Kidnapping Northern Blacks into Slavery during the Civil War

I confess I have yet to see 12 Years a Slave. It is not from a lack of interest. I long ago read Solomon Northup’s book on his kidnapping and enslavement, and I have seen the Avery Brook’s made-for-television adaptation, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, which originally appeared on PBS  in 1984. Director Steve McQueen’s theatrical adaption was finally released nationwide last Friday, and one of these days soon, like a year ago when Spielberg’s Lincoln came out, I will shell out some money and let everyone know what I think. The early signs, to judge from comments from other scholars of American slavery on Facebook, are generally favorable, but I will reserve judgment until I see the film for myself.

Yet in considering the case of Solomon Northup, it is important to realize that although his case was unusual, it was not unique. African Americans in the antebellum North shared the same vulnerability as Northup, especially after the passage of 1850’s Fugitive Slave Act, which on its face would have seemingly made it possible for any white American willing to perjure themselves to claim any African American in the North as their slave, since the black person in question would not be permitted to testify, and the compensation scheme for federal officials hearing cases of alleged fugitives was designed to favor the supposed slave owner.

It is uncertain whether any free persons of color in the North were enslaved under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Yet there is evidence that the kidnapping of African Americans from the North continued as late as Autumn 1863. On October 23, 1863, David L. Phillips, U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Illinois sent the following letter to Abraham Lincoln (who had appointed Phillips to his post). It read:

Dear Sir,

I have Just received a letter from Hon. Chauncy I. Filley, Mayor of St Louis, enclosing an open letter from Major Easton U. S. Army, addressed to Gov. Yates, both relating to, what Seems to be, a very extensive Scheme of Kidnapping of free Negroes, and Negroes freed by the proclamation, and their removal to Kentucky through Illinois and Indiana by the Ohio and Miss. R. R. to Seymour and thence by the Jeffersonville R. R. to Louisville where they are sold for from $200. to $300, each into Slavery. It is said that the parties who are engaged in this nefarious traffic, generally, have permits from Some one in or about the Provost Marshal’s Office in St Louis.

You know the law of Illinois touching such a traffic and therefore I will say nothing as to the legal questions of the Case. That the traffic is going on to quite an extent seems beyond any reasonable question.

I enclose to you a Slip from the Chicago Tribune which I have Just Seen. It explains itself. I do not know what evidence the Tribune people have in their possession. Gov. Yates being in Washington I have taken the liberty of calling attention to the matter, knowing that you alone can, by an order to Gen. Schofield, Stop a trade which is not only legally a crime, but an outrage on humanity and an insult to the States of Illinois and Indiana.

Very truly yours

D. L. Phillips

So, with slavery on the ropes in the South in Autumn 1863, it is fascinating and chilling that there were still persons at that late date evidently kidnapping free persons of color in the North and selling them into slavery. As Kentucky was exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation, it is an understandable destination for such nefarious activity. Clearly, even in the wake of Lincoln’s proclamation and significant Confederate defeats in Summer 1863, some people were still betting on slavery’s survival, and willing to defy the federal authorities to kidnap northern blacks, much as had happened to Solomon Northup decades before.

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Groping for a New Order

Although the process of emancipation in the Civil War was far from over in Autumn 1863, on the ground in parts of the Union-occupied South there was an effort being made at that time to devise its replacement. After all, while evil and immoral, slavery was a way of organizing labor to produce valuable commodities like cotton, rice, tobacco, etc. Even if slavery died the demand for those commodities would not. Some other way of organizing labor to grow them would have to be found.

It was not just a matter of continuing the production of staple commodities. Finding a new way of organizing labor in the South was needed to deal with a long standing and growing humanitarian problem. For two-and-a-half years, slaves had either been coming under Union jurisdiction as federal troops occupied Confederate territory or as slaves escaped to Union-controlled areas in the South. These now effectively free people needed food, shelter, and other necessities. Federal authorities were limited in what they could do, both as practical matter in terms of the resources available to them and out of the fear of creating a population permanently dependent on the government. They could employ some of these “contrabands” as they were called in support of federal operations in the South, but not all or even most. Hence, the obvious answer seemed to be to utilize the remainder, as they had historically, in plantation agriculture, but how, now that slavery was effectively dead or dying in the Union-controlled South?

