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The Great Slave Strike That Helped End Slavery

Today, on Presidents’ Day, we rightly celebrate Abraham Lincoln for helping end slavery. But we shouldn’t forget the unstoppable force that also brought down the Slave Power: the several million slaves who left the plantation, many of whom joined the Union Army.

Stereograph showing a group of escaped slaves including men, women, and children gathered outside a building at the Foller Plantation in Cumberland Landing, Pamunkey Run, Virginia. May 14, 1862.,James F. Gibson / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

Several million slaves walked off their jobs over the course of the Civil War. As in most such disputes between workers and employers, the latter provided most of the documentation; the striking workers left little in the way of sources.

Yet we know that from the onset of the war, slaves were increasingly forthcoming about their views. On Christmas Eve 1861, Kentucky whites watched as sixty slaves paraded “singing political songs and shouting for Lincoln.” That winter, as white Unionists sabotaged railroad bridges in the Upper South, Confederate authorities also began blaming disgruntled slaves for arson. At year’s end they blamed unsupervised slaves encamped in Charleston for a fire that swept through the city, destroying hundreds of buildings.

Elsewhere in South Carolina, authorities followed rumors into a swamp where they found an encampment of runaways growing their own crops. Soon after, Confederates in Adams County, Mississippi, found that field slaves had stashed arms and supplies in a similarly isolated maroon. Even as slaveholders repeated rumors of armed slave insurrections, they reported remarkably more pragmatic plans, such as that for “a stampede” of a hundred slaves into the wilderness or toward Union lines.

White and black Union soldiers during the Civil War. (Wikimedia Commons)

The authorities responded ruthlessly to maintain their power. Arkansas slaveholders executed blacks for an alleged plot at Monroe, while similar executions took place in May and June across the river in Mississippi. At New Orleans a dozen ships burned at anchor and, “on more than one plantation, the assistance of the authorities has been called in to overcome the open resistance of the slaves.” Similar rumors stirred central Kentucky and Tennessee.

At first, Federal authorities — even those who later became prominent emancipationists — balked at allying themselves with slave insurrection. In the war’s first weeks, General Benjamin F. Butler assured Maryland officials that his troops would prevent a servile insurrection there. As late as August 1862, Butler, then in Louisiana, worried that “an insurrection [that] broke out among the negroes” threatened whites. He squelched “the incipient revolt . . . by in- forming the negroes that we should repel an attack by them upon the women and children.” That fall, a threatened rebellion north of Thibodeaux concerned officials of the Federal occupation.

Confederate paranoia aside, African Americans sustained organizations of their own that pressed their own agenda. Black resistance to slavery had forced white supporters to help shape a new “underground railroad.” Even in the most contested and supervised circumstances in Virginia, enslaved black workers established and maintained their own associations. A Union prisoner at Staunton and a spy at Richmond stumbled onto these societies “composed almost exclusively of colored men.”

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Escaped slaves at a Union general’s headquarters, circa 1862. (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons)

The growing numbers of aggrieved nonslaveholders, including armed Confederate deserters and escaped Union prisoners, provided slave rebels a growing number of whites ready to transgress the color bar. Civilian authorities far from Federal lines clamored for martial law and the assignment of troops to suppress small bands of armed blacks. Increasingly, Confederates feared a convergence of “deserters from our armies, Tories and runaways.”

By early 1864 Confederate officials in South Carolina reported “five to six hundred negroes” not in “the regular military organization of the Yankees” who “lead the lives of banditti, roving the country with fire and committing all sorts of horrible crimes upon the inhabitants.” Florida officials reported “500 Union men, deserters, and negroes . . . raiding towards Gainesville,” while similar groups formed to commit “depredations upon the plantations and crops of loyal citizens and running off their slaves.” At Yazoo City, Mississippi, they not only attacked such private estates but successfully burned the courthouse.