The Destruction of Slavery
This volume of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation examines the process by which slavery collapsed under the pressure of federal arms and
the slaves' determination to place their own liberty on the wartime agenda. In documenting the
transformation of a war for the Union into a war against slavery, it shifts the focus from the halls of
power in Washington and Richmond to the plantations, farms, and battlefields of the South. It shows how slaves, taking advantage of the opportunities opened by the war, fled their owners, worked and in many cases fought for the Union army, and resisted bondage from within the Confederacy. In so doing, they initiated a process that eventuated in the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, securing their own liberation and setting the entire nation on a new course. Organized geographically, the volume traces the demise of slavery in regions of the Confederacy that came under Union control during the war (tidewater Virginia and North Carolina; lowcountry South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; southern Louisiana; and the Mississippi Valley), in those parts of the Confederacy that escaped federal occupation, and in the border states of Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky.
896 pp. Table of contents (pdf)
The Destruction of Slavery received the Founders Award of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society and the Thomas Jefferson Prize of the Society for History in the
Copies of The Destruction of Slavery may be ordered from Cambridge University Press online, by telephone (800-872-7423), or by fax (914-937-4712).
Selected Documents from the Volume
- Missouri Unionist to the Commander of the Department of the West, May 14, 1861; and the Commander's Reply, May 14, 1861
Writing to the Union commander at St. Louis, a white Missourian
sought and received assurances that the federal government would
- Commander of the Department of Virginia to the General-in-Chief of the Army, May 27, 1861
General Benjamin F. Butler, the federal commander at Fortress
Monroe, Virginia, explained his rationale for accepting and
providing for fugitive slaves who had come into his lines, despite the Union's commitment to noninterference with slavery.
Order by the Commander of the Corps of Observation, Army of the Potomac, September 23, 1861
In response to complaints that soldiers in his command were encouraging insubordination among slaves in the Union state of Maryland, General Charles P. Stone reminded his troops of their duty to uphold the laws, including those protecting slavery.
- Commander at Camp Nevin, Kentucky, to the Commander of the Department of the Cumberland, November 5, 1861; and the Latter's Reply, November 8, 1861
A general in the Union state of Kentucky found fugitive slaves
useful as military laborers, but hesitated to employ them for fear of
alienating their owners. His superior, General William T.
Sherman, directed him to avoid the dilemma by excluding runaways
from his lines altogether.
- Governor of Maryland to the Secretary of War, November 18, 1861
When a Maryland slaveowner trying to recover his fugitive slave was driven away from a camp of Massachusetts soldiers, he
appealed to Thomas H. Hicks, the governor of Maryland, who urged the Secretary of War to enforce the law,
protect slave property, and thereby ensure the state's loyalty.
Order by the Commander of the Department of the Missouri, November 20, 1861
The chief Union commander in the west, General Henry W. Halleck, cited military, rather than legal or political, grounds for excluding fugitive slaves from the lines of his army.
Michigan Quaker to the Secretary of War, December 5, 1861
Writing to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, a white Northerner denounced the Union's policy of turning away fugitive slaves as militarily counterproductive and morally bankrupt.
- Governor of Massachusetts to the Secretary of War, December 7, 1861, Enclosing an Excerpt from a Letter from an Unidentified Correspondent, November 28, 1861
Governor John A. Andrew protested when he
learned that soldiers from his state had been ordered to engage in the “dirty and despotic work” of returning slaves to captivity.
- Maryland Fugitive Slave to His Wife, January 12, 1862
For John Boston, the triumph of his own escape to freedom within Union lines was tainted by the resulting separation from his wife.
First page of manuscript (image, 437K)
- Maryland Legislators to the Secretary of War, March 10, 1862, Enclosing Affidavit of a Maryland Slaveholder, March 1, 1862
Learning of incidents in which Union soldiers had thwarted
attempts by slaveholders to recover escaped slaves, members of Maryland's General Assembly protested to Secretary of War Edwin M.
