The Electoral Politics of “Migrant Caravans”

The Electoral Politics of “Migrant Caravans”

Images of the “migrant caravans” heading north from Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico and toward the United States, are now familiar to us all. There have been other “migrant caravans” from Central America in the past, but none have registered in American media and politics quite like the one that began in October 2018.

Why this particular migration received such attention has everything to do with timing and politics—and with a president heading into midterm elections who saw an advantage to be had and pounced with all his Twitter fury. Raising many familiar racialized tropes when it comes to immigration—crime! lost jobs!—this latest Central American migration was ultimately the Democrats’ fault, the president contended, and a vote for Republicans would be a vote to stop this approaching menace.[1]

Scenes like this at Fort Monroe prompted General Dix to appeal to northern governors to open their borders to black refugees. “Stampede Among the Negroes in Virginia—Their Arrival at Fortress Monroe,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 8, 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

What happened in the fall of 2018 should be familiar to any historian of immigration in American history—the positioning of nativist attacks on migrants and refugees as a wedge issue in electoral politics—and examples of it stretch back into the nineteenth century (think: Know Nothing Party). But less familiar to historians of the Civil War era, perhaps, was a similar moment in the 1860s, when an attempted migration was also turned back right before a contested midterm election. This time, though, it involved tens of thousands of formerly enslaved men, women, and children from the American South looking northward to freedom.

It happened in the fall of 1862. Abraham Lincoln had just issued the Emancipation Proclamation publicly in late September, which decisively aligned the Union, and the Republican Party, with emancipation. By that time, many thousands of formerly enslaved men, women, and children, were congregating in refugee camps inside Union lines in the South, largely along the coast of Virginia and the Carolinas but increasingly in the Mississippi Valley and farther west into Kansas too. In the eyes of military commanders in these regions, Lincoln’s proclamation seemed to acknowledge the reality of what was happening around them but offered little of the concrete assistance they needed. A humanitarian crisis was escalating in their midst, which, depending on the officials’ sympathies, either distressed or annoyed them. All were searching for an answer to the same (and often-asked) question: What should we do with the people?

At Fort Monroe, Virginia, the commanding general, John A. Dix, thought he found an answer in the northern states. An anti-abolitionist Democrat with little sympathy for these refugees from slavery, Dix was most concerned with ridding his command of what he termed “a very great source of embarrassment” and returning his focus to what he believed were strictly military needs. Sending black refugees to the North would get them out of his way. So with the consent of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Dix identified nine northern governors whom he thought would be receptive and wrote first to the one he deemed most sympathetic—Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts. Andrew was not only an antislavery Republican but also the president of the Educational Commission for Freedmen. It seemed logical that he would open his state’s borders to the South’s refugees from slavery.[2]

Governor John A. Andrew of Massachusetts (left) and General John A. Dix (right). Courtesy of Wikipedia and the Library of Congress.

But Andrew thought differently. “I do not concur in any way or to any degree in the plan proposed,” Governor Andrew replied to Dix in mid-October. He argued that in the South they would be better positioned to fight on behalf of the Union (something he would later promote while organizing the 54th Massachusetts regiment). “If you are attacked,” he wrote Dix, “let the blacks fight to preserve their freedom!” Andrew went on to argue that “humanity” should compel the general to keep black people in the South. “The Northern states are, of all places, the worst possible to select for an asylum,” he argued, since ex-slaves are “inhabitants of a Southern climate,” with a “physical constitution” that would not be able to withstand “the rigors of our Northern sky.” He claimed to reject Dix’s plan “precisely because I do not wish the Negroes to suffer.”[3]

Andrew’s reasoning called on longstanding racist beliefs that people of African descent were better suited to hot climates—an assumption shared, notably, by proslavery ideologues too. Andrew was not alone among abolitionists in making such statements. A year before, as the first enslaved people made their way into Union lines, the Liberator quoted Henry Ward Beecher, among others, reassuring northern audiences that “Many people fear that if the slaves should gain their freedom, they would swarm at the North. Don’t you believe it. . . . the North Pole is not suited to the skin of the blacks.”[4] Never mind that enslaved people had for decades sought out cold, harsh climates—northern free states and Canada—in their pursuit of freedom. Andrew’s and Beecher’s statements instead made emancipation seem more palatable and the exclusion of black migrants seem natural, even divinely ordained—a reassuring sentiment for white northerners who long feared what would follow from the end of slavery. Competition for jobs? Miscegenation?

