Enlistment Emancipation in Missouri: “I love a man who will fight for his rights and any person that wants to be something.”

Spotswood Rice Enlistment form
Enlistment papers for Spotswood Rice, AKA Spottswood Rice. Spottswood Rice escaped from bondage during the American Civil War and joined the Union army. Rice lived in Missouri, which was a Union slave state. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Abraham Lincoln at the start of 1863, did not apply to Missouri and the other Union slave states. But by February 1864, when Rice enlisted, the Union was accepting enslaved men from its slave states into the army, sometimes without the explicit permission of the owner. Once enlisted, the slaves were legally free; hence the term, “enlistment emancipation.” For the 39 year old Rice, military enlistment was an act of liberation.

(NOTE: More about Spottswood Rice is here.)

For Spottswood Rice, life as a slave in Missouri was hell. And the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t helping.

Issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, in the midst of a bloody Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within rebelling states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” But that only applied to states that had seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. Missouri and several other slave states (often called the Border States, because they bordered the North and South) that remained in the Union were unaffected by the Proclamation. There was a logic to this policy: the Union did not want to lose the loyalty of its slave states, lest they join forces with Confederates. And after all, those states were not in rebellion against the United States. But it must have been bewildering and frustrating to Border state slaves like Rice.

But the “military necessity” mentioned in the Proclamation would yet serve to free tens of thousands of black men in the Border States. As the war wore on, the overriding need for soldiers led the Union to enlist Border state slaves. In October 1863, the War Department ordered the recruitment of black soldiers in Maryland, Missouri and Tennessee (none of which were covered by the Emancipation Proclamation), with compensation to loyal owners for their lost property. Enlistment had a unique benefit for enslaved males: it gave them the status of free men. I have dubbed this “enlistment emancipation.” Enslaved men throughout the border states fled their masters and enlisted, gaining their freedom in the process. [1] Spottswood Rice was one of those men.

The freedom stories (individual accounts of how people moved from slavery to freedom) of men like Spottswood Rice have not always survived, but in this case, we are lucky. One of his children, Mary A. Bell, was interviewed about her life as a slave for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era’s Works Progress Administration. Born in 1852, she was 85 at the time of her interview. But she had a keen memory of the “hard times” faced by herself and her parents. She recalled how her father, who was nicknamed “Spot,” led a group of men to escape enslavement and enlist in the Union army. He was, she said proudly, a man who would “fight for his rights.” This is from her narrative of life as a slave:

I was born in Missouri, May 1, 1852 and owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs. I had two sisters and three brothers. One of my brothers was killed in de Civil War…

I so often think of de hard times my parents had in dere slave days, more than I feel my own hard times, because my father was not allowed to come to see my mother but two nights a week. Dat was Wednesday and Saturday. So often he came home all bloody from beatings his old nigger overseer would give him. My mother would take those bloody clothes off of him, bathe de sore places and grease them good and wash and iron his clothes, so he could go back clean.

But once he came home bloody after a beating he did not deserve and he run away. He scared my mother most to death because he had run away, and she done all in her power to persuade him to go back. He said he would die first, so he hid three days and three nights, under houses and in the woods, looking for a chance to cross the line but de patrollers were so hot on his trail he couldn’t make it. He could see de riders hunting him, but dey didn’t see him.

After three days and three nights he was so weak and hungry, he came out and gave himself up to a nigger trader dat he knew, and begged de nigger trader to buy him from his owner, Mr. Lewis, because Marse Lewis was so mean to him, and de nigger trader knew how valuable he was to his owner. De nigger trader promised him he would try to make a deal with his owner for him, because de nigger trader wanted him. So when dey brought father back to his owner and asked to buy him, Mr. Lewis said dere wasn’t a plantation owner with money enough to pay him for Spot. Dat was my father’s name, so of course that put my father back in de hands of Marse Lewis.

Lewis owned a large tobacco plantation and my father was de head man on dat plantation. He cured all de tobacco, as it was brought in from the field, made all the twists and plugs of tobacco. His owner’s son taught him to read, and dat made his owner so mad, because my father read de emancipation for freedom to de other slaves, and it made dem so happy, dey could not work well, and dey got so no one could manage dem, when dey found out dey were to be freed in such a short time.

