Black Women, Agency, and the Civil War

An African American regiment in the Civil War (Credit: Schomburg Center Prints and Photographs Division, Civil War Collection)

Throughout much of the twentieth century historians framed the Civil War as a political and military driven historical process, which largely involved and impacted men. Within the academy, social and cultural historians have now shifted the focus of the Civil War away from military battles to what the war meant for soldiers, white women and enslaved men and women. The Civil War has constituted an important pillar of dialogue and debate over the meaning of freedom, free labor, and citizenship. In his seminal study Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. DuBois argued that “the Civil War meant emancipation and the black worker won the war by a general strike which transferred his labor to the Northern invader in whose army lines workers began to be organized as a new labor force.” DuBois’s emphasis on the “agency” of slaves set the terms of the debate in modern scholarship, which continues to emphasize the agency of enslaved men and women. DuBois also ushered in a period of new scholarship, which wrote against the silences and omissions of the U.S. historical profession.

Emphasizing the agency of soldiers and civilians has led to diverse perspectives over the process of wartime emancipation and its impact on the agency of former slaves. Within this frame, the experience of black women has emerged as a distinctive area of scholarly inquiry. The centrality of black women to our understanding of experience and identity has taught scholars much about the deep and complex connections between the personal and the political. As Darlene Clark Hine has observed, as members of two subordinate groups in American society, African American women often fell between the cracks of Black history and women’s history. Yet, African American women played essential roles in ensuring the survival of black people during slavery and of black communities in freedom.  In slavery and freedom, black women established women centered networks to serve the needs of the black community.

Recent scholarship has sought to reconfigure the wartime and post-war history of African Americans as one of victimhood and suffering rather than optimism and agency. To be sure, the destruction of slavery was a slow and uneven process, which generally followed the path of the Union Army’s haphazard progress in conquering the South. As historian Yaell Sternhell contends, while bond women leaped at the sight of the first Union soldier, others exercised extreme caution and stayed on the plantation for months or years after freedom became a fact.  While certain bond women found new opportunities for work, education, and family life soon after ridding themselves of their masters, others suffered, sickened, and died trying to build new lives.1 African American men and women suffered greatly and died in unprecedented numbers from 1861-65. However, the vast majority of former slaves did live to see freedom. As Thavolia Glymph argues, “the wars black people waged before and during the Civil War grounded black radical politics that informed the postwar struggles.”2

Stereograph showing a group of slaves including men, women and children gathered outside a building at the Foller Plantation in Cumberland Landing, Pamunkey Run, Virginia (May 14, 1862). (Credit: James F. Gibson & Civil War Photograph Collection-Library of Congress)

Emancipation in the United States stretched over a century from the revolutionary war to the end of the Civil War. This period was punctuated by intermediate struggles for freedom before the Civil War and more struggles to define and claim the freedom promised after the official end of slavery. Black women used the chaos of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War to forge alternative and expanded paths to self-liberation. Black women figured prominently in this “long emancipation” as they developed resistance strategies to challenge enslavement.

During the Civil War, enslaved women malingered, feigned illness, destroyed property, and escaped slavery to undermine the system. Given that the woods, swamps, and slave cabins were spaces where the enslaved could exercise more autonomy than the fields and other open spaces on the plantation, bonded men had more autonomy than bond women because the latter were more confined to the plantation. Although men comprised the majority of runaways and truants, women were also truants and truancy facilitators, providing food and information, which served to make these two forms of resistance individual and collective at the same time.

Enslaved women faced “formidable obstacles to freedom: limited mobility, little knowledge of geography, and concern for loved ones, further complicated by the encumbrances of escaping with young children.”3 Despite these obstacles women such as Margaret Garner and Harriet Tubman (who served as a scout and spy during the Civil War) fled slavery while managing family attachments in complex and innovative ways. Beyond plantations, women escaped to cities and towns, North and South; they fled poverty, wealth, benevolence and malevolence alike. As historian Cheryl LaRoche has argued, “although the constraints that kept women mired in captivity are well documented, their strategies for overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to freedom are not.”4

Lucy Higgs with her daughter Mona escaping slavery from Grays Creek, Tennessee to the Union lines, June of 1862. (Credit: Kathy Grant, artist)

Black women initiated their own liberation amid disparate circumstances. Mothers who fled during the Civil War took extreme risks, fleeing with young children in the middle of the night and walking for days until reaching Union lines. Mothers who were desperate to leave abandoned their children in the most vulnerable circumstances. A Virginian recalled her older sister, who “had a baby boy that she left behind with a daughter who had been used so bad it made her crazy.  While her mother was gone the baby died.” Women who reached Union lines found cruel and deadly conditions.  Union soldiers abused fugitive men, women, and children in every conceivable way. Women were raped, children died of hunger, and men worked without pay. Soldiers often offered ready assistance to slave owners trying to locate their missing property, while generals barred the entrance of fugitives into Union lines altogether.

Black women faced formidable obstacles during the Civil War.  Yet, they fashioned a distinct world view grounded in liberation politics that aided them as they negotiated their new lives during and after the Civil War. They confronted the power structures with the tools available to them and resisted policies that proscribed their freedom. In order to assess the agency of black women during the Civil War, historians must rethink important questions of the Civil War era: how did black women live their daily lives? How did they view themselves and their role in the black community? What did they believe and what was their worldview? What liberation strategies did they embrace and why? New studies must bring black women’s voices into the core of analysis in answering these questions.

  1. Sternhell, Yaell. “Bodies in Motion and the Making of Emancipation.” In Rethinking American Emancipation: Legacies of Slavery and the Quest for Black Freedom, edited by William A. Link and James J. Broomall, 15-42. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  2. Glymph, Thavolia. “Between Slavery and Freedom: Rethinking the Slaves War.” Paper presented at American Historical Association and the National Museum of African American History and Culture , Washington, DC, May 2016.
  3. Walters, Delores M., and Mary E. Frederickson. Gendered Resistance: Women, Slavery, and the Legacy of Margaret Garner (New Black Studies). Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013.
  4. Ibid
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Karen Cook Bell

Karen Cook Bell is the Wilson H. Elkins Endowed Professor of History at Bowie State University. She is the author of Claiming Freedom: Race, Kinship, and Land in Nineteenth Century Georgia (University of South Carolina Press, 2018); Running From Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2021) and Southern Black Women and Their Struggle for Freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Cambridge University Press, 2023). She is Founding Director of the BSU Du Bois Center for the Study of the Black Experience at Bowie State University. Follow her on Twitter at @kbphd08 and at the BSU Du Bois Cenetr @BSUDuBoisCenter

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