Why historians are reluctant to call the American Civil War a slave rebellion.

Did We Miss the Greatest Slave Rebellion in Modern History?

Did We Miss the Greatest Slave Rebellion in Modern History?

Our defining institution, in nine lives.
Oct. 13 2015 2:59 PM

The Largest, Most Successful Slave Revolt in History?

What historians get wrong about the actions of enslaved people during the Civil War.

151012_HOS_Civil-War-1862
Contrabands at headquarters of Gen. Lafayette, 1862. Contrabands was an expression coined by Gen. Benjamin F. Butler to describe escaped slaves.

Photo by Mathew B. Brady courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

This article supplements Episode 9 of The History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Academy.

Excerpted from The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom by Steven Hahn. Published by Harvard University Press.

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In the late summer of 1862, slaveholders residing along the coast of Georgia complained bitterly to Confederate officials about the behavior of their slaves.

The slaves, it seems, were fleeing their plantations in large numbers, heading for Union lines, joining up with the Union Army, and then returning to the plantations to entice still more slaves away. The slaveholders thus demanded “a few executions of the leading transgressors ... by hanging or shooting,” which they regarded as “punishment adequate to their crime.”

Nearly four months later, when the complaints finally reached the desk of Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon, it became clear what “crime” the slaves had committed. “The question as to the Slaves taken in federal Uniform and with arms in their hands has been considered on conference with the President,” Seddon reported. “Slaves in flagrant rebellion are subject to death by the laws of every slave holding State. They cannot be recognized in any way as soldiers subject to the rules of war and to trial by Military Courts, [for] slaves in armed insurrection should meet condign punishment. [S]ummary execution must therefore be inflicted on those taken, as with the slaves referred [to by the Georgia slaveholders], under circumstances indicative beyond doubt of actual rebellion.”1

It may not surprise us to learn that slaveholders and their political representatives would consider their slaves’ flight to, and then alliance with, the Union Army as “rebellious” and “insurrectionary,” as “indicative of actual rebellion.” Much lesser activities on the part of slaves provoked their masters to a state of alarm, if not of apoplexy, before the war; and once hostilities commenced, the correspondence and diaries of slaveholding Southerners and Confederates describing the doings of slaves crackled with language of rebellion and revolt. They spoke of “disturbances,” “contagions,” “symptoms of revolt,” “terrible stirs,” “stampedes,” “mutinies,” “intentions to spring,” “strikes,” “turn outs,” and “states of insurrection.”2

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What seemed so obvious to slaveholders and Confederate officials at the time, however, has been widely resisted or rejected by historians. This despite the roughly half a million slaves who, by war’s end, had fled to Union lines and the nearly 150,000 who took up arms for the Union.

Indeed, whatever their disagreements on other matters—and those are many—historians of the Civil War and emancipation, with the possible exception of W.E.B. Du Bois (who, in his 1935 work, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880, regarded black Americans, under slavery and freedom, as consequential political actors), almost universally share the view that, despite contemporary fears to the contrary, the war did not precipitate a slave rebellion and that whatever the slaves did in pursuit of their freedom is not to be regarded as rebellion.

Why is it that historians—even those interested in the slaves’ “agency” and in their forms of “resistance” to enslavement—have been so reluctant to entertain seriously the idea that the Civil War may have witnessed a massive rebellion of Southern slaves? The answer, perhaps, has less to do with the plausibility of such an interpretation than with the politics of history writing and memory-making and with the challenges of imagining slaves as political actors.

The case for slave rebellion does not have to be dug up, teased out, or deconstructed. It is neither hidden, archivally silenced, nor subtly discursive. Quite simply, it stares us in the face. And although the case is by no means indisputable, the documentation that has been compiled over the years lends it a great deal of support, if that evidence does not lead us right up to its embrace.

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Slave rebellion was, of course, the “great fear” haunting both sides in the Civil War. Confederates obviously worried that full-scale troop mobilizations would undermine the customary methods of policing on the homefront and encourage the slaves to rise. So concerned were they that policymakers took steps to bolster security—the Twenty Negro Law, which exempted from military service owners or overseers of plantations with 20 or more slaves, being the most notorious example. 

Union authorities were troubled as well both because they initially pledged to leave the South’s “established institutions” undisturbed and because slave unrest would vastly complicate their goal of crushing the Confederate rebellion militarily.

