As Civil War Emancipation indicated in its March 18 edition, what the future portended for slavery in Spring 1861 was uncertain. Conventional wisdom though at the time would have suggested the survival of the peculiar institution, at least for the foreseeable future. The Cotton South and now four Upper South states in May 1861 were organizing for its military defense, even as federal authorities proclaimed their war aim was preserving the Union and that they had no intention of interfering with slavery.
Still, there were dissenting voices, wondering if by embarking on secession, the Confederacy had unintentionally initiated slavery’s destruction. Most of those voices that spring could be found in the abolitionist community, which with hope and faith believed the war’s outbreak as inevitably leading to end of slavery. Some establishment figures joined them in seeing the great peril the conflict had created for the peculiar institution, if they lacked the abolitionist’s passionate sense of expectation and moral indignation. These personalities even included Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, if southern newspapers are to be believed.
Another establishment personality who definitely saw the danger for slavery in secession was James W. Simonton, a veteran journalist and the Washington correspondent of the New York Times. Writing as “Observer,” he described the threat in eerily prophetic terms. As Civil War Emancipation noted on March 18, a month before the attack on Fort Sumter, Simonton asserted that the departure of the Lower South states had left the Upper South slave interests bereft of the power of the old “Slave Power” bloc, and consequently made the survival of slavery there questionable.
Writing a month after Fort Sumter, on May 16, 1861, James W. Simonton was now even less sanguine about slavery’s prospects, not only in the border states, but also throughout the South. Observer observed:
It will be a miracle if the cotton planters are not ruined by their rebellion. Every event seems to conspire for their destruction. There is imminent danger of the immediate and violent overthrow of Slavery; and at any rate, there is a strong probability that the institution will be materially modified before the termination of the war. These are the direct consequences likely to flow from the rebellion, and to them will be added, in all human probability, the destruction of the value of slaves by the destruction of the monopoly now enjoyed in the production of cotton. The opinion gains ground daily, that whatever else may happen, Slavery will be destroyed or fatally wounded in the conflict of arms; and from present appearances it encounters the greatest risks at the hands of its friends.
Elsewhere in his piece, Simonton reasoned that slavery’s destruction would come from the war speeding cotton consumers, particularly Great Britain, to develop alternative sources of the fiber in response to the disruption of supplies from the American South as a result of the Civil War. That event would certainly come to pass, but James W. Simonton missed an even bigger threat to slavery–the slaves themselves–which he skirted over elsewhere in the article. He wrote:
The refusal of the Government to receive a black regiment of Canadian fugitives into the public service, cannot fail to impress the people of the South favorably. Thus far the course of events tends to demonstrate that the South should look to the Federal Government for protection against the negro population, instead of the “Confederate States.” While the former has repeatedly refused to receive aid from slaves or to harbor runaways, the latter has been employing negroes, slave and free, in building fortifications, and in some instances negroes have been armed and officered as soldiers.
While Simonton was wrong in May 1861 that the South was turning slaves into soldiers to any significant extent, he was correct they were employing them en mass as laborers to support Confederate military operations. By doing so, it was becoming increasingly necessary to bring those slaves in proximity to Union forces. James W. Simonton was correct that Union forces had “repeatedly refused to receive aid from slaves or to harbor runaways.” But that was shortly to change because of actions of three Virginia slaves and a clever politician-turned-general from Massachusetts.