The Enslaved Blacks and Free Blacks During the American Civil War


The American civil war in the period (1861-1865) was seen as a war on slavery and black rights. However, President Lincoln offered that the civil war was more about the country and the union victory over the confederate states. During this time there was a significant difference between the treatments of blacks. Some were accepted into the US navy while others were barred from it. This was particularly because the black sailors had more experience as sailors, which was essential in steering the naval vessels during the war. Those who were left out became slaves. The intention of this paper is to analyze the life of the enslaved blacks and compares it with those who lived as free blacks. The beg of the question is how different or similar was life in the different lives.


During the strife of civil war, some arguments raised held that slavery was a ‘necessary evil’. The southern people held that slavery was crucial to controlling labor, which was beneficial to both the black families and the whites. Slavery provided much-needed labor in the cotton and agricultural sector. It is also during this time that millions of Africans were being shipped into America to work as slaves on the farms. Individuals like Thomas Jefferson (the third president of the United States) compared slavery to a wolf gotten by the ears that needed control and self-preservation. Robert Lee 1856 purported that the Africans brought in from Africa were better off as slaves in America than they were as free beings in Africa, physically, socially, and intellectually. He discarded the moral issue of slavery and slave trade as normal, the end justifies the means. He argued that the blacks were primitive and through slavery, they were taught to be civilized in preparation for the good and better things in life. Through their servitude as slaves, they learned many things that were deemed necessary for their survival in the industrialization era. Claims of slavery being a ‘necessary social evil’ superseded the many apologies demanded against the ills of slavery. The overseers or masters of slaves argued that slaves were treated humanely by their owners and were better-taken care of in times of sickness and during old age, and hence better than the free laborers used in Europe and Portugal.

The advocates of slavery argued that slavery was just an effect of the industrial revolution and the free-market economy. This system of economy was one characterized by one portion of the population living off the labor of others and reaping profits from them. This is just the way a civilized society functions and if left undisturbed the positive effects of slavery would be felt by all in terms of wealth and overall well-being.

The arguments against slavery in the union and confederate states were indeed many. For one, it was a moral injustice as human beings were traded in barter or for money. This act itself degraded the human aspect of slaves; a human being is a person with feelings and needs and can never be compared to a good. The black slave trade was powered by the fact that whites, their masters, viewed them as subhuman beings next to apes and second to the whites and Indians. This meant that they were treated as their names denoted; ‘animals’. They were mistreated and exploited despite claims by their overseers that they were being treated humanely. In addition, opinions express by anti-slavery activists of the time, prominently, William Lloyd Garrison is that slavery was antidemocratic. He is recorded as having said that;

…all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Hence, I am an abolitionist. Hence, I cannot but regard oppression in every form—and most of all, that which turns a man into a thing—with indignation and abhorrence.

Alexander Stephens confederate vice president and a chief populist of the for-slavery argument felt that it was necessary to enslave blacks since they were not the same as whites. He argued that Thomas Jefferson’s ideas were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error… Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. Alexander Stephen’s Cornerstone Speech, Savannah; Georgia, March 21, 1861. (Harry, p222).

The period before the civil war was peculiar as it was unique. Some blacks were enslaved while others lived in Free states. However, some degree of inferiority was evident to both categories. Free blacks, at least some of them enslaved fellow blacks. During 1830, this number of black masters had risen to about 3,755 spread across states like Louisiana, Carolina, Virginia among other black-dominated areas. Although the black slaveholders were of mixed race mostly children of mistresses to the white man, these blacks had tendencies like the white masters. They bought slaves to work in cotton, sugar, and rice plantations and offered them little pay. Despite the negative perceptions that blacks held against white slaveholders, the black masters or overseers were seen to be perpetrating an ill against their kind, something that did not go down well with most blacks. They were labeled Afro Yankees. Nevertheless, free slaves and blacks slaveholders did not fully overcome the prejudiced profiling held by fellow whites slaveholders. They felt they were still sub-human or inferior to them. The black color and kinkily hair in itself signified bondage and spelled out ‘slave’ regardless of status. On a lighter note, the scalp of an ape when shaved completely is white and it is only the hair, which is black. Thus, can it be said that apes have a connection to the white Europeans?

Blacks living in free states

Free blacks in the union and confederate states had difficulty in finding employment since they were seen as allies with the enslaved blacks, who had run away from their overseers the precarious freedom that the free blacks had did not help break away from the synonymous connotation of black color to slavery. The evident loathing against blacks made sure that securing decent employment was next to impossible. They were given menial jobs, with little pay, as they were believed to be buying fellow family members out of slavery. Other blacks also acted out of benevolence. Both free and enslaved blacks faced discrimination. Their moves were constantly monitored and black codes were assigned to them by slave patrols.

