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UWBTS — Chapter 26:


Chapter 26 – Pondering Why Slaves Refrained from Attacking Owners’ Families

By Patrick J. Kealey of California, S. I. S. H.



By late 1862, it had become obvious to President Lincoln and the Republican governors that the conquest of the Confederate States was far from accomplished and another year or two would be required to complete the mission, with the death toll probably doubling.  Proclaim immediately emancipated those slaves living in regions controlled by the Republican-led Federals?  Out of the question!  Proclaim immediately emancipated those slaves living in regions controlled by the Confederates?  Yes.  Republican dreams of deportation, considered by many the ultimate solution to anti-slavery concerns, had been seriously discussed and actually experimented with during 1861 and 1862, but was finally abandoned by the end of 1863.  Furthermore, the mounting death toll among Federals required a more noble goal than the conquest of State Secessionists.  So President Lincoln, in search of justification, decided on the “Emancipation Proclamation” – a “war measure” that held out hopes for inciting a rebellion among the slaves living on farms all across the Confederacy.  Republicans reasoned that, if slaves were killing whites, nothing would stop Confederate troops from deserting the ranks and rushing home to defend their families.  And Republicans further reasoned that, if the race war became wide-spread and really horrific, that would resurrect the stalled deportation solution, for attacks on whites by slaves would justify that final solution.  But the Emancipation Proclamation did not produce a race war as anticipated.  Why no race war?  This chapter by Patrick J. Kealey provides evidence and ponders why, for the most part, slaves remained faithful to the families with whom they were living.

The History

The Emancipation Proclamation which officially went into effect January 1863 was described by Lincoln as a “war measure.”  The Proclamation rather than granting freedom to all the slaves was very selective as to where freedom was supposedly granted.  William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, cynically said of it, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”

1862 had been a difficult year for the Northern Armies trying to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia and capture Richmond.  Jackson’s Valley Campaign, the Seven Days Battles and Second Manassas had been costly losses.  Lincoln feared Britain and France would recognize and support the Confederacy if reverses on the battlefield continued despite their official positions against slavery.  Not only would the Emancipation Proclamation present the Northern invasion as a noble cause, but it had the potential to provide the North with a military advantage that would remove Confederate soldiers from the battlefield.  A servile insurrection would force thousands of soldiers to flee Southern armies to defend the women, children and elderly that had been left defenseless back home on the farms and plantations.

In fact in January of 1862, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania made an impassioned speech in the House of Representatives calling for just such a race war that was anticipated by Lincoln when he later issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  Stevens reasoned it was better for the slaves to fight against their masters than for the North to send forth its “sons and brothers . . . to reach the same end.”  Republicans hoped the African Americans left back home would imitate the servile insurrection that had been led by Nat Turner in 1831.  Then, slaves led by Nat Turner, armed mostly with farm implements such as axes, scythes, hammers, hoes and knives, had embarked on a killing spree in which 58 whites were murdered, the majority being children.  Turner’s plan to induce other slaves to overthrow slavery met with failure after a few days, and he was ultimately captured and executed. In 1863 families left back home would be easy targets even if slaves were only armed with farm tools.

But the insurrections hoped for by Lincoln and other Republicans never materialized, primarily because they had little understanding of the South’s society and culture to which African Americans had contributed.  At the time of the Northern invasion more than one half of the free African Americans in the country made the South their home.  While they may not have enjoyed the same social or political status of whites, many owned property and were engaged in diverse enterprises throughout the region.  Marie Thereze Coincoin, a former slave who purchased her own freedom, and later that of her children; owned slaves and a large plantation at Brevelle Isle, Louisiana.  It was renowned for the quality of the tobacco produced which was actually imported by Cuba to make fine cigars.  Her Franco-Creole family was prominent for generations in the area, and even outfitted Confederate militia during the war.

While there were large plantations, most southern farms were small to medium in size.  The number of slaves might number from two or three to eight or nine depending on the acreage and crops involved.  This meant both whites and African Americans often worked next to each other in the fields and shared the work and responsibility to make the farm profitable and self-sustaining, including raising most of its own food.  Slaves not only planted and harvested crops but performed a variety of other tasks: buying and selling provisions, animal husbandry, herding livestock, raising chickens and geese, repairing equipment and constructing outbuildings, to name just a few.  What is now called “multi-tasking” was a daily occurrence on southern farms.  In the evenings women would work with fabrics, spin wool, weave cloth and sew.  Adeline Willis, a former slave in Georgia, in the Slave Narratives collected by the government in the 1930s, related how her mother was skilled at dyeing fabric and could produce a “lilac” color from maple and pine bark for dresses the women and children would wear.  Fogel and Engerman in their book, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, note that these farms were thirty-five percent more productive than Northern farms of the same size and equivalent resources.  Southern farms were not the stereotype characterized in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had never visited the South.  Despite all the literature about evil overseers, most plantation overseers were trusted black men.

