Rare oral histories of the Civil War reveal slaves held surprisingly mixed opinions of Marse Lincoln and their emancipation.
On the eve of the Civil War one in seven people in the United States was a slave. Moreover, Africa was already a distant ancestral memory for these 4 million enslaved men, women and children, 99 percent of whom were American born and had little knowledge or experience of the world outside the parochial domains of their masters.
Fragmentary collections of diaries, letters and memoirs suggest that uncertainty about the future was common among slaves as the Civil War unfolded. Most revealing are interviews conducted in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project with some 2,300 former slaves who looked back more than half a century to recount what their lives had been like. These oral histories include conflations, omissions and even some demonstrable whoppers masquerading as fact. But they also paint a varied and complex picture of how slaves viewed the cataclysm of war and the prospect of freedom.
After Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861, slaves sensed a chill settling over many of the plantations of the South. “The white folks begin to treat us different,” recalled Robert Murray of Beaufort, N.C. “They seemed to be strange toward us. Been treat us like we’s one of the family till they got talking about Lincoln and the abolition.” Murray’s mother finally told her offspring, “Don’t go in the Big House no more, children. I know what the trouble. They suppose we all wants to be free.”
William M. Davis heard a white preacher ask a congregation of slaves in San Jacinto County, Texas: “Do you want to keep your homes where you get all to eat, and raise your children? Or do you want to be free to roam around without a home, like the wild animals? If you want to keep your homes, you’d better pray for the South to win. All that want to pray for the South to win,” he commanded, “raise your hands.” John Adams recalled, “We all raised our hands because we were scared not to, but we sure didn’t want the South to win.”
Davis and his fellow slaves met in a hollow that night to decide what to do about the coming war. Finally an elderly slave they called Uncle Mack stood and told a story about two old slaves named Tom and Bob back in Virginia. “They were mad at one another,” he said, “and one day they decided to have a dinner and bury the hatchet. So they sat down, and when Uncle Bob wasn’t looking, Uncle Tom put some poison in Uncle Bob’s food. But he saw it, and when Uncle Tom wasn’t looking, Uncle Bob turned the tray around on Uncle Tom, and he got the poison food. That,” Mack said, was “what we slaves are going to do: just turn the tray around and pray for the North to win.”
At the outset, however, many slaves identified more with their masters than with the alien Northerners who now threatened to invade what slaves had come to regard as their homeland. “Now look,” a slave owner once blustered, “them blue-bellied scoundrels went to Africa, rounded up Negroes, brought them here, sold them to us, then stole them from us, starved them and otherwise mistreated them. And now they want to tell us what to do with the balance of them?”
In the face of such Yankee meddling, a Mississippi slave named Charlie Davenport concluded that Confederate President Jefferson Davis “done the only thing a gentleman could have done. He told Marse Abe Lincoln to attend to his own business, and he’d attend to his. But Marse Lincoln was a fighting man, and he come down here and tried to run other folks’ plantations. That made Marse Davis so all fired mad that he spit hard ’twixt his teeth and say, ‘I’ll whip the socks off them damn Yankees.’ That’s how it all come about.”
Davenport was not alone in conceiving of the war as a clash of titans. Phil Towns of Georgia believed that “Lincoln had sent several messages to Davis requesting that he free the slaves.” When “no favorable response was received,” Lincoln “had a conference with Mr. Davis, and to this meeting he carried a Bible and a gun.” Failing to convince Davis with the Gospel, Lincoln finally set both the Bible and the gun on the table and told Davis to choose. When “Davis picked up the gun,” said Towns, “Lincoln grasped the Bible and run home.” And that’s why “Davis began the war.”
James Thomas of Nashville was no admirer of Northern whites, but he recognized that Lincoln “was steadfast for the preservation of the Union. No compromising with Lincoln. ‘The Union, gentlemen, the Union.’ The people laughed at ‘Uncle Abe’s’ grammar, and the way he said things, and used to compare his language with Mr. Jeff Davis, who was a finished scholar.” But, concluded Thomas after the war, “now we only hear what ‘Abe’ said: never hear of Jeff.”
