Runaway Journeys
Many Reasons to Leave
The Peaks of Migration
Profile of the Fugitives
Escape to Cities and Towns
Maroon Communities
Going South and West
Up North
Canada, the Promised Land
The Civil War
The Consequences of the Migration

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The dynamics of runaway journeys changed dramatically during the Civil War. Beginning in June 1861, enslaved people near Fortress Monroe, Virginia, began to trickle into Union lines and offer their services to the federal authorities. General Benjamin Butler called them "contraband." In the following months, the trickle turned into a torrent as thousands of runaways made their way to Army lines. Some Union generals refused to accept them, returning them to their owners, but Congress prohibited this early in 1862. By the time Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, tens of thousands of men, women, and children had made it out of bondage.

Robins Family Papers: 1862 Memorandum on RunawaysRobins Family Papers: 1862 Memorandum on Runaways

Those who escaped found their new situation to be nearly as desperate as the circumstances they had left behind. Union soldiers beat, robbed, and raped them, and they were forced to live in contraband camps without proper sanitation, shelter, or supplies. Although the army was ordered to provide clothing, rations, and medical care, and freedmen's aid societies sought to aid Southern African Americans, most runaways suffered greatly from exposure and harsh conditions.

One of the most important changes that occurred during this period was the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union Army. Prior to 1862, they were excluded from the army, although some served as spies, scouts, cooks, teamsters, officers' servants, and laborers. In May 1862, the federal government began to recruit African Americans. A majority of the approximately 186,000 black men who served during the war were from the Southern states, including 93,000 from the seceded states and 40,000 from the border slave states.  Many among them were runaways. Despite being paid less than their white counterparts, they participated in several battles, acquitting themselves with courage and dignity.

Few escapees during the war sought retribution against their former owners. Seeking a new life in freedom, they rarely found it necessary to attack the slaveholders as federal troops moved into their sections. Group violence most often occurred in Louisiana, where owners had a long history of oppressive treatment and punishment. When they attempted to move them to remote backcountry areas, some of the enslaved assaulted overseers before fleeing.

By the end of the war, a large but undetermined number of the nearly four million enslaved men, women, and children had become runaways. As in the prewar period, few among them left the region of their birth. Most found a life in freedom fraught with suffering, pain, hunger, disease, and fear. The war, however, ended forever the phenomenon of runaways.

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The Consequences of the Migration >