'A Most Dangerous Precedent:' Charting the Progress of Freedom in the Civil War

Fredericksburg resident Betty Maury

Fredericksburg resident Betty Maury

On May 16, 1862, Betty Herndon Maury recorded:

Matters are getting worse and worse here every day with regard to the negroes.  They are leaving their owners by the hundred and demanding wages.  The citizens have refused to hire their own or other peoples slaves, so that there are a number of unemployed negroes in town.  Old Dr. Hall agreed to hire his servants but the gentlemen of the town held a meeting and wrote him a letter of remonstrance telling him that he was establishing a most dangerous precedent, that he was breaking the laws of Virginia and was a traitor to his state.  So the old man refused to hire them and they all left him.

I first encountered this passage while doing research for a web-based curriculum at Fredericksburg and Spotyslvania National Military Park.  Maury was a Fredericksburg, Virginia resident during the Civil War, having relocated from Washington, D.C. with her husband and small daughter to be with her family “on the right,” when the war broke out.  Her diary is filled with everyday musings about life in a world at war and yet also accentuated by complaints about the behavior of slaves that seemed to grow into every day occurrences.  This one, in particular, has always stuck with me because it represents an impressive moment of flux happening relatively early in the war effort.

In May of 1862, the Union policy towards slaves was undefined.  The First Confiscation Act, passed in 1861, permitted the confiscation of Confederate property used directly in support of the war effort, including slaves.  It came in the wake of questions raised by slaves themselves, in particular three men who arrived at the gates of Fort Monroe in Virginia and whose very presence demanded that their status be reckoned with.  Benjamin Butler, in command of Ft. Monroe at the time, used their presence, and that of the countless others who came in their wake, to question Congress about their plan as it related to the slaves.  Yet the very nature of this act, classifying slaves as it did as property, failed to recognize their humanity and recognized their labor not in relation to their personhood, but to the contributions it made to the Confederate cause. The Second Confiscation Act would pass in July of 1862, two months after Betty Maury recorded this episode in Fredericksburg.  And of course, the Emancipation Proclamation would not become reality for another six months.

Yet here we are, as Maury and her peers were, confronted with a people demanding recognition even without the protection or support of the law.  In this moment, freedom existed alongside slavery, making it all the more difficult to reckon with both for contemporaries and for historians.  Maury herself simultaneously recognized and denied the personhood of the freedpeople in question by referring to them both as slaves and as “unemployed negroes.”  In this simple statement, calling them “unemployed negroes” rather than escaped slaves, contraband, or refugees, she admitted their power to determine their own status in a world turned upside down. 

Moreover, Maury’s account of this moment highlights the ways in which emancipation did not occur along any specified timeline or within particularly regular geographic boundaries.  Here we see freedpeople, yet unfree by the terms of Union policy, capable of maintaining their freedom and demanding wages in the presence of their former masters.  Freedom and emancipation, as illustrated by accounts like Maury’s, were extremely localized, dependent upon particular factors that could vary across time and space. 

In places like Fredericksburg, Virginia, pictured here in 1863, African-Americans blurred the lines of slavery during wartime

In places like Fredericksburg, Virginia, pictured here in 1863, African-Americans blurred the lines of slavery during wartime

Even as emancipation seemed to radiate from Ft. Monroe and Union policy developed in the wake of it, Sam and Louisa Everett would tell a Works Progress Administration interviewer that though they lived in labored near Norfolk, Virginia, just miles from Ft. Monroe, they would not learn of their freedom until the fall of 1865.  Their master had so successfully insulated his plantation, and the hundred or more souls who lingered there, from the war, and from news of the war, that though they heard whispers of war they did not know it had implications for their freedom. 

Thus is becomes clear, painfully so in the case of the Everetts, that emancipation was not as straightforward of a process as the progress of Union policy would suggest.  It evolved, to be sure, but it evolved in fits and spurts, at times in inches and at times in miles, and depended upon the ways in which individuals reacted to and engaged with the realities brought about by Civil War. As such it is a reminder that the Civil War was a lived experience, and its effects differed person to person, day by day, as did its outcomes.

Becca Capobianco received her M.A. in U.S. and public history from Villanova University and is currently a PhD student at the College of William and Mary. She also works as a park ranger and has served as an educational consultant for the National Park Service.  ©

Sources and Additional Reading:

Betty Herndon Maury diary, transcribed and annotated by Carolyn Carpenter, in Fredericksburg History and Biography 10, 2011.

Brasher, Glenn David, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012). 

Faust, Drew Gilpin , Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

McCurry, Stephanie, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

Sam and Louisa Everett. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, October 8, 1936. Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/P?mesn:33:./temp/~ammem_W9ci::