Historians say their numbers grew so large that they created a beachhead that influenced President Abraham Lincoln’s strategies on slavery and led to 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 war was not supposed to be about freeing the slaves, it was about preserving the Union,” Powell said. “But the slaves really did force the hand of the government. Especially in south Louisiana where they arrived in battalions and regiments, figuratively speaking.”
Slaves had been fleeing to sanctuary Northern states for years before the war. In Kentucky for example, they followed a clandestine trail that led them north along the Licking River. At its junction with the Ohio River, they crossed over to the Cincinnati area.
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, said University of New Orleans history professor emeritus Raphael Cassimere Jr. 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.
If New Orleans thought its open-city approach would bring leniency, it was somewhat wrong.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, who took command of the occupation, quickly became hated by residents. Among his edicts was one that local women insulting federal troops should be treated as prostitutes. This allowed Union soldiers to treat women according to their actions, and not with the customary tolerance typical of the times.
He also earned the nickname of “Spoons” Butler after he acquired a reputation _ history is unclear about whether it was deserved _ for pilfering silverware from the occupied territory.
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, said Tulane historian Terrence Fitzmorris. But more so, the situation in Louisiana focused Lincoln on emancipation, which he ordered Jan. 1, 1863.
“By this time, many of the (Louisiana) slaves had bolted,” Fitzmorris said. “They realized that the war was really about freedom. Why wait for a piece of paper to make it official. These people had come free on their own and Lincoln was just putting the seal of approval on their actions.”
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.”