Emancipation was a many-layered process that included the destruction of slavery in law, through military actions, and through the impetus of enslaved people throughout the U.S. South. Visualizing Emancipation brings together documentary evidence about emancipation into different themes or event types. These can be viewed alone or in any combination using our map interface. Some event types, such as “Fugitive slaves,” seem very much like they fit into a project on emancipation. We also include some types of events, such as the conscription of African Americans by Confederate troops, that seem at first glance to have little to do with the end of slavery, and more like they would lead to its perpetuation. Slavery ended through a winding process that at many times, places, and for many enslaved individuals seemed to lead anywhere but to freedom.

  • 1. African Americans helping the Union

  • Over the course of the Civil War, African Americans helped Union troops in a variety of ways. This event type tags those places where former slaves aided troops in informal capacities, usually outside their conscription as laborers on plantations, as soldiers, or as cooks in military camps. We have especially used this tag to note where people of color gave information to U.S. forces or served as guides for troops navigating the southern terrain. They did so throughout the South, unevenly over the course of the war. Isaac I. Stevens found enslaved men of great help during his navigation of the Sea Islands. Near Coosaw Island he found Cyas, who, he wrote, "subsequently proved of great service from the intimate knowledge he possessed of the country." (OR I.6.i, 91-92)

  • 2. Abuse of African Americans

  • Emancipation caused chaos on the land, and African Americans bore the brunt of this disruption. This category indicates places where whites in either the Union or the Confederacy abused people of color during the war. Documents tagged under this event include incidents of murder, discriminatory pay, beatings, and starvation. Perhaps the most infamous of these were the events at Fort Pillow. Brig. Gen. M. Brayman wrote to his superiors, describing the events there: "Fort Pillow was taken by storm at 3p.m. on the 12th, with six guns. The negroes, about 300, murdered, after surrendering with their officers. Of the 200 white men, 57 have just arrived, and sent to Mound City; about 100 are prisoners, and the rest killed. The whole affair was a scene of murder." (OR I.32.ii, 361)

  • 3. Orders or regulations

  • Emancipation came about not only through the initiative of enslaved people or the actions of individual soldiers, but through official orders, policies, and regulations. Events tagged within this category were policy changes directly affecting the slave regime issued the Union and Confederate governments. Among other events, these include orders declaring enslaved men and women in a territory free, orders requiring commanders to send enslaved men and women to the quartermaster, and Confederate responses to emancipation and the enlistment of black troops. In Louisiana, for example, Confederate authorities struggled with the best approach to captured African American troops. While they saw the benefits of taking a hard line against black troops by enslaving them, they worried that such a policy could backfire. The Assistant Adjutant General in Confederate Louisiana in 1864, Charles Le D. Elgee, proposed treating US Colored Troop soldiers "with all proper leniency," as prisoners of war in order not to dissuade dissatisfied black troops from deserting the enemy. (OR I.34.ii, 953-54)

  • 4. Conscription and Recruitment, Union

  • These events detail the marshaling of enslaved men and women in the fight against the Confederacy. Included in this category are the drafting of contraband men and women to work in military camps, fortifications, as soldiers, or as servants in various capacities. In some places, this was a systematic effort to draw upon black labor to the greatest possible degree. By July 1863, Gen. Nathaniel Banks reported from Louisiana that "every negro within the present lines of this department, or within reach of them, without distinction of age, sex, or condition, is in the service of the Government, either in the army or in producing food for the army and its dependents." (OR I.26.i, 573)

  • 5. Conscription, Confederate

  • The Confederacy depended upon slave labor on plantations to provide food and the normal operations of its slave society, and near the front lines in direct service to the government. These events describe the ways that Confederates were able to use African American labor for their war effort. It includes orders and reports of impressment of slaves for use in building fortifications, railroads, and other efforts while bypassing most mentions of African Americans working as on privately held farms. Confederate conscription began early in the war. In late July, 1861, Gen. John B. Magruder ordered that half the male slaves and all free men of color in Gloucester, Middlesex, and Matthews Counties muster "to finish the works around Gloucester Point. Magruder promised recompense to the slaveowners: "fifty cents a day and a ration for each negro man during the time he is at work." (OR I.2.i, 1007) Magruder sent agents into the county to enforce the order.