Blacks who remained in the confederate states

The everyday life of a slave in the confederate states was one characterized by worry, strife, and anxiety, one reason being that slaves were sold just like goods. An overseer or slaveholder could trade any slave he wished to make profits and this tore up, many slave families. Unlike in Portugal and Spain where slaves were provided legal protection against physical abuse and allowed human rights, as an appeal to court, this was not the case for American slaves. The existing laws had no place for slaves and the differences in appearance and prejudiced theories against blacks, further compounded the confusion. Slave patrols were given full authority to administer punishment to slaves found loitering in places they were not supposed to or those slaves who had run away from their masters. Some of the punishments were particularly harsh and inhumane for instance, killings, corporal punishment, or maiming them. Additionally, failure to perform a task as expected was net with stiff punishments. A slave was to be made to work regardless of age or state of well-being. They were supposed to work in the fields with bare hands from dawn to dusk. This was exploitation. The female slaves were equally at risk of sexual abuse and violence from their masters. Slaves had no right of ownership for food, shelter, or protection. They had to worry about security as they were raped, murdered for minor reasons. Children born out of rapes from overseas automatically inherited the slave status and became property to their masters. Discrimination persisted even among the blacks slaves. Those who were light-skinned were assigned household chores while the dark-skinned had to work in the fields the clothing, wage, and medical care through minimal was determined by skin color. The slaves were nonpersons ‘thing’ according to law unless one committed a crime which meant slaves had no rights to anything but were liable to punishment when they committed a crime.

Blacks recruited in the military faced challenges, especially during the civil war. Their dedication to the defense of the state and protection of their kind was one such challenge. It was hard for the black military to exercise ills against their fellow blacks. Another challenge was the fatigue they had to endure as most of the labor-intensive tasks were assigned to them. Inequality and discrimination within the force were also rife. The black military could not move the ranks in the military force and remained hostile from the fellow blacks as they feared that the black militaries were spies of the government.

Both free blacks and fugitive slaves were enlisted in the Union Army to fight for their freedom. The Abolitionism movement had reached its peak and approximately 180,000 blacks joined the navy. However, stigma and racial prejudice were also present in the military. The white soldiers believed that black soldiers were weak and cowardly to face the enemy. However, they proved these skeptics wrong by braving the fight against confederates in the battle of island mound in 1863. Regardless of the failure to win the battle, the black troops took pride in the fact that they had proved their capabilities and valor.

The pros and cons of a black slave

The life of black confederate slaves was characterized by legal servitude with no real difference between actual slavery and what it was. Free blacks were not allowed to pass the limits set by the administrant especially the town of Opelousas. Permission had to be sought failure to which one was imprisoned or fined. Walking around beyond curfew was equally fined or gives community services for five days. Civil rights were also absent e.g. right to marry, own property in certain towns, right to testify or appeal in court. Free blacks were not permitted to carry weapons, hold meetings, congregations, and freedom for worship. All this had to be done in the presence of a white man. In Opelousas, it was illegal to sell anything without permission from the employer. In states like Florida, black people had to have a permit to own any weapon small as a knife. When found with one severe whipping on the back were the consequences. Free blacks were limited to the occupations they could conduct. Jobs like masonry, mechanic, art, trade, or any other income-generating activity had to be licensed by a court judge. The employment laws were also stringent and oppressive for instance one had to forfeit a year’s wage on prematurely terminating his contract irrespective of the reason. Selling of food to Negroes or any black man was fined heavily for up to $200 and also sued by the employer. Overall the free blacks were free only by name but in a real sense, their freedom was just a mirage of an illusion. Slaves in the southern parts, for instance, Virginia and Maryland had the least problems as slaves because these areas switched from growing labor-intensive crops such as tobacco and sugar cane to grains and vegetables. It is also in these areas that the task system commenced. Slaves were divided into small groups and they could work at their own pace in the absence of the white man’s supervision. Slavery in the upper south generally dwindled with the introduction of such agriculture and they were freer to open work stations of their own, which they ran in their free time. The profits realized would be given in part to their masters and this way both parties benefited. The slaves got more independence and their owners made profits from the surplus slaves.

The fight for equality

As seen, the treatment of blacks was different from that of whites and the Indians. Discrimination was rife in all sectors including the military. As the free blacks got more educated and the period of enlightenment set in the blacks began to revolt against the discriminations and exploitations they faced. They wanted freedom and fair treatment. They wanted the harsh treatment of slaves to end, and be accorded civil rights such as the right to movement, marriage, justice among others. This lay the foundation for the civil wars and the numerous movements against slavery and racism. This fight yielded the ban on slavery and the end of the civil war.


By and large, the American civil war happened without much preparation. When threats of secession from the union were made the union did not take them seriously. However, the war kicked in regardless and it seems that the fights were fuelled by discontent over the prevailing regime. Presidents Lincoln still held that the war was about gaining defeat over the confederate states but taking a closer look it seems that the war was more about the fight on slavery. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the like played a major role in fighting for the rights and equality of the African American people. One thing that we all agree on is that the war had devastating effects on the lives of the people of America and another war should be avoided at all cost.


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Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson on Slavery,” from “Notes on the State of Virginia”. 2007. Web.

Freedom’s Soldiers: The Black Military Experience in the Civil War. Cambridge University Press, 110 Midland Avenue, Port Chester, NY. 1998.

Gary W. Gallagher & James, McPherson. The American Civil War: This Mighty Scourge of War. Osprey Publishing. 2003.

Robert, Francis. Slavery in the Civil War Era. “The Confederacy”. 2007. Web.

Harry, Jaffa. A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. Rowman & Littlefield. 2000.

Ervin L. Jordan Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia.

University of Virginia Press. 1995.

Mason I. Lowance. Against Slavery: An Abolitionist Reader. Penguin Classics. 2000.

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