On War and U.S. Slavery: Enslaved Black Women’s Experiences

“Soldier examining newspaper by torchlight as others watch, Civil War era” (The New York Public Library Digital Collections)

The experiences of enslaved women and girls in the wars of the United States has garnered increased scholarly attention, most recently with the publication of Karen Cook Bell’s Running from Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (2021); and Thavolia Glymph’s The Women’s Fight: The Civil War Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (2020). Conventional military history has focused on those engaged in the planning and execution of the fighting, with occasional forays into the higher reaches of the political domain. Only relatively recently have scholars added the dimension of non-combatants—both by studying their perspective on warfare and the impact of conflicts on non-combatants. Beyond the study of war itself, questions regarding the consequences of war, including the impact of war and civil war on different sections of society, provide an important perspective on the experience of war.

Enslaved women’s experiences with war must be extended to include the everyday warfare of slavery.

As Vincent Brown has stated, anti-Black militarism as a practice reproduced over time made slavery a constant state of war. Frederick Douglass captures this fact succinctly in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) in which he recounts the “terrible spectacle” of the beating of his Aunt Hester. According to Saidiya Hartman:“Douglass establishes the centrality of violence to the making of the slave and identifies it as an original generative act.” She further states, “coeval with the brutality of beatings as a weapon of war, were the sale of women and girls on the auction block. In most cases, any refusal to disrobe on the auction block was met with a whip.” In addition, Hartman makes clear how “the practice of whipping served to make the enslaved ‘speak the master’s truth.’ Thus a key aspect of the manifold uses of the body was its facility as a weapon used against the enslaved…which can only be likened to torture.”

The evolution of a highly militarized plantation society in the southern colonies, whose social and legal character was underpinned by sustained and organized violence, meant that war was not an aberrant or temporary phenomenon in the history of U.S. slavery. The defense of a peculiarly exploitative form of racialized slavery as an institution were defining characteristics of the rapacious and unrestrained “first American way of war.” Forms of “internal war,” defined as “any resort to violence within a political order to change its constitution, [laws], or policies,” included marronage, insurrection, and covert political acts meant to subvert the geopolitical landscape of slavery.

Labor management on plantations depended upon systematic violence. From the overseer’s lash and the packs of bloodhounds, to the mandatory slave patrols and the militia, slave societies were societies organized for war against the enslaved and they met any potential challenge with organized violence.  Sarah Johnson posits, “Can one ever speak of a peaceful cohabitation of the enslaved and free in the context of slavery such that the use of dogs in the quotidian context is much different from their use during a declared state of full rebellion?” Johnson further adduces that “Violence was the modus operandi for sustaining elite slave holding lifestyles. Plantation America poses a challenge to conventional understandings of ‘warfare’ and ‘torture’ as terms for supposedly discrete, bounded activities (a military encounter between multiple states, a particular moment of cruelty) with utilitarian purposes (the achievement of military goals, the extraction of information).” Historians of slavery should extend their analysis to consider the “violent, rapacious, “quotidian context” of plantation slavery” as an essential element in the story of American warfare.

The sexual violence enslaved women endured represented a form of organized war against the bodies of women.

According to Diana Paton, “enslaved women would routinely experience sexual violence, their vulnerability standing in sharp contrast to the limited protections granted free daughters and wives within patriarchal societies.”  Jennifer Fleischner has argued that sexual exploitation was a “soul-murdering physical and psychological assault against the slave’s identity.” The right of men to impose sex on an enslaved woman was implicit in the institution of slavery. Overseers and slave drivers viewed sexual access to enslaved women’s bodies as one of the privileges of their authority as the division of the labor force into sex-segregated gangs left women alone in the fields. Semi-nudity of enslaved female field hands added to their vulnerability. One former slave recalled, “Our clothes were rags, and we were all half naked, and the females were not sufficiently clothed to satisfy common decency.” “Some enslavers deliberately purchased women for sex, most notoriously in the “fancy trade” of New Orleans. More ubiquitous was the everyday vulnerability to rape of just about any enslaved woman.”

Deborah Gray White maintains that “the violence done to Black women might well de-center lynching as the primary site and preeminent expression of white (sexual) anxiety on the black body.” “Through the physical abuse and sexual assault of black women, [enslavers] and overseers asserted their authority over (and simultaneously expressed their fear of) both enslaved women and their male relatives. By beating enslaved women in front of their male relatives or forcing men to beat women, slaveholders undermined both women’s roles as wives and mothers worthy of patriarchal protection, and men’s roles as husbands and fathers who have the right to defend their women.” The enslaved woman’s body thus became the site of “interracial masculine conflict.”

Sexual violence also informed enslaved women’s resistance as they struggled against assaults on their bodies, womanhood, and psyches. On December 7, 1774, four enslaved women conspired with “six negro fellows” to kill a master and an overseer in St. Andrew Parish, Georgia. According to the Georgia Gazette, the group, who were enslaved by Captain Morris, killed the overseer, murdered the wife of Captain Morris, and severely wounded a carpenter and a boy who died the next day. The group then marched through the countryside and attacked neighboring plantations, seriously wounding the owners of two plantations and killing one of their sons. The authorities meted out severe retribution on the leaders of the revolt by burning them alive. The St. Andrew Parish Revolt increased White anxiety. It also demonstrated the tacit network of communication between enslaved women and men to plan and organize a successful revolt. In the aftermath of the revolt, residents of St. Andrews adopted a set of anti-slavery resolutions which pledged to manumit “our slaves in this colony for the most safe and equitable footing for the masters and themselves.” Slavery, nonetheless, continued.

A militarized and militant plantation society that existed, from day to day, in a de facto state of internal war, meant that the boundaries between external and internal wars were permeable. At the end of the century, in December 1797, citizens of Charleston, South Carolina petitioned for the formation of a permanent garrison of fifty infantrymen and twenty-four horsemen, in response to the “dangerous designs and machinations of certain French West India Negroes.” The persistent use of not only organized military force exemplified by the militia, but quotidian violence against the enslaved, confirmed the essential nature of U.S. slavery as an internal war.

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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

Comments on “On War and U.S. Slavery: Enslaved Black Women’s Experiences

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    brilliant, thoughtful piece… so very helpful in understanding our mothers, and daughters and the folks we dont even know.

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    powerfully and an exceptional redefinition in the false historical narrative of U.S. Slavery ethos. We need more of this written truth to understanding U. S. enslavement and its significance to our current mental health…

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