A variety of whites, Northerners and southern Unionists, some well meaning, other less so, proposed and experimented with new labor systems to replace. All, in one way or another, stemmed from the free labor ideology prevalent in the North before the Civil War. Free labor ideology was a group of beliefs that developed about paid labor in the northern states in opposition to the unpaid slave labor common in antebellum South. One of these beliefs was that free laborers were more efficient and productive than comparable slave laborers. Hence, some northern entrepreneurs were interested in giving free labor a try on southern plantations, convinced they could produce cotton and other staple crops humanely and more profitably than slaveholders.

The New York Times in October 1863, reported on one such experiment in plantation agriculture with free labor, conducted near New Orleans under the control of George C. Brott, a merchant of the city, part of a firm that was a prominent supplier to the Louisiana’s planters. Brott had taken over the plantation of Pierre Adolphe Rost, the Confederacy’s emissary to Spain. The Times correspondent indicated that an Irish-born overseer, named Keenan supervised the black laborers, and that despite two decades of experience in that position prior to the war he was a good choice to supervise the now free laborers because had found even under slavery, “kind … treatment was more effectual in producing a larger amount of work from the same body of men.”

The correspondent continued about Keenan:

He manages the hands very much as he did slaves, but he says that under the impulse of freedom, they produce about one-third more than they did under the old system. The negroes rise at 4 o’clock, and at daylight, which is about 5, go to the fields. At 7 o’clock one hour and a half is given for breakfast, which they sometimes take in their quarters and always cook for themselves the night before, instead of having it cooked and carried to them as before. At noon they have two hours, and stop work at sundown. This is half as much again time as they had under their old master. A weekly task is assigned to each hand — at present the work being wood-cutting, it is a cord a day — some of the hands do their week’s work in four days, and this week they finished in three. In the next two days they cut two cords a day or more, for which they get one dollar a cord on hauling it out, and they are allowed the use of the teams. You will see that they thus produce thirty-three per cent. more than their task.

Hence, the pro-Lincoln Times was eager to describe the system being used on the plantation, which mixed the slave task system of work quotas with wage labor, as a resounding success. The correspondent also described the African Americans on Brott’s plantation as paragons of workers under free labor system: industrious, honest, and frugal–not the lazy, shiftless slaves described by southern planters before the war. He wrote:

They are more contented and happy than they were under the patriarchal institution, though they work a good deal harder. They save their money for a future day, and their savings amount already to a “good bit.” The working hands will make from seventy-five to a hundred dollars apiece; so the overseer tells me, over and above their share of the crop. They support their families and take care of their aged parents. Now this does not look as though they were so utterly shiftless, does it? Again, on Sunday, after the bible had been given them, I went into the midst of the congregation, and, after saying a few words, so as to get them somewhat acquainted with me, commenced a running fire of questions on this very topic. I addressed myself solely to the men, who sat apart from the women. From the conversation that ensued, I am convinced that they do appreciate their responsibilities and duties. They will spend their money as discreetly as white laborers do, and I am inclined to think more so. They will put their savings in the Savings Bank. They will try to be temperate and industrious. Not a theft has been committed on this place, by the negroes belonging to it, Mr. Brott took it! They understand the influence they are to have on future generations, and on the policy of the country, provided they shall succeed in doing well and accumulating property. They are desirous of vindicating themselves, their race, and the system of free labor, and thus laying for their posterity the foundation of a home and a country.

It is debatable whether the New York Times correspondent was making an accurate assessment of the success of the experiment on Brott’s plantation. It also is noteworthy that while the plantation had traditionally grown sugar, Brott’s overseer, Keenan, launched his free labor venture growing cotton, which historically had been grown little in that region of Louisiana, although planters there that dabbled with the crop had proven it could be grown there successfully. The correspondent wrote:

Mr. KEENAN, the overseer, who has much experience in raising cotton, says he expects about 200 bales of cotton, which will equal the finest Red River cotton, and will be worth 400 hogsheads of sugar. It sells now in New-Orleans at between sixty and seventy cents a pound. It is certain that for years cotton will pay better than sugar, and though the crop costs more labor than it does in States further east, owing to the coco, a sort of grass that grows very fast and exhausts the soil, it requires less attention than sugar, and as many influences seem to indicate the gradual abandonment of the sugar business here, the planters of the neighborhood are watching this experiment with the most intense solicitude. It will probably cause a revolution in the labor of the country.

