“Oh I wish you had staid with me”: December 1863

Preacher1263

Interracial worship service, Port Royal, S.C.  Source: The London Illustrated News, 5 December 1863

December 1863 was a busy month in the history of emancipation in the American Civil War. On December 8, President Abraham Lincoln issued the first salvo in the debate over how Reconstruction should proceed in the South following the final Union victory that most people in the North believed at the end of 1863, after a series of major battlefield successes that year, was now only a matter of time. Formally called the
Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction,” but more commonly known as the “10 Percent Plan,” it got the latter name because it envisioned a generous and lenient peace in which all but a specified group of high-ranking rebels would be automatically eligible for amnesty and a seceded state could resume a full and equal place in the Union, if only 10 percent of 1860 voters swore an oath of future loyalty to the United States. The proclamation would prove controversial and lead the Radical Republicans in 1864 to push through Congress an alternative, the Wade-Davis bill, which proposed to deal with the Confederate South much more harshly (a story for another time).

One of the reasons the Radical Republicans disliked Lincoln’s 10 Percent Plan was it made no provisions for the former slaves beyond indicating that slave property would not be restored to ex-Confederates taking the oath. Essentially, it set aside the question of the future status of the ex-slaves beyond making clear they would not be returned to bondage, even if their former owners resumed their loyalty to the United States.

But if the truth be told, even with the Radicals their priority in December 1863 was less the future of the former slaves and more guaranteeing they remained free, as well as liberating the millions that were still effectively slaves at the end of 1863, even if the Emancipation Proclamation had freed most of them formally at the start of the year. There also were slaves in the loyal slave states and in enclaves of the Union-occupied South not covered by the proclamation, and the nagging worry that the hodgepodge of steps taken to free slaves during the war would at some point successfully be challenged in the courts (not an idle worry given the conservative character of the American judiciary at the time).

To deal with these concerns and to end slavery for good throughout the United States, on December 14, 1863, James Ashley of Ohio introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment moved slowly through Congress, in part because of resistance from Democrats, and in part because some Radicals wanted the amendment not only to free the slaves, but also to declare their equality before the law. Although the amendment ultimately would be passed and ratified without the equality provision, the desire of some Radicals for it would be addressed later with the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and ultimately the 14th and 15th Amendments.

On December 20, Abraham Lincoln affirmed his dedication to end slavery no matter what by issuing a statement that simply said, “I shall not attempt to retract or modify the emancipation proclamation; nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress.” Clearly, Lincoln was throwing down the gauntlet, letting anyone who cared, North or South, know that there would be no backsliding on freedom for the slaves. His subsequent lobbying for the 13th Amendment in Congress clearly demonstrated he was in earnest in making the statement.

Yet despite the progress to emancipation in December 1863, it should never be forgotten that statements and legislative initiatives of political elites ultimately affected the lives of real people in profound ways. People that at the end of 1863 were in an awkward and uncertain condition, with the institution of slavery crumbling around them, but not yet entirely free of its influence. For example, 1863 had seen the first widespread recruiting of African Americans into the Union Army. While black men that enlisted effectively escaped the clutches of slavery, they often left behind loved ones on plantations where their departure was resented and their families faced retaliation from angry slaveholders.

An example of this phenomenon is documented in a letter dated 150 years ago today. Although correspondence between slaves is rare, it is not unheard of, and sometimes got preserved when it came into the hands of bureaucratic organizations like the Union Army. Such was the case, when on December 30, 1863, a slave woman, Martha Glover, wrote to her husband, Richard Glover, from Mexico, Missouri. Richard had joined the Union Army and Martha wrote him to complain of mistreatment in his absence. Presumably, he passed on the letter to his superiors in the hope they could intervene on his family’s behalf. Whether the letter had any effect in that regard is unknown, but it was preserved in the army’s papers and eventually made its way to the National Archives, where it was discovered and published by the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Martha Glover wrote 150 years ago:

