Contrary to common belief, enslaved African Americans gained their freedom more as a result of their own risks and hard work than from the alleged generosity of the political leaders above them. Through a series of small, rebellious, and self-motivated actions, enslaved African Americans made themselves a nuisance for the Union army in order to gain the attention of high-up government officials. Since the way that slaves gained their freedom from below was by invoking the attention of the people above them, many saw their emancipation as a grand act of compassion opposed to the result of tireless effort.
The photo shown on the left depicts the common misconception that African Americans gained their freedom from the white, wealthy politicians above them. Unlike what this picture tells you, it was not Lincoln’s proclamation that freed the slaves as much as the slave’s actions to evoke Lincoln’s proclamation that inevitably freed themselves.
One prime example of enslaved African Americans taking the initiative to gain freedom for themselves was the situation that General Ambrose E. Burnside and his troops came across on March 21, 1862. Expecting to meet the confederate forces, these men instead found that the small southern town was run by self-emancipated slaves who took over after all the inhabitants fled. The unions troops were completely taken off-guard when they came across this unexpected sight and had no idea what they were supposed to do next. To solve the dilemma, General Ambrose E. Burnside wrote a letter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton explaining their confusion. By taking over the abandoned town, the previously enslaved African Americans made themselves impossible to ignore until, through Ambrose’s letter, they eventually caught the attention of people above them. So, although it may appear that any liberation these people received after this day came from above, it was actually a result of their actions from below that became impossible to ignore.
Another case of African Americans taking the initiative to gain freedom for themselves is shown in the photo on the right.
This engraving shows a group of slaves from President Jefferson Davis’ plantation that all banded together and walked to a union camp at Chickasaw Bayou, Mississippi. The troops at the camp were completely dumbfounded by the arrival of all of the slaves and inevitably had to ask the secretary of war how they should react. When the slaves left their plantation, they were seizing their freedom from below by making themselves a nuisance until people above them had no choice but to react somehow.
Although wealthy politicians of the time painted a picture of their overwhelming generosity being the driving factor that freed the slaves, African American freedom did not come from above. It was the relentless efforts from below that allowed the slaves to drive themselves into freedom.
(General Ambrose E. Burnside’s letter taken from: Reprinted in Berlin, Ira, Barbara Fields, Steven Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds. Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom and the Civil War. New York: New Press, 1992, pp. 34–35. )