Lorien Foote: How Slaves Prayed for Yankees during the Civil War

Yankee Plague, by Lorien FooteWe welcome a guest post today from Lorien Foote, author of The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the ConfederacyDuring the winter of 1864, more than 3,000 Federal prisoners of war escaped from Confederate prison camps into South Carolina and North Carolina, often with the aid of local slaves. Their flight created, in the words of contemporary observers, a “Yankee plague,” heralding a grim end to the Confederate cause. In a fascinating look at Union soldiers’ flight for freedom in the last months of the Civil War, Foote reveals new connections between the collapse of the Confederate prison system, the large-scale escape of Union soldiers, and the full unraveling of the Confederate States of America.

In today’s post, Foote considers the heritage of prayer that has long accompanied the Thanksgiving holiday.


President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a federal holiday in 1863, a day set aside for “thanksgiving and praise,” a phrase that all Americans at the time understood to mean prayer. During the deep distress and suffering of the Civil War, Americans of faith regularly engaged in prayer in order to seek God’s will and to lift up petitions for His help. The governments of both the Union and the Confederacy proclaimed several days of fasting and prayer, soldiers held prayer meetings in the tents of their camps, and families gathered to pray for absent loved ones. And in the fall of 1864, slaves prayed with and for hundreds of Yankee soldiers who sought refuge in their cabins. The words of these prayers reveal slaves’ powerful faith that God would intervene in history to defeat the Confederacy and bring about their freedom.

In September and October, 1864, more than 900 prisoners of war escaped from Confederate prisons in Florence and Columbia, South Carolina. They traveled at night in parties of 2-6 men and headed toward the Union lines at Knoxville, Tennessee, or Hilton Head, South Carolina. These Yankees sought out slaves in order to obtain directions, food, and shelter. At first slaves responded on an individual basis with generous hospitality, giving the escaped prisoners what food they had and often guiding them several miles down the road. When a Rhode Island lieutenant tried to pay for the food a slave provided, he was rebuffed. “This is the charity the Lord says must be given to those who suffer,” she responded firmly.

By February of 1865, more than 2800 prisoners had escaped, and by then slaves had organized across space to assist the Yankees. Slaves guided Hannibal Johnson of the 3rd Maine between pre-arranged stations in northwest South Carolina. Over the course of eight nights in that section of his journey, he was handed off between thirteen different guides who took him to established stops and hiding places in woods and cabins. One guide gave his Yankee cargo the code-name “birdies.” When the townspeople of Jalapa, South Carolina, formed a picket on the road to intercept some escapees, slaves in the area formed a counter-picket on the road below in order to alert the Yankees and guide them around the trap their masters had set.

Before Christian slaves took any of these actions, they prayed for and over the Yankees. Sometimes the prayer took place in a cabin, sometimes in a cluster of trees by the side of the road. But according to the diaries of escaped prisoners, the substance and pattern of these prayers were similar. First they simply asked God to assist the escaped prisoners and carry them safely through danger. One slave added a specific request: for the Lord to “bamboozle” the hounds that would chase them. Next, slaves prayed for the success of President Lincoln and all the Union generals engaged in battle. In a hut near Black Creek, South Carolina, a slave named Zeb entreated God to “Send Mr. Sherman sweeping down through these parts to scare the rebels until they flee like the Midians, and slay themselves to save their lives.” Finally, they prayed for jubilee, the time they believed God had ordained to free them from bondage. “May the year of jubilee come and the rebels turn up their toes,” a slave named Johnson prayed in his cabin outside of Florence.

As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving in 2016 and contemplate its heritage of prayer, these petitions offered by slaves 152 years ago are worth remembering. They were prayers that led to generous, self-sacrificing action to help those who were in trouble. They were prayers of hope and faith that a light of promise was still shining through the darkness of bondage.

Lorien Foote is professor of history at Texas A&M University and author of The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy.