Refugees is describe as, "A person who leaves [their] home or country to find safety, especially during a war or for political or religious reasons." (Cambridge Dictionary) The American Civil War produced one of the United States' largest refugee crises in history. Scholars have traditionally divided refugees of the Civil War into three groups: African Americans, southern Unionists, and Confederates. One scholar notes that the approach of Union forces sparked the greatest number of refugees from all groups. While southern Unionists and enslaved African Americans fled to Union lines for sanctuary, pro-Confederate white southerners fled away from it for fear of punishment or capture.

Formerly-enslaved African Americans composed the largest of these groups, as self-emancipated Black men, women, and children fled enslavement and forced the United States to reckon with the fate of enslavement in the nation's war aims. The Union Army established camps, known as "contraband camps" because of the Union stance that enslaved persons were technically contrabands of war, where African-American refugees lived and labored for the Union Army, albeit in often unsanitary, unsafe, and inadequate living conditions. Pro-Confederate, southern, white refugees were much smaller in number and largely represented the wealthier classes who could afford the costs of travel and relocation. These refugees most often gravitated toward cities and near railroad lines where they could return home if possible. Unionist refugees often fled their southern homes due to hostility from their pro-Confederate neighbors, late-war economic hardships, and fear of being drafted into the Confederate Army.

All three groups shared the enormous dangers of traveling on poorly constructed means of transportation in the South, vulnerability of women and children traveling outside of their local communities often for the first time, and the general lawlessness prevailing in war-wracked and desperate areas. The American Civil War therefore dislocated thousands of people of all backgrounds, and while many would go back to their former homes after the war, others would never return (Encyclopedia Virginia; David Silkenat, "Refugees and Movement in the Civil War," The Cambridge History of the American Civil War).

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