My Dear Husband   I have received your last kind letter a few days ago and was much pleased to hear from you once more.  It seems like a long time since you left me.  I have had nothing but trouble since you left.  You recollect what I told you how they would do after you was gone.  they abuse me because you went & say they will not take care of our children & do nothing but quarrel with me all the time and beat me scandalously the day before yesterday–  Oh I never thought you would give me so much trouble as I have got to bear now.  You ought not to left me in the fix I am in & all these little helpless children to take care of.  I was invited to a party to night but I could not go   I am in too much trouble to want to go to parties.  the children talk about you all the time.  I wish you could get a furlough & come to see us once more.  We want to see you worse than we ever did before.  Remember all I told you about how they would do me after you left–for they do worse than they ever did & I do not know what will become of me & my poor little children.  Oh I wish you had staid with me & not gone till I could go with you for I do nothing but grieve all the time about you.  write & tell me when you are coming.

Tell Isaac that his mother come & got his clothes   she was so sorry he went.  You need not tell me to beg any more married men to go.  I see too much trouble to try to get any more into trouble too–  Write to me & do not forget me & my children–  farewell my dear husband from your wife

So what is to be made of Martha Glover’s plea to her husband beyond communicating to him the desperate nature of her situation? First, it shows the high personal price that could be paid by slave families when a father, son, or brother entered Union service. Little wonder that Martha lamented, “Oh I wish you had staid with me.” Second, it demonstrates the continued power of slaveholders as 1863 ended, despite the blows dealt to the peculiar institution by the war. So as the year came to a close, after a year of the Emancipation Proclamation and the corrosive effect of black recruitment into the Union Army and other events, while it was down, slavery was far from out for the count. More pressure would need to be applied in 1864 and beyond to bring the peculiar institution crashing down once and for all. But much progress to this end had been made in 1863.

Sources: 1) http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/procamn.htm; 2) http://www.shapell.org/manuscript.aspx?lincoln-emancipation-proclamation-1863http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/Glover.html.

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12 Years a Slave – My Thoughts

12YearsASlave

I finally had a chance to see to see 12 Years A Slave. Like many other scholars that have opined on the film, I have a generally favorable opinion of it. Director Steve McQueen has made a reasonably faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative and one of the best commercial films in a while dealing with slavery. Of course, that is not a high hurdle, as Hollywood rarely deals in a straight fashion with the peculiar institution, preferring a sensationalist approach, like last year’s Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy, Django Unchained (or going back in history, 1975’s potboiler Mandingo).

Hollywood is usually at its best in depicting slavery when it adapts true stories, such as Roots, the epic 1977 television miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s historical novel about his slave ancestors, or in the present case the classic slave narrative, 12 Years A Slave. McQueen’s film is actually not the first time the story of Solomon Northup has been dramaticized. In 1984, PBS showed a decent made-for-television version of the tale, entitled Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, starring Avery Brooks (best known to the public for his role as the station commander on Star Trek: Deep Space None) in the title role.

Since both the 2013 film and 1984 television version closely follow Northup’s slave narrative, the difference between them is mainly one of style. McQueen’s film is darker than Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, largely because of the more explicit depiction of slavery’s horrors that is possible in a R-rated movie compared to the self-censorship of a television program that had to satisfy broadcast standards.

FassbenderEpps

Most of the violent horror in 12 Years a Slave is perpetrated by Edwin Epps, Northup’s last owner, played chillingly by Michael Fassbender, whose performance is the most striking of the film, arguably more so than Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s dignified portrayal of Solomon Northup. Fassbender’s Epps is a psychopath, making his slaves’ life a living hell, especially Patsey, who is the object of Epps’ violently possessive lust and his wife’s jealous resentment.

But what makes Michael Fassbender’s performance so impressive is not his depiction of Epps’ cruelty, which actually might seem over-the-top if he did not also manage to convey the ill-concealed fear beneath it. Transforming his portrayal from just another two-dimensional Simon Legree to a much more complicated and realistic human being, whose underlying insecurity leaks through his mask of anger and violence.

