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How Did Slaves Escape?


An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia

Fugitive Negroes Fording the Rappahannock

"Fugitive Negroes, fording the Rappahannock River following the retreat of Pope's Army, August 1862," by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, 1862 (Library of Congress)

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.

"Slaves Entering Sally Port of Fort Monroe," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 8, 1861 (Library of Congress)

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.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. 11/08/2010 7:47 am

    In 1860 there were over 60,000 free blacks and mulattos in Virginia. Many of them could trace the origins of their freedom back several generations. Yet there is seldom information about this large segment of the population. How did they react to secession? Were they paid for services to Confederate armies? How did they interact with invading Union armies? There are manifold questions about this large segment of Virginia’s population.


    • 11/08/2010 9:59 am

      Apparently not much information about free blacks in Virginia during the Civil War has been unearthed. However, you might want to look at Wilson Greene’s “Civil War Petersburg” (p. 36) and Walter Williams’s op/ed in the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” on November 3, 2010 (“Virginia’s Black Confederate Soldiers”) to learn about free blacks in Petersburg and in Lynchburg volunteering “to act in whatever capacity may be assigned to them” by the Confederacy for the defense of Virginia.


      • George Coussoulos permalink
        06/21/2013 3:08 pm

        I have not found much additional information about Virginia’s free Blacks during and after the Civil War. Even Luther Jackson’s seminal work on free Negros do not offer much past 1860, even though he is able to document hundreds of properties owned by these people, and identifies the real estate taxes that were paid. It’s as though the Civil War just eliminated all information about thousands of people and their properties.


  2. Sam Ketner permalink
    04/19/2011 6:01 pm

    My wife and I saw the exhibit today and I wanted to let you know you have done a really great job on developing these interactive exhibits. We were both very impressed. I was particularly pleased to see the informative emphasis on diverse experiences and underlying causes, not the same old propaganda which probably hurt the 100-year exhibition in 1961. I’d be interested to learn about the public reaction to the interactive escaped-slave game, which totally creeped my wife out.


    • 04/29/2011 10:29 am

      Thanks for your comments. As you have figured out, we were concerned about presenting aspects of Civil War history that have been given scant attention. As to the slave escape program, we realized the need to address this subject in a sensitive yet riveting way; one that would engage a broad audience and offer an opportunity to think critically about what it meant to escape during the war. As we crafted the scenarios our focus on the details guided our thinking about the final presentation and the “take-away messages”. Audiences, both young and not-so-young, seem to appreciate the interactive experience and learn from it as well. Some have told us that they never thought about the kinds of decisions escaping slaves had to make as they journeyed toward freedom.

      Lauranett Lee
      Curator of African American History


  3. 05/05/2011 3:32 pm

    man this site didn’t give that much information on how the slaves escaped thier owners plantation


    • 05/06/2011 2:53 pm

      The relative difficulty or ease of escape by enslaved people varied. The management style of the plantation was dictated by the owners and carried out by the overseers. During the war, plantation management tended to be more lax as white males were absent although there were still patrollers who tried to maintain some control of the enslaved population. We know from letters written by slave mistresses that slaves were more “impertinent” and “insolent”. We also know that enslaved people “ran off” the plantation more frequently during the war and usually during the middle of the night. The difficulty was in the journey. The range of problems that could unfold and the obstacles escaping slaves faced is suggested in our interactive program, Journey to freedom.”

      Lauranett L. Lee, Ph.D.
      Curator of African American History


  4. emma permalink
    02/07/2012 4:55 pm

    hi i thought it was usefull


  5. kat permalink
    03/22/2012 10:07 am

    i really like this it asnwered my question


  6. 05/30/2013 3:01 pm

    this is help ful


  7. elizabeth wagner permalink
    05/31/2013 2:30 pm

    i love it


  8. Tyler Rentmeester permalink
    04/04/2018 4:03 pm



  9. Trish permalink
    10/04/2018 7:37 pm

    It Was OK?



  1. Mary Burton – Forever

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