Father told his owner after he found out he wouldn’t sell him, dat if he whipped him again, he would run away again, and keep on running away until he made de free state land. So de nigger trader begged my father not to run away from Marse Lewis, because if he did Lewis would be a ruined man, because he did not have another man who could manage de workers as father did. So the owner knew freedom was about to be declared and my father would have de privilege of leaving whether his owner liked it or not. So Lewis knew my father knew it as well as he did, so he sat down and talked with my father about the future and promised my father if he would stay with him and ship his tobacco for him and look after all of his business on his plantation after freedom was declared, he would give him a nice house and lot for his family right on his plantation. And he had such influence over de other slaves he wanted him to convince de others dat it would be better to stay with their former owner and work for him for their living dan take a chance on strangers they did not know and who did not know dem. He pleaded so hard with my father, dat father told him all right to get rid of him.

But Lewis had been so mean to father, dat down in father’s heart he felt Lewis did not have a spot of good in him. No place for a black man.

So father stayed just six months after dat promise and taken eleven of de best slaves on de plantation, and went to Kansas City and all of dem joined the U.S. Army. Dey enlisted de very night dey got to Kansas City and de very next morning de Pattie owners were dere on de trail after dem to take dem back home, but de officers said dey were now enlisted U.S. Soldiers and not slaves and could not be touched. Continue reading

May 20, 2015: Celebrating Emancipation Day in Florida

Emancipation-Day Florida 2015
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: Tallahassee resident Brian Bibeau (center) portrays Brigadier General Edward McCook and presents a dramatic recitation of the Emancipation Proclamation from the front steps of the historic Knott House Museum. He is joined by the Leon Rifles 2nd Florida Volunteer Infantry Regiment Co. D, Captain Chris Ellrich Commanding, and the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit & Living History Association, led by Sgt. Major (Ret.) Jarvis Rosier.
Image Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com

May 20, 2015, marked the 150th anniversary of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. That date is observed as Emancipation Day in the state; thus, Florida Emancipation Day is the equivalent of Juneteenth in Texas. Activities were held throughout the state to commemorate the event, including a reenactment of the Proclamation reading in Tallahassee.

Here’s the history behind the Day: on May 10, 1865, Union soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Edward McCook entered Tallahassee. This was weeks after April 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces in Virginia, and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his forces in North Carolina. Successive waves of Confederate surrenders followed throughout the South. McCook and his men came to Tallahassee from Macon, Georgia, to facilitate the end of hostilities in the state and begin Union control. On May 20th, General McCook announced the Emancipation Proclamation in the city. Freedom in Florida was now “official.”

Of course May 20, 1865, was not the first time that slaves in Florida had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation or gained freedom as a result of the war. Union forces made forays into Florida throughout the Civil War. The state was not strategically important enough for the Union to conduct many operations there. But Union troops did, for example enter Jacksonville during the war, and that city changed handed hands several times throughout the conflict. Some of the Union forces consisted of men from the US Colored Troops (USCT). In NE Florida for sure there was an awareness of the Emancipation Proclamation, and slaves seesawed from slavery to freedom and back more than once as the Union and Confederacy took turns at controlling Jacksonville.


Emancipated slaves wait in front of the Provost Marshal’s office in Jacksonville about 1864. 

As noted here, the 2nd Infantry Regiment, USCT, did time in Florida. The source notes:

The 2nd U.S.C.T. was attached to the District of Key West, Florida, Department of of the Gulf, in February, 1864, and saw duty in New Orleans and Ships Island, Mississippi. In May the unit also participated in an attack on Confederate fortifications at Tampa, resulting in the destruction of the Confederate positions. The 2nd participated in several operation along Florida’s west coast between July 1st and 31st, 1864; including raids from Fort Myers to Bayport, and from Cedar Key to St. Andrew’s Bay. During the St. Andrew’s Bay expedition the 2nd skirmished with Confederate troops on the 18th of July.

There is a monument to the 2nd USCI in Fort Myers, FL, which is south of Tampa/St Petersburg:

My guess is that many slaves in west-central Florida – and admittedly, the huge part of the slave population resided in the northern part of the state – would have been aware of the Proclamation from Union soldiers.

Emancipation-Day FL  2nd USCT Reenactor speaks to school children
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: a member of the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit speaks to a group of school children.
Image Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com
Continue reading

The March 1865 Review of the Union’s Black Soldiers: “President Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops”

Union Troops enter Richmond VA Leslie's Illustrated
“The Union Army Entering Richmond, VA., April 3,” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 25, 1865.
As depicted in the illustration, African American soldiers led the way into Richmond when it was captured near the end of the Civil War. Just a week earlier, these soldiers had marched in review for President Abraham Lincoln.
This is a colorized versions of an image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News by the postcard publisher Southern Bargain House of Richmond, VA.

