To be a slaveholder was almost by definition to live in fear. While they proclaimed paternalistic feelings for their human property, slave owners regularly committed acts that created bitter hatred: whipping the disobedient; separating families; exploiting sexually black women; withholding adequate food, shelter, and clothing–the list could go on and on. While most slaves prudently kept any hatred to themselves, during a time of general crisis such as occurred at the start of the American Civil War, some slaveholders and other whites apparently could not help but exhibit what can only be described as a paranoid fear of African Americans.
So not surprisingly evidence of this fearful paranoia exists associated with the attack on Fort Sumter. For example, Jamie Malinowski, writing recently in Disunion in the New York Times, stated about the federal ships that loitered outside Charleston Harbor during the assault on Fort Sumter: “South Carolina authorities believe that the steamers, perhaps as many as 4,000 troops, who were expected to be put ashore at any moment, and with the assistance of hundreds if not thousands of rebellious Negro slaves, engage the militia regiments present in Charleston.” As anyone knowledgeable about the U.S. history knows, the idea of federal forces acting in concert with rebellious slaves in a military assault in Spring 1861 is ludicrous in the extreme. Eventually, the United States would call upon the slaves to fight, but it would take urgent military necessity and a political climate transformed by over a year of war to make it possible. Yet in their paranoid fear, South Carolina’s leaders in April 1861 were already conceiving the Union military effort in the darkest possible tones–as a servile insurrection initiated by the Lincoln administration.
To be fair to white South Carolinians, they did not create out of thin air the alleged conspiracy of their slaves and the federal government. The idea seems to have started in abolitionist circles in the North and in the fearful minds around Charleston taken flight. The New York Times editorialized on April 12, 1861, the day of the attack on Fort Sumter:
The Journal of Commerce copies an article from the Liberator, recommending that war be made upon the South by inciting an insurrection of the slaves. The Journal asks, “how many of the Republicans approve of this prescription? Does the National Administration? We hope not.”
Has the Journal of Commerce any doubt whatever on this point? Has it ever seen anything in the conduct, language or character of the Administration to warrant the suspicion, for a single moment, that it either approved or would tolerate such a policy? The Journal knows perfectly well the utter falsity of the infamous aspersion insinuated in its hypercritical phrase — “we hope not.” If the Journal desires to fasten upon the Government the odium of these infamous designs, why not imitate the frankness and the courage of its brother-agent in this business, the Herald? Why not quote WENDELL PHILLIPS, GARRISON & Co., and boldly assert that they are leaders of the Republican Party? Such a course would be not one whit more dishonest than its roundabout insinuations, while it would be a good deal less cowardly and contemptible.
Yet it was not just South Carolina where this paranoid fear existed in the South at the start of the Civil War. A letter appeared in a Richmond paper, The Daily Dispatch, on April 13, 1861, which indicated that some Virginia slaveholders, convinced that the Commonwealth would not secede from the Union (the state convention had soundly defeated a secession resolution on April 4) and believing the peculiar institution and their own security were in jeopardy, were preparing to leave with their slaves to points further south.
The article, which appeared under the title, “The Stampede of Slave Owners from Virginia,” read:
The following is an extract from a private letter written by a prominent citizen of Prince Edward to a gentleman in this city. The letter was written with no design for political effect, but merely the communication of facts that must be distressing to all parties within the limits of our venerated and beloved State:
“It is melancholy to witness the stampede of slaveholders from our midst. I found on my return home, that A. R. Venable and A. C. Carrington, two of our best citizens, (owning fine estates in land and negroes in this county,) have gone South to look for a settlement. Mr. A. G. Green, another of our best citizens, with a considerable estate in land and negroes, starts with his family to-morrow for Texas, never to return; and a number of others, comprising the best of our population, with large estates, are making arrangements to go. If this state of things continues, the slaveholding portion of Virginia will soon be impoverished. What madness, folly and wickedness is it in our Convention, to attempt to force an unnatural and repugnant Union with the Yankee States, to which slaveholders will never submit; and thus drive into exile the best part of our population, who will carry with them the chief subject of taxation, while they leave behind them a debt of $40,000,000 to be paid or repudiated by the impoverished part of the State, without the means of payment.”
Yet to quote Henry Kissinger, “Even a paranoid can have enemies.” As much as slaveholders blew out of all proportion the danger of their slaves, it was not illusory. Harper’s Weekly, in its April 13, 1861 edition, reported on the murder of a Tennessee slaveholder in Sumner County by a slave. Evidently, the planter had decided–likely as had his Virginia counterparts–to move his operation further south where presumably it would be more secure. Harper’s Weekly‘s correspondent reported:
“Mr. W. C. Moore, who resides at Saundersville, in Sumner County, on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, had recently purchased a plantation in Alabama, and was preparing to remove to it. All of his negroes except one expressed entire willingness to go, and it became necessary to use force with that one. Mr. Moore was handcuffing him for the purpose of sending him off with the rest of the negroes. The boy, it appears, had prepared himself for a murderous assault upon his master, as he had a knife concealed in his right sleeve, and while the handcuff was being fastened upon his left arm he made a lunge at Mr. Moore’s throat, inflicting a terrible but not fatal wound, which he followed up with another stroke, cutting a deep gash upon his chin. By this time Mr. Saunders and the father of Mr. Moore came to his rescue, when the negro turned upon the former and commenced cutting him, and then upon the latter, cutting his throat from ear to ear, almost severing his head from his body, and killing him instantly. The alarm having been given, the people in the vicinity hastened to the bloody scene, and it was found necessary to shoot the negro three times before the knife could be got from him. He was then taken and hung immediately. It is thought the wound of the younger Moore will not prove fatal.”
Yet this murder was clearly an isolated incident. Just as most slaves prudently did not run for Union lines until they had a reasonable chance of success, only the most desperate, angry, and reckless slaves resorted to murder. W. C. Moore’s slave did and paid with his life. Hence, it is not surprising that as the fighting started all but a few slaves did little but watch and wait, showing much greater intelligence than white people, North or South, gave them credit for. The time to act for some of them would be coming soon, but in the face of the paranoid fear of many slaveholders in mid-April 1861 most wisely lay low.