Emancipation’s Progress: The End of the Beginning

On October 17, 1862, the New York Times, attempted to estimate the number of slaves that had escaped slavery up to that point in the war. The article read:

A recent Richmond paper, in speaking of the devastation caused to the State of Virginia by the invasion of the National armies, declares that 30,000 slaves have been lost to their owners. In the States of Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Missouri, so many have not been lost, but probably hall the number. In South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, we may safely assume that half as many more have been released from bondage. These calculations give a grand total of 60,000 slaves wholly lost to Southern masters by reason of the war. These slaves, at a valuation of $300 each, represent a wealth of thirty millions of dollars.

While 60,000 was but a small fraction of the nearly four million slaves in the United States on the eve of the Civil War, the Times still found the figure impressive, noting:

But during all the time when these losses were occurring, our Government was not making emancipation a specialty, but quite the reverse. Gen. HALLECK’s order kept slaves in the West wholly out of our lines, and in the East the policy of our Generals was sufficiently dubious to render the Union camps a doubtful place of refuge to the fleeing contraband.

While the Times exaggerates the effectiveness with which Union commanders were able to keep slaves out of their lines, it then asked a perceptive question. Now that the Lincoln administration seemingly had embraced immediate and uncompensated freedom for the slaves, and the Union Army had effectively become a force of liberation, how effective would it be at that task?

But, if thirty million dollars’ worth of slaves were lost, in one year, under a conservative system of war, what may we expect when the President’s new policy is fairly at work? The rebels say they will fight till they “get their rights,” and among these rights at present is property in slaves. If they are pleased with the auspicious prospects of the war. as it affects their property as well as independence, then we conclude that so complacent a people never before risked their lives and property on the wager of battle.

So the New York Times clearly saw slave property in great jeopardy with the Emancipation Proclamation’s announcement. But just as clearly many slaveholders were not going to simply hand over of their slaves to arriving Union forces. Even before the war’s outbreak, some owners began shipping slaves to locations they believed safer from the federal army. This effort to “refugee” human property continued during the war, involving many thousands of African Americans and resulting in horrible suffering (that will be dealt in future editions of Civil War Emancipation).

Slaveholders also schemed to get back slaves that had made it to Union lines. A good example is described in a letter earlier in October 1862 written by a North Carolina planter, William S. Pettigrew. He outlined his efforts to recover his slaves, writing his sister:

Mr. West informs me that he saw Lloyd Bateman & Wm. [Rone] at Tarboro on friday last; Consequently Lloyd did not call at Raleigh for my letter. Mr. W is of the opinion that he is afraid to embark in so perilous an enterprise as bringing up my negroes from Washington Co., for he thinks it more than probable – in fact almost certain that the Yankees would lodge him in prison, if they did not hang him for such an offence. He thinks were Bateman to bring them, it would be most unwise in him to return there again. Under all these circumstances, I am of the opinion that he did not apply for my letter in as much as he thought it would be best for him to have nothing to do with it. Mr. West & myself are debating the matter as to whether we will now go to Scuppernong & bring all of my negroes I may wish from my plantations. We can go to Martin, cross the river into Bertie, then go in a boat to the mouth of Scuppernong River, a friend there can send us to my plantations. When there we will seize the negroes at night & leave immediately with them for the mouth of the River & there set sail for the Bertie shore, & thence direct to the up-country.

The cost of the expedition would be much less than if Bateman were to bring them. We would be armed for our defence & without, there is not much probability that the Buffaloes would not learn that we had been in the Country until after we had left & were beyond their reach or that of their Yankee friends.

I borrowed $200 of Mr. Bryan this morning, which will put me in funds, should the above plan be put in execution. Should I return with the negroes, I would carry them to Salisbury, & would be most happy to have your company. Please give me your opinion of the above. 

So even with the Emancipation Proclamation’s advent, it was clear the battle for emancipation was not over. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it was not the beginning of the end of slavery, but the end of the beginning of the battle to free the slaves.

Sources: 1) http://www.nytimes.com/1862/10/17/news/slavery-as-conserved-by-war.html; 2) http://www.lib.unc.edu/blogs/civilwar/index.php/2012/10/01/1-october-1862-when-there-we-will-seize-the-negroes-at-night-leave-immediately-with-them-for-the-mouth-of-the-river-there-set-sail-for-the-bertie-shore-thence-direct-to-the-up-country/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=1-october-1862-when-there-we-will-seize-the-negroes-at-night-leave-immediately-with-them-for-the-mouth-of-the-river-there-set-sail-for-the-bertie-shore-thence-direct-to-the-up-country

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 donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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