Certainly, most slaveholders were not as overtly and consistently nasty as Fassbender’s Epps, but the anxiety they also tried to hide was quite real. That is, for all their professed concern for and conceit that their slaves held them in genuine affection, slaveholders and other antebellum white Southerners were deathly afraid of the blacks in their midst, believing them to be uncivilized barbarians with a propensity for brutish violence only held in check by the discipline of slavery (which itself was based on violence, real and threatened).

I have come across this fear, again and again, in researching this blog, especially when covering the secession winter and first years of the war. For examples, please see the following editions of Civil War Emancipation: 1) February 4, 2011; 2) February 26, 2011; 3) April 14, 2011; 4) May 4, 2011; 5) May 24, 2011; 6) September 29, 2011; 7) August 10, 2012; 8) October 22, 2012. These blog entries include repeated slave revolt panics in various locations across the South during this period, sometimes resulting in horrific violence of fearful slaveholders that actually exceeded Fassbender’s Epps in its cruel ruthlessness. There also are pleas of southern citizens, begging the new Confederate government to allow militia to stay at home, because they feared slave revolts if the local troops were sent to fight the Yankee invaders.

Indeed, fear played a big role in secession. The greatest concern of white Southerners before 186o was that the end of slavery would ignite a bloody race war–Nat Turner’s revolt en masse. So they believed emancipation must be prevented at all costs, even the slightest possibility of it. Hence, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President, determined with his party to halt slavery’s spread, to many white Southerners, convinced that slavery must continue to expand to survive, it seemed Lincoln was putting slavery on the road to extinction–which could not be tolerated and prompted secession.

So, they personified Thomas Jefferson and his analogy to slavery being like holding a wolf by the ears: with slaveholders afraid to have the slaves so close, but even more afraid to let them go. Michael Fassbender captures this mentality in his performance and I greatly hope he will be nominated for a best supporting Oscar for his all too plausible interpretation of Edwin Epps.

In short, I liked 12 Years A Slave, which captured the reality of the antebellum American slavery about as well as any commercial film I have ever seen. As indicated, that puts me in good company, as academics have largely embraced the film, although some are mildly critical of certain aspects, such as Glenn David Brasher’s assertion (which I agree with) that the film depicts slaves as too passive (in McQueen’s defense so does Northup’s narrative possibly influenced by northern abolitionists). Yet my main take away from the film was Michael Fassbender’s riveting performance as Edwin Epps, portraying him as a man who unsuccessfully hid his fear and insecurity toward his slaves with monstrous abuse. While most antebellum slaveholders were not so ruthlessly psychopathic on as regular a basis as Fassbender’s Epps, the cruelty they practiced was all too real and so was the fear that underlay it, and it is indeed ironic that it was that very fear that brought about secession that started the chain of events that brought an end to the very institution it was meant to make secure.

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Kidnapping Northern Blacks into Slavery during the Civil War

I confess I have yet to see 12 Years a Slave. It is not from a lack of interest. I long ago read Solomon Northup’s book on his kidnapping and enslavement, and I have seen the Avery Brook’s made-for-television adaptation, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, which originally appeared on PBS  in 1984. Director Steve McQueen’s theatrical adaption was finally released nationwide last Friday, and one of these days soon, like a year ago when Spielberg’s Lincoln came out, I will shell out some money and let everyone know what I think. The early signs, to judge from comments from other scholars of American slavery on Facebook, are generally favorable, but I will reserve judgment until I see the film for myself.

Yet in considering the case of Solomon Northup, it is important to realize that although his case was unusual, it was not unique. African Americans in the antebellum North shared the same vulnerability as Northup, especially after the passage of 1850’s Fugitive Slave Act, which on its face would have seemingly made it possible for any white American willing to perjure themselves to claim any African American in the North as their slave, since the black person in question would not be permitted to testify, and the compensation scheme for federal officials hearing cases of alleged fugitives was designed to favor the supposed slave owner.