The federal perspective on “negro insurrection” and slave unrest more generally was not only a product of military expediency; it also reflected early Union policy on slavery and emancipation. This was to be a white man’s war over the future of the country, and as far as possible “the rights and property” of the white Southern people were to be respected to “strengthen the Union sentiment.”3 Yet such respect was easier to proclaim than enforce, and before the ink was dry, federal policy was in disarray.

The disarray, as scholars now generally agree, was produced by the slaves themselves, acting in ways that neither side had adequately anticipated. The slaves disrupted both the workings of plantations and farms on the Confederate homefront and the operations of Union Army camps on the battlefront. Slowly but steadily, they forced federal policymakers to reassess their status in the developing war effort and as recruits to the Union military. By 1863 Lincoln had come to accept uncompensated emancipation and black enlistment, and it would be difficult to find a reputable historian these days who does not think that the slaves had a significant role in bringing their emancipation about.

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The question is how to interpret that role—how to interpret what the slaves did—in political terms.

By the middle of 1864 nearly 400,000 slaves had made their way to Union lines. Their numbers were greatest in the border South and the Mississippi Valley states where Northern armies had long been conducting operations, and, to a lesser extent, along the Atlantic Coast, where small federal outposts had for some time been attracting fugitives. Although precise figures are impossible to obtain, a reasonable estimate of those behind the lines would be between one-tenth and one-quarter of the slave populations of Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, Virginia, and the Carolinas. But the significance of this phenomenon was not simply in its scale; it was also in the dynamic of social and political change set in motion.4

The slaves’ departures from the plantations and farms both challenged the will and authority of their owners and forced the Union side to tamper with the institution (slavery) it had originally vowed to respect. The Union had to figure out what to do with the fugitive slaves, especially once it became clear that the Confederates were impressing slaves to work at their own military sites—in effect, using slaves to aid their rebellion. Union officials began by declaring the fugitive slaves to be “contrabands of war” and putting them to work on Union fortifications. As the ranks of the fugitives continued to swell, officials began to establish “contraband camps” at various points in the upper and lower South, which then acted as magnets for many other slaves contemplating flight and, in some cases, grew to sizes that dwarfed even the largest plantations to be found in the antebellum South.

Before too long, the slaves’ flight opened up the question of emancipation as a war measure and a way of weakening the Confederacy. By the summer of 1862, in the Second Confiscation Act, the U.S. Congress declared that all slaves owned by Confederate masters would be free once they crossed into Union lines.5

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At the same time, the war-induced flight of slaves began shifting the terrain of experience and struggle for those slaves who, owing to circumstance or choice, stayed put. On the Magnolia Plantation in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, slaves demanded pay for their work and engaged in a slowdown when the demand was rejected. Not long after, all the women at Magnolia went on strike and refused to return to the fields despite the urging of a federal army officer brought in to encourage cooperation. By the end of October, the only work the hands had completed presented the plantation managers with a chilling sight: They had erected gallows in the quarters, claiming to have been told that they “must drive the [managers] off the plantation” and “hang their master” before “they will be free.” Elsewhere, slaves, less threateningly but no less effectively, renegotiated the relations and expectations of farm and plantation life. Their masters agreed to offer them small wages or shares of the crop and to allow them more control over operations on the estates in order to deter flight.6

The Civil War’s increasingly revolutionary dynamic was perhaps best embodied by the Emancipation Proclamation. Only after its issuing did the federal government permit Northern governors to begin enrolling black men living in their states (a good many of whom were fugitive slaves or their children), and nearly three-quarters of all those between the ages of 18 and 45 (32,671) came forward: a much higher proportion than was true among eligible Northern white men. By far the greatest number of black soldiers, however, came to be recruited in the slave states, and especially in the slave states of the Confederacy. Totaling 140,313, they constituted, by the last year of the war, well over 10 percent of the Union Army and in some departments close to half of it.7

Federal officials initially imagined that black troops would serve as menial laborers behind the lines, thereby freeing up more white troops to do the fighting. But within a very short time this neat distinction evaporated, and black troops, in substantial numbers, were to be found armed and in the heat of battle. And as any historian writing about their experience would be quick to acknowledge, black troops engaged in a forbidding and savage undertaking. They took up arms at a time of military stalemate, low morale in the North, and grave doubts among Union authorities about their potential military contributions. They were put to work doing degrading tasks in camp and occasionally sent into hopeless situations at the front, as many of their officers believed that black bodies were more expendable than white ones. Most threatening, they met an enemy—their former masters—who regarded them, as the coastal Georgia planters made plain, not as soldiers but as slaves in rebellion, and expected to treat them accordingly.

