American Civil War for Kids - Slave Life Illustration

American Civil War - Slave Life

 
 

The Auction Block: From 1688 until 1865, slavery was legal in all or parts of America. Businessmen needed slaves to sell. To get them, African families were captured in their villages in Africa. They were chained together and crowded into the hold of a slave ship and transported to America. It was not profitable if captives died, so some attention was given to their survival, but only the bare minimum. Some captives did die on the trip. Those who made it, terrified and still chained together, were shoved in a pen. Captives were cleaned up, then dragged to the auction block. There was no care taken to keep families together. Each captive was treated as a separate piece of merchandise. Before bidding began, captives might be forced to dance or jump to show their agility. Some had their lips pulled back so potential owners could check the condition of their teeth. Bidders were free to feel a captive's body or ask clothing to be removed so they could check if a captive had been whipped or damaged in some way.

Work: Slaves purchased by the same bidder were chained together and transported to the master's farm or plantation. They were put to work in the fields. Men and women who were too young or too old to work in the fields worked as house servants, caring for the comfort of the master and his family. Slaves also performed some jobs that took skill such as sewing or maintaining equipment. In exchange, masters supplied slaves with certain goods they needed to stay alive, but not too much or they might become "spoiled". 

Slaves had no rights.  It was illegal for a slave to learn to read or write. It was illegal for a slave to own property or to marry. It was illegal for a slave to run away. Sometimes, certain laws were overlooked. With their masters permission, some slaves did marry and have families. Some slaves were given a small plot of land to use to grow a few crops for their own use. Some were allowed to sell or barter these crops or other goods they made for personal small luxuries such as sugar or coffee.

Children of slaves: The children of two slaves became slaves themselves. Children born of a white father and a slave mother became slaves. But a child born of a white or free African American mother and slave father was born free. The status of children was the same as their mother.

Slave masters had absolute control over their human property. Slaves were property. At any time, slaves, including small children, could be rented out or sold to another master. There was a constant threat of forced separation of children from their mothers, elderly parents from their sons and daughters, and husbands from wives. The worst threat of all was that a master could return a slave to the auction block if their work was unsatisfactory. A returned slave did not fetch much of a price and typically found themselves purchased by masters who were extremely abusive. 

Loyalty:  Over time, some slaves did develop loyalty to their owners. It was expected. Some owners felt true affection for certain slaves in their care. Some owners freed some or all of their slaves; there were laws that placed conditions on freeing slaves. For example, if a wife and her children inherited a slave, all would have to agree to free that slave. A partial owner could not make that decision alone.    

Slaves from a masters viewpoint: Most Southern slave owners were convinced their slaves loved their life. Hear them sing. Slaves were happy. That was because, in a white slave master's opinion, slaves were incapable of thinking for themselves. They were lazy by nature, and not very bright. They were inferior beings. They needed physical, moral, and spiritual guidance. Most slave owners believed it was their job to provide that guidance. Slaves were grateful. They got to live on a nice farm and maybe even have a family. Such an improvement for them, over life back in Africa, or for that matter, anywhere else. It was delusional, but that was the white Southern viewpoint.

Slaves Resistance on Southern Plantations - Primary sources, first hand accounts

George Washington's Will

Frederick Douglass

The Underground Railroad

The Abolitionist Movement

Slaves in Camp during the Civil War

The Economics of Slavery

The Triangle Trade

The Constitution and Bill of Rights on Slavery 

Slavery in America

See Also:

Life on Southern Plantations, lesson plans for teachers with background information

The Civil War for Kids, Index

Civil War Interactive Games & Activities for Kids

Civil War Presentations in PowerPoint format

Civil War Video Clips

Civil War Clip Art for Kids and Teachers

Civil War, Free iPad & iPhone apps

American Civil War Lesson Plans for Teachers