It is uncertain whether any free persons of color in the North were enslaved under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Yet there is evidence that the kidnapping of African Americans from the North continued as late as Autumn 1863. On October 23, 1863, David L. Phillips, U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Illinois sent the following letter to Abraham Lincoln (who had appointed Phillips to his post). It read:

Dear Sir,

I have Just received a letter from Hon. Chauncy I. Filley, Mayor of St Louis, enclosing an open letter from Major Easton U. S. Army, addressed to Gov. Yates, both relating to, what Seems to be, a very extensive Scheme of Kidnapping of free Negroes, and Negroes freed by the proclamation, and their removal to Kentucky through Illinois and Indiana by the Ohio and Miss. R. R. to Seymour and thence by the Jeffersonville R. R. to Louisville where they are sold for from $200. to $300, each into Slavery. It is said that the parties who are engaged in this nefarious traffic, generally, have permits from Some one in or about the Provost Marshal’s Office in St Louis.

You know the law of Illinois touching such a traffic and therefore I will say nothing as to the legal questions of the Case. That the traffic is going on to quite an extent seems beyond any reasonable question.

I enclose to you a Slip from the Chicago Tribune which I have Just Seen. It explains itself. I do not know what evidence the Tribune people have in their possession. Gov. Yates being in Washington I have taken the liberty of calling attention to the matter, knowing that you alone can, by an order to Gen. Schofield, Stop a trade which is not only legally a crime, but an outrage on humanity and an insult to the States of Illinois and Indiana.

Very truly yours

D. L. Phillips

So, with slavery on the ropes in the South in Autumn 1863, it is fascinating and chilling that there were still persons at that late date evidently kidnapping free persons of color in the North and selling them into slavery. As Kentucky was exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation, it is an understandable destination for such nefarious activity. Clearly, even in the wake of Lincoln’s proclamation and significant Confederate defeats in Summer 1863, some people were still betting on slavery’s survival, and willing to defy the federal authorities to kidnap northern blacks, much as had happened to Solomon Northup decades before.

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Groping for a New Order

Although the process of emancipation in the Civil War was far from over in Autumn 1863, on the ground in parts of the Union-occupied South there was an effort being made at that time to devise its replacement. After all, while evil and immoral, slavery was a way of organizing labor to produce valuable commodities like cotton, rice, tobacco, etc. Even if slavery died the demand for those commodities would not. Some other way of organizing labor to grow them would have to be found.

It was not just a matter of continuing the production of staple commodities. Finding a new way of organizing labor in the South was needed to deal with a long standing and growing humanitarian problem. For two-and-a-half years, slaves had either been coming under Union jurisdiction as federal troops occupied Confederate territory or as slaves escaped to Union-controlled areas in the South. These now effectively free people needed food, shelter, and other necessities. Federal authorities were limited in what they could do, both as practical matter in terms of the resources available to them and out of the fear of creating a population permanently dependent on the government. They could employ some of these “contrabands” as they were called in support of federal operations in the South, but not all or even most. Hence, the obvious answer seemed to be to utilize the remainder, as they had historically, in plantation agriculture, but how, now that slavery was effectively dead or dying in the Union-controlled South?

A variety of whites, Northerners and southern Unionists, some well meaning, other less so, proposed and experimented with new labor systems to replace. All, in one way or another, stemmed from the free labor ideology prevalent in the North before the Civil War. Free labor ideology was a group of beliefs that developed about paid labor in the northern states in opposition to the unpaid slave labor common in antebellum South. One of these beliefs was that free laborers were more efficient and productive than comparable slave laborers. Hence, some northern entrepreneurs were interested in giving free labor a try on southern plantations, convinced they could produce cotton and other staple crops humanely and more profitably than slaveholders.

