In the early years of the Civil War, black slaves performed much of the hard labor that was required to prepare the Confederacy for war. They built forts and dug trenches, transported artillery and unloaded shipments of arms, set up army camps and acted as cooks and servants for the soldiers. They also continued to work in the fields, growing food and cotton to be used in the war effort. The prevailing attitude in the South was that "every Negro who could wield [handle] a shovel would release a white man for the musket [gun]," according to Charles H. Wesley and Patricia W. Romero in Afro-Americans in the Civil War: From Slavery to Citizenship. Most slaves who worked for the Confederate troops found conditions difficult. Food and clothing were scarce, living conditions were cramped and unsanitary, and doctors rarely came to treat sick and injured slaves.
In some cases, free black men volunteered to serve in the Confederate Army. Although it might seem strange for black people to fight in support of slavery, there were several reasons for such wartime service. Some free blacks believed that they would receive better treatment from Southern whites if they fought for the Confederacy. Others were afraid that they would be forced to join if they did not do so voluntarily. Finally, some free blacks in the South fought due to feelings of patriotism toward their state or city. But most Southern whites did not like the idea of black men serving in the Confederate Army. They did not trust black soldiers, even when they had volunteered, and were always suspicious that their true loyalties lay with the North. They worried that giving weapons to free black men would lead to widespread slave rebellions. In fact, the Confederate government enacted strict laws to restrict the activities of free blacks during the war.
As the Civil War dragged on, life became chaotic through much of the South. Large numbers of people were forced to leave their homes, as Union forces captured Southern cities. White men were usually too busy fighting the war to pay much attention to the behavior of their slaves. Over time, many Southern blacks took advantage of this situation. Some slaves remained in the South but became less willing to submit to the authority of whites. For example, large networks of slaves formed to help Union soldiers escape from prison and find their way back to safety in the North. These slaves brought the soldiers food and water, helped them hide from Confederate forces, and
served as guides through the forests and countryside.
Other slaves took their first opportunity to escape to the North. "During the first two years of the War, most slaves were loyal to their masters in the lower South," Wesley and Romero explained. "After 1863, however, when the news and the meaning of freedom spread, there were many instances of disloyalty and dissatisfaction. . . . As the word revealing freedom reached the South, slaves ran away from the plantations to join the advancing Union troops."
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