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What was it like during the Negro Exodus in SE Virginia, circa mid-1863?

Discussion in 'Civil War History - General Discussion' started by ForeverFree, Apr 20, 2018.

  1. ForeverFree

    ForeverFree Major

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    During the winter and spring of 1860-61, most US forts were seized by secessionists. One that remained in the hands of the United States was Ft Monroe, which was just outside Hampton, VA.


    Ft Monroe would go on to become the forerunner for the Civil War's Black Exodus movement and the US "contraband" policy, begun by Gen Benjamin Butler. The contraband policy evolved into an emancipation policy.

    What was it like for "Negroes," as African Americans were called at the time, to live through the early part of the Civil War? This is Testimony by the Superintendent of Contrabands at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, before the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission in May of 1863. It offers some interesting insights into the experience of African Americans in southeastern VA at the time:

    [Fortress Monroe, Va.] May 9, 1863.

    Question How many of the people called contrabands, have come under your observation?

    Answer Some 10,000 have come under our control, to be fed in part, and clothed in part, but I cannot speak accurately in regard to the number. This is the rendezvous.

    They come here from all about, from Richmond and 200 miles off in North Carolina There was one gang that started from Richmond 23 strong and only 3 got through.

    Q In your opinion, is there any communication between the refugees and the black men still in slavery?

    A. Yes Sir, we have had men here who have gone back 200 miles.

    Q In your opinion would a change in our policy which would cause them to be treated with fairness, their wages punctually paid and employment furnished them in the army, become known and would it have any effect upon others in slavery?

    A Yes–Thousands upon Thousands. I went to Suffolk a short time ago to enquire into the state of things there–for I found I could not get any foot hold to make things work there, through the Commanding General, and I went to the Provost Marshall and all hands–and the colored people actually sent a deputation to me one morning before I was up to know if we put black men in irons and sent them off to Cuba to be sold or set them at work and put balls on their legs and whipped them, just as in slavery; because that was the story up there, and they were frightened and didn't know what to do.

    When I got at the feelings of these people I found they were not afraid of the slaveholders. They said there was nobody on the plantations but women and they were not afraid of them One woman came through 200 miles in Men's clothes.

    The most valuable information we recieved in regard to the Merrimack and the operations of the rebels came from the colored people and they got no credit for it.

    I found hundreds who had left their wives and families behind. I asked them “Why did you come away and leave them there?” and I found they had heard these stories, and wanted to come and see how it was. “I am going back again after my wife” some of them have said “When I have earned a little money” What as far as that?” “Yes” and I have had them come to me to borrow money, or to get their pay, if they had earned a months wages, and to get passes. “I am going for my family” they say. “Are you not afraid to risk it?” “No I know the Way”

    Colored men will help colored men and they will work along the by paths and get through. In that way I have known quite a number who have gone up from time to time in the neighborhood of Richmond and several have brought back their families; some I have never heard from.

    As I was saying they do not feel afraid now. The white people have nearly all gone, the blood hounds are not there now to hunt them and they are not afraid, before they were afraid to stir. There are hundreds of negroes at Williamsburgh with their families working for nothing. They would not get pay here and they had rather stay where they are. “We are not afraid of being carried back” a great many have told us and “if we are, we can get away again”

    Now that they are getting their eyes open they are coming in. Fifty came this morning from Yorktown who followed Stoneman's Cavalry when they returned from their raid. The officers reported to their Quartermaster that they had so many horses and fifty or sixty negroes. “What did you bring them for” “Why they followed us and we could not stop them.” I asked one of the men about it and he said they would leave their work in the field as soon as they found the Soldiers were Union men and follow them sometimes without hat or coat. They would take best horse they could get and every where they rode they would take fresh horses, leave the old ones and follow on and so they came in.

    I have questioned a great many of them and they do not feel much afraid; and there are a great many courageous fellows who have come from long distances in rebeldom. Some men who came here from North Carolina, knew all about the [Emancipation] Proclammation and they started on the belief in it; but they had heard these stories and they wanted to know how it was. Well, I gave them the evidence and I have no doubt their friends will hear of it.

    Within the last two or three months the rebel guards have been doubled on the line and the officers and privates of the 99th New York between Norfolk and Suffolk have caught hundreds of fugitives and got pay for them.

    Q Do I understand you to say that a great many who have escaped have been sent back?