Image Source: From MetroPostcard.com

For Confederates, it was time to do the unthinkable: enlist slaves in their war to create a slaveholders’ nation. For the Union, it was a time for black soldiers to strut their stuff in front of the president of the United States.

Such was the state of the American Civil War in March 1865. These two very different stories are discussed in the book HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS IN THE WAR OF THE REBELLION 1861-1865, by George Washington Williams. The historian Williams was a veteran of the Union army, having served in the United States Colored Troops, or USCT. His book shows how the contrasting policies of the Union and Confederacy toward black enlistment played out in the closing months of the war.

By March 1865, the Confederate States of America (CSA) was on the verge of military defeat, and desperate times dictated desperate measures. After several months of intense debate, the Confederate Congress approved a measure that allowed slaves to enlist in the Confederate army. The administration of Confederate president Jefferson Davis added rules which required that slaves be conferred the status of freemen by their owners prior to enlisting; although I have seen some debate as to whether the slaves were to be temporarily free during their enlistment, versus being permanently free both during and after their time as soldiers. In any case, it was a way to add new soldiers when the Confederate army was critically short of men.

As it turned out, the new policy was too little too late. In April of 1865, CSA General in chief Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, and the remaining Confederate forces followed his example over the next few months. But for a moment, African American soldiers were the great black hope of the white men in grey.

For the Union, meanwhile, their black hopes had been realized. In July of 1862, legislation passed by the Union Congress allowed African Americans to enlist in the military, and gave freedom to slaves who did so. Eventually, some 200,000 black men would join the Union army and navy and become a vital part of the Union war effort.

By March 1865, Union forces that included black soldiers were on the brink of capturing Richmond, Virgina, the capital of the Confederacy. Indeed, on April 3, 1865, members of the USCT would take the lead in capturing the fallen city. With the end of the war so close, president Abraham Lincoln came to the Richmond area from Washington, DC, to see the events unfold.

Lincoln’s itinerary included a military review of the black troops. (A review is basically a military parade in which soldiers march in formation.) As noted by George Washington Williams in HISTORY OF THE NEGRO TROOPS, some 25,000 black soldiers, “well drilled, well armed, and well officered, passed in review before the President, General (Ulysses) Grant, and the general officers of the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac.” While noting the irony that Lincoln had initially “protested” against the use of black soldiers early in the war, Williams said that now, “Lincoln was deeply moved at the sight of these Negro troops.”

This was the last review of black troops that Lincoln would see; an assassin’s bullet cut his life short on April 15. But for that one bright moment, the president was presented with “one of the most magnificent military spectacles of the civil war.” Continue reading

President Lincoln: “I will keep my faith… with the black warriors”

Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, Cleveland, OH
A black soldier takes an oath of allegiance to the United States; Abraham Lincoln offers him freedom and a gun.

Image © Dave Wiegers Photography, see here. Wiegers has done a number of photos of monuments to Abraham Lincoln. 

President Abraham Lincoln freely and openly admitted that his ultimate goal for the Civil War was to preserve the Union, and not to free the slaves. But he determined that to win the war against the Confederates, emancipation had to be used to gain the support of African Americans, specifically, African American slaves living in the South. And so, based on legislation that was passed by Congress, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

This policy was not popular with everyone in the Union. Lincoln was a member of the Republican Party. Members of the opposition Democratic Party questioned and criticized the use of black men as soldiers. Some suggested that the emancipation policy be scrapped and the slaves returned to their masters; this offer of a “carrot” was intended to convince white southerners to end their rebellion.

But Lincoln was having none of it. In August of 1864, which was a presidential election year, he met at the White House with Alexander W. Randall, a former governor of Wisconsin, and Joseph T. Mills, a Wisconsin judge. Lincoln talked politics and emancipation policy. He derided the Democratic Party for its opposition to emancipation. Per Lincoln, the Democratic Party program could only “result in the dismemberment of the Union.” He referred to the notion of re-enslaving the freedmen to gain white supporters in the South as “conciliation.” This would be disaster, Lincoln said. “Abandon all the posts now possessed by black men, surrender all these advantages to the enemy, & we would be compelled to abandon the war in 3 weeks,” he claimed.