Like their masters, slaves tended to see the world through a fractured lens of race and class. “There were three classes of white people in the South,” recalled William A. Yancey, a former slave from North Carolina. “First was the aristocratic class, the big slave holders, who gave shape to the government and tone to the society. They had the right of way in business and in politics.
“The second and third classes were servants to the first class” whose success “depended on their obedience,” Yancey continued. “The second class included the small slave holder, the overseers, managers and clerks” whom slaves called “the half strainers.” The third class “was composed of the poor, ignorant dirty whites” who lived “from hand to mouth. No one cared for them; even the slaves were warned not to have anything to do with them. The first and second classes looked down upon the poor white trash,” Yancey wrote long after the war, “just as all of the Southern white people look down upon the Negroes today. The Negroes were taught to hate the poor whites, and that caused the poor whites to hate the Negroes.”
Masters “didn’t never allow us to mix with what they called the poor white trash,” a Tennessee slave recalled, for fear “they would learn us how to steal and drink; and it was the truth, too.” “I believe that those poor white folk are to blame for the Negroes stealing,” agreed Texas slave Octavia George, “because they would get the Negroes to steal their master’s corn, hogs, chickens and many other things and sell it to them for practically nothing.”
The result of these class distinctions, according to a Tennessee slave, was that “the poor white folks has been the terror of the colored all their days.” Waters McIntosh, who was interviewed in Arkansas, recalled, “When I was a boy we used to sing, ‘Rather be a Negro than a poor white man.’” “I think I’m better than a certain class of white folks,” declared a Tennessee slave who had known “white folks from the cradle up,” and he didn’t “mind telling them so, neither.”
Slaves in turn made sharp class distinctions among themselves. In the general slave population, social standing largely depended on a master’s wealth. “A servant owned by a man of moderate circumstances was hooted at by rich men’s slaves,” recalled Louis Hughes, who lived in Pontotoc County, Miss., during the war. “It was common for them to say, ‘Oh don’t mind that Darkie. He belongs to poor white trash.’”
Viewed through so highly polished a prism of class, Abraham Lincoln appeared to many blacks to be merely a “strainer”: a rough-hewn, sparsely educated, only moderately prosperous Kentucky emigrant who owned no slaves. “Mr. Lincoln was a good man,” a Mississippi house slave named Isaac Stier conceded, “but they tells me he was poor white and never cut much figure in his clothes. That’s why he never understood how us felt. It takes the quality to understand such things.”
There was no doubting the status of Lincoln’s Confederate counterpart, however. An erudite slaveholding patrician, a hero of the war with Mexico, a senator from what was then the richest if most oligarchic state in the Union, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi cut a far more familiar and impressive figure. “Both the white and black knowed he was a grand man,” recalled Edward Jones of Mississippi.
Early in the war, slaves compared Lincoln unfavorably to Davis in a song their masters taught them: “Jefferson Davis rode the milk-white steed/Lincoln rode the mule/Jeff Davis was a mighty fine man/and Lincoln was a fool.” But as the meaning of the Confederate cause sank in, their estimation of Davis would decline. “Mr. President Davis wanted us to stay bound down,” said Will Sheets of Georgia. “I didn’t like that Mr. Davis after I knowed what he stood for.” Mary Colbert of Georgia declared, “I never did hitch my mind on Jeff Davis. He had his time to rule.” Fannie Parker of Arkansas snapped: “Don’t tell me about old Jeff Davis. He ought to been killed.”
Slave opinions of their masters also evolved as the war progressed. As the sons of her Mississippi master rode away, Jennie Webb recalled, “They told us to be good to our old Missus, that they was gwine to whip them Yankees” faster than “hell can scorch a feather.” Tom McAlpin of Alabama “seen our Confederates go off laughing and gay; full of life and health. They was big and strong, singing Dixie, and they just knowed they was going to win.” When a recruit spied a boardinghouse slave in Pontotoc, Miss., wiping tears from her eyes as he rode off, he called out, “Don’t cry Emmeline! I’ll bring you a Yankee skin!” But Emmeline was crying because he and his comrades had been “our best paying boarders.”
