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African Holocaust | The Greatest Holocaust in History | Slavery and Africa





Until lions tell their tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter

African Proverb

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will

– Frederick Douglass

The most pathetic thing is for a slave who doesn't know that he is a slave

– Malcolm X

Every man is rich in excuses to safeguard his prejudices, his instincts, and his opinions.

– Ancient Egypt

Cowardice asks the question: is it safe? Expediency asks the question: is it political? Vanity asks the question: is it popular? But conscience asks the question: is it right.

– Dr. Martin L. King, Jr

What kind of world do we live in when the views of the oppressed are expressed at the convenience of their oppressors?

– Owen 'Alik Shahadah

We are not Africans because we are born in Africa, we are Africans because Africa is born in us.

– Chester Higgins Jr.

Leave no brother or sister behind the enemy line of poverty.

– Harriet Tubman

If the future doesn't come toward you, you have to go fetch it

Zulu Proverb

If we do not stop oppression when it is a seed, it will be very hard to stop when it is a tree.

– ' Alik Shahadah

If we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors.

African Proverb

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Martin L. King, Jr

The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism

Wole Soyinka

No longer must the African genius be trapped between bureaucracy and mismanagement

Alik Shahadah

How can I turn from Africa and live?

Derek Walcott

For far too long, a majority of Africans have been indifferent to misrepresentations about who they are

Childo Nwangwu

We cannot have the oppressors telling the oppressed how to rid themselves of the oppressor

Kwame Ture

It makes no difference what language Africans speak if our first language is not Truth

Hilary Muhammad (NOI)



Slavery in America: Historical Overview

Ronald L. F. Davis

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Songs we would never hear! Histories we would never know! Art we would never see! Because the European had the capacity to destroy and didn't have the moral restraint not to Holocaust
Holocaust Holocaust
Holocaust Maulana Karenga

On the eve of the American Civil War approximately 4 million enslaved African Americans lived in the southern region. of the United States of America.

The vast majority worked as plantation slaves in the production of cotton, sugar, tobacco, and rice.

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Very few of these enslaved people were African born principally because the importation of enslaved Africans to the United States officially ended in 1808, although thousands were smuggled into the nation illegally in the 50 years following the ban on the international trade?

These enslaved people were the descendants of 12 to 13 million African forbearers ripped from their homes and forcibly transported to the Americas in a massive slave trade dating from the 1400s. Most of these people, if they survived the brutal passages from Africa, ended up in the Caribbean (West Indies) or in South and Central America. .

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Brazil alone imported around five million enslaved Africans. This forced migration is known today as the African Diaspora, and it is one of the greatest human tragedies in the history of the world. (See the Map of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the Geography Section of this site.).Maafa: Audio sample of Dark Voyage

"Contrabands in Cumberland, Virginia." (1862) What do you see when looking at these contraband slaves posed in front of "Foller's house?" The house is probably the residence of their former owner. The photograph was taken in 1862, during the Peninsular Campaign by photographer James F. Gibson, who may have had the same fascination with enslaved African-Americans as the rest of the people in the North, probably wondering:



"Who are these people?" "How do they live?" "What will happen if they are freed?" "Will they go to the North or to the West?"

"Or will they stay in the South?" The so-called "contrabands" (enslaved African-Americans within Union lines prior to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863) were more than a curiosity,

however, they also posed a real problem to whites in general and the Union army in particular as to what to do with them.Up to this point in the war, the Union had not fully committed its forces to the idea of the Civil War as a war to end slavery rather than a limited war to preserve the Union. Slaves, on the other hand, forced the issue by seeking out the Union forces in droves, looking for protection, and offering their services to the army that would one day free them permanently. James F. Gibson. Library of Congress.

Slavery in America

Creating Slavery

Slavery in the United States was part of a long established system of labor exploitation that dates to ancient times. Much of the ancient world was composed of well-organized slave societies of one sort or another. Slavery existed in the great civilizations of ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, and even among the Inca and Aztec worlds of pre-colonial America.

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The business of capturing and trading enslaved people was also a fundamental part of human society throughout recorded history. Prior to the Atlantic trade of enslaved Africans to the Americas, Muslim traders out of the Middle East and Northern Africa purchased, sold, and captured millions of enslaved Africans and Central Europeans in a slave-trading network that extended from present day Hungary to Southeastern Asia and the Far East.

"Captives Below Deck." The artist Evans has four scenes in this image all displaying very different aspects of slave life in the hull of a ship during their "captive passage." One can only try to imagine the mental state of these people who were torn from their homeland and kin, herded like cattle by strangers to an unknown destination and uncertain future. In 1704, James Island, a slave trader complained about his impossible task of fitting the large number of slaves onboard the Postillion stating that the "slaves are so large ... the general opinion being that the slaves could not be healthy in the space of three foot." Where do you think the shipmate is taking the group of slaves in the upper left image? Notice how the ribs of the children show through their skin, what do you think they are looking at? Notice the expression on the mother's face as she holds her baby in the bottom image, what things might she be thinking at that moment? Rob Evans, 2001. Mariners' Museum. Public Record Office, London, Records of the Treasury T 70/957.

There was nothing especially new about slavery as a system of labor and the exploitation of people when the Spanish and the Portuguese first began bringing slaves in 1503 from Western Africa to replace Native Americans in the gold mines of the Caribbean and Central America. The extent and impact, however, of the vast numbers of enslaved Africans thereafter brought to the New World to work the sugar, coffee, tobacco, rice, and cotton plantations was simply phenomenal. This transatlantic trade created a new global economy and an international world. This new Atlantic World was unlike anything ever known before-linking the Americas to Africa and Europe in ways that resulted in the development of Europe and North America and the undevelopment of Africa and the rest of the Americas. It is not too much to say that profits made from slavery and the slave trade in the years from 1600 to 1860 greatly contributed to the emergence of Western Europe and the United States as the dominant nations of the world.

"Nigritae in Scrutandis Venis Metallicis ab Hispanis." c1594. This Latin title refers to African slaves digging for precious metals, possibly ore and gold, in a Spanish colony in the Americas. The image depicts the incredibly difficult and tedious conditions these slaves were forced to work under. Notice how strong the Africans look, what does this tell you about the type of labor they performed? How many Spanish soldiers guard the slaves at work? What kind of weapons do they carry? Do the slaves have access to any type of weapons? Do you think it was common for the enslaved people to organize a revolt against their captors? Why? Or why not? Mariners' Museum.

Although the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch controlled most of the slave trade to the Americas from 1500 to 1700, English and North American traders moved aggressively into the business after 1730. It is estimated that around 310,000 slaves were bought and sold through Liverpool alone in the eighteenth century. New York, Boston, and Charleston also thrived as homeports for slave trading vessels. The pattern of trade resembled a triangle on the map of the Atlantic world, with rum shipped from New England to Africa to be bartered for slaves who were then transported to the West Indies and exchanged for sugar or molasses to be shipped to New England. This triangle model (usually referred to as a pattern of triangular trade) is somewhat misleading, however, because slave-trading vessels took part in pieces of the trade or deviated from the pattern. Some traders shipped lumber, beef, and rice from the North American mainland to the West Indies, for example, in exchange for sugar and slaves without ever going to Europe or Africa.