    A Yes Sir, The masters will come in to Suffolk in the day time and with the help of some of the 99th carry off their fugitives and by and by smuggle them across the lines and the soldier will get his $20. or $50.

    - Alan
     
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2018

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  3. ForeverFree

    ForeverFree Major

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    Some comments/observations:

    1) By May 1863, 10,000 men, women, and children had come to Ft Monroe and the surrounding Hampton, VA area. Some came from as far away as North Carolina.

    2) These men and women had heard horror stories of mistreatment for those who escaped to the US, such as being shipped to Cuba. These lies were being told by southern whites to stem the flow of the Exodus from bondage.

    3) The US received valuable military intelligence from the people who escaped to the fort and the surrounding area.

    4) In the same way that there was a black Exodus to Ft Monroe, there was something of a white Exodus away from SE VA. The testimony states "The white people have nearly all gone, the blood hounds are not there now to hunt them and they are not afraid, before they were afraid to stir." Note that by this time, the US had also captured Norfolk, VA and other places on the other side of Hampton Roads.

    [​IMG]

    5) As is quite clear, African Americans were engaged in a sustained physical movement to gain freedom. This was not just a case of the US going to get people and take them from bondage. In theses cases, African Americans are fleeing bondage and seeking asylum with the United States. A Quartermaster asks an officer who comes to the camp with "fifty or sixty negroes" in tow, “What did you bring them for?” The response is, “Why they followed us and we could not stop them.”

    6) Not unexpectedly, many of the freedom trailblazers are males. But they express their desire to get thier families, and many do go off after them. Some men leave to get their families and are never heard from again.

    7) The number of actual escapees give us pause to wonder, how many tried to escape, but failed, and were captured. If there was one failed attempt for every successful attempt, the number of freedom seekers would be double the 10,000 number of received men and women cited by the Ft Monroe officer. Meanwhile various circumstances, such as being elderly, prevented some would-be freedom seekers from getting away.

    [​IMG]
    Contraband camp in Newport News, Virginia. Credit: Alfred Waud, 1861
    Morgan collection of Civil War drawings, Library of Congress(LC-DIG-ppmsca-21548)

    8) Some unscrupulous US soldiers were capturing men and women and selling them back to their southern owners.

    9) As somebody with a car, maps, and now a GPS, it boggles my mind that these folks, without such tools, were able to traverse miles of land, and often dozens of miles, to get to Ft Monroe and the environs. The idea of traveling and camping in pitch-black night, ever fearful of being caught, would frighten me from escaping - but I'm a wimpy person living in the 21st century. But what these folks were doing was no trivial task, albeit, that is what life was like at the time.

    10) Looking at this document and others, I am coming to understand the virtual fetishization of Loyal Servants in the post war era. Those who stayed with their legal owners were no doubt much appreciated. Meanwhile we can imagine the social chaos that ensued from this Exodus of people in this one corner of Virginia.

    - Alan
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2018
  4. ForeverFree

    ForeverFree Major

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    This is a census of African-Americans in Union occupied Virginia Tidewater in mid-1863. I have not checked the math for computation errors, but these are the numbers as they are from the document.

    This is from the book The Destruction of Slavery from the series Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation 1861-1867, page 91:

    Title: Census Return of Colored Population within the Union Lines, at Yorktown and Vicinity, and in Elizabeth City and Warwick Counties, and the Counties of Norfolk Nanesmond and Princess Anne, Virginia, taken between July 1st 1863 and August 20th 1863

    Condition:
    Bond 5,314
    Free 4,998
    Contraband 15,642

    Sex:
    Male 14, 161
    Female 11,949

    Helped by Gov't (data is incomplete)
    Wholly 3,199
    In Part 552

    Without Employment: 5,456

    Color:
    Black 20,852
    Mixed 5,104

    - Alan
     
  5. archieclement

    archieclement Sergeant Major

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    Is it surprising within the census area where escape and freedom were readily available, over half was evidently choosing to remain in bondage, 5314-4998? Those numbers seem to be close to the numbers for I've seen here during the war too, a little closer then here
     
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  6. ForeverFree

    ForeverFree Major

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    That is not the right way to interpret these numbers. Some information is needed to explain.

    First, "contraband," is a designation given to people who have escaped bondage by fleeing behind Union lines. As noted in the Census, Tidewater had 15,642 "contraband," 5,314 people in bondage, and 4,998 free Negroes. So the majority of African descent people living in Tidewater were people who had fled bondage. Additionally, the 4,998 free people, as I understand it, were people who were free before the war; they were not people who had decided between being free or enslaved during the war.

