The History of American Slavery

Emancipation Happened Because the Enslaved Made It Happen

Blogging DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, Chapters 4 and 5: The General Strike and The Coming of the Lord.

District of Columbia. Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln [Between 1863 and 1866].
District of Columbia Company E, 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln (between 1863 and 1866).

Library of Congress

Click here to read previous entries in this series.

DuBois begins each chapter of Black Reconstruction with a signpost of sorts. A brief summary to tell you, the reader, what to expect. Chapter 4, “The General Strike,” begins as such:

How the Civil War meant emancipation and how the black worker won the war by a general strike which transferred his labor from the Confederate planter to the Northern invader, in whose army lines workers began to be organized as a new labor force.

This ties back to our first chapter, where DuBois presents enslaved blacks in the South as workers in a labor system. If that’s true, then their activities during the Civil War—especially in the early years of that conflict—can be understood as a broad strike, of the kind that would have been familiar to DuBois readers in the early 20th century.

I want to take a quick moment here to note the overall excellence of DuBois’ prose. From the first sentence of this chapter, he reminds you that he can write. “When Edwin Ruffin, white-haired and mad, fired the first gun at Fort Sumter, he freed the slaves,” he wrote, emphasizing the inexorable march toward emancipation that began with the first shots of the war. My new goal is to write half as well, and with as much economy, as DuBois.


I said in the previous entry that DuBois was writing in an era that either denied the agency of enslaved people or downplayed its significance. Here, DuBois issues another challenge to that view, emphasizing the great extent to which emancipation happened because the enslaved made it happen. And that, when the war started, neither North nor South was especially concerned with the fate of black Americans. To that point, in fact, he extensively quotes Frederick Douglass:

It was as Frederick Douglass said in Boston in 1865, that the Civil War was begun “in the interests of slavery on both sides. The South was fighting to take slavery out of the Union, and the North fighting to keep it in the Union; the South fighting to get it beyond the limits of the United States Constitution, and the North fighting for the old guarantees;—both despising the Negro, both insulting the Negro.”

The slaves watched and listened, they escaped when given the opportunity and brought their families with them. “Wherever Northern armies appeared,” writes DuBois, “Negro laborers came, and the North found itself actually freeing slaves before it had the slightest intention of doing so, indeed when it had every intention not to. This observation leads into the crux of the argument in this chapter, the one previewed at the beginning. That these population movements are best understood as a mass strike of a working class; a conscious and directed effort. Here’s DuBois:

At first, the rush of the Negroes from the plantations came as a surprise and was variously interpreted. The easiest thing to say was that Negroes were tired of work and wanted to live at the expense of the government; wanted to travel and see things and places. But in contradiction to this was the extent of the movement and the terrible suffering of the refugees. If they were seeking peace and quiet, they were much better off on the plantations than trailing in the footsteps of the army or squatting miserably in the camps. They were mistreated by the soldiers; ridiculed; driven away, and yet they came. They increased with every campaign, and as a final gesture, they marched with Sherman from Atlanta to the sea, and met the refugees and abandoned human property on the Sea Islands and the Carolina Coast.

This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps a half million people. They wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations.

It is important to emphasize that this was a radical redefinition of the war and of the role of enslaved people. Taking a Marxist lens but rooting it in the experiences of black Americans, DuBois positions black slaves as a revolutionary proletariat that freed themselves from the grips of bondage. A single, united working class fighting for its liberation.

All of this sets up in the argument in Chapter 5, titled “The Coming of the Lord,” where DuBois emphasizes the importance of enslaved people to the war effort, as laborers and eventually as soldiers. He makes the point that, if not for the eager participation of freed people, the North may not have had the manpower to stop the Confederacy. Two-hundred thousand black Americans fought in Union blues, making up for the hundreds of thousands of white men who wanted no part in the war:

In many other places, riots took place, although they did not become so specifically race riots. They did, however, show the North that unless they could replace unwilling white soldiers with black soldiers, who had a vital stake in the outcome of the war, the war could not be won.

And in turn, for DuBois, the actions of those black soldiers made emancipation possible:

He might plead his cause with the tongue of Frederick Douglass, and the nation listened almost unmoved. He might labor for the nation’s wealth, and the nation took the results without thanks, and handed him as near nothing in return as would keep him alive. He was called a coward and a fool when he protected the women and children of his master. But when he rose and fought and killed, the whole nation with one voice proclaimed him a man and brother. Nothing else made emancipation possible in the United States. Nothing else made Negro citizenship conceivable, but the record of the Negro soldier as a fighter.

Again, and this takes us back to the beginning of the book, what DuBois does throughout is center the experiences and contributions of black Americans, slave and free. He wants to emphasize the extent to which they were agents of their own destinies. And he wants to show, throughout, how their presence is integral to understanding the country’s political and economic development.

One interesting thing, with regards to the question of black soldiers, is how Confederates tackled this issue. Late in the war, some Confederate leaders began pressing Jefferson Davis to use black soldiers. And in turn, many others rejected this option as antithetical to their entire project. “The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution,” said one Confederate legislator.

DuBois ends this chapter on a note that I think is very important, and one I feel is still underappreciated today:

And yet emancipation came not simply to black folk in 1863; to white Americans came slowly a new vision and a new uplift, a sudden freeing of hateful mental shadows. At last democracy was to be justified of its own children. The nation was to be purged of continual sin not indeed all of its own doing—due partly to its inheritance; and yet a sin, a negation that gave the world the right to sneer at the pretensions of this republic.

Through their actions as laborers and spies and soldiers, black Americans forced the question of freedom. They made the North choose and turned a war for Union into a war for liberation. And in turn, they pulled this country closer to its ideals.

With that, I’m done with this entry. See you again for Chapters 6 and 7.