Newfound Freedom for Slaves

The tangible loss of provisions and personal property angered Confederate civilians in occupied areas, but the presence of Union troops wreaked havoc in other ways as well. Tensions rose within households and between neighbors. Kate Carney of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, wrote in her diary of the disquiet generated by Yankee occupation. Slaveholders were growing increasingly distrustful of their slaves, she noted, and personal antagonisms were breaking out between former friends.

Slaveholders' distrust of their slaves was well-justified, especially as the war progressed. The disruption of the war and the arrival of Union troops served as a catalyst for the South's slaves, causing them to reconsider their position and their options. On occupied Craney Island near Norfolk, Virginia, an escaped slave named Nancy told missionary Lucy Chase that she had been content in her relationship with her mistress—until the Union Army got close. The demise of slavery came about because slaves like Nancy took advantage of the new developments taking place around them to claim their freedom.

The lives of slaves changed dramatically just with the threat of invasion by Union troops. Some slave owners simply sold their slaves, for fear of getting nothing in return for such valuable investments. Others moved their slaves south or to interior areas of the Confederacy. Some slaves also became refugees with their owners, often moving more than once in the course of the war.

Accustomed to watching and listening closely, slaves immediately perceived changes ushered in by the war. The bondpeople noticed the anxiety of their owners and the disruption of everyday routines. They listened for the approach of Union troops and quickly learned the location of Union camps. Some slaves began celebrating as soon as they knew that Union troops were nearby. Others waited until they actually saw the Yankees in person.

Slaves had to decide whether to break for Union lines and the unknown or to stay put and see how the war played out. U.S. policy toward escaped slaves evolved as the war progressed. In August 1861, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act, which allowed for the confiscation of slaves working for the Confederacy. The Second Confiscation Act of July 1862 declared free all slaves who entered Union lines and who had been owned by Confederate masters. That same month, the Militia Act freed the mothers, wives, and children of men who had left their Confederate owners and joined the Union forces. The Preliminary Emancipation

Proclamation, issued in September 1862, and the final version of January 1863 mandated the enforcement of the Second Confiscation Act by military personnel.

Slave owners tried various tactics to discourage their slaves from leaving to join Union forces. John McCline's mistress gave the slaves on her plantation near Nashville Confederate money, perhaps to counter the blankets and clothing the Union troops were distributing to her slaves. Slave women on the plantation were also working for the soldiers on their own time and receiving pay in return. Susie King Taylor, who was a young slave in Savannah, Georgia, when the war broke out, recalled: ''The whites would tell their colored people not to go to the Yankees, for they would harness them to carts and make them pull the carts around, in place of horses'' (Taylor 1904/1968, 7). Taylor's grandmother assured her that these were just scare tactics. Taylor soon escaped to St. Catherine Island with her uncle's family. Like Taylor, many slaves who escaped to Union lines traveled in family groups. Those who left home as individuals tended to be young men. A simple invitation by a passing Union soldier to come up North and be free convinced young John McCline to leave slavery behind near Nashville in December 1862.

Escaping to Union lines could be dangerous. Fanny Wright, who became a regimental laundress, lost a child to a sniper's bullet when escaping to Union lines at Port Royal, off the South Carolina coast. En route to St. Simon's Island off the Georgia coast on a Union gunboat in 1862, Susie King Taylor remembered hiding between decks when a slave owner sailed up looking for his bondpeople.

Even within Union lines, safety was not ensured. Particularly early in the war, slave owners often showed up at Union camps to claim their former slaves. Taylor recalled that the ex-slaves on St. Simon's stuck close to their quarters, for fear of being captured by former slave owners. In Kentucky, one teenage female slave disguised herself as a soldier to evade her owner when he came looking for her. The Union soldiers for whom she cooked helped her in this ruse. In many other cases, the Union military was not so welcoming. Some Union officers helped Unionist slaveholders reclaim their escaped slaves.

Obviously, slaves who successfully escaped to Union territory wanted to be free. They also sought to avoid some of the trauma associated with the Confederate home front during wartime, including the breakup of families as owners moved slaves around, raids by hungry troops, and hunger as shortages mounted within the Confederacy by late in 1862.

Important developments in 1863 influenced civilian life in Union-occupied areas. Perhaps most significant, the Union Army began to enlist and heavily recruit black soldiers. This turning point encouraged more slaves to escape, particularly young men but also entire families. In 1863, Yankee rule also became more oppressive for Confederate supporters who lived in occupied areas. Authorities replaced the conciliatory policy of the early war years by stricter controls and far less tolerance for expressions of dissent.

As the recruitment of black soldiers and the capture of additional Confederate territory increased the number of slaves escaping to Union lines, the Union military found itself unprepared to deal with the number of refugees. Some commanders simply refused to let women and children into camp. In one of the most notorious instances of egregious behavior against the families of black soldiers, military authorities at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, expelled about 400 women and children during bitterly cold weather in November 1864. Although the families were allowed to return several days later, many died or became chronically ill. As late as 1865, soldiers in the Sixtieth U.S. Colored Infantry, stationed in Helena, Arkansas, had to get permission from their company commanders for their wives to join them.

