NEW ORLEANS — They marched out of cotton and cane fields, away from the kitchens, the laundries and the rows of cabins standing behind white-columned plantations. In May 1862, the fall of New Orleans to Union forces triggered a dash for freedom as thousands of slaves sought refuge with the occupying army.
Historians say their numbers grew so large that they created a beachhead that influenced President Abraham Lincoln’s strategies on slavery and led to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
Tulane professor Larry Powell says the unexpected rush caused Lincoln to face more seriously how the Union would handle the slavery issue as its forces pushed deeper into the Confederacy.
“The slaves really did force the hand of the government. Especially in south Louisiana, where they arrived in battalions and regiments, figuratively speaking,” Powell said.
Slaves had been fleeing to sanctuary Northern states for years before the war.
After the war began, federal authorities were confronted with what to do about slaves in areas that fell to federal forces. But it was in Louisiana after Union forces took New Orleans that the floodgates opened.
The exodus destroyed many myths held about slaves, University of New Orleans history professor emeritus Raphael Cassimere Jr. said. Among them was the belief that slaves loved their masters and would not leave the plantations if allowed freedom.
“It was usually the most loyal-seeming slaves that were the first to go,” Cassimere said. “Acting loyal was a survival technique and they used what they could. But when the time came, they put on their tennis shoes and took off running.
Because of the massive flight, Powell said, Louisiana had more former slaves serve in the Union Army than any other state — 24,000 out of the 180,000 that put on the blue uniform.
In May 1862, Union naval forces ran by forts Jackson and St. Phillip, which guarded the Mississippi River approach about 80 miles south of New Orleans. Confederate forces conceded the city and withdrew to new positions to the west and north.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, who took command of the occupation, quickly became hated by residents.
But while Butler vexed white New Orleans, he also did much to set up the ground work the United States would need to deal with the newly freed population.
Although the law required that runaway slaves be returned to their masters, Butler declared them to be contraband of war, and let them stay.
He also set up contract work that required they be paid; disproving the theory that only the lash got them to do hard labor.
The American concept of contract work was that it could only be done by equal partners.
It also set a precedent, since only free people could enter into contracts, Tulane historian Terrence Fitzmorris said. But more so, the situation in Louisiana focused Lincoln on emancipation, which he ordered Jan. 1, 1863.
Louisiana abolished slavery in 1864, but not in 13 parishes, including Orleans and Jefferson. But slaves quickly learned to tell authorities they were from parishes where it had been banned, Cassimer said.
“The whole system broke down and it all began with the slaves running away,” Cassimer said. “They took things into their own hands and declared they were free.”
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