Clearly, Lincoln was keeping aware of the actions of the colored soldiers. He cited the actions of black men at the battles of Port Hudson and Olustee as examples of their service and sacrifice. He pledged that he would not return these “black warriors” to slavery to “conciliate the South.” “I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will,” he said. Lincoln was not about to throw black soldiers under the bus. He would keep his promise that African Americans would be “forever free” no matter what the conditions of war or peace.

But Lincoln did not merely feel his emancipation policy was righteous; he believed it was right strategically.  History would prove, he believed, that the Union could not be restored without it. And in this belief, he was unshaken.

This text is excerpted from the diary of Joseph T. Mills, as noted in Volume 7 of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln:

My own experience has proven to me, that there is no program intended by the Democratic Party but that will result in the dismemberment of the Union. But Genl McClellan[1] is in favor of crushing out the rebellion, & he will probably be the Chicago (Democratic Party convention) candidate (for president in 1864). The slightest acquaintance with arithmetic will prove to any man that the rebel armies cannot be destroyed with Democratic (Party) strategy. It would sacrifice all the white men of the north to do it. There are now between 1 & 200 thousand black men now in the service of the Union. These men will be disbanded, returned to slavery & we will have to fight two nations instead of one.

I have tried it. You cannot conciliate the South, when the mastery & control of millions of blacks makes them sure of ultimate success. You cannot conciliate the South, when you place yourself in such a position, that they see they can achieve their independence. The war Democrat (Democrats who favored war to preserve the Union) depends upon conciliation. He must confine himself to that policy entirely. If he fights at all in such a war as this he must economise life & use all the means which God & nature puts in his power.

Abandon all the posts now possessed by black men surrender all these advantages to the enemy, & we would be compelled to abandon the war in 3 weeks. We have to hold territory. Where are the war democrats to do it. The field was open to them to have enlisted & put down this rebellion by force of arms, by concilliation, long before the present policy was inaugurated.

There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South. I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing. The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends & enemies, come what will.

My enemies say I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of abolition. It is & will be carried on so long as I am President for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without using the Emancipation lever as I have done. Freedom has given us the control of 200 000 able bodied men, born & raised on southern soil. It will give us more yet. Just so much it has sub[t]racted from the strength of our enemies, & instead of alienating the south from us, there are evidences of a fraternal feeling growing up between our own & rebel soldiers.

My enemies condemn my emancipation policy. Let them prove by the history of this war, that we can restore the Union without it.

[1] George B. McClellan had been a high ranking general in the Union army. He was relieved from command by Lincoln for lacking the aggressiveness needed to successfully engage Confederate forces led by Robert E. Lee. In 1864, McClellan was nominated to be the Democratic candidate for president. He lost the election to Lincoln in November of that year.

Self-emancipation during the Civil War: Remembering the Corinth Contraband Camp, MS

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Statue and markers near the entrance to the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

The Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is winding down. In a scant few months, we will observe the 150th anniversary of Confederate general Robert E Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, which signaled the beginning of the end of the Civil War. This is a good moment to reflect on how the War was commemorated these past few years.

One disappointment of the Sesquicentennial, in my opinion, has been the relative lack of attention given to contrabands/runaways/self-emancipated slaves.

During the War, over a hundred thousand enslaved African Americans escaped their masters and sought refuge from bondage behind Union lines. At the start of the War, Union policy was to return these freedom seekers to their owners; the goal was to maintain the owners’ loyalty to, and support for, the Union cause. That policy unraveled as the Union came to see the slaves as valuable and necessary allies in the war against the Confederate regime.

Over time the Union evolved new policies, under which slaves who escaped their masters would be given asylum, usually in war refugee/labor camps that were in or near army encampments or forts. These places were variously called contraband camps or freedom colonies or freedom villages. The escaped slaves were called ‘contraband’ by northerners, on the basis that they were property that was seized from Confederates. I do not know if the self-emancipators defined themselves using this northerners’ lexicon.

There has been a very good focus during the Sesquicentennial, I think, on the role of African descent soldiers during the War, due in part to the efforts of African American reenactors and living historians. But the black southern soldier was a subset of a larger group of people who escaped bondage. And the story of that larger group hasn’t seen as much attention, as I look back at the spate of events and activities since the Sesquicentennial period began in 2011.