"Caribbean Sugar Mill." c1750. This image of a sugar plantation and mill looks benign compared to the reality of the industry. By the mid-1700s as much as 200,000 tons of sugar was exported annually from the Americas. This in turn created a high demand for African slaves in English and Dutch Caribbean colonies to grow the sugarcane and work the mills. The work was grueling and dangerous. Cutting cane with sharp knives, grinding and pressing the canes, and tending fires around the clock for boiling the cane into a sweet juice that eventually evaporated into sugar crystals was perhaps the most arduous work of all the agricultural tasks performed by the enslaved in the Americas. Sugar was far more difficult work than cultivating cotton, tobacco, or rice. So many slaves died within a few years of their arrival in the sugar islands, sometimes only months, that a steady fresh supply was always needed. Mariners' Museum.

Slavery in North America differed significantly from slavery in the rest of the Americas. In the first place, far fewer slaves were brought into what became the United States, only around 500,000 compared to perhaps 12 to 13 million imported into the Caribbean and South and Central America. Most of these imports to North America ended by 1770, moreover, except for a burst of activity by a few southern states after the American Revolution. Secondly, the fact that the English people had little experience with slavery in comparison to the Spanish and Portuguese meant that little historical reference existed for them to draw upon in the early years. Initially, the first slaves in the Virginia colony were looked upon as workers rather than as property, and some of them were treated much like white indentured servants. The enslaved Africans often worked along side the indentured European laborers in the tobacco fields of the Chesapeake region. Nor were the Africans especially valued. It was cheaper in the early years to bring in white laborers from England as indentured servants than to pay for slaves. And most whites looked upon Africans as morally and intellectually inferior, in any case.

For complex reasons, the value and presence of enslaved workers from Africa began to grow after 1676 in the Virginia colony. For one thing, white indentured servants could easily run away. They also demanded to be treated like Englishmen, especially in terms of their rations of grog and time-off from labor. Importantly too, the supply of white indentured servants began to decline as more working-class whites found employment back home in British industries, commerce, and shipping. And the increase in the life span of indentured servants in the new world meant that many of them began to live long enough to claim the share of lands promised to those who had labored the full terms of their indenture-usually six years. Enslaved Africans, on the other hand, could not easily blend into the surrounding white population by escaping-and Native Americans were often employed as slave-catchers. Nor could they make demands upon their masters for humane treatment, justice, or land.

Inspection and sale of a captive; an African man is being inspected for sale to European or American slavers while a white man talks with African slave traders. The Arabs were the earliest non-Africans to buy African slaves. In the early 1500s, Portugal and Spain began to send African-born slaves to their colonies in the New World, and in the following century England, France, and the Netherlands entered the trade, as eventually did the United States. Rum and guns were among the items most frequently traded for slaves.

Perhaps most importantly, in the opinion of some historians, upper-class whites began to fear an alliance between indentured servants and enslaved Africans after Bacon's Rebellion, which occurred in 1676. This rebellion against the planter gentry by unruly, lower-class whites in the interior of the colony convinced upper-class whites in the coastal regions to replace indentured laborers with the more easily disciplined and less expensive slaves. It mattered too that Virginia passed laws defining slaves as chattel property whose status was both lifelong and hereditary. After 1680, Virginia planters began buying large numbers of Africans.

To the south of the Virginia colony, slavery took on a different look. In the coastal plain, or low-country regions of Georgia and Carolina, the cultivation of rice on large plantations more closely resembled the practice of slavery in the West Indies. Most of the first English settlers in this region had migrated from the Barbados to the area around Charleston, beginning in 1670. Bringing slaves with them, the rice planters never employed indentured servants but imported large cargoes of slaves directly from Africa-and most of them were African males. By the time of the American Revolution nearly 100,000 Africans had been transplanted to the Charleston area as slaves. In this region, nearly 90 percent of the population was African-American. By the 1750s, the cultivation of rice and slavery spread westward into Georgia, which was established in 1732 as a refuge for England's poor, including male convicts and impoverished women and children. At first the colony banned slavery, but the lure of profits found white planters ignoring the ban and by 1776 the colony had more African-Americans living there than whites, approximately 15,000.

It was in the low-country of the Carolinas and Georgia where planters attempted to use Native Americans as slaves. But like elsewhere the problems of runaways-Indians could easily escape into the vast surrounding forests, the susceptibility of the Native Americans to disease--especially malaria, and the skilled agricultural backgrounds of Africans combined to make the Africans more useful as laborers. Enslaved Africans in the low-country were accustomed to sub-tropical climates, and they were often "seasoned" hands who had worked in the West Indies for months and years before being sold to planters in the low-country.

In the colonies north of Virginia, slavery was less extensive for a number of reasons. English settlers in New England and the Pennsylvania colonies were committed to utopian religions that undermined the acceptance of slavery. It was difficult for the Quakers in Pennsylvania and the Puritans in New England to fit the institution of slavery into their views of the perfect New World societies, which they hoped to create. Equally important, the cooler climate of the northern colonies, an abundance of white laborers, and the lack of a profitable staple crop for export (such as tobacco or sugar or rice) produced a more diversified economy not especially suitable to enslaved labor. On the eve of the American Revolution, nearly 400,000 African-Americans lived in the southern colonies compared to only 50,000 in the northern colonies.

"Reverend John Rankin and Wife." (1793-1886) Pictured here with his wife on their 50th wedding anniversary, the life of John Rankin represents a deep belief in the right to freedom for all peole regardless of race. As a Presbyterian minister, Rankin started an anti-slavery society in Carlisle, Kentucky, amidst angry slaveowners. He eventually moved to Ripley, Ohio, where slavery was illegal although many whites in the area remained strong pro-slavery supporters, and risked working as a conductor and station keeper on the Underground Railroad. Rankin lectured across the northern states for the American Anti-Slavery Society, often falling victim to mob-violence. One time, pro-slavery advocates shaved his horse's tail and mane in an effort to embarrass and scare him. In 1829, Rankin established the historic Ripley College, enrolling the first African-American student in 1831. Do you think it was dangerous to hide slaves in your home? How do you think slaveowners felt about Rankin's work? How do you think his family felt about sharing their home and food with these strangers? Ohio Historical Society.

At the time of the American Revolution, slavery was a profitable but not all-pervasive institution in the British colonies of North America. Most prosperous in the low-country areas, it was beginning to reach a point of diminishing returns in the colonies of Virginia and Maryland. The 100 years of tobacco cultivation had exhausted much of the land in the Chesapeake area. Also, there seemed to be little likelihood that tobacco and rice could be as easily cultivated in the lands west of the coastal colonies.

During the great constitutional debates in the late 1780s over what the new nation would look like in the future, it was commonly assumed that slavery would gradually end soon in the next century. White southerners nevertheless managed to win from the North three significant concessions protecting the institution of slavery: (1) the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which enabled slave catchers to cross state lines in the pursuit of runaway slaves; (2) the Three-Fifths Clause agreement to count every slave as three-fifths of a free person in determining a state's representation in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College; and (3) the continuation of the slave trade with Africa until 1808, which brought thousands of slaves to America in a rush of slave-trading activity.

