“One Negro named Robert…Valued at…$5300 impressed by me…into the Service of the Confederate Government”: The Nature of Wartime Slavery in Confederate Virginia

by Caroline Wood Newhall | | Thursday, September 20, 2018 - 15:41

Castle Thunder

During a short-term fellowship generously provided by the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia, I found primary sources at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library to contextualize my dissertation research on black Union soldiers’ experiences as prisoners of war (POWs) in the Confederacy. UVA’s Special Collections houses countless documents that provide insights into the nature of American enslavement through to the end of the Civil War, particularly in Virginia and the Upper South.

Black POWs did not enter into written sources in the ways that white prisoners did. Confederates considered them rebellious slaves rather than legitimate combatants, and black POWs thus often slipped through the cracks of the archival record. Though hundreds of black POWs survived and entered into military prisons throughout the war, they were often categorized as slaves, with few personal details to allow historians to identify them as imprisoned soldiers. The Nau Center currently holds the research papers of Roger Pickenpaugh, a historian who has authored definitive works on Civil War prisons and POWs in both the Union and the Confederacy.[1] He maintained hundreds of files that contain exhaustive research into POWs and prisons using newspaper articles, official records, and POWs’ own accounts from diaries and published memoirs. The collection contains invaluable information on numerous aspects of prison life, including medical treatment, physical punishment, and the amount and type of food prisoners ate on a daily basis. Yet out of this extensive collection, only several mentions can be found regarding black POWs.

The difficulty in identifying black POWs is exemplified in the Small Special Collection Library’s sources, such as the “Civil War List of Slave Prisoners in Eastern District Military Prison, Richmond VA 1864 November 30.” Captain Lucien W. Richardson, commandant of Castle Thunder prison in Richmond, Virginia compiled a list of 30 enslaved people “remaining” in its walls as of November 30, 1864.[2] There are thirty names on this list, many of which are simply first names. Included are details such as skin color, age, and slaveowners’ full names, as well as where these people were arrested and when they entered the prison. By cross-referencing this list with my own database of black POWs, I discovered that at least eight men included on the list were black Union soldiers captured during the Petersburg campaign in the late summer and early fall of 1864.

In failing to acknowledge black POWs’ military service and keeping their identities tied to white slaveholders, Richardson and others effectively erased the nature of these mens' rebellion in a systematic effort to maintain the Confederacy’s racialized social order during the war. Of the 46 collections I accessed during my fellowship, this one-page document remained the only source in which I was able to positively identify individual black POWs. The silence of extant records speaks to the difficulties of identifying black POWs, as well as fully understanding their wartime experiences. Silence, however, did not mean non-existence. The volume of sources in the Small Special Collections Library concerning slavery in wartime demonstrates Confederates’ continued interests in maintaining their main source of labor that can help explain black POWs’ survival.

The Confederate states of Virginia, Alabama, and Louisiana first began to impress enslaved people as vital labor on public works and fortifications in 1862, a practice adopted by the Confederate Congress in March 1863.[3] Whites’ valuations of enslaved people as a precious labor source and economic commodities increased as the war continued, with inflation driving up valuations.[4] UVA’s Special Collections Library holds numerous collections attesting to these facts, particularly regarding slave sales and impressment in Virginia during the war. The “Omohundro Slave Trade and Farm Accounts, 1857-1864,” which includes a slave sale book for a Virginia slave-trading firm run by brothers Silas and R.H. Omohundro, demonstrates that at the beginning of the war, prices for adult male slaves ranged from $1,000 to $2,000. Family collections such as the Samuel Pannill Wilson Papers, 1847-1938,  George C. Hannah, slave bills of sale, 1843-1864, Morris Family Papers, 1704-1931, and others show that by the end of 1864, enslaved adult male Virginians impressed by the Confederate government were valued from $4,000 to $6,000 each.[5]

The King Family Papers, 1811-1890, provide a significant acknowledgement of slave women’s value during the war as well. William King owned a salt works in Saltville, Virginia that was essential for the Confederate army, and the site of a massacre involving black troops in October 1864. He purchased a woman named Elizabeth, whom he later described as “infamous” for her “palpable misdemeanor,” for $2,750 in 1863.[6] Slave sales in Virginia continued well into 1865, and white southerners consistently documented their transactions of black people as significant commodities and investments.[7]

