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Virginia in the American Civil War

Library of Virginia collections pertaining to the American Civil War

African American History

Both free and enslaved African Americans lived in Virginia at the onset of the Civil War, with the largest populations of free African Americans living in Virginia’s cities. Confederates claimed that free Black people supported the Confederate cause, but most free and enslaved Black Virginians only did so under threat of violence.

In February 1862, the Virginia legislature authorized the impressment of free Black laborers, and local courts registered all free Black men between the ages of eighteen and fifty for military labor. Enslaved Virginians also faced forced labor in service to the Confederacy. Many enslaved and free Black Virginians escaped to "contraband camps" in Union territory or crossed Union lines as Union forces arrived in Virginia. Some of these fugitives joined the U.S. Colored Troops. 

Locating information about free Black and enslaved people in Virginia during the Civil War requires persistence. References to Black Virginians appear in personal papers, local records, and state records at the Library of Virginia, but individual sources may provide limited information.

The Library's in-house guide, "Enslaved and Free Records," is available at the Archives Reference desk. This guide lists local and state records from the pre-Emancipation era, including local records that may not appear in the Library's online catalog.

Search Tips

Use the following suggested keywords to search the LVA Catalog:

  • African Americans History 1863-1877
  • African Americans History To 1863
  • African Americans Legal status, laws, etc. History 19th century
  • African American soldiers History 19th century
  • African Americans Virginia [Locality]
  • Antislavery movements United States
  • Citizenship United States History 19th century
  • Confederate States of America Army -- African American troops
  • Enslaved and free records Virginia [Locality]
  • Freedmen Virginia [Locality]
  • Slavery Confederate States of America
  • Slaves Emancipation United States
  • Slavery Law and legislation United States
  • Slaves Virginia [Locality]
  • Slavery Virginia [Locality]
  • United States History Civil War, 1861-1865 African Americans
  • United States History Civil War, 1861-1865 Participation, African American

Note: Fill in the [Locality] blank with a county, city, or town.

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