    Some other information is useful. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January 1, 1863. It exempts portions of VA that were under federal control. Recollect that, the EP applied to areas that were controlled by the Rebellion; SE VA was under federal control by that time. As noted here,

    The exemptions in the Emancipation Proclamation allowed slavery to continue under the laws of Virginia in the upper Potomac River Valley county of Berkeley (which with Jefferson County later voted to join West Virginia), in the two Eastern Shore counties of Accomack and Northampton, and in the Hampton Roads counties of Elizabeth City, Norfolk, Princess Anne, and York, and in the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth. In those areas the established presence of the Union army had already allowed people who ran away from slavery to live in virtual freedom. In the remainder of Virginia, the Union army when it was present, or perhaps in a few instances the United States Navy, attempted to enforce the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed an un-tabulated number of enslaved Virginians.​

    Not mentioned above is that the 1861 and 1862 Confiscation Acts, and other Union policy, mandated that the US would essentially give asylum to enslaved people who fled their masters. Although slavery was not abolished in Tidewater, people who escaped bondage were not (legally) being returned to enslavement. This is why there could be so many contraband in the area. (As noted in the 1st post, some unscrupulous soldiers were engaged in the human trafficking of former bondspeople.)

    Meanwhile, the presence of federal troops in the Tidewater region changed the relationship between master and slave. See the next post.

    - Alan
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2018
  7. ForeverFree

    ForeverFree Major

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    In her book An African American history of the Civil War in Hampton Roads,(p 41-3) Cassandra L. Newby-Alexander, talks about the Union capture of Norfolk, Virginia; and also an African American man named Richard H. Parker, who met with US president Abraham Lincoln (forgive typos, I transcribed this from the book):

    On the night of May 9, 1862, six thousand union troops crossed the Hampton Roads (at the opening of the Chesapeake Bay)... By 5:00 PM May 10, the Union troops under the command of General Wool met with the mayor and several councilmen... The mayor informed General Wool that no rebel troops remained in Norfolk and that "the city was his."

    Fifty-eight-year-old Methodist minister Richard H. "Father Dick" Parker... recalled the memorable day that federal troops arrived in Norfolk. Parker noted that men, women and children stopped working to watch the entourage in what many probably believed would be the first step toward freedom.

    Parker, like many of Norfolk's enslaved populace, had numerous masters who allowed him to hire out his own time. By the time the Union troops arrived, he had been sold four times and had learn to read and write under the guidance of one of his masters daughters.

    Father Parker remembered how blacks walked the streets after the troops arrived, in open violation of the city ordinance requiring that all blacks, free and enslaved, be indoors after 9:00 PM. Union officers intervened whenever Norfolk's police attempted to enforce the curfew.

    Shortly after their arrival, Union general John E. Wool ordered a day of public thanksgiving and prayer for all that had been done on behalf of the area's enslaved populace. For most of the black citizenry, this order was met with joy; on the appointed day the sunrise services in all of the citiy's black churches were fully attended. Afterward five thousand blacks gathered for a procession through the city's streets with a band playing and the Union flag flying overhead. Parker was in his glory that day, riding in a carriage and giving a speech along with General Wool.

    Shortly afterward, Father Parker desired to make a trip to Washington, D.C. Although Norfolk was an occupied city as of May 10, 1862, it was still unlawful for a slave to leave town without a pass signed by his master and the mayor of Norfolk. Father Parker's master did not want him to go to D.C. and told Parker that he, the master, would die before he ever got a chance to go. Parker's master died about a month after making that statement, and Father Parker was able to leave.

    Upon reaching the capital, Father Parker joined a committee of black men gathered from different states to call on President Lincoln, who graciously received them. Parker was struck by the sight of Lincoln, who resembled a plain but kind farmer. As soon as they entered, Lincoln got up and welcomed them heartily, offering them seats.

    (Lincoln) then asked them not to be in such a hurry to get their rights. He said they would eventually get all their rights as soon they were prepared for them... it is probable that many of those in attendance were educated free blacks who took offense at being told to wait and be patient. As the years passed, newspapers, diaries, and firsthand accounts documented how many did not take Lincoln's advice. Instead freemen and freedmen alike continued to agitate for full equality.​

    Note that in the above, the Union presence changes the way the enslaved people are treated. For example, "Union officers intervened whenever Norfolk's police attempted to enforce the curfew."