Still, all the signs suggested that slavery was a terminal institution in the nation at the time of the ratification of the U. S. Constitution in 1789. A number of northern states, had abolished slavery by 1800, and the federal Congress banned slavery from the vast region of unorganized territory north of the Ohio River with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Dozens of anti-slavery societies sprang up in the northern states and the upper South, and many enslaved African Americans openly challenged the system by suing for their freedom in state courts and by running away. Nevertheless, the ending of slavery did not happen for another 60 years-in fact, it took on new life in the new century, spreading rapidly from Georgia to Texas by 1830.

Although the South had gained a major political advantage with the three-fifths clause, enabling it to dominate the Electoral College and the U. S. Congress for much of the next 50 years, the rebirth of slavery in the next century was due principally to other factors. (As an aside, had slaves not been counted as a basis for representation, John Adams would have been elected president over the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson in 1800; and most likely the strong abolitionist John Quincy Adams would have defeated the southern slaveholder Andrew Jackson in 1828) Most important in the resurgence of slavery and its spread westward was the increased cultivation of cotton due to the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. This relatively simple machine invented by Eli Whitney removed seeds and trash from the short-staple cotton easily grown in much of the South. Prior to the invention of the cotton gin, short-staple cotton had to be combed by hand before it could be spun into thread, a costly labor-intensive process. At the same time, England turned from wool to cotton for its textiles and began consuming with a ravenous appetite American cotton. The surge of cotton production from the U. S. jumped from 3,000 bales in 1890 to nearly 200,000 bales by 1812. It stood at 4,449,000 bales in 1860, with each bale weighing between 300 to 500 pounds. On the eve of the Civil War, the value of cotton exports amounted to over 50 percent of the value of all U.S. exports.

"Picking Cotton." Here the artist shows two men and one woman picking cotton. Each worker puts the picked cotton into a long bag, which they drag behind them in the fields. Typically, each worker carried two bags into the fields, made of coarse cotton with straps, and a large willow basket, not shown in the painting. The bags were suspended from their shoulders or waists. When one bag was full, the worker filled up the second bag and then carried both to the basket. By the end of the day, the large basket would be taken to a waiting wagon. A worker's total pick would be carefully weighed on a field scale before the cotton was packed into the wagon. A normal field hand was expected to be able to pick 150 to 200 pounds of cotton per day. Some enslaved workers were known to pick as much as 500 pounds daily. It was backbreaking work. From "can to can't," or from when you first could see the sun in the morning until it was dark. They always harvested the cotton, moreover, in the heat of late summer, commonly under a blazing sun. They had to work fast to make their quota, and they had to work carefully so as not to intorduce too much dirt or trash into the bags. Women and children were often valued as pickers because of their ability to pick clean cotton, meaning cotton free of stems or trash; and because they did not have to stoop quite so low as men, they suffered less back pain. Notice the cabins in the background, typical of slave houses throughout the South. Each cabin probably housed two or three families. Other points of interest in this painting are the picked stubles in the field, the clouded sky, and the clothes worn by the cotton pickers. What do you think the artist is trying to convey by these details? Rural Life Museum. Artist: Steele Burden

This dramatic increase in cotton production was accompanied by a massive increase in the slave population. It rose from 697,897 in 1790 to nearly 4 million in 1860, growing fastest in the cotton producing states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Both Mississippi and South Carolina had more slave than free inhabitants by 1860. Most southern whites did not own slaves-only about 400,000 out of 9 million in 1860. Of those who did own slaves, half owned fewer than five slaves in 1860. Very few slaveholders owned 20 or more slaves (usually 20 slaves defined one as a planter), only about 12 percent. And only 1 percent of the slaveholders owned more than 50 slaves. On the other hand, 56 percent of all slaves lived and worked on plantations of more than 20 slaves, meaning that while the typical slaveholder owned only a handful of slaves, the typical slave lived on a plantation of some size.

"Loading and Weighing Cotton." Workers here bring their cotton to be weighed before dumping their load into the wagon. The field scale is a relatively crude device. The cotton is piled on a sheet or tarp and then it is bundled together and placed on the scale. Each pile represents one person's production or pick. The white cotton fields in the background suggest that the scene depicted is early in the season. Usually a field of cotton would be picked three times, with the middle pick yielding the most cotton. Picking season started around late August and lasted sometimes until early December, but usually it was done by November. Rural Life Museum. Artist: Steele Burden

As the institution of slavery grew and prospered in the new century, slaveholders in the new cotton producing states simply adopted the already existing laws for treating and handling slaves established prior to 1776 in the old tobacco regions.. All of the slaveholding states adopted slave codes and laws that defined slaves as chattel property-human being with no human rights recognized in law. Numerous local ordinances at the county and town level created laws for disciplining slaves. Everywhere in the South, slaveholders used the law to regulate and police slave trading, to regulate the activities of slaves off the plantation, and to define precisely what the enslaved were allowed to do and not to do. These laws governed practically all aspects of human life and activity for the enslaved. Although modeled after the Virginia slave codes, most of the newly settled southern states adopted slave codes more severe than those of the upper-South. Mississippi's slave codes of 1818 and 1848, for example, were the harshest and most specific codes of any southern state. (See the Slave Laws Map and State Summaries in the Geography section of this site)

One of the most curious facts of US slavery is that slaves in the US South reproduced themselves in numbers equal to the white birth rate. In almost all other nations in the Americas, slave mortality rates were so high that the slave population required massive importation of slaves in order for the institution to survive. In the American South, on the other hand, slaves tended to live in strong family environments, especially on the large plantations, with extended kinship networks that enabled the slaves to reproduce themselves naturally. Planters well understood that a family environment helped control slaves in the sense that the threat of breaking up the slave family worked to undermine slave rebellions and disobedience.

Equally important, because of the ban on the importation of slaves into the United States after 1808, planters understood that good medical care and tolerable working conditions enabled their slaves to live longer lives. This meant that slaves were considered not only a source of labor but also a capital investment that might actually increase in value, especially in the case of enslaved women. With no new slaves allowed to enter the nation legally after 1808, the enslaved African Americans on hand were bound to increase in value in proportion to the increase in demand for the cotton they produced. As the western states opened up to cotton production, a great new market for slaves increased the value of slaves even more in the upper-South.

Just as slavery began in the Americas with the slave trade from Africa, it continued to grow and thrive in the United States because of the internal, domestic slave trade. By 1860, some 600,000 slaves had been transported from the upper-South to the lower-South. Many of these enslaved people were carried south as slaveholders purchased plantations and moved their families to the new cotton regions of the Mississippi delta. Many more slaves were shipped south by slave traders who gathered surplus slaves in Virginia and Maryland to be walked overland in slave coffles or shipped coastwise in slave schooners and brigs. Natchez, Mississippi, for example, was the second largest slave market in the lower-South after New Orleans. In the upper-South, Alexandria and Richmond, Virginia, prospered as collection markets for slaves brought for sale from throughout the region.

A slave coffle passing the United States Capitol. Another abolitionist image, showing a manacled group of slaves being transported, probably either for sale or to the property of their buyer. Slaves were often transported for long distances overland in this fashion. The image shows the Capitol around 1815, following the destruction of the partially built building by British troops in the War of 1812 and prior to the construction of the familiar done.

