Signs of the Times


Harper’s Weekly, 21 February 1862. Source:

While slavery was far from dead in the United States in early 1863, the signs increasingly were not good for its long-term survival. The first piece of evidence was an illustration (above) and accompanying article in the February 21, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The article read:

THOUGH the President’s proclamation of freedom has been so often compared to the Pope’s Bull against the comet, it seems to be producing some substantial fruits. We publish on page 116 an illustration of CONTRABANDS COMING INTO NEWBERN, NORTH CAROLINA, from a sketch sent us by an amateur, who writes as follows:

NEWBERN, NORTH CAROLINA, January 26, 1863.

I inclose a sketch of a very interesting procession which came to Newbern from “up country” a few days ago. It is the first-fruits of the glorious emancipation proclamation in this vicinity, and as such you may deem it worthy of engraving in your illustrated Weekly.

On our late expedition into Greene and Onslow Counties our company (Company C, Fifty-first Massachusetts Regiment) was out on picket duty the night before our return to Newbern, when an old slave came in to us in a drenching rain; and on being informed that he and his friends could come to Newbern with us, he left, and soon the contrabands began to come in, with mule teams, oxen, and in every imaginable style. When morning came we had 120 slaves ready to start with their little all, happy in the thought that their days of bondage were over. They said that it was known far and wide that the President has declared the slaves free.

While the article started by describing critics mocking President Lincoln’s ability, they had a point. Certainly, Abraham Lincoln could not end slavery simply by issuing a proclamation. Few, if any slaveholders in the country would release their slaves at the President’s order. Indeed, the slaveholder’s rebellion, otherwise known as the Confederacy, existed pretty much because the planter elite feared, with justification, that Lincoln and his party intended to end slavery, even if the Republicans had shown no urgency to do so early in the Civil War, when they were still seeking to conciliate the South. Lincoln had preferred that the slave owners voluntarily release their slaves gradually in exchange for federal bonds to minimize the socioeconomic disruption of ending slavery, but when even the planters that had not joined the rebellion resisted the idea of gradual compensated emancipation, Abraham Lincoln went ahead and ordered freedom for those slaves he could justify freeing on grounds of military necessity: the slaves of rebel owners.

But the critics of the Emancipation Proclamation also missed the point. Slavery as an institution in the United States was not a comet in the heavens out of reach. Slaves could be and were reached by the Union Army, whose officers and men, as the war dragged on, were increasingly eager to divest slaveholders of their human property, both in recognition of the slaves’ military value to the Confederacy and to punish slaveholders for contributing to their own suffering by supporting the rebellion. It is here that Gary Gallagher has a point. Emancipation could not and would not have happened had not the Union Army enforced it at gunpoint.

Yet it is also the case that emancipation was assisted by the slaves themselves. And the  Harpers’ Weekly article illustrates this point. The Union Army made possible the departure of slaves to the sanctuary of federally controlled New Bern, North Carolina, but it is clear from reading between the lines of the article that federal officers did not expect quite so many slaves to take advantage of their expedition into Confederate territory to seize the chance to gain their freedom. So to put this in military terms, if the Union Army made emancipation practically possible, enforcing the President Lincoln’s proclamation, the slaves in effect served as a force multiplier by taking advantage as much as possible the opportunities the army opened for them to liberate themselves.

Yet it was not just in the rebel South where the crumbling of slavery can be seen in early 1863. It also was coming apart in the loyal Border States, which were not subject to the Emancipation Proclamation. Here, as further south, slavery had been undermined by the presence of the Union Army, where from the earliest months of the war many slaves had sought and found protection from their owners. By late 1862, slaves in Maryland in particular were getting restive, acting as if they were covered by Lincoln’s proclamation, even when formally they were not. Their obvious discontent affected white Marylanders, not only resurrecting their perennial fear of servile insurrection, but also causing the value of slave property to plummet, as it became increasingly clear the peculiar institution would not survive the war.

The falling value of slaves can be seen in the disposition of the estate of Charles Carroll V. Carroll was the grandson of Charles Carroll of Carrolton, last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, and before the Civil War, one of Maryland’s largest slaveholders. “Charles Carroll of Doughoregan” as he was known, to distinguish him from his famous ancestor, died on December 2, 1862. On January 24, 1863, a short but telling story appeared in the New York Times about Carroll’s estate. It read:

The appraisers of the slave property of the late CHARLES CARROLL, of this State, one of the largest slaveowners in Maryland, have made their returns to the Orphans’ Court, assessing the value of 130 slaves at an average of only $5 each. This, they say, was the highest rate they could name, after consulting with numerous slaveowners and dealers. One slavedealer told the Appraisers he would not give $500 for the whole lot. This is considered a striking illustration of the depreciation of slave property by the rebellion, and will have a powerful influence in this State.

When it is considered that slaves in their prime routinely sold for $1,000 or more before the war, the depreciation of prices apparent in the estate of Charles Carroll of Doughoregan is all the more striking. Slaves had not entirely lost their value, as there was still a small chance in early 1863 that slavery might survive and the remaining work of slaves until they were freed by the war still had a little residual value, but judge from the Carroll estate it was by that date 1 percent or less of what it had been before the Civil War. In other words, at about the mid-point of the conflict, Maryland slave dealers, people well qualified to judge the price of human property, already were assigning slaves a negligible value consistent with their judgment that slavery was all but doomed. Truly, the market had spoken.

Sources: 1); 2)

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 Signs of the Times

  1. Robyn says:

    All of your posts are informative and so well-written. I had Maryland enslaved ancestors, so every new perspective you give is thought provoking. Using Charles Carrolls estate valuation is particularly illuminating given his wealth.

    • Hi Robyn. Glad you liked this piece. I too was stunned by the evaporation in the value of Charles Carroll’s slave property. But since it was stolen human lives, just as well. Too bad the slaves didn’t gain control of their lives earlier, or even better, never have been slaves at all.

      Don Shaffer

  2. Reblogged this on AHMAD WILLIAMS and commented:
    The decreasing value of slaves during the Civil War.This is one of my favorite blogs that I follow regularly.

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