Yet Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was not the first blow against slavery. Since the beginning of the war, Union officers and Republicans in Washington had been chipping away at the institution. As early as 1861, Gen. Benjamin Butler had confiscated slaves near Fort Monroe, Virginia, and when their owners demanded the return of their property, he refused, arguing that slaves being used by the Confederate army could be confiscated in order to impede the Confederate war effort. Slave labor, after all, had long fueled the southern economy, producing food and manufacturing weapons for the Confederacy while also freeing white men for military service. By the end of the summer of 1862, Congress passed two Confiscation Acts, allowing the Union army to seize slaves, and commanders to put slaves to work in their camps, where they became known as “contrabands.”
The Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation facilitated slavery’s demise, but slaves themselves also caused the peculiar institution to crumble. Many slaves across the Confederacy ran to Union lines whenever they discovered that the army was nearby. One Alabama slave promised to “run off the first chance” he got. Although he “didn’t know how to git there,” he aimed to head “North where their ain’t no slaveowners.” Even slaves who stayed with their masters became insubordinate through small acts of resistance.
For white Alabamians, the blows to slavery were disturbing. In Huntsville, Alabama, Mary Chadick recalled that the slaves in the area were delighted by the arrival of the federal troops, in the summer of 1862. On June 10, she wrote, “the guard discovered 50 or 60 negroes at the depot, armed with Enfield rifles, drilling.” Although the men were dispersed by the authorities, Chadick found the event unsettling. Likewise, she disliked the way that some of the northern officers “visit the kitchens and chat familiarly with the [slave] women,” and she noted that many slaves “have refused to work for their masters and are constantly going to the Federalists.” Likewise, the editor of the Jackson Republican, when giving an account of the occupation of Huntsville on September 25, 1862, reported that the Yankees took “probably 1,500 negroes, many of whom went voluntarily…, [and] employed [them] as teamsters and in other kinds of labor, for which their previous training fitted them.” The confiscation of slaves and other property, he continued, left “plantations entirely destitute.” Although whites decried the end of slavery, for the many Alabamians who had been enslaved, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation signaled an end to over a century of bondage.