Free Blacks during the Civil War


Free Blacks in Virginia numbered 58,042 on the eve of the American Civil War (1861–1865), or about 44 percent of the future Confederacy’s free Black population. Of the slave states, only Maryland had a larger population, with 83,942. Free Blacks were concentrated in Virginia’s cities. According to the 1860 census, the greatest number, 3,244, resided in Petersburg, followed by Richmond with 2,576, Alexandria with 1,415, and Norfolk with 1,046. Free Blacks included men and women of African descent who were born free or who gained their freedom before the war through manumission. Virginia officially required freed enslaved people to leave the state after 1806, but many remained in violation of the law. Of course, many more African Americans became free during the war, escaping the fighting as refugees or claiming legal freedom through the Emancipation Proclamation (1863). Although Confederate propagandists insisted that free Blacks would support the Confederate cause, their service was often rendered only by the threat of violence. In the meantime, concerns about their loyalty combined with their disproportionate wartime suffering contributed to Virginia’s internal divisions and exposed the weaknesses of Confederate ideology.

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 home near 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 enslaved people undoubtedly suffered from a scarcity of food, clothing, and medicine during the war, their enslavers, 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 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, he said, “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 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 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, he said, “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

Impressment of Free Blacks During the Civil War

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 “was given five hundred lashes and then rubbed down with salt brine.”

African Americans Laboring for the Union Army

Free Blacks in Virginia also voluntarily aided the Union army and navy, performing 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 enslaved people, 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 Spotsylvania 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 enslaved people, 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.
APA Citation:
Lee, Susanna. Free Blacks during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/free-blacks-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Lee, Susanna. "Free Blacks during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 14 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2023, July 06
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