Robert K.D. Colby: An Unholy Traffic – Slave Trading in the Civil War South

Plantation field with slaves

An Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South

By Robert K.D. Colby


JMC fellow Robert Colby will soon release a book on the southern slave trade during the Civil War, An Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South:

The Confederate States of America was born in defense of slavery and, after a four-year struggle to become an independent slaveholding republic, died as emancipation dawned. Between Fort Sumter to Appomattox, Confederates bought and sold thousands African American men, women, and children. These transactions in humanity made the internal slave trade a cornerstone of Confederate society, a bulwark of the Rebel economy, and a central part of the experience of the Civil War for all inhabiting the American South.

As An Unholy Traffic shows, slave trading helped Southerners survive and fight the Civil War, as well as to build the future for which they fought. They mitigated the crises the war spawned by buying and selling enslaved people, using this commerce to navigate food shortages, unsettled gender roles, the demands of military service, and other hardships on the homefront. Some Rebels speculated wildly in human property, investing in slaves to ward off inflation and to buy shares in the slaveholding nation they hoped to create. Others traded people to counter the advance of emancipation. Given its centrality to their nationhood, Confederates went to great lengths to prolong the slave trade, which, in turn, supported the Confederacy. For those held in slavery, the surviving slave trade dramatically shaped their pursuit of freedom, inserting a retrograde movement into some people’s journeys toward liberty while inspiring others to make the risky decision to escape.

Offering an original perspective on the intersections of slavery, capitalism, the Civil War, and emancipation, Robert K.D. Colby illuminates the place of the peculiar institution within the Confederate mind, the ways in which it underpinned the CSA’s war effort, and its impact on those attempting to seize their freedom.

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Robert Colby is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Mississippi. His research explores the social, military, and political experience of the Civil War era with a special emphasis on slavery and the process of emancipation. His is the winner of the Society of Americans’ Allan Nevins Prize and the Society of Civil War Historians’ Anne J. Bailey Prize and Anthony E. Kaye Memorial Essay Award. His research on the wartime slave trade was also a finalist for the Southern Historical Association’s C. Vann Woodward Award. Colby’s writing has appeared in the Journal of the Civil War Era, the Journal of the Early Republic, and Slavery & Abolition. He has also published on Civil War monuments and written on disease in the domestic slave trade.

Professor Colby is a JMC fellow.

Learn more about Robert Colby >>



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