Refugeeing Virginia Slaves

“Negroes Driven South By The Rebel Officers,” Harper’s Weekly, November 8, 1862


If slaves were intent on gaining their freedom in the American Civil War, southern slaveholders were just as intent on keeping their human property. In late Fall 1862, now that the Emancipation Proclamation had turned the Union Army into effectively an army of liberation, it posed a mortal threat to slavery, much more so than earlier in the war when many federal commanders had pledged non-interference with the peculiar institution.

An obvious tactic that slaveholders used when possible to counter the threat posed by the Union Army was to move slaves away from federal forces’ advance, which became known as “refugeeing.” The practice began even before the war’s outbreak as some slaveholders relocated to remote places they believed would be safer from northern invasion. Over the course of the war, refugeeing became more and more common, especially with Union Army’s move into the slave-dense Mississippi Valley. Many planters there moved their slaves to Texas, with by one estimate 150,000 slaves being driven there by the end of the war.

This activity in the Mississippi Valley was preceded by refugeeing slaves in other parts of the Confederacy, notably the active Virginia theater. In its November 8, 1862 edition, Harper’s Weekly carried a story of story of a mass forced movement of Virginia slaves, ordered by none other than Gen. Robert E. Lee. Harper’s commissioned an illustration (see above) of this refugeeing drive, which appeared in the same issue. The article and the illustration paint a harrowing picture, typical of the refugeeing of slaves during the Civil War. Harper’s Weekly reported:

ON pages 712 and 713 we publish an illustration of an event of very frequent occurrence at the present time in Virginia namely, the DRIVING OF NEGROES SOUTH in order to escape the approach of our army. The poor creatures are collected in gangs, handcuffed or chained together, and driven off under the lash or at the point of the bayonet. One authority says:

A refugee from the vicinity of Leesburg states that a rebel cavalry force appeared in that place on Monday last and forcibly carried South all the negroes who had previously been collected together there, and placed in confinement, by order of General Lee.

The Times correspondent says:

While at Aldie, on Thursday last, two citizens, named Moore and Ball, came within our lines and were detained as prisoners. The first named is a son of the proprietor of Moore’s flour mills, at Aldie, on a branch of Goose Creek, and the latter is a large planter in the same town. They had “done nothing,” so they said, and were neither bushwhackers nor soldiers, and were surprised at being detained within our lines when so near their homes, from which they had been absent some time. Upon being questioned closely, they admitted that they had just come from the James River; and finally owned up that they had been running off “niggers” having just taken a large gang, belonging to themselves and neighbors, southward in chains, to avoid losing them under the emancipation proclamation. I understand, from various sources, that the owners of this species of property, throughout this section of the State, are moving it off toward Richmond as fast as it can be spared from the plantation; and the slaveholders boast that there will not be a negro left in all this part of the State by the 1st of January next.

Another correspondent says:

The rebels in Secessia are busily engaged just now in running off to Richmond and beyond, negroes and conscripts. A Union man, just from below Culpepper, says that he saw droves of negroes and white men on the road at different points—all strongly guarded. He does not exactly know which excited his pity most, the white or black men.

The human cost of refugeeing was high for the slaves with the separation of families and other suffering caused by dislocation, even death. One poignant story in this regard comes Charles Washington, who was a slave near Lake Providence, Louisiana, at the start of the Civil War. He related his life story in 1905 to a federal examiner in his application for a military pension. In the early 1860s, Washington had been married with three children. He joined the Union Army in 1863, serving in the 47th U.S. Colored Infantry, but on his return  home after the war found his family gone. He testified to the pension examiner, “After I left home to go into the army, Mr. Be[rry] [his owner] carried all of his slaves who had remained at home, to the state of Texas, and I have never heard of any of them. I was a married man, and had three children and he carried them to Texas, and I have never heard of them since.

With stories like Washington’s it is not surprising that refugeeing slaves ultimately backfired. As the editors of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland wrote in The Destruction of Slavery:

Slaveholders hoped that transfer to the interior would insulate their slaves from the disruptive effects of the war. Instead, from the first, refugeeing disrupted the plantation order and transferred the disorder of the war zone to areas as yet untouched by the conflict. Slaves familiar with the shifting balance of power between Union and Confederate forces informed slaves distant from the war front about the struggle, the presence of black men in blue uniforms, and the promise of freedom in federal lines. Following the arrival in the interior of refugeed slaves from the battle zone, the number of runaways surged upward, as did the instance of other forms of resistance that slaveholders denominated collectively as “demoralization.”

That is why the image above, as horrific as was the event it portrays, was ironically a step forward in the emancipation of American slaves in the Civil War.

Sources: 1); 2) Deposition of Charles Washington to a Special Examiner, December 18, 1905, Civil War Pension File of Charles Washington, 47th U.S. Colored Infantry, Record Group 15, National Archives, Washington, D.C. [published in Elizabeth Regosin and Donald R. Shaffer, eds., Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavey, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files(New York: NYU Press, 2008), 163.]; 3) Ira Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867; Series I, Volume 1: The Destruction of Slavery (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 676-77.

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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3 Responses to Refugeeing Virginia Slaves

  1. Edwin Thompson says:

    Some of our history is not very glorious or proud. We have a lot to be ashamed of. Good post.

  2. Brad says:

    Horrific picture but, as they say, speaks volumes. Contrast that with the Nazis’ forced movement of people’s to concentration camps and what is the difference: absolutely none.

  3. Dan Maloney says:

    This is not ancient history. Civil War veterans were alive when I was young. America’s enslavement of humans must be faced and the fools that decreed blacks to be 3/5s a man must be acknowledged as the criminally perverted psychopaths they were.

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