Surviving Slavery

The most important thing to be said about slavery from the perspective of the enslaved is that millions of African Americans endured slavery by making a world for themselves in the midst of their bondage. By 1776, a viable African-American culture had emerged out of slavery, fashioned and shaped by the slaves themselves partly out of the African past but mainly in response to slavery as an institution.

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At the foundation of this enslaved culture stood the African-American family. Because of the nature of the work performed in slavery and the scarcity of labor, slaveholders usually allowed their human chattel to live in family cabins and to observe family connections. Slaveholders did this for simple economic reasons and to make it easier to control the slaves. Whatever the reasons, slaves took advantage of the opportunity to use the family environment as a refuge and as a source of cultural endurance.

Although slave marriages had no legal standing, most slaveholders allowed slaves to select their own mates. Enslaved men usually courted their girlfriends and married them in ceremonies conducted by enslaved holy men and local African-American preachers. Frequently slave marriages involved "Jumping the broom," a ceremony more Old World European than African. On large plantations, such marriages typically occurred among slaves from different plantations until the nineteenth century when stricter rules of travel in the neighborhood began to be enforced.

The extended family network within which most slaves lived emerged principally as a way of coping with the separation of family members in slavery. Offspring from a slave marriage became the property of the slaveholder who owned the enslaved mother. In many cases, slaveholders placed with a functioning slave family a child left behind by a parent's death or recent sale, or those children recently purchased from slave traders. Parents tried to name their children after family members, usually a father or uncle or grandfather who lived elsewhere or aunts or grandmothers who had died or had been sold off the place. Later on, when some slaves began using surnames, they tended to take the names of the slaveholder who had originally owned them or their parents.

Enslaved children learned family history from their parents by the stories told to them while they worked along side their mothers in the fields or at night in the slave cabins. Among the survival skills taught them were proper work habits, respect for elders, reverence for a spiritual world, and how to deal with whites by "putting on the massa." Parents often demonstrated these lessons by acting ignorant and even silly around whites while mocking them when they were out of sight. In this way, African-American parents showed their children how to cope with slavery by fooling the master without losing one's self respect. In addition to relying on the strength of family networks, the enslaved turned to religion as a means of coping with slavery. During the colonial era, most enslaved Africans retained as best they could their indigenous African religions or Islam in the cases of those who had come from Muslim countries. It was not until the mid-eighteenth century that large numbers of Africans began converting to Christianity during the religious revival movement that swept over the English colonies. During this Great Awakening, English Methodists and Baptists (later) preached an evangelical style of Christianity that appealed to the emotions and offered salvation to all who embraced Christ regardless of one's class or race. This new emotional religion blended nicely with African spiritual beliefs and religious practices. Its emphasis on singing, emotional fervor, spiritual rebirth, and total body immersion in water during baptism was especially attractive to enslaved African-Americans. Those white slaveholders who embraced this evangelical Christianity allowed African-Americans to attend white churches as long as the enslaved Christians sat apart form them and took communion at separate tables.

Although perhaps as many as 15 percent of all enslaved Africans were church members by 1780--usually attending the churches of their owners, many more practiced their own version of Christianity out of sight of whites. Gathering in "brush arbors" after dark, African-American Christians sang, danced, shouted, and clapped to the preaching of African-American ministers, usually illiterate holy men from the plantation or the neighborhood who conducted Christian marriages and burials. African-American funerals reflected the African perspective on death as a moment of transcending life in which the dead returned to their homelands to be reunited with their ancestors. As a result, their funerals were joyous events with much dancing, music, drinking, laughter, and merriment. On the eve of the Civil War, most slaves practiced a form of evangelical Protestantism identified with Baptist and Methodist religions. The version of Christianity that they embraced emphasized the story of Moses and the delivery of God's chosen people from bondage over those sermons that taught submissiveness to masters, turning the other cheek, and obedience to worldly authority.

Within the world of slavery, African-Americans taught themselves a new language, practiced new art forms, and played a new kind of music that enabled them to endure the horrors of their bondage. Although most slaves had lost their African languages over the generations, some managed to hold onto parts of their old ways of speaking. In those areas where fresh infusions of African slaves arrived as late as 1808, like the coastal low-country, Sea Islands off Georgia, and the low-land marshes of Louisiana, African dialects hung on throughout the slave era. The Gullah and Geechees dialects, which are still spoken today, employ African words and grammatical elements within a basic English structure. More importantly, the loss of African language found African-Americans fashioning a kind of Creole slave language that enabled them to communicate with one another. Most whites looked upon this new language as crude and ignorant instead of seeing it for a new language rich in sense of place and meaning for the enslaved. This Creole English (or Enslaved English) enabled African-Americans to communicate with each other in ways not easily understood by their white overlords.

The same point can be made about the music that came out of the slave experience. In attempting to keep enslaved Africans from communicating with each other, whites banned the use of drums. In their place, the enslaved perfected an African based dance and music that reproduced the rhythms and cadences of African drumming. They substituted hand clapping, body slapping, tapping the feet-or "pattin' juba," and rhyming shouts to accompany jigs, shuffles, struts, and backstep dances. They played gourd fiddles and banjo, bows, bells, and the bones-all African-American inventions or innovations. Much of their musical expression occurred while worshipping, at funerals and weddings, and while socializing in the evening after work. The songs they sang while they worked during the day helped regulate the pace of their work-especially the call-and-response style of singing. And their spiritual songs blended a style of sadness and jubilation that produced moving lyrics and uplifting messages of liberation and freedom. As a result, a viable African-American music emerged in ante-bellum America that soon became one of the world's most original art forms and the basis of modern day blues and jazz music.

Resisting Slavery At its heart, American slavery was a brutal system based upon physical force, threats, torture, sexual exploitation, and intimidation. Any African-American resisting overtly the orders of a slaveholder, or almost any white in the community, could expect immediate and often brutal retaliation. Few laws prevented slaveholders from doing whatever they wanted with their human property. Accepted methods of punishment for slaves included verbal rebukes, a few "cuts" with a stick or riding whip, kicks to the body, boxing of ears, confinement in corn cribs or tool sheds, branding on the flesh of the hand or head with a hot iron applied for 20 seconds, and mutilation of the body by clipping the ears, breaking legs, severing fingers, and slitting tongues. In some cases, slaves were forced to wear iron chains and even iron masks on their heads for weeks and months at a time. But the most common form of slave punishment was a severe whipping. Slave codes usually defined as a moderate whipping the laying on of 39 lashes on the bare back. In some cases, the whippings could be quite severe in number. For slaves who lived on large plantations, whippings and similar punishments were common, and few slaves escaped at least one severe whipping in their life. Here are three quotes from manuscript sources that suggest the extent to which floggings were commonly applied.

"On Sunday last Adam was found to be drunk upon which I ordered him to be confined in the Bastille. Also ordered him 500 lashes next day in order to draw a Confession from him how he came by the Rum--which had the desired effect. He acknowledged having secreted a key when he was cook, by which he got entrance to the store on the low land and stole rum--ordered a large chain to be fixed to his leg, which he has carried until today; had it take off, his leg being swelled, as I intend carrying him up to Point Coupee, when I shall sell him if I find an opportunity."
--William Dunbar, Mississippi Planter, November 12, 1777

"The town guard took Nancy Lattimore and cut her all over her back, whipped her very much. She went through the market the next morning with her clothes hanging all off of each shoulder. Her back was very much whipped. It was thought Dr. Lattimore makes her walk in the street that way."
--William Johnson, A Free Person of Natchez, Mississippi, January 14, 1836.

