Refugees during the Civil War


Virginia possessed the largest number of the estimated 200,000 Southerners who fled their homes during the American Civil War (1861–1865). There were three broad classes of refugees in Virginia during the war—slaves, white Unionists and other dissidents, and Confederates—although historians have tended to focus only on Confederates. These three groups shared some of the same dislocations, but their experiences of the war differed dramatically. White and black Unionists and dissidents who fled to Union lines contributed to the Northern war effort. Confederates, in contrast, bitterly resented the Union invaders, but the hardships of refugee life exacerbated feelings of war weariness. This, combined with social divisions inside Virginia, factored into Confederate defeat.


Following the controversial lead of Benjamin F. Butler at Fort Monroe, Virginia, in 1861, Union officials designated slaves who escaped to Union lines as “contraband,” refusing to return them to their owners despite the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The term “contraband” was a mere political convenience, however. These African Americans are more properly understood as a class of refugees.

African Americans Coming into Union Lines

Take, for instance, the case of John M. Washington, a slave from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Hired out in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Washington heard rumors of slaves using the war as a means to freedom. In his 1872 memoir, Memorys of the Past, he wrote that by late in 1861 it had “become a well known fact that slaves was daily making their Escape into the union lines.”

Washington kept abreast of war news and plotted to place himself closer to, or in the path of, the Army of the Potomac. Washington’s employer in Richmond allowed him to travel home to Fredericksburg in December 1861 and expected him back after the Christmas holiday. Once in Fredericksburg, Washington hired himself out as a steward and bartender, and his employer planned to take him farther into the Confederate interior. “I made them believe I was most anxious to go,” Washington wrote. “In fact I made them believe that I was tereblely afred of the Yankees, any way. My Master was well satisfied at my appearant disposition and told me I was quite Right, for if the Yankees were to catch me they would send me to Cuba or cut my hands off or otherwise maltreat me. I of course pretended to beleive all they said but knew they were lieing all the while.”

Washington secretly resolved to remain in Fredericksburg until his employer prepared to leave, then conceal himself and await the arrival of the Union army. Washington’s calculations paid off when Union troops arrived in April 1862. After serving as an army guide, he eventually found freedom in Washington, D.C. Blacks who escaped to Union lines also found employment with the Union army as carpenters, masons, teamsters, blacksmiths, laborers, nurses, and washers.

Self-Emancipated Blacks Behind Union Lines

When white Northerners objected to the influx of black refugees, military officials relocated thousands to so-called contraband camps in occupied Virginia, including the abandoned Arlington estate of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis Lee. Black refugees in these camps had difficulty securing adequate housing, food, clothing, and medicine, which sometimes resulted in starvation, disease, and death. Low wages and poor treatment led to disputes between black refugees and military officials. In these camps, however, refugees found education and freedom. Northern missionaries attempted to inculcate their notions of proper work, health, and religious values to a population they presumed to be lazy, unhygienic, and licentious. But the camps also served as political schools as blacks learned about issues like emancipation and equal rights. Military authorities attempted to relieve overcrowding by resettling refugees on government farms, like those near Hampton and Norfolk, but thousands remained dependent upon government aid and unable to secure an independent livelihood.

White Dissidents

Departure from the Old Homestead

Southern Unionists, often Northern-born, fled to the North to escape Confederate persecution during the war. Vigilance committees warned prominent Unionists to cease their “treasonous” speeches and activities or face expulsion from the community. In addition to general harassment, including violence and imprisonment, Unionists faced confiscation of their property under the Confederate Sequestration Act passed on August 30, 1861. The act permitted authorities to confiscate all property owned by alien enemies residing in the Confederacy.

Harassment prompted many white Unionists to sell their property and relocate to the North early in the war. George R. Herrick of Alexandria had moved from New England to Virginia in 1858. He fled to the North after the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861 to escape persecution he endured as a result of his vote against secession. He settled in Washington, D.C., where he secured a position on the police force.

In the latter years of the war, whites became refugees to evade Confederate conscription. Edwin K. Kane of Caroline County evaded the conscript guard until December 1863. Confederate authorities finally captured him and forced him into the army. Kane shot himself in the foot to avoid Confederate service, but the conscript guard arrested him anyway and, “carrying one boot which I was unable to wear,” Kane was sent to the front nevertheless. He deserted the Confederate army and secured transportation north from the Union army. Kane’s wife, Mary, sold all their perishable property. They settled in a refugee community in Washington, D.C.

Refugees like Kane did not necessarily support the Union cause; they primarily did not want to support the Confederate cause by risking their lives on the battlefield. As refugees in the North, white dissidents often fared better than blacks. While blacks were often confined to “contraband camps,” white Northern-born refugees could capitalize upon family connections to secure livelihoods throughout the North. White Northerners were often more sympathetic to and accommodating of white refugees than black refugees.


Most Confederates became refugees in order to escape the Union army and the indignities of Union occupation, but some left their homes in response to food shortages—especially after 1863—and forcible evacuation by Union or Confederate authorities, as in Fredericksburg in December 1862. (The Battle of Fredericksburg was fought December 11–14.) Evacuation and relocation posed many challenges, which proved difficult, even impossible, to overcome. Confederate civilians contemplated Union troop movements in attempts to predict which areas might be the safest, fearing that the Union army might target their new locations, as well.

They agonized about the timing of their moves. Leaving with the first inkling of Union movement could be dangerous because rumors were often premature and even altogether incorrect. But waiting too long posed risks, as well. Families who delayed sometimes found that a rapid Union approach cut off their escape routes. Meanwhile, families who did escape could not always find transportation for their possessions or afford it if they could. Any property left behind was lost to the Union army, to the Confederate army, and to looters, including their own slaves.

Once in a new locale, refugees often could not secure an adequate livelihood. Farmers had to rent or buy farms or find employment to pay for their foodstuffs. Others struggled to find positions, often without the benefit of references or connections. Refugees faced particularly difficult times in cities, which could not always support the influx of population. The population of Richmond doubled in the first year of the war alone. Petersburg, Fredericksburg, Danville, Staunton, and Charlottesville also served as major refugee centers.

Urban areas, in particular, lacked the resources to feed and house refugees, resulting in charges of extortion and speculation by the newcomers. In addition, crowded conditions resulted in household tensions. Confederates Will and Betty Maury are a case in point. They had fled Washington, D.C., in June 1861 for Virginia. The Maurys eventually found refuge with their relatives the Magruder family in Richmond. The Magruders, however, sent them a notice to vacate in February 1863.

Betty Maury complained that “Cousin Hite and Mr. Magruder scarcely speak to us! They have never asked where we are going, or what we intend to do, or expressed the slightest interest in us. It is all a mystery. We cannot imagine what has caused the change.” Maury’s husband stayed in Richmond while she, pregnant and feeling “homeless and forlorn,” set out for Charlottesville. En route to her destination, she gave birth to her second child. Maury’s experience as a refugee provides a poignant demonstration of the unfortunate breakdown in communal and familial ties during the war. Still, that same suffering—as experienced by white refugees—also became a powerful symbol of Confederate identity during the war years. When Richmond appeared on the verge of falling in 1865, an Albemarle County woman bemoaned, “my own brave Virginia! My own loved, long-suffering Virginia.”

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APA Citation:
Lee, Susanna. Refugees during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/refugees-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Lee, Susanna. "Refugees during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 30 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, June 10
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