Commander of the Department of North Carolina to the Secretary of War, March 21, 1862
When Union forces under General Ambrose E. Burnside captured New Bern, North Carolina, they received a warm welcome from the city's slaves, who were soon joined by hundreds of others from the surrounding countryside. Unsure how to proceed, Burnside turned to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for advice.
- Resolution by the Washington, D.C., City Council, April [1?], 1862
As the U.S. Congress considered a proposal to emancipate slaves
in the District of Columbia, Washington's City Council objected
that doing so would lead to the influx of an unwelcome population.
- Headquarters of the Defenses North of the Potomac to the
Commander of a New York Regiment, April 6, 1862
Citing a new article of war recently enacted by Congress and the valuable information slaves could provide, General Abner Doubleday instructed a regimental commander to admit fugitives into Union lines and treat them “as persons and not as chattels.”
Virginia Slaveholder to the Confederate Secretary of War, May 2, 1862
Much to the disgust of slaveholders, runaway slaves sometimes found refuge within the ranks of the Confederate army, some of whose soldiers valued the owners' property rights less than the comforts servants could provide. Lamenting the subversive effects of such practices, a Virginia slaveholder urged the Confederate secretary of war to prohibit soldiers from employing slaves without their owners' consent.
- Commander of the 3rd Division of the Army of the Ohio to the Secretary of War, May 4, 1862; and the Latter's Reply, May 5, 1862
When a Union general operating in northern Alabama informed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that he had promised protection to slaves who provided vital military information, Stanton approved, arguing that refusal to employ the services of slaves would handicap the Union war effort.
- Proclamation by the President, May 19, 1862
After General David Hunter issued an order declaring free all the slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, President Lincoln quickly overruled him and used the occasion to press his own plan for gradual emancipation, with compensation to owners.
Commander of the U.S.S. Dale to the Commander of the South Atlantic Squadron, June 13, 1862
Former slaves on Hutchinson's Island, South Carolina, whose owners had fled advancing federal forces in late 1861, remained in place and cultivated the land for themselves. Their new lives were upended, however, when a Confederate counterattack the following June killed dozens, carried others back into bondage, and destroyed the crops they had hoped would guarantee their livelihood.
Georgia Slaveholders to the Commander of the 3rd Division of the Confederate District of Georgia, August 1, 1862
Planters in Liberty County, Georgia, demanded stern action in response to widespread slave flight along the south Atlantic seaboard. Runaway slaves, they argued, were traitors who should be summarily executed under military law rather than prosecuted before slow-moving civil courts.
- Commander of the 5th Division of the Army of the Tennessee to a Tennessee Slaveholder, August 24, 1862
Writing to a former West Point classmate, General William T. Sherman explained why he would not return fugitive slaves to their owners.
- Headquarters of a Confederate Cavalry Battalion to the Headquarters of the Confederate Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, January 8, 1863
After capturing a former slave who had reached Union lines and then attempted to return home and liberate others, a Confederate officer asked his superiors how to deal with such “missionaries” of freedom.
- Military Governor of North Carolina to the Commander of the Department of North Carolina, January 20, 1863
Outraged by an incident in which ex-slave military laborers – accompanied by stewards from a Union navy vessel and servants of federal army officers – forcibly liberated one of the laborers' families, slaveholders complained to Edward Stanly, whom President Lincoln had appointed military governor of North Carolina. Stanly conveyed their protest to the state's military commander.
- Testimony by the Superintendent of
Contrabands at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, before the American
Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, May 9, 1863
Captain Charles B. Wilder explained how fugitive slaves,
once having escaped to Union lines, worked to liberate fellow slaves and
spread the word of freedom deep in Confederate territory.
Commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department to the Commander of the Confederate Army of the West, September 4, 1863
As federal forces threatened larger expanses of the South, Confederate commanders ordered the evacuation of slaves from endangered areas to prevent them from falling into Union hands. In a letter sent to each of his highest-ranking subordinates, General E. Kirby Smith, commander of Confederate forces west of the Mississippi River, emphasized that it was a question of removing slaves now or fighting them later.
- North Carolina Slaveholder to the Confederate President, November 25, 1863
In an area not far from Union lines, a patrol guard and a pack of hounds helped prevent slaves from running away – at least until members of the patrol were drafted into the Confederate army. A slaveholder asked President Jefferson Davis to return the patrol to its former duties.