Hence, the correspondent’s conclusion seemed to be that cotton would be more compatible with free labor than sugar. The spread of cotton cultivation in the postwar period suggests this prediction was accurate, although there were other reasons for the spread of cotton after the Civil War occurred for other reasons in addition to its compatibility with free labor. Much else in the organization of postwar labor in the former slave states would be quite different than on Brott’s plantation in October 1863, but there and in the rest of the Union-occupied South, long before the guns fell silent, both whites and blacks were groping for a new economic order, especially as it concerned the organization of labor.

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Whistling Dixie

If they were not defending such an inhumane and horrific labor system, in hindsight it might be possible to feel just the slightest bit sorry for slaveholders and those defending the slavery being in denial in late Summer 1863 as the peculiar institution crumbled right in front of them. They could not or would not believe what was happening.

A good example is an article at appeared in the Richmond Daily Dispatch, 150 years ago, on September 11, 1863. Entitled “Rule or ruin,” it basically accused the Lincoln administration of seeking to destroy the economy of the South because it could not defeat the Confederate Army on the battlefield. That is, having failed to “rule” the Confederacy, it now sought to ruin it in spiteful vengeance. The article read:

–To “rule or ruin” the South has been the manifest and controlling principle of the Abolition Government of the United from the beginning of this war. Its efforts were first directed to rule, but failing after two years trial in that, its whole energies are now bent to ruin.What is this but an admission that it never expects to conquer theSouth? If it did, why should it labor with all its power to render theSouth not worth having?

It is not merely the ruin of towns and public buildings, and the desolation of fields, or the slaughter of our people, which show the inconsistency of the present destructive policy of the Lincoln dynasty with the anticipation of conquering the Confederate States. Towns may be rebuilt, desolated fields will grow green again, a population grievously thinned by war may be again replenished; but when the only system of labor by which towns can be restored, fields cultivated, and a population supported, is to be torn up by the roots, we may fairly conclude that the architects of such destruction are aiming to ruin rather than to rule.–That the Cotton States can ever be cultivated except by slave labor, is a lunacy which we are not warranted in attributing even to the Washington Cabinet. If they really expect to emancipate the slaves and still make the country profitable, which is the only condition on which the Yankees desire a country, they are the most hopeless madmen the world has ever seen. If the South is to be subjugated, she could not inflict upon her conqueror a more fatal stab than that he is preparing for his own bosom.–Burning the cotton that it may not fall into his hands is nothing to his own plan of destroying the labor by which the cotton is raised. Emancipate the slaves and the cotton-growing States become as profitless to the commerce and manufacturers of the world as Jamaica and St. Domingo. Hence we can only under stand the abolition and destructive policy of the United States Government, by referring it to a foregone conclusion that it will never be able to rob the South permanently, and, therefore, that it will ruin it.

The author of the editorial, of course, assumed the experience of the South with emancipation would parallel his conception (or to be more accurate, misconception) of emancipation in the Caribbean. Subsequent events would prove cotton could be grown with free labor and that slavery was not necessary for its success. Likewise, during the Civil War itself various experiments were taking place in the South testing out various alternatives to growing cotton. While many of them were not successful, they demonstrated for subsequent planters how not to organize free labor for cotton (mostly importantly, do not try to treat free laborers like slaves). So, in retrospect, it is easy to see that in this instance the Richmond Daily Dispatch was whistling dixie.


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A Letter from General Grant: August 23, 1863

A relevant and interesting post from Brooks Simpson over at Crossroads, in which U.S. Grant discusses emancipation and black recruitment into the Union Army in a letter to President Lincoln.


One of the keys to understanding the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant is to understand Grant’s ability to work with Lincoln, as the following letter suggests.

Cairo Illinois

August 23d 1863.


Your letter of the 9th inst. reached me at Vicksburg just as I was about starting for this place. Your letter of the 13th of July was also duly received.

After the fall of Vicksburg I did incline very much to an immediate move on Mobile. I believed then the place could be taken with but little effort, and with the rivers debouching there, in our possession, we would have such a base to opperate from on the very center of the Confederacy as would make them abandon entirely the states bound West by the Miss. I see however the importance of a movement into Texas just at this time.

I have reinforced Gen. Banks…

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The Falling Price of Slaves – August 1863

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.


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Retaliation to Defend Black Union POWs


Harper’s Weekly – August 15, 1863

Caption reads: “Mr. Lincoln. ‘Look JEFF DAVIS! If you lay a finger on that boy, to hurt him, I’ll lick this ugly cub of yours within an inch of his life.'”

