Emancipation in Mississippi constituted a multistep process involving decisions and actions by the slaves themselves, the changing policies of the federal government, and Union military victories. In 1860 the US Census counted 436,631 slaves in Mississippi. Though in many cases Union troops arrived at plantations and told enslaved men and women that they were now free, those men and women more often already had taken steps to secure their own emancipation.
Especially in counties near the Mississippi River, self-emancipation occurred when young men left in small groups to find freedom behind Union lines. During this first phase, many other slaves claimed freedom on farms and plantations, by working more for themselves, taking advantage of interruptions and new overseers, finding ways to negotiate with owners, and ultimately claiming the land and their labor for themselves. As historian Nancy Bercaw writes, “They located the meaning of emancipation in the land, the crop, and the community.” For a short time in 1862, women, older men, and children worked for themselves on land left behind by former landowners, making decisions about growing and marketing crops. Even in areas where traditional owners remained in place, the nature of labor changed, and owners reported that slaves refused to work as they had prior to the war.
Throughout the war but especially in the early period, the spread of information was part of emancipation. Slaves listened to conversations about the Civil War and its possible consequences, literate slaves read what they could, and slaves who traveled took on new importance in spreading news and rumors. Even before the fighting reached Mississippi, some slaves interpreted the war as bringing slavery to an end. Moseley, an Adams County slave who participated in an 1861 plan to overturn slavery in his area, told other slaves that “Lincoln would set us free.” Some slaves involved in that conspiracy imagined that Gen. Winfield Scott would be taking New Orleans for the Union in September, with Natchez falling soon after that.
The US government, however, entered the war without plans to bring an end to the institution of slavery, and when US forces first ventured into Mississippi, they did not welcome enslaved people into their ranks. Declared William Tecumseh Sherman in June 1862, “The well-settled policy of the whole army now is to have nothing to do with the Negro.” By later that year, however, Union forces had begun to see the advantages both of using newly freed former slaves as workers and more generally of undermining the slave system. Federal officials began establishing camps where former slaves could work. According to historian Timothy B. Smith, “In Natchez, Federal soldiers arrived in 1863 and turned the famous slave market at the ‘Forks of the Road’ into a locale for freemen.” In addition, “Federal authorities gathered thousands of escaped and liberated slaves” at Confederate president Jefferson Davis’s plantation, Brierfield, and his brother’s nearby plantation. Camps in Vicksburg and Corinth attracted thousands of newly freed people. When these “contraband camps” began to organize former slaves into work groups that resembled plantation slavery, the freedpeople bristled, with some complaining and others moving on to places where they found emancipation more meaningful.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation solidified the idea that Union forces were fighting to end the institution of slavery. The proclamation stated that at the beginning of 1863 all slaves in the Confederate states would be free. Lincoln and his military leaders saw the proclamation not only as giving the Union cause the high moral purpose of opposing slavery but also as providing military benefits by destabilizing the southern economy and society. The president believed that “the bare sight of fifty thousand armed and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi would end the rebellion at once.”
The proclamation ushered in the second phase of emancipation, in which enslaved men and women aligned themselves with the US government to support emancipation. Probably the most dramatic way freedpeople claimed their own freedom was by joining the federal military forces. Historians differ about how many African Americans fought in the war. Timothy Smith concludes that “Mississippi probably sent at least 25,000 to 30,000 African American soldiers to the Union army.” Many of the African American units, eventually called US Colored Troops, were organized at camps in Natchez, Vicksburg, and Corinth as well as in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Louisiana. African American military service often consisted of support work, first as servants and in construction, but the US Colored Troops eventually engaged in battle. African American troops in the 51st U.S. Colored Infantry fought off a Confederate attack in 1863 at Milliken’s Bend, and those in the 3rd Cavalry Regiment fought in Yazoo City, in Natchez, in Woodville, and around Jackson.
Mississippi political and military authorities condemned these forces as the most troubling signs of a larger crisis in the slave system. Slave owners began to fear all sorts of forms of rebellion, preventing individual slaves from traveling, trying to keep slaves ignorant of news, and sometimes taking large groups of slaves away from the sites of likely military action. Winthrop D. Jordan details how Natchez area slave owners dealt with an 1861 conspiracy not only by executing those involved but then by keeping it remarkably quiet. Local groups formed new paramilitary organizations to deter possible slave escapes and rebellion. The Mississippi state government sought not only to crack down on slave movement but also to impress slaves for use in Confederate forces. Mississippi’s Civil War governors, John J. Pettus and Charles Clark, consistently looked for ways to prevent slaves from gaining freedom and joining the Union military.
Former slaves made several important changes as they became free people. Along with moving and joining the military, changing their names became another way of asserting independence and became especially important as they started signing legal documents and formalizing marriages. Many newly free people immediately began to negotiate their labor in a new setting, to attempt to become landowners, and to make demands on and assume responsibilities within government.
Emancipation very quickly became a point of conflict in public culture, as many former slaves celebrated Abraham Lincoln and dates associated with the coming of freedom, while supporters of the Confederacy began celebrating the memory of the war as having little to do with slavery and emancipation. Contests over the political, legal, economic, and social meanings of emancipation, of course, continued through Reconstruction and beyond.
- Nancy Bercaw, Gendered Freedoms: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Household in the Delta, 1861–1875 (2003)
- Winthrop D. Jordan, Tumult and Silence: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy (1993)
- Anthony E. Kaye, Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (2007)
- Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (1978)
- Armstead L. Robinson, Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861–1865 (2005)
- Timothy B. Smith, Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front (2010)
- Ben Wynne, Mississippi’s Civil War: A Narrative History (2006)