The English word slave comes from Slavs, an ethnic group in Eastern Europe who were captured and sold by Germanic tribesmen. Although the term denotes agricultural laborers in the Western Hemisphere, slavery historically has varied widely in terms of type, purpose, gender, and ethnicity. Some of the earliest American slaves were Native Americans, the victims of military defeat or kidnapping who were eventually bought and sold on the open market. Small numbers of Native American slaves remained into the nineteenth century, but they were deemed inferior because the men refused to cooperate and because it was fairly easy for them to escape and conspire against their captors. Many seventeenth-century slaves were white also—indentured servants who paid for their transportation to the New World by promising to work for free for several years. The number of white indentured servants failed to keep pace with the rapidly increasing populations of the various colonies by the late eighteenth century, and Africa became the primary source of slaves by 1700.
The first African slaves arrived in North America as indentured servants for the Spanish in what would become Georgia in 1526. In 1619, 20 survivors of an original shipment of 100 Africans landed at Jamestown, Virginia, and began providing the stable labor force that was the backbone of large-scale agricultural production. Africans were prized as slaves because of their color and the fact that they knew little about North America, making it more difficult for them to escape. A black man or woman was presumed to be a slave unless he or she could show otherwise. Literally bound to a life of racism, servitude, and enforced illiteracy, African slaves and their descendants had little choice but to submit to their situation at least temporarily or face death. Estimates vary, but at least ten million Africans were transported to the New World between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries to become slaves.
At the time of the American Revolution, every colony had slaves. Opponents tried to have the practice declaimed or banned in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution but were defeated, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided for the return of fugitive slaves as it prohibited slavery in states carved out of the Northwest Territory. Pennsylvania was the first state to emancipate its slaves in 1780, and it was joined by New York, New Jersey, and other Northern states, some grudgingly. Still, the United States became the first nation in the New World to have a self-reproducing slave population by the early nineteenth century. In the Deep South, plantation owners viewed slaves as an economic necessity. Many planters earned a return on their investment in slaves equal to the returns on money Northerners invested in manufacturing or railroads. By the time of the Civil War, the capital investment in slaves exceeded in value all other capital worth in the South, including land.
Subjugated but never defeated, African Americans resisted slavery any way they could. Escapes, while difficult, were common from the earliest years of slavery. Alliances with Native Americans led some slaves to settle or intermingle with tribes in Florida before the Revolutionary War. In the nineteenth century, the Underground Railroad provided freedom for thousands of slaves even as thousands of others who were unsuccessful perished or were returned into bondage. More organized slave revolts began as early as 1690, but the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831 was particularly disturbing because it was organized and led by a literate, religiously inspired slave. The South became increasingly paranoid toward and protective of its "peculiar institution" in the wake of the rebellion. Slaves were prohibited by law from becoming literate, gatherings (even religious) of African Americans were viewed with apprehension, and white abolitionists and their propaganda were driven or prohibited from the South. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case were both inspired by the unfounded paranoia that massive numbers of slaves were escaping to the North. Although slavery was supported as an institution by most of the South before the Civil War, it cut a limited socioeconomic line. Only one quarter of all Southern whites owned slaves in 1860, and of that number, only ten thousand families owned at least 50 slaves, according to the federal census.
The Civil War resulted in the end of slavery. During the first months of the war, many white Union supporters worried whether emancipating African Americans justified the war's deadly toll, but the use of slavery to sustain the Confederacy convinced all but a small minority of the need to eliminate an institution that had been so much a part of the nation. But to slaves, the war meant hardships as it provided deliverance. The Confederate impressment policy of 1863 forced many slaves to work away from their homes building fortifications or performing other heavy tasks, often under debilitating conditions. Wartime shortages cost many slaves even the modest material gains they had made during the prosperous 1850s, especially when renegade Union and Confederate soldiers looted their cabins and took the produce of their gardens, the little livestock they had, and the crops from nearby fields. Slaves not felled by hard labor often died or became ill due to malnutrition and other diseases. The attitude of Union soldiers, supportive yet contemptuous, created distrust among the same slaves they sought to liberate.
There were opportunities as well. White control of slaves eroded as so many slave owners joined the Confederate army and were killed in the fighting. Some white men entrusted slaves with plantation management, and house servants and other faithful slaves often became the protectors of upper-class white women. The postwar myth of the faithful black slave, popularized by lawn jockey statues and in movies such as Birth of a Nation and novels such as Gone With the Wind, was born in the wartime sharing of common interests between slaves and their owners. The war allowed many African Americans to drop the masks they had been taught to wear as children, revealing their true feelings for the first time. Slaves became openly disobedient and reduced their work throughout the South. They spied and provided military and other kinds of information to the Union armies.
The most dramatic opportunity afforded by the war was to allow more slaves to escape. As their owners fled Union forces, many slaves stayed behind and even migrated toward arriving soldiers. Over 180,000 African Americans, many former slaves, fought in the Union army during the war, and 37,000 died. Those who were captured by Southern forces were treated worse than slaves were. Many did not wait for the Emancipation Proclamation. At least one-seventh of all the slaves in the South crossed Union lines to freedom during the war. Others were kept in the dark, even after the end of the war. Juneteenth, or Black Emancipation Day, celebrates the liberation of the slaves of Texas, who received word of their freedom on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
African Americans emerged from the Civil War with their own vibrant, definable culture in American society. Their shared experiences, especially religious, during the war helped create leadership institutions. Their new situation as freedmen encouraged them to expand their legal status in society. The folklore, food, language, family, music, and religious institutions they developed as slaves before and during the Civil War helped sustain them through the difficult years of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Richard Digby-Junger
From ABC-CLIO's Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, editors
Brown, Richard D., ed. Slavery in American Society. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Co., 1992; Fogel, Robert William. Without Consent of Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989; Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New. York: Knopf, 1996; Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619–1877. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993; Ransom, Roger L. Conflict and Compromise: The Political Economy of Slavery, Emancipation, and the American Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.