Slavery In The Civil War Era
Over the years there has been a wealth of information written about the "peculiar institution" (as it was called then) of slavery in the Civil War era. Some of it accurate, some of it fantasy. The following attempts to give a brief picture of what it was like. It consists of three articles: Antebellum Slavery, Slavery During the Civil War, which discusses the "peculiar institution" before and during the war, and finally, Slave Life, which discusses the daily lives of slaves, their society and culture. The source for this page was:
Macmillan Information Now Encyclopedia, "The Confederacy" and the articles by Robert Francis Engs in that document.
This Page last updated 02/24/02
The enslavement of African Americans in what became the United States formally began during the 1630s and l64Os. At that time colonial courts and legislatures made clear that Africans--unlike white indentured servants--served their masters for life and that their slave status would be inherited by their children. Slavery in the United States ended in the mid-1860s. Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 was a masterful propaganda tactic, but in truth, it proclaimed free only those slaves outside the control of the Federal government--that is, only those in areas still controlled by the Confederacy. The legal end to slavery in the nation came in December 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, it declared: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
Development of American Slavery
The history of African American slavery in the United States can be divided into two periods: the first coincided with the colonial years, about 1650 to 1790; the second lasted from American independence through the Civil War, 1790 to 1865. Prior to independence, slavery existed in all the American colonies and therefore was not an issue of sectional debate. With the arrival of independence, however, the new Northern states--those of New England along with New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey--came to see slavery as contradictory to the ideals of the Revolution and instituted programs of gradual emancipation. By 1820 there were only about 3,000 slaves in the North, almost all of them working on large farms in New Jersey. Slavery could be abolished more easily in the North because there were far fewer slaves in those states, and they were not a vital part of Northern economies. There were plenty of free white men to do the sort of labor slaves performed. In fact, the main demand for abolition of slavery came not from those who found it morally wrong but from white working-class men who did not want slaves as rivals for their jobs.
Circumstances in the newly formed Southern states were quite different. The African American population, both slave and free, was much larger. In Virginia and South Carolina in 1790 nearly half of the population was of African descent. (Historians have traditionally assumed that South Carolina had a black majority population throughout its pre--Civil War history. But census figures for 1790 to 1810 show that the state possessed a majority of whites.) Other Southern states also had large black minorities.
Because of their ingrained racial prejudice and ignorance about the sophisticated cultures in Africa from which many of their slaves came, Southern whites were convinced that free blacks would be savages--a threat to white survival. So Southerners believed that slavery was necessary as a means of race control.
Of equal importance in the Southern states was the economic role that slaves played. These states were much more dependent on the agricultural sector of their economies than were Northern ones. Much of the wealth of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia came from the cash crops that slaves grew. Indeed, many white Southerners did not believe white men could (or should) do the backbreaking labor required to produce tobacco, cotton, rice, and indigo, which were the regions chief cash crops.
As a consequence of these factors, the Southern states were determined to retain slavery after the Revolution. Thus began the fatal division between "free states" and "slave states" that led to sectionalism and, ultimately, to civil war.
Some historians have proposed that the evolution of slavery in most New World societies can be divided (roughly, and with some risk of over generalization) into three stages: developmental, high-profit, and decadent. In the developmental stage, slaves cleared virgin forests for planting and built the dikes, dams, roads, and buildings necessary for plantations. In the second, high-profit stage, slave owners earned enormous income from the cash crop they grew for export. In these first two phases, slavery was always very brutal.
During the developmental phase, slaves worked in unknown, often dangerous territory, beset by disease and sometimes hostile inhabitants. Clearing land and performing heavy construction jobs without modern machinery was extremely hard labor, especially in the hot, humid climate of the South.
During the high-profit phase, slaves were driven mercilessly to plant, cultivate, and harvest the crops for market. A failed crop meant the planter could lose his initial investment in land and slaves and possibly suffer bankruptcy. A successful crop could earn such high returns that the slaves were often worked beyond human endurance. Plantation masters argued callously that it was "cheaper to buy than to breed"--it was cheaper to work the slaves to death and then buy new ones than it was to allow them to live long enough and under sufficiently healthy conditions that they could bear children to increase their numbers. During this phase, on some of the sugar plantations in Louisiana and the Caribbean, the life span of a slave from initial purchase to death was only seven years.
The final, decadent phase of slavery was reached when the land upon which the cash crops were grown had become exhausted--the nutrients in the soil needed to produce large harvests were depleted. When that happened, the slave regime typically became more relaxed and less labor-intensive. Plantation owners turned to growing grain crops like wheat, barley, corn, and vegetables. Masters needed fewer slaves, and those slaves were not forced to work as hard because the cultivation of these crops required less labor.
This model is useful in analyzing the evolution of Southern slavery between independence and the Civil War. The process, however, varied considerably from state to state. Those of the upper South--Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia--essentially passed through the developmental and high-profit stages before American independence. By 1790, Maryland and Virginia planters could no longer produce the bumper harvests of tobacco that had made them rich in the earlier eighteenth century, because their soil was depleted. So they turned to less labor-intensive and less profitable crops such as grains, fruits, and vegetables. This in turn meant they had a surplus of slaves.
One result was that Virginia planters began to free many of their slaves in the decade after the Revolution. Some did so because they believed in the principles of human liberty. (After all, Virginian slave owners wrote some of the chief documents defining American freedom like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and much of the Bill of Rights.) Others, however, did so for a much more cynical reason. Their surplus slaves had become a burden to house and feed. In response, they emancipated those who were too old or feeble to be of much use on the plantation. Ironically, one of the first laws in Virginia restricting the rights of masters to free their slaves was passed for the protection of the slaves. It denied slave owners the right to free valueless slaves, thus throwing them on public charity for survival. Many upper South slave owners around 1800 believed that slavery would gradually die Out because there was no longer enough work for the slaves to do, and without masters to care for them, the ex-slaves would die out as well.
Two initially unrelated events solved the upper South's problem of a surplus slave population, caused slavery to become entrenched in the Southern States, and created what we know as the antebellum South. They were the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney of Connecticut in 1793 and the closing of the international slave trade in 1808.
The cotton gin is a relatively simple machine. Its horizontally crossing combs extract tightly entwined seeds from the bolls of short-staple cotton. Prior to the invention of the gin, only long-staple cotton, which has long soft strands, could be grown for profit. Its soft fibers allowed easy removal of its seeds. But this strain of cotton grew in America only along the coast and Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. In contrast, short-staple cotton could grow in almost any non-mountainous region of the South below Virginia. Before the invention of the cotton gin, it took a slave many hours to dc-seed a single pound of "lint," or short-staple cotton. With the gin, as many as one hundred pounds of cotton could be dc-seeded per hour.