The New York Times in October 1863, reported on one such experiment in plantation agriculture with free labor, conducted near New Orleans under the control of George C. Brott, a merchant of the city, part of a firm that was a prominent supplier to the Louisiana’s planters. Brott had taken over the plantation of Pierre Adolphe Rost, the Confederacy’s emissary to Spain. The Times correspondent indicated that an Irish-born overseer, named Keenan supervised the black laborers, and that despite two decades of experience in that position prior to the war he was a good choice to supervise the now free laborers because had found even under slavery, “kind … treatment was more effectual in producing a larger amount of work from the same body of men.”

The correspondent continued about Keenan:

He manages the hands very much as he did slaves, but he says that under the impulse of freedom, they produce about one-third more than they did under the old system. The negroes rise at 4 o’clock, and at daylight, which is about 5, go to the fields. At 7 o’clock one hour and a half is given for breakfast, which they sometimes take in their quarters and always cook for themselves the night before, instead of having it cooked and carried to them as before. At noon they have two hours, and stop work at sundown. This is half as much again time as they had under their old master. A weekly task is assigned to each hand — at present the work being wood-cutting, it is a cord a day — some of the hands do their week’s work in four days, and this week they finished in three. In the next two days they cut two cords a day or more, for which they get one dollar a cord on hauling it out, and they are allowed the use of the teams. You will see that they thus produce thirty-three per cent. more than their task.

Hence, the pro-Lincoln Times was eager to describe the system being used on the plantation, which mixed the slave task system of work quotas with wage labor, as a resounding success. The correspondent also described the African Americans on Brott’s plantation as paragons of workers under free labor system: industrious, honest, and frugal–not the lazy, shiftless slaves described by southern planters before the war. He wrote:

They are more contented and happy than they were under the patriarchal institution, though they work a good deal harder. They save their money for a future day, and their savings amount already to a “good bit.” The working hands will make from seventy-five to a hundred dollars apiece; so the overseer tells me, over and above their share of the crop. They support their families and take care of their aged parents. Now this does not look as though they were so utterly shiftless, does it? Again, on Sunday, after the bible had been given them, I went into the midst of the congregation, and, after saying a few words, so as to get them somewhat acquainted with me, commenced a running fire of questions on this very topic. I addressed myself solely to the men, who sat apart from the women. From the conversation that ensued, I am convinced that they do appreciate their responsibilities and duties. They will spend their money as discreetly as white laborers do, and I am inclined to think more so. They will put their savings in the Savings Bank. They will try to be temperate and industrious. Not a theft has been committed on this place, by the negroes belonging to it, Mr. Brott took it! They understand the influence they are to have on future generations, and on the policy of the country, provided they shall succeed in doing well and accumulating property. They are desirous of vindicating themselves, their race, and the system of free labor, and thus laying for their posterity the foundation of a home and a country.

It is debatable whether the New York Times correspondent was making an accurate assessment of the success of the experiment on Brott’s plantation. It also is noteworthy that while the plantation had traditionally grown sugar, Brott’s overseer, Keenan, launched his free labor venture growing cotton, which historically had been grown little in that region of Louisiana, although planters there that dabbled with the crop had proven it could be grown there successfully. The correspondent wrote:

Mr. KEENAN, the overseer, who has much experience in raising cotton, says he expects about 200 bales of cotton, which will equal the finest Red River cotton, and will be worth 400 hogsheads of sugar. It sells now in New-Orleans at between sixty and seventy cents a pound. It is certain that for years cotton will pay better than sugar, and though the crop costs more labor than it does in States further east, owing to the coco, a sort of grass that grows very fast and exhausts the soil, it requires less attention than sugar, and as many influences seem to indicate the gradual abandonment of the sugar business here, the planters of the neighborhood are watching this experiment with the most intense solicitude. It will probably cause a revolution in the labor of the country.