"Several girls that was in a fight yesterday was whipped today. They got 15 lashes each. Three of them, the Gibson girl and Betty Dumat and a girl of Mrs. LaCrosse."
--William Johnson, A Free Person of Natchez, Mississippi, February 23, 1847.

Perhaps the greatest agony for the enslaved stemmed from the knowledge that one could be sold from family and friends at any moment. Usually slaves were sold for one of the following reasons: the slave was so troublesome as to undermine the functioning of the plantation; the estate was broken up at the death of the slaveholder; an economic downturn forced slaveholders to liquidate their properties; or else slaveholders just wanted the slave gone for personal reasons that frequently involved the sexual exploitation of enslaved women. Several hundred thousand slaves were thus sold and transported to the lower South in the nineteenth century. Almost all of them were members of families torn apart by the sale. Most of them never saw their families ever again.

The enslaved African and African-Americans resisted their masters and others in the white community as best they could without risking severe punishment or sale of themselves or family members. Perhaps the most common resistance took the form of workplace sabotage. Slaves tried to control the work pace set for them by the masters so that the least able of their group would no be whipped or sold for falling behind. Individuals also tried to gum up the works as much as possible. This could take the form of setting fire to a barn, walking a horse off a cliff, abusing tools and animals, or just doing less than careful work. So frequent was the abuse of work animals by slaves that most planters began using mules rather than horses. A mule is much stronger than a horse and too stubborn to be forced off a cliff by even the most persistently abusive slave. This is not to say, however, that slaves did not openly rebel against their masters. The history of slavery is filled with slave rebellions that were both organized and spontaneous. Nearly 500 accounts have been documented. From the very beginnings of slavery, African-American captives tried to overthrow their slaveholders on the ships transporting them from Africa. Few succeeded but many tried. The most famous slave rebellion on the open seas occurred on board the Spanish schooner La Amistad.off the coast of Cuba. The slave ship mistakenly sailed into New York harbor, and was captured the crew of a U. S. frigate. The ensuing trial gained international attention, ending in freedom and passage to Sierra Leon for the African mutineers.

Among the other slave rebellions that stand out for their daring and national consequences are the following: (1) The uprising in South Carolina in 1526 against the Spanish; (2) the New York City rebellion in 1712; (3) the Stono River rebellion of slaves near Charleston, South Carolina in 1739; (4) the New York City uprising of 1741; (5) the rebellion of Gabriel Prosser in Virginia in 1800; (6) the Charleston upraising of Denmark Vesey in 1822; (7) the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831; and (6) the rebellion at Second Creek in Adams County, Mississippi in 1861. Each of these rebellions was brutally put down, but not before spreading fear among white slaveholders who responded with stricter laws and severe penalties for any hint of rebellion. After the Nat Turner rebellion, much of the South became an armed camp. Slave patrols were stepped up and the time when slaves could move relatively freely around at night came to an abrupt end.

Escaping Slavery

Almost from the beginning of slavery in North America, southern masters struggled to cope with the constant problem of runaway slaves. It is impossible to know how many slaves actually ran away because no exact count was ever made. Some historians contend that up to 50,000 African-Americans ran away each year of slavery, especially from 1830 to 1860. However, most of these runaways were not attempting to escape slavery by fleeing to free states. Rather, they ran for a variety of reasons, and the vast majorities either returned of their own accord or were captured.

The most common motivation for slaves to run was their fear of severe punishments by whipping or worse treatment by cruel slaveholders and overseers. Many runaways were actually truants who ran off to visit wives or husbands, family, and friends on neighboring plantations before returning to face the wrath of their masters. Others were habitual runaways who left every chance they got to escape, usually because someone had insulted them or affronted their dignity. Again, many of these runaways returned once the slaveholder had calmed down or sent out the word through other slaves that no punishment would occur if the fugitive returned quickly.

Countless slaves also ran away after being sold in the domestic slave trade. These enslaved men and women tried to get back to their families or to connect with any family members who had been sold away from them. Very few ever succeeded in finding their families. Most gave up and returned to the plantations of their owners. Yet, some stayed away permanently by joining up with other runaways in so-called maroon colonies, trying to go to northern free states, or just surviving as best they could on their own, frequently trying to get lost among the slaves and free African-Americans in southern towns and cities like Charleston and New Orleans.

Although it is impossible to have an accurate profile of the typical runaway slave, historians investigating fugitive advertisements in southern newspapers agree that, except in urban centers like New Orleans and Charleston, 80 to 90 percent of the runaways were males. Very few children were among the runaways, perhaps only around two percent. The male runaways were also young, single men in the main, usually in their mid-twenties and represented every type of occupation in slavery: field hands, skilled artisans, and house servants. Usually, the runaways made their attempted escapes in the summer months. Having fled, these young, unmarried men had to elude slave patrols and bounty hunters as well as local informants. Every town in the South erected special jails to house captured runaways, and every newspaper carried numerous ads identifying fugitives in great detail as to their physical descriptions, such as color, size, gender, age, and physical markings, as well as their attitude. The ads also indicated where the fugitive was likely headed and sometimes their motives for running away. Newspapers also ran ads listing those slaves recently captured and confined in jail. If the slave's owner did not take up a captured slave within a short period of time, the runaway would be sold in a public auction.

Among the thousands of runaways were those who tried to escape from slavery by fleeing to free states, Canada, Mexico, or the British West Indies. No one knows how many slaves escaped. Historians suggest that at least 1,000 may have made it to freedom each year in the 1840s and 1850s. Although we can't be sure, analysis of slave runaway ads in newspapers suggest that fewer than ten percent of runaways were headed north in the opinions of their owners. Sample studies indicate that around 75 percent of these fugitives were never captured. Most of these fugitives fled from border states, such as Maryland, Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Others used the Mississippi River to escape by going down river in the 1820s, prior to the steamboat, and up river after 1830. Still others escaped by boarding coastal trade ships bound north or to the West Indies. Frederick Douglass was one of the most famous of these fugitives. Beginning in the 1850s, southern slaveholders, as well as northern abolitionists, referred to the escape routes used by runaways as part of a system of well-traveled trails and safe houses along the way to freedom. Because the railroad captured the imagination of Americans as the technological wonder of the age, these loosely organized and haphazard escape routes and the support system runaways used became known as the Underground Railroad. Click here to view a map of commonly traveled routes to freedom.

After a while, the symbolic meaning of this network of safe houses, contact points, and operators was more important than its reality. Southern slaveholders used the term Underground Railroad to shore up their defenses and demand a stringently enforced Fugitive Slave Law, which became part of the Compromise of 1850. Northern abolitionists also boasted of its success in freeing slaves and demonstrating to the world the undying thirst for freedom and courage that its passengers and operatives exhibited. Anti-slavery societies and groups frequently presented runaways and the free African-Americans who assisted them at meetings and events where they detailed the horrors of slavery for enraptured, angry audiences.

