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The End of the Slave Trade

Monday 6 April 2015

By Joshua D. Rothman March 27, 2015

Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.

On March 21, 1865, black Charlestonians reveled in their freedom in a parade that began before more than 10,000 people on the Citadel green and stretched for nearly two and a half miles.

Mounted marshals led a band, the 21st Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, and clergymen from numerous denominations. Behind them walked an assembly of women, more than 1,800 newly enrolled public school children and a variety of black tradesmen, from fishermen and carpenters to barbers and blacksmiths, who carried banners that read, among other things, “We Know No Master But Ourselves,” “Free Homes, Free Schools, One Country and One Flag” and “Our Reply to Slavery — Colored Volunteers.”

The march’s joy was not unmixed. According to a New York Daily Tribune correspondent, a horse-drawn cart followed the tradesmen, carrying an auctioneer’s block on which sat two black women and a child. Riding alongside them was a black man carrying a bell and waving the red flag that for decades had been the unmistakable sign of a slave trader open for business. Ringing his bell, the man called to spectators, “How much am I offered for this good cook?” “She is an ‘xlent cook, ge’men.” “She can make four kinds of mock-turtle soup—from beef, fish or fowls.” “Who bids?” Sixty men, tied together by a rope, walked behind the auction cart “in imitation of the gangs who used often to be led through these streets on their way from Virginia to the sugar-fields of Louisiana.” They were followed in turn by a hearse on which was chalked “Slavery is Dead,” “Who Owns Him? No One,” and “Sumter Dug His Grave on the 13th April 1861,” and by 50 women dressed entirely in black.

These elements of the parade were intended as a burlesque, as suggested by the “shouts of laughter” that met the hearse and the “joyous faces” of the women dressed as mourners. For some people, however, the charade triggered memories of the deepest trauma they ever experienced in their lives. “Old women burst into tears as they saw this tableau,” the Tribune reporter wrote, “and forgetting that it was a mimic scene, shouted wildly: ‘Give me back my children! Give me back my children!’”

Every enslaved person felt the dark touch of the slave trade. The overseas trade dated to the earliest years of the colonial period, and in the decades after the United States banned it in 1808 domestic traders sold nearly one million people from the Upper South to the Lower South, and millions more within individual states and territories.No one who lived in slavery slavery avoided either being personally sold or losing a parent, sibling, child, spouse or friend to the trade, often never to be seen again. The anguish of the mothers at the parade in Charleston, however, spoke not only to collective torment going back more than 200 years. It spoke to fresh pain, because the slave trade was carried on in the Confederacy until the very last days of the Civil War.

Anxiety prevailed among slave traders throughout the fall of 1860. Uncertainty following Abraham Lincoln’s election made potential customers hesitant to buy, and prices for enslaved people dropped substantially as the year drew to a close. One Richmond slave-trading company reported in November 1860, for example, that the “election excitement” had produced “extreme flatness and inactivity” in the market, and in late December another observed that, thanks in part to “political derangements,” prices had fallen by roughly a third since the summer. The company’s principals did not imagine they would rebound anytime soon.

To a certain extent, they were wrong. Spotty sources make it effectively impossible to gauge the precise volume of slave sales during the Civil War, but it is clear that slaveholders and traders bought and sold enslaved people throughout the conflict. The long-distance trade most likely went into steep decline, if it did not end nearly altogether, as Union occupation of Alexandria within months of the war’s outbreak and of New Orleans early in its second year shut down some of the trade’s most vital hubs. Still, sales and purchases within states and between neighboring states revived in the spring of 1861 once the reality of secession solidified and white Southerners acquired confidence in their ability to sustain Confederate independence. Prices never entirely bounced back to what they had been in the late 1850s, but in numerous cities they rallied substantially and held reasonably stable through the end of 1861.

For the remainder of the war, however, the shape and strength of the slave trade and the fates of enslaved people trapped in its maw depended on the fortunes of the Confederate military effort and the state of the Southern economy. Market prices, for example, and probably sales volumes as well, declined noticeably in the spring of 1862 as Union forces made gains in Tennessee and Louisiana, occupied locations along the Carolina coast and approached Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign. They then rose again with that campaign’s failure and subsequent Confederate victories outside the capital, all of which led slaveholders, especially in Virginia, to believe that slaves would retain value. Slave traders seemed to agree, as advertisements for their services continued to appear fairly steadily throughout most of the Confederacy.

Even the issuing of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the fall of 1862 could not shake white Southerners’ faith in their cause and in the future of slavery. If anything, their faith grew stronger. Demands for enslaved labor by Confederate, state and local governments escalated in the months following the announcement, slaveholders saw purchasing enslaved people as a sign of their patriotism, and newspaper editors crowed about the large sales and rising prices they saw in the market.