  • 6. Irregular fighting

  • This event category documents African Americans’ involvement in irregular fighting and appropriation of property that accompanied the Civil War, either as willing participants or as victims. Within this category we have collected incidents involving African Americans taking or destroying property claimed by landowners, enslaved men and women killing white civilians or military personnel, and instances where people of color were the objects of irregular fighting or pillaging.

    Included among these events are the regrets of Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis in a letter to Colonel N. P. Chipman in Helena, Arkansas the day after the emancipation proclamation went into effect. "I am sorry indeed," Curtis wrote, "to hear of the loss of Mrs. Craig's house by burning." Curtis wrote of their wealthy mutual acquaintance in a mournful tone: "Alas, this is war; although it was the negroes who did it, still, it is the result of war." (Samuel R. Curtis to N. P. Chipman, St. Louis, MO, January 2, 1863, OR I.22, 10-11)

  • 7. Capture/enslavement/re-enslavement of African Americans by Confederates

  • Confederate troops and civilians made concerted efforts to re-enslave African Americans who had escaped their control during the war and to enslave free blacks who lived in northern states. This effort included counterattacks and ambushes on smaller Union regiments travelling with people of color, raids on contraband camps along the Mississippi and Atlantic seaboard, and dragnets at the edges of Confederate-held territory watching for the escape of African Americans from the southern interior.

    During Confederate General Sterling Price's series of attacks in Missouri in the autumn of 1864, for example, a Confederate scouting party ran into a train of wagons manned by a small number of federal troops. Brig. Gen. John Shelby reported the results. They "captured 25, 2 caissons, 20 artillery horses with harness, 100 negroes, and 30 prisoners, besides killing and wounding a large portion of the guard." (OR I.41.iii, 978) Confederate attacks on African Americans such as this one appear throughout the U.S. South.

  • 8. Fugitive slaves/runaways

  • Men and women ran from slavery to Union lines before any major battles had been fought. Events tagged as "Fugitive Slaves/Runaways" are instances where enslaved people ran away from their owners or turned up before Union units seeking protection. Many of these events are taken from newspaper advertisements seeking the return of escaped slaves. Typical is John Werth's complaint to the Richmond Daily Dispatch, promising a fifty dollar reward "for the apprehension and delivery to me, in Richmond, of Jack Oseen, a slave, who absconded last week from the fortifications in Chesterfield county. Jack is a black negro, about 19 years of age, slightly built, good teeth, but rather far apart, has a scar on the right hand, and another on the left wrist; was lately purchased from near Goldsborough, N.C." ("Fifty Dollars Reward," Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 1, 1863)

  • 9. Capture of African Americans by Union troops

  • If many African Americans eluded slavery by leaving their plantations without outside intervention, others escaped through the direct intervention of United States troops. In many of these cases, military reports leave some ambiguity to the question whether enslaved men and women had any choice about leaving their property, neighbors, and homes. We have assigned instances of direct military intervention on plantations to this category, "Capture of African Americans by Union Troops." Brig. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge reported the results of his unit's expedition in northern Alabama in just this way: "It has rendered desolate one of the best granaries of the South, preventing them from raising another crop this year, and taking away from them some 1,500 negroes." (OR I.23.i, 249)

  • 10. Protecting slave property from Union troops

  • Slave owners in the border South and Confederate states sought to protect their property in human beings from emancipation in any way they could. For slaveholders in the border South, this often meant pressing soldiers to return the men and women they claimed. In the Confederate states, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, slave owners transported men, women, and children to places they hoped would be "safe" from Union troops and freedom. Events of this type document the efforts of slave owners to retain their property. Before his assault on Atlanta, Gen. William T. Sherman complained that he was encountering very few African Americans in northern Georgia, "because their owners have driven them" to the southwest corner of the state. "Negroes are as scarce in North Georgia as in Ohio. All are at and below Macon and Columbus, Ga." (OR I.39.ii, 132)

Scott Nesbit