The Underground Railroad operated principally in the Upper South and the North, and most of the fugitives who made it to the North escaped on their own. Once outside of the South, however, hundreds--perhaps even thousands--of individuals assisted the runaways to avoid capture and to make it to Canada. This network was managed, operated, and principally funded by African Americans rather than by whites, although whites also did participate in small numbers. Working-class African-Americans provided clothing, food, and shelter, while wealthier northern African-Americans offered legal help, money, publicity, and important contacts with anti-slavery societies and helpful whites. Once the escaped African-Americans reached the North, they found safe houses and assistance in evading any pursuing slave catchers. This system of assistance operated most effectively in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Fugitive slaves found networks of sanctuary among African-American communities that essentially constituted an underground network of committees, stations, and information. This network was broad reaching, and its members used undercover agents in hotels, train stations, and ports. African-American workers in hotels frequented by slave catchers kept track, for example, of their movements and even used the telegram to warn others about their comings and goings. Perhaps, the best-organized network operated in Washington D.C., where its members helped rescue slaves from Virginia and Maryland, sending them on to Philadelphia or New York with forged certificates of freedom for safe transport to Canada.

Perhaps, the most famous underground agent was Harriet Ross Tubman. She escaped slavery in 1849 from Maryland, running away upon learning that her master planned to sell her out of State, thus separating her from her husband. In freedom, Tubman lived for two years in Philadelphia before sneaking back to the South in the hope of persuading her husband to join her, only to find that he had remarried. Her daring trip back to Maryland convinced her that she could help others escape to freedom.

For the next decade, Tubman returned 19 times to the South, rescuing nearly 300 enslaved men, women, and children. She often dressed as a feeble old woman or as an impoverished and mentally demented man. Among the people she rescued were her sister and her sister's two children, her brother and his wife, and her own parents, with whom she settled in Auburn, New York. A fearless fighter, Tubman helped the white abolitionist John Brown plan his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. However, she was prevented from actually participating in the raid by a last minute illness. Faced with a $40,000 bounty for her capture, Tubman defied all odds again and again, making her last trip south in 1860.

Among those who broke for freedom in the American South were African Americans who lived for years with groups of runaway slaves in independent, outlaw communities. These maroon communities existed everywhere in the Americas and, especially, in Jamaican, Surinam, St. Domingue, and Brazil. (The term maroon derives from the Spanish word, Cimarron, and it originally referred to runaway animals that had wandered off farms and plantations.) In the American South, these communities--perhaps around 50 in number--were small, mobile, and largely male groups of fugitives who sustained themselves by raiding local plantations and producing their own crops that were hidden away in swamps and marshes.

Several factors worked against the existence, however, of large numbers of maroon communities in the South: few impenetrable wilderness or mountain areas existed to offer refugee and sanctuary; Native Americans often worked for whites as slave catchers; and a disproportionately large white population was determined to eliminate any independent African-American activity in their midst. Equally important, maroon communities in South and Central America and the West Indies were almost always composed of recent arrivals from Africa who tended to runaway in groups. Conversely, American-born slaves who ran away tended to act as individuals rather than as groups, possibly reflecting their lack of cultural identity with Africa by the 1830s.

The Spanish borderlands in Florida and Louisiana and the Dismal Swamp area in Virginia and North Carolina proved to be the most hospitable areas for maroon communities of the sort found elsewhere in the Americas. The largest of these communities existed in the Dismal Swamp, and it may have numbered 2,000 escaped slaves. In contesting the British for control of West Florida in the late colonial era, the Spanish offered freedom to escaped English slaves, some who then formed maroon communities in association with Native Americans, especially the Seminole Indians. In an area just north of St. Augustine, a haven for runaway slaves known as Gracia Real De Santa Teresa de Mose thrived and was officially sanctioned by the Spanish from around 1738 to 1765. In the 19th century, escaped slaves lived with and fought along side the Seminole Indians in the Florida swamps, actually forcing the United States to recognize their independence. After the Second and Third Seminole Wars ended in the 1850s, the maroons of Florida were allowed to move with the Seminoles to Oklahoma rather than be returned to the white slaveholders from whom they had escaped. Click here for a more in-depth essay on the African-American Seminoles.

Transcending Slavery

Life Beyond the Plantation

By 1860, most enslaved African Americans found ways of coping with slavery to reach beyond the daily experience of bondage. The strategies the enslaved used to transcend their experiences of slavery, to not allow it to completely determine personal worth and values, differed depending partly on the work they did and where they lived as slaves. While the vast majority did work as field hands in cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco production, thousands also worked in southern industries or at various service jobs in towns and cities. Between 10,000 to 14,000 enslaved workers labored in the lumbering industry: cutting trees, hauling cut timber by wagons to sawmills, and working in the sawmills to prepare the wood for the construction of houses, buildings, bridges, and ships. Enslaved men, women, and children, perhaps numbering around 10,000, also worked in the few textile mills and tobacco factories in the South. Another 10,000 worked as miners extracting iron ore and coal from the earth, which was then labored over by several thousand African-American manual workers in ironwork yards in Virginia and Maryland. And, over 1,000 enslaved African-Americans worked in the salt mines, processing brine water from deep wells to make salt for preserving the fatty slabs of pork eaten by enslaved field hands on southern cotton and sugar plantations.

Many of these industrial slaves lived in southern cities and towns alongside thousands of other enslaved African Americans. It is estimated that over 140,000 enslaved African Americans lived in southern cities in 1860. Three urban places contained the lion's share of urban slaves: Charleston (14,000), New Orleans (13,400), and Richmond (11,699). Town and city slaves represented slightly more than eight percent of the total population in the largest southern cites, and one-third of the people in Charleston, Richmond, and Savannah were slaves on the eve of the Civil War. These urban slaves worked in almost every type of job available to white workers. They shoveled coal in the iron foundries, worked in flour mills and tobacco factories, ran cotton presses, hauled cargoes for loading ships, drove carriages and wagons, repaired and constructed streets, and worked as skilled carpenters, bricklayers, painters, tailors, barbers, butchers, and blacksmiths. They ran grocery stalls in the markets, washed clothes and pressed them for pay, worked as crude laborers doing countless tasks, and did odd jobs for their owners that ranged from shopping, running errands, to supervising children at play. And, many of these enslaved African Americans hired themselves out for wages, turning over most of the pay to their owners but also keeping some wages as their earnings.

It was in the towns and cities of the slave South that the enslaved people found the greatest opportunities for living somewhat beyond slavery. The nature of urban life allowed African-Americans to evade partly the ever-watchful eyes of owners and white authorities. Secret black meeting places, hidden and safe rooms and corners, and even all-black societies and independent churches for the enslaved sprang up in most southern towns. This secret world of the urban slave enabled them to live significantly beyond the world of their masters. Although whites always worried about the extent of freedom allowed to urban slaves, they could do little about it because so many white slave owners profited from hiring their skilled slaves out for pay or needed them to have free access to the city to run errands to support the white household.

Urban slaves also mingled easily if not freely with the large numbers of free African-Americans who lived in every southern city--men, women, and children who were either born free or had been freed (emancipated) by their owners. In 1860, approximately 262,000 African Americans--or 6.2 percent of all southern African-Americans--were free; while the majority lived in rural areas as small farmers and tenants, large numbers lived in the urban South. In Maryland, for example, 50 percent of the African-Americans were free in 1860. In Delaware, the percentage of free African-Americans was around 92 percent. In Washington D.C., nearly 80 percent of its African-American residents were free on the eve of the Civil War.