As Secretary of War Seddon’s response to the complaint of the Georgia planters suggested, the slaves forced the Confederacy as well as the Union to concede that the fate of slavery was very much at the center of the war and, in so doing, tested the political meaning of their status.

As historians of the period would be quick to say or concede, the slaves played a crucial role in bringing about the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy and the uncompensated abolition of slavery, and they did so by violating, in the most blatant ways, the basic rules of slave plantation order. They fled from their plantations and farms in great numbers against the express commands of their owners and often in the face of double-barreled shotguns or threats of reprisal against family and friends. They served as scouts, guides, and spies for invading Union armies, and they eventually took up arms in the many thousands against their Confederate masters, allying themselves militarily and politically with the United States government.

Many of those who remained at “home” nonetheless contested the authority of their owners in ways that were central to the meaning of enslavement: demanding pay, rejecting close supervision, making decisions about life and labor themselves, coming and going as they pleased. In some cases, they took direct action against their masters by sacking their estates and destroying their property. Why shouldn’t the slaveholders and Confederates have seen rebellion and insurrection percolating or being enacted at every turn?8

The historical record, it should be said, reveals relatively few examples of slaves wreaking vengeance through personal violence or the torching of plantations or farms. And this may be why historians are so reluctant to liken the slaves’ wartime activities to a rebellion or set of rebellions. Authentic slave rebels, it would seem, are supposed to do certain things. They are supposed to conspire secretly, arm themselves, rise up, attempt to exterminate their oppressors, and try to find some means of either escaping slavery or overturning it. Alas, few such Civil War–era conspiracies and fewer, if any, such rebellions, have ever been uncovered, even by those who were looking hard for them.9

Yet authentic, or model, slave rebels are exceptionally difficult to find anywhere, and the complex and varied practices and goals of slave rebellions reveal that political and historical contexts are always of signal importance in accounting for them. Some slave rebellions, including massive ones, began as acts of marronage or as efforts to bring about reform within the system of slavery. Some have had relatively delimited aims or, when erupting with explosive violence, have been quite selective in their targets. Some have shown spiritual and others chiefly secular inspirations, and many have demonstrated a mix of both. Most slave rebellions displayed political awareness that reached well beyond the confines of their localities and often imagined powerful allies either encouraging them or coming to their aid.10

Why else did some slaves, perhaps many slaves, believe that freedom beckoned behind Union lines? Evidence from all parts of the slave, and then Confederate, South suggests that a great many slaves knew of Lincoln, believed him to be their friend and ally (and the enemy of their owners), speculated that, once in power, he would move to free them, and saw the Union invasion of the Confederacy as a direct attack on slavery. Some went so far as to interpret Lincoln’s inauguration as marking their own liberation: a liberation that would be enforced either when they rose to claim it or when Lincoln’s soldiers arrived.11

The slaves’ response to the Union invasion of the Confederate South then, was not spontaneous. When the slaves fled their plantations and farms and headed to Union Army encampments, they acted on their understandings of the war’s meaning.

After the slave Harry Jarvis escaped a gun-toting master and sailed to Fortress Monroe, Virginia, sometime in the spring or early summer of 1861, he asked General Butler to let him enlist. Butler refused him, allowing that “it wasn’t a black man’s war.” But Jarvis insisted otherwise, in turn explaining his very presence: “It would be a black man’s war before they got through.”12

Excerpted from The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom by Steven Hahn, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2009 by Steven Hahn. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1R. Q. Millard et al. to Brig. Gen. Mercer [August 1862], and James A. Seddon to Gen. G. T. Beauregard, November 30, 1862, both in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867, The Black Military Experience, ed. Ira Berlin et al., ser. 2 (New York, 1982), 571–72.

2Rev. C. C. Jones to Lt. Charles C. Jones Jr., July 21, 1862, in The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War, ed. Robert Manson Myers (New Haven, 1972), 935; Kate Stone, Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861–1868, ed. John Q. Anderson (Baton Rouge, 1955), 28; Alexander F. Pugh Plantation Diary, entry for July 3, 1863, Alexander F. Pugh Family Papers, Louisiana State University Archives, Baton Rouge; Anonymous to Friend, January 3, 1863, Department of the Gulf, Record Group 393, Part 1, Letters Received, ser. 1756, National Archives, Washington, D.C. (C-521); C. Peter Ripley, Slaves and Freedmen in Civil War Louisiana (Baton Rouge, 1976), 97; Bell I. Wiley, Southern Negroes, 1861–1865 (New Haven, 1938), 74–75.