The invention of the cotton gin permitted short-staple cotton to be grown profitably throughout the lower South. Vast new plantations were created from the virgin lands of the territories that became the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. (Louisiana experienced similar growth in both cotton and sugar agriculture.) In 1810, the South produced 85,000 pounds of cotton; by 1860, it was producing well over 2 billion pounds a year.
There was an equally enormous demand for the cotton these plantations produced. It was so profitable that by 1860 ten of the richest men in America lived not just in the South but in the Natchez district of Mississippi alone. In 1810, the cotton crop had been worth $12,495,000; by 1860, it was valued at $248,757,000.
Along with this expansion in cotton growing came a restriction on the supply of slaves needed to grow it. The transatlantic slave trade was one of the most savage and inhumane practices in which people of European descent have ever engaged. The writers of the Constitution had recognized its evil, but to accommodate the demands of slave owners in the lower South, they had agreed to permit the transatlantic slave trade to continue for twenty years after the Constitution was ratified. Thus, it was not until 1808 that Congress passed legislation ending the transatlantic trade.
These two circumstances--the discovery of a means of making the cultivation of short-staple cotton profitable throughout the lower South and territories and the restriction on the supply of slaves needed to produce it--created the unique antebellum slave system of the South. It made at least some Southerners very rich and it also made slaves much more valuable. One consequence was that some American slaves were perhaps better treated than those elsewhere in the New World, not because American slave owners were kinder, but because American slaves were in short supply and expensive to replace. The price of slaves increased steadily from 1802 to 1860. In 1810, the price of a "prime field hand" was $900; by 1860, that price had doubled to $1,800.
The Slave System in the Nineteenth Century
Slavery in the antebellum South was not a monolithic system; its nature varied widely across the region. At one extreme one white family in thirty owned slaves in Delaware; in contrast, half of all white families in South Carolina did so. Overall, 26 percent of Southern white families owned slaves.
In 1860, families owning more than fifty slaves numbered less than 10,000; those owning more than a hundred numbered less than 3,000 in the whole South. The typical Southern slave owner possessed one or two slaves, and the typical white Southern male owned none. He was an artisan, mechanic, or more frequently, a small farmer. This reality is vital in understanding why white Southerners went to war to defend slavery in 1861. Most of them did not have a direct financial investment in the system. Their willingness to fight in its defense was more complicated and subtle than simple fear of monetary loss. They deeply believed in the Southern way of life, of which slavery was an inextricable part. They also were convinced that Northern threats to undermine slavery would unleash the pent-up hostilities of 4 million African American slaves who had been subjugated for centuries.
REGULATING SLAVERY. One half of all Southerners in 1860 were either slaves themselves or members of slaveholding families. These elite families shaped the mores and political stance of the South, which reflected their common concerns. Foremost among these were controlling slaves and assuring an adequate supply of slave labor. The legislatures of the Southern states passed laws designed to protect the masters right to their human chattel. Central to these laws were "slave codes," which in their way were grudging admissions that slaves were, in fact, human beings, not simply property like so many cattle or pigs. They attempted to regulate the system so as to minimize the possibility of slave resistance or rebellion. In all states the codes made it illegal for slaves to read and write, to attend church services without the presence of a white person, or to testify in court against a white person. Slaves were forbidden to leave their home plantation without a written pass from their masters. Additional laws tried to secure slavery by restricting the possibility of manumission (the freeing of ones slaves). Between 1810 and 1860, all Southern states passed laws severely restricting the right of slave owners to free their slaves, even in a will. Free blacks were dangerous, for they might inspire slaves to rebel. As a consequence, most Southern states required that any slaves who were freed by their masters leave the state within thirty days.
To enforce the slave codes, authorities established "slave patrols." These were usually locally organized bands of young white men, both slave owners and yeomen farmers, who rode about at night checking that slaves were securely in their quarters. Although some planters felt that the slave patrolmen abused slaves who had been given permission to travel, the slave patrols nevertheless reinforced the sense of white solidarity between slave owners and those who owned none. They shared a desire to keep the nonwhite population in check. (These antebellum slave patrols are seen by many historians as antecedents of the Reconstruction era Ku Klux Klan, which similarly tried to discipline the freed blacks. The Klan helped reinforce white solidarity in a time when the class lines between ex--slave owners and white yeomen were collapsing because of slavery's end.)
SLAVE LABOR IN THE UPPER SOUTH. If there was a "least bad" place to be a slave in the antebellum South, it was in the towns and on the smaller farms of Virginia and Maryland. When those states turned from growing high-yield crops like tobacco to cultivating crops like grains and vegetables, the change carried some benefits for slaves. The new crops required less intensive labor and permitted some slaves to work under the "task system." Slaves were assigned chores individually or in small groups. They were permitted to work at their own pace, often without direct white supervision. They would be assigned another task upon completion of the first.
The decline in the profitability of slavery appears to have led to a more relaxed and open regime for some slaves in the upper South. Since fewer slaves were needed on plantations, many were allowed by their master to live in town and "hire their own time"--find their own work--paying their masters a portion of their wages, usually two-thirds to three-quarters. This benefited the masters by enabling them to make a profit on an otherwise surplus slave. It was attractive to the slaves because it gave them more independence. Many hoped to save enough from their wages to buy their freedom from their owners.
This more relaxed system extended to other aspects of slave life in the upper South. It appears that most slaves in Virginia and Maryland were allowed to marry and have families, although these families had no legal standing. They existed only through permission of the master. In addition, laws against literacy and holding church services without a white person present were widely ignored or unenforced.
Of course, Virginia slaves were still the property of white masters, to be used as the masters saw fit. To put it bluntly, the chief cash crop of Virginia slave owners after 1807 was the slaves themselves. Historians have been unable to find plantations that openly "bred" slaves for sale, but this does not change the central appalling fact--the number of slaves born in Virginia between 1807 and 1860 was the same number as those sold farther South. So if conditions for slaves were better in Virginia, few of those born there grew up to enjoy them there. Indeed, the standard and most effective way to discipline a slave was to threaten to sell him or a loved one to the Deep South.