Many of the stories of these former slaves are about families, women and children especially, taking huge risks, and enduring much suffering in the process, to gain their freedom. Even if these families were successful in reaching a contraband camp, they sometimes lived in harsh conditions. Many of their menfolk joined the United States armed forces; by the War’s end, over 135,000 men from Confederate or Union slave states joined the US army, and thousands more joined the navy. With the men gone, black women were forced to care for themselves, their children and the elderly, in places that might seem like war refugee camps today. Groups like the American Missionary Association aided the military in providing educational and other services to the freedmen and women.

We know much about the black men who joined the armed forces because of the records that were kept about their service. But literacy, gender, age (again, many of these former slaves were children) and other factors have resulted in a more spare record of the former slaves at these camps.

This is not to say that the memory of these folks has been completely ignored in the commemorative landscape, that is, the public and non-public spaces which memorialize the past. An exemplary public site for the recognition of the runaways is the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi, near the state border with Tennessee.

End of Slavery Civil War exhibit in Corinth, Mississippi

Statues inside the Civil War Interpretive Center at Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi; featuring an African American Union soldier and a freedwoman taking a class.
Image Source: Photo/Copyright by Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright. Photo is not in the public domain. 

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Statue of freedwoman and child reading a book at the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

The Camp is a National Park Service (NPS) site, and part of the larger Shiloh National Park complex. This is from the NPS description of the site:

As Federal forces occupied major portions of the South, enslaved people escaped from farms and plantations and fled to safety behind Union lines. Once President Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862, the number of freedom seekers increased considerably in Union occupied Corinth.The Corinth Contraband Camp was established by Union General Grenville M. Dodge to accommodate these refugees.

The camp featured numerous homes, a church, school and hospital. The freedmen cultivated and sold cotton and vegetables in a progressive cooperative farm program. By May 1863, the camp was making a clear profit of $4,000 to $5,000 from it enterprises. By August, over 1,000 African American children and adults gained the ability to read through the efforts of various benevolent organizations.

Although the camp had a modest beginning, it became a model camp and allowed for approximately 6,000 ex-slaves to establish their own individual identities. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was implemented, nearly 2,000 of the newly freed men at the Corinth Contraband Camp had their first opportunity to protect their way of life and made up a new regiment in the Union army. Since most of the men came from Alabama, the unit was named the 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops.

In December 1863, the camp was moved to Memphis and the freedmen resided in a more traditional refugee facility for the remainder of the war.

The Corinth Contraband Camp was the first step on the road to freedom and the struggle for equality for thousands of former slaves.Today a portion of the historic Corinth Contraband Camp is preserved to commemorate those who began their journey to freedom there in 1862-1863. This land now hosts a quarter mile walkway which exhibits six life-size bronze sculptures depicting the men, women, and children who inhabited the camp.​

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Statue of United States Colored Troops solider at the Corinth Contraband Camp, in Corinth, Mississippi.
The 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment of African Descent, later re-designated the 55th United States Colored Troops, was formed at the Corinth Camp.

Image Source: Corinth Contraband Camp, National Park Service; see photo gallery here.

One of the wonderful things about the statues in the park is that women are so well represented. The inclusiveness is important, and for visitors, informative and even enlightening.

The Corinth site is in northeast Mississippi, about 60 miles from Jackson, TN, about 100 miles from either Memphis, TN, or Decatur, AL, and about 120 miles from Huntsville, AL. This will make for a great visit for those who want to learn about this important part of Civil War and American history.

How will you observe National Freedom Day?

Considering the arc of American memory, why is it no surprise that few people have heard of National Freedom Day – a day observing the end of slavery in the United States?

But yes, there is a National Freedom Day. It commemorates the date (February 1, 1865) that Abraham Lincoln signed a joint resolution of the US Congress which proposed the 13th amendment to the Constitution, to abolish slavery in the United States. The amendment was ratified by the required number of states in December 1865. National Freedom Day was proclaimed a national day of observance by President Harry Truman in January 1949:

Whereas, near the end of the tragic conflict between the Northern and Southern States, the Congress adopted a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution which would outlaw slavery in the United States and in every place subject to its jurisdiction; and

Whereas the resolution was signed by President Lincoln on February 1, 1865, and thereafter led to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution; and

Whereas that Amendment is a corner stone in the foundation of our American traditions, and the signing of the resolution is a landmark in the Nation’s effort to fulfill the principles of freedom and justice proclaimed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution; and

Whereas, by a joint resolution approved June 30, 1948 (62 Stat. 1150), the Congress authorized the President to proclaim the first day of February of each year as National Freedom Day in commemoration of the signing of the resolution of February 1, 1865; and

Whereas the Government and people of the United States wholeheartedly support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, which declares that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”:

Now, Therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate February 1, 1949, and each succeeding February 1, as national Freedom Day; and I call upon the people of the United States to pause on that day in solemn contemplation of the glorious blessings of freedom which we humbly and thankfully enjoy.

