Why are those happy slaves shooting at us?

Slavery as it exists in America-loc'gov@pictures@resource@cph'3a05113

“Slavery as it exists in America” 1850. Library of Congress

Throughout the Civil War, many Southern whites professed an unwavering conviction that their slaves were happy and content in their bondage, and extremely loyal to their masters. That comforting belief was reinforced again and again by newspaper accounts claiming that whenever slaves ran away into Union-controlled territory, it was because they were kidnapped by Yankees and forced to go.

A typical example of this type of story was carried in the January 3, 1863 edition of the Richmond Daily Dispatch. In the wake of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, the Dispatch reported on the efforts of “Abolition Generals Hunter and Sexton” to recruit blacks into the Union army at Beaufort, South Carolina. The article said:

The negro brigade proved a failure. Conscription was resorted to to fill its ranks. Guards were sent to Beaufort from the camp to arrest and bring before the recruiting officers such negroes as were physically competent to serve in the army, that they might volunteer into the Black Brigade – at least get into it in some shape or other. The poor fellows attempted to resist, but found it of no avail. They attempted to hide from their pursuers, but they were hunted like dogs, and dragged out of their houses, from barns, cellars, and taken from their wives and families, that they might enjoy the privilege of volunteering.

From accounts such as these, it must have seemed to readers of the Confederate press that the ex-slaves who were undeniably fighting in Northern armies had been dragged kicking and screaming into the ranks.

Black troops near Dutch Gap canal

Black troops near Dutch Gap canal in Virginia in 1864

Yet of the 180,000 black men who served in Union blue during the war, at least half, about 90,000, were former slaves from Confederate states. And 25 African American soldiers and sailors were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their gallantry in combat. That these were all unwilling victims of Yankee coercion must have become less and less believable as the war wore on.

Still, the comforting notion that the slaves remained loyal to their masters continued to be widespread in the South throughout the war. In June of 1865, two months after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Mary Chesnut wrote an entry in her “Diary From Dixie” alluding to the “negro slaves whom they (the Yankees) tried to seduce.”

Comforting delusions die hard.

Ron Franklin

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One Response to Why are those happy slaves shooting at us?

  1. Pingback: Slavery and the Golden Rule | Civil War BSC

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