Slavery: History and Historians

By Peter J. Parish | Go to book overview

8
The Death Throes of Slavery

After a long life, slavery in the South met a sudden, violent, and unexpected death. Even the war, however, did not kill slavery with one clean blow of the executioner's axe. The South's peculiar institution came to a painful and untidy end resulting from multiple injuries inflicted by emancipation edicts, invading armies, internal deterioration, and the active pursuit of their freedom by the slaves themselves. The transitional period from slavery to freedom in the midst of a great civil war was a time of turbulence, confusion, dislocation, and distress. The process by which emancipation came to slave communities, and the immediate response of the freedmen themselves to the novel experience of liberty, can yield fresh insights into the history of slavery itself.

Without the Civil War, it is virtually inconceivable that slavery would have been terminated during the 1860s. Various historians have drawn attention to the supreme irony that it was secession and war which produced precisely the threats to liberty and slavery that the South feared most--government interference, class division, social upheaval, and ultimately the destruction of slavery itself.1 There was little apprehension in the antebellum South, even as the sectional crisis deepened, that slavery was in imminent danger of collapse. During the secession winter of 1860-61, some Southern voices were raised in warnings against the risks being taken with the future of slavery, but they went largely unheeded.

However, there had been a good deal of anxiety in the 1850s about some of the internal stresses and strains of Southern slave society and the disturbing possibility of their exploitation by outsiders. The diminishing proportion of white families who held

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