Affidavit of a District of Columbia Freedman, February 6, 1864
In April 1862, Grandison Briscoe escaped from Maryland to Washington, D.C., together with his pregnant wife, an infant child, and his mother. Within days, however, a slave catcher returned his loved ones to bondage. Nearly two years later, Briscoe described their fate.
- Testimony by a Corporal in a Louisiana Black Regiment before the American
Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, February? 1864
After escaping slavery in 1861, Octave Johnson of Louisiana lived in the swamps for more than a year before entering Union lines near New Orleans.
Commander of a Black Brigade to the Headquarters of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina and the 18th Army Corps, May 12, 1864
Only on rare occasions could former slaves turn the tables on their masters by administering the punishments they had long received. General Edward A. Wild, commander of a brigade of black soldiers, reported one such occasion to a superior officer who had accused him of violating the rules of civilized warfare.
Maryland Former Slave to the Secretary of War, July 26, 1864
Writing from Boston, John Q. A. Dennis, who had become free only eight months earlier, asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to authorize him to take his children from the slaveowners who still held them in bondage.
- Maryland Slave to the President, August 25, 1864
Maryland's exclusion from the Emancipation Proclamation left Annie Davis still enslaved. Insistent on her right to freedom, she demanded that President Abraham Lincoln clarify her status.
Image of manuscript (328K)
- Commander of a Black Brigade to the Commander of the District of
Eastern Virginia, September 1, 1864
When a group of ex-slave men working as Union military laborers returned home to liberate families and friends, they were accompanied by a detachment of black soldiers. The soldiers' brigade commander reported the outcome of the dangerous expedition.
- Kentucky Black Soldier to the President, December 4, 1864
A black soldier unsuccessfully sought a discharge so that he could provide for his wife and children, whose owner refused to maintain them.
- Escaped Union Prisoners of War to the Provost Marshal General of
the Department of the South, December 7, 1864
Two captured Union officers who slipped their guards in Charleston, South Carolina, recounted the saga of their safe return to federal lines with the help of the city's free and enslaved black people and German immigrants.
- Delegation of Black Kentuckians to the President, late June, 1865
Fearing that President Andrew Johnson might lift martial law in Kentucky – a Union state where slavery was still in force – six black men traveled to Washington to inform him of “the terrible uncertainty of their future” under the state's oppressive laws.
Former Alabama Slave to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the Subdistrict of Louisville, August 14, 1865, Enclosing the Former Slave's Affidavit
Liberated by Union forces in northern Alabama in 1862, twelve-year-old Amy Moore, her younger sisters, and her mother were reenslaved in 1863 under a Kentucky law that prohibited freed slaves from entering the state on pain of arrest as runaways. Still in bondage months after the end of the Civil War, Moore recounted how she and the other members of her family had been jailed and sold at auction.
- Affidavit of a Tennessee Freedman, September 13, 1865
After the war, a former slave from Tennessee described the horrific consequences of his failed bid to reach Union lines in 1864.
- Testimony by a South Carolina Freedman before the Southern Claims Commission, March 17, 1873
Alonzo Jackson, during the war a slave in Georgetown, on the South Carolina coast, described to a postwar federal commission the assistance he had rendered Northern escapees from the prisoner-of-war stockade at Florence, in the interior of the state.
- Testimony by a Georgia Freedwoman before the Southern Claims Commission, March 22, 1873
The Union troops who in late 1864 liberated Nancy Johnson and her husband from slavery also stripped them of property they had painstakingly accumulated while in bondage. Years later, she recounted to a federal commission the rigors of life in the Confederacy and the tribulations of an impoverished freedom.
Testimony by a Georgia Freedman before the Southern Claims Commission, July 17, 1873
Slaves who accompanied their owners into the Confederate army as personal servants often learned of federal emancipation policies before their families and friends. When they returned home, their knowledge spread quickly. Samuel Elliott, a former slave from Georgia who had been taken to the frontlines in Virginia, told a postwar federal commission of the result on his plantation.