3McClellan to Irvine, May 26, 1861, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 130 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1880–1901), ser. 1, 2:47.

4The best estimates on the number of slaves who had reached Union lines by this point are to be found in Ira Berlin et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation. The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South, ser. 1 (New York, 1990), 3:77–80.

5Louis Gerteis, From Contraband to Freedman: Federal Policy toward Southern Blacks, 1861–1865 (Westport, Conn., 1973), 11–14; Berlin et al., Freedom, ser. 1, 1:59–61, 72; Robert F. Engs, Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia, 1861–1890 (Philadelphia, 1979), 25–28; Edward McPherson, The Political History of the United States of America during the Great Rebellion (New York, 1864), 195–97, 237–38.

6J. Carlyle Sitterson, Sugar Country: The Cane Sugar Industry in the South, 1753–1950 (Lexington, Ky., 1953), 209–10; Wiley, Southern Negroes, 74–75; Ripley, Slaves and Freedmen, 22–23; George H. Hepworth, The Whip, the Hoe, and the Sword: The Gulf Department in ’63 (Boston, 1864), 29–30; Berlin et al., Freedom, ser. 1, 2:37, 445, 636; 3:479–80, 785.

7We can only estimate the proportion of black soldiers in the Union Army by the last year of the war, and the estimate itself is somewhat contingent. In January 1865, 959,460 soldiers were enrolled in the Union Army, of whom 123,156 were black (12.8 percent), but of the total only 620,924 soldiers were “present,” which pushes the black proportion to as much as 19.8 percent. See Thomas L. Livermore, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America, 1861–1865 (Bloomington, Ind., 1957), 47; E.B. Long with Barbara Long, The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac, 1861–1865 (New York, 1971), 706; Berlin et al., Freedom, ser. 2, 733.

8On the sacking of estates, see Meta Morris Grimball Diary, entry for August 4, 1863, Southern Historical Collection, Chapel Hill, N.C.; Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (Indianapolis, 1964), 106–7; Leslie A. Schwalm, A Hard Fight for We: Women’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina (Urbana, Ill., 1997), 93–94. I am grateful to Stephanie McCurry, who is completing an in-depth analysis in her book, Confederate Crucible: The Unfranchised and the Political Transformation of the Civil War South (Cambridge, Mass., forthcoming), for bringing this material to my attention.

9For one of the best treatments of such a conspiracy, see Winthrop D. Jordan, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (Baton Rouge, 1993). Also see Robinson, Bitter Fruits of Bondage, 42–45; Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, 359–67; Dillon, Slavery Attacked, 260–62; Wiley, Southern Negroes, 67–68, 81–83.

10For excellent treatments of slave rebellions, or conspiracies, in the Americas that help us see the range of goals and practices, see Michael Craton, Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (Ithaca, 1982); Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 2004); Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787–1804 (Chapel Hill, 2004); David Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Bloomington, Ind., 2002); Emilia Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 (New York, 1994); João José Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, trans. Arthur Brakel (Baltimore, 1993); Mark M. Smith, ed., Stono: Documenting and Interpreting a Southern Slave Revolt (Columbia, S.C., 2005); Robert L. Paquette, Sugar Is Made with Blood: The Conspiracy of La Escalera and the Conflict between Empires over Slavery in Cuba (Middletown, Conn., 1988); Douglas R. Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 (Chapel Hill, 1993); Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge, 1979).

11Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, ed. William L. Andrews (1901; rept., New York, 1996), 10; Charles L. Perdue et al., eds., Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Bloomington, Ind., 1976), 216; Stone, Brokenburn, 28, 33; Robinson, Bitter Fruits of Bondage, 37–45; Clarence L. Mohr, On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia (Athens, Ga., 1986), 36–37; Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821–1865 (Baton Rouge, 1989), 224–28; Dillon, Slavery Attacked, 240–42; John K. Betterworth, Confederate Mississippi: The People and the Policies of a Cotton State in Wartime (Baton Rouge, 1943), 162.

12John Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge, 1977), 607–8 (emphasis in original). I have discussed slave communication at length in A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), especially chaps. 1, 2, and 3. But also see the new work of Susan E. O’Donovan, “Trunk Lines, Land Lines, and Local Exchanges: Operationalizing the Grapevine Telegraph” (paper presented at the Gilder Lehrman Center, Yale University, December 2006).