The first region of the Confederacy to see large numbers of slaves flee their owners was the area around Norfolk, Virginia. As Civil War Emancipation has discussed several times, Fortress Monroe, guarding the entrance to Hampton Roads, became a magnet for slaves seeking freedom after Gen. Benjamin Butler decided to give them refuge to deny their labor to the Confederacy. Other places would later become similar sanctuaries, but Fortress Monroe was the first.
From a historical perspective, the slaves’ motives for fleeing were obvious–they wanted to be free of the hard hand of their owners. For white Southerners during the Civil War, explaining the exodus was more complicated. Slaveholders saw themselves as the benevolent guardians of an inferior race. If slaves were running away, it could not possibly be because of anything they had done.
A good example of this perspective comes from an unnamed correspondent of Richmond’s Daily Dispatch, reporting from Norfolk in early February 1862. He wrote:
I learn that more slaves effected their escape last week from Norfolk county. They belong to farmers residing on or near Tanner’s creek. They doubtless get off at night in boats sufficiently large to cross the Roads and land them at or near Fortress Monroe. The loss of valuable negro men falls heavily upon the gentlemanly and kind-hearted farmers and gardeners in the section of the county above mentioned, and prompt and judicious measures should at once be taken to prevent slaves from getting off by water to the forts and vessels of the common enemy.
The deluded negroes, thus leaving their best friends and comfortable homes, where they are fed, clothed, and allowed all reasonable privileges, vainly suppose that they will fare better, and the more favorably situated, under the protection of the Yankees, than at home, where they have been reared and provided for. And notwithstanding the reliable statements relative to the strict rules to which they have to submit, and the rigid and inhospitable treatment they receive after they get within the enemy’s lines, it is believed that these stampedes will continue unless a thorough look-out be kept along the shore, and especially near the mouths of Tanner’s and Mason’s creeks.
Considering the fact that some of the negro men who have gone off to Old Point were held in high estimation by their indulgent owners, who, in some cases, placed great confidence in their fidelity, and that negroes are not apt to originate or to form among themselves any well-devised plan or carefully-concerted movement, it is not improbable that their credulous minds have been poisoned, and that they have been prompted and advised by abolition traitors who have communicated with them, and who are acting in concert with some of the fanatics connected with the Federal forces at Old Point or else where.
So white Southerners could not believe that slaves would flee their owners for rational, intelligent reasons. Such as the fact that some slaveholders were not as benevolent as they might claim, even around Norfolk, as Civil War Emancipation discussed last June. Instead, in their way of thinking, slaves had to be lured away by abolitionist agents. African Americans could not be given the credit to think for themselves. White Southerners were, of course, fooling themselves, which would contribute to their downfall, and Union forces benefited from the brawn and brains of the slaves.