Skip to main content

This is the third in a series of blog posts on the record types found in the forthcoming Library of Virginia research database: Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative. The initial database release will be on 1 February 2016.

During the Civil War, Virginia enacted legislation to force African Americans, both enslaved and free, into “public service” supporting the Confederacy. Their primary responsibility would be to erect “batteries, entrenchments or other necessities of the military service,” which could include working in mines and factories, preparing meals and washing clothes for Confederate soldiers, or driving supply wagons. Legislation to impress free African Americans was passed shortly after Virginia’s secession from the Union.

In July 1861, the state convention that had approved secession passed an ordinance “to provide for the enrollment and employment of free Negroes in the public service.” This ordinance was amended and re-enacted by the General Assembly in February 1862. The legislation authorized local courts to enroll for “public use” all able-bodied male free African Americans between the ages of eighteen and fifty. They would not serve more than 180 days and would be fairly compensated for their services.

When a commanding officer of the Confederate Army had need of the services of free African Americans, a local board would select from the list of free African Americans “such number of laborers as in their judgment may be proper and expedient.” The local sheriff would notify the free African Americans of their selection and the location where they were to report for their “public service.” If a free African American did not report for duty, he would be subject to the same penalties as a white man drafted into the militia who failed to report.

Many free African Americans refused to serve. According to the Encyclopedia of Virginia, “Free Blacks in Virginia considered their labors for the Confederacy as coerced and resisted their impressment when possible. Confederates forced William Peters of Rockingham County to labor for the Confederacy, ‘which I hated to do, but could not help it.’ He objected, but ‘they talked about lynching me if I did not do it.’ Isaac Pleasants, a free Black man from Henrico County, ‘deserted’ his labor on the batteries around Richmond after about a month. Robert James, another free Black man from Henrico County, secured a pass to return home temporarily before being sent to the iron mines, but ‘I didn’t go back, but hid in the woods and kept out of the war.’”

The “free Negro” requisition lists found in the Library’s collections typically contain the names of free African Americans, the district of the county in which they resided, and occasionally where they were to serve. More detailed information identified in the requisitions for public use is available in a spreadsheet found here. One Brunswick County list provides even more information, including the name of Confederate units where the free African Americans served. Of particular interest is a Cumberland County list from 1862 that records the names of free African Americans who were to report for service as hospital attendants in Farmville. The collection also includes a “receipt” of free African Americans from Powhatan County who were detailed to serve on the fortifications in Richmond. Two names on the list are crossed out: Anderson Johnson and William Tyler. Johnson was rejected for being over-age and Tyler for unknown medical reasons.

Over the course of the Civil War, the General Assembly passed several laws for the requisition of enslaved people between the ages of 18 and 40 into public service, primarily for the construction of fortifications and other public defense works.  The number of enslaved people requisitioned was meant to be apportioned fairly among the enslavers in a locality. Enslavers would be compensated $16 per month for each enslaved person. Should an enslaver refuse to provide enslaved labor, the enslaved would be seized by the local sheriff and delivered to an agent of the Confederate States.

Whenever the need arose for enslaved people to be requisitioned for service, the locality would first determine the population of enslaved people in the locality in order to allocate the number. The locality kept a requisition list of enslaved people that recorded the names of the enslaved, names of the enslaver, and the cash value of each enslaved human being. This was to ensure proper compensation by the Confederate Government if the enslaved individual escaped, died, or was injured or captured.  Occasionally the records include the ages of the enslaved people and locations where they were sent to work. Most were sent to Richmond to build defense fortifications.

Free African Americans and enslaved people from around the commonwealth were forced to leave their homes to labor on behalf of a nation that denied them their freedoms. Thousands of African Americans were uprooted from one part of the state and moved to another. This forced migration greatly disrupted the lives of African American families. Husbands, fathers, and brothers were separated from their families to go to places where the fighting was the fiercest. There was no certainty that they would see their loved ones again.  It is probable that many never returned to their home localities such as Roanoke County, Henry County, or Franklin County, even after the end of the war.

“Free Negro” requisition lists from eight localities containing over 750 free names of free African Americans and requisition lists for enslaved people from seven localities recording almost twelve hundred names of enslaved men and women are currently available on Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative.

The processing of the local court records found in Virginia Untold was made possible through the innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP), a cooperative program between the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Court Clerks Association (VCCA), which seeks to preserve the historic records found in Virginia’s circuit courts. The scanning, indexing, and transcription of the records were funded by Dominion Resources and the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) administered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

–Greg Crawford, Local Records Program Manager

Greg Crawford

State Archivist & Director of Government Records Services


Leave a Reply