You’re a slave, the Yankees are coming, and your fate is “refugeeing” with your master to god-knows-where.

“Times were so hard” for the slaves during the war, Elizabeth Hines remembered, because her “white master took them into the bottoms and hid them, so they wouldn’t run off with the Yankee soldiers.” Hattie Sugg of Calhoun County, Mississippi, remembered how “colored people come by in droves a quarter mile long and said they was going to the Mississippi bottom running from the Yankees. Old boss man and his family would be riding in the wagon” and let the slave children “ride with them, but the big ones had to walk.” Jordan Lambert hid his slaves in the bottoms on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River. “We carried provisions,” Solomon Lambert remembered, “and they sent more along. We stay two or three days or a week when they hear a regiment or a scouting gang coming through. They would come one road and go back another road.” Solomon was content to remain hidden.

“We hear the guns,” he said. “We didn’t want to go down there. That was white man’s war.”

In perhaps the most hapless and futile migration in American history, thousands of masters set off for the Deep South or the Far West to keep their slaves out of the liberating reach of the Union Army. The phenomenon became known as refugeeing.

Slaves had a particular horror of travel. In their experience, it had meant sale or flight: separation, death, oblivion. But as Yankees swarmed across the South, masters ventured farther and farther from home to find a safe haven for their slaves. George Thomas’ master led the Yankees a merry chase. “Us refugeed from Mississippi to Mobile, then to Selma, then to Montgomery and from there to Uchie, near Columbus, Georgia.” “After being sold, I first lived about three miles from Rome, Georgia,” Jim Gillard recalled. “Then, when the Yankees come into Georgia, us refugeed first to Atlanta, then to Columbus and later to Salem.”

Masters fled not only the Yankees but the Rebel press gangs that went from farm to farm, rounding up slaves to labor on Confederate works. Vincent Colyer, superintendent of refugees at New Bern, North Carolina, recalled two freedmen who had hidden in the woods rather than build Rebel fortifications. Tines Kendricks would have joined them if he could. Confederates had required all slave owners to provide slaves “to work digging the trenches and throwing up the breastworks and repairing the railroads what the Yankees done destroyed.” Each master was to send one slave “for every ten he had.” Kendricks “was one of them that Marse was required to send. That was the worst times” he ever saw, “and the way them white men drove the slaves, it was something awful. The strap, it was going from day till way after night. Heaps of slaves just fall in they tracks —give out—and them white men laying the strap on their backs without ceasing.”

Some masters followed the Rebel army with their slaves. Adeline, a former slave, recalled, “During the Civil War, Mr. Parks took all his slaves and all of his fine stock, horses and cattle and went South to Louisiana, following the Southern army for protection.” The Confederates encouraged planters to move their slaves beyond the reach of the Union Army “Every sound male black left for the enemy,” wrote one Southern officer, “becomes a soldier whom we have afterward to fight.” Seabe Tuttle’s master was an officer whose family, slaves, and livestock followed the Confederate Army wherever it led.

“Ma’s first owner what I heard her tell about was Master Ed McGehee in Virginia,” recalled Mag Johnson. One day slave traders drove up in front of McGehee’s yard and “hung around till he got ready and took off a gang of his own slaves with him. They knowed he was after selling them off when he left with them.” But Yankee cavalry chased after them “and they got separated.” Johnson’s mother “hid in a cave two weeks and not much to eat,” only to be reclaimed by the slave traders and sold to Ben Trotter of Somerville, Tennessee.

“We was running from the war,” Charity Morris was told. She and her fellow slaves were refugeed during a cold winter, “and at night we would gather round a large campfire” and play such games as “Jack-in-the-bush” and “Ole gray mule.” On their way from North Carolina to Arkansas, “we drove ox teams, jennie teams, donkey teams, mule teams and horse teams. We sure had a good time.” They traveled on until they encountered what was apparently a Union outpost: a red house that to Morris and the others “represented freedom. The white folks wouldn’t go that way because they hated to give us up. They turned and went the other way, but it was too late. The news come that Mr. Lincoln had signed the papers that made us all free, and there was some rejoicing, I tells you.” Rosa Simons could “recollect when they took us and started to Texas and got as far as El Dorado,” Arkansas, only to be told that Lincoln had freed the slaves.

Texas was the likeliest destination, at least for masters from the Confederacy’s western states. Conceived as a slaveholding nation independent of the United States, the Lone Star State was becoming the Confederacy’s last hope of sustaining the Peculiar Institution. Some believed that if the South held out long enough, Lincoln might be persuaded to permit Texas alone to secede. Some entertained a “purple dream” of conquering Mexico and establishing a vast slaveholding empire stretching who-knew-how-far into Central America. Less visionary masters simply saw this VAST region as a refuge, however temporary, from the Yankees.