The Mississippi editor of the Hinds County Gazette, for instance, noted that at local slave sales he saw “pretty fair prices considering the assurances from Washington that the institution shall be wiped out.” Even cockier was the editor of the Staunton Spectator in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, who scoffed that “just at the very time when Lincoln declares that [slaves] are emancipated they command higher prices than ever before. Could anything demonstrate more satisfactorily,” he asked, “the futility of his infamous proclamation? The people of the South never felt that the institution of slavery was ever safer than at the present time.”

Such trumpeting of high prices for enslaved people, however, disguised the creeping impact of economic disruptions. It was true that market prices for slaves rose steadily and rapidly from the middle of 1862 and continued to do so until the end of the war. Young enslaved men who sold for just over $1,000 in the fall of 1862 cost nearly double that a year later, nearly five times that by the start of 1864, and in some places roughly 10 times that by the early spring of 1865. But in real prices those numbers lagged significantly behind skyrocketing inflation, which in Virginia approached nearly 1,500 percent by late 1863.

And though the real prices of enslaved people stayed slightly higher in Texas and in interior cities such as Montgomery, Ala., and Raleigh, N.C., that were more secure from attack, they dropped almost everywhere within months of the war’s outset and kept dropping through its conclusion. By the spring of 1863 they were just a third of what they had been late in 1861. By the end of the war, real prices were less than one-tenth of what they had been when the first shots were fired, and one estimate suggests that if market prices had actually kept pace with inflation, a young enslaved man in early 1865 would have cost more than $84,000 in Confederate currency.

There were white Southerners, of course, who saw the bluster of newspaper editors for the facade or the delusion that it was, and who understood that the institution they had fled the Union to defend was crumbling around them. Particularly from Vicksburg and Gettysburg forward, slaveholders in some places dumped enslaved people onto the market, hoping to realize whatever they might get in return and preserve their dwindling resources. Late in 1864, for example, the die-hard Confederate Edmund Ruffin sold nearly every enslaved person who had not yet run from his Virginia plantation, with his son observing that they “were sold on account of the expense of keeping and the doubtful tenure of the property.”

Virginia Hayes Shepherd, meanwhile, who was herself enslaved near Norfolk, Va., remembered that white fears of widespread emancipation spread as the war dragged on, and she recalled the day when the sheriff, on orders from her owner, came to the hotel where her mother worked and locked her, Virginia and Virginia’s brother in jail alongside “hundreds of other mothers and their children sleeping on the floor at night just waiting their turn to be sold South.”

Yet Shepherd also remembered that of those crowded into the jail, “each day some were sold off.” Remarkably, no matter how poorly things went for the Confederacy on the battlefield, there remained white Southerners either unable to fathom the prospect of ultimate defeat or unwilling to countenance it. Even as growing numbers of people in 1864 and 1865 grasped that the war was going to end, and that there would be no slavery after it, others said with their pocketbooks that they considered that an impossibility.

In Charleston, the trading firm of Alonzo White sold a lot of nearly 100 slaves early in 1864 for an average price of more than $2,500. Several months later the estate of the Richmond trader Silas Omohundro sold 13 slaves to other traders who were sure they could turn a profit, even though collectively they paid the estate nearly $45,000. In November, 18 people were sold in Augusta, Ga., bringing in nearly $35,000, and a score more belonging to a North Carolina estate were sold in December in Raleigh, where a newspaper editor reported that there were numerous persons “anxious to buy.” In Montgomery, Thomas Frazier was so certain about the flow of buyers that he actually opened a new slave brokerage firm in the spring of 1864, bragging that he would “keep constantly on hand a large and well selected stock such as families, house servants, gentlemen’s body servants, seamstresses, boys and girls of all descriptions, blacksmiths, field hands.”

Remarkably, such willful blindness continued into the spring of 1865. In March, J.B. Jones, the Confederate war clerk in Richmond, was incredulous that “buying and selling [of slaves] for what they call ‘dollars’ are still extensively indulged.” For some people, the slave trade that had been the lifeblood of the antebellum South was the only thing they had left, and they would have to be told in no uncertain terms that squeezing profits from the bodies of enslaved people was no longer their prerogative.

Arguably, that message was delivered on April 2, 1865. As Jefferson Davis and his government prepared to flee Richmond, so did Robert Lumpkin, a slave trader and proprietor of one of the most notorious slave jails in the South. As Davis and his cabinet secretaries scrambled to get out of the city, Lumpkin cleared out his jail and dragged 50 enslaved men, women and children in handcuffs and chains to the train station, only to be informed by sentinels guarding the train leaving Richmond that there was no room.

Instead, the last slave coffle that the United States would ever see walked on, trudging atop a carpet of Confederate bonds that had been underwritten by their sweat and that now lay abandoned, worthless and blanketing the muddy streets of the panic-ridden capital of Virginia. There would be no more sales. There would be no more chains. There would be no more jails. But nothing would bring back the children of the old women who wailed as they watched the parade in Charleston.

Joshua D. Rothman is a professor of history and the director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. © 2015 The New York Times Company

See online: The End of the Slave Trade