More Fear of Slave Revolts

The weeks preceding the attack on Fort Sumter saw a rise in the fear of slave revolts in the South, a reality already documented in Civil War Emancipation (see the editions of February 26, March 22, and April 14). This apprehension continued in many southern locales in the weeks following April 12, actually coming to the notice of smaller northern newspapers, such as the Daily Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts, in its issue of May 4, 1861. This paper reported:

FEAR OF THE SLAVES.—John Brown, Jr., who was reported to have a corps of free negroes in camp near Harper’s Ferry, intended for a raid into Virginia, was in Boston on Friday.—There are many evidences of the fear of insurrections at the South, although the southern papers are very close on the subject. In the interior of South Carolina fears of slave insurrections are exciting much alarm. Men sleep with guns at their bedsides; women refuse to be left alone on the plantations. In one neighborhood forty miles from Charleston it is certain that an attempt at insurrection was put down, ten days ago, and seven negroes were hung.—The New Orleans Crescent says the free negroes from up the country employed on steamboats, have been visiting that city and associating with the slave population, under the pretense of being slaves themselves. The Picayune lately complained that the up-river parishes of Louisiana were very slow in furnishing their proportion of troops for the rebel army, and for the “defense of the state,” but a gentleman who has returned from a journey through Louisiana, says that this hesitation does not arise so much from any preponderance of the Union sentiment, as from the general fear entertained by the planters and farmers of a rising of the slaves. Almost every plantation is doubly guarded, everywhere the slaves are watched with the utmost vigilance. Planters refuse to let any of their white employe[e]s enlist, but arm them, and keep them as a private guard. One planter, the owner of the three hundred negroes, expressing his fears to this gentleman, said—“D—n the niggers, they know more about politics than most of the white men. They know everything that happens.”

If secession was supposed to allay the fears of southern slaveholders, by providing them with a government guaranteed to protect slavery, it was not doing so in the short run. Instead, the looming threat of war and its actual outbreak clearly caused a wave of hysteria about the slaves not only among their owners, but also among white Southerners more generally that was widespread enough to gain the attention of small northern newspapers like the Daily Republican. Events soon to take place would do little to aleviate that fear.

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
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