The N.C. Home Front: Loosening the Bonds of Slavery

by Chris Graham

This is the second in a series of four articles dealing with the North Carolina home front. — Editor

While North Carolina’s soldiers endured the dangers and hardships of battle during the War Between the States, the Tar Heels on the home front endured their own challenges. Not the least of these was the dismay that white North Carolinians, raised in the strictly ordered antebellum society, felt as they watched black slaves snatching freedom through the cracks that the war was making in the foundations of Southern society.

Enslaved blacks — by their condition the group most vulnerable to the forces of war — took the greatest risks and forced the most profound changes of any group in Civil War North Carolina. Slaves had become aware of the approaching conflict and of the potential positive consequences of southern setbacks through the traditional underground information sources — the “grapevine.”

White reaction to events provided information and affected the daily lives of slaves. In the aftermath of John Brown’s raid, the number and vigilance of slave patrols increased markedly. During the first year of the war, home-guard companies joined the slave patrols as authorities equated the threat of slave revolt with a destabilized society.1 The war altered many masters’ behavior: Some became more brutal, while others, over time, became resigned to the slaves’ eventual freedom and so neglected the care of their bondsmen.2

When Union forces advanced to an area, as they did on the N.C. coast in early 1862, slaves didn’t rise up to slaughter whites. Rather, individual slaves took advantage of extraordinary opportunities to secure their own freedom and that of other slaves, and they provided assistance to Union forces who were invading the coastal waters. Expert slave boatmen piloted Union vessels through the tricky Beaufort Inlet to secure the surprise capture of the town of Beaufort and of Fort Macon. They continued to serve as pilots and guides on Union excursions and advances up and down the North Carolina sounds and toward New Bern.

The black pilots also utilized their newfound freedom of movement to carry information into, and smuggle thousands of escaped bondsmen out of, the Confederate coastal hinterland. The pilots’ activities precipitated an exodus of tens of thousands of slaves to the Union-occupied areas on the coast. New Bern, Beaufort, Plymouth, Washington and Roanoke Island served as temporary destinations. At those places, in refugee camps, blacks moved about freely; reunited with family members; exercised cultural freedoms; established churches, schools and self-help organizations; and demanded political equality in exchange for military service.3

Within the Confederate piedmont, blacks could not so easily break their bonds. Depending upon the change in masters’ behavior mentioned above, some slaves endured increased beatings, while others took advantage of relaxed supervision. Most went hungry, as did their white neighbors. Blacks, as currency in white society, were in many cases impressed to dig in the sand forts at Wilmington and in the trenches ringing Raleigh.4

Nervous lowland masters, wanting to move their property away from Yankee lines and Confederate impressment officers, hired their slaves out for work in the mountains. Speculators rented blacks to work on the ever-growing North Carolina Railroad.

Yet even in the west, blacks still acquired knowledge about continuing Confederate setbacks, and the news encouraged their explorations of freedom. Slaves earned the reputation for providing reliable assistance to escaped Federal prisoners of war who were traversing the mountains in order to reach Federal lines in Tennessee.

With growing confidence in the eventual failure of the Confederacy, blacks in the mountains and other parts of the state began loosening the bonds of slavery by more confidently disobeying their masters and exercising their freedom of mobility. Whites interpreted these actions not only as “insolence,” but also as dangerous threats to civil order.5


         1    Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), 169, 172-74.

         2    Victoria E. Bynum, Unruly Women: The Politics of Social & Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 120-24, 113.

         3    David S. Cecelski, The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001): 153-202. See also, Patricia C. Click, Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, 1862-1867 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

         4    On Indian conscription, see Adolph L. Dial and David K. Eliades, The Only Land I Know: A History of the Lumbee Indians (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 46.

         5    John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney, The Heart of Confederate Appalachia: Western North Carolina in the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 208-31.

For more information check out:

Documenting the American South: North American Slave Narratives

Staggville Plantation

Return to Main Articles Page