SLAVE LABOR IN THE LOWER SOUTH. The possibility of being "sold south" was no empty threat. Slaves in the lower South were often ill housed, ill fed, and ill cared for. It was more profitable to keep them at work on cotton than allow them time to build a decent shelter. It was more profitable to plant every inch of land in cotton than to allot space for growing foodstuffs. Even the little garden plots allowed slaves in the upper South were usually absent in Mississippi. That state, with some of the richest soil in American, was actually a net importer of foodstuffs before the Civil War.
Life on the Deep South plantations was also characterized by the impersonality of master-slave relationships. Owners were often absent, and overseers were paid by how much cotton they produced, not by the condition of the slaves they supervised.
On lower South plantations, like those of the upper South, both men and women slaves were expected to toil in the fields from "first light" to "full dark." Because men were stronger and able to work harder, the plantations often had a much larger number of male slaves than female. This made the possibility of marriage problematic for the slave men. Moreover, women were sometimes seen as liabilities because "female problems" such as the menstrual cycle and pregnancy periodically incapacitated them for hard labor. In the cotton and sugar South, slaves were usually worked in gangs supervised by black drivers and white overseers with whips. The pace for plowing, hoeing, weeding, or picking was set by the overseers, and if a worker fell behind, he or she felt the sting of the lash.
Impact of Slavery on the Southern Economy
As the preceding discussion makes clear, slavery in the antebellum South was overwhelmingly a rural phenomenon. This was, in part, because most slave owners believed that slavery would not work well in an urban industrialized environment. Slaves were thought to be too stupid to understand machinery and too careless to be trusted with complex tools.
In fact, however, slaves were used successfully in factories such as the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. They also labored in the salt mines and turpentine plants of North Carolina, the coal mines of western Virginia, and the sugar mills of Louisiana. Moreover, when, during the Civil War, Southerners confronted a manpower shortage and the need for rapid industrialization, they quickly overcame their prejudices against using slaves in factories.
OBJECTIONS TO URBAN SLAVERY. A major reason for slavery being confined mostly to rural areas in the South concerned its dual purpose for the white population. It was both a means of labor exploitation and a means of race control. It was this second aspect that made the institution problematic in urban areas. Simply put, slaves in cities were much more difficult to supervise.
It was the custom of factory owners to hire slaves from masters rather than purchase them outright. In the upper South, where urban slaves were more common, this allowed slave owners to profit from their excess slaves without having to sell them South. The problem was that industrialists preferred to avoid the burden of overseeing their slave employees outside of the factory, and they tended to give them stipends to pay for their own housing and board. This enabled urban slaves to live in a varied community that included free blacks, slaves who hired their own time, and white people--some of whom might oppose slavery.
As white Southerners saw it, the urban environment exposed slaves to dangerous ideas about freedom. Most Southern cities were ports that provided access to the outside world where slavery was generally outlawed. Free black sailors and sympathetic white ship captains were known to help slaves escape aboard their vessels.
Cities, therefore, were considered antithetical to effective slave control. White Southerners well remembered that the two largest slave conspiracies (those of Gabriel Prosser in Richmond in 1800 and Denmark Vesey in Charleston in 1822) were urban phenomena. Moreover, both men were free blacks who had persuaded urban slaves to join them in their plots.
Yet another factor militating against urban slavery was the attitudes of workers in antebellum America. Southern white men felt demeaned if they were required to perform the same sort of job as a slave. Moreover, slaves, who received no wages, could do the same labor more cheaply than free white men. White workers--like the caulkers in Baltimore who beat up Frederick Douglass when his master sent him to work in the dockyards--often refused to labor along side slaves.
So, to maintain better supervision of slaves and assure white solidarity and the status of white laborers, urban slavery in the antebellum South was minimal. The numbers of urban slaves actually declined between 1830 and 1860.
NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF RURAL SLAVERY. The rural nature of antebellum slavery had unintended negative effects on the Southern economy. The investment of so much capital in land and slaves discouraged the growth of cities and diverted funds from factories. This meant that the South lacked the industrial base it needed to counter the North when the Civil War began. Indeed, in 1860, the South had approximately the same number of industrial workers (110,000), as the North had industrial plants.
Other detrimental effects arose from the South's devotion to rural slavery. Wealthy planters liked to claim they were living out the Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian democracy. In truth, the South was agrarian because slave owners found that the best way to maintain their wealth and contain their slaves. Moreover, its "democracy" was very limited because the planters had enormous influence over how white yeomen cast their votes. Except in remote areas of the South with few slaves or plantations, it was the needs and beliefs of the planter class that shaped Southern politics on the local, state, and national levels.
The consequences of this planter dominance was seen in many aspects of the society. The South failed to develop a varied economy even within the agricultural realm. All the most fertile land in the South was owned by slaveholders who chose to grow high-profit staple crops--cotton, tobacco, sugar. That left only marginal land for the vast majority of white farmers. This problem was compounded by the dominance of the planters image as the social ideal. Alternative means of advancement were unavailable, so yeomen farmers aspired to become planters themselves. They used some of their land to grow food for their family's consumption and devoted the rest to cash crops like cotton. Their hope was to produce enough to save, buy a few slaves, produce yet more, and, ultimately, accumulate the wealth that would elevate them to planter status. For most, this was a futile dream, but they remained committed to it, thereby neglecting other possible avenues for economic advancement.
One reason for the yeomen farmers lack of aspirations was ignorance. The antebellum South neglected to provide for the education of its people. Planters controlled the governmental revenues that could have financed public education, but they saw no need to do so. Their slaves were forbidden to learn; their own children were educated by private tutors or in exclusive and expensive private academies. As a result, most white yeomen were left without access to education. A few lucky ones near towns or cities could sometimes send their children to fee schools or charity schools, but many were too poor or too proud to use either option.
In a similar vein, the dominating slaveholding class saw no need to create the means to produce inexpensive consumer goods for ordinary whites or to build an infrastructure by which such goods could be moved from production sites to markets in the countryside. Wealthy planters acquired what they wanted by importing expensive European or Northern goods. Thus poor whites were left to their own minimal resources and were deprived of goods they might have bought, had they been available.
This lack of consumer production and markets also retarded the growth of Southern transportation. Highways, canals, and railroads were constructed to move crops to ports and bring in luxury items for the planter class. The need of yeomen farmers to transport their crops to local markets was ignored. As a consequence, it was usually cheaper for plantation owners to import food from the North or upper South than to purchase it from white farmers in the same region. This deficiency in the Southern transportation system proved a serious liability for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Slavery in the antebellum South, then, made a minority of white Southerners--owners of large slaveholdings--enormously wealthy. At the same time, it demeaned and exploited Southerners of African descent, left the majority of white Southerners impoverished and uneducated, and retarded the overall economic, cultural, and social growth of the region. Slavery was the institution by which the South defined itself when it chose to secede from the Union. But it was the existence of slavery, with its negative impact on politics, economics, and social relations, that fatally crippled the South in its bid for independence.
