The Power of the Slaves

It amazes me sometimes that there are still serious, even distinguished historians around today who believe it necessary to downplay the active role the slaves played in their own liberation. They tend to set up the straw man of “self-emancipation” as if most proponents of slaves being significant actors in the Civil War seriously believe the slaves freed themselves without help from anyone else, such as Abraham Lincoln, Congress, and the Union Army. They needed help, definitely, a lot. But the slaves were not passive players in emancipation. They could bring their own sort of power to bear, sometimes subtle, sometimes not.

A good example can be seen in the July 24, 1862 edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch. A short article in that day’s paper read:

It is said that there were 11,000 slaves in Fauquier county. Va., before the rebellion, about 5,000 of whom have left their masters and sought employment elsewhere.–Many of them remain in the county, but demand payment for their labor, and generally obtain it, the planters being compelled to accede to their demands or allow their crops to remain unharvested.

Reports like these would become ever more common over the course of the war, especially when Union forces occupied or even merely approached various parts of the Confederate South. In other words, what the Richmond paper reported occurring in Fauquier County in July 1862 is merely an early example. Fauquier County, Virginia, is southeast of Washington, D.C. (and immediately southeast of Manassas), with its county seat at Warrenton and today is an outlying part of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. It began seeing large numbers of Union forces in 1862, which disrupted the enforcement mechanisms of slavery there, leading to its slaves either fleeing to more consistently controlled Union territory or forcing their owners to renegotiate the terms of their service to include payment.

Some historians would say about Fauquier County that it was the Union Army that had the power here, not the slaves, and they would have a point. Certainly, the slaves were unable to exercise much power beforehand, with their owner’s power being backed up by governmental power exercised by the courts, slave patrols, and state militia (if necessary). But even under slavery they had some power. Historians call it “slave resistance.” (For a refresher on how slaves resisted slavery, please <click here>.) The arrival of the Union Army merely increased slaves’ ability to resist slavery, as slaves running away (a form of resistance) and owner/slave negotiation (to avoid resistance) often had been aspects of American slavery.

White southerners certainly recognized the power of the slaves implicitly if not explicitly. This is why Confederate authorities would get complaints when they pulled local militia from their home region for service at the front against Union forces. It was an important reason for the Confederate law exempting slave owners with twenty or more slaves from military service. The power of the slaves had to continue to be suppressed. Slaveholders recognized this power and feared it. They believed if unleashed it would result in a race war like in Haiti or Nat Turner’s Rebellion. How interesting though that when the day came that the slaves did not seek brutal revenge but exercised their now greater power in the ways they always had–running away or negotiating with their owners. But they certainly were not without power and when it increased with the arrival of the Union Army or the prospect of its arrival, they used it to help end slavery. Not “self-emancipation” perhaps, but people definitely using the power they had to take part actively in their own liberation.


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
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Power of the Slaves

  1. I enjoyed the entry. Do you mind me asking who the historians you referred to at the beginning of it are? If you don’t wish to, that is fine, but the concept of slave self-emancipation or helping themselves be free seems like a pretty basic aspect of the war and emancipation and it does seem strange that some people as you describe might not see that. Clearly it was not one person or one group who “freed” so many people.

    • Hi Richard. Try James McPherson or Allen Guelzo. You might want to read Guelzo, myself, and a couple of other academic historians debate this very issue in the comments to my last post (“Allen Guelzo — July 22, 1862”).


  2. Thanks. I’m sorry I missed reading that before, but I do lean towards your viewpoint. I’ll have to go back and look over some McPherson writing someday and pay more attention to his comments on this subject.

    • Richard: A good place to start would be James McPherson, “Who Freed the Slaves?” and Ira Berlin, “Emancipation and Its Meaning in American Life,” both in Reconstruction 2 (1994): 35-44. Berlin was my mentor at the University of Maryland, and is one of main scholars advancing the idea of slaves taking an active role in their own liberation during the Civil War.

  3. I’ve noted those and will hopefully get to them soon

    Thanks again

  4. Ironically, I just picked up a book “Lincoln Lessons” edited by Frank Williams and William Pederson. Chapter (or essay) 10 is “Lincoln and African American Memory” by edan Green Medford.

    One line brought back memory of this post: “Even the suggestion that enslaved people may have played a prominent role in their own liberation has invited an intense debate in recent years, with certain scholars hastening to defend Lincoln’s position as the ‘Great Emancipator.'” (p. 93 in this book)

    I looked at her end notes and it referred to both McPherson (mentioned “Drawn with the Sword” a book I read years ago and which should be on my shelf” and Allan Guelzo as well. I may not have paid attention to that line had I not read this post.

    Thanks again

Leave a Reply to Donald R. Shaffer Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s