This photo is part of the Library of Congress collection, and appears on their Flickr page. When used with a special viewer, the image would have appeared in 3D. The picture itself was taken shortly after the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and shows a former slave family passing into Union lines. Throughout the war, there was a steady stream of African Americans who escaped their bondage and migrated towards Union forts and the Northern states. This image can tell us a great deal about the Civil War and the lives of African Americans during the period.
As the Civil War progressed, slaveholders in the South began to lose some of their power over their enslaved property. Numerous accounts discuss how enslaved laborers began to escape in larger numbers during the War, heading north towards the Union. As the Union forces moved through the South, former slaves latched on, leaving their slaveowners behind. In other instances, the enslaved stayed put, but refused to work, instead planting their own gardens and tending their own crops. The instability that the War created led to what historian Steven Hahn referred to as the largest slave revolt in history (Hahn 2003).
In many ways, the great quantity of slaves who did escape changed the tenor of the Civil War, which had begun as a conflict over a state’s right to slavery. By showing up at Union lines, these escaped slaves were using their feet to demonstrate their opposition to their enslavement. They also forced the hand of the Union Army, who had to decide whether or not to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This Act required that escaped slave property had to be returned to their owners, regardless as to what borders had been crossed. Gradually, the Union Army began to view escaped slaves as Contraband of War. As the slaves kept arriving, the Government gradually loosened the restrictions, a process that eventually led to the Emancipation Proclamation. While this photo was taken after the Proclamation was announced, it is likely that slaves who had escaped earlier in the war arrived under similar circumstances.
From an archaeological perspective, the most interesting component of this photo is the amount of property these individuals had brought with them: a mule, a horse, a wagon full unidentified items. Initially, this is peculiar, since they had only recently been property themselves. How did a formerly enslaved family own so much property? This question leads to one of the most often confused parts of slavery: that slaves could, and did, own property. Certainly, some of their property could have been stolen during the War, but it is likely that some of this property was acquired before it. Historian Dylan Penningroth discusses this at length in his book Claims of Kinfolk, in which he examines the claims courts set up in the South after the War (Penningroth 2003). Former slaves would arrive, listing the property that they had lost during the war. This ranged from small items to claims on larger items such as livestock. We know that many plantations in the South gave plots of land to their laborers to farm for themselves, and that many maintained gardens, and sold goods in the markets. Archaeologists have discussed at length the creation of colonoware pots, which were earthenware vessels made by slaves (Ferguson 1992). It is clear that enslaved African Americans owned property beyond the clothes they wore on their backs, and that there was a complex system in place where their claims to this property was tacitly recognized by their owners.
One photograph can provide a great deal of information when considered within its larger context. This one shows a family escaping to freedom, and the hopes for better opportunities in the North. While a photograph that exudes hope, family, and community, it also gives a glimpse into the conditions of their past, and the effect their migration has on a scale beyond their own freedom.
What does this photo mean to you? What do you think the road to freedom for this family had been like, and how do you think their lives were changed by the Civil War? Leave us a comment below with your thoughts!!
1992 Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press.
2003 A Nation Under Our Feet. Cambridge, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
2003 The Claims of Kinfolk. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, The University of North Carolina Press.