"Visualizing Emancipation" is the first map of the most dramatic social transformation in American history, the emancipation of four million slaves in the Civil War. It brings together three kinds of evidence; where slavery protected by the US government and where it was not during the Civil War; where and when U.S. troops campaigned during that war; and where "emancipation events,"--documented instances where the lives of enslaved men and women were changing, sometimes for good, others for ill--occurred. By exposing the evidence on which it draws, "Visualizing Emancipation" allows students and the public to approach the sources to ask their own questions about emancipation and find out how their own locales and ancestors might have experienced the end of slavery. It allows scholars to ask new questions about where and when enslaved men and women escaped bondage, and what their lives may have looked like when they did so.

Like other maps, "Visualizing Emancipation" is both a tool for interpretation and an image that makes its own point. The end of slavery did not come about in an instant, with the Emancipation Proclamation. It began before shooting started and ended long after the last Confederate armies surrendered. It followed, in W.E.B. DuBois' words, as a "dark human cloud" at the rear of the Union's swift-marching columns. It could be found in the escape of fugitives, in Union and Confederate armies' conscription of enslaved men to work on fortifications, and in escaped slaves' offers to guide U.S. troops through southern wilds.1

Opportunities for freedom could at times seem randomly distributed, as men and women participated in mass exodus on some plantations while others nearby were left enslaved. Yet emancipation proceeded in patterns, not as a chaotic, secular rapture, in which men and women became free without discernible sequence, rationale, or order. Enslaved people, legislators, and armies, in fits and starts, imprinted the end of slavery on the American South.


Enslaved men and women found release from their bonds in waves, rising and falling with the campaign seasons, the fortunes of Union arms and the pitiful defenses of contraband camps. Unlike the legal extension of freedom, which gathered momentum through acts, proclamations, and amendments, enslaved men and women did not experience emancipation as a process building on past success, pointing toward a future without bondage. As often as liberation was welcomed with exhilaration, men, women, and children also experienced war and freedom as dangerous flight and backbreaking labor, marked often by hunger, violence, and distrust of the liberating army.

Enslaved men and women were more likely to find freedom in some places than others. Freedom and Union arms pushed into the Confederacy by water and rail. Enslaved men and women living along the Atlantic seaboard-the coast and Sea Islands of South Carolina, within a day's walk of the North Carolina coast, and along Virginia's Chesapeake Bay-had the greatest and earliest opportunities to find freedom. Enslaved men and women living along the South's major rivers had a greater chance, too, especially those on the plantations of the Mississippi delta, along the Tennessee River in northern Alabama, and along Virginia tidewater's Potomac, Rappahannock, and James Rivers.

The union military's most prolonged contact with black southerners came near the water.

Those living or working along the South's 10,000 miles of railroads were also more likely to find freedom. Confederate civilians along the line between Corinth, Mississippi and Decatur, Alabama complained to their government at the close of 1862 that in the past year their enslaved workers "had been carried off in very large numbers, declared free, and refused the liberty of returning to their owners." Union officers had "pressed all the negroes in this country" around the Nashville-Decatur line by the end of 1863. Before he followed the rails through Georgia, Gen. William T. Sherman moved his troops along the Jackson-Meridian line in Mississippi with a train of refugee families extending as far as the column itself, or in Sherman's turn of phrase, "10 miles of negroes." Some ran to U.S. lines of their own accord, others were dragged without their assent. Once under Union protection, men and women found themselves in a legal state of freedom, yet with immediate constraints no less coercive than those they experienced under slavery, as they were put immediately to work cooking, digging, farming, or marching to war.2

Emancipation consisted of much more than the rush of enslaved people to Union lines. "Visualizing Emancipation" breaks the actions and experiences of enslaved men and women into what we have called emancipation event types, each carrying a pattern distinct from but related to the others. We were particularly interested in the experiences that marked the end of slavery. Both armies conscripted men and women into service, pulling them away from their homes and the forms of slavery they had known before. People of color took part in irregular fighting, raiding plantations while not enlisted in any military unit. They passed intelligence to the United States army and served as guides to troops. African Americans also suffered abuse, were rushed away from oncoming Union soldiers so that their owners might protect their human property, and were at times re-enslaved once they had escaped slaveowners' control.


The patterns made by a few of these kinds of events suggest how emancipation begins to look differently once mapped in time and space, and broken apart by the different experiences black southerners encountered. Our research into the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion shows that African Americans were victims of war-related abuse more frequently once black men began fighting for the United States. Accounts of the abuse of men enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops, including the atrocities at Fort Pillow are well-known. Attacks against non-uniformed black southerners also rose after 1862.

African Americans encountered more war-related violence after 1862. This timeline shows all events from the Official Records tagged as "abuse."