    Father Parker, the subject of the above, was an enslaved person. But he gets to ride in a carriage with Union General Wool, and he gives a speech during "a day of public thanksgiving and prayer for all that had been done on behalf of the area's enslaved populace." As part of the thanksgiving, "five thousand blacks gathered for a procession through the city's streets with a band playing and the Union flag flying overhead."

    Of course we cannot know the details of the interactions that people in bondage had with their enslavers. But the bondsmen did have some recourse to Union military officials. Certainly life changed for Father Parker, at least.

    - Alan
     
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2018
  8. ForeverFree

    ForeverFree Major

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    RE: Those numbers seem to be close to the numbers for I've seen here during the war too, a little closer then here

    It would be interesting to open a new thread to discuss this and the information you have.

    - Alan
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2018
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  9. archieclement

    archieclement Sergeant Major

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    I took a separate contraband category with bonded or free, to be contrabands from outside the census area, I may be wrong, but that's how I looked at it, If all were within the named counties, not sure why one would need a third category for contrabands other simply free and slave

    I've read here statewide that either in late 63-64 a source state only 70,000 slaves remained in the state......which I don't dispute, just found it odd it was worded only, that would be roughly 60% remaining.

    If the contrabands in Va were from outside the census area, the 51% remaining in bondage would be within 8-10% of the numbers I've seen for here, which considering the regional differences of slavery would seem to represent a reasonable margin of error to be roughly comparable

    Missouri started the war with roughly 115,000 slaves, 45,000 running away certainly disproves any "they were all happy slaves" myth. However roughly 60% choosing to remain when presented with same opportunities would seem to not support some they all couldn't wait to run away either theory. Nor does 5000 right by the contraband camps in VA.

    I think there's a myriad of reasons some choose to stay, however don't think it can be ignored that sizable numbers did. Some choose to remain where they were even postwar, and lived the rest of their lives where they had been.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2018
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  10. major bill

    major bill Colonel Forum Host

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    A thread on why they stayed might be a good idea.
     
  11. ForeverFree

    ForeverFree Major

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    The thing to understand is, "contraband" was a separate, unique designation to indicate anybody who had fled bondage, regardless of place of origin. It was important for the Union to track that information; they wanted and needed to differentiate between bondsmen/women and those who escaped their masters. Also, contraband were not bonded; again, they were considered to be in a separate condition.

    - Alan
     
  12. WJC

    WJC Moderator Moderator

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    Thanks for sharing this.
    Next time someone asks why it is important to teach the history of the Civil War , I'll show them this.
     
  13. ForeverFree

    ForeverFree Major

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    I'd like to see such a thread. I would much prefer that it not be a topic here, because I can see that getting the thread off topic. However, anything that touches on the VA Tidewater area at this time would be of interest.

    - Alan
     
  14. archieclement

    archieclement Sergeant Major

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    Still not sure what you mean..............My understanding is contrabands were escaped slaves from outside Union lines.......However if doing a Federal census of counties with free and bonded blacks, that would be from within Union lines, wouldn't it?

    Thought the definition of a contraband was from outside the lines............The contrabands would exist within the Union lines upon arrival..........why I assume a third category in the census, but still think they had to originate from outside the census area........
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2018
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  15. ForeverFree

    ForeverFree Major

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    I'm not sure if I understand your question.

    Let me put it this way. In the Tidewater area, slavery was not declared illegal during the war. The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply. All of the people in the area lived within Union lines, but that did not automatically make them free, because the EP was not applicable.

    However, enslaved persons who escaped bondage and sought refuge in Union held areas could gain such refuge under the Confiscation acts of 1861 and 1862, and other policies. Such escaped persons were designated as contraband whether they were a Tidewater resident or not; ANYBODY from ANYWHERE who escaped their master and gained refuge under Union authority was a contraband.

    > Put in another way: if a resident in Union controlled Tidewater wanted to be free, they had to flee their master and seek contraband status; they could not gain freedom under the EP because it did not apply there. You can see, then, why there would be so many contraband; that's the status enslaved people sought to gain their freedom.

    The census that was conducted was not a census of free and bonded black folks; it was a survey of free, bonded, and contraband people (it's more precise to say that a survey was made of all the African descent people residing in the area at the time, and some were free, some bonded, and most were contraband).