SLAVERY DURING THE CIVIL WAR
Although slavery was at the heart of the sectional impasse between North and South in 1860, it was not the singular cause of the Civil War. Rather, it was the multitude of differences arising from the slavery issue that impelled the Southern states to secede.
The presidential election of 1860 had resulted in the selection of a Republican, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, as president of the United States. Lincoln won because of an overwhelming electoral college vote from the Northern states. Not a single Southern slave state voted for him. Lincoln and his Republican party were pledged only to stop the expansion of slavery. Although they promised to protect slavery where it existed, white Southerners were not persuaded. The election results demonstrated that the South was increasingly a minority region within the nation. Soon Northerners and slavery's opponents might accumulate the voting power to overturn the institution, no matter what white Southerners might desire.
Indeed, many Southern radicals, or fire-eaters, openly hoped for a Republican victory as the only way to force Southern independence. South Carolina had declared it would secede from the Union if Lincoln was elected, and it did so in December 1861. It was followed shortly by the other lower South states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, and Texas. in February 1861, a month before Lincoln was inaugurated, these states formed a new nation, the Confederate States of America. After the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, the other slave states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas joined the Confederacy. The border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri remained--not entirely voluntarily--in the Union.
The new republic claimed its justification to be the protection of state rights. In truth, close reading of the states secession proclamations and of the new Confederate Constitution reveals that it was primarily one state right that impelled their separation: the right to preserve African American slavery within their borders. But the white South's decision to secede proved to be the worst possible choice it could have made in order to preserve that right.
There was enormous antislavery sentiment in the North, hut such sentiment was also strongly anti-Negro. White Northerners did not wish slavery to expand into new areas of the nation, which they believed should be preserved for white nonslaveholding settlers. This was, in part, why Republicans pledged to protect slavery where it existed. They and their constituencies did not want an influx of ex-slaves into their exclusively white territories, should slavery end abruptly.
Some historians argue that, had the South remained within the Union, its representatives could have prevented any radical Northern plan for emancipation. By leaving the Union, white Southerners gave up their voice in national councils. Moreover, by seceding, the South compelled the North to realize the extent of its allegiance to a united American nation. Thus, the North went to war to preserve the Union, and the white South went to war for independence so that it might protect slavery. Most participants on both sides did not initially realize that the African American slaves might view the conflict as an occasion that they could turn to their own advantage.
SLAVES EFFORTS TO UNDERMINE THE SOUTH. In 1861, as the Civil War began, there were four open questions among Northerners and Southerners with regard to the slaves: First, would they rebel? Second, did they want their freedom? Third, would they fight for their freedom? And, finally, would they know what to do with their freedom if they got it? The answer to each question was yes, but in a manner that reflected the peculiar experience of blacks in white America.
First was the question of whether bondsmen would rebel or remain passive. The fear of slave rebellion preoccupied both the Southern slaveholder and the Northern invader. Strikingly, Northerners were as uneasy about the possibility as were Southerners. Initially the Northern goal in the war was the speedy restoration of the Union under the Constitution and the laws of 1861, all of which recognized the legitimacy of slavery. Interfering with slavery would make reunion more difficult. Thus, Union generals like George B. McClellan in Virginia and Henry W. Halleck in the West were ordered not only to defeat the Southern armies but also to prevent slave insurrections. In the first months of the war, slaves who escaped to Union lines were returned to their masters in conformity with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Concern about outright slave insurrections proved unfounded, however. Slaves were not fools, nor were they suicidal. Mary Boykin Chesnut, the famed Southern diarist and one of the South's most perceptive observers of slavery, understood the slaves strategy. She wrote from her plantation: "Dick, the butler here, reminds me that when we were children, I taught him to read as soon as I could read myself. . . . But he won't look at me now. He looks over my head. He scents freedom in the air."
Slaves like Dick knew the war was about their freedom, but they were both shrewd and cautious. To rebel on their own was hopeless; the whites were too powerful. But now the Southern whites had an equally powerful outside enemy, and the odds had changed. The slaves, like successful rebels everywhere, bided their time until a revolt could succeed.
Meanwhile, through desertion and noncooperation, they did much to undermine the South long before Union armies triumphed. When the war began, some Confederates claimed that the disparity in white manpower between North and South (6 million potential soldiers for the North versus only 2 million for the South) was irrelevant. The South, Confederates claimed, could put a far higher proportion of their men in the field because they had slaves to do the labor at home.
The South, however, quickly learned that it had what would now be called a "fifth column" in its midst, providing aid and comfort to the enemy. At the beginning of the war, Southern officers took their body servants with them to the front to do their cooking and laundry. A unit of two thousand white soldiers would sometimes depart with as many as a thousand slaves in tow. The custom did not last beyond the first summer of the conflict. The servants deserted at the first opportunity and provided excellent intelligence to Union forces about Southern troop deployments.
In one incident during the early months of the war, Union soldiers on the Virginia Peninsula, stationed at Fort Monroe, repeatedly set out to capture the nearby city of Newport News, but without success. Their inaccurate maps showed the town to be southwest of Fort Monroe. Each would-be attack concluded with the troops mired in the swampy land bordering Hampton Roads (the bay between the Virginia Peninsula and Norfolk on the "Southside"). In fact, Newport News was slightly northwest of Fort Monroe, and Union forces were unable to find it until an escaped body servant led them there.
SLAVE LABOR WITH THE CONFEDERATE MILITARY. Despite such subversion by the slaves, the Confederacy nevertheless successfully used them to advance its war effort. White Southerners, though convinced of the African Americans inherent inferiority, were far less reluctant about putting the slaves to work militarily than were white Northerners. The Confederate government never used them as soldiers, but it did press them into labor brigades to build fortifications, dig latrines, and haul supplies. Tens of thousands of slaves toiled for the Confederacy in a service both the bondsmen and their owners disliked. For the slave impressed into labor on the front-line, the work frequently was not only harder than that on the plantation but also dangerous. Because of the possibility of escape through Union lines, slaves at the front were much more closely supervised than on their home farms. Moreover, those sent to work with the Confederate army were usually men in their prime, between eighteen and forty. Service with the army denied them their accustomed time with their wife and family.