Hence, the correspondent’s conclusion seemed to be that cotton would be more compatible with free labor than sugar. The spread of cotton cultivation in the postwar period suggests this prediction was accurate, although there were other reasons for the spread of cotton after the Civil War occurred for other reasons in addition to its compatibility with free labor. Much else in the organization of postwar labor in the former slave states would be quite different than on Brott’s plantation in October 1863, but there and in the rest of the Union-occupied South, long before the guns fell silent, both whites and blacks were groping for a new economic order, especially as it concerned the organization of labor.

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Whistling Dixie

If they were not defending such an inhumane and horrific labor system, in hindsight it might be possible to feel just the slightest bit sorry for slaveholders and those defending the slavery being in denial in late Summer 1863 as the peculiar institution crumbled right in front of them. They could not or would not believe what was happening.

A good example is an article at appeared in the Richmond Daily Dispatch, 150 years ago, on September 11, 1863. Entitled “Rule or ruin,” it basically accused the Lincoln administration of seeking to destroy the economy of the South because it could not defeat the Confederate Army on the battlefield. That is, having failed to “rule” the Confederacy, it now sought to ruin it in spiteful vengeance. The article read:

–To “rule or ruin” the South has been the manifest and controlling principle of the Abolition Government of the United from the beginning of this war. Its efforts were first directed to rule, but failing after two years trial in that, its whole energies are now bent to ruin.What is this but an admission that it never expects to conquer theSouth? If it did, why should it labor with all its power to render theSouth not worth having?

It is not merely the ruin of towns and public buildings, and the desolation of fields, or the slaughter of our people, which show the inconsistency of the present destructive policy of the Lincoln dynasty with the anticipation of conquering the Confederate States. Towns may be rebuilt, desolated fields will grow green again, a population grievously thinned by war may be again replenished; but when the only system of labor by which towns can be restored, fields cultivated, and a population supported, is to be torn up by the roots, we may fairly conclude that the architects of such destruction are aiming to ruin rather than to rule.–That the Cotton States can ever be cultivated except by slave labor, is a lunacy which we are not warranted in attributing even to the Washington Cabinet. If they really expect to emancipate the slaves and still make the country profitable, which is the only condition on which the Yankees desire a country, they are the most hopeless madmen the world has ever seen. If the South is to be subjugated, she could not inflict upon her conqueror a more fatal stab than that he is preparing for his own bosom.–Burning the cotton that it may not fall into his hands is nothing to his own plan of destroying the labor by which the cotton is raised. Emancipate the slaves and the cotton-growing States become as profitless to the commerce and manufacturers of the world as Jamaica and St. Domingo. Hence we can only under stand the abolition and destructive policy of the United States Government, by referring it to a foregone conclusion that it will never be able to rob the South permanently, and, therefore, that it will ruin it.

The author of the editorial, of course, assumed the experience of the South with emancipation would parallel his conception (or to be more accurate, misconception) of emancipation in the Caribbean. Subsequent events would prove cotton could be grown with free labor and that slavery was not necessary for its success. Likewise, during the Civil War itself various experiments were taking place in the South testing out various alternatives to growing cotton. While many of them were not successful, they demonstrated for subsequent planters how not to organize free labor for cotton (mostly importantly, do not try to treat free laborers like slaves). So, in retrospect, it is easy to see that in this instance the Richmond Daily Dispatch was whistling dixie.

Source: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2006.05.0857%3Aarticle%3D3

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A Letter from General Grant: August 23, 1863

Donald R. Shaffer:

A relevant and interesting post from Brooks Simpson over at Crossroads, in which U.S. Grant discusses emancipation and black recruitment into the Union Army in a letter to President Lincoln.

Originally posted on Crossroads:

One of the keys to understanding the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant is to understand Grant’s ability to work with Lincoln, as the following letter suggests.

Cairo Illinois

August 23d 1863.

Sir:

Your letter of the 9th inst. reached me at Vicksburg just as I was about starting for this place. Your letter of the 13th of July was also duly received.

