As Virginia militia forces marched through Charles Town, Virginia, (now West Virginia) en route to Harpers Ferry in the spring of 1861, David Hunter Strother—an unconditional Valley Unionist who served as a Union staff officer in the Valley for much of the conflict—observed the excitement among the town’s citizenry as these young soldiers marched off to war to fight for the infant Confederacy. Although Confederate sympathizers in this Shenandoah Valley community reveled in the scene Strother noted that African Americans—both slaves and free blacks— who watched the troops looked on and wondered what this conflict would mean to them. Strother believed that he saw in the eyes of many African Americans “a gleam of anxious speculation—a silent and tremulous questioning of the future.” For the Valley’s approximately 25,000 slaves the Civil War initially meant several things. For some it meant an increased work load and responsibility with a farm or business as masters went off to war. For others it might have meant being put in harm’s way as body servants for Confederate officers. Regardless of how the war might have changed Valley slaves’ roles they all wondered if this conflict would result in their freedom. The speculation of slaves and free blacks in Charles Town at the war’s outset typified the undercurrent of glimmering hope that permeated the Valley’s slave population in the spring of 1861.
At the war’s outset Valley slaves undoubtedly understood that Confederate soldiers would not grant them freedom and equality, but some wondered if Union soldiers might. Shockingly they discovered that at least in the war’s early months they would not. During the late spring and early summer of 1861, Gen. Robert Patterson—a Democrat from Pennsylvania—commanded Union forces that operated in the lower Shenandoah Valley. From his headquarters in Harpers Ferry, Patterson ordered that his men do everything in their power to prevent slave uprisings and that if any slaves fled to Union lines they were to be returned immediately to their masters. He even tasked Col. George Gordon’s 2nd Massachusetts Infantry with collecting runaway slaves and returning them to their masters. Because Union forces did not appear to be agents of freedom in the war’s early months some lower Valley slaves decided to take matters into their own hands by revolting against their masters. For example in May 1861 a group of sixteen individuals— including slaves, free blacks, and one white man from Massachusetts—planned an insurrection in Winchester. Unfortunately for Valley slaves, Confederate soldiers operating in the region foiled the plan and ended the attempted uprising. Not until the spring of 1862 did African Americans in the Valley begin to see Union soldiers as agents of freedom. When Gen. Banks—an ardent abolitionist from Massachusetts—occupied the lower Shenandoah Valley in March 1862 he encouraged slaves to run away from their masters.
Throughout that spring Union soldiers moved throughout Frederick, Shenandoah, Warren, and Rockingham Counties they witnessed a wide array of treatment accorded to Valley slaves. In Newtown Union troops noted a paternalistic relationship between slaves and white masters while in Middletown a New York chaplain recorded that he witnessed a young white woman “shamefully” beating her slave. Just as the treatment of Valley slaves differed, so too did slave attitudes toward Union soldiers that spring. Some slaves eagerly ran away with the Union forces and joined the army as contrabands— working as laborers in the army, while others looked upon the Union soldiers with skepticism as to the sincerity of their mission. For skeptical slaves who chose to remain with their masters that spring, Union soldiers employed a bit of psychological warfare and told them that if they did not leave their masters that Stonewall Jackson would murder all slaves when he returned. “There is the greatest panic among the servants,” recalled one Valley resident in the spring of 1862, “the Yankees have assured them that Jackson is murdering all the Negroes as he advances, even cutting the throats of the babies in their cradles.” Anxieties among Valley slaves reached a fevered pitch in late May 1862. As Banks withdrew his army north from Strasburg to Winchester, contraband slaves did all they could to keep pace with the army. After Banks’ defeat at the First Battle of Winchester on May 25, fears among these contraband slaves transformed into pandemonium. The Valley Pike and fields north of Winchester were clogged with frantic runaway slaves trying to get away from Jackson “The road was lined all the way with families of negroes,” recalled a Union officer, “who with a bundle in their hands were leaving all for Jackson would get them and kill them.” Some escaped, but many did not and were returned to slavery—either with their masters or impressed into the Confederacy’s service.
At that moment lower Valley slaves realized that any “freedom” Union soldiers could offer them was protected only so long as Union forces occupied the region. Slaves in the upper Valley, particularly those in Augusta County, however, did not even have the hope of an uncertain freedom. Located behind Confederate lines and far removed from Union forces, slaves in the upper Valley did not have nearly the opportunities to secure their freedom through flight as did slaves in the northern Valley. Furthermore many upper Valley slaves were impressed into the Confederacy’s service and sent to Richmond to help construct its defenses.
Throughout the latter half of 1862 Union forces passing through the lower Valley noted a sense of uncertainty among slaves as to whether or not they were better off by fleeing to Union lines or remaining with their master. When several members of the 60th New York offered to help a slave who worked for the Stickley family, who resided along the banks of Cedar Creek in Shenandoah County, run away the slave noted that he did not want to attempt it “for fear of consequences if he should be caught.” Things improved for Valley slaves when Union Gen. Robert H. Milroy’s division occupied the lower Valley on January 1, 1863—the date President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation took effect. An Indiana native and devout Presbyterian Milroy believed that until slaves were emancipated the Union war effort in Virginia would continue to stall. Milroy took the unseasonably warm weather on New Year’s Day in the Valley as a sign from God that He had sent Milroy to the Shenandoah to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. “This day President Lincoln will proclaim the freedom of four millions of human slaves, the most important event in the history of the world since Christ was born,” Milroy exclaimed. Additionally Milroy’s confidence in his mission of emancipation was further buoyed by two important historical connections that Winchester— the location of his headquarters—had with slavery’s perpetuation. First, Winchester served as the home of Judge Richard Parker who presided over John Brown’s trial in 1859. Winchester also served as the home of Senator James Mason who authored the controversial Fugitive Slave Law as part of the Compromise of 1850.
