How the Civil War Changed the Lives of African American Refugees


By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University

During the Civil War, Union troops amassed off the coast of South Carolina and attacked Confederate-controlled forts. The Battle of Port Royal was a Union victory. The Union army established Hilton Head as its headquarters. Hilton also became a beacon light for thousands of enslaved African American refugees who made their way to the Union encampment in search of freedom.

Illustration of the bombardment of Port Royal
The Battle of Port Royal led to the establishment of the Hilton Head as the Union army’s headquarters. (Image: U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph/Public domain)

The Small Gap Between Slavery and Freedom

The African American refugees were not turned away at Hilton. Their labor and skill as craftsmen, cooks, stevedores, and laundresses was needed. Technically, they were not fully free. This was two years before the Emancipation Proclamation. 

They were, by law, contraband of war, occupying the liminal space between slavery and freedom. But legal distinctions didn’t matter to those who only knew the sting of the bullwhip. To them, this was freedom, and there was no going back.

African American Refugees in Mitchelville

As the number of African Americans on Hilton Head grew, General Ormsby Mitchel set aside land in quarter-acre lots near the Drayton Plantation for families to settle. This new community came to be called Mitchelville in honor of General Mitchel, who died shortly after setting it in motion.

Almost immediately, its members established a self-governing structure, complete with elected officials. They built churches so they could worship as they pleased. They also created a compulsory school system for children ages 6 to 15, the first in the state of South Carolina.

Illustration of Mitchelville
Mitchelville was named after General Ormsby Mitchel, who set aside land for African American refugees to settle. (Image: Library of Congress/Public domain)

Mitchelville thrived during the war years as African Americans made real their freedom dreams of controlling their own labor; participating in community governance; worshipping as they wanted; and learning to read, write, and figure.

The community reached its peak population in 1868, at around 3,000, with 238 students enrolled in school. But at that point, with the war and slavery over, opportunities to make a living on the mainland emerged, and gradually, the people moved to new Black communities in Squire Pope, Bayard, and Chaplain. But they took with them the blueprint for freedom that they had developed. Mitchelville was a rehearsal for Reconstruction.

This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Slavery Equaled Money

White Southerners took up arms against the federal government to preserve the institution of slavery. They fought to keep 4 million African Americans in chains, not because they didn’t like Black people (although they used racism to justify slavery), but because Black people in bondage made them rich.

Cotton, of course, was king. In 1860, enslaved African Americans produced fully two-thirds of the global supply of cotton, worth about $7.3 billion today. Other cash crops produced by enslaved African Americans enhanced the South’s prosperity. Whether planting tobacco in Virginia, harvesting rice in South Carolina, picking cotton in Mississippi, or cutting sugarcane in Louisiana, uncompensated Black labor created tremendous white wealth.

Loyalty to ‘Kind’ Enslavers?

Enslaved African Americans worked from “can’t see in the morning until can’t see at night” their entire lives. They did so not because of loyalty or devotion to a kind or benevolent enslaver. The myth of the “good master” is just that: a myth. There was no such thing as a “good master”, only enslavers who were not quite as cruel as others. Those held in bondage worked out of fear. They feared the consequences of failing to do so. 

They chopped cotton and butchered meat to avoid being whipped. They cooked meals and mended garments so they would not be sold. They forged metal tools and blew glass to prevent food rations from being withheld. They hauled goods to market and loaded cargo onto ships to keep loved ones together. Coercion was the cornerstone of slavery. Violence, in its many forms, from whippings to family separation, made slavery a viable, and valuable, economic system.

Creating Communities

Painting of an African American family of slaves on a plantation
Even in their dire circumstances, many African American refugees managed to create a community by bringing people together. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Although treated as less than human, enslaved African Americans never lost sight of their own humanity. They loved and they laughed. They played and they prayed. They married and they raised families. In these ways, they created community. And through community—by bringing together immediate and extended family, real and fictive kin—they built the support networks they needed to endure the horrors of slavery.

Enslaved African Americans also resisted their bondage. They rejected outright the fantasy that slavery was either a positive good or a necessary evil. They saw it for what it was—a crime against humanity. This led a daring few to organize rebellions to secure their freedom—Gabriel in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800; Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822; and Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. 

Small Acts of Resistance

But none of these uprisings succeeded. Whites were too numerous, too heavily armed, and too well organized to be defeated by small bands of freedom fighters. Understanding that insurrection was doomed to fail, the vast majority of enslaved African Americans expressed their opposition to slavery in other ways.

Some fled to nearby free states and territories, tapping into secret networks of Black and white abolitionists for assistance. Others engaged in more covert acts of resistance, such as feigning illness or destroying property. And still others resisted slavery by clinging to African cultural traditions, from Akan naming practices to Bantu foodways.

In acts seen and unseen, visible and invisible, the enslaved always fought back.

Common Questions about How the Civil War Changed the Lives of African American Refugees

Q: What happened to the African American refugees who escaped to Hilton Head?

The African American refugees were used for their skills. Though the refugees were technically not free, they felt free compared to where they had come from. As time passed, the African American community there grew, leading to the establishment of Mitchelville.

Q: How was slavery influential in the economics of Southern slaveowners?

The African American refugees who had fled from their slaveowners were part of a large industry. For example, in the case of cotton, two-thirds of its global supply was produced by slaves. These unpaid workers also influenced industries surrounding rice and tobacco.

Q: How did African American slaves react after some uprisings were defeated?

African American refugees fled to nearby states and joined abolitionist networks. Others feigned illness or outright destroyed property. Some clung to their roots in African traditions such as naming practices.

Keep Reading
Movement for Emancipation and Abolition of Slavery in Early America
Need for Emancipation Proclamation and Abraham Lincoln’s War Powers
The Varied Political Views on Emancipation During the Civil War