When the Union Army was stationed in a particular area, so many slaves made their way to freedom that “contraband camps” were set up nearby. However, slaves in the Deep South did not have this opportunity until near the end of the war.
As the Union Army under General William T. Sherman moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Savannah, plantation owners usually fled, often taking their most valuable slaves with them. George Ward Nichols aide-de-camp to General Sherman kept a diary of his experiences and conversations. He wrote of the situation:
“The negroes were told that, as soon as we got them into our clutches, they were put into the front of the battle and were killed if they did not fight; that we threw the women and children into the Chattahoochee, and when the buildings were burned in Atlanta we filled them with negroes to be roasted and devoured by the flames.”
Nichols reported the response of a group of slaves he talked with near Milledgeville, who had weighed their master’s motivations when he provided this horror story. “What for de Yankees want to hurt black men? Massa hates de Yankees, and he’s no fren’ ter we; so we am de Yankee bi’s fren’s.”
As the Union army approached, they often saw the road lined with freedmen waiting to join the march to somewhere else where they would be free and could start a new life.
Sherman and other officers urged them to stay where they were since the army could not provide for them. This argument was ineffective. Maj. General Slocum, with Sherman’s left wing in the march across Georgia, reported that the freed men, women and children following the army numbered in the thousands.
On September 17. 1864, J.F. McCartney wrote, “The negroes are running to us in great numbers forsaking their very kind protectors. The white people from here on are running from us leaving all to be destroyed.”