The profitability of slavery during the Civil War meant that slaveholders persisted in dehumanizing enslaved people as itemized property and primarily catalogued enslaved people by their monetary worth. Virginia slaveholder William F. Wickham, for example, kept lists of his slaves and their values throughout the antebellum period, contained in the Wickham family papers, 1704-circa 1950. During the war, Wickham compiled lists totaling 121 enslaved laborers who had been “carried off” and “gone to the enemy” from his plantation, Hickory Hill, in Hanover County from 1863 to 1864.[8] The library also holds at least two lists from Bedford County, Virginia, which identified slaveholders whose slaves had been impressed by the Confederate military, as well as enslaved people who had “escaped to the enemy.” These lists enumerate more than 100 enslaved people, most of whom remained unnamed, with inconsistent details provided on their ages and physical descriptions.[9] No explanations are given regarding why these documents were created or who created them, but it seems likely that they could help officials and slaveholders alike to identify and reclaim escaped slaves should they be recaptured and held in places such as Castle Thunder. Perhaps these lists also served as a way for slaveholders to receive compensation for their human property.

Slaveholders went to great lengths to demand compensation for enslaved people “lost” during wartime. Impressment agents’ valuations of slaves taken by the Confederate Army allowed slaveholders to seek compensation should enslaved people manage to escape or die in the military custody. UVA’s Special Collections holds documents in which Virginian slaveholders went so far as to bring lawsuits against the Confederate government, state governments, and individuals they deemed responsible when their impressed slaves died working on Confederate fortifications. In the “Report of Committee on Claims in the Case of Mary Clark” and “Legal Deposition of A. K. Tribble, 1864 January 12,” respectively, Mary Clark of Washington County, Virginia, and James A. Floyd of Newberry District in South Carolina sought financial compensation for the loss of human chattels appropriated by the Confederacy for its defense.[10]

The Nau Center’s short-term fellowship allowed me to supplement my existing research on the experiences and memory of black POWs with sources focused on white Confederates’ views of black Americans. Black POWs are not directly represented in these sources, but their survival, enslavement, and imprisonment by Confederates followed a similar logic to enslavement in the antebellum. These records demonstrate the power that whites, particularly literate slaveholders, continued to wield over black southerners’ historical narrative during the Civil War. Enslaved Americans’ identities and voices, however, have increasingly emerged as archival holdings are digitized and historians have the ability to make connections between diverse collections. Through the continued support of organizations such as the Nau Center, historians will increasingly provide holistic understandings of diverse historical experiences and perspectives.

Caroline Wood Newhall is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is currently a McColl Fellow at the Center for the Study of the American South, and is writing her dissertation on black prisoners of war held in the Confederate South during the Civil War.

Images: (1) Castle Thunder (Courtesy Library of Congress); (2) “List of Slaves Remaining at Eastern District… November 30, 1864” (Courtesy UVA Small Special Collections Library); (3) “Captured Negroes,” August 27, 1864, The Richmond Dispatch; (4) William Fanning Wickham (Walter F. Brooks, History of the Fanning Family, opposite p. 152).


1. See Roger Pickenpaugh, Captives in Gray: The Civil War Prisons of the Union (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009), and Captives in Blue: The Civil War Prisons of the Confederacy (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013).

2. Civil War List of Slave Prisoners in Eastern District Military Prison, Richmond, Va., 1864, Accession #11339, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA 22903.

3. Bernard H. Nelson, “Confederate Slave Impressment Legislation, 1861-1865,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Oct. 1946), 399; Jaime Amanda Martinez, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 2.

4. Robert Colby, “The Continuance of an Unholy Traffic: The Virginia Slave Trade During the Civil War,” (M.A. Thesis, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2015), 47-48.

5. Samuel Pannill Wilson Papers, 1847-1938, Accession #10721; George C. Hannah, slave bills of sale, 1843-1864, Accession #970; Morris Family Papers, 1704-1931, Accession #38-79; Mathews Family Papers, 1792-1900, Accession #5240; Omohundro Slave Trade and Farm Accounts, 1857-1864, Accession #4122.

6. Letter to Anna King, December 18, 1863; Purchase of slave from RB Williams, April 21, 1863, King Family Papers [manuscript] 1811-1890, Accession #6682

7. Colby, 55.

8. Wickham family papers, 1704-circa 1950, Accession #15753.

9. List of Slave Owners and Their Male Slaves Between the Ages of 18 and 55 Years, Embracing List of Such Slaves as Have Escaped to the Public Enemy 1864, Accession #11820. Bedford County,Va., slave lists, 1865, Accession #11839.

10. Report of Committee on Claims in the Case of Mary Clark, Accession #A1863.C4412 C57 Dec.29; Legal Deposition of A. K. Tribble [manuscript] 1864 January 12, Accession #12491.