Business as Usual — For Now

While slavery came under pressure in Virginia and Maryland in the late spring and early summer of 1861, elsewhere in the South the business of slavery went on, now seemingly secure under the Confederate government. On July 7, 1861, the Daily True Delta in New Orleans published an advertisement from the Southern Pacific Railroad seeking to buy or hire slaves for railroad construction labor. The ad read:

We will purchase or hire, for a term of five years, Nine Hundred or a Thousand Slave Laborers, to work on the Southern Pacific Railroad, in Texas–immediately west of Shreveport, La.–in a region secure and protected from invasion and molestation during the conflict which does exist between the two sections of this country. The country through which the road passes is entirely healthy, and for the distance of 400 or 500 miles west of Shreveport, it penetrates one of the finest agricultural countries on the continent of America.

Clearly, the railroad would not seek to purchase slaves or lease them for a five-year period, if did not believe slavery was secure.

Likewise, Harper’s Weekly, in its issue of July 13, 1861, featured an excerpt of a story filed from Montgomery, Alabama, by the prominent British journalist, William Howard Russell, of the London Times describing a slave auction. The much traveled Russell wrote:

I am neither sentimentalist nor Black Republican, nor negro-worshiper, but I confess the sight caused a strange thrill through my heart. I tried in vain to make myself familiar with the fact that I could, for the sum of $975, become as absolutely the owner of that mass of blood, bones, sinew, flesh, and brains as of the horse which stood by my side. There was no sophistry which could persuade me the man was not a man—he was, indeed, by no means my brother, but assuredly he was a fellow-creature. I have seen slave markets in the East, but somehow or other the Orientalism of the scene cast a coloring over the nature of the sales there which deprived them of the disagreeable harshness and matter-of-fact character of the transaction before me. For Turk, or Smyrniote, or Egyptian to buy and sell slaves seemed rather suited to the eternal fitness of things than to otherwise. The turbaned, shawled, loose-trowsered, pipe-smoking merchants, speaking an unknown tongue, looked as if they were engaged in a legitimate business. One knew that their slaves would not be condemned to any very hard labor, and that they would be in some sort the inmates of the family and members of it. Here it grated on my ear to listen to the familiar tones of the English tongue as the medium by which the transfer was effected, and it was painful to see decent-looking men in European garb engaged in the work before me. Perchance these impressions may wear off, for I meet many English people who are the most strenuous advocates of the slave system, although it is true that their perceptions may be quickened to recognize its beauties by their participation in the profits.

Russell’s words were made all the more powerful by an artist from Harper’s Weekly that accompanied him on the trip, and captured the auction in the illustration below.


So clearly as the Civil War got underway, the business of slavery continued in the Lower South, seemingly encouraged by the belief that large parts of it, as the New Orleans paper contended were “a region secure and protected from invasion and molestation during the conflict.” Certainly, this notion proved false for New Orleans, which less than a year after the July 7 article was captured by Union forces on May 1, 1862. Montgomery, Alabama, having lost its status as the Confederate capital to Richmond after the war began, largely lost its military significance, as did most of the rest of Alabama, and would not come under Union control until April 1865. But even though the winds of emancipation reached the city later it would not stay immune to them forever. But it would have been easy for the Montgomery auctioneer and other white Alabamians in July 1861 to convince themselves otherwise.

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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