Enslaved people escape bondage to seek freedom behind Union lines during the Civil War.
Image: On to Liberty, Theodor Kaufmann, oil painting, 1867; see here for a higher resolution image. (Highly recommended)
Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1982.443.3, Gift of Erving and Joyce Wolf, in memory of Diane R. Wolf, 1982
During the Civil War, tens of thousands of bondspeople fled their enslavers to seek freedom behind Union lines. To stem the Black Exodus, slave owners created fake stories about Northerners to make enslaved people afraid of them.
Author Glenn David Brasher writes about encounters between African Americans and Union men (soldiers, reporters, others) during the Peninsula campaign in Virginia, circa April-May 1862, in his book The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans & the Fight for Freedom. The Peninsula Campaign was a series of battles that took place in southeastern Virginia from April-June 1862. Brasher’s text (pages 136-7) highlights the concoctions and fabrications that were told about whites in the North:
“The Negroes have been told the most absurd stories about our [Northerners] designs against them,” a newspaper correspondent claimed, “that we would put them into wagons and drive them, and the like.” The Boston Daily Journal noted that masters told their slaves that “the object of the war on the part of the North is to steal the slaves of the South and sell them.”
The Philadelphia Enquirer reported from Williamsburg that “the slaves in this vicinity were told to beware of the horrible Yankees, who had very small bodies, but with great large heads, with front teeth like horses, and were known to eat human flesh.”
Union Pvt. Wilbur Fisk encountered a free black who said that “the rebels told him to burn his house and follow them, for the Yankees would destroy him, and all he had.” Farther up the Peninsula, at Eltham’s Landing, Massachusetts soldier Walter Eames talked with a black man who claimed that his master had sent “droves” of his slaves to work on the fortifications at Yorktown and that they were told “that if the Yankees come here they would be beaten by them, have their throats cut, be sold to Cuba and ill treated in every possible way.” Eames also encountered a female slave who told him “that her master used to show the slaves pictures of the Yankees harnessing the Negroes to wagons, and when they failed to work, cutting off their ears, etc.”
The Philadelphia Press correspondent encountered a slave owner named Parsley who use stories of cruel Yankees to successfully convince his slaves to hide from Union troops. When one Union soldier asked Williamsburg slave Eliza Baker how she liked the Yankees, she replied, “I don’t know sir, I ain’t seen none.” When the soldier pointed out that he was a Northern, she replied, “you can’t be, cause Mrs. Whiting told us the Yankees have horns.” The soldier had Baker take him to her mistress, and he scolded the owner for spreading such lies.
Parsley’s frightened slaves and Eliza Baker’s response to the Union soldier suggested that owners may have had success at creating negative preconceptions of Yankees in the minds of some blacks, but many claimed to have never believed such tales. They “appeared confident,” the National Anti-Slavery Standard reported, that blacks would not “suffer from us, and might possibly benefit.” An elderly woman interviewed by the Principia assured Northerners “that she never had any fears that the Yankees would harm her.” Fisk recalled that the free black who was told of the Union soldiers would kill him “manifested as much inward satisfaction at seeing us, as if he had suddenly recognized an old friend.”