Free Blacks Under Confederate Authority
During the war, free blacks in Virginia suffered the usual oppressions of a slave
society. They could not vote or hold office or even testify against whites in
courts of law. They were required to carry certification of their free status and
were liable to punishment or imprisonment on suspicion of being a slave. The war
brought increased vigilance as Confederates became more apprehensive of the free
black population. For instance, authorities evicted the James family from their
[Deep Bottom] on the
James River because they
suspected them of providing information to Union gunboats.
Free blacks in Virginia disproportionately suffered the hardships of war.
Legislators authorized governmental
relief efforts in race-neutral language, technically including free
blacks. Few resources, significant hunger, and official indifference, however,
meant that free blacks received relatively little aid. Though slaves undoubtedly
suffered from scarcity of food, clothing, and medicine during the war, their
masters, at least theoretically, were expected to provide for their welfare. With
little support outside of their own hard-pressed communities, free blacks were
particularly hard hit by Union and Confederate confiscations and the devastations
of the war. Free blacks, like poor whites and Confederate deserters, increasingly resorted to crime to
survive during the war.
Free Black Unionism
Free blacks in Virginia almost unanimously supported the Union over the
Confederacy as a rejection of their subordinate positions within Southern society.
Though not personally enslaved themselves, free blacks embraced the abolition of
slavery. Elizabeth Wingfield of
[Dinwiddie County] supported the Union side because "I thought they had
come to free all the colored people & to give them their rights."
Wingfield, like many other free blacks in Virginia, counted a relative—her
husband—among the enslaved. Even free blacks without enslaved relatives had reason
to support the Union over the Confederacy. William James of [Henrico County] supported the
Union because "I believed that if the Rebels gained their independence they would
make slaves of all of us free colored people." White Virginians never passed a
re-enslavement law, but the possibility of such legislation rendered freedom for
Other free blacks hoped that the Union would bring racial equality. Isaac
Pleasants of Henrico County believed that "it was to the interest of all colored
people to be in favor of the Yankees as I had an idea that slavery was a good deal
at stake in the conflict between the states and that the success of the North
would improve the condition of the slaves, at least." At most, free blacks hoped
that the Union victory would grant them equal rights. Joseph Brown of
[New Kent County] explained, "We
had no chance for education & hardly any rights at all. I always believed
the Yankees would give me my rights, & I prayed constantly for them to
The Union's emancipation measures did not include political or civil equality, but
free blacks believed that northern principles better approximated true freedom
than southern principles. Reuben Gilliam of
[Prince George County] supported the Union because "I
was born free and had traveled at the North. I saw the difference in the condition
of free people of color in the two sections. I labored under heavy burdens and I
believed I should be better off in every particular under the Union than under the
Confederacy." To free blacks, the Union cause represented abolition and equality.
Free Blacks and the Confederate and Union War Efforts
Though free blacks in Virginia supported the Union cause, they were not always
able to act on these principles. Confederates hoped to offset the Union's white
manpower advantage by employing blacks as military, agricultural, and industrial laborers. The
Virginia legislature passed a law in February 1862 authorizing the impressment of free black
labor. The law instructed local courts to register all free black men between the
ages of eighteen and fifty for military labor. Under the law, the adjutant general
ordered requisitions at the request of commanding officers, a board of three
justices chose the laborers from the registration list, and the local sheriff
notified free blacks of their impressment. By law, free blacks served for 180 days
without their consent, received compensation for their labor, and incurred fines
from $50 to $150 if they evaded impressment.
The Confederacy mobilized a large portion of its black population. The majority of
the laborers in the Confederate salt, iron, and lead mines, for example, were
blacks. In addition, African Americans occupied positions as hospital nurses,
cooks, teamsters, and construction laborers. The labor of free blacks in war
manufactories, defensive works, and military hospitals allowed the Confederacy to
muster a large proportion of its population on the battlefield. In this manner,
free black labor contributed to the Confederacy's ability to wage war.
Free blacks in Virginia considered their labors for the Confederacy as coerced and
resisted their impressment when possible. Confederates forced William Peters of
[Rockingham County] to
labor for the Confederacy, "which I hated to do, but could not help it." He
objected, but "they talked about [lynching] me if I did not do it." Isaac Pleasants, a free black of
Henrico County, "deserted" his labor on the batteries around Richmond after about
a month. Robert James, a free black of Henrico County, secured a pass to return
home temporarily before being sent to the iron mines, but "I didn't go back, but
hid in the woods and kept out of the war."
Joseph Brown of New Kent County escaped impressment by claiming to be unfit for
service. Warren C. Cumber of New Kent County secured the aid of a lawyer to escape
work on the fortifications at Yorktown on the argument that he needed to tend his
crops. Confederate officers threatened to hang John T. Gibbs of Norfolk if he
refused to work on the breastworks, but he escaped and boasted that he "never
shoveled a spadeful for them." Free blacks resisted their impressment at great
peril. Benjamin Summers of Norfolk performed his labor on Confederate
fortifications with a ball and chain around his leg. He later attempted an
unsuccessful escape and "I was given five hundred lashes and then rubbed down with
Free blacks in Virginia also voluntarily aided the Union army and navy. They
performed similar services for the Union, acting as teamsters, laborers, guides,
cooks, and washers, and also as soldiers. Free blacks, sometimes in concert with
white Unionists, also helped slaves, Confederate deserters, and Union prisoners
escape to Union lines. Free blacks faced considerable Confederate harassment in
retaliation for their aid to the Union. Confederate cavalrymen arrested William
Pugh of Norfolk in 1861 and beat him with a club for reporting information to the
While free blacks supported the Union cause, they did not always contribute to the
Union war effort voluntarily. The Union army cleaned out the provisions of the
Alford family of
County]. Catharine Alford objected and "begged them not to take them, but
they said they were in need of them and must have them." With these contributions,
both reluctant and enthusiastic, free blacks in Virginia, along with slaves,
helped the Union to win the war.
Brewer, James H. The Confederate Negro: Virginia's Craftsmen
and Military Laborers, 1861–1865. Durham: Duke University, 1969.
Ely, Melvin Patrick. Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern
Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War. New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
Jordan, Ervin L. Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil
War Virginia. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
Medford, Edna Greene. "'I was Always a Union Man': The Dilemma of Free Blacks
in Confederate Virginia. Slavery & Abolition 15,
no. 3 (1994): 1–16.
Morgan, Lynda J. Emancipation in Virginia's Tobacco Belt,
1850–1870. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
Cite This EntryAPA Citation:
Lee, S. M. Free Blacks During the Civil War. (2012, May 17). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Free_Blacks_During_the_Civil_War.
Lee, S. M. "Free Blacks During the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,
17 May. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 28, 2009 | Last modified: May 17, 2012
Contributed by Susanna Michele Lee, an assistant professor in the Department of History at North Carolina State
University. She writes about civilians in Virginia during the Civil War and about
post–Civil War southern citizenship.