In general, the free African-Americans of the upper South (Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky) were more independent than those of the lower South except for in New Orleans. In Richmond, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., free African-Americans enjoyed substantial community association with independent African-Americans churches, schools, and voluntary associations. These free African-Americans were also politically active within limits, raising funds to buy family members, secretly assisting runaway African-Americans to escape slavery via the "underground railroad," and privately supporting abolitionist and anti-slavery speakers and newspapers. In the lower South, free African-Americans tended to have closer ties to former white owners and usually lived under the protection and supervision of white guardians. Fewer African-American churches or schools were tolerated in the lower South, and most free African-Americans there lived in constant fear of being brutalized or even enslaved.

New Orleans was an exception. It held a uniquely free African-American community because of the city's French and Spanish heritage, long history of racial mixing, and the property-based power of many of its free African-American members. These Creole African-Americans included a significant number of light skinned, wealthy men and women who participated fully in a rich, African-American cultural life that included literary clubs, opera, churches, and the theater. Free African-Americans and slaves in New Orleans lived in a world far different from the rest of the urban or rural South, although there was no question about the strict limits the law imposed upon enslaved African-Americans as property.

Many of the South's free African-Americans were of mixed racial ancestry, usually having a white father or white grandfather, with approximately 75 percent in the lower South compared to 35 percent in the upper South. Some historians contend, moreover, that larger numbers of the free African-Americans in the lower South were the offspring of forced and illicit sexual relations between white owners and their female slaves. It was not uncommon for white men to free the slave women who had given birth to their children, while sometimes keeping the children enslaved until they reached adulthood. Other white fathers waited until their own deaths before freeing their African-American families. Almost all whites looked upon freedom for African-Americans as a gift rather than as a right the enslaved earned or deserved as humans.

A relatively small minority of South's free African-Americans actually owned slaves, usually consisting of their wives and children. A few free African-American planters and urban craftsmen and entrepreneurs owned slaves other than members of their families. In Natchez, Mississippi, for example, the free African-American barber William Johnson owned several men and women who worked for him as barbers, field hands, and house slaves. Johnson used the white town guard to punish his slaves, bought and sold slaves from slave traders, and related publicly to his slaves as any other slave master would. But, he also secretly taught his slaves to read and write, agonized over their misbehavior, and well understood the precariousness of his world. In the end, although free, Johnson lived in a world where all African-Americans were assumed by most whites to be inferior and better off as slaves.

In this urban and industrial world, a viable and vibrant African-American underworld grew up, especially in the upper South and in New Orleans. It was a world far different from that in the rural South; one largely out of sight of white authority. It was a world of complexity and significant anonymity (the state of being unacknowledged or unknown) for the enslaved. As a result, urban slaves on the eve of the Civil War were able to live somewhat beyond slavery--perhaps transcending it--in ways that mattered greatly in their personal lives.

Fighting to be Free--the Civil War

When southern states responded to the election of Abraham Lincoln by forming the Confederate States of America and seceding from the United States, most enslaved and free African Americans knew that slavery lay at the heart of the rebellion. They knew that southern whites seceded in order to preserve and protect the institution of slavery. White southerners feared that, with Lincoln as President, the anti-slavery forces in the northern states would ram through a constitutional amendment ending slavery. They also feared that Lincoln, the first Republican President and a man openly opposed to slavery, would appoint anti-slavery judges to Federal courts, including the Supreme Court.


Northern free African-Americans responded to the outbreak of war between the North and the South by volunteering to fight for the Union. But, it took two years for the North to accept African-Americans as soldiers. Lincoln rejected the initial offers of volunteer units of African-American soldiers because he feared turning the War into a war against slavery. He feared that, by accepting African-American soldiers, he would undermine white support for the War and might lose loyal Border States like Missouri to the Confederacy. President Abraham Lincoln was determined to fight the War as a battle to save the Union rather than as a war to end slavery. To this end, he refused to allow for the enlistment of African-American soldiers until mounting numbers of white casualties softened white public opinion towards using African-Americans in combat.

In the summer of 1862, five African-American infantry regiments were authorized for action in the Sea Islands off South Carolina and Georgia. Six months later, following Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 (which officially ended slavery in Confederate areas not under Union authority), African-American units were formed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. In May of 1863, the War Department created the Bureau of Colored Troops and began vigorously recruiting African-American soldiers. The most famous of these northern regiments was the 54th Massachusetts, which counted 100 dead and 146 wounded in its assault on Fort Wagner at Charleston Harbor on July 18, 1863. Due to the 54th Massachusetts' valiant efforts, no one could doubt of the ability of African-American soldiers to fight or their willingness to die for the Union cause.

Eventually, 178,000 African Americans served as soldiers during the Civil War, and up to 33,000 served in the Navy: 80 percent of them were former slaves. Ultimately, 166 African-American regiments--consisting of 145 infantry, seven cavalry, 12 heavy artillery, one light artillery, and one regiment of engineers--served in the Civil War. Although they fought and died with courage and honor, African-American soldiers suffered discrimination both officially and unofficially. Almost all officers in the African-American units were whites. Of the 7,200 officers who served in the United States Colored Troop, only 110 were African Americans. More than 70 of the 110 were so harassed by their superiors that they resigned their commissions. African-American soldiers were paid less than white soldiers, received unequal medical care, poor equipment and supplies, and worked at digging ditches, latrines, and fortifications so the white soldiers to be rested and ready for battle. It was only after African-American soldiers refused to accept the unequal pay, in what amounted to a pay strike against the Federal Government, that matters changed, although full equality in pay was more of a promise than a reality for African-American soldiers.

Still, African-American units fought in 39 major battles and in hundreds of minor engagements, skirmishes, and incidents. They gained public acclaim for their heroism in the battles of Port Hudson, Milliken's Bend, Fort Wagner, Fort Pillow, and the final battles on the Virginia front leading to the fall of Petersburg, Virginia, the Confederate Capital. Approximately 3,000 soldiers lost their lives in battle, and another 33,000 died from war-related diseases--a proportion much higher than the disease-caused casualties of white troops. The high death rate of African-American soldiers from diseases stemmed principally from the fact that African-American troops were often assigned to the least healthy posts, such as guarding river fortifications or doing fatigue labor in swamps and marshy areas.

African-American soldiers also confronted angry reaction from Confederate soldiers that made their duty in the field especially dangerous. For the most part, Confederate soldiers treated African-American soldiers as runaway slaves to be executed when captured or else sold into slavery. The great African-American leader, Frederick Douglass, demanded that President Lincoln take actions to prevent the summary execution of captured African-American soldiers by threatening to stop his recruitment efforts. The President announced that for every African-American soldier killed or sold into slavery, a rebel prisoner would be executed or put to hard labor. Yet, Lincoln's order did not end the execution or enslavement of captured African-American soldiers, partly because he never carried it out. No Confederate prisoners were ever executed under the policy.

In one of the worst episodes of the War, Confederates under the command of Nathan Bedford Forrest (who later became infamous as a founder of the Ku Klux Klan massacred Union soldiers at Fort Pillow on the Tennessee River on April 12, 1864, giving "no quarter," especially to surrendering African-American soldiers. Lincoln refused, however, to carry out his earlier proclamation to execute rebel prisoners, probably understanding that Confederate soldiers would never recognize the legitimacy of African-American soldiers.

