Confederate Anxiety Over Slavery – August/September 1861

Slaveholders created the Confederate States of America to secure the ownership of human property. Free of the non-slaveholding states of the North, they believed, slavery’s future would be assured and the peculiar institution able to expand and prosper. Looking back at developments in August and early September 1861, it was clear secession was beginning to have exactly opposite the intended effect.

To be fair to the Confederates, their reasoning must have assumed that either the northern states would let them leave in peace or they would quickly win a war of independence against the United States. With the arrival though of the Union army in southern territory in the late spring and summer of 1861, slavery began to crumble. First, the slaveholders did not reckon with the slaves’ determination to be free. Second, they did not anticipate that northern authorities, both officers in the field and the politicians in Washington, D.C., would for reasons of military self-interest give escaped slaves sanctuary.

For the Confederates, the problem of escaped slaves in late summer 1861 was still limited compared to what it would become. The biggest trouble spot was in Virginia around Fortress Monroe, where Gen. Benjamin Butler had taken in “contrabands” since late May and by the end of August the total number must have exceeded 1,000 or was approaching it. Slaves also were beginning to escape in other places. As readers will recall, the July 15 edition of Civil War Emancipation featured a small party of slaves risking the ocean’s fury to seek freedom aboard a U.S. Navy blockader stationed at the mouth of Virginia’s Rappahannock River. As Union forces invaded coastal North Carolina in early September 1861, slaves also appeared happy with their arrival. On September 5, John P. Gillis in commander of the steamer Monticello reported:

SIR: Previous to our leaving Hatteras Inlet with the Harriet Lane in convoy we had cruised along and off the coast to the southward; ran close in to Ocracoke Inlet several times. The fort near the beacon-house had apparently no guns mounted, and there was no evidence of its being occupied. In Portsmouth, a small town near by to the southward, a white flag was hoisted on one of the houses, and a number of negroes came down to the beach waving another. Some two or three small schooners were seen in the sound. They left for the interior.

The Richmond government was aware during Summer 1861 of the problem of slaves escaping to Union lines, but powerless to do much about it. On August 30, 1861, the Confederacy enacted a law to facilitate the creation of official legal documentation of the loss of slave property to press claims for compensation presumably when it entered into negotiations with the United States at the end of a successful war. Still, the Confederate Congress was careful to slip language into the law stating, “That the provisions of this act shall not be construed as implying that the Confederates States are in any way liable to make compensation for any of the property to which it refers.

It was not merely the loss of slaves escaping to Union lines that became a concern in the Confederacy in Summer 1861, but the slaves that remained in their possession. If secession was supposed to calm the fears of slave revolt during the secession winter and spring, it proved a failure as the people of the South continued to fear their human property–even after the stunning Confederate victories in Summer 1861 at Bull Run/Manassas in Virginia and Wilson’s Creek in Missouri. A correspondent of the New York Tribune traveling through North Carolina in late July reported to his paper (which was later reprinted in the Liberator):

The intelligence from North Carolina is of a rather exciting nature. In addition to the general and growing popular discontent at the miserable mismanagement of affairs since the State was plunged into Secession, the most alarming apprehension are indulged, of a fearful and bloody outbreak of the slaves. For months, this class of the population have been betraying great uneasiness, occasioned doubtless, by the unusual, and to them rather inexplicable military movements about them, and which they not very strangely suppose in some way to concern themselves. There are numerous rumors afloat to the effect that in some of the middle counties, servants have risen on their masters, and that whole families have been brutally butchered at midnight. To these reports, however, I am slow to give credence; I believe they are mostly the creations of imaginations always lively to the latent perils of slaveholding society, and now especially distempered by the aggravated dangers of the times. But “where there is so much smoke there must be some fire;” and it may turn out that the facts have not been exaggerated, and that North Carolina, and perhaps the whole South, is on the eve of a most sanguinary and desolating servile insurrection. That such a calamity is intelligently feared is certain; and its horrors may startle humanity at any moment. It is stated that such is the refractory disposition of the colored people of late, in the more largely slaveholding section of the State, and so manifest are the symptoms of contemplated and preconcerted mischief, that an earnest requisition has been made upon Western Carolinians, for the immediate moving to the disaffected quarter of Home Guards, (who, by the way, are nearly all strong Union men,) to the amount of two or three regiments, for the prompt suppression of the anticipated uprisal.

So clearly, white Southerners in the Confederacy did not find much comfort in their new nationhood in Summer 1861 when it came to slavery, which had principally motivated the nation’s creation in the first place. Their worries certainly had a basis in fact, as slaves were beginning to flee to the Union outposts cropping up in Confederate territory that summer and finding sanctuary as federal authorities decided it was in their military interest not to return them. Still, the worries also were a product of the paranoia of slaveholders fearful of slaves they were convinced had only a patina of civilization and when given the slightest opportunity would rise in acts of barbaric violence. They actually had little to worry about as the  slaves were more apt to flee as Union forces appeared than revolt, and the number of slaves fleeing would only grow in the months and years that followed.

Sources: 1); 2); 3)

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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