Families of black soldiers received some assistance with basic necessities from Union military officials in occupied areas. In December 1863, for example, General Benjamin Butler issued General Order Number 46 requiring that black soldiers mustered into units in the Department of Virginia and North Carolina receive certificates of subsistence for their families to bring to Union officials. Referring to Butler's order, Ann Sumner of Portsmouth, Virginia, wrote to the general in February 1864 and told him that she was having trouble getting officials to supply her with some much-needed wood.

Authorities were reluctant to give too much aid. They feared encouraging dependence, and most believed that ex-slave women should work to help support their families. Many slave women who had escaped got relief work in Union-occupied towns and at Union encampments. Many such women worked as cooks and washerwomen. Others did basic custodial work, sewed for the men, or sold them baked goods. With the formation of black regiments, black women found additional opportunities. Women who worked for black regiments could take on more responsibility than black women who worked for white regiments. At the Benton Barracks Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, for example, black women worked as nurses in the hospital's black ward. Susie King Taylor, officially a regimental laundress for the Thirty-third U.S. Colored Troops, nursed, taught, and even cleaned guns.

Other ex-slave women worked as field hands on lands confiscated by the federal government. Some of the newly freed began their own businesses, including hotels, groceries, and brothels. Others, responding to the eagerness for education among former slaves of all ages, learned enough to become teachers themselves. The famous Harriet Tubman, who served as a Union spy and nurse at Beaufort, South Carolina, during the war, set up a wash-house where women could learn to wash and gain some independence.

Some escaped slaves initially lived in contraband camps, which were temporary settlements in occupied areas. In these camps, the ex-slaves lived in tents, shanties, abandoned houses, cabins, former barracks, and lean-tos. Contraband camps quickly became overcrowded; exposure to the elements and poor sanitary conditions led to high rates of disease and death. Consumption, pneumonia, and smallpox claimed many victims. With the great demand for ex-slave men as military laborers and soldiers, contraband camps were largely populated by women, children, and the elderly. The cycle of life continued for these families, despite the many challenges they faced. Residents of contraband camps recreated aspects of their slave communities, cultivating small plots of land by daylight and gathering in the evenings to sing, dance, pray, sew, and gossip. Midwives served contraband camps in Helena, Arkansas, and on Edisto Island off the South Carolina coast. Some women started orphanages in the camps, as in Clarksville, Tennessee, and on President's Island in the Mississippi River. In Beaufort, South Carolina, Harriet Tubman appears to have run a soup kitchen for the poor.

One of the most disappointing aspects of freedom for former slaves likely was the treatment that some received from Union soldiers and officers. In June 1863, contrabands in Maryland suffered when members of the Second Maryland Infantry Regiment raided their tents, stealing from the former slaves and beating them. Many black women suffered from sexual assaults by white Union soldiers and officers. On the Sea Islands, women were shot for refusing sexual advances, and mothers were beaten for trying to shield their daughters. Similarly, laundresses at Fort Jackson, Louisiana, tried unsuccessfully to resist a group of officers who targeted the women for sexual harassment over several nights.

Despite these hardships, the desire for schooling among the former slaves thrived during the war. Although teachers from the North played an important role, indigenous efforts abounded as well. In Tennessee, African Americans began the first wartime schools in the fall of 1862. In many

Educating children and adults was closely associated with emancipation in the American South. The Freedmen's Bureau established this school in Beaufort, South Carolina, shown here around 1865. (Corbis)

Union-occupied areas, Northern teachers helped former slaves make the transition to freedom. In addition to the instruction and care that the teachers provided, they also gave ex-slaves other kinds of support. Teachers in occupied areas encouraged former slaves to marry and tried to help them reunite with their families. Although military officials often viewed slave women and their families as a nuisance at best, female teachers showed particular solicitude for women and their families. These teachers condemned the sexual abuse of ex-slave women and girls by Union officers and soldiers. Women teachers also lamented the Union Army's impressment of slave men, echoing the protests of ex-slave women.

The presence of women teachers in Union-occupied areas signaled to many newly emancipated slaves that freedom would be different from slavery. Former slaves appreciated the assistance they received from Northern teachers. However, they also usually encountered some of the same attitudes of possessiveness and control that they had long endured from Southern whites. Northern teachers, for example, became easily exasperated with former slaves and felt superior to them in terms of class and race. In addition, most Northern teachers promoted family stability for the ex-slaves, and also believed that freedwomen as well as men should work for wages.

The rapidly increasing demise of slavery in and near Union-occupied areas during 1863 rankled Confederate supporters, as well as Unionist slaveholders. Slaves who had not left used the threat of escape to negotiate better working conditions. Some slaves refused to carry out certain types of work; others came and went as they pleased. Slaveholders struggled to keep their farms and businesses going.

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