Book Review: An Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South

An Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South. By Robert K. D. Colby. New York: Oxford University Press, 2024. Hardcover, 360 pp. $35.00.

Reviewed by Patrick Kelly-Fischer

The story of slavery is inextricably linked to the story of the American Civil War. Yet studies examining the trade in human property have largely focused on the decades preceding the conflict. Rarely does scholarship touch upon the subject during the actual war years. An Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South, by Robert K. D. Colby, is one of the first, and seemingly the most comprehensive, studies of slave trading within the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Most students of the Civil War era have long since lost count of how many books they have read about the antebellum years, slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. With such a high level of acquaintance, there sometimes develops a sense of dispassion. It is probably more the exception than the rule that one comes across a book that still sparks a strong reaction and resonates from cover to cover. With Unholy Traffic, Colby combines a scholar’s rigor, attention to detail, and evidence-based argumentation with the storyteller’s ability to present their subject matter in an emotionally compelling and thought-provoking way.

The individual vignettes and other primary source evidence that Colby offers concerning enslaved people traded throughout the Confederacy are gripping, heartbreaking, and infuriating. He pairs an enormous amount of such evidence with statistical data in order to put it all into a meaningful context, and to explain the domestic slave trade’s impact on the course of the war. It is a testament to his skills as an historian and as a writer that he achieves both so successfully. An Unholy Traffic offers readers so much to think about concerning this important subject that previous scholars have somehow largely overlooked.

One thing that quickly becomes apparently is the sheer scale at which the human slave trade existed, and at times thrived, as a financial instrument. Rather than solely existing as a (deeply immoral) means of acquiring labor, it was also an investment vehicle for securing and generating wealth. The Confederacy’s citizens spent vast sums speculating in human property – with all of its attendant suffering – while using virtually the same language that people use today to discuss whether they think a particular stock will rise or fall.

Colby charts the price fluctuations of enslaved men, women, and children with the rise and fall of the Confederacy’s battlefield fortunes as the war progressed. When Union armies won battles, the price of enslaved people fell as Confederate purchasers—well aware that the institution was unlikely to survive without the power and support of the Confederate state—began to doubt whether slaves were a safe long-term investment. When Confederate armies were victorious, the prices increased again. Much like other historians have done with inflation, this provides a window into the psychology of Confederate citizens on the home front, as well as slave owning officers whose names many readers will recognize from the Army of Northern Virginia—Alexander, Pender, Ramseur, and Semmes, among others.

Colby makes clear the extent to which the wartime slave trade was intrinsically tied to the Confederate war machine: “Held by firms deeply committed to the Confederate cause and central to the Confederate war effort, their forced labor helped built the insurgent nation that fought for their continued captivity.” (134) To his credit, Colby also does not shy away from the Union army’s sometimes spotty track record with emancipation, particularly early in the war, as well as touching on the slaveholding states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) that never seceded.

While not every Civil War book is going to be of interest to every single person who studies the era, An Unholy Traffic is the rare work that every student of the conflict should take the time and effort to read and think about.

11 Responses to Book Review: An Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South

  1. Is it possible for this page to EVER release comments that are relativist in nature rather than presentist?

    1. First off, I’d argue that content that meets your definition of “relativist” was posted recently.

      Secondly, I’ll say the same thing I always repeat to criticisms of content. We accept guest post submittals – if you want to see something on the blog then we’re happy to review guest posts about topics that interest you.

  2. Seems like a book I would be interested in reading but I am not sure how much new ground it really covers. The topics mentioned in the review are not new in the books I have read, perhaps in more detail but certainly not groundbreaking. And yeah, I get it: slavery bad, freedom good but telling me slavery is immoral, results in attendant suffering, and is infuriating does nothing to tell me how good the book is.

    1. As far as I am aware there is not any other full-length book that examines the domestic slave trade within the slave states during the four years of the Civil War. Colby’s research is very impressive and his findings are of great significance to Civil War scholarship. As Patrick mentions, it is a book that every student of the Civil War should read.