Yet such arguments also obscured the political calculations at the heart of Andrew’s position. Andrew, and other Republicans, knew full well that the midterm election coming in November 1862 could be a referendum on the Union’s emancipation policy. And he also knew full well that their opponents, the Democrats, would seize on any plan to ship refugees north as evidence that the worst fears of the white northern public were about to come true.[5] It was in large part to undercut Democratic fear mongering—to defuse black migration as a potent electoral issue—that Andrew rejected Dix’s plan and refused to open Massachusetts’s borders.

Secretary Stanton, under the same political pressures that fall, suspended other ongoing efforts to ship refugees north from the lower Mississippi Valley. And individual states ranging from Minnesota to Pennsylvania either enforced or proposed new wartime exclusion laws barring the migration of black people.[6] General Dix had little choice but to drop the issue. The official, northern resettlement of refugees by the federal government thus ended at this point, although some private organizations did undertake this work in the years ahead, and individual refugees did find ways of securing passes from military commanders—who remained, of all Union officials, the most friendly to their northern migration. Republicans, meanwhile, ended up losing congressional seats in the 1862 elections, though it is impossible to know to what extent the defense of northern borders stopped the party from losing more.

From that point forward, white antislavery northerners proved far more enthusiastic about a reversal of flows: rather than welcome black people to the North, they shipped, by the tens of thousands, barrels of used clothing, shoes, bedding, and garden seeds from the North to the South. Organizations ranging from Andrew’s Educational Commission for Freedmen, to the Friends Freedmen’s Association of Philadelphia and the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, raised enormous amounts of money for this purpose, with the expressed purpose of relieving the “immediate physical wants of the suffering and destitute.”[7]

But if refugee crises around the globe in the twenty-first century are any guide, then this flow of relief also played a role in limiting the movements of newly freed people—and supporting the political and legal work of excluding them from the North. As geographer Jennifer Hyndman has observed, destitute refugees tend to “become less mobile as humanitarian aid is able to cross borders more quickly.”[8] In the case of the Civil War, if the refugees could be helped in the South, would they need (or want) to move to the North? “Let them be protected in freedom in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama,” the Friends Review explained in 1862, and “those now there will remain there.”[9]

Humanitarian relief was thus an investment in containing black refugees in the South in the 1860s. But that is where this story departs from the electoral politics of 2018, as the current president, likewise determined to keep migrants in their home countries, has threatened the reverse: to cut off—rather than increase—foreign aid to places like Honduras and Guatemala. Either way, both moments tell a sobering story of how the movement of people of color, especially those without U.S. citizenship, has remained at the mercy of white politicians and their electoral ambitions across time.


[1] “ ‘It’s an Exodus,’” New York Times, October 26, 2018,

[2] This incident is described in more detail in Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 94-96; see also Jacque Voegeli, “A Rejected Alternative: Union Policy and the Relocation of Southern ‘Contrabands’ at the Dawn of Emancipation,” Journal of Southern History 69 (November 2003): 765-790.

[3] Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 95.

[4] “Henry Ward Beecher on the War and Negro Catching,” Liberator, July 19, 1861.

[5] On the emancipation politics surrounding the 1862 election, see Louis P. Masur, Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 150-168.

[6] Leslie A. Schwalm, Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 102-104; Voegeli, “A Rejected Alternative,” 773, 777-778, 786; “The Rights of Colored Citizens,” Friends Review, March 7, 1863.

[7] Taylor, Embattled Freedom, 157-178; Minutes of the Western Yearly Meeting of Friends (1865), 41, Friends Collection and College Archives, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana.

[8] Jennifer Hyndman, Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 58-59.

[9] “Emancipation and Immigration,” Friends Review, September 6, 1862.

Amy Murrell Taylor

Amy Murrell Taylor is Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the History Department at the University of Kentucky. Her most recent book, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War's Slave Refugee Camps, was published by UNC Press in November 2018. She is also the author of The Divided Family in Civil War America (UNC Press, 2005), and co-editor, with Michael Perman, of Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Cengage, 2010).

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