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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Emancipation

Rappahannock River, Va. Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock, August 1862
Civil War I: Slaves
- "We knew it was our right to be free": narrative of Louis Hughes, 1897, excerpts (PDF)
- "I 'member well when the war was on": selections from WPA narratives, 1930s (PDF)
- Photographs of African Americans during the Civil War, Library of Congress

In his 1899 memoir, The End of an Era, former slaveholder John Sergeant Wise expressed the confidence he'd held in his slaves' loyalty:
Were not the negroes perfectly content and happy? Had I not often talked to them on the subject? Had not every one of them told me repeatedly that they loved "old Marster" better than anybody in the world, and would not have freedom if he offered it to them? Of course they had,—many and many a time. And that settled it.
Yet during the Civil War many slaves fled their owners as soon as they could, heading north or wherever "behind Union lines" took them.1 Many others could not leave or would not leave without their families, often convinced that the Yankees were their enemies, too. And, finally, many were loyal to their slaveholders, defending them and their property from raiding Yankees while simultaneously yearning for a Union victory—a dual loyalty unfathomable to most slaveholders, and aptly expressed by Martin Jackson, who accompanied his slaveholder in the First Texas Cavalry: "I wanted [the Yankees] to win and lick us Southerners, but I hoped they was going to do it without wiping out our company." Here we read selections to illustrate the range of attitude and experience during the war, excerpted from 19th- and 20th-century narratives of formerly enslaved African Americans.
  • "We knew it was our right to be free." When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Louis Hughes was twenty-nine years old and enslaved on a Mississippi plantation. In these excerpts from his 1897 narrative, Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom, Hughes recounts his wartime experiences, the slaves' mounting anticipation of freedom, his successful escape to a Yankee camp in Memphis, Tennessee, and his daring return to the plantation, with the aid of two Union soldiers, to rescue his wife and sister-in-law. "Freedom, that we had so long looked for, had come at last."

  • "I 'member well when the war was on." The wide variety of slave experience in the Civil War is documented in the narratives of former slaves compiled in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal agency under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The twenty-seven brief excerpts in this collection span the civilian and military experiences of enslaved men, women, and children, for whom the arrival of Yankee troops and the certainty of emancipation marked a turning point in their lives that most expected never to see. "I remember the Yankees," states Elias Thomas, seventy-two years after his emancipation. "I will remember seein' them till I die. I will never forgit it."

  • Photographs of African Americans during the Civil War. This selection of 168 photographs from the Library of Congress Civil War Photograph Collection documents the African Americans war experience in six categories: (1) soldiers; (2) naval scenes; (3) "contrabands," "freedmen," and refugees; (4) military camps and sites of military activity; (5) other; and (6) images that do not show African Americans but include related subject matter (i.e., slave pens, white officers). What is documented in photographs of the African American war experience that is missing from wartime drawings and sketches, all produced by white people? (To access relevant photographs and drawings in the Library of Congress online collections, go to and search in the SUBJECT/FORMAT category for African Americans and Civil War.)

Combine these war narratives with those in other sections of the Toolbox, especially in IDENTITY: Soldiers, and EMANCIPATION: Civil War II: Soldiers, and Emancipation, 1864-1865. (20 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Overall, how did the Civil War affect the lives of enslaved people in the South?
  2. How did they cope with the privations and anxieties of the war?
  3. What range of attitudes toward slaveholders do you find in these narratives? How did the war manifest a slave's attitude toward his or her slaveholder?
  4. What ambivalent attitudes toward slavery, slaveholders, and the war are expressed in the narratives?
  5. For those slaves whose owners left the plantation to fight in the war, how did they deal with the change in their responsibilities?
  6. What common experiences and attitudes do they relate about the final months of the war?
  7. How did they deal with prospect of invading Yankees? with the arrival of Union troops in their regions?
  8. How did they learn they were free? How did they respond to the news?
  9. What did they do immediately after emancipation? Why?
  10. In the WPA narratives, note whether each narrator was interviewed in the same state(s) in which he/she was enslaved. How might this factor influence their accounts of their war experiences?
  11. Compose a dialogue including Louis Hughes, who published his narrative in 1897 and died in 1913, and several of the former slaves who survived to be interviewed in the 1930s.
  12. What does Hughes emphasize in his 1897 narrative? What do the WPA interviewees emphasize in the mid 1930s?
  13. How is the difference of forty years reflected in the tone and emphasis that Hughes and the WPA interviewees bring to their narratives?
  14. How are their narratives influenced by genre—first-person narrative or transcribed interview?
  15. What do you learn from the photographs? When are the enslaved people aware of the camera? How do you interpret their postures and expressions?
  16. Why are some of the photographs stereographs?
  17. Compose brief monologues in which Louis Hughes and/or a WPA interviewee describes and responds to one of the photographs of African Americans during the Civil War. What led to your specific selection of photograph and narrator?

Framing Questions
  • How did enslaved African Americans construct communities over time? What were their principal characteristics?
  •  What obstacles did slaves confront in constructing communities?
  •  How did white Americans respond to the collective behavior of African Americans?
  •  How was autonomy exercised through community by antebellum African Americans?

Louis Hughes narrative: 11
WPA narratives: 10
Photographs: View online; print selected photographs.
TOTAL 21 pages

Supplemental Sites
African Americans in the Civil War, overview, Africans in America (PBS/WGBH)

North American Slave Narratives (18th-19th century), Introduction, Dr. William A. Andrews, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

Louis Hughes, Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom, 1897, full text, in Documenting the American South (UNC-Chapel Hill Library)

WPA Slave Narratives, Library of Congress An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

1 Colin A. Palmer, Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America, Vol. I: 1619-1863 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 2002), p. 294.

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Glass Negative Collection.
-Photograph (detail) labeled "Rappahannock River, Va. Fugitive African Americans fording the Rappahannock," August 1862; photographer: Timothy H. O'Sullivan. Call No LC-B815- 518[P&P]. [LOC note: Photograph from the main eastern theater of the war, Second Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, July-August 1862].
-Photograph (detail) labeled "Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of 'contrabands' at Foller's house," 14 May 1862; photographer: James F. Gibson. Call No. LC-B811- 383[P&P].
-Photograph (detail) labeled "Arrival of Negro family in the lines" (probably Virginia), 1 January 1863; photographer: David B. Woodbury. Call No. LC-B811- 657[P&P].

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Buying Freedom   2. Death as Freedom   3. Abolition
4. Liberia   5. Civil War I: Slaves   6. Civil War II: Soldiers
7. Emancipation, 1864-1865   8. The Institution

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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