The advent of black Union soldiers in combat created an interesting wrinkle on the road to emancipation in the American Civil War. One which pitted the desire of African Americans for equality as well as freedom, against white Confederates who tried to paint black soldiers as savages in uniform foisted on them by their white Union enemy who in a desperate attempt to stave off total defeat was prepared to throw out the rules of civilized warfare and foment what amounted to servile insurrection against the South. In the middle, of course, was the Lincoln administration, which while it had no enthusiasm in Summer 1863 for black equality, recognized that it had some duty toward the African-Americans soldiers unfortunate enough to fall into rebel hands.

Supporters of black Union POWs had good reason to fear for their safety. The previous December, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had ordered “That all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.” Although not stated explicitly, the clear implication was since black Union soldiers would treated as rebellious slaves under state law, meaning they would be put to death since this was generally the punishment meted out to rebel chattel. This approach towards black Union soldiers was more-or-less confirmed by the Confederate Congress on May 1, 1863, when it passed the Retaliatory Act. This legislation addressed the question of black POWs, stating, “All negroes and mulattoes who shall be engaged in war or taken in arms against the confederate States, or shall give aid or comfort to the enemies of the Confederate States, shall, when captured in the Confederate States, be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured, to be dealt with according to the present or future laws of such State or States.

These policy statements, and growing numbers of black Union soldiers in Confederate hands, especially after three significant engagements in Spring/Summer 1863 involving African Americans and other more minor encounters, put the Lincoln Administration on the spot. Its credibility was on the line, especially with the black community the administration was asking to send its fathers, sons, and brothers to risk their lives on its behalf. But mainstream opinion in the North also called for Lincoln to take what steps he could to protect African-American POWs held by the enemy. Harper’s Weekly, the great national periodical of the age put the matter eloquently. It wrote:

We invited these men to fight for us. We did not give them an equal pay with other soldiers; we did not allot to them the offices of honor; we adjured them by a flag whose protection we doubtfully concede to them; we required, in a word, of these men, whom our prejudices have hitherto kept at every conceivable disadvantage, the qualities that only the proudest and most self-dependent people show, and we promised them but a very uncertain reward for all their fighting. . . .

Now then is the time to show every colored man in the land whether we are in earnest, or whether he would be simply a fool to fight for a flag which does not protect him. How can a solitary man of that race, except the few sublimely heroic, enlist, until he knows the fate of his brethren captured at Wagner? Or how can we ask any man whatsoever to imperil his life for us, without promising him equal fair play with every other? The Government can not evade the question. Already the rebel journals declare that if the colored prisoners are treated as prisoners of war, the rebellion may be as well abandoned at once. And the rebel Congress have long since doomed every officer of our colored regiments to the gallows, and every soldier to the slave pen.

So, the very real possibility of death or re-enslavement for black Union POWs and public opinion in the North forced Abraham Lincoln to act to try to protect them. The only leverage he had over the rebels in this regard was Confederate POWs held by Union forces, so that is what Lincoln used. On July 30, 1863, he issued an order which read:

It is the duty of every government to give protection to its citizens, of whatever class, color, or condition, and especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers in the public service. The law of nations and the usages and customs of war, as carried on by civilized powers, permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war as public enemies. To sell or enslave any captured person on account of his color, and for no offense against the laws of war, is a relapse into barbarism and a crime against the civilization of the age.

The Government of the United States will give the same protection to all its soldiers, and if the enemy shall sell or enslave anyone because of his color the offense shall be punished by retaliation upon the enemy’s prisoners in our possession.

It is therefore ordered, That for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war a rebel soldier shall be executed, and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.

It was an extraordinary executive order. While Lincoln never really implemented the order, it helped sow seeds of doubt among Confederate troops that they were free to do what they wished with any black Union soldiers that fell into their hands. And while it did not stop Fort Pillow and other massacres, it no doubt prevented some black prisoners from being wantonly killed by making Confederates think twice because Lincoln had formally linked the safety of rebel prisoners of war to the way they treated African Americans in federal uniform. Extending equality in its protection to black POWs also made it harder for the federal government to discriminate against black men in uniform in other ways, such as their rate of pay. Indeed, if Lincoln’s executive order of July 30, 1863, succeeded clearly in any way, it was in sending a meaningful political signal to African Americans that his government valued their military service and considered black troops more than simply cannon fodder, to be used and discarded. With that sort of statement it also became politically harder for the Lincoln administration, even if it had ever wanted to, to back off from the Emancipation Proclamation and freedom for the slaves more generally. With Lincoln’s executive order of retaliation, he had in essence made protecting black Union POWs a matter of honor.