The slave owners, for their part, were reluctant to send their bondsmen to the front for two reasons. First, they risked the loss of their most valuable property, and, second, because the men were usually overworked and mistreated, they frequently returned to their homes in very poor physical condition. Thus, the owners often contrived to send only their most unmanageable and therefore least marketable slaves to the army. During the war, threatening to send a slave to the front became the disciplinary equivalent of threatening to sell a slave farther South in antebellum days. Ironically, as the South's cause became more desperate, masters were increasingly reluctant to send their slaves to the military. Slavery was dying, yet those with the most to lose hung on tenaciously to their human property, thereby withholding the one remaining resource that might have saved their nation--and them.
The exigencies of war also finally settled the decades-old debate as to whether slaves could be used safely and efficiently in industry. The shortage of white manpower left the South with no other choice than to put slaves to work in its factories and mines. In the Tredegar Iron Works of Richmond alone, thousands of slaves were employed. The Augusta munitions plants of Georgia likewise were primarily staffed by bondsmen. Thousands of others labored in the ultimately futile effort to keep Southern rail lines operating. As with service on the front lines, this labor--especially in extractive industries like the coal mines and salt factories--was harsher than life on the plantation, and slaves resisted it if they could. Many made the long-delayed decision to run away when faced with such dire prospects.
Although their service was extracted involuntarily, slaves in industry and on the battlefield enabled the South to fight on longer than would have been possible otherwise. In the final desperate days of the war, the Confederacy even considered using blacks as soldiers, offering emancipation as a reward. The Union had struck that bargain two years earlier. The Southern proposal was made in February 1865 and approved, in part, on March 13 of that year. By then Southerners of both races knew the Confederacy was doomed. Richmond fell less than thirty days later. The provision was never implemented and no slaves officially served as soldiers in the Confederate Military.
SLAVE RESISTANCE ON THE PLANTATIONS. When given the option, slaves made it very clear that they wanted freedom. The vast majority of slaves, however, remained on their plantations in the countryside. Nevertheless, even these slaves in the Southern interior found ways to demonstrate their desire for freedom. Their behavior could be described as the first massive labor slowdown in American history. They did not cease to work, but they contrived to do considerably less than they had before the war.
Part of the reason for the drop in their industriousness was the South's ill-advised self-imposed cotton embargo. Although this was never official policy, many Southerners believed they could provoke European intervention in the war by refusing to grow or export cotton. This decision changed the nature of Southern agriculture. The region began to emphasize food production, a less intensive form of agricultural labor. But this change did not necessarily reduce the burden on slave laborers. The war cut off many of the South's antebellum sources of food and other goods in the North and abroad. These shortages had to be replaced by what the slaves could produce at home. Their inability to make up the shortfall meant that they, their masters, the soldiers in the field, and the general population all suffered from increasing deprivation as the war went on. Especially problematic were shortages of wool, leather, and salt for the curing of meat, since most of these were diverted for military use. One consequence was the rapid escalation of prices for such necessities. Frugal planters cut back on these supplies for their slaves. Bondsmen did not receive their prewar rations of clothes and shoes, and they had less meat and vegetables in their diet. Even those slaves well removed from the front lines throughout the war recalled it later as a time of great privation.
In addition to the change in the kinds of crops grown and the increasing scarcity of necessities, the quality of management on the plantations changed. Once the war intensified in 1862, there were not enough white men left on the farms and plantations to provide adequate supervision of slave laborers. The Confederacy had attempted to defuse this potential problem through the Ten-Slave Law (later, the Twenty-Slave Law), whereby a percentage of white men were exempted from military service in proportion to the number of slaves in a county or on a plantation. The law clearly favored slaveholders and drew a storm of protest from white yeomen who owned no slaves yet were called upon to defend the Southern cause.
As the war progressed, Southern manpower shortages became acute. In some parts of Georgia, it was reported that there was only one able-bodied white man in a ten-square-mile area. As a result, management of agriculture increasingly fell to white women and their youngest children, elderly fathers, and black slave drivers. All proved less effective taskmasters than the earlier overseers, and the efficiency of Southern farm production declined markedly.
Slaves quickly took advantage of the situation, reducing the pace of their labor, disobeying orders, leaving their farms to visit with friends and relatives. Their perceived "impudence" and "laziness" caused enormous frustration for the white women left to oversee them. Although these women had often been most resourceful managers of household economies in the prewar South, they had never been trained or given experience in day-to-day supervision of farming operations. Many were unequal to the burden and resentful that they were being forced to shoulder it.
One important consequence of this management crisis was the disappearance of even the veneer of paternalism in the master-slave relationship. White women and the few white men left in the countryside viewed the increasingly recalcitrant slaves as a threat, especially the young males. Slave patrols composed of the remaining white men became more energetic and violent in "disciplining" slaves. Those accused or suspected of "misconduct" were brutally punished and sometimes murdered.
Despite these draconian efforts, slaves in the South's interior stepped up their resistance and increasingly worked at a much slower pace. More disturbing yet to the whites around them was their outright refusal to obey orders when they could get away with it. Slaves ran off with greater frequency; they stole food and violated curfew with impunity. They began to hold religious services more openly and even created schools for their children in violation of state laws.
ESCAPING FROM SLAVERY. The second of the four questions preoccupying European Americans, North and South, was: Did the slaves want freedom. Of course they did, as long as they could attain it without losing their lives in the process. The unrest on the plantations clearly indicated their longing for freedom. Even more demonstrable evidence was offered by slaves living on the borders of the Confederacy. Beginning in 1861, and continuing throughout the war, whenever the proximity of Union troops made successful escape likely, slaves abandoned their plantations by the hundreds, even the thousands.
The process of successful slave escapes began in Virginia, in Union--held territory across the Potomac from Washington and around Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula in Hampton Roads. In May 1861, three slaves fled to the fort and claimed sanctuary because their masters were about to take them South to work on Confederate fortifications. The Union commander there was Gen. Benjamin Butler, a War Democrat from Massachusetts and a perennial thorn in Lincoln's side. Thinking more about the political advantage to be gained among Northern antislavery advocates than about the needs of the fugitives, Butler declared the blacks to be "contraband of war"--enemy property that could he used against the Union. This designation neatly avoided the question of whether or not the escapees were free and turned the Southerners argument that slaves were property against them. Lincoln reluctantly approved the ruling, and as a consequence, escaped slaves throughout the war were referred to by Northerners as "contrabands."
