From the start of the Civil War, enslaved African Americans sensed the opportunity for freedom as Union forces seized territory at the outer margins of seceded states. Initially, there was the odd phenomenon of officers in blue uniforms turning over escapees to their slave masters. But all that changed in 1861 at Fort Monroe, at the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula, when the famously chameleonlike General Benjamin Butler refused to return the three enslaved men who fled to his lines. Butler himself, at least at this stage of his life, could care less about blacks, slave or free, but reasoning that the Fugitive Slave Act no longer applied to the seceded states, and observing that every enslaved person serving as support behind Confederate lines freed up a white soldier to fire upon Union ranks, Butler ruled that such escapees be treated as “contrabands” of war and confiscated. Contraband was an unfortunate term that equated the enslaved with property instead of people, but it nevertheless stuck—but then so too did Butler’s policy, which only a few months later was enshrined by Congress in the Confiscation Act of 1861.
What began as a trickle to Butler’s fort turned into a veritable flood that eventually was to bring something like a half-million formerly enslaved people to seek shelter with the Union army over the next four years. About one-fifth of these would later serve, often heroically, as soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (USCT), but what about the other roughly four hundred thousand? What became of them? If their fate never occurred to you before, it is because the story of this huge, largely anonymous population has remained conspicuous in its absence in much of the vast historiography of the Civil War—at least until Amy Murrell Taylor’s brilliant, groundbreaking recent book, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps.
Fleeing to Union lines was only possible if the army was in your vicinity, which put this option out of reach to much of the south’s enslaved population. That approximately one-seventh of the Confederacy’s enslaved population of 3.5 million fled to the surmised safety of Union lines when this limited opportunity knocked gives lie to the notion that the “peculiar institution” was benign and that the majority of the enslaved were satisfied with their lot—a sadly resurgent fiction promoted by “Lost Cause” apologists that has again found an unfortunate home within contemporary political discourse. These 500,000 men, women and children—and yes, Taylor learned, there were indeed significant numbers of children—were of course not “contrabands” but refugees, as that term was understood both then and now. And they fled, usually in great peril, with little more than the rags on their backs, to what may have been a promise of freedom but also an unknown future fraught with difficulty.
What would become of them? It turns out that rather than a single shared outcome there was a variety of experiences that depended upon geography, the fortunes of war, and the arbitrary rule of local commanders. Neither the Union army nor the civilian north was prepared for the phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of black refugees, and the result was often not favorable to those who were the most vulnerable. At the dawn of the war, abolitionists still comprised only a tiny minority in the United States. Most of the north remained deeply racist, and those championing “free soil” generally had little concern for the welfare of African Americans on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. This reality informed policy, which even when well-intentioned tended to be patronizing, and was in fact frequently ignored. Embattled Freedom describes how orders were issued mandating both payments and provisions for refugees, who if physically capable were expected to provide the kind of support to the army as paid laborers that they might otherwise have given to the Confederate effort as slaves. But in practice, they were rarely paid, their wages euphemistically diverted to the “general welfare,” or simply stolen by dishonest opportunists. And military necessity trumped all: there was a war on, blood was being shed, and the existential future of the nation was at stake. Refugees would ever remain a lower priority, at the mercy of the corrupt or the indifferent. Rarely consulted, decisions were made for them that often proved less than ideal. The author treats us to a number of examples of this, but perhaps the most ironic is the campaign by well-meaning missionaries to equip refugee shelters with windows, when their occupants assiduously eschewed these for the sake of privacy and security.
Then there was the case of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the enslaved in Confederate-controlled territory, but paradoxically did not apply to areas controlled by the Union army. Only a rather obscure directive that would cashier any soldier returning a person to slavery served as an unlikely safety-net for refugees. More significantly, there was the border state of Kentucky, which when it opted not to join the Confederacy became the largest slave state in the Union, something that endured until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, well beyond the end of the war. Refugee camps in Kentucky were ringed by slaveowners; wandering outside of camp could result in capture and enslavement that could be nearly impossible to dispute by a black person in a state where slavery was both legal and widespread.
Refugees ever lived at risk elsewhere in what can only be described as uncertain sanctuaries. Camps evolved into “freedman’s villages”—replete with churches, schools, stores and tidy public squares—that sprang up at the edges of Confederate territory occupied by Union troops, but long-term security was tenuous, dependent entirely on these garrisons. If the army was redeployed, refugees were suddenly thrust into great danger and forced to flee once more lest they be captured and returned to slavery by roving bands of locals. It is well documented that Confederates habitually executed USCT troops wounded or seeking surrender. Less familiar perhaps was the devastation visited upon these undefended villages by rebels and their partisan allies enraged at the formerly enslaved living in freedom in their midst. Hunger often accompanied the refugee, even in the best of circumstances; a camp or village razed and burned could portend starvation.
The end of the war and abolition seemed to suggest a new beginning, but optimism was short-lived. Lincoln’s untimely death sent Andrew Johnson to the White House. The new president was deeply hostile to African Americans, and ensuing years saw pardons issued to former CSA political and military elites, property returned to once dislodged slave masters, and refugees terrorized and murdered, ultimately driven off the lands that once hosted thriving freedman’s villages. Where can you see a freedman’s village today? You can’t: they were all plowed under, sometimes along with the bones of occupants less than willing to be displaced.
Embattled Freedom is an especially valuable resource because it contains not only a panoramic view of the refugee experience but an expertly narrowed lens that zooms in upon a handful of individuals that Taylor’s careful research has redeemed from obscurity. Especially fascinating is the saga of Edward and Emma Whitehurst, an enslaved couple that had managed over time to stockpile a surprisingly large savings through Edward’s side work, in a unique arrangement with his owner. Fleeing slavery, the entrepreneurial Whitehurst’s turned their nest egg into a highly successful and profitable store at a refugee camp in Virginia—only to one day lose it all to retreating Union forces desperate for supplies. There is also the inspiring story of Eliza Bogan of Helena, Arkansas, who as refugee leaves the harsh existence of picking cotton behind only to endure one obstacle after another in her pursuit of life as a free woman in uncertain circumstances. There are other stories, as well. These personal studies not only enrich a well-written narrative, but ever engage the reader well beyond the typical scholarly work.
A week after I finished reading Embattled Freedom, I sat in the audience during Amy Taylor’s presentation at the Civil War Institute Summer Conference 2019 at Gettysburg College, which highlighted both her passion and her scholarship. During the Q&A, I asked what surprised her most during her research. Hard-pressed to answer, she finally settled on the number of children that turned up in the refugee population. I would suggest that as a topic for her next book. In the meantime, drop everything and read Embattled Freedom. You will not regret it.