Group of freedmen by a canal at Richmond, Virginia. Library of Congress photo, LC-DIG-cwpb-00468 DLC.

Group of freedmen by a canal at Richmond, Virginia. Library of Congress photo, LC-DIG-cwpb-00468 DLC.

One of the questions I may never get answered about my Civil War ancestors is “How did freedom come to the five slaves of the Poore family?”

Did Union soldiers ride up to the farm and announce that they were free? Or did the slaves take a hand in their own fate and flee to Union lines? Or at the end of the war, did they just walk away?

The Emancipation Proclamation, issued 150 years ago today, invited Southern slaves to take a hand in their own liberation and a Union victory. One of the four women slaves may have done so.

By 1864, one of the bondswomen is no longer found in the household. The records are silent as to what happened to her. She may have braved the many dangers to runaway to the federal lines.

By the middle of 1864, even if the Confederacy somehow survived the war, antebellum slave society had been wrecked beyond recovery. In many places in Mississippi those slaves who hadn’t run away to the Yankees could often move about as they wished.

So many white men had been called away to the army that control of slaves on plantations had nearly stopped. Slave patrols couldn’t get enough men to patrol county beats.

Slaves more and more realized that the chains of bondage were coming loose. On plantations with many slaves, the bondsmen set their own work pace or spent more time working their own crops.

On a yeoman farm such as the Poore family operated, the slaves had less room to defy their masters and make changes. The white family members usually worked shoulder to shoulder with their slaves in the fields. The slaves simply didn’t have a larger slave community to support them against the master.

But the rapid spread of news on the slave grapevine no doubt alerted the Poore slaves that freedom was at hand.

Certainly the Poore family’s slaves deserve to be admired for their courage and for holding on to their hope for freedom despite great odds and setbacks. Besides the usual hardships and worries of slavery, they also suffered the same as their masters from the raids on food and supplies during the war.

These extraordinary people endured under the most difficult conditions. What greater example can be found in American history of faith in the meaning of liberty under the Constitution? Where else is there an example of such a patient belief that the guarantee of freedom would eventually be applied to all Americans?

Do you have any stories about how freedom came to the slaves?