This legal hairsplitting was of no concern to Virginia slaves. All they knew was that fugitives had gone to Fort Monroe and found sanctuary. Within a month, over 900 had joined those first three. By wars end, there were over 25,000 escaped slaves in and around Fort Monroe. Many of them served in the Union army.
A more massive instance of slaves defecting occurred the following spring in the Sea Islands off South Carolina. The Union navy landed troops on the islands and the whites fled. Despite efforts by masters--some told the slaves that the Yankees were cannibals--the slaves refused to join their owners and fled to the woods until the Southern whites had left. As a consequence, the Union army suddenly had several thousand contrabands to care for. Interestingly, the first task of the Union commanders on the Sea Islands was to stop the ex-slaves from looting and burning their masters mansions.
With the fall of New Orleans, also in the spring of 1862, the informal emancipation process expanded into the lower Mississippi valley. It never reached much of the Trans-Mississippi South until wars end because Union forces did not penetrate deeply there.
Throughout the South, the first slaves to escape were typically house servants and skilled craftsmen. They were the people who had the most access to information about Union troop movements (acquired primarily by overhearing their masters indiscreet conversations around them) and those who had the greatest knowledge of the outside world. Usually the first ones to escape were men. Once they found they would he protected behind Union lines, they returned for their friends and relatives.
The North had not anticipated massive slave escapes. It had no plans about how to care for these black refugees. As a consequence, many escapees found themselves in worse physical conditions than they had known on the plantations. They were herded into camps and given tents and rations in exchange for work. The blacks were put to work in much the way Southern troops were using them, building fortifications, digging latrines, and cleaning the camps. Blacks frequently complained that their Union supervisors treated them worse than their former masters and overseers. In truth. many Union soldiers resented having to serve in the war, especially those who were draftees, and they blamed the blacks for their predicament.
The black refugees in the Union camps usually received no actual income. Most of the money they earned was withheld to pay for their food and clothing, and any remainder was reserved to pay for indigent or crippled escapees who could not work. This was administered by the Quartermasters Department, a notoriously unreliable branch of any army throughout history. Blacks were defrauded at every turn. Often their rations and clothing were sold on the black market--sometimes to the Southerners--by greedy supply officers.
Hearing of the plight of the contrabands in the camps, Northern benevolent organizations, such as the Freedmen's Aid Societies, and religious groups, such as the American Missionary Association, sent hundreds of missionaries and teachers to the South to aid the blacks. They provided much of the food and clothing that enabled the refugees to survive. They also created the first schools and churches most blacks had ever attended.
It was the blacks themselves, however, who were primarily responsible for their survival in these harsh circumstances. The more enterprising of them earned cash through private work with officers of the camps. Those who fared best struck out from the encampments and squatted on lands abandoned by fleeing Confederates. Frequently they were able to make the land far more productive than it had ever been during slavery.
LINCOLN AND THE EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION. The extent of slave escapes in the South and the burden it placed upon the Union presented a major dilemma for President Lincoln. From the moment the conflict began at Fort Sumter, Lincoln's foremost goals had been to preserve the Union, to bring the war to an end with a minimum of bloodshed, and to avoid lingering animosity between Northern and Southern whites. If that could best be achieved by preserving slavery, he said, he would do so; if it could be achieved by freeing every slave, he would do that instead. Lincoln despised slavery, but he, like Thomas Jefferson and many others before him, doubted that blacks and whites could ever live in America in a condition of equality.
The spring and summer of 1862 aggravated Lincoln's problem. The slaves, by running away in massive numbers, were freeing themselves. The border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri were resisting all of Lincoln's proposals for gradual compensated emancipation. His own schemes to find somewhere outside of the United States where the freed black population could be colonized failed completely.
At the same time, Lincoln was confronted at home by abolitionists who insisted that the war should be one for emancipation. Abroad, he was faced with growing skepticism about Northern war aims. If the Union goal was simply to reunite the country and preserve slavery, then the North was undertaking a war of aggression. The South's claim that it was fighting for its independence, just as the United States had done during the Revolution, was therefore valid, and foreign powers had the right to intervene as the French had done in 1778. All these pressures forced Lincoln to conclude that emancipation would have to become a Union war goal.
The critics of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation are technically correct in observing that the proclamation in January 1863 did not legally free a single slave. Slavery's end required a constitutional amendment, which Lincoln advocated and which was ratified as the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. The symbolic importance of the Emancipation Proclamation should not, however, be underestimated. Lincoln thereby silenced his abolitionist critics in the North, defused interventionist sentiment abroad, and energized black slave resisters to continue their efforts in the South.
Lincoln advised his cabinet of his plan in the early summer of 1862. Because the Union cause was not faring well on the battlefield, he delayed its issuance until a Union victory could be attained. He claimed the bloody Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam), during which Robert E. Lees first invasion of the North was repulsed, as an appropriate occasion. Slaves in states or territories still in rebellion against the United States on January 1, 1863, would be freed. He hoped, probably only halfheartedly, that this threat would energize Southern moderates and influence them to persuade their leaders to lay down their arms. That was not to be the case.
On January 1, 1863, throughout the Union-occupied areas of the South, contrabands, their Northern white allies, and some Union soldiers gathered to pray, to sing hymns, and to celebrate slavery's demise. (The fact that none of those contrabands had been legally freed was irrelevant.) Moreover, the proclamation welcomed all escaping slaves into Union lines and held out the prospect that ex-slaves could volunteer for service in the Union military. African American slaves had tried to make the Civil War one of black liberation. In the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln and the Union appeared to have embraced their cause.
Certainly this was the belief of Southern slave owners. They wrote that both "misbehavior" on the plantations and escape attempts increased significantly after the issuance of the proclamation. Only in the TransMississippi regions of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas was the impact of the proclamation minimal. One reminder of that difference is that blacks in that area and their descendants in the Midwest celebrate emancipation not on January 1 but on "Juneteenth," that period in mid-June after the surrender of the last Confederate armies in the West under E. Kirby Smith. Union officers, many now also superintendents of the newly formed Freedmen's Bureau, rode around those western states announcing Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation to slaves and their masters.
In the eastern half of the Confederacy, slavery had collapsed long before those final western Union victories, in part because of the efforts of former slaves as Union soldiers.
EX-SLAVES IN THE UNION ARMY. The third of the four questions preoccupying white Americans during the Civil War was whether blacks would be willing to fight for their freedom. Once again the answer was yes. The fury of the white South when the North decided to make escaped slaves into soldiers is not surprising. What may be more so is the horror with which much of the white North regarded the idea.
