A Violent Reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation

Reaction to the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation fell along predictable lines. Abolitionists greeted it with enthusiasm. Supporters of the Lincoln Administration dutifully lined up behind the policy. Democrats and Conservative Republicans condemned it, as did the Confederate government and its white population.

In at least one Confederate locality, Culpeper County, Virginia, Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation ignited the fear of violent emancipation that had long haunted white Southerners. On October 20, 1862, the National Republican, the pro-administration newspaper in Washington, D.C., carried the following article.

A refugee, who recently came into General Sigel’s headquarters, gives information of a highly important character. He escaped from Amisville, Culpeper county, Virginia, and states that the greatest consternation imaginable exists among the white people in that section of country, in consequence of an apprehended slave revolt. Seventeen negroes, most of them free, had been arrested on suspicion of being engaged in plotting the uprising of the entire colored population. Copies of late newspapers, which published President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation were found in their possession. The fact that such a proclamation has been made is well known among all the negroes, and it produces the most startling effect. The terror of the whites is beyond description. Apprehensions of re-enactment of the Nat Turner horrors are felt to an alarming degree. The seventeen negroes were promptly taken out, at Amisville, and hung. It is said that the negroes of the different counties around Culpeper are all engaged in the conspiracy for a general insurrection.

What should be made of this horrific story? There can be little doubt it was true. Why would the informant lie? What would they have to gain by lying? Plus the account makes sense. White Southerners’ greatest fear in the early 1860s was the end of slavery, which many of them believed could only be accompanied by an uprising in which the slaves violently turned on them. This belief explains why the South seceded after Abraham Lincoln’s election as president. Even if Lincoln’s campaign promise of non-interference with slavery was to be believed, his adamant insistence on not allowing the continued westward expansion of the peculiar institution suggested he intended to put slavery on the road to extinction, something most white Southerners believed could not be allowed under any circumstances. Not only their prosperity relied on slavery, but also their lives. The horrors of Haiti and Nat Turner must be thwarted at all costs, even the Union, which many white Southerners had continued to hold dear up to the eve of the Civil War.

Likewise, in Virginia, with a substantial free black population, white Southerners had the added fear that these “slaves without masters” would instigate a revolt among the slaves who still did. Which explains the ruthless reaction of whites in Culpeper County, Virginia, to the discovery that African Americans in their locality knew of the Emancipation Proclamation. With federal troops near Culpeper, which is not far from Washington, D.C. (today, it is in the “horse country” proximate to the national capital’s metro area), even the smallest hint that the black population looked forward to emancipation must be crushed. So with federal forces within a day’s ride (the county would be the site of the Battle of Brandy Station in June 1863), now seemingly intent on bringing about their greatest fear, the white population of Culpeper committed an atrocity that while it was not without precedent caused shock in Washington, D.C., and further north, as it was re-reported by the New York Times and the abolitionist press.

Source: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014760/1862-10-20/ed-1/seq-2/

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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8 Responses to A Violent Reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation

  1. Edwin Thompson says:

    Wow – Good article Donald. I would not have been surprised if your article said this happened in Louisiana or Mississippi – but it took place 60 miles from DC. But I should not be surprised, since in DC slavery auctions were only outlawed in 1850 and slavery was only banned in 1862. It’s hard to believe this wasn’t picked up by the NY Times Disunion.

    • Hi Edwin. Thanks for the kind words. I would have had to do additional research for a Disunion article in sources that likely are in Virginia (when I’m in Arizona). The nice thing about a blog is you can get away with less, if necessary. I tried to find confirmation on the web from Confederate sources this took place, but no luck. Not surprising, I guess, I think even many white Southerners would have been embarrassed about this incident. I could probably find something in archival sources, but, again, that would take a trip to Virginia, alas.

      Don

  2. Edwin Thompson says:

    I saw your reference to the National Republican Newspaper, so I assumed it to pretty accurate. However, as we know, during wartimes, truth is sometimes hard to distinguish from fiction. Reference present day Syria. Hopefully, as time goes on, more and more information will be available to historians via the internet.

    • Hi Edwin. The article is no doubt accurate, although 19th-century newspapers are not to be trusted to the same extent as modern newspapers. Though my question was less the accuracy of the newspaper than the veracity of the refugee who was ultimate source of this account. That is why I wanted to confirm its veracity with other sources, preferably southern ones. Especially as your comment to the effect that truth is the first casualty of war is quite true.

      Don

  3. Brad says:

    That is quite an incredible story and highlights the expression that the fear of the unknown can be worse than the reality, or something like that. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    Incidentally, I wondered if you had read the new book by Louis Masur and, if so, what you thought.

  4. Great post Donald. It’s no surprise that the “ghosts of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey” haunted white Southerners. But, what I am most intrigued by is the location as it is so close to DC. It’s ironic how it still played out in the Jim Crow South when it came to Voting Rights.

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