“That was sure some trip when us come to Texas,” recalled Jake Wilson. “Old Master had done been to Texas and traveled round through the state looking for a place to locate,” and purchased “three hundred and twenty acres of land at what they call Whitehall,” southwest of Waco. “There weren’t no roads much, nor no bridges in Texas, and none to brag about back in the old states, cause the men folks, they gwine away to the war.” On their way to Texas, “there was a big crowd of us along of the white folkses, the children and the slaves,” bumping along in “covered wagons, loaded with bedding, clothes and some furniture, and they was pulled with oxes.” Masters of slaves sat “on top and in the front seat. Then there was the Mistress’s big carriage with the butler man and the driver.” Some whites “had carriages and phaetons, or some such, too. The young white boys, they rode horses. Some of the oldest men slaves rode horses too and helped the overseer, Master White, to keep track of the cattle and such. There was boxes of chickens, geese, and pigs too. Us bring some plows and such too. Us children and young shavers made a picnic of the trip, but the older folkses always told me that it was sure a lot of worry all the way. Us would stop and hunt and fish during the hot part of the day, and the oxes and the cattle, they didn’t travel none too fast no-how. It took us about three months to get to the place in McLennan County where we gwine locate.”

Slaveholders argued over what to do with their human chattel. The least resolute masters simply gave up. “We had started to Texas,” recalled Parrish Washington of Arkansas, “but the Yankees got in ahead of us in the Saline bottoms, and we couldn’t go no further. My boss had so much faith in his folks, he wouldn’t leave here till it was too late.” So they all “come back to Jefferson County” to find that “the Yankees had done took Little Rock and come down to Pine Bluff.” Sarah Gray’s master heard that the Yankees were coming and “started to send us to Texas,” only to learn it was a false alarm, “so we went back home.” Hannah Allen’s Sabula Hollow, Missouri, masters “started to take the slaves to Texas, but gave up in Rockport, Missouri.”

Ultimately, however, such procrastination would make little difference. “The war was getting hot then, and Old Master was in debt,” recalled Mandy Johnson of Alabama. “Old Mistress had a brother named Big Marse Lewis. He wanted to take all us folks and sell us in New Orleans” to get them “out of debt. But old master wouldn’t do it.” Lewis took his brother-in-law’s slaves to the “jail house in Bastrop.” When Johnson’s master got wind of this, he rushed into town to rescue them, but “Marse Lewis shot him down. I went to my master’s burial,” recalled Johnson, after which his widowed mistress wouldn’t allow the trades to take her slaves “to New Orleans either.”

Other slaves were not so fortunate. “After old Mr. Jones left for the war,” Adeline Hodge recalled, the overseer and his black slave drivers “began to drive us round like droves of cattle. Every time they would hear the Yankees were coming they would take us out in the woods and hide us.” When that wasn’t enough, the Jones family decided to sell their slaves, “They grabbed up all the little children that was too little to walk and put us in wagons, and then the older folks had to walk. They marched all day long, then at night they would strike camp.” Hodge saw young slaves “with their legs chained to a tree or the wagon wheels. They would rake up straw and throw a quilt over it and lie that way all night while us children slept in the wagons.” When they reached Demopolis, Alabama, Rebels were withdrawing from the riverfront in steamboats. “It was in Demopolis we were sold, and a man named Ned Collins of Shubuta, Mississippi, bought me.” But others “were sold to people in Demopolis, Alabama; and Atlanta, Georgia; and some to folks in Meridian.” The result was that even in old age Hodge “don’t any more know where my own folks went to then you does.”

Dedonia Black’s master brought her, her father and mother, and two sisters, Martha and Ida, from Brownsville, Tennessee, to Memphis, and from there by steamboat to De Valls Bluff, Arkansas, where they were auctioned off on the riverfront. “They was all sold,” recalled Dedonia’s daughter-in-law Beatrice. “Her father was sold and had to go to Texas. Her mother was sold and had to go back to Tennessee, and the girls all sold in Arkansas.” “Old Man Menefee” refugeed 15-year-old Henry Banner into Tennessee, near Knoxvillle, and “sold me down there to a man named Jim Maddison. He carried me down in Virginia near Lynchburg, and sold me to Jim Alec Wright. The last time I was sold, I sold for $2,300” in Confederate money Banner remembered, or about 450 U.S. dollars—which was “more than I’m worth now,” he would remark in 1937. Before Henry Smith’s master took him away to war, “he sold all the slaves he could. But he get paid in Confederate money,” Smith pointed out, “and in the long run he lose most everything anyway.”

Matt Fields of Georgia owned Mary Crosby’s mother and send her “father and all the other men folks to Arkansas the second year of the war.” “My mother’s sister was refugeed back to Charlottesville, North Carolina, before the end of the war so that she wouldn’t get free,” Rachel Fairley remembered. “After the war they were set free out there,” but they “never came back.” A few masters spirited their slaves all the way to California, where they would find themselves stranded after the war. To earn her passage back home to Arkansas, Clara Walker would turn to prospecting. “Many’s a day I’ve stood in water up to my waist panning gold. In them days they worked women just like men. I worked hard.” And when Clara was “ready to come home, I bought my stage fare, and I carried $300 on me back to my old mother.”

