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How Slaves Fought—and Found Freedom—in the Civil War

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(L–R) Michael McKean, Sterling K. Brown, and Josh Wingate in "Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)" at Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Why would an African-American—and a slave—enter a Civil War battlefield on the side of the Confederacy? Hero, the character at the center of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), which plays the Mark Taper Forum through May 15, 2016, wrestles with this very question as the play opens. His master has promised Hero freedom if he accompanies him to war, but Hero knows what’s really at stake: “I will be helping out / On the wrong side. / That sticks in my throat and makes it hard to breathe. / The wrong of it.”

Nonetheless, Hero eventually goes to war—as did thousands of slaves forced to serve as body servants to their masters or to perform manual labor such as building roads, fortifications, and armaments for the Confederate army. “Every slave who ended up supporting the Confederacy did it against his will…essentially with a gun to his head,” said Harvard historian John Stauffer. Hero may be offered a choice of sorts, but most slaves had none—except perhaps to choose self-preservation over death. “In a lot of wars, people make decisions not because of what they believe in politically or ideologically, but because they think they’ll be more likely to survive,” said Stauffer.

John Parker, a slave on a Northern Virginia plantation, ended up manning a cannon for the Confederates at the Battle of Bull Run after he was sent to the war by his master. He remained on the battlefield to strip Union soldiers of their arms and valuables and to bury the dead on both sides. Upon returning home, he found his plantation desolate, and decided to escape to the North. Once there, Parker offered his account of the Battle of Bull Run to reporters, who recounted it in Northern newspapers. Parker also explained how he found himself on the side of the Confederacy: “We only fought because we had to. We wish[ed] to our hearts that the Yankees would whip and we would have run over to their side but our officers would have shot us if we had made the attempt.”

Neo-confederates have used John Parker’s story to try to prove that slaves willingly fought for the Confederacy. “It’s a way of suggesting that the Confederacy wasn’t about slavery, that the Confederacy wasn’t racist,” said Northwestern University historian Kate Masur. “That doesn’t bear out historically. It just wasn’t the case.”

Slaves who managed to escape to the Union often provided valuable intelligence to the Northern forces. “Military personnel would interview them, ask them how they got away, ask them what was happening where they came from—were people demoralized, how much does food sell for,” said Masur. “Escaping slaves were excellent sources of information.” One such slave was William A. Jackson, Jefferson Davis’ coachman, who escaped at Fredericksburg and provided detailed information to Union forces.

The Union quickly realized that escaping slaves could become a valuable resource on a number of levels. “The Confederate army could not exist one day without slave labor,” said UCLA historian Joan Waugh. A few months into the war, Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1861, which authorized Union forces to refuse to return runaway slaves to Confederates who attempted to claim them. As the Union secured more and more Southern territory, African-American men and women left their plantations to go behind Union lines, where they were put into “contraband camps,” said Waugh. Thousands of the men ended up enlisting in the Union army as part of the 180,000 African-American troops who fought for the North.

“There was no way the Union would have won the war had it not been for the support of African-Americans,” said Stauffer. “Even racist whites acknowledged that.” There were social consequences as well. The service of African-American soldiers, said Stauffer, paved the way for the eventual passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments, which banned slavery and granted African-Americans citizenship.

This story still isn’t part of the Civil War narrative Americans typically learn in school. “People are familiar with the Emancipation Proclamation and with the idea that Lincoln freed the slaves,” said Masur. “Yet there’s all this evidence of an incredibly dramatic story of emancipation on the ground and of slaves' determination to destroy slavery in the course of the war.”

How we remember the Civil War continues to matter. As recently as 2011, said Stauffer, a survey showed that two-thirds of white Southerners believed that the Civil War wasn’t fundamentally about slavery. “We’re still fighting the Civil War,” he said. “The basic questions and issues of the Civil War are still the central questions in the United States today.” Issues that tore this country apart 150 years ago—race, states’ rights, and citizenship—remain divisive issues this election year.

“The wonderful thing about Father Comes Home is that it takes place in the 1860s and at the same time, it’s about things that are happening today,” Suzan-Lori Parks told NPR. “And I think what I really appreciate about the play and the audience that comes to the play is we all are recognizing that this play is giving people an opportunity to reflect. It doesn’t say what should or shouldn’t happen. It just gives people an opportunity to reflect about the world we all live in.”

Explore more:
  • The War of the Rebellion is a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. Series 2, Volume 1 preserves some of the history of slaves’ escapes during the war.
  • Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning and Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie explore the Confederacy’s brief, last-ditch debate about arming slaves.
  • The University of Maryland’s Freedmen and Southern Society Project compiles first-person accounts of emancipation from “liberated slaves and defeated slaveholders, soldiers and civilians, common folk and the elite, Northerners and Southerners.”

Thanks to Kate Masur for recommending the above resources.

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