Some Northerners, including the editorial board of the New York Times, claimed that using black troops would sully the purity of the North's cause. "Better lose the War," it cried, "than use the Negro to win it." A more representative statement was made by a Northern soldier who reflected, "I reckon if I have to fight and die for the niggers freedom, he can fight and die for it along with me." That was really the point. The Union needed more men, and its efforts to enlist them were encountering increasing resistance among Northern white men. Why not let the black man fight for his own freedom?
In the fall of 1862, with Union victory still doubtful and the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation already announced, Lincoln yielded to pressure and authorized the formation of the first black army units. African Americans were offered a step toward freedom not because the white North especially wanted them but because the North needed them so much.
The fashion in which black troops were treated was illustrative of Northern white attitudes toward the whole enterprise. At first, black soldiers were confined to service units and not allowed to fight--until white Union casualties became so high that blacks, though often untrained for combat, were simply thrown into the battle. Moreover, until just before the wars end, African American soldiers received unequal pay for the same duty and were denied the enlistment bonuses given to white troops.
The record of one of the most famous black Union regiments illustrates the contributions of ex-slave soldiers in the Confederacy's defeat. The First South Carolina Volunteers was the darling of Northern imagination. It was the first regiment composed entirely of fugitive slaves, organized, as Northerners loved to say, "in the birthplace of treason."
It was at first unclear that the North was entirely serious about this regiment. The unit was supposed to be made up of volunteers, but the first soldiers were acquired by sending white troops on raiding parties into the refugee camps and hauling back any able-bodied black men they could find. Their uniforms were made up of a bright blue jacket, brighter red pantaloons, and a red fez, making them ideal targets for sharpshooters. Nevertheless, the First South Carolina ran up a credible record in Union service. They were, for example, the first known military unit to consistently return from battle with more soldiers than those which with they entered. Slaves on outlying plantations, seeing them in uniform, simply laid down their hoes, picked up discarded guns, and followed the troops back to their camp.
The soldiers of the First South Carolina were only the first of tens of thousands of former slaves who fought for the Union cause. Despite discrimination throughout the war, African American troops distinguished themselves and were instrumental in the North's victory. Overall, about 180,000 blacks served in the Union army, and another 20,000 in the Union navy. Together, they made up about 15 percent of all Northern forces in the war. Of all the Union troops, the African American soldier was fighting for the most tangible of causes--freedom for himself and his people.
THE FINAL QUESTION. The determination with which blacks seized freedom shocked whites, both North and South. In an unanticipated and unplanned war, the African Americans behavior may have been the element for which both sides were least prepared. In the end, black slaves played a major role in bringing down the Confederacy. They had demonstrated that they wanted freedom and were prepared to fight for its realization.
The fourth question that whites had posed about the slaves--Would they know what to do with their freedom if they got it?"--would be more candidly phrased--"Would white America let blacks truly exercise their freedom?" That question remains unresolved at the end of the twentieth century. But the limitations that crippled black freedom after Reconstruction did not discourage many African Americans who had been slaves. As one black Union veteran said after the war, "In slavery, I had no worriment In freedom lie got a family and a little farm. All that causes me worriment........But I takes the FREEDOM!"
The African American slave society in the antebellum South (1807--1860) was unique among New World slave systems. In the United States, the slave population not only sustained itself; it expanded exponentially. In other New World nations, slave populations were maintained by continuous importation from Africa. In the American South, however, the slave population grew through natural increase--that is, slave mothers had children who also became slaves. As a result, the vast majority of African Americans in slavery in the United States after 1810 were not African captives but native-born Americans, some of whose ancestors had been in this country nearly as long as the oldest white families.
This longevity of residence in America did not mean that slaves lost all their rich heritage from their African origins. White slave owners, however, were frightened by African customs and behaviors they could not understand. They forced their slaves to give up African means of communication such as their own languages and their drums (a widely used means of 'talking" across great distances in West Africa). Indeed, slaves were denied even their original African names and made to accept whatever names their master imposed upon them.
In these circumstances, Southern slaves were forced into syncretism--the process of mixing divergent cultural elements together to create an entirely new culture. They had to combine what they could retain of their African culture with the new European and Native American cultures imposed upon them by their masters. The result was the first genuinely United States culture. It was part African, part European, and part Native American, but refined and developed in a land new to all but one of these groups.
American slaves were able to carve out a unique culture of their own because of the way in which Southern slavery was structured. Most white Southerners did not own slaves. In 1860 only ten thousand Southern white families owned more than twenty slaves, and only three thousand owned more than fifty slaves. Nevertheless, most slaves lived in units of twenty or more. This meant that, on most plantations, blacks far outnumbered whites. They could not all be kept under constant white supervision.
Masters had to evolve a system of rewards and punishments to maintain control over their more numerous slaves. As in any brutal system of unpaid labor, punishment was used more often than reward. As historian Kenneth Stampp has written, the slave owners strategy in handling their slaves was "to make them stand in fear!" A plantation, however, was not an extermination camp; it was a profit-making enterprise, and blacks had to be given certain rights and privileges to maximize their productivity. They were also valuable pieces of "property." To abuse them too harshly would diminish their value. Slaves seized upon this necessity to create a culture of their own possessing the values that shaped family life, religion, education, and attitudes toward work.
RELIGION. Religion was one of the main buttresses that supported the slave family. African American slaves were denied the right to practice the religion of their ancestors. Some African slaves were Muslims; most believed in a variety of forms of ancestor worship that was more similar to Christianity than Europeans understood. Slave owners viewed African religion as a combination of witchcraft and superstition, and they banned its practice, in part, for fear that slaves might use it to put spells or curses on them.
Most slave owners believed that Christianizing their slaves would make them more passive. They also pointed to Christianization as a justification for slavery; they claimed to be uplifting the slaves from their barbarous past. Although the slave owner extracted unpaid labor from his slaves in this life, he ensured their salvation in the next by making them Christians.
Of course, the Christianity taught to slaves by their masters was very different from that which the masters practiced themselves. Omitted were the implicit and explicit messages in the New Testament about individual freedom and responsibility. Instead, slave owners used the Bible selectively. They argued that Africans were the descendants of Ham, who, in the Old Testament, were cursed by Noah to be "servants of servants." From the New Testament, slave owners cited Christ's admonition to "render unto Caesar that which is Caesars" to justify their right to demand obedience from their slaves. In part to ensure that slaves could not learn all of the other, contrary messages about freedom to be found in the Bible, slavemasters outlawed the teaching of reading and writing to slaves.
