Descendants of former slaves of the Pettway plantation, Alabama, US.

Which US States Had The Most Slaves At The Start Of The Civil War?

Slavery seems to be as old as humanity itself. As historian John Gordon reminds us, "As much as a third of the population of the ancient world was enslaved and had no legal rights whatsoever" (City Journal). The word slave originates from the term slav. Slavs inhabited Central and Eastern Europe, and they were taken into slavery by the Muslims during the 9th century CE. According to the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), the Jewish people, known as the Israelites, were enslaved in Egypt nearly 3,500 years ago.

Korean Studies professor Mark Peterson wrote, "When I read studies of slavery from an international perspective and discovered that Korea has the longest, unbroken chain of slaveholding in the world, it was a real eye-opener" (Korean Times). When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492, the Taino tribe wanted the help of the Spanish in defeating their enemy, the Carib tribe, who had a history of enslaving and canalizing their people (Smithsonian Magazine). Of course, Columbus was no help.

The reality is slavery has long been a global problem and is a real moral stain on human history. Preceding the Civil War in 1861, the US was divided between the North and South, especially over the issue of slavery.

Slavery in the Americas

James Hopkinsons Plantation Slaves Going to Field
James Hopkinson Plantation and slaves going to the field. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Between 1720 and 1780, most African slaves arrived in the Americas. Over 90% of them ended up in Central and South America. About 6% went to British North America (Gilder Lehrman). Slave owners were heavily concentrated in the South as their economic activity, namely the agricultural production of cash crops like tobacco and cotton, was sustained and made profitable through the use of slave labor.

By 1776, when the American Colonies declared independence from Britain, the African slaves had grown to 20% of the population. From the beginning, Americans were divided over the issue of slavery. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, a difficult compromise was made called the 3/5th Compromise to unite the states, but the slavery issue continued to fester. By 1804, all Northern states had outlawed slavery.

Abolition and the End of US Slavery

The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840 by Benjamin Robert Haydon
The Anti-Slavery Society Convention, 1840, by Benjamin Robert Haydon. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Missouri Compromise of 1820, allowing Missouri to become a slave state, fanned the flames of growing anti-slavery sentiments. However, the Second Great Awakening (from 1795 to 1835), a Christian justice movement in the United States, is credited by historians as providing the moral impetus to end slavery in the US, following the earlier British effort to bring an end to the Slave Trade.

The divides between Northern and Southern states, which had remained unresolved since America's founding, grew. Throughout the 1850s, there were several events that ultimately brought America closer to the Civil War, but it was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, aided by the Electoral College (as Lincoln only had 40% of the popular vote), which tipped the scales. The Southern states realized their position was weakened.

Numbers of US Slaves

Plantation Slaves, Beaufort, South Carolina, 1862
Plantation Slaves, Beaufort, South Carolina. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At the time of the start of the Civil War, there were 4.4 million African slaves, and the state of Virginia had the highest population of slaves, with 490,865. Four more states had over 400,000 slaves just before the beginning of the Civil War: Georgia (462,198), Mississippi (436,631), Alabama (435,080), and South Carolina (402,406).

Modern Slavery

The A21 Campaign protest rally In central London, a global event to raise awareness and funds, for the fight against human trafficking and modern day slavery.
The A21 Campaign protest rally in central London. Image credit John Gomez via Shutterstock

The American Civil War resulted in the deaths of over 620,000 Americans. While it brought an official end to slavery in the US, the battle with racism and the fight for justice lives on. Tragically, today, there are nearly 50 million people in some form of slavery around the world, in more than 60 countries. The struggle for justice must continue.

States With the Highest Number of Slaves in the US in 1860

State Slaves in 1860









South Carolina




North Carolina


















New Jersey







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