Home / General / This Day in Labor History: May 23, 1861

This Day in Labor History: May 23, 1861


On May 23, 1861, three slaves named Shepard Mallory, James Baker, and Frank Townsend fled to Fort Monroe, Virginia, to escape their master. Benjamin Butler, the Massachusetts politician turned officer in command of the fort, declared them contraband and refused to return them. This maneuver satisfied the Lincoln administration, which did want to declare an end to slavery and needed to keep slave states in the Union. It also set the terms by which slave laborers themselves would play a critical role in the Civil War by taking themselves and their labor to Union lines, severely hurting the Confederate war effort.

Slaves wanted freedom from the moment they were forced from Africa. There are many slave rebellions early in American history led by slaves newly arrived from Africa, from New York to South Carolina. With the official end of the transatlantic slave trade by the U.S. in 1807, the number of Africans entering the nation declined (though did not disappear as illegal slave trading continued), but slave rebellions still took place, such as that led by Nat Turner in 1831. Moreover, southern white fears of a Haiti-like slave rebellion were extreme.

War provided slaves opportunities to escape. During both the American Revolution and the War of 1812, slaves fled by the thousands to British lines. The British had not really expected this, even the second time, and so did not necessarily have a strategy to deal with it. But in both cases, the slaves offered very real advantages to the British. For obvious reasons, like it would be in May 1861, it was easier for slaves to escape if they had access to water by which they could sneak away. It was also easier for opposing forces, whether British or American, to grab footholds in difficult to defend coastal places. Slaves by the thousands slipped away to British lines. Then they told the British how to attack their masters and served as guides through the swampy waterways to both burn the plantations and free their fellow slaves. The British quickly realized the effectiveness of this strategy and began promising slaves freedom to escape. These promises were followed up with half-hearted results at best, but still, it was a pathway for freedom for thousands of people.

The Civil War was a slightly different type of conflict in these early years, largely because while southern whites, northern African-Americans, and slaves all knew what the war was about, northern whites were highly unsure and thus did not take on the enemy as they should have. This could lead to all sorts of issues–think of George McClellan commanding Union forces while thinking Lincoln was just as much a threat to the future of the nation as any Confederate. It also to a lack of clear focus on the slave labor issue. It was slaves themselves who changed that focus.

Remember that slavery existed as a labor system. The labor came first, then the racism. The entire point of slavery was having a permanent labor force that you could control completely forever. When slaves began fleeing to Union lines, they did not have any kind of grander political aim here. They were just trying to free themselves. But when Butler declared them contraband and Republicans in Washington thought this was an acceptable third way between slavery and using the military for abolitionist purposes, it created a scenario that changed the nation forever.

My favorite thing about this incident, other than it existing itself, is that once the three slaves were accepted into Union lines and put to work, other slaves found out in about five minutes and began fleeing themselves and Butler kept accepting them. This led to southern planters going to Butler, accusing him of violating the Fugitive Slave Act, and demanding their return. Yes, that’s right, these planters had committed treason in defense of slavery, declared their independence, started a civil war, and then still demanded to be protected by U.S. law. The temerity! The arrogance! Butler basically told them to do their own damn labor.

As the Union presence in the South expanded, more and more slaves escaped to Union lines. Like the British in previous wars, the American officers had largely not thought this through. Many did not want the slaves at all. Most of the officer corps, especially early in the war, were basically southern sympathizers and were deeply conservative with lots of ties to the Confederate officer elite, who they knew from West Point, the Mexican War, various postings. So when slaves came to Union lines, it was impossible to know how they would be treated. It really depended upon which whites they came across. Union soldiers engaged in mass rapes of self-freeing Black women. This was just ignored by the officers. Slaves had their meager possessions confiscated, were assaulted, sometimes even murdered. If they were women and children, they were often just thrown out of the Union encampments and left to freeze to death, which was a major issue at Camp Nelson in Kentucky.

But this was all worth the shot to the slaves. The chance at freedom beat staying in slavery. Moreover, these self-freeing slaves brought their labor with them. Every time a slave left the plantation, it was a worker walking off the job. That meant less cotton, less salt, fewer weapons, less food. And it meant, even before self-freeing slaves took up guns when Lincoln allowed for Black regiments, that they could do the grunt labor that freed up white soldiers to fight. They could cook, clean, dig latrines, bury the dead. Unpleasant and nasty work, no question, but also better than slavery. And very good for the Union war effort.

It took northern whites a long time to figure all this out, but by 1864, they had and while officers were still, uh, varied on how they treated the slaves arriving in their lines, at the very least, they realized that had an almost endless labor force more than happy to work for them. Meanwhile, with thousands of slaves fleeing every day, the South’s already limited production capacity completely collapsed. Moreover, it was the slaves themselves that forced the question over the future of this work relationship upon a North that tried to avoid thinking about it. By making the issue obvious to the North, it gave space to anti-slavery politicians to do something about it.

This is what W.E.B. DuBois called the Slave General Strike in his legendary 1935 book Black Reconstruction. I have run into some old Marxist types who really don’t like this because it doesn’t fit their view of either labor or strikes, but this seems like ideology getting in the way of common sense. This was not organized, that’s very true. But it had a huge impact on the Civil War and was critically important in ending slavery.

In the end, the slaves themselves had as much to do with ending slavery as Abraham Lincoln or Thaddeus Stevens or William Lloyd Garrison or any other white person.

This is the 483rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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