Sources: 1); 2); 3)

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Fort Wagner and the One Gallant Rush: How It Matters and What Matters More


Source: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

In a few days, on July 18, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War will roll around to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s failed attempt to storm Fort Wagner, South Carolina, made famous for current generations by the 1989 movie, Glory. On the one hand, the 54th’s attack on Fort Wagner, with the unit suffering 45 percent casualties, was one of many futile frontal assaults in the American Civil War, as tactics failed to keep up with the growing lethality of weaponry developed in the first half of the 19th century. On the other hand, if the 54th Massachusetts did not win in strictly military terms on July 18, 1863, they won a costly moral victory for their race, by proving black men would fight and die as bravely of white men in similarly adverse circumstances, when detractors had long claimed African Americans could not be trained as soldiers and would flee from the battlefield at the first hint of danger.

What is often forgotten is that the “One Gallant Rush” at Fort Wagner was the last of three engagements involving black troops in the spring and summer of 1863, their first use in combat since late October 1862 when the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry clashed with Confederate guerrillas at Island Mound, Missouri.

The first came on May 27, 1863, when black Louisiana troops, mostly free men of color from New Orleans, fighting for an ungrateful Union General Nathaniel Banks, participated in an ill-conceived frontal assault on Confederate positions at Port Hudson, Louisiana. The attack failed, but produced the first martyred black Union hero, Andre Cailloux, a captain in this pioneering unit, which had black officers (Banks was in the process of purging them when the engagement occurred, but many of them were still around to fight  at Port Hudson). Cailloux was killed bravely leading his company in the attack, and his body was later recovered and returned to New Orleans where thousands of people attended his funeral.

Eleven days later, on June 7, 1863, black units on the periphery of Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Vicksburg, fighting with white Union soldiers of the 23rd Iowa Infantry, successfully fended off an attack by Confederate forces in Madison Parish, Louisiana, at what would become known as the Battle of Milliken’s Bend. Although the engagement was essentially won by fire support from the Union gunboat Choctaw on the Mississippi, black soldiers held their ground at the river’s bank, if for no other reason than they had nowhere left to retreat and a gunboat at their rear to pummel the attacking Confederates. But neither did they cravenly surrender, and this battle as in the case of Port Hudson and Fort Wagner was cited by supporters of black enlistment in the Union Army that African Americans were willing and able to fight and die as bravely as white soldiers.

These three battles collectively did much to silence critics who believed black men unfit to join the Union Army. But just as interesting as these early battles by African-American soldiers and ultimately more important was the impact of military service on their lives. This was something that was quickly apparent even during the war itself, as powerless chattel became armed warriors. Harper’s Weekly noted such one case, in their issue of July 4, 1863, in an article titled, “A Typical Negro.” The article focused on a slave named Gordon, and featured a large engraving, most memorable for the mass of scars from whippings on his back.

whipped-slaveSource: Harper’s Weekly, 4 July 1863

The engraving was based on a photograph taken in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, by a local photographer, William D. McPherson and his associate, “Mr. Oliver.” It can be seen immediately below.


Source: National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Harper’s Weekly described Gordon’s story in the article that accompanied the engraving above and two others below. It read:

[The first engraving] represents the man as he entered our lines, with clothes torn and covered with mud and dirt from his long race through the swamps and bayous, chased as he had been for days and nights by his master with several neighbors and a pack of blood-hounds; another shows him as he underwent the surgical examination previous to being mustered into the service —his back furrowed and scarred with the traces of a whipping administered on Christmas-day last; and the third represents him in United States uniform, bearing the musket and prepared for duty.

This negro displayed unusual intelligence and energy. In order to foil the scent of the blood-hounds who were chasing him he took from his plantation onions, which he carried in his pockets. After crossing each creek or swamp he rubbed his body freely with these onions, and thus, no doubt, frequently threw the dogs off the scent.

At one time in Louisiana he served our troops as guide, and on one expedition was unfortunately taken prisoner by the rebels, who, infuriated beyond measure, tied him up and beat him, leaving him for dead. He came to life, however, and once more made his escape to our lines.