After the fall of Vicksburg I did incline very much to an immediate move on Mobile. I believed then the place could be taken with but little effort, and with the rivers debouching there, in our possession, we would have such a base to opperate from on the very center of the Confederacy as would make them abandon entirely the states bound West by the Miss. I see however the importance of a movement into Texas just at this time.

I have reinforced Gen. Banks…

View original 460 more words

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The Falling Price of Slaves – August 1863

One of the barometers of the progress of emancipation over the course of the Civil War was the price of slaves. (This is a topic that Civil War Emancipation has covered before, earlier this year on February 21 and March 11.) As confidence in and commitment to slavery’s survival fell, so did the price of slaves. A good example is an article that appeared 150 years ago today in the New York Times. The Times article analyzed the price of slaves in various places, including both the loyal slave states and the Confederacy. The article read:

Slaves command a higher price in Kentucky, taking gold as the standard of value, than in any other of the Southern States. In Missouri they are sold at from forty dollars to four hundred, according to age, quality, and especially according to place. In Tennessee they cannot be said to be sold at all. In Maryland the negroes upon an estate were lately sold, and fetched an average price of $18 a head. In the farther States of the Southern Confederacy we frequently see reports of negro sales, and we occasionally see boasts from rebel newspapers as to the high prices the slaves bring, notwithstanding the war and the collapse of Southern industry. We notice in the Savannah Republican of the 5th, a report of a negro sale in that city, at which, we are told, high prices prevailed, and at which two girls of 18 years of age were sold for about $2,500 apiece, two matured boys for about the same price, a man of 45 for $1,850, and at woman of 23, with her child of 5, for $3,950. Twenty-five hundred dollars, then, may be taken as the standard price of first-class slaves in the Confederacy; but when it is remembered that this is in Confederate money, which is worth less than one-twelfth its face in gold, it will be seen that the real price, by this standard, is only about $200. In Kentucky, on the other hand, though there is but little buying or selling of slave stock going on, we understand that negroes are still held at from seven to twelve hundred dollars apiece.

The prices listed in this piece make sense. Slaves in Kentucky still fetched a relatively high price not only because that state was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation, and because slaveholders there were determined to hold on to their slaves. Indeed, Kentucky, unlike Maryland and Missouri, would stubbornly refuse to free its slaves on its own and slavery would only end there with final ratification of the 13th Amendment. Still, the slow turnover of slaves between slaveholders meant even in the Bluegrass State, slave owners were worried about the future of the institution.

Maryland and Missouri had much lower slave prices because in both states, the presence of Union troops from the early days of the war had undermined the peculiar institution, with army camps providing a refuge for fugitive slaves willing to become servants of soldiers and officers. Slavery’s end in the District of Columbia in April 1862 gave Maryland slaves a new place where they could disappear. While Maryland slaveholders resisted the pressure these events put on them, it also gradually sapped their commitment to slavery. With the start of widespread recruit of African Americans into the Union Army in 1863, the institution was further undermined putting both Maryland and Missouri on the path to ending slavery on their own before the end of the Civil War.

Recruitment of African Americans hurt slavery as an institution because slaves became free when they joined the army, and in March 1865 congressional legislation freed the family members of black soldiers as well. Eventually, black recruitment would undermine slavery even in Kentucky, as it was the only legal way out of bondage for African Americans there prior to the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Indeed, Kentucky no doubt contributed the second most soldiers to the Union Army (just behind Louisiana–where African Americans made up a much higher percentage of the total population) because of that fact.

And as the New York Times story astutely indicates, adjusted for inflation, which by Summer 1863 was rampant in the Confederacy, as the Richmond government ran the printing presses to fund the war, in real terms (measured by gold dollars) slaves by August of that year were fetching but a small fraction of the price they commanded before the war. So while slavery in the late summer of 1863 was far from dead, market prices in both the Union and the Confederacy demonstrated a distinct lack of confidence in the institution’s future. In other words, the theft of human lives was becoming an increasingly uncertain investment.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1863/08/22/news/market-price-of-slaves.html

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