Long before the war that ended slavery, enslaved people were at war with the system that confined them. They employed various tactics in daily battles for freedom within the confines of bondage. Far from being passive, they resisted by avoiding work, occasionally rebelling outright, and self-liberating. They used various tactics with some success, to evade work, befuddle enslavers, and otherwise gain small freedoms. Major rebellions in Virginia included Gabriel’s Conspiracy in 1800 just outside Richmond, and Nat Turner’s Insurrection in Southampton County in 1831. These events increased slaveholders’ fears, however, and hard, restrictive laws were enacted. The Franklin and Armfield Slave Jail in Alexandria and the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail (“Devil’s Half Acre”) and African Burial Ground sites in Richmond help commemorate the ordeal of enslavement.
Many enslaved people successfully liberated themselves using a variety of means. In 1849, Henry Brown, who worked in his owner’s Richmond tobacco factory, “mailed” himself by train to Philadelphia in a wooden crate with air holes and “This Side Up” painted on the outside. He was known thereafter as Henry Box Brown. While he escaped on a literal railroad, thousands of others in Virginia and elsewhere slipped away on the “virtual” Underground Railroad, a network of friends and safehouses that guided them north through places like Pocahontas Island, a free black village in Petersburg. Some, like Brown and Maryland native Frederick Douglass, took up the pen and published to the world the truths of slavery: illiteracy; hunger; the separation of spouses and children; rapes; whippings; and limited access to churches. Their witness helped fuel the white abolitionist movement. Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) was a white novelist who thinly fictionalized slavery’s human toll in a book that reached millions.
Enslaved people fought to break their chains, then, through various forms of resistance, escape, and the written word. When the Civil War came, they were eager to fight in uniform for their right to freedom.