"Overrun with Free Negroes": Emancipation and Wartime Migration in the Upper Midwest

By Schwalm, Leslie A. | Civil War History, June 2004 | Go to article overview

"Overrun with Free Negroes": Emancipation and Wartime Migration in the Upper Midwest


Schwalm, Leslie A., Civil War History


In March 1863 a Union officer wrote to his hometown newspaper inquiring, "Are there any contrabands wanted in Iowa City, or its vicinity for help this spring? If so, please let me hear from you. I could send a large number to Iowa, if they were wanted, as there are many brought up the river at this time ..." Writing from St. Louis, he noted that many of the former slaves gathered there "prefer going to Iowa [more] than any other place." But back in Iowa, some of his neighbors had organized a public meeting to oppose "all schemes ... to fill our schools and domestic circle with the African race" because of their belief that recently emancipated African Americans, "unaccustomed to our climate, unskilled in our mode of agriculture, undisciplined in habits, and unfit for society," would "destroy the dignity of white labor" in Johnson County. That Iowans were not all of one mind about the arrival of emancipated slaves was further evidenced in the tone of newspaper coverage when former slaves were brought to a nearby Mississippi River town. As sarcastically noted in the local paper, potential employers were not difficult to find: "When the negroes arrived, there was a great fluttering ... for the best 'take.' Philanthropy ran very high indeed--provided the services of a good stout negro could be obtained for his victuals and clothes. Visions of retired gentlemen and gentlewomen, with black servants to attend their every want and wish, overcame some ... [who] felt as though 'it were the happiest day of their lives.'" (1) White Midwesterners disagreed on the implications of the arrival of newly freed African Americans; but whether or not they welcomed former slaves as a new labor source or feared workplace competition, whether or not they participated in philanthropic work on behalf of former slaves or were suspicious of the motives of those who did, white Midwesterners agreed on one thing: that the consequences of emancipation extended well beyond the slaveholding South.

Scholars have focused the study of African American emancipation on the policies debated in the nation's capital and the progression of slavery's destruction in the Confederate South and the slave-holding Border States, but the varied and conflicting midwestern responses to wartime emancipation and black migration suggest that the implications and consequences of emancipation were also confronted outside the South. While a small if vocal minority of Northern white people pressed for an end to slavery at the outset of the war, many more opposed abolition and feared its consequences. From the Connecticut soldier who reacted to emancipation celebrations in Beaufort, South Carolina, by threatening to kill any former slave who tried to "get in on" him, to the Iowan who complained of former slaves "crowding" whites aside on local city sidewalks, many Northern whites feared that severing the bonds of slavery would bring unwelcome changes to the "place" of African Americans--and, by implication, to that of whites--in a post-emancipation nation. (2)

By the eve of the Civil War, public debate over the place of African Americans in the nation had a long history, expressed most cynically by the colonization and emigration movements whose advocates asserted that white supremacy left no opening for black political and civic equality in the United States. (3) During the war these debates became more urgent as the Northern public contemplated slavery's destruction. As Harriet Beecher Stowe observed early in the war, "Many well-meaning people can form no idea of immediate emancipation but one full of dangers and horrors. They imagine the blacks free from every restraint of law, roaming abroad a terror and nuisance to the land." In 1862 Harper's Weekly condemned those fears as petty and unchristian but joined Stowe in acknowledging their strength and persistence, noting the nation's inability to "tolerate negroes, except as slaves. We can't bear them. We don't want them in our houses. …

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