates of the loss just in slaves surpassed one-half billion prewar dollars. Moreover, these slaves composed between 15 and 20 percent of the black labor force in the Confederacy. Perhaps as many as 1,000,000 white man entered the Confederate army. They sapped society of vast quantities of food, clothing, shoes, weapons, animals, transportation, and ammunition, while replenishing nothing. On a drastically reduced labor force, the Confederate States had to furnish enough to feed the same number of mouths as before the war, plus all the material that the war demanded, much of which the Southern states had not produced before the war and could import only sparingly through the Federal blockade. White women filled a portion of the labor shortage, but whites had to rely on slave labor to maintain and in some cases increase output. Instead, hundreds of thousands of bondsmen ran off to the Union army. The Confederacy suffered from all sorts of shortages, which sparked a skyrocketing inflation that undermined morale at home and in the field. Runaway slaves abandoned crops and livestock and left railroads and homes in disrepair, mines and factory machines unworked, and a war effort diminished.


In addition, runaway slaves caused Southern whites considerable emotional distress. For years, Southern society had justified the enslavement of men and women of African descent with the "positive good" thesis. Slavery, they argued, was a natural condition for them. It removed them from savagery and offered an opportunity to develop to their fullest abilities. In slavery, so whites argued, blacks found comfort and contentment. As hundreds of thousands of bondsmen abandoned their homes in search of freedom, whites were shocked. The notion that bands of slaves combed the country-side in search of Union lines instilled the citizenry with terror. Whites were losing control of their world.

Even slaves who remained at home contributed to the unrest and anguish. In the absence of white males, the dominant force weakened. Slaves reacted to this power vacuum with greater assertiveness. They broke tools and equipment, slowed down their work, and grew uncooperative and insolent, all as a means of exerting their own strength and influence. Such behavior horrified whites in and out of the Rebel army, who now feared servile insurrections more than ever.


By acting on their own behalf, slaves also challenged Federal authorities to reexamine their approach to the war. The unanticipated response of bondsmen compelled Northern officials to adapt their policies to meet the demands of war. First, they authorized the seizure of slaves employed in Confederate military projects, and later the Northern government prohibited military personnel from retrieving runaway bondsmen. By July 1862, Congress passed legislation that went one step farther. The mass migration of slaves to Union lines, the significant contributions that bondsmen were making to the Confederate war effort, and the sluggish advances of the various Federal armies convinced Congress that the Northern government needed to prosecute the war more boldly. The Second Confiscation Act bestowed freedom to all slaves of Rebel masters upon entering Federal lines.


The Second Confiscation Act struck a blow at the heart of the Confederate economic system by attempting to strip away valuable laborers and offering freedom as an inducement to run away. "So long as the rebels retain and employ their slaves in producing grains &c., they can employ all the whites in the field" Union Commanding General Henry W. Halleck instructed Major General Ulysses S. Grant. "Every slave withdrawn from the enemy is equivalent to a [Confederate] white man put hors de combat [out of action]."

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