Other slaves heard in all their masters’ bluster a note of desperation. “A great company of men met at our house,” recalled Louis Hughes. “They were wild with excitement.” But he wondered if all their volubility weren’t “an admission that their confidence in their ability to whip the Yankees, five or six to one, was not so strong as they pretended.” When push came to shove, Hughes’ own master’s “courage oozed out,” and he bought a substitute to serve in his stead.
“In answer to the call of the Southern Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War,” explained William Yancey, the “aristocratic and middle-class whites volunteered to start the fight. But as soon as the battle got hot, they looked to the young men of the third class”—poor whites—“and hired them to go to war as substitute for them.” Willie Blackwell of Arkansas was contemptuous of the poor white his owner lured into the Confederate Army with a promise of slaves. He remembered seeing his master light a cigar for the man and promise that if he would “get in that fight, and fight to win,” he would give him 25 slaves. The poor white fell for it, “and he goes off to the war, thinking when he comes back he’ll have plenty for the rest of his life.”
Decades later, many former slaves would recollect their masters’ braggadocio with mordant satisfaction. “Young master say he gwine to war to kill a Yankee and bring he head back,” recalled John Moore of Texas. “He didn’t bring no Yankee head back,” but he did return with his own “shot-up arm.” One master bragged that he “could eat breakfast at home, go and whup the North, and be back for dinner. He went away,” Hannah Crasson of North Carolina remembered, but “it was four long years before he come back to dinner. The table was sure set a long time for him.”
The war’s end promised freedom, but slaves’ expectations were mixed. “Some believed they’d get freedom and others didn’t,” Laura Abromson recalled in an interview in Arkansas. “They had places they met and prayed for freedom.” According to Edie Dennis of Georgia, “Their great, soul-hungering desire was freedom—not that they loved the Yankees or hated their masters, but merely longed to be free and hated the institution of slavery.”
But what was this freedom that beckoned to them? “We people on the plantation didn’t know much about the war,” wrote Robert Anderson in his postwar memoir From Slavery to Affluence. “It was impressed on us indirectly by everyone, that there was little chance of the slaves being set free. Some didn’t care whether they were free or not, as there was little to look forward to either way.” If freedom came, “what will we do?” they wondered. “We have no home, no money, no clothes, no nothing.” On the other hand, “for some of the people, there could be no existence worse than the one they were in. It was a problem either way.”
“Sometimes I thinks freedom is better,” declared Smith Simmons of Mississippi, “and sometimes I don’t.” Simon Durr of Mississippi recalled: “Us slaves never understood much of what it was all gonna come to, or what it was gonna mean to us. We wanted to be free at times,” but then “we would get scared and want to stay slaves.”
Elderly former slaves, after decades of oppression and hardship in the Jim Crow South, would come to equate freedom with rootlessness, bigotry and toil, and slavery with prosperity and the security and idleness of childhood. “Everybody wants to be free, and they should be,” conceded Mark Oliver of Mississippi. “I don’t believe it’s right to live in bondage. But I do say it bold and above-board” that, compared to the 1930s, “the slaves with good masters like mine was a heap better off.” Oliver remembered “having everything I wanted, and it takes a long time to get used to not having nothing.”
But no kindness could make up for the injustice of one human being owning another. Just after the war, a visitor asked a black refugee if he wouldn’t be just as free at home as in a Union camp. “But I’s want to be free man,” he said as he patched a hole in his tent. “Come when I please, and nobody say nothing to me, nor order me round.” “It’s mighty good to do just as you please,” said Rachel Adams of Georgia, who preferred living on “bread and water” than that she belong to someone who “treat us bad to slave for.” “It was God’s blessing to the black peoples,” said Alabamian Louis Meadows, “to come out from bondage; to belong only to theirselves and God; to read about what’s going on in the world and write and figure for theirselves,” and to get “ready to rest when the judgement day comes about.”
Julia Williams, roughly 100 years old; maid to the mistress on a plantation near Richmond, Va. Writers with the Works Progress Administration spread out across 17 states in 1936-38 to record the life stories of former slaves. The first-person accounts on the following pages are a small sampling of the more than 2,300 interviews resulting in the Slave Narratives Collection.
