Justice  /  Book Review

An Unholy Traffic: How the Slave Trade Continued Through the US Civil War

In a new book, Robert KD Colby of the University of Mississippi shows how the Confederacy remained committed to slavery.

As Colby explains, the slave trade underwent a reorientation. The antebellum practice was to sell enslaved people from the upper south to the lower south and the so-called “Cotton Kingdom”. Early in the war, this was no longer possible due to the Union capturing major markets such as New Orleans, Natchez and Memphis. Thus, enslaved people were sent to places where confidence in the south ran high.

The Confederate capital, Richmond, was prominent on that list, along with the original capital, Montgomery, Alabama. In another Alabama city, Mobile, slave traders advertised their heinous industry with an 1863 travel guide. Those engaged in the trade included major firms such as the Richmond-based Hill, Dickinson & Co and also ordinary citizens, such as an Alabama husband and wife, Nimrod and Queen Long, who debated selling an enslaved woman, Ellen, during a brief moment of Confederate military resurgence.

“For the most part,” Colby says, the trade “persisted in the places where the Union forces weren’t. It was squeezed into smaller and smaller areas. In those areas, it continued, for a variety of reasons.”

Where there were shortages of food, enslaved people might be sold to avoid “excessive mouths to feed”. When conscription into the army caused labor shortages, enslaved people could be acquired to “make up the difference”.

“Of course, plenty of people’s desire to continue buying and selling enslaved people was shaped by the degree of faith they had resting on the Confederacy. Confederates [bought] enslaved people almost as a bet on the prospect of Confederate victory.”

Colby addresses the grim narrative of women and children who Confederates anticipated would have a lifetime of labor and child rearing in a postwar nation. Colby sees the narrative of Kate Drumgoold as an example. When she was about eight, her enslaver in Virginia turned down what Drumgoold recalled as an unprecedented offer to sell her. But two of her 10 sisters were sold, as was their mother.

Despite the formidable apparatus of slavery, Black people found ways to resist, notably by escaping, as in the case of Mary Pope in Virginia. Pope’s husband, Joe Dardin, had been sent to slave traders early in the war. When her enslaver threatened to sell Pope and her four children too, the family fled to a Union camp for freedmen in the port of Norfolk. In Charleston, South Carolina, the hub of secession, William Summerson and his wife knew it was time to escape once they were appraised for sale. Hiding in barrels, they made their way to a Union gunboat.