Occasionally this abuse came at the hands of undisciplined U.S. soldiers, such as those commanded by William Dwight who raped the enslaved women they found at New Iberia, Louisiana four months after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. More often abuse came at the hands of Confederates, who killed unarmed men and women at Goodrich's Landing, Mississippi, on Hutchinson's Island, South Carolina, at Helena, Arkansas and a large number of other places dispersed throughout the South. Irregular violence against African Americans composed a greater part of the conflict in the west than the east. Attacking black men and women was a regular part of bushwackers' to control Missouri, and violence against women and children who worked U.S. owned plantations along the Mississippi were at constant risk of attack by small, marauding units of Confederates.3

African Americans suffered war-related violence throughout the South during emancipation, but disproportionately in the West. The map above shows irregular violence against people of color during the war.

Freedom was more secure in the eastern theater of war, particularly in Virginia and North Carolina, than those in the West, but more dangerous to achieve. In Virginia, escaping slavery was a dangerous proposition because of the highly mobile, and numerous Confederate units operating throughout the state. The likelihood that an enslaved man or woman would be caught while attempting to get to Union lines was great, even if they were accompanying a U.S. unit. Confederate troops were eager to attack smaller commands that had moved in advance of the main body of U.S. troops. They captured hundreds of escaped slaves after halting Brig. Gens. James Wilson's and August Kautz's raid along the Danville Railroad in June 1864.4

Yet once behind Union lines in a refugee camp, fugitives from slavery were relatively safe. Few raiding parties penetrated Union lines to seize black southerners living around Fortress Monroe in Virginia or to New Bern, North Carolina. The tens of thousands of African Americans who left their farms in the tidewater regions of Virginia and North Carolina were secure in their freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation. Refugee camps and U.S. owned plantations along the Mississippi river did not share the natural geographic advantages of the Atlantic seaboard. These farms and villages were often lightly guarded and suffered frequent raids, some of which re-enslaved hundreds of men and women.


The events we gathered, detailing where and when men and women became free should be viewed together at multiple scales. From the widest vantage-point, we can discover differences at the level of the region, distinguishing between the likely experience of men and women in the East from those in the West. Examinations of differences at the local level require different vantage points and data with greater specificity. Each emancipation event is encoded with a geographic precision level, which appears as a halo around events. We surround events about which we lack great geographic precision with large halos, warning against misinterpretation. Events about whose location we have very specific knowledge do not receive these marks, and can be used for detailed, local-level analysis.

For example, it is clear that, from the widest vantage point, enslaved men and women ran away in greater numbers when United States army units came near. In many cases, this was because these units visited southern farms and either invited or forced enslaved men and women to leave with them. Our research suggests more complicated dynamics at work as well. When U.S. units led by Maj. Gen. David Hunter entered Augusta County, Virginia, in June 1864, they created new opportunities for enslaved men and women there. Twenty enslaved men and women working at the Central Asylum in Staunton left with the Union troops. Confederates stationed nearby reported the next day that the "Yankees" were "capturing negroes," and were intent on burning the railroad bridge at the cusp of the Blue Ridge mountains.5

Not all those who left their owners, however, went with Hunter's troops. Some took advantage of the disruption created by U.S. forces in the area to leave the area for their own purposes. Shortly after U.S. troops came through, a man named Jack left the plantation on which he was held. His owner guessed that the enslaved worker was headed, not to the Southwest with the Union forces but east, toward his family's home in Petersburg. The patterns that we see turn out often to have complex backstories. Enslaved men and women used armies to find freedom and each other.

The end of slavery followed all these pathways and more over four years of war. Our project aims to help scholars, students, and the public understand the patterns of emancipation both in their broadest outlines and in their most local, intimate, and hidden connections.

Scott Nesbit


  1. W. E. B. Dubois, "Of the Dawn of Freedom" in The Souls of Black Folk, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007 [1903]), 11. [back]
  2. William G. Thomas, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) 27; Civilians, "To the Hon. Secretary of War of the Confederate States of America," Florence, AL, January 6, 1863, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (hereafter OR) I.20.ii, 442-3; Granville M. Dodge to Ulysses S. Grant, Pulaski, TN, December 9, 1863, OR I.31.iii, 366; William T. Sherman to H. W. Halleck, Meridian, MS, February 29, 1864, OR I.32.ii, 498-499.[back]
  3. [back]
  4. "Reports from Petersburg," Richmond Daily Dispatch, July 1, 1864.[back]
  5. Staunton Republican Vindicator, July 15, 1864, Valley of the Shadow; Francis T. Nichols to John C. Breckinridge, Lynchburg, Virginia, June 11, 1864, OR I.37.i, 757-758.[back]