  3. Good points. One big problem with many current views of the Civil War is that because slavery was immoral, it was justified to make war on slaveholders with the United States Army and all the financial and other resources of the Federal Government. Well, let’s say just some slaveholders, those being only in the 11 states that seceded from the Union. Mysteriously, somehow, 6 slave-holding states that remained in the Union were never forced to give up their slaves. Some did during the war, of their own accord, such as Maryland in 1864, though this occurred because every slave in the state had either run off or been stolen by Federal troops. But slavery did not end in America until it ended in the North on December 8, 1865…which always makes the Juneteenth celebrations puzzling.

    But that fact remains that slavery, while immoral, also happened to be legal – legal to the point where it was not only protected by the Constitutions of the 11 states of the Confederacy, but by the U. S. Constitution – and the Federal government did not get around to outlawing it in the Constitution until the war was 3 years, 9 months old. Hmm. If it were so onerous, why wasn’t it ended the day after Fort Sumter fell? Anyway, take another issue: Illicit drugs. Now, the trafficking of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl across the Mexico-U.S. border is not only immoral – it murdered my cousin – but it is illegal. Thus it would be perfectly legal for our law enforcement departments – and our army, as some opine – to make war on the Chinese and Mexican drug traffickers who are murdering 100,000 Americans per year. Slavery, however, was a different story. It happened to be legal. This does not justify its existence, but it does raise serious questions about how it should have been ended. For example, I had two dozen ancestors from Pennsylvania who fought in the war. They were Democrats, they distrusted the violent rhetoric of the Republicans, they disliked slavery and felt it should be dealt with by the laws and rules of our Democratic Republic, not by making violent force or war against their brethren in the South.

    Remember, no bill was ever introduced in Congress prior to the Civil War to end slavery. If, say, Congress had voted to end slavery but slave-holding states refused to obey the law, seceded, etc. then the Government would have the right to take strong action. But no such bill or law came into being, and yet the 11 states still seceded. Subsequently, attempts like the Crittenden Compromise and the Corwin Amendment were mooted, but either failed to gather steam or were rejected by the South. Mull that over: the South was offered an agreement by which slavery could continue, the war would end, and the 11 states could rejoin the Union – and it was rejected. Why?

    It is clear, thus, with the South’s rejection of the second offering of the Crittenden Compromise following the debacle at First Manassas, and the refusal of the Government to outlaw slavery in the 6 slaveholding states that remained in the Union or to amend the Constitution to end slavery until January 1865, that the war was not about slavery. It was about bringing 11 states that had seceded back into the Union. Read Lincoln’s address to Congress in the spring of 1861; he states that his sole purpose is to bring these states back because of the huge value of taxes and tariffs they send to the Federal government.

    And so to the mountain of books about slavery published the last ten years. While the examination of any of our history is always valuable, many of these books distort that history, and/or tie it to the present-day Black Lives Matter Communist/Terrorist movement, and/or state that the Civil War was fought over slavery. All the evidence proves it was not.

    1. Yes, the Union initially fought over secession, BUT the reason the South seceded was protection and expansion of slavery. To ensure victory, the North abolished the reason for secession (slavery). The South was responsible for the rapid end of slavery, which could have lasted for decades longer without the war. But at what a cost.

      But of course, you know this, but don’t want to accept it.

  4. In Charles Dew’s memoir, at the end he comes across a bill of sale from 1865 Richmond, a slave girl and a horse, which sort of sums it up right there. 1865.

  5. “Secondly, I’ll say the same thing I always repeat to criticisms of content. We accept guest post submittals – if you want to see something on the blog then we’re happy to review guest posts about topics that interest you.”

    And what steps have you taken to encourage such submissions?

    1. Tom, I know we’ve mentioned this in comment threads you have been in, so I’d argue the first point is that we repeat that open statement.

      Secondly, the peer review process is double-blind, meaning reviewers don’t know who the author is and the author doesn’t know who the reviewers are. This means that pre-conceived bias is minimized.

      Additionally, we maintain a sizeable section on the website about submittals:

      Fourth, we made a push for guest posts a few months ago across multiple platforms that increased submittals.

      Last but not least, we regularly solicit new posts from outside folks that have specific content knowledge or new perspectives.

      ECW publishes dozens of guest authors a year – in 2023 we had 45 guest authors and 67 posts, and that doesn’t include guest post book reviews that are managed separately.

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