Slaves, however, once again combined what they could remember from their old religions with what their masters told them about Christianity and what they learned about Christianity from literate blacks and antislavery whites. From this information they evolved their own form of Christianity, which was a religion of hope and liberation.
In the slaves version of Christianity, Christ and Moses played almost equal roles as heroes who had led their people to freedom. Black religion was very much anchored in the real world rather than in life after death. Slaves learned to phrase the words of their prayers and spirituals to speak of salvation and freedom in heaven, but, in truth, they were praying and singing about deliverance from slavery in this world, not the next. Thus, a black woman like Harriet Tubman who led dozens of slaves to freedom, used spirituals like "Steal Away to Jesus" to signal plans for escape. She became known, as a result, as "The Moses of Her People."
The burdens of slavery led African Americans to different definitions of God, sin, and even the devil. Slaves did not conceive of God as the stern taskmaster envisioned by their white owners. Rather, they thought of God as an all-forgiving Father who understood the tribulations that his people were suffering and who was planning a better world for them. This vision of the Almighty led, among other things, to a very different style of worship among slaves. As one ex-bondsman tried to explain: "White folks pray powerful sad. Black folks pray powerful glad!"
Slave religion even resulted in a different understanding of sin. It was, for example, a sin to steal from a fellow slave who, like yourself, had nothing. But it was not necessarily a sin to steal food or clothing from the master. He had "aplenty," as the slaves would say, while their children were hungry and naked. God would understand your necessity and forgive you your small transgression.
It was in their conception of the devil that the slaves remembrance of their African religion was most evident. To white Protestant slave owners, the devil was the Antichrist, the embodiment of evil. To the slaves, however, the devil was just another powerful spirit, albeit a malevolent one. African religions often contained such entities. They were spirits one tried to avoid, but if one was trapped by a devil, African faiths taught that through wit and guile, the spirit could be overcome. Thus, white slave owners were befuddled when a slave, threatened with a whipping or worse, would joke and lie. In the slaves eyes, the man about to punish him was simply possessed by a devil with whom he might be able to negotiate. Sometimes this strategy actually worked. A master would become so exasperated, yet amused, by his slaves excuses and self-deprecation that he would withdraw his threat of punishment. This is only one example of how slaves African heritage prevented them from making the European distinction between secular and religious behavior. They used their religious vision of the world to help them cope with everyday crises between themselves and their masters.
EDUCATION. A scholar once defined education as "all the ways a culture tries to perpetuate itself from one generation to another." Slave owners, in their defense of their peculiar institution, often claimed that slavery was a school" that helped "civilize" the "savage African." White Southerners proved to be right about slavery being a school, but, much to their surprise and dismay, not the sort they had intended. When emancipation came, they discovered that slavery had taught blacks how to be Americans and to demand all the attributes of freedom enjoyed by other Americans.
Slaves were legally denied the foundation of European education--the knowledge to read and write. Nonetheless, thousands of slaves acquired those skills, usually through voluntary or unintentional help from their young masters and mistresses as they were learning their lessons. (Urban slaves like Frederick Douglass sometimes bribed their white playmates or coworkers to teach them.) Literate slaves then tried to pass on their knowledge to others. It was a special goal of older slaves to learn enough to read the Bible before they died.
Because of the peculiar nature of slavery, forms of education within it were frequently unorthodox. One method of education within the slave community clearly had African roots. This was the teaching of survival strategies through folktales, usually ones involving animals. Many of these stories have come down to us as "Brer Rabbit" tales. Too often, these have been dismissed as merely charming stories to entertain children. They were that, but--in the complex society of slavery--they served other purposes as well. Western African folklore is frill of tales about the hare, who is usually a trickster. In the African American stories, Brer Rabbit is the hero; he is a weak animal in a forest full of larger, more powerful animals that could not be overcome through direct confrontation. The big animals, however, tended to be clumsy and stupid because they never had to work hard to get what they wanted; they also tended to be very greedy. As a result, the smaller animals could sometimes triumph over the larger ones through wit and guile, through tricking the big animals into using their greater strength against themselves.
Slave owners tended to see these tales as harmless. In fact, slave elders were using them to teach their young the all-important skills of "handling master. They should never confront whites directly. But whites were not very bright, as was best proven by their belief that blacks were stupid. It was important never to disabuse the master of that belief. You would thereby be able to get away with things that were otherwise forbidden. For example, if you could convince the master that you were so terrified of the dark that he did not try to make you work late at night, you then had the opportunity to sneak away for a secret prayer meeting or to visit a loved one on another plantation.
ATTITUDES TOWARD WORK. Nowhere were the consequences of this secret education more apparent than in slave work habits on the plantations. There is no doubt that slavery was enormously profitable for large plantation owners. This did not mean, however, that slave labor was efficient. Slaves worked from sunup to sundown in awful conditions. They were usually ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fed. For most slaves their primary motivation for labor was fear of physical punishment. So, without real incentives to be productive, to take pride in their work, slaves did everything they could to minimize their labor and to do it as poorly as they could without being punished.
Slaves were shrewd in their avoidance of work. They feigned ignorance so that the master could not trust them with livestock or complex machinery. They would claim that illness prevented them from working. They pretended to be superstitious to avoid unpleasant tasks. For example, they might claim a swamp that needed draining was inhabited by "haunts" that would attack them.
All of these tactics were known to slaveowners. They knew that slaves often deliberately lost livestock and sabotaged machinery, but they could seldom prove it. Moreover, they themselves claimed that the slaves were stupid. To acknowledge that the slaves were outwitting them would undermine their authority. Slave owners tried to dismiss the slaves superstitions, but secretly they shared some of them. They risked even more inefficiency if they tried to force slaves to work when the majority claimed that they were too terrified to do so. Finally, slave owners were completely confounded by slaves claims of illness. They knew their bondsmen were skilled at faking all kinds of symptoms. They also knew that an unchecked epidemic could sweep through the usually overcrowded and unsanitary slave quarters, incapacitating the entire work force. This could result not only in the loss of the precious cash crop but also in the deaths of equally valuable property: enslaved human beings.
African American slaves, through their commitment to family, their devotion to their religion, their acquisition of education, and their rationing of their labor, forced compromises from their owners. The master unquestionably remained the more powerful force in the relationship. Nevertheless, within the small space that compromises created in the brutal system of bondage, slaves were able to carve out lives that allowed many of them to retain their humanity and courage. When freedom came, they were ready. It was their former masters who were not.