As March 1862 began in Washington, D.C., slavery was on the ropes in the nation’s capital. The previous December, a bill had been introduced in Congress providing for compensated emancipation there. By March, this legislation was well on its way to passage and it would become law on April 16, 1862, a day now celebrated as an official holiday in the District of Columbia.
Yet this would not have been clear in February and March of 1862 from watching the legal apparatus that enforced slavery in the city. As the first hints of spring made themselves manifest in Washington, D.C. in 1862, this machinery continued to grind along, seemingly oblivious of its impending doom. The National Republican, Washington, D.C.’s newspaper aligned with the Republican Party, noticed this fact in its issue of February 28, 1862. It wrote:
While both Houses of Congress are discussing measures for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, the business of slave catching, flourishes in our midst as usual, and persons are arrested, on the mere presumption of color, as being fugitives from labor. A case in point occurred the other night, at Justice Donn’s house. On the night in question, about ten o’clock, a county officer applied to Justice John H. Johnson, Justice Donn not being in his office, for a commitment to jail of a negro woman arrested by Officer A. E. L. Keese, on suspicion of being a runaway slave. That Justice refused to make out a commitment. After a commitment was declined, the officer returned to the office of Justice Johnson, and inquired of the Justice whether color was not prima facie evidence of slavery. The Justice replied that he could not determine the question as to whether a person was bond or free on the presumption of color, as it was well known there were free men of color as well as slaves. A gentleman (others also being present) who was sitting in Justice Johnson’s office, hearing the piteous cries of the poor woman went into Justice Donn’s office, for the purpose of seeing what was the matter. Keese had the woman in a little back room, and her cries were supposed to have been occasioned by the officer placing handcuffs on her. The gentlemen, upon attempting to enter the backroom, was met by Keese, who asked him, in a very insulting manner, what business he had to come in and interfere with a policeman in the discharge of his duties, and refused to give him satisfaction to his interrogatory of “What was the matter?” The gentleman, after receiving further abuse from Keese, left the office.
A little while after, the reporter of this paper came into Justice Johnson’s office, and learning something was going on in Justice Donn’s office, went and knocked at door, which was locked. An officer came to the door and unlocked it, and he entered the room. Upon attempting to enter the backroom, he was met by Keese, who refused to admit him, coming out at the same time and closing the door. The reporter asked him what sort of case he had, whether it was a criminal case. The officer replied that it was no criminal case, yet refused to give any satisfaction, promising upon the next day to give him the full particulars of the case, and to him alone. Our reporter, who knew very well what was going on, asked him what necessity there was for so much secrecy, and requested to see the woman, when he met with a flat refusal. He then told Keese he knew the facts of the case, and left the office. About an hour after, the negro woman was taken away from the office by Keese, but where to, our reporter could not ascertain.
Thus, under the very nose of Congress, at midnight, are colored men and women arrested by constables and lodged in jail on the mere suspicion of being runaway slaves; that suspicion being based merely upon their color. The poor creatures, once in jail, are kept there for months, and some cases for years.
Thirty of these poor creatures, who were confined in the black hole on suspicion of being refugees from the tyranny and iniquity of slavery, were released a few weeks since by order of the Secretary of State. Some of them had been confined in the loathsome place for over a year, and, could they have had an opportunity to prove their right to liberty, would have been able to do so. But that privilege was denied them.
The National Republican was referring to a scandal that had broken out the previous December when it was revealed about sixty African Americans were being held in horrible conditions in Washington’s jail on suspicion of being fugitive slaves. Some were not even fugitives or alleged fugitives, but slaves whose owners had gone south at the start of the Civil War and left them at the jail for safe-keeping. Kate Masur deals with this episode quite capably in a piece from late last year in Disunion in the New York Times.
The slaves were supposed to have been released in late January on written instructions from Secretary of State William Seward, acting on orders from President Lincoln, to Ward Lamon, a close associate of Abraham Lincoln, who then held the position of U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia. Apparently not all the alleged fugitives had been released by the end of February, and it is also clear that the police in the District were still busy in late February 1862 filling their jail with other unfortunate African Americans that came to their attention. So while Congress was in the process of legislating the end of slavery in Washington, D.C., to the District police, accustomed to enforcing slave law, it remained business as usual.
It was not just the District police that were carrying on as they always had as part of slavery’s enforcement machinery. In March 1862, just a month before the bill to end slavery in the District of Columbia became law, an unnamed lawyer published a guide to the city’s slave code. Although no doubt a work that had been some time coming, it is fascinating and revealing that such a publication would be released at that moment. The bill ending slavery in Washington, D.C., had not yet passed Congress and even at that late date there were still people in the nation’s capital invested in the enforcement machinery of slavery there and continuing to act as if its days were not numbered.
But it is also clear from the scandal surrounding the D.C. jail that Constable Keese and the unnamed lawyer were rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Those in power were no longer ignoring the plight of fugitives slaves (discussion of which reached the floor of Congress) and were starting to muster their will to the difficult task of outlawing the peculiar institution. They did so because of the growing hostility to slavery in the North unleashed by the war. People that had held their peace about slavery before the war in the name of sectional peace, with the war’s mounting toll, now felt free to vent their anger. No longer did the slaveholders get the benefit of the doubt, which went increasingly instead to the slaves. No where can this fact be seen more clearly than in the last paragraph of February 28 story in The National Republican which read:
Several gentlemen who were in Justice Johnson’s office at the time, represent the cries and implorations of the poor woman to have been most piteous and heartrending, and the earnestness with which she asserted to her captor that she was a free woman would at once have convinced anybody but the brute who had her in custody, that her assertion was correct.
Can anyone imagine an article like this one appearing in a Republican newspaper in March 1861? How much things had changed in regard to slavery in Abraham Lincoln’s first year in office.
[Personal note: I apologize for the lack of blog posts lately in Civil War Emancipation. There was a lack of good subject matter to write on in late February 1862 and I was extremely busy at work. Relevant material will be more plentiful now and in the coming months, and I'm hoping to have more time to work on the blog during this period as well. March 1862 to the end of that year are an important time in the history of emancipation during the American Civil War.]