How Did Slaves Escape?
Our most ambitious video program for the upcoming Civil War exhibition is an interactive in which the visitor takes on the identity of a slave who attempts to escape to freedom and is faced with decisions as to where to go and what to do. The purpose is to replicate a harrowing experience that was endured by many Virginians.
Boston Productions Inc., the video company that we have engaged, is filming footage of the Virginia landscape, hiring and filming actors, and developing a script. One of our jobs—the one addressed in this blog—is to provide factual information about how real slaves actually escaped.
Here are some facts:
- Most slaves didn’t try to escape—new systems of surveillance were in place, failure could bring whipping or even death, families of successful fugitives were abused, rumors had Yankees putting fugitives in irons, sending them off to slavery in Cuba, and committing acts of the “most beastly and infamous character” against slave women.
- Some slaves in the path of Union armies were “refugeed” to the interior, south or southwest of Richmond, so that they would not be lost by escape or capture. In the interior, chances for liberty diminished.
- The early Confederate policy of conscripting male slaves to build fortifications along the Chesapeake Bay and near Yorktown provided an opportunity for escape—it brought African Americans near Union-held Fort Monroe and taught them the geography of the region. By 1863, some 10,000 slaves had escaped to freedom there.
- When George McClellan’s Union army moved up the Peninsula in the spring of 1862, many slaves there seized the opportunity to escape.
- By early 1863, most slaves east and northeast of Richmond had either been removed or had escaped. Runaways passing through the region encountered an empty landscape.
- Slaves fled not only to Union lines but also to the woods or swamps—usually to avoid digging entrenchments—and even to the Confederate army (“the soldiers employ runaway negroes to cook for the mess, clean their horses, and so forth”).
- Fugitives sometimes encountered patrols—local slave patrols sent out in search of them, as well as Confederate and Yankee cavalry units that crossed their paths. Some of the Union patrols—described in documents as “recruiting expedition[s in search of] all Africans, including men, women, and children”—emanated from Yorktown and Norfolk, beginning in 1863.
- On reaching Union lines, runaways might find employment—as laborers, cooks, teamsters, washerwomen, or nurses. They might work on government-run farms situated on abandoned estates near Hampton and Norfolk. Or they might be turned away by units that had no interest in their welfare. Some Union troops in the Norfolk-Suffolk area even sold slaves back into bondage (“caught hundreds of fugitives and got pay for them”).
- Tens of thousands of black Virginians escaped to freedom. Six thousand of them served in the Union army, beginning in 1863.
Will you want to try this interactive once it’s installed in the Civil War show? Depending on the decisions you make, the slave either reaches Union lines and (in most cases) freedom or is captured and returned to slavery.
William M. S. Rasmussen is Lead Curator and Lora M. Robins Curator at the Virginia Historical Society.