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The issue of slavery during the civil war

Behind the Lens: A History in Pictures

Slavery was, as Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia noted, the ideological "corner-stone" of the Confederate government. Equally important, slave labor provided the physical cornerstone for the Confederate war effort. Civilian and military employers in Virginia hired slaves in increasing numbers over the course of the war. Most of Virginia's slaves worked as agricultural laborers, and their wartime production helped feed both civilians and soldiersparticularly after the Confederate Congress passed legislation allowing for the impressment of wheat, corn, and other foodstuffs.

Because the Confederacy's military and industrial employers typically only hired male slaves, much of the wartime agricultural work in Virginia fell to female slaves. The Confederacy's use of hired slave laborers extended one of the key developments in Virginia's economy during the late antebellum era.

Slave hiring was already an established facet of Virginia's antebellum industries, and male slaves comprised a large portion of the workforces in the issue of slavery during the civil war factories and on railroad lines. During the war, private employers like the Tredegar ironworks of Richmondrailroad lines, salt works, and iron forges, all of which sustained the Confederate war effort, hired increasing numbers of slave laborers as their white employees left for the army.

Owners also leased their slaves to individual officers within the Confederate army or larger departments like the Confederate Medical Department, which hired hundreds of male and female slaves to work as nurses, cooks, and laundresses in army hospitals.

The war increased the importance of slaves with industrial skills in the upper South's hiring market; the demand for hired field hands also increased as white men joined the Confederate army. Hiring Out Slave Laborers In addition to the slaves hired to work for private industries or various military departments, thousands of slaves endured harsh working and living conditions while impressed to build fortifications under the Confederate Engineer Bureau.

Slaves built the walls and trenches that defended Richmond, PetersburgSaltvilleand Lynchburg until the last weeks and months of the war. While these slaves were forced to work for the benefit of the Confederacy—and thus for their continued enslavement—others found that the war brought them new opportunities to assert their independence.

Slaveholders in Virginia and across the South anticipated that a slave uprising would accompany the start of the war and, accordingly, tightened plantation discipline in the spring and summer of 1861. As increasing numbers of white men left home for the Confederate army, however, and the dreaded slave rebellion never materialized, white Virginians loosened their grip on their slaves.

Slave patrols dwindled out of existence in some areas.


Plantation discipline relaxed considerably as slaves sensed and exploited their mistresses' weakness in the absence of male authority figures. While few slaves stopped working entirely, many refused to grow cash crops without new incentives. African American Cabin While plantation workers enjoyed new freedoms, slaves in Virginia's urban areas often experienced the exact opposite.

In Richmond, slaves working for the Confederate government lost many of the privileges accorded hired slaves in the 1850s, in particular their ability to choose their own employers, negotiate rates of pay, and receive direct cash payments, all of which had been hallmarks of Richmond's industrial slave-hiring system.

In Lynchburg, while slaves did take advantage of wartime dislocations to begin asserting their independence, whites responded with random acts of violence designed to terrorize the city's black population back into submission.

Slavery in the United States

Some of Virginia's Protestant churches severely constricted slaves' freedom of worship, denying slaves the right to join churches without their masters' permission, meet independently to hear slave preachers, or discipline their own congregations. Other churches, after an initial period of heightened alarm, expanded their enslaved congregants' freedom of worship.

In April 1863, for example, the First Baptist Church of Charlottesville voted to grant its black members partial independence, allowing them to worship separately in the church basement before eventually moving to a separate building and choose their own pastor and deacons. Black congregants in some of Virginia's other churches gained more limited versions of this independence over the course of the war. White church leaders who granted their black members this freedom had no intention, however, of undermining the institution of slavery itself.

Instead, as the war progressed, many Southern ministers extended the antebellum policy of ameliorative reform into a proslavery, pro—Confederate Christian message that still afforded some rights to their slaves.

Advocates of ameliorative reform argued that masters had a responsibility to expose their slaves to Christianity but also allow slaves to make their own choices about religious behavior; upholding this responsibility would ultimately strengthen the institution of slavery. During the Civil War, some Southern ministers argued that enacting ameliorative reform policies, and thus bringing slavery into a closer accord with God's will, would increase the likelihood of a Confederate victory.

When Southern Protestant churches extended religious independence to their slaves, therefore, they did so under the expectation that slavery would continue to thrive after the war ended. Finally, the wartime increase in slave hiring brought numerous disruptions to slaves' family lives. Enslaved men impressed to work on fortifications or hired to Confederate officers and industrial employers usually left their the issue of slavery during the civil war and children behind, placing a heavier work burden on enslaved women.

Climbing prices for slaves in both the hiring and long-distance sale markets increased the likelihood that families would be separated. Other aspects of the war brought additional disruptions of family life. In particular, slaves forced to abandon their homes with refugee masters and mistresses left behind friends and relatives who lived on neighboring plantations.

Confronting Slavery and Revealing the "Lost Cause"

Virginia's Slaves Seize Their Freedom Monroe The issue of slavery during the civil war the United States government initially declared, in no uncertain terms, that it was fighting for the reunification of the country and not the abolition of slavery, many of Virginia's slaves saw the approaching Union army as an army of liberation. As soon as Union forces took control of Fort Monroe in the spring of 1861, for example, runaway slaves began flocking to their lines.

Butlerdecided to retain these slaves within his lines as "contraband of war. Virginia's slaves, for their part, were usually eager to assist the Union soldiers in exchange for freedom and wages. Not every Union general approved of Butler's "contraband of war" argument, but it won favor with the United States Congress, which confirmed Butler's position in August 1861.

The First Confiscation Act authorized Union authorities to capture any property the Confederates were actively using to assist their war effort. Slaves who worked for the Confederate armies in any capacity were explicitly included in this legislation. Congress expanded its definition of "contraband of war" in the Second Confiscation Act of July 1862. Recognizing that all slaves working for Confederate masters aided the Confederate war effort, regardless of their specific wartime tasks, Congress authorized Union personnel to capture all property belonging to Confederates.

The Second Confiscation Act specifically declared that any slaves owned by men or women who favored the Confederacy were "forever free of their servitude. United States president Abraham Lincoln.