Why the Slaves Fled

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.”

Source: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1861/june/slave-whipping-post.htm

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.

Source: http://www.ourarchives.wikispaces.net/DTCW2

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.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1861/06/28/news/affairs-national-capital-discipline-washington-branch-grand-army-secession-major.html

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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5 Responses to Why the Slaves Fled

  1. Jean Libby says:

    This is the best article about the Civil War that I have seen in the whole 150th whizbang.

    I am eager to read your books and to communicate my small findings about Black Civil War Veterans.

  2. Good post, but I have to admit to being completely disturbed by the often circulated photograph of the wounded slave. Within this rhetorical context and given your message, I would not say that the photo is inappropriate. However, I could not look at it and therefore couldn’t concentrate as I would like to have on your words.

    • Hi Alisea. You make a valid point. I wanted make my point powerfully and therefore the use of the photo was appropriate. Slavery was a cruel system and the photo makes that point well. I certainly didn’t use it gratuitously.

  3. Kato says:

    I have to admit I was drawn by this most grotesque photo as for the first time I saw a name and could know his story…
    what struck me about Col. Butler’s comment is it betrays a level racism that is implicit and may be a clue as to what attitudes are extant even among those on the side of “emancipation” as it were. What I mean is, I would have thought they were already masters of manual labor and equal to any task after a lifetime of toil and hard graft. If it was Olympic weight lifting how would the Marines do against the champions?
    It seems that in the mind of the Col. we see the essence of the idea that, ‘blacks have to work at least twice as hard to be seen as equal to whites’ whatever the truth of that phrase we have all heard it somewhere. Granted the good Col may have preconceptions based on observations of depressed and emaciated slaves doing as little as they can except to avoid the lash and obviously “John Brown” was nowhere to be seen.
    That it must be the idea of emancipation that makes them almost as good at digging than white soldiers is nowhere near as generous of spirit an ‘observation’ in the circumstances as Id like. Maybe it is a clue as to why there was the need for Mr X & Dr King more than a hundred years later…

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