Valley slaves and civilians eagerly waited to see how aggressive Milroy would be in enforcing emancipation. On January 5 Milroy issued his own proclamation, “Freedom to Slaves” that stated he would do everything in his power to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Additionally he noted that anyone who stood in his way would be “regarded as rebels in arms against the lawful authority of the Federal government and dealt with accordingly.” Milroy’s policies met with ridicule among most Valley whites. In the upper Valley the Staunton Spectator condemned the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation as akin to stealing personal property. “The slaves taken from our citizens during the war will have to be accounted for at its end,” reported the Spectator on January 6, 1863.
Beyond the Valley the reaction among Confederates to emancipation was similar. Virginia’s Governor John Letcher viewed Milroy’s fanatic support of emancipation as an attempt to incite a slave insurrection. “Freedom to Slaves violates in the most positive manner,” Letcher argued, “the provisions of our act of assembly which declares if a free person conspire with a slave to revolt or make insurrection, or with any person to induce a slave to rebel or make insurrection he shall be punished with death.” Despite a $100,000 reward for his capture as a war criminal Milroy refused to be fazed. He believed only the emancipation of the slaves could end the war. Milroy’s aggressive policy attracted runaway slaves from numerous Valley counties including Clarke, Warren, Frederick, and Shenandoah. Evidence suggests that even a handful of slaves from the upper Valley made it safely to Milroy’s lines. Although Milroy came and seemed to be enforcing emancipation many Valley slaves wondered what it meant. Remembering the horrible experiences of Valley slaves in the spring of 1862 many realized their freedom was conditional and only meant something with the presence of Union troops. Despite freedom’s uncertainty, hundreds seized the opportunity of emancipation and left the Valley altogether for points north where freedom seemed more protected. As former slaves departed the Valley in U.S. government wagons in search of “the land of promise” Milroy gave each of them a parting gift—a carte de viste of John Brown. Regardless of where they went Milroy did not want former Valley slaves to forget all that John Brown had sacrificed for them to attempt to bring them freedom. While most emancipated slaves decided to leave, some did not. Those who remained stayed with Milroy’s command and worked for him as laborers or spies. Those former slaves who served in Milroy’s espionage ring provided valuable information to Milroy that allowed him to justify the exile of scores of the area’s Confederate families from the region.
Slaves who remained with Milroy’s command provided valuable services to his command, however, after Confederate forces under Gen. Richard S. Ewell defeated Milroy in mid-June 1863 during the Second Battle of Winchester, emancipated slaves who remained again realized freedom’s tenuous nature. Once more former slaves and free blacks (who had been free prior to the war’s outbreak) attempted to flee with the retreating Union army for fear of both brutal treatment by Confederate soldiers and being impressed into the Confederacy’s service. While some made it safely to Harpers Ferry not all did. Among the unlucky was Lee Jenkins. A free black prior to the war, Jenkins worked as a blacksmith in Newtown. During Milroy’s retreat he tried to escape, but Confederate forces captured him along with several hundred other African Americans. As Confederate soldiers drove their captives south on June 23, 1863, through Newtown one could only imagine what thoughts raced through Jenkins’ mind. Uncertain of what would happen to him Jenkins broke ranks and ran to the property of Thornton McLeod on the west side of the Valley Pike. There he jumped head first into a well and committed suicide. As had been the case throughout the course of slavery in America, death seemed preferable to returning to a life in bondage.
Following Milroy’s departure, skepticism about freedom’s meaning among Valley African Americans increased. When the 19th United States Colored Troops came to the Valley on a recruiting mission in April 1864, African Americans in the Valley hid because of the fear and subsequent uncertainty of what would happen if they became soldiers in the Union army and then captured in battle. Although the 19th recruited only two men during their 1864 sojourn in the Valley some Valley African Americans did serve in the Union army as a means of gaining their freedom. For example the membership lists of the Robert Gould Shaw G.A.R. Post 206 in Pittsburgh had fourteen members who listed their place of residence prior to or during the war as the Shenandoah Valley.
Not until the autumn of 1864, with victories of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah, did freedom’s conditionality stabilize. However, although ultimate Union military success in the Valley and the passage of the 13th Amendment after the Civil War secured freedom, former slaves wondered how they would integrate into a society that still largely rejected them as social equals. They had attained their dream of freedom, but after the Civil War they began a battle to fully realize emancipation’s promise.
About the Author:
Jonathan A. Noyalas is assistant professor of history and director of the Center for Civil War History at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, Virginia. He is the author or editor of six books on Civil War Era history including Plagued by War: Winchester, Virginia, During the Civil War and “My Will is Absolute Law”: A Biography of Union General Robert H. Milroy. He has also contributed scores of articles, essays, and reviews to a variety of academic and popular publications. Prof. Noyalas is also currently serving as the Civil War historian for the historic resource study at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park.
This article is included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s booklet, Home Front to Front Line: The Civil War Era in the Shenandoah Valley. Copies of the booklet are available at most visitor centers and many bookstores in the Valley, or in the online bookstore on CivilWarTraveler.com.