Research

The Civil War and Urban versus Rural Slavery

Cover photo courtesy of Topozone.com.

During the Civil War the South had a plantation slavery and agriculture economy while North had urbanization and suburbanization. According to historian Tera W. Hunter, “Atlanta’s growth was fostered by the Civil War and the railroad.”1

War transformed plantation towns to metropolises. Economic elite of Southern cities include manufacturers and merchants. Cities like Atlanta were home to foundries, rolling mills, hotels, breweries, saw and flour mills as well as agricultural factories.

This diversity of businesses offered opportunities for consumers and workers, slave and free, not typical of the region. But even as Atlanta self-consciously touted itself as a progressive divergence from the South’s dependence on one-crop agriculture, it also resisted social and political change.2

Businessmen initially opposed secession fearing its effect on the economy. Class conflict led to riots, looting and protests even among Confederate soldiers due to food shortages and lack of dry goods. Atlanta was important during the Civil War for various military advantages, leading to a creation of new factories and the expansion of the city’s population. Atlanta also had a reputation as a “crossroads village” filled with vice and a burgeoning red-light district with local spots like Snake Nation on Peter’s Street and Murrell’s Row on Decatur Street.

As Hunter writes in her book To Joy My Freedom, “In the rural South slavery ordered labor and plantation life; in the urban South, slavery was only one source of labor and was merely incidental to a city’s character.”3 For example, Samuel P. Richards, a British merchant who was a slave-owner in Atlanta that participated in the hire-out system:

The hire-out system democratized access to slaves by enabling white wage-earners to benefit from the system, even as some white workers were forced to compete with slaves. If they could not buy a slave outright, some could afford to hire slaves as helpers as their needs demanded them.4

An influx of White refugees of the Civil War led to an increased demand in slave labor in the domestic sphere, but particularly for field hands. Domestics could serve as cooks, nurses, and laundresses. White wives in the urban South used domestic labor as a status worker while this form of employment exposed Black women to sexual abuse despite their efforts to resist. Civil War soldiers both Union and Confederate raped enslaved women. Further, owners of slaves in urban cities tended to maintain small units, thus forcing enslaved families apart for their financial gain, going so far as to exploit children, particularly young girls.

Residing in the city still gave urban slaves the opportunity to live autonomously. The city offered anonymity and enabled casual contact between slaves and free Blacks. During that time period, only 25 of the 1900 Blacks residing in Atlanta were enslaved. However, the population growth included enslaved people due to labor demand. This growth prompted the Atlanta City Council to regulate the pass system due to slave military laborers in 1863.  The same year the city council also passed a law that required Black people to stay out of public during after work hours.

Some White slave-owners abandoned enslaved people in cities so they joined the hire-out system. Other refugee slaves chose to use the opportunity to escape. Other enslaved and free Black people started to rebel, congregating in public to host “Negro balls” as a means to raise funds to liberate Black soldiers and slaves of the Confederacy. Nevertheless, the majority of enslaved people remained on plantations or in White urban households until the end of the war.

Still, rebellion started to become a common characteristic among the enslaved as the Civil War progressed. Many slaves stole in an effort to pray for eventual freedom or at least the invasion of the Union Army. Further, they started to resist labor, forcing the work transformed by slavery to come to a halt, even forcing some White women to sell their work, though they rarely worked as domestics. Overall, slave-owners maintained their hold over enslaved people, operating under the assumption slavery would continue after the war.

In May of 1864 the Union Army arrived in Atlanta. During that time, White women maintained plantations, but failed to command the respect of their fathers, brothers and husbands who had gone off to war. Slaves deserted their owners in droves as people of all races started to loot in preparation for the inevitable seizure of the city:

  As African Americans asserted themselves during the heat of the war, they set the stage for the renegotiation of labor and social relations for many years to come.5

Some slave-owners refused to concede, locking up enslaved persons to prevent their escape. On September 1, 1864, Sherman and the Union Army took the City of Atlanta, raping enslaved women and destroying Black-owned property. One military maneuver resulted in the death of hundreds of Black people, as the Union Army destroyed bridge they intended to use for escape. They also destroyed the Atlanta Rolling Mill, manufacturing plants, the business district, and some private residences as well.


  1. Hunter 1997:6 
  2. Hunter 1997: 7 
  3. Hunter 1997: 8 
  4. Hunter 1997: 10 
  5. Hunter 1997: 20 

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