Slavery during the Civil War


Virginia had the largest population of enslaved African Americans of any state in the Confederacy, and those slaves responded to the American Civil War (1861–1865) in a variety of ways. Some volunteered to assist the Confederate war effort, while many others were forced to support the Confederacy, working on farms and in factories and households throughout Virginia. Thousands escaped to the Union army’s lines, earning their freedom and forcing the United States to develop a uniform policy regarding emancipation. Others remained on their home plantations and farms but took advantage of the war to gain some measure of autonomy for their families. Slaves’ wartime actions most often exhibited their strong desire for freedom, and even those who chose not to escape frequently welcomed the Union army as liberators.

Slaves’ Work and Daily Lives



Slavery was, as Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia noted, the ideological “corner-stone” of the Confederate government. Equally important, slave labor provided the physical cornerstone for the Confederate war effort. Civilian and military employers in Virginia hired slaves in increasing numbers over the course of the war. Most of Virginia’s slaves worked as agricultural laborers, and their wartime production helped feed both civilians and soldiers, particularly after the Confederate Congress passed legislation allowing for the impressment of wheat, corn, and other foodstuffs. Because the Confederacy’s military and industrial employers typically only hired male slaves, much of the wartime agricultural work in Virginia fell to female slaves.

The Confederacy’s use of hired slave laborers extended one of the key developments in Virginia’s economy during the late antebellum era. Slave hiring was already an established facet of Virginia’s antebellum industries, and male slaves comprised a large portion of the workforces in iron factories and on railroad lines. During the war, private employers like the Tredegar ironworks of Richmond, railroad lines, salt works, and iron forges, all of which sustained the Confederate war effort, hired increasing numbers of slave laborers as their white employees left for the army. Owners also leased their slaves to individual officers within the Confederate army or larger departments like the Confederate Medical Department, which hired hundreds of male and female slaves to work as nurses, cooks, and laundresses in army hospitals. The war increased the importance of slaves with industrial skills in the upper South’s hiring market; the demand for hired field hands also increased as white men joined the Confederate army.

Hiring Out Slave Laborers


In addition to the slaves hired to work for private industries or various military departments, thousands of slaves endured harsh working and living conditions while impressed to build fortifications under the Confederate Engineer Bureau. Slaves built the walls and trenches that defended Richmond, Petersburg, Saltville, and Lynchburg until the last weeks and months of the war. While these slaves were forced to work for the benefit of the Confederacy—and thus for their continued enslavement—others found that the war brought them new opportunities to assert their independence.

Slaveholders in Virginia and across the South anticipated that a slave uprising would accompany the start of the war and, accordingly, tightened plantation discipline in the spring and summer of 1861. As increasing numbers of white men left home for the Confederate army, however, and the dreaded slave rebellion never materialized, white Virginians loosened their grip on their slaves. Slave patrols dwindled out of existence in some areas. Plantation discipline relaxed considerably as slaves sensed and exploited their mistresses’ weakness in the absence of male authority figures. While few slaves stopped working entirely, many refused to grow cash crops without new incentives.

African American Cabin


While plantation workers enjoyed new freedoms, slaves in Virginia’s urban areas often experienced the exact opposite. In Richmond, slaves working for the Confederate government lost many of the privileges accorded hired slaves in the 1850s, in particular their ability to choose their own employers, negotiate rates of pay, and receive direct cash payments, all of which had been hallmarks of Richmond’s industrial slave-hiring system. In Lynchburg, while slaves did take advantage of wartime dislocations to begin asserting their independence, whites responded with random acts of violence designed to terrorize the city’s black population back into submission.

Some of Virginia’s Protestant churches severely constricted slaves’ freedom of worship, denying slaves the right to join churches without their masters’ permission, meet independently to hear slave preachers, or discipline their own congregations. Other churches, after an initial period of heightened alarm, expanded their enslaved congregants’ freedom of worship. In April 1863, for example, the First Baptist Church of Charlottesville voted to grant its black members partial independence, allowing them to worship separately in the church basement (before eventually moving to a separate building) and choose their own pastor and deacons. Black congregants in some of Virginia’s other churches gained more limited versions of this independence over the course of the war. White church leaders who granted their black members this freedom had no intention, however, of undermining the institution of slavery itself.