African-American sailors also served with distinction in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. Estimates on the number of African-American sailors range from a low of 10,000 to a high of 33,000. The exact number is uncertain because the Navy did not classify sailors by race. African-American sailors did experience discrimination, often being assigned the hardest tasks, such as working the boilers on steam-powered vessels. Many sailors also were used as stewards or waiters to serve white officers. But in general, African-American sailors were treated better than the soldiers in the United States Colored Troops. The Navy had a long tradition of using African-American sailors, and most white Americans did not view naval service to be of high social status or to consist of anything but work typically done by the lowest classes of white Americans. Moreover, whereas African-American soldiers were overwhelming rural and former slaves, African-American sailors typically were urban, skilled, and usually free men before the Civil War. And, large numbers of foreign-born African-Americans came to the U.S. during the War to enlist in the Navy. African-American sailors served side-by-side with white sailors in cramped quarters on the ships, received equal pay, and shared equally with white sailors in any prize money from captured ships. Naval courts generally treated African-American sailors as equal to white sailors--African-Americans sometimes even received less severe punishments for crimes when compared to white sailors.

On the home front within the Confederacy, enslaved African Americans were forced to labor for the Confederacy by building fortifications and working in other fatigue labor to support rebel troops. Over 1,000 slaves and free African-Americans worked in the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond during the War, and some enslaved men lost their lives manning Confederate cannons and laboring as supply hands. Untold numbers of free African-Americans in the South and in northern areas captured by the Confederacy were enslaved. Some slaves and hundreds of free African-Americans actually volunteered to fight for the Confederacy, probably fearful of being enslaved or mistreated if they failed to express their loyalty to the new government. In Charleston, for example, free African-American fire brigades fought fires caused by Union cannon fire. White Union troops occasionally encountered armed African-Americans fighting for the Confederacy, and some free African-Americans even won official recognition for their service. For example, John Wilson Buckner, a free African-American, fought for the defense of Charleston at Fort Wager against the 54th Massachusetts, suffering wounds in action. Many more African-American men and women contributed to the Confederacy by serving as personal servants to their white owners when they fought as officers in Confederate units. Many others were impressed into service as nurses in military hospitals.

By 1864, some southern whites began talking about the need to arm slaves in defense of the Confederacy, giving freedom to those who served. Most whites recognized the absurdity of arming slaves, agreeing with the opinion of one Confederate Senator from North Carolina who said: "If we are right in passing this measure (to arm the slaves), we were wrong in denying to the old government the right to interfere with the institution of slavery and to emancipate slaves. Besides, if we offer slaves their freedom, we confess that we were insincere, were hypocritical, in asserting that slavery was the best state for the Negroes themselves." In the end, however, with the enemy at the very gates of Petersburg, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, along with General Robert E. Lee, commander of Confederate forces, endorsed using slaves as soldiers. In March of 1865, the Confederate Congress voted to enlist 300,000 African-American troops, granting them freedom with the consent of their owners. This was a desperate move that was never implemented, and a few weeks later Lee surrendered to Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. The War to save slavery had become, for the South, a war to preserve southern independence even if it meant giving up slavery by arming the enslaved.

In those areas where the soldiers of the Confederacy and the Union met in battle, enslaved African-Americans experienced the special hardships of war. Forces from both sides abused the enslaved by forcing them to work in difficult and often deadly tasks, separated them from their families, and molested especially women left defenseless by the War. Thousands of slaves were uprooted as their owners marched them into the interior and to faraway Texas to escape invading Union forces. Although Union forces molested few white women in the occupied Confederacy, many enslaved women were raped, robbed, and assaulted by Union soldiers.

More than anything else, the outbreak of war offered enslaved African Americans the opportunity to break for freedom and to liberate themselves. At the first sign of hostilities, African-Americans stopped acting like slaves and broke for freedom by the thousands. Invading Union troops encountered armies of African-American refugees fleeing to Union lines. Most came with just the clothes on their backs. The waves of African-American refugees threatened to overwhelm Union war efforts, pressuring Lincoln to establish a refuge program wherein women, children, and the elderly were initially put in refugee camps and then placed on abandoned or occupied plantations to work for wages. The plan called for able-bodied African-American males to be recruited into the army, with the African-American units serving as a home guard on the plantations where their families lived and worked. Several 100,000 African-American refugees lived in these camps and worked on occupied plantations protected by African-American soldiers during the War in the Mississippi River Valley and in the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina. Confederate guerrilla forces often hit these plantations, killing African-Americans and taking them back into slavery.

Besides breaking for freedom and fighting to protect their families as soldiers, numerous southern African-Americans served as spies, Union scouts, and as sources of military intelligence for the Union forces. Harriet Tubman, for example, who knew the South well from her days in slavery and her efforts in helping slaves escape via the Underground Railroad, was formally commended by the Secretary of War for her work as a Union scout and as a nurse in the Sea Islands. Thousands of other African-Americans led Union troops to hidden valuables, buried cotton, and food stores left behind by fleeing Confederates.

For the most part, however, southern African-Americans simply stopped acting like slaves once the War began and awaited the outcome of the fighting, especially slaves in the interior of the Confederacy. The problem of slave disobedience became so troublesome to the Confederacy that whites owning at least 20 slaves were exempt from service so that they could stay at home to better control the African-American population. To most southern whites' surprise, no outbreak of slave rebellion occurred during the War. Indeed, no southern white women were molested or abused by angry slaves; no retaliation of any great extent occurred against white masters; and few acts of vengeance were demonstrated in acts of violence against southern property or southern whites. In many cases, the enslaved simply snuck away in the night, seldom taking anything but their clothes. Some even provided provisions for the families of their white masters before leaving. And much to the surprise of nearly all whites, the first to leave were the household servants: men and women believed to be loyal and contented slaves.

For most southern slaves and northern free African-Americans, the Civil War experience represented a high point in their history. After the War, the nation all but abandoned efforts at providing justice for the formerly enslaved except during a few short years from 1865 to 1876, known as the era of Reconstruction. After that brief period, during which southern African-Americans experienced significant political and social empowerment, there descended upon the region over 100 years of segregation, lynching, disfranchisement, and racial violence commonly known as the era of Jim Crow. Writing in the 1890s in the midst of Jim Crow, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose father served as a Union soldier, wrote with pride about the Civil War experience of African-Americans who fought to free themselves from slavery, both actually and symbolically.


The Colored Soldiers

If the muse were mine to tempt it
And my feeble voice were strong,
If my tongue were trained to measures,
I would sing a stirring song.
I would sing a song heroic
Of those noble sons of Ham,
Of the gallant colored soldiers
Who fought for Uncle Sam!...

Ah, they rallied to the standard
To uphold it by their might;
None were stronger in the labors,
None were braver in the fight.
From the blazing breach of Wagner
To the plains of Olustee,
They were foremost in the fight
Of the battles of the free....

And their deeds shall find a record
In the registry of Fame;
For their blood has cleansed completely
Every blot of Slavery's shame.
So all honor and all glory
To those noble sons of Ham--
The gallant colored soldiers
Who fought for Uncle Sam!

--Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1895


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