While agriculture was the economic engine of the South, it also fostered an environment of close relationships and community that often transcended the boundaries imposed by slavery.  It was common on both farms and large plantations for the older slaves to be addressed with family titles such as “uncle” or “aunt” by their peers as well as the families they served.  This form of respect came from African culture and became part of the fabric of Southern life.  Often these elderly slaves had a great deal of influence on the farms and plantations.  Edmund Kirke, in his book Among the Pines, describes an incident whereby the master of a large turpentine plantation considers taking revenge against an overseer who committed a crime.  His (the master’s) former nurse, Aunty Lucy makes it known that the master’s enemies would use the revenge as a pretext to harm him due to his political views, and she would feel badly if that were to happen.  The master acknowledges her feelings, reflects how he was raised by her, and decides on another course of action.  The Northern visitor who chronicled the event was astounded by the outcome and by the relationships developed on a large plantation with 270 slaves.  The Northern visitor is even more astounded to discover that this large and complex operation was actually being run by a charming female slave.

Large plantations required skilled workers such as masons, carpenters, coopers and blacksmiths.  Skilled workers would be in ever greater demand as the fledgling industries of the Confederacy produced pig iron, munitions, arms, tents and uniforms for the army.  It was not uncommon for slaves to do contract work whereby they would divide the wages with masters.  Lincoln would have been shocked to discover the country would not yet have the same percentage of skilled workers in 1870 that the South had in 1850.  On the large farms and plantations African Americans were typically foremen and managers responsible for critical operations.  The planting and harvesting of crops on large tracts of land required organization and teamwork to insure crops like tobacco, sugar cane, indigo and cotton were planted and harvested under the best conditions of the growing season.  While African Americans were not in bondage in the North, even those who were educated and skilled struggled to find employment sufficient to meet their basic needs.  Discrimination and laws even forbade them to reside in certain states such as Lincoln’s own Illinois.  They weren’t welcome in the North, nor was their culture.  This was not lost on the African Americans of the South where their culture and contributions could be acknowledged and respected.

It would be naïve to assume the slaves on farms and plantations not yet under Northern military control were not aware of the status of the war.  An informal, yet effective communications network known as the “grapevine” existed whereby news was spread from farm to farm in the South among African Americans.  The news was spread in a variety of ways. Often traveling preachers or slaves contracted to other farms or the cities were instrumental in bringing information to the rural areas.  Literate African Americans of course would pass on information they read in newspapers or flyers.  Confederate soldiers returning home on furloughs or to recover from wounds were also sources of new information.  Even on the largest plantations news spread quickly about the war, secession, abolitionists, and Lincoln.  The Northern blockade made them aware that many goods were now in short supply, and it was increasingly more difficult to get goods to market for sale in Europe.  In the Slave Narratives many of the interviewees describe the hardships that the war brought to those left back home on the farms of the South.  In 1863 and beyond, the hardships they experienced would escalate much further up to the war’s conclusion.

In March of 1863, General Ulysses Grant wrote: “Rebellion has assumed the shape now that it can only terminate by the complete subjugation of the South.  It is our duty to weaken the enemy, by destroying their means of subsistence, withdrawing their means of cultivating their fields, and in every other way possible.”  In short, Grant was talking about not only making war against Confederate armies but also against the Southern people, their food and shelter.

It did not take long for news of the destructive results of this new “total war” policy against civilians to reach the farms and plantations not yet under Northern control.  Many slaves were now entrusted with helping to hide family heirlooms and valuables, as well as their own property from marauding Northern armies.  What was even more disturbing to hear was that homes and outbuildings were being set afire, livestock was being slaughtered and crops destroyed by the invaders.  Everyone knew this was a recipe for impending starvation.

While slaves suspected that an eventual Northern victory would bring about their independence, they still had strong feelings of loyalty to the families they served.  In his autobiography, Up from Slavery, famous educator and former slave, Booker T. Washington stated, “In order to defend and protect the women and children who were left behind on the plantations when the white males went to war, the slaves would have laid down their lives.  The slave who was selected to sleep in the ‘big house’ during the absence of males was considered to have a place of honor.  Anyone attempting to harm ‘young Mistress’ or ‘old Mistress’ during the night would have to cross the dead body of a slave to do so.”  Washington relates that the death of one of the young masters in the war, ‘Mars’ Billy, brought sadness to slaves who had nursed him and those who had played with him as a child.  In the South, under the most trying conditions, Booker T. Washington was correct when he wrote, “I think it will be found to be true that there are few instances, either in slavery or freedom, in which a member of my race has been known to betray a specific trust.”


While slaves did yearn for peaceful independence, their contributions within their environment, relationships and loyalty were a far cry from the stereotypical behavior the Republicans believed would foster servile insurrections.

  • Stereotype is defined thusly: a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment. Merriam-Webster.

Topic for Class Discussion

Are there still stereotypes about the South today?  Who promotes them?  Hint: Entertainment industry.

Recommended Reading

  • Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington, pub. 1901.
  • North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860, by Leon F. Litwack, pub. 1965.