The photo of Gordon above was used in an earlier post on this blog to illustrate the motives of slaves for fleeing plantations to seek sanctuary with the Union Army, as the scars on his back are powerful testimony to the system of torment used to maintain slave discipline in the antebellum South. The article on Gordon in Harper’s Weekly discusses at length on the methods of physical punishment faced by slaves on plantations in Louisiana before freedom came, many of them quite sadistic in nature.

Yet for slaves like Gordon that joined the Union Army service their service was a transformative experience. They went from a short time from powerless chattels subject to horrific punishment (and even death) to strapping soldiers in what was effectively an army of liberation. While constrained by military discipline in the application of their new power and authority, the change was apparent to observers who saw them when they entered the army and then saw them again after they had been military service for some time. Indeed, this transformation became the subject of federal propaganda promoting the service of African Americans in the Union Army. A good example of this material comes from the article on Gordon in the July 4, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, with engravings of him before and after he entered military service, described above and which can be seen immediately below.


Harper’s Weekly, 4 July 1863

An even better example of such “before and after” pictures of slaves becoming soldiers is Hubbard Pryor who served in the 44th U.S. Colored Troops.

HubbardPryorNational Archives, Washington, D.C.

These pictures were taken on October 10, 1864, the first purporting to depict Hubbard Pryor before his enlistment, a slave like Gordon above dressed in ragged clothes, and the second after his enlistment as a smartly uniformed and armed Union soldier. Yet the staged nature of these pictures is made especially poignant by the fact that three days after they were taken, the 44th U.S. Colored Infantry in Dalton, Georgia, was overwhelmed by Confederate forces under John Bell Hood (on their ill-fated invasion of Tennessee after being forced out of Atlanta by the William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee). Pryor became a prisoner and was stripped of his uniform by Hood’s men symbolically returning him to his status as a slave. He remained in Confederate hands until he was freed in May 1865 near Griffin, Georgia, making his way to a Union garrison in Rome, Georgia, looking reportedly worse on his arrival there than in the now famous staged “before” photo. After his discharge from the army, he returned home to Polk County, Georgia, where he married, raised a family, and lived quietly until his death in 1890.

Yet sometimes propaganda can be a way of communicating a version of the truth, and there is much truth to the staged images of Gordon, Hubbard Pryor, and others like them. Black soldiers, despite the dangers and pitfalls, often did benefit from their time in the Union Army. I examined these benefits, both during and after the Civil War in my 1996 dissertation, revised for publication as After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (Kansas, 2004). In this book, I discussed such wartime benefits as learning to read and write (quite significant for illiterate slaves), the chance to gain leadership skills as non-commissioned officers, political training fighting for equal pay (and against other indignities), and the psychological boost to their manhood of the dignity of being soldiers.

These benefits continued to accrue after the Civil War. As I write in the epilogue to After the Glory:

The Civil War left a significant positive legacy in general for the black soldiers that survived the conflict, one that validated their manhood.  They enjoyed a privileged position compared to other African Americans in the postwar period.  The 1890 census found a disproportionate percentage of them in the North and in the growing urban centers of the South, and as a group they enjoyed more prosperity compared to other African Americans.  Veterans were widely admired in the black community, and their contribution to Union victory helped soften the attitude of many white Northerners toward them as well, especially former soldiers.  African-American veterans also benefited from the largess of the federal government to Union veterans and their families, particularly in the form of military pensions.

Certainly, the picture for black Civil War veterans was not entirely rosy after the Civil War. As with white soldiers, some African Americans returned home sick, disabled, or psychologically broken, in many cases never becoming whole again. Even if they made it back healthy, some black veterans became targets after the war for white Southerners angry at the way white supremacy was in tatters, especially given the leadership roles ex-soldiers often assumed in the postwar black community. The citizenship and political rights they helped win for their race also proved fleeting, as Jim Crow and disfranchisement spread throughout the post-Reconstruction South. Finally, veterans who lived long enough saw the memory of their wartime role in the Civil War increasingly forgotten in the larger society.

But unquestionably, collectively black men who had Union as soldiers and sailors benefited more than they suffered as a result of their wartime service. So, when commemorating famous events in the history of African-American military participation in the Civil War, please remember that as crucial as they were, a less dramatic but much more significant transformation was occurring in the lives of black Union soldiers that played out during and after the war, and which was ultimately much more important than the “One Gallant Rush” at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863.

Sources: 1); 2) Donald R. Shaffer, After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 2004).

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