“I’ll never forget the soldiers comin. An old woman tole me the war done broke up, and I was settin on the porch. The Mrs. she say, ‘Julia you ant stayin anymore.’ She tole me if I keep my money and save it she would give me some. An she done gave me a gold breast pin too. After the war I wen home to my mother. On the way I met one slave woman who didn know she was even free.”
Willis Winn, claimed to be 116; hauled cot ton to Port Caddo, Texas.
“I ’member lots ’bout the war but can’t tell you all ’cause every war have its secrets. I’s heared the niggers sing, ‘Gonna hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree.’
After surrender, massa freed the men and missy freed the women, but he didn’t let us loose when he ought. Niggers in Louisiana say Queen Elizabeth sent a boatload of gold to America to give the free men, but we never seed any of it….[The Yankees] come to white folks houses what hadn’t freed they slaves and busted they meal and flour barrels.”
Clara Brim, about 100; field slave on a big plantation in Branch, La.
“I used to do anything in the field what the men done. I plow and pull fodder and pick cotton. But the hardes’ work I ever done am since I free. Old Massa, he didn’t work us hard, noway.
’Bout 11 o’clock, when that sun git hot, he call them out de field…till it git kind of cool befo’ he make them go back.
He allus give us the pass, so them patter – rollers not cotch us. They ’bout six men on hoss-back, ridin’ the roads to cotch niggers what out without the pass. Iffen they cotch him it am the whippin’. But the niggers on us place was good and civ’lized folks. They didn’t have no fuss.”
C.B. McRay, 76, nicknamed ‘Racer’ “cause I used to be fleet on the feet”; born in Jasper, Texas, and was the slave of a slave trader
“Us have a foreman, name Charlie. It was his duty to keep the place stock’ with wood. Charlie couldn’ do enough work to suit Marster Adams, so he put him in what’s knowed as the ‘Louisiana shirt.’ That was a barrel with a hole cut in the bottom jus’ big enough for Charlie to slip he head through. They pull this on him every mornin’ and then he couldn’ sit down or use he arms, could jus’ walk ’roun’ all day. At night they took it off and chain him to he bed. After a month, the marster task he again. He fail and run off to the woods. Marster want to sell Charlie back again, but he couldn’, ’cause freedom jus’ come.”
Julia Daniels, 89; one of 11 siblings who lived with their mother (a cook) on a Texas plantation.
“Us heared guns shootin round and bout all the time. Seems like they [soldiers] fight every time they git a chance. Old Man Denman’s boy gets kilt and two my sisters he property and they don’t know what to do, cause they has to be somebody’s property and they ain’t no one to ’heritance ’em. They has to go to the auction but Old Man Denman say not to fret.
At the auction the man say, ‘Goin high, goin low, goin mighty slow, a little while to go. Bid em in, bid em in. The sun am high, the sun am hot, us got to git home tonight.’ An old friend of Old Man Denman’s hollers out he buys for William Blackstone. Us all come home and my sisters too and Old Man Denman laugh big and say, ‘My name allus been William Blackstone Denman.’ ”
Andrew Goodman, 97; put in charge of plantation when his Texas master went to war.
“When Marse Bob come home, he sent for all the slaves. He said…‘We went to the war and fought, but the Yankees done whup us, and they say the niggers is free. You can go where you wants to go, or you can stay here.’ He couldn’t help but cry.
The niggers cry. They is sorry ’bout the freedom, ’cause they don’t know where to go, and they’s allus ’pend on Old Marse to look after them.”
Millie Williams, 86; learned songs of freedom as a child slave in Tennessee and Texas.
“Massa sleeps in the feather bed,
Nigger sleeps on the floor;
When we’uns gits to Heaven,
Day’ll be no slaves no mo’.
Rabbit in the briar patch,
Squirrel in the tree,
Wish I could go huntin’,
But I ain’t free.
There sho’ was a mighty party sight when the slaves knows they’s free. They hug one ’nother and almos’ tear their clothes off. Some cryin’ for the husban’, some cryin’ for the chillen.”
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.