One of the biggest factors in the survival of slavery in the American South before the Civil War was the belief of white Southerners that once freed ex-slaves would turn on whites in a barbaric war of bloody vengeance. This fear does much to explain why Abraham Lincoln’s election in 186o triggered secession in the Lower South. With slaves making up a larger percentage of their population than in the Upper South, whites in the Deep South believed they could not afford even the slightest possibility of emancipation. Not only their prosperity but their lives, they firmly believed, depended on it. With Lincoln intent on closing off slavery’s expansion in the West and putting the institution on the road to extinction, whites in the Lower South no longer felt safe in the Union.
With a smaller percentage of slaves in their population, white Southerners in the Upper South believed they could wait and see what were the true intentions of Lincoln administration toward the peculiar institution. When President Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress the rebellion in the wake of the attack on Fort Sumter, four Upper South States (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas) concluded that Lincoln was a dire threat to slavery and constitutional government, and seceded. Four other Upper South states (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri) with stronger Unionism and smaller slave populations (as well as the Lincoln administration’s influence) stayed within the Union. But the fear of the slave population remained real, as the Maryland insurrection scare in April 1861 makes manifest. These states also remained resolutely opposed to emancipation.
Many white Northerners also feared freed slaves. A good example is Abraham Lincoln himself. It explains why he pushed emigration as well as gradual compensated emancipation in the loyal slave states during the first half of 1862. Lincoln believed that with the bad memories of slavery, African Americans could never live side-by-side peacefully with their former owners and other whites.
The fear of freed slaves even made it into the British press. On January 10, 1862, Richmond’s Daily Dispatch approvingly reprinted an article from the Times of London, that had appeared the previous month, critical on the Lincoln’s conduct of the war, and laying the blame on the North for the growing bitterness of the conflict. Despite the peaceful end of slavery in the British Caribbean colonies in the 1830s, the Times clearly accepted the notion prevalent in the South that the Union conduct of the war constituted a cynical version of John Brown’s 1859 raid writ large. A passage from the Times read:
Once again, the Government of the North, in the agony of its disappointment and its rage, is evidently about to make an attempt to spread massacre through the unprotected dwellings of their estranged brethren. That the division of these two vast countries must occasion the extinction of slavery no one who looks thoughtfully upon passing events can doubt. Two independent States cannot stand by side without the element of slavery oozing forth.–And this design of theNorth has nothing to do with slavery as a principle. It contemplates the negro only as an instrument of revenge. It means, not the subjection of armed men in fair fight, but horrible deeds committed upon defenceless whites of every age and sex. Here, again, we believe that the success of the scheme will not by any means correspond with the atrocity of the conception. But it is a terrible act for men calling themselves civilized to have even contemplated. It is terrible alike for whites and for blacks; for it seems that, after exciting these black men to work out this unmanly revenge, the North does not propose to endure their presence. Mr. Lincoln, like one of the despots of the Old World, undertakes to transport the whole race, slave and free, to some territory which no white man desires, but which Mr. Lincoln will buy for them, that he may never more behold a sable face.
The day after this article appeared, a similar article appeared in the National Republican, Washington, D.C.’s Republican newspaper, with the title, “How The Freed Slaves Behave.” It was a reprint of an article from the New York World, which editorially followed the Democratic Party. A fact which gives it credibility, since what the World‘s correspondent reported went against the paper’s editorial line. He provided an account of the fate of the several thousand Missouri slaves that had taken advantage of the unrest in the state during Fall 1861 and James Henry Lane’s raid to escape slavery for freedom in Kansas. Rather than resorting to barbaric violence, the World‘s correspondent reported the freed people were quickly on their way to being peaceful and productive. He wrote:
“I propose to state the present condition of the 2,000 liberated by the march of the Kansas army. These negroes were owned principally by secessionists, but where the question was of freedom or slavery for themselves, the negroes failed to make any such distinction; and when they sought our camp they were protected and no questions were asked as to the political status of their former masters. Families came in, sometimes three generations in a single wagon. Sometimes a man or woman fled away, leaving all family ties to secure personal liberty, daring untold dangers, enduring fatigue, starvation, perils by night, and greater dread by day, never feeling safe till they knew they were in a Kansas camp. One day, as we marched from Osceola, we saw three men riding at full speed across the prairie. As they approached, we saw that one was a negro and the others white men in pursuit. Fast came the slave, but the whites steadily gained, and one was in the act of catching the fugitive, when a borderer dashed out from the column and raised his Sharp’s rifle. ‘About face’ went the slave-catchers, and a rifle ball sang an ominous warning in their ears as they made off.
“But night is their great time. Sixty came to camp one evening, and, as Gen. Lane observed, ‘It wasn’t much of a night for niggers either.’ We put the able men to work immediately, driving teams, cooking, grooming the horses, and doing all the extra duties of the brigade. Each officer engaged one as a body servant, instead of taking the soldier from his duty. In this manner they earned from $8 to $10 a month.
“Parsons Moore, Fisher, and Fish, chaplains of the brigade, started last month with a train of negroes, to establish them on Kansas farms. After three weeks, these gentlemen returned to headquarters, having found comfortable situations for every man, woman, and child under their charge. Many were hired as farm hands, house servants, etc., at wages from eight to twelve dollars per month; and the least effective have secured places for the winter, where they will be sure of food and clothing with good chances for lucrative employment when spring opens. The fugitives are generally shrewd and industrious, and the farmers of Kansas generally avail themselves of this supply of laborers. This is an assertion utterly at variance with the general impression. It is nevertheless literally true. In slavery, one can imagine hardly a more shiftless, indolent being than a Missouri negro. But the change from slavery to freedom effects an instantaneous and complete revolution in his character. With the consciousness of liberty comes the necessity for exertion and effort is born of necessity. The slave who worked carelessly felt that he had no interest in the result of his labor; no amount of industry would benefit him, and he naturally did as little as he could consistent with safety. But when he is a free man, he rises equal to the emergency. This has been the case wherever my experience has extended. There is not a man who has been liberated by the brigade but is abundantly able and willing to take care of himself. In every case we have found the slave fit for freedom.” [Emphasis in the original.]
While the account from the New York World is to some extent a pollyannaish effort to put a good face on the fate of Missouri refuge slaves in Kansas, extolling the virtues of free labor ideology, it was an important harbinger of the fact that as they were freed, former slaves did not turn on their owners or other whites in revenge, but instead tended quickly to become constructive members of society, who as the article ends were “fit for freedom.”