First African Baptist Church


Instead, as the war progressed, many Southern ministers extended the antebellum policy of ameliorative reform into a proslavery, pro–Confederate Christian message that still afforded some rights to their slaves. Advocates of ameliorative reform argued that masters had a responsibility to expose their slaves to Christianity but also allow slaves to make their own choices about religious behavior; upholding this responsibility would ultimately strengthen the institution of slavery. During the Civil War, some Southern ministers argued that enacting ameliorative reform policies, and thus bringing slavery into a closer accord with God’s will, would increase the likelihood of a Confederate victory. When Southern Protestant churches extended religious independence to their slaves, therefore, they did so under the expectation that slavery would continue to thrive after the war ended.

Finally, the wartime increase in slave hiring brought numerous disruptions to slaves’ family lives. Enslaved men impressed to work on fortifications or hired to Confederate officers and industrial employers usually left their wives and children behind, placing a heavier work burden on enslaved women. Climbing prices for slaves in both the hiring and long-distance sale markets increased the likelihood that families would be separated. Other aspects of the war brought additional disruptions of family life. In particular, slaves forced to abandon their homes with refugee masters and mistresses left behind friends and relatives who lived on neighboring plantations.

Virginia’s Slaves Seize Their Freedom

Escaped Slaves at Fort Monroe


While the United States government initially declared, in no uncertain terms, that it was fighting for the reunification of the country and not the abolition of slavery, many of Virginia’s slaves saw the approaching Union army as an army of liberation. As soon as Union forces took control of Fort Monroe in the spring of 1861, for example, runaway slaves began flocking to their lines. The Union commander at Fort Monroe, General Benjamin F. Butler, decided to retain these slaves within his lines as “contraband of war.” If the Confederates could use slave labor to their advantage, Butler announced, the Union had the right to confiscate those slaves. Virginia’s slaves, for their part, were usually eager to assist the Union soldiers in exchange for freedom and wages.

Not every Union general approved of Butler’s “contraband of war” argument, but it won favor with the United States Congress, which confirmed Butler’s position in August 1861. The First Confiscation Act authorized Union authorities to capture any property the Confederates were actively using to assist their war effort. Slaves who worked for the Confederate armies in any capacity were explicitly included in this legislation. Congress expanded its definition of “contraband of war” in the Second Confiscation Act of July 1862. Recognizing that all slaves working for Confederate masters aided the Confederate war effort, regardless of their specific wartime tasks, Congress authorized Union personnel to capture all property belonging to Confederates. The Second Confiscation Act specifically declared that any slaves owned by men or women who favored the Confederacy were “forever free of their servitude.”



Both Confiscation Acts treated runaway slaves as confiscated property rather than human beings. United States president Abraham Lincoln‘s September 1862 Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and his subsequent final Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, followed suit. As long as slaves were confiscated property, freeing or even arming them did not pose too great a threat to the Northern social order. Yet, as many historians have noted, it was the actions of the slaves themselves—their very human desire for freedom—that pushed emancipation into a prominent position in the Union’s efforts to win the war. The U.S. Congress confirmed that prominence on January 31, 1865, by passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery throughout the United States.

Historians often call the relationship between runaway slaves and the United States government’s movement toward emancipation the “self-emancipation thesis.” The self-emancipation thesis, which originated in the 1930s in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois and Bell Irvin Wiley, suggests that slaves who ran away to the Union army during the first two years of the Civil War forced military and civilian officials to take steps toward emancipation. Certainly, runaway slaves’ presence in nearly every Union encampment forced the U.S. Congress and President Lincoln to formulate a uniform policy, although emancipation was not an inevitable choice. The slaves who ran to Union lines early in the war did so under only a hope of freedom, not a definite expectation. Because men were more likely to escape, meanwhile, enslaved women and children suffered the brunt of their mistresses’ wrath.

