Unholy History

Author and professor to speak on new book exploring slave trading in Civil War South.

While doing research using Civil War records – letters, diaries and newspapers – Robert Colby, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi, kept coming across mentions and records of Confederates purchasing and selling enslaved people during the Civil War.

Knowing the outbreak of the Civil War had devastated the cotton economy that had driven much of the trade in enslaved people throughout the 19th century, Colby was curious: Given the possibility of emancipation, acquiring an enslaved person seemed like an economically unwise decision; if the country was at war, why were slaves still being bought and sold?

“That’s a great question and really the key one I wanted to understand,” Colby says. “Relatively few people had written anything about this, so I set out to explain why these transactions in people continued and this book is the result.”

The book is Colby’s “An Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South,” which will be the subject of his talk on Thursday, June 13 at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

As for why slave trading continued, Colby found two major reasons, one rooted in continuity, the other in the changes the war brought about. Confederates fought, in large part, to ensure the survival of a slaveholding society, and believed that when they won the war, slavery would continue in much the same form as before.

“Prior to the Civil War, enslaved people had been worth billions of dollars, and the prices offered for them as human property had increased steadily for 15 years,” says Colby. “So many people bought and sold enslaved people during the war believing that slavery would continue on this trajectory.”

The other reason white Southerners bought and sold people during the war was as a specific response to the conflict, particularly to deal with the many hardships fighting a near-total war imposed on them. “Slave trading offered them the flexibility to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances of the conflict,” he says. “Issues like food shortages, the need to redistribute labor and the pressures of military service.”

Changing economics

Slave trading changed in several important ways during the war, beginning with how its geography shifted. Before the war, slave traders had mostly moved people from the upper Southern states like Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky to the Cotton Kingdom, selling them through cities like New Orleans and Natchez.

These cities came under Union attack fairly early, and their advances cut across major slave-trading routes. “This means that cities protected by Confederate armies like Richmond and Atlanta became the new hubs of slave trading,” says Colby. “Second, slave trading reoriented around more than immediate agricultural profits. During the war, the main driver for buying an enslaved person was not whether that person could bring an immediate profit, but whether or not the purchaser believed in the CSA’s long-term success. Because only Confederate victory could make an enslaved person a valuable asset over the long-term.”

Because the Civil War, from secession onward, was an economic catastrophe for the Confederacy, it caused what we’d call a depression by crashing the existing financial system. Then the onset of war cut off the Confederate states from global markets and the costs of the Civil War quickly sparked hyperinflation in the Confederacy. From the war’s first year onward, the Confederacy experienced about 10% inflation per month. “On the one hand, this limited slave trading because it had been deeply interwoven with the existing financial system,” he explains. “On the other hand, inflation particularly encouraged investment in enslaved people as real, tangible assets whose value might outpace inflation.”

Confronting Lumpkin

In researching the book, Colby found surprise after surprise beyond his initial shock that slave transactions continued during the war. Mainly, it was the individual experiences of enslaved people that repeatedly stopped him in his tracks. He cites the most powerful moment as when he was reading the diary of an abolitionist named Julia Wilbur, who spent most of the war in Alexandria working with freed people.

In the spring of 1865, she came to Richmond alongside Harriet Jacobs, who had fled slavery and written a narrative of her experiences called “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” just before the war. “In Richmond, the pair visited Robert Lumpkin’s slave jail and confronted Lumpkin himself, as well as a host of formerly enslaved people who had come to the city’s slave trading district seeking people sold away by its traders,” Colby says. “It was an incredibly striking moment, one that highlighted the human costs of the wartime slave trade and profoundly shaped the way I approached the book.”

In writing it, one of Colby’s goals was to introduce readers who generally read about the Civil War and readers who read more about American slavery to one another’s areas of interest. “The stories of enslavement and the Civil War are inseparable, and while the freedom the war brought was truly a remarkable achievement, it also came at a significant cost, not only in terms of lives lost, but in terms of families divided and people sold,” he says.​”​ We need to remember all of that as we consider the Civil War and its aftermath.”

Dr. Robert Colby’s lecture on “An Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South,” June 13 at 6 p.m. at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. 428 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd., virginiahistory.org.



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