The Contagion Spreads: More Slaves Flee

With Benjamin Butler’s contraband of war policy having received the blessing of the Lincoln administration in late May 1861 it is not surprising that slaves in locations other than around Fortress Monroe, Virginia, began to seek sanctuary with Union troops. This included slaves from the loyal border state of Maryland for whom nearby Washington, D.C., became a magnet. On June 12, 1861, Col. Alfred H. Terry, commander of the 2nd Connecticut Infantry, encamped in the federal capital, sent the following communication to Capt. Theodore Talbot in the Adjutant General’s Office at the War Department.

Sir: In accordance with a verbal order from General Mansfield I have the honor to report to you that on the 10th inst, six men of color representing themselves to be fugitive slaves from Howard County in the State of Maryland appeared in the Camp of my Regiment and still remain upon my grounds. They also represent that their masters are secessionists in sentiment and opinion and members of secret military organizations hostile to the Government.

Clearly, by early June word had made its way into countless slave communities that Union forces would offer sanctuary to those persons with disloyal masters. Whether these slaves from Howard County, Maryland, truly had disloyal owners is unknown. If not, they were shrewd enough to represent themselves as the slaves of secessionists, which meant Union forces would not surrender them to their owners. Their eventual fate is not known, but these six Maryland slaves show how Butler’s contraband of war policy quickly spread. The prospect of protection from federal forces would draw increasing numbers of slaves to flee their owners in a bid for freedom. With each such act, they bled away a little of the slavery’s vitality in the United States. Indeed, slavery did not die in the Civil War of a single blow–it was death by thousands of cuts. So slavery’s end was the gradual result of a change in federal policy toward fugitive slaves, the presence of Union troops to enforce it, and initiative of thousands of slaves who wanted to be free.

Source: Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Thavolia Glymph, and Joseph P. Reidy, eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867; Volume 1, Series 1: The Destruction of Slavery (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 167.

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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