Some slaves took the opportunity refugeeing presented to escape. Samuel Hall, a foreman and slave, headed southeast from North Carolina with his master, William Wallace, searching for sanctuary in the Deep South. “But after he had traveled a day Hall came to himself and getting up the next morning, hitched up his team of mules. When the man in charge of the refugees asked him what he was doing, he said, ‘I ain’t going another damned step south,’” and drove his team home. “All the colored folks in the community were invited in to make merry at the celebration in honor of Mr. Wallace’s returned foreman,” and “no one would have thought, to see him, that he had a single other thought than thoughts of gratitude toward his dear master.” But along the way Hall had heard that “the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued just two days before,” and soon he ran away to the Union lines.

Myra Jones remembered how her master “come out in a big hurry and told us all to get some things together in no time; that he was gonna refugee us a way off somewheres. The first thing we knowed, we was off on that journey,” but though “Marse managed to keep most of us, Jones’s father, along with some others, run away.” “Marse put us all in boats and moved us up to Sabine Pass, Texas,” recalled Henry Lewis McGaffey, “We settled on a farm and got four cattle, and all of us went to work.” But after McGaffey’s mother ran away, “Marse tried to find her but couldn’t,” and McGaffey “never knowed where she went.”

A few slaveholders vowed that before they saw their slaves go free they would kill them. A pair of drunken slave owners named Gum and Alex Jordan “was all on the way to the woods where they had planned to do the killing,” but according to Jim Threat, “Alex Jordan’s gun went off and blowed the top of Gum’s head off,” and that “broke up the killing game.” When a slave owner learned that one of his sons had been killed in the war, he “jumps up and starts cussing the war, and him picks up the hot poker,” crying, “Free the slaves, will they? I’ll free the slaves!” He hit Annie Row’s mother on the neck, “and she starts moaning and crying and drops to the floor.” Then he “takes the gun off the rack and starts for the field.” Row’s “sister and I sees that, and we starts running and screaming, cause we has brothers and sisters in the field. But the good Lord took a hand in that mess, and the master ain’t gone far in the field when him drops all of a sudden,” and died the next day.

Katie Rowe of Arkansas recalled how her master, a remote man who left his slaves entirely in the care of his overseer, galloped up to them in the fields one day later in the war. “You been seeing the Confederate soldiers coming by here looking pretty raggedy and hurt and wore out,” he said, “but that no sign they licked! Them Yankees ain’t gwine get this far, but if they do, you all ain’t gwine to get free by them, because I gwine to free you before that. When they get here they gwine find you already free, because I gwine line up on the bank of the Bois d’Arc Creek and free you with my shotgun!”

Freedmen did what they could to keep masters from refugeeing their enslaved kin. “In the fall of 1863, the slave-holders were running their slaves to Texas, either to sell them or prevent them from enlisting in the Federal army.” William O’Neal, whose brother was included in this general exodus, wished to buy him in order to keep him from going. He thought he would have to pay about $5,000 for him, but to his surprise he was able to purchase him for $3,000 in Confederate money, or about 600 U.S. dollars.

Not that freedmen were safe from the vicissitudes of war. Bushwhackers took advantage of the anarchy that ensued to kidnap freedmen and try to sell them farther south. “The Fisher boys and the Vinson boys had been given their freedom,” recalled Robert J. Cheatham. “They had worked in Indiana and several other states and had accumulated money enough to lease a farm” in Henderson County, Kentucky.

“My brother and I were reading and talking to Joe Fisher,” recalled one of the Vinson brothers, “when somebody knocked at our door. When we opened the door, the storm was so bad we could only see a few feet outside the cabin. We told the stranger to come in out of the storm. He walked in, and we saw he was a white man. Soon there was another knock. We was scared to open the door again, and in a few minutes the door was battered against by a big piece of log, and the wooden bolt gave way. There was three of us, all without gun or any other weapons while the four white men were armed, so all we could do was to go with them. They took us to the trader’s yard in Tennessee, where we were put up in a sort of barracks or slaves pen to be sold also.” “Who will buy this young man?” the auctioneer called out. “He’s as strong as an ox, healthy and smart. He is a left handed fiddler!” “Soon a purchaser came and bought me, then bought one of my brothers but sold him within a few hours. I never meet either my brother nor my friend again.”

Vinson’s buyer “started out with a wagon train toward the South. We had only struck camp one night when my new master met a number of Union Soldiers.” When the commander “of the Union encampment ordered his men into action,” Vinson’s purchaser “was scared almost to death and ran away as fast as his horse could run, leaving wagons, provisions and slaves to the Union Soldiers. We slaves joined the Union forces, and I fought until I received my honorable discharge,” said Vinson, “and was a free man again.”


Andrew Ward is an award-winning author and historian. His works include River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War.

Originally published in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here