Truman proclaims National Freedom Day copy
Image source: “A beacon to oppressed peoples everywhere”: Major Richard R. Wright Sr., National Freedom Day, and the Rhetoric of Freedom in the 1940s,” by Mitch Kachun. See also the Library of Congress’s America’s Story from America’s Library website.

National Freedom Day is one of many conflicting, and to some, conflicted celebrations of the end of slavery in the United States. Perhaps the most prominent day designated for commemorating emancipation and abolition is Juneteenth (June 19th), which is celebrated in Texas and several other states. But National Freedom Day is the first and only day that the federal government has established for a nationwide observance of slavery’s end. Continue reading

“You yield your children, why not your servants?”: the Confederacy seeks slave laborers along the Mississippi

Slave labor needed for the Confederacy
Poster (called a ‘broadside’) asking slave-owners west of the Mississippi River to hire their slaves out to the Confederacy: “The negro men our enemy would arm against us, can be well employed as teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers.”
Source: National Archives, War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Title #17439_2008_001_PR.  Click here for larger image.

Slave labor was a key part of the Confederate war effort against the Union military during the American Civil War. Almost immediately, slaves were employed to provide labor to the Confederate military. If slaves could be used to do all the dirty work required to keep up the new Confederate nation and support the armed services – work such as digging ditches or building fortifications – then white men could be dedicated to combat and related duties.

For that to work, though, slave holders needed to allow the Confederate military to use their slaves. And many slaveholders didn’t want to do that. It was quite common for slaves to be hired out by their masters to work outside their homes. But providing labor to the military was another story. Owners feared that slaves would get sick, injured, or even die while doing strenuous work under hazardous conditions. Owners were also afraid that slaves might exploit their situation to find ways to escape.

So it was that in September 1863, Confederate major J. F. Minter, a Chief Quartermaster in the Trans-Mississippi Department, issued the above poster (called a ‘broadside’) which pleaded with slaveholders to hire their slaves out to the army. (The Trans-Mississippi Department managed military operations to the west of the Mississippi River, in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.) The slaves would be employed as “teamsters, cooks, mechanics, and laborers.” Note that, Minter does not ask for slaves who will become or act as soldiers. Until the very end of the war, slaves could not enlist in the Confederate army.

Major Minter offered another reason for slaves to be hired out to the Confederate military. The Union was then engaged in a plan to confiscate and liberate slaves, so they could be laborers or even soldiers for the Union cause. Minter suggested that by hiring slaves out to the Confederacy, their loss to the enemy could be avoided.

Minter’s fears turned out to be justified. Over 95,000 black men from the Confederate States, a large portion of whom were once enslaved, joined the Union military. Louisiana alone provided 24,000 men to the Union army, the most of any state, Confederate or Union.

What did the slaves make of Minter’s request for their labor? Major Minter’s broadside doesn’t address that question. His comment that the people must “sacrifice freely… (to) remain freemen” did not include bondsmen as part of “the people.” Slaves were simply a resource to be used by one side or the other. And Minter’s job was to make that labor safe and useful for the Confederate cause. But as the war continued, the bondsmen would show that they were not just tools of the Union or the Confederacy, but rather, agents of their own liberation. Minter didn’t say it and perhaps didn’t see it; but in time, this truth would be inescapable.


From the American Social History Project: “In May 1863, Louisiana black regiments fought with great gallantry and almost reckless disregard for their own lives in the assault on Port Hudson, Louisiana. The bravery of these troops, which previously had been doubted by many northern commanders, was soon extolled in the pages of the illustrated press.”
Image Source: Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1863, by artist Francis H. Schell; image from Dickinson College’s ‘House Divided’ site.

{In March 1865, the Confederates States allowed slaves to enlist in the Confederate army. This is one of a series of posts that looks at the Road to Slave Enlistment in the Confederacy.}