Explaining why slaves fled their owners during the Civil War seemingly is easy. With the approach of Union forces, they saw a chance to be free and took it. However, it is also useful in comprehending the slaves’ motives to understand what they were fleeing from. Among the what became clearer to northern troops as they moved into slave territory. They began to encounter the infrastructure of coercion and punishment that underlay and propped up the peculiar institution.
In the June 29, 1861 edition of Harper’s Weekly, there appeared an illustration titled, “WHIPPING-POST ON THE PREMISES OF MR. WEST AT NEWPORT NEWS, VA. SKETCHED BY OUR, SPECIAL ARTIST.”
The unnamed artist who drew the illustration wrote:
This is a whipping-post on the premises of Mr. West, a wealthy man at Newport News. He is the owner of several hundred negroes, and is now at Yorktown, in the Secession Army. The negro is tied to the tree, standing on the cross-piece, his feet fitting in the two notches, No. 1; his or her breast resting against No. 2, to prevent their moving. No. 2 is bough of the tree hacked up into sharp points. The punishment is inflicted with a cowhide on the bare back. Their usual allowance is ten lashes for women and fifteen for men. I got this description from a woman on the place.
This matter-of-fact description was no doubt the best possible in a family friendly illustrated newspaper like Harper’s Weekly. But more explicit depictions were recorded of the violence visited on slaves. One example comes from the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, of a slave named Peter who was photographed in April 1863. While Peter’s example is probably extreme, many slaves bore the scars of whippings.
Given the horrors of slavery, the enthusiasm of the contraband slaves at Fortress Monroe in June 1861 makes all the more sense. They were glad to be away from the slaveholders’ punishments and abuse, and eager to please Union troops both to strike a blow at their owners and to discourage the Northerners from sending back into slavery. A correspondent of the New York Times wrote on June 25, 1861 about the Fortress Monroe contraband:
Col. BUTLER, the brother of the General, has been here. He states that there are about six hundred contraband negroes in the service of the Government at Old Point and vicinity. They are found to be highly useful as laborers, as well as spies. The prospect of becoming free makes them equal, if not superior, to white men in digging trenches and in other severe labor; while their knowledge of the country — land and water — as well as of the people who inhabit it, renders them invaluable as guides.
So as early as June 1861, Union forces were finding African-American slaves to be useful. While they limited their role, the contraband slaves for the time being were content, because within Union lines they had sanctuary from terrors–like whipping–inflicted on them by slaveholders.