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 blacks precarious.
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
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 come."
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 Union army.
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
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. (2014, January 30). 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,
30 Jan. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 28, 2009 | Last modified: January 30, 2014
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.