    As I look at the source, it appears that the goal was not to determine the geographic origin of the people in the survey; the goal was to count their numbers. It might be that the census did identify the geographical origins of the people they counted, but that information is not reported on the doc that I am looking at.

    - Alan
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2018
  16. archieclement

    archieclement Sergeant Major

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    I guess it depends on ones definition, both Webster's and dictionary.com say "a slave who during the American Civil War escaped to or was brought within the Union lines "

    Not to mention the source you provided is talking about contrabands coming from Richmond and North Carolina which clearly isn't within the named counties within Union lines.........Or following cavalry in from raids outside the line. He even seems to suggest so many of the contrabands are coming from outside union lines that the rebels were doubling the guard trying to curtail them
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2018
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  17. ForeverFree

    ForeverFree Major

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    The thing is, the assumption there is that enslaved persons who lived in Tidewater were "behind Union lines," and thus they were free, and thus had no need to escape their master to gain freedom.

    But they were not free. Mere residency in Union-controlled Tidewater did not make an enslaved person free or a contraband in Tidewater. If you're an enslaved person who wanted to gain freedom ~ or at least, gain refuge from slavery ~ you had to escape and go to a Union army location. That is, in this case, being "behind Union lines" meant delivering oneself to the Union military, NOT merely residing in Union controlled territory. And the Union was granting such status to massive numbers of people.

    - Alan
     
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2018
  18. archieclement

    archieclement Sergeant Major

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    Just saying if one is looking at a specific region (named counties) to compare the number of slaves who choose to escape, to the number that choose to remain.......you cant include numbers that clearly were coming from outside the region your comparing.......

    When I used free to bonded you wanted to include the 15000 contraband into equation, using the source you provided, clearly large numbers if not all the contrabands were coming from outside the region we are comparing........so wouldn't reflect the totals within the specific region.....The source is boasting so many are coming from outside the region the enemy has to increase pickets to curtail the flow, so they clearly cant be counted as from within the region........

    One could use 1860 slave-free census data to compare to 5000 that remained bonded I would assume, I looked earlier but the counties in question didn't have their totals online where I looked, and am getting ready to dine out tonight, so time to look is limited
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2018
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  19. ForeverFree

    ForeverFree Major

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    But the "if" does not apply. The goal was to count the number of people of African descent residing in the region. Nothing more, nothing less. You are trying to make this report into something it is not. I understand that you want this report to be about what you want it to be, but that just is not the case. If you find the report is just not useful to you, that's OK. I provided it to give a snapshot of how the population looked in SE VA.

    You are making an assumption about the relationship of the material in post # 1 and #3 that does not exist. I think we need to talk about what this report would have been used for, and why the geographical origins of the contrabands is just not relevant or important here.

    Here is the thing to understand: the contraband population was something to be managed. Contrabands are basically war refugees. They are wards of the state, or if not entirely that, then something akin to that. Having to manage 15,000 war refugees is not something to boast about about. It was a logistical problem that had to be analyzed, resourced, and controlled.

    Note, for example, that the data at post #3 identifies how many people are working and how many are receiving some kind of government support. They are getting information to help them deal with the population as it was.

    My view of this report is that it is clearly intended to give the US the data they need to manage this logistical problem. Given that, the question of where the contrabands originated from was not key. The issue was to determine the size and nature of the contraband population, wherever they came from, to manage them as best as possible.
    ****

    I understand that you have an interest in where the contrabands came from. But that's not what the report is about. The data exists to try to get the info you want. You could look at 1860 census records for the localities noted and compare them to the 1863 report. That might be inexact though, as I am not sure that the US military's occupation exactly aligned with the borders of those places, and there is possibility of an undercount given wartime conditions.

    Myself I find this large number of contrabands interesting on its own, and something to discuss.

    - Alan

    > Sorry for the many typos. I am trying to write this and take care of two children under 9 years old. Not good for the purposes of writing and editing.
     
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2018
  20. ForeverFree

    ForeverFree Major

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    I don't want to get into a discussion of this, but I just wanted to note: in 1860, VA had 490,865 enslaved people. Even with Union occupation and black flight, it's not likely that the count of enslaved people would drop to 70,000 by late 63-64. A drop from 490k to 70k would be a decrease of 85%, that doesn't seem likely.

    - Alan
     
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  21. WJC

    WJC Moderator Moderator

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    Thanks for pointing this out. Though a former Tidewater resident with an interest in the role the area played during the rebellion, I did not know about this distinction.
     

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