One of the barometers of the progress of emancipation over the course of the Civil War was the price of slaves. (This is a topic that Civil War Emancipation has covered before, earlier this year on February 21 and March 11.) As confidence in and commitment to slavery’s survival fell, so did the price of slaves. A good example is an article that appeared 150 years ago today in the New York Times. The Times article analyzed the price of slaves in various places, including both the loyal slave states and the Confederacy. The article read:
Slaves command a higher price in Kentucky, taking gold as the standard of value, than in any other of the Southern States. In Missouri they are sold at from forty dollars to four hundred, according to age, quality, and especially according to place. In Tennessee they cannot be said to be sold at all. In Maryland the negroes upon an estate were lately sold, and fetched an average price of $18 a head. In the farther States of the Southern Confederacy we frequently see reports of negro sales, and we occasionally see boasts from rebel newspapers as to the high prices the slaves bring, notwithstanding the war and the collapse of Southern industry. We notice in the Savannah Republican of the 5th, a report of a negro sale in that city, at which, we are told, high prices prevailed, and at which two girls of 18 years of age were sold for about $2,500 apiece, two matured boys for about the same price, a man of 45 for $1,850, and at woman of 23, with her child of 5, for $3,950. Twenty-five hundred dollars, then, may be taken as the standard price of first-class slaves in the Confederacy; but when it is remembered that this is in Confederate money, which is worth less than one-twelfth its face in gold, it will be seen that the real price, by this standard, is only about $200. In Kentucky, on the other hand, though there is but little buying or selling of slave stock going on, we understand that negroes are still held at from seven to twelve hundred dollars apiece.
The prices listed in this piece make sense. Slaves in Kentucky still fetched a relatively high price not only because that state was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation, and because slaveholders there were determined to hold on to their slaves. Indeed, Kentucky, unlike Maryland and Missouri, would stubbornly refuse to free its slaves on its own and slavery would only end there with final ratification of the 13th Amendment. Still, the slow turnover of slaves between slaveholders meant even in the Bluegrass State, slave owners were worried about the future of the institution.
Maryland and Missouri had much lower slave prices because in both states, the presence of Union troops from the early days of the war had undermined the peculiar institution, with army camps providing a refuge for fugitive slaves willing to become servants of soldiers and officers. Slavery’s end in the District of Columbia in April 1862 gave Maryland slaves a new place where they could disappear. While Maryland slaveholders resisted the pressure these events put on them, it also gradually sapped their commitment to slavery. With the start of widespread recruit of African Americans into the Union Army in 1863, the institution was further undermined putting both Maryland and Missouri on the path to ending slavery on their own before the end of the Civil War.
Recruitment of African Americans hurt slavery as an institution because slaves became free when they joined the army, and in March 1865 congressional legislation freed the family members of black soldiers as well. Eventually, black recruitment would undermine slavery even in Kentucky, as it was the only legal way out of bondage for African Americans there prior to the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Indeed, Kentucky no doubt contributed the second most soldiers to the Union Army (just behind Louisiana–where African Americans made up a much higher percentage of the total population) because of that fact.
And as the New York Times story astutely indicates, adjusted for inflation, which by Summer 1863 was rampant in the Confederacy, as the Richmond government ran the printing presses to fund the war, in real terms (measured by gold dollars) slaves by August of that year were fetching but a small fraction of the price they commanded before the war. So while slavery in the late summer of 1863 was far from dead, market prices in both the Union and the Confederacy demonstrated a distinct lack of confidence in the institution’s future. In other words, the theft of human lives was becoming an increasingly uncertain investment.