The muscle and sweat and skills of black people of African descent helped build the Old South, but they reaped few rewards from their labor. By 1860 they numbered 4,200,000, spread unevenly across the South (the 15 U.S. states where slavery was legal) but comprising, over all, one-third of the region’s population. Some were artisans such as carpenters or blacksmiths, some were maids or butlers or cooks or carriage drivers, but most were field hands whose labor produced the bulk of the South’s great cash crops of cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco. Some lived in towns or cities, some on small farms, but most lived on large plantations among 20 or 50 or even 100 or more other black men, women, and children. A small proportion, 6 of every 100, were free, but all the rest were slaves who could be, and frequently were, bought and sold just like cotton or cattle.
Southern slavery was a harsh system — cruel is a better word — that was now and then tempered by acts of kindness on the part of paternalistic whites. As far as most slaveowners were concerned, slaves existed solely to make a profit for them and to ease the burden of housework and other chores. Slaves were expected to obey their masters without question, and few masters hesitated to punish misbehavior. Such punishment was usually corporal: the sound of a whip lacerating a black back was common in the Old South. The more serious forms of slave resistance were answered not only with the whip but sometimes with the gallows.
The vast majority of enslaved people hated slavery and longed to be free. But faced with whites’ determination to subjugate them and with the array of laws, institutions, and sheer physical force that gave whites the power to do so, slaves rarely dared to challenge the system. Outright rebellions were very few and never successful. Some slaves ran away from their masters, but almost all were soon recaptured. The only sort of resistance that most slaves could get away with was the quiet sort: feigning sickness or stupidity, “accidentally” breaking tools or dishes, and laughing at their masters’ foibles behind their backs.
Most slaves just resigned themselves, reluctantly, to getting along in the cruel and unjust system that held them captive. They did what their masters told them to do and accepted whatever kindness was extended to them, but without the cheerful willingness and gratitude that their masters expected. Moreover, they softened the rigors of bondage and made their servitude endurable by embracing and nurturing family life, community life, and spiritual life. In the slave quarters of the plantations, and elsewhere throughout the rural and urban South, enslaved men and women fell in love, married, had children, and gathered with others whenever they could to gossip, sing, celebrate, and worship. Often joining in this fellowship were free blacks, who, although they answered to no master and could not be bought or sold, were so hemmed in by racially restrictive laws and customs that they enjoyed only a quasi-freedom.
Few white Southerners in 1860 had any qualms about slavery, and most gave little thought to how the slaves felt about it. But by that time many Americans outside the South had turned against the institution. Some, stirred by sympathy for the slave and hatred of the “sin” of slaveholding, were outright abolitionists, demanding that the South do away with its “peculiar institution.” Many more were free-soilers, content to let slavery continue in the South but determined that it not spread into the developing western frontier. In the four decades prior to 1860, American politics was repeatedly shaken by clashes between antislavery Northerners and proslavery Southerners. Compromises smoothed things over time and again, but in 1860 further compromise became impossible.
In November of that year, Abraham Lincoln, a Northerner who stood immovably on the free-soil platform of the Republican party, won the presidential election. Facing the prospect of an administration hostile to slavery, most whites in the seven Deep South states concluded that leaving the Union was the only way to ensure slavery’s survival. By February 1861 those states had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. In April, following President Lincoln’s refusal to give up the U.S. Army’s Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, Confederate military forces bombarded the fort. Lincoln immediately declared his intention to put down the Southern “rebellion” and called on the loyal states for troops. Four Upper South states subsequently seceded and joined the Confederacy. On both sides, men volunteered for military service by the tens of thousands and began massing into great armies. And so the war came.
Most blacks, even in the remotest parts of the South, on the most isolated farms and plantations, were aware of these momentous developments and followed them intently. Much of what they learned, however, was filtered through the perceptions of whites. John Majors, a slave in northern Mississippi, listened during the secession crisis whenever his master chatted with friends in the marketplace or outside the courthouse in Oxford. Often the talk was about the possibility of war; as Majors recalled, the consensus was that “hit wont be much of a war if dey has any at all, jes take two or three months to whip de damn Yankees an’ teach dem to tend to dey own business an’ let de folks down South alone.” Once the war was under way, many slaves went with their masters to watch the volunteers muster and drill and to hear the patriotic speeches at flag-presentation ceremonies. Some masters simply told their slaves what they thought they ought to know. Late in 1861, for instance, all 350 slaves on one of the huge estates in the South Carolina lowcountry assembled in the plantation church at their master’s beckoning and listened as he warned them that the evil Yankees were invading the South bent on mayhem.
There were many things going on that masters did not want their slaves to know, and they did their best to suppress or censor or distort such dangerous news. It helped that almost all slaves were illiterate. But slaves had always had ways of gaining forbidden knowledge and communicating it among themselves, and in the tumultuous months of secession and war this “grapevine telegraph,” as they called it, was humming. [...]
As they eagerly but quietly gathered news about secession and war and talked it over among themselves, most slaves developed the very convictions and aspirations that their masters feared most. They quickly came to believe that Northerners were their friends and allies, that the North was fighting to free the slaves, and that a Northern victory would shatter the chains that bound them. Ironically, they got these impressions
not from the words or actions of President Lincoln or other U.S. officials (who in the early part of the war made it clear that they intended only to restore the Union and had no intention of meddling with slavery) but from their own masters and other Southern whites, who scoffed at Lincoln’s public denials and insisted that his armies were advancing southward to make war on slavery. Young William Robinson, listening at the keyhole that night in April 1861, distinctly heard one of his master’s friends say hat “if the Yankees whipped [us], every negro would be free.” The 350 South Carolina slaves who gathered in their plantation church later that year were told by their master that the Northern invaders “ would try and induce them to desert.”
These early rumors that the Yankee invaders were brandishing the banner of emancipation struck a special chord in the hearts of many slaves. Millennial expectations, encouraged especially by their understanding of the Old Testament, had long buoyed the spirits of the black men and women of the South. Freedom would come one day, many devoutly believed — if not for this generation then perhaps the next. Jacob Stroyer of South Carolina remembered hearing, as a little boy during “ the dark days of slavery” in the 1850s, his father comforting his mother with the words, “ the time will come when this boy and the rest of the children will be their own masters and mistresses.” The Civil War seemed to many to herald that long-awaited Year of Jubilee. In wartime Richmond, Thomas Johnson, one of the rare slaves who could read, met secretly with other slaves and read to them from the Bible to try to make sense of the uncertain times. [...]
Quietly slaves prayed for Northern victory. Their prayers grew more fervent as the war went on and Union policy evolved to embrace emancipation. By 1863 it was certain that a Yankee triumph would usher in the Year of Jubilee; it went without saying, of course, that a Rebel triumph would postpone it. In Athens, Georgia, a woman sat, Sunday after Sunday, with her fellow slaves in the gallery of the First Presbyterian Church. As the white minister prayed aloud “that the Lord would drive the Yankees back,” she prayed silently, “Oh, Lord, please send the Yankees on and let them set us free.”
From the "Introduction" to The Black Experience in the Civil War South by Stephen V. Ash
The first book of its kind to appear in a generation, this comprehensive study details the experiences of the black men, women, and children who lived in the South during the traumatic time of secession and civil war.