Military Procedures & Events--Impressment. Enslaved people



The Confederacy extended the practice of hiring enslaved persons, common in urban areas of the Upper South throughout the antebellum period, to its war industries during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Early in the war, private companies involved in war industries like ironworks, as well as some military departments and individual soldiers, hired enslaved laborers in the absence of white employees.

However, after the Confederate Impressment Law of March 26, 1863, the Confederate government impressed thousands of enslaved persons to work on its fortifications. Enslaved persons endured awful living and working conditions during their impressments, and the mortality and illness rates among impressed enslaved persons soared. Fearful of an enslaved uprising, Confederate officials restricted the few freedoms previously afforded the enslaved. Impressed enslaved persons also faced increased rates of separation from their wives and children, who were then forced to work harder in their absence.

However, many impressed enslaved persons manipulated the displacement of impressment to their favor, escaping from fortifications and thereby self-emancipating. Impressment also angered many enslaving white Southerners. The Confederate government often failed to pay for or return impressed enslaved persons after their agreed-upon periods of impressment and returned others weakened by sickness and overwork. The Confederacy's widespread impressment of the enslaved thereby created division among Southerners at a pivotal time in the war when battlefield losses had already depleted morale. Regardless, the Confederate government ultimately requested 20,000 enslaved persons in 1864 alone, subject to impressment. (Encyclopedia Virginia)

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