Self-Emancipated Blacks Behind Union Lines


Yet those slaves living near Union armies did routinely take advantage of the opportunity to run to freedom, and the likelihood of families escaping together increased over the course of the war. Slaveholders near Union armies in northern Virginia, southeastern Virginia, and along the Chesapeake Bay reported frequent mass exoduses. The Rockingham County Court suggested that their proximity to Union soldiers in West Virginia made slavery “a volunteer matter altogether.” When slaves could leave their owners’ homes and be safely within Union lines after only a few hours’ journey, they were far more likely to run away. Close proximity to Union armies provided more opportunities for women, children, and elderly slaves to run away, although state and Confederate government officials were far more troubled by the departures of able-bodied young men.

Documents circulating between the governor’s office and the Confederate army near the end of the war illustrated how successful Virginia’s slaves were in achieving freedom through escape. Late in March 1865, Governor William “Extra Billy” Smith sent General Robert E. Lee a list enumerating all black men, slave or free, within the state of Virginia. This list relied on returns from both the county courts and the state

Potential African American Recruits for the Confederate Army


tax assessors, and Smith assured Lee that the list, while probably overestimating the number of remaining slaves in each county, was relatively accurate. Slave owners in the fifty-nine counties and three cities on Smith’s list held only 25,697 male slaves between the ages of eighteen and forty-five in March 1865, an estimate the governor himself admitted was probably too high. According to the 1860 U.S. Census returns, those same fifty-nine counties and three cities had contained 65,720 male slaves in a comparable age range. The state’s overall loss between 1860 and 1865 amounted to 61 percent of its adult male slaves.

Losses in some areas exceeded even that 61 percent. Despite massive influxes of refugees from the countryside, Richmond and Henrico County lost 70 percent of their adult male slaves by March 1865; Rappahannock County, which spent much of the war behind Union lines, lost 72 percent. Even the tobacco-producing counties along the border with North Carolina, one of the more sheltered regions of Virginia, lost nearly 50 percent of their adult male slaves in the last two years of the war. In a state like Virginia, which saw repeated incursions of Union forces in almost every area of the state, self-emancipation was a realistic option for many slaves. Virginia’s enslaved men and women thus repeatedly seized their opportunities to gain freedom throughout the Civil War.

May 27, 1861
Union general Benjamin F. Butler, the commander at Fort Monroe, announces that he will not return fugitive slaves to bondage. Fort Monroe becomes known as "Freedom's Fortress," and a steady stream of "contraband" offered wages, food, and shelter, begins work for the Union army.
August 6, 1861
With the First Confiscation Act, the U.S. Congress sustains Fort Monroe commander Benjamin F. Butler's "contraband of war" decision. It declares that any slave used for military purposes against the United States can be confiscated.
July 17, 1862
With the Second Confiscation Act, the U.S. Congress recognizes that all slaves working for Confederate masters aid the Confederate war effort, regardless of their specific tasks. The act authorizes the slaves' confiscation, declaring them "forever free of their servitude."
September 22, 1862
President Abraham Lincoln issues the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
December 15, 1862
President Abraham Lincoln receives the West Virginia statehood bill and requests that his cabinet review the legislation and make recommendations. Lincoln's cabinet ultimately splits three to three over the legislation.
April 20, 1863
The March 16 petition by black congregants of Charlottesville's First Baptist Church to establish the Charlottesville African Church is accepted by white church leaders.
January 31, 1865
The U.S. Congress passes the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by a vote of 119 to 56. The amendment abolishes slavery.
March 4, 1865
The Confederate Congress votes to arm African American men as Confederate soldiers.
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  • Slavery and the Making of America, Volume 4: The Challenge of Freedom. Ambrose Video Publishing, 2005.
APA Citation:
Martinez, Jaime. Slavery during